Havana at last!

Saturday, 2 May 2015

When we arrived at the Air Cubana counter the next morning we were ushered to the front of the queue, no doubt as compensation for getting bumped off the flight the day before. It made little difference, however, as we were in for a lengthy wait in a crowded departure lounge. Susie disappeared into her iPod and I settled into people-watching. At length we boarded the late-running Flight 131 to Havana.

After about 3½ hours we touched down at Jose Marti International Airport. In the arrivals hall we were picked out of the crowd by a woman in a uniform who checked that we had health insurance.

Australian dollars are useless in Cuba, so we were carrying Euros bought in Sydney as well as our ATM cards from home. Since airports are usually bad places to change money, we changed only 50 Euros in the small office at the airport. We needn’t have been concerned, however, because Cuban Convertible Pesos (or CUCs) are “pegged” to the Yankee dollar, so the exchange rate does not vary. Similarly, the cost of a taxi into downtown Havana was fixed at 25 CUCs. It would take some time to adjust to an economic system in which currency rates and prices were set by the government.

Although the taxi into Havana was a recent model Toyota Prius, most cars on the road were considerably older, and some were geriatric leviathans from the 1950s and ’60s which spewed out plumes of what looked like combusted diesel. There were people everywhere along the route, waiting at bus stops or walking purposefully along the carriageway. It was hot and humid, and there were billboards with political propaganda rather than the ubiquitous commercial advertising that were we accustomed to. For the first time since we had learned of the missing flight in our itinerary, we allowed ourselves to feel excited.

We bundled out of the taxi on Calle Italia (or Galiano—most streets have two names) with our diminutive packs. The rust-coloured metal door to the building was ajar so we let ourselves in to a cool dark passageway that opened onto a dismal foyer. We ascended to the eighth floor in a lift and were greeted warmly at a locked, metal gate by our host, Alberto, who ushered us down a short breezeway into an apartment with spectacular views of the district. He took us through the formalities, which involved passports, a ledger, keys, a map, and a cool glass of water. He spoke no English but we were keen to blow the cobwebs out of our Spanish. We all got by.

Alberto showed us to our room which was up a short flight of stairs. It was sparsely furnished and had double sheet-metal doors that swung out onto a balcony with views that were to fill the lens of Susie’s camera over and over again.

View of Centro district from Alberto's apartment
View of Centro district from Alberto’s apartment

The balcony faced west towards Vedado, but the Capitol was clearly visible though a south-facing window. Down the street, only a few blocks away to the north, the wall of the Malecón hugged a busy carriageway. For more than 180 degrees, the district of Centro encircled us like a high dish with its distinct palette of patina-encrusted concrete flecked with blue plastic water barrels, orange rust, and the haze of airborne pollution. Evidence of habitation was everywhere: washing hung out to dry; people leaning out of windows; cars clunking down the street alongside horse-drawn carts; groups of casually dressed men and women gathering in the shade of awnings. Black, white and brindle, young and old, scrawny and fat—Havana mixed it all up, and we were now part of the mix, a couple of white, middle-aged Australian tourists wondering what on earth Che Guevara had left Fidel Castrol in charge of all those years ago.

After settling in to our room, we made a bee-line for the Malecón, which is an 8 kilometre-long seawall that stretches from the mouth of the port at Habana Vieja to the mouth of the Rio Almendares. We turned towards the old part of the city (Habana Vieja) and meandered along, marvelling at the crumbling facades gazing out over the Gulf of Mexico.

View along the Malecón
View along the Malecón

At the end of the Malecón there is a ruined castle at the mouth of the port. We took in the views there and then picked our way through a vortex of roads that sucks traffic into a tunnel under the port entrance. We entered the old city, which has the unmistakable patina that covers Centro, but it was clearly being tarted up for tourists. Some buildings had been lovingly restored, and some of the streets had recently been re-paved.

We asked for directions to an ATM at the post office, and when my Spanish faltered over the directions, my interlocutor jumped out from behind the counter and pointed up a street intently, as if guiding a child in a kindergarten to the nearest toilets. I thought she was saying “Oh-WEEH-po”, which was in fact more or less correct. She was directing me to Calle Obispo, and I was getting my first dose of a heavy Afro-Caribbean Spanish accent.

On Calle Obispo we found to our relief what we had never been able to establish in Australia: that it is possible to obtain local currency (i.e. Convertible pesos) using a Visa Debit card from an Australian bank which is not based in the USA.

We headed back to the Centro district using what would become for us a well-worn trail across Parque Central and down Neptuno. Parque Central is surrounded by some of the larger tourist hotels, which are lit up beautifully at night. There is a buzz there most hours, amid banks of taxis and busy pedestrian traffic. Neptuno is one of the key routes from the old city to Centro. It is dark, narrow, and potholed. For pedestrians, it is rather like an obstacle course with taxis, barrows, other pedestrians, tourists, hustlers, and bars along the way. I was propositioned several times here by sex workers who discretely whispered a come-on and moved away swiftly when I did not respond immediately. Soliciting for sex is illegal in Cuba, so the stakes are high.

Hotel Inglaterra on Parque Central has one of the few internet terminals in town. We needed to check if we had been booked onto a domestic flight to Baracoa, as our itinerary in Cuba depended entirely on getting to this outpost on the Eastern-most tip and then working our way back west to Havana along the southern coast. We purchased a small plastic card issued by the Government Telco, Etecsa, which carried a temporary username and pin. We then queued for a terminal.

The ICT infrastructure in Cuba is often unreliable. If you can find a computer, it is likely to be old and slow and the software is often out of date. Printers are not easy to find. The keyboards sometimes work differently. For example, it took us a while to figure out how to generate the @ symbol, which we needed to log into our email account (for the record you press <control> <alt> <2>). It is expensive to buy time on the internet, and the cards that allow you to do so are not always available when and where you want them. Local networks are frequently down, and when you can establish a connection to the internet, it is likely to be slow—as it was on this occasion. It was clear that there would be no blog in real time. I would have to keep a travel diary and upload it when we got back to Australia.

More pressingly, however, we were still waiting for confirmation of that flight to Baracoa.

On the way back to the casa we bought a six-pack of beer at a hole in the wall. The price was one CUC per can, and that remained a constant through our trip for take-aways.

We had dinner that night at Alberto’s. We discovered that his wife, Melba, was caring for a sick relative, and so was largely absent. Alberto was evidently an excellent cook, but we had our first intimation of something else that remained a constant during our travels in Cuba: the size of servings is way more than you can eat.

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