Cruisin’ Habana

Following the revolution, Cubans were banned from buying foreign cars, especially US cars. Over 150,000 US cars remain, frozen in time. Now, many are used as taxi’s.

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For our tour, we were treated to a ride in a 1950 Chevy convertible. It showed its age, but was still a very fine ride:

The nice thing about our tour guide was that he was willing to let any clown sit behind the wheel!

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Now, I’m going to show you lots of pictures from this tour, but they don’t compare to the actual experience. Wanna come along? Here we go! (video)

Perhaps you noticed how, after you leave the immediate area of the Capitolio, things take a sudden and dramatic downhill turn. It’s not that public projects aren’t happening. It is that the need is so overwhelming it seems impossible to keep up.

The first part of our tour took us around the harbor area. This stature of Jesus, made of Carrara marble, is said to be the largest in the hemisphere, bigger than the more famous one in Rio. dscf5948

In the days before the revolution, Fulgencio Batista made a personal fortune through his association with organized crime. Casinos, prostitution and drugs brought him millions. His most famous partners in crime were Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. Meyer had been kicked out of the US and deported to Sicily, but found it difficult to manage US operations from there, so he secretly re-located to Cuba. There he found a warm welcome from Batista and soon casinos were springing up all over the place. It was from this home that Lansky and the other bosses from the US would routinely meet to divide up their cash.

It is said that when Batista was finally driven out of Cuba and into exile first, in the Dominican Republic and later, Portugal. he had over $300 million USD’s at his disposal plus much more stashed here and there.

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Cubans, particularly our guides, all mark time from the revolution. While there are reminders everywhere, they now seem to be fading. Most often you will see a likeness of Che Guevara, almost never will you see a likeness of Fidel. Or, at least we didn’t.

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Our first stop was in the heart of Havana at the Plaza of the Revolution. Some familiar sights can be found there:

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And, if you are looking for a taxi, well here you go!

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This is the National Theater of Cuba, absolutely gorgeous. Obama spoke here during his visit.

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Below is a statue of Jose Marti, best remembered here as the leader of revolt against Spanish rule, which did not end until the turn of the twentieth century with the Spanish-American War. Marti was killed in battle in 1895. For Americans who have heard of him, though, he is remembered, not as a revolutionary, but as a poet. He spent a considerable amount of time in the US and became ill. He went to a small town in the Catskills to recover. While there he wrote a book of poems called “Singular Verses”. Some of the lines in this book were made famous by Pete Seeger in the song “Guantanamera”. Here are some of the other lines, his hope for his homeland:

I cultivate a white rose
In July as in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his hand frankly
And for the cruel person
who tears out the heart with which I live,
I cultivate neither nettles nor thorns:
I cultivate a white rose.

Sadly, even for such a remarkable man, you find idiot tourists wanting to share the spotlight.

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Part of the plaza is a park:

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The Capitolio is undergoing renovation. Once the seat of government before the revolution, it now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences.

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Next, Havana’s Chinatown. Chinese immigrants came here in the 19th century seeking prosperity. They did not find it. Over time, however, substantial inter-marriage occurred so that now it is uncommon to fine a person purely Chinese.

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This is the entrance to the University of Havana. Quiet now, in the days before the revolution this became the center of protests against Batista. He closed the university in 1956, rounded up student leaders and had them publicly executed. The university remained closed until the revolution.

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Following the revolution Che Guevara, among other duties, served as Minister of Industries. One of the government buildings displays his likeness.

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Across from the government buildings is an obelisk in memory of Jose Marti.

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Not far from this area we came upon these walls.

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Inside them you will find the graves of over two million people, one of the largest cemeteries in the world. It even has streets and blocks. At one time, the remains of Christopher Columbus were buried here.

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Next we stopped at a beautiful park, called Isla Josephina. The Almonderes River flows through it.

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A very pastoral setting, great place for a picnic.

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Except, there is trash everywhere

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Beautiful forests.

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But, somebody needs to clean this place up. And, keep it clean. What a shame.

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Next stop, John Lennon Park. After the revolution, the music of the Beatles, and many others, was banned for promoting drugs and an objectionable lifestyle. Later, though, no doubt under some pressure, they realized that the Beatles were preaching peace and love. To atone for their mistake, they created John Lennon park.

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Unfortunately, after this statue was put in place, people kept stealing his glasses. For a couple years they were replaced, but finally the park managers just gave up. Our guide told us this story and then said that a little old lady, who was standing nearby, had taken it upon herself to make sure John always had glasses. I asked him to ask her in Spanish if she would be willing to sit with us while the guide took our picture. Apparently, few, if any, had ever asked her. She was reluctant at first, but then sat down with us. While we were sitting there, she gave me a big kiss on the cheek. The guide missed that shot, however. John Starr gave her a tip as well. We made her day, and she made ours!

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Here is a view of the Havana skyline. No skyscrapers, that’s for sure.

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In the Old Town we found this mural, featuring prominent Cubans throughout history.

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The figures, though, were made of acrylic and sand.

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At one end of the Arms Square is the building from which the Spanish used to govern the country. Apparently, one of the countesses who moved in, took exception the clip-clop of horses and rumbling of heavy carts on the stone pavement outside her window.

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So, in true countess fashion, she had the stone paving replaced with wood to make things quieter, a tradition which continues to this day.

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This building houses, among many other things, a currency exchange. Notice anything unusual?

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Each floor is built a different height, apparently a trade-mark of the designer.

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And, we encountered the statues in the square. One is a statue, the other is an actor.

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Near the Plaza Viejo we encountered this hotel, now completely gutted. Renovation is underway at a cost, no doubt in the millions. Good luck!

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At last, it was time to say farewell to our first guide, Luis. What a great introduction to Havana this was! In a few hours, our next tour would begin. In the meantime, a little dinner on the Plaza Cathedral was just the thing!

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Around the ‘Hood

Havana is a city of 2.1 million people. The Old Town begins at the city’s harbor and appears to end roughly at the Capitol Building.

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The red X marks the location of Casa Venezia, our Casa Particular. We didn’t realize it at the time but Oficios street, where we were,  is a primary connecting street for all of the Old Town.

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Since we had some time before the first tour, we decided to get lunch and check out the area. Right around the corner, toward the docks, we had passed a nice looking restaurant. Soon we were settled in. It didn’t take long for the music to start.

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At almost every restaurant we visited, live music was part of the experience. And, these people were excellent musicians. For a few pesos, well worth it. The food was also quite good and very reasonably priced. About 8 USD’s will get an excellent meal in Cuba.

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The lobster is not from Maine. Still tasty but a little, shall we say, firm.

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After lunch we checked out the neighborhood. We soon found that three large plazas were within easy walking distance. The first was the Cathedral Square:

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Nice place! However, as we approached the square I saw, hovering near the entrance, several ladies all dressed up in their dance hall finery. The oldest trick in the tourist book. John was a little behind me when I blew past those women. Then I knew that, just like a calf in a buffalo herd, the wolves had gotten him. Sure enough:

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To his credit, he was able to talk them down from their original exorbitant asking price to just a few CUC’s. It was hard bargaining. All in all, a small price to pay for the Cuban Tourist Education Program.

Later in our travels we encountered one of several tour groups. None were American. Many were Canadian. Judging from the flight board at the airport, about a third of all air traffic was from Canada, about a third from Europe. The rest were Middle East and Africa and one American. Us. It appears there are strong ties between Canada and Cuba. You would think they would be investing, but I imagine the commies have some kind of issue. Who knows?

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We then went up one of the streets leading to the Capitol building. These were busy, lively places to go.

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Then to the Plaza Vieja.

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This is a plaza surrounded by nice shops and some homes. Since Cubans can now own property, if they can’t afford to pay for the entire cost they are able to set up businesses, like this upstairs cafe’.

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Also, along the way, we passed multitudes of street vendors, all declaring their friendship with us:

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After the Spanish were driven off the island, there turned out to be an excess of cannons. At first, nobody could figure out what to do with them. Then somebody had the bright idea of using them to close off streets to traffic. Worked like a charm! But, when it’s time for street repair, they have to come up:

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Not often you see a bunch of cannons laying around. And these are real, too!

At the Plaza Veija there is a famous work of art called “The Power of Women Over Men” There is, of course, the fork. The rest is self-explanatory:

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By the time we had taken in all these sights, we had wandered somewhat far from our home. We had to be back there by 2:00 for our first tour. Since it was now quite a hike, we decided to hire a tri-cycle with a very cozy seat. Off we went. When we pulled up to our place the guide was already waiting. The driver charged us 40 CUC’s, which was an outrage. Here is a classic blunder: Always set the price BEFORE you go. We had to cough it up. To our credit, this was the only time we got snookered down there, although many tried. So, it was a better track record than usual.

 

 

 

 

On the Road to Habana

On the whole, the Cuban people are poor, with the average wage per month being about $19 USD’s, according to Wikipedia, or 466 CUPs.  About 80% of the people are employed by the government. Only recently has there even been a private sector, which is now the other 20%. There are no traffic jams because few have cars. There are no yachts in the harbor because there are no rich. Or, there is no ostentation. Interestingly, one of the guides told us, and other confirmed, no one knows where Fidel and Raul Castro live. They just show up for work. They are said to live among the people, in true commie fashion. Uh-huh. They probably don’t have any Caribbean bank accounts either.

On our trip from Varadero to Havana we saw many examples of what daily life is like for the Cubans. Here is a guy on his way to work. It is Wednesday, not Monday. That says it all.

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More likely you will see groups of say, 50 or so waiting along the road for the next bus. The buses are often tandem, two buses being pulled by one. My guess is, the AC, even if it works, fails to meet the demand on a hot summer day. In addition to the buses you will often see another form of transportation, the dump truck:

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Some dump trucks are even fit out with seats, possibly folding chairs. All this for a subsistence wage. It is said the people in the countryside are even poorer.

The road into Havana is four lanes all the way and well-maintained with flowers and well-tended plants in the median. We would often see workers with machete’s knocking down weeds. Clearly the idea is for foreigners to have a pleasant journey, which it was.

About half way to Havana, we passed through the port city of Matanzas. In typical Cuban fashion there were palaces next to dilapidation

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A high-rise apartment.

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A nice area near the harbor.

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Not far from Matanzas we came upon this. The cloud extended out into the ocean as far as the eye could see:

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In time the driver stopped for a much-needed break at this small observation area:

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As usual, somebody was selling something:

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Plus they had yet another band of musicians. And trinkets galore.

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Or, you could just look at the scenery, which is what the stop is actually for!

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Soon we were on the outskirts of Havana:

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To get into the city, you have to go through a tunnel which takes you under the harbor.

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When you come out on the other side, the fist thing you see is Morrow Castle, the only landmark I knew in Cuba:

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We wound our way along the harbor for a brief time, then the driver turned down some side streets. Soon we were winding our way through very narrow, bustling streets of Old Havana.

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There were some condition issues with the streets and some of the properties, but on the whole this was a lively and colorful part of the city. In time, the driver stopped at a corner. “This is it,” he said in broken English. We looked around. There was a door standing open that led into a small, I guess “courtyard” is the word, but it was more like an alleyway inside the building, painted green. A couple of stories up a woman yelled down for us to go inside. In we went.

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We wound our way through a kind of passageway:

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Under those steps you see in the background. Then into an open area:

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When we got to these gates, the owner’s daughter was there to greet us and hand us each a set of four keys we would need to get our room. Experience tells me that this is about three keys too many. Up we go.

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And go….

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And go. Note the bottom step in the picture below. It is about three inches higher than all the others at every level. I took its picture because John and I tripped over it every time we went up there, which was often.

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It was a hike, people! Theresa, Rich and Dianne Stoner will remember one much like it a little farther north.

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At last we were in our new home! And, in spite of tight, and I mean TIGHT security, and the considerable cardiovascular test that was administered, we absolutely loved this place!

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The room was basic, but had a great AC. John’s had two twin beds.

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A common bath, but immaculately clean. Hot water was in short supply, however. Just like in Varadero.

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The dining area, where they served a terrific breakfast.

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An immaculate kitchen, which in pleasant Spanish we were invited to keep the hell out of.

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And a very nice living room, tastefully appointed.

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This is certainly better than we expected, given the locale. We had time to freshen up, and look around the hood before our first tour.