Havana Still Lovely One Year On

We returned to Havana thirteen months after leaving in a rush and under such sad circumstances last year. Maria and Leonardo greeted us like long lost relatives, we were hugged and kissed by all and sundry, even a maid we had never seen before. Leonardito (Maria’s 21 year old baby boy) emerged from lethargy long enough to greet us, and his “novia” (girlfriend in Cuban Spanish) engulfed me in her voluminous hug and told me she had been practising English for a year, then launched into a torrent of Spanish, punctuated by “you understand me?” (I didn’t.)

 They had been working all year to improve the casa, having managed to buy out the evil cousin and her daughter, the story of which I had been told last year with great feeling by Maria. To quote Maria who spoke in Spanish but roughly translated, “They are family so they stay in my heart but I am so happy they live outside my house.” They now own the whole house and had gone from 2 and another in a pinch, rooms to 5 rooms at full capacity and had updated the plumbing (badly needed), done a lot of painting, and replaced the beds. We had to be shown every nuance with much drama about how much work it had been and how exhausted they all are. Maria constantly wore a hat because she had been so busy she had had no time to get her hair dyed. Leonardito did not seem to be suffering from exhaustion in my opinion. The rooms are always full, Havana is deluged with tourists too.

Havana is in a constant state of restoration, they are so “lucky” they did not have the resources to tear down and rebuild and now have decided that their history is their identity (hard to translate the slogan which is everywhere) so are beautifully and authentically restoring all the colonial Spanish buildings as well as the early 20th century ones, many of which are absolute gems. They say the money comes from the tax on tourism which is collected in Havana, but the lengths that are gone to to preserve these buildings must be extremely expensive. We arrived on a Saturday, Sunday being Valentine’s Day which is a huge deal to Cubans, and the streets of Old Havana where we stayed were just packed with people, both tourists and Cubans. By Monday when things were relatively quiet again we realized how many Cubans had been out in force.

 We love walking the winding and potholed narrow streets of Old Havana where open doorways lead into the most dilapidated lobbies where ancient marble staircases with wrought iron lace work railings lead off into the gloom. These are all people’s apartments, some likely quite nice on the inside, others much less so, but no homeless to be seen (think Vancouver) a few people begging for CUC’s mostly elderly, again nothing even remotely like what we are used to at home. Windows stand open with shoe repairers, watch makers, telephone reconstructors and on and on doing business as people wait on the sidewalk. There is no way to tell what is behind the doors, the blue sign indicating a casa particular appears on the most disreputable looking door, but inside is likely a little gem of a place.  And every little while you round a corner into a lovely restored plaza with another of the quirky art installations you see everywhere in Cuba.

However, here the streets are dirty and littered, with the garbage cans overflowing and construction refuse just piled at street corners. This would not be the least bit odd in most countries we travel to except that Cuban cities have been astonishingly spic and span, with no dog shit despite the street dogs, all the garbage swept up and collected each night and the sidewalks washed by the home owners who abut them. The only really dirty looking cities have been the 3 that all travellers visit — Trinidad whose uneven cobblestones are muddy due to an unfortunate problem with the equally antique water mains such that constant eruptions of water occur; Vinales which was a dirty town in general I felt exacerbated by the number of horses; and Havana, which is just plain messy even in the tonier areas which we visited. Thus some of my impressions about the cleanliness of Cuba may not be evident to those tourists who don’t travel off the usual tourist track.

 We wandered the streets full of buskers and along the lovely Malecon, a sea walk stretching miles and miles from Vieja (old Havana) to Vedado (a more middle class area) and on past the old casinos of Batista’s mafia buddies. One day we saw a lone trumpet player perched on the railing by the sea, playing my favourite song, “Summertime” in the most haunting tones. I told him that I love that song, and he insisted on playing it again just for me, so memorable in that setting. All the beautiful colonnaded buildings along the Malecon are under reconstruction, really the scope is amazing. We walked the Prado, a large boulevard of trees and grass stretching from the Malecon to the Central Parque, on Sunday when all the vendors of paintings and crafts were out as we remembered from last year. One day we went to Vedado which was originally an upper middle class suburb with many charming old mansions, some now in use as embassies and museums. The leafy streets there are pleasant but the main traffic arteries are horrendously noisy and ridden with air pollution. The old cars and buses just spew fumes and both in Havana and Santiago we found it gave us coughs.

In Vedado we walked around the University of Havana where Doug photographed the law school for the abrogados in the family. Fidel trained as a lawyer there in the ’40s, even the famous Marti was a graduate. The university was founded in the 1500’s and moved to its present location in 1905. We wandered through the enormous sprawling hospital and medical faculty attached. Seemed as big as VGH and more spread out. Nurses still dress all in white here, with nurses’ caps on their heads. Their lacy white stockings are a Cuban touch, and as Doug observed, they wear the most tightly fitting nurses’ uniforms on the planet.

From there we made our way to the National Hotel, an enormous pile of rococo stone built in 1905 and famous for the many prestigious people who have stayed including all the famous singers from the 40’s and 50’s, Winston Churchill, and even our own Jean Chrétien is pictured in the lobby with Fidel himself. Didn’t have that famous one of Fidel cradling Justin in his arms though. We had the obligatory mojitos on the verandah overlooking the Malecon, didn’t see anyone famous. It is a good example of, as Barry would say, “good from far” but it also is under restoration.

Further into Vedado we wandered through an gorgeously ornate mansion owned by a Marquessa prior to the revolution where she housed an enormous and eclectic collection of antiques from various eras and countries, and entertained huge parties of the rich and famous on the lawn, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Eddy and Wallis to you and me). She left in a snit in 1961 (or because she had to when the state took her house) and probably thought her precious things would be ransacked by the great unwashed, but they are displayed proudly in their original setting (even the stuff they found hidden in the cellars) likely as a kind of cautionary reminder of the evils of unbridled capitalism.

 So enjoyed being back in Havana, and it is sad to leave. Six weeks have gone in a flash, and I can honestly say there were no bad patches, every day was a happy one. We have never experienced such unflaggingly gracious behaviour even from people who had nothing to gain by it. All 10 of our casas were fun and interesting in different ways, and the owners went out of their way to make our stay as pleasant as they could. In fact the accommodation made the trip, it gave us such a chance to be part of our hosts’ families’ lives for a little while. We would never have felt so involved in the way the country works if we had stayed in hotels. By opting to mainly use taxis from city to city, we found travel very very stress free, and figure that over the 42 days that little luxury probably added less that $400 to our trip. However the spanking new clean Viazul buses are a great way to travel, if they can only get their ticketing procedures computerized…

 Doug found the old cars fascinating, and so do the Cubans. They love to regale you with tales of their automobile restoration, where they sourced all the parts, what kind of motor they put in, and place great emphasis on everything being “original.” There are newer cars here now, mainly from China and South Korea. Good taxis in the city are mainly Kias. I think the newer cars will pose problems as there are no tow trucks here it seems, when something breaks down it gets repaired where it sits, with mechanics coming to the car rather than vice versa. More complex computerized systems in cars are not compatible with this method of repair I fear! For anyone mechanical it is fascinating to watch a car virtually dismembered in the street and being resurrected, with a large audience watching. Reminded me of India, nearly everyone male seems to have some mechanical talents.

Cuba has so much going for it, we cannot help but worry about what will happen when the plane loads start pouring in daily from the U.S. Tourism in the west here has vastly increased this year, Havana was pretty much full at Christmas time apparently. The Cubans too are worried about how things could change. Though it is true they need many things — a free press, elections (Raul is getting on, no one seems to have a clue what happens next) and definitely some way of reforming their dual economy which is resulting in talented people whose educations have been paid for by the state leaving their professions to work in the tourist sector where they make vastly more money.

Because their contact with the outside has been fairly limited until Raul took over and loosened control of such things as Internet, television satellites, and foreign travel, they really have little idea that other people pay for all the things they receive free from the state — health care in good facilities, education through university, there is no income tax, no home tax, no mortgages, subsidized electricity, telephone, etc and even basic foodstuffs free or at low cost. The idea of paying all that is kind of incredible to many people. They say they want a system like Canada has where people receive health, education etc “free” but they don’t get the taxes part. Canadians are who they have most contact with as we make up by far the majority of their tourists, and they are very fond of us. It is quite like the old days when Canadians wore flags on their back packs, not much of that in the last few years so it is nice to be told we are wonderful people from a wonderful country!

We leave here sadly but on to further adventures in Colombia. One of the most wonderful things in Cuba is the absolutely astonishing level of personal security — anyone can walk anywhere at night even on dark streets with young guys hanging out in doorways (takes some getting used to), you can grab any taxi or even a freelance taxi, and people hitch hike all the time. Robbery on the street is practically unheard of. One grows terribly lacking in vigilance. Now we are moving on to a country where security as a whole is vastly improved but where street crime in something we will have to be aware of again. We’ve been there and done that before, but the Cuban style is sure relaxing. We’ll keep you all posted. We fly to Bogota via Panama City tomorrow.