Waylaid in Vedado

Sunday, 3 May 2015

There is a small business in Havana called CubaRuta that organises bicycle tours of Havana. Susie had stumbled upon it while she was researching our trip on the internet in Australia. She had booked us on a bicycle tour on Sunday, so we arranged with Alberto to have an early breakfast, and afterwards we headed to Vedado in a taxi. We located the address, which was a private residence, and waited in a shady spot in the park opposite. Nobody showed up.

We figured that there had been some failure of communication, so we set out to find the bicycle repair shop in the hope of making a booking for another day. On the way, we stopped at a fruit shop where Susie bought some enormous mangos.

The repair shop was locked, so we secreted a hand-written note next to a padlock at the entrance to let the tour organiser know we had turned up. Then we headed out explore Vedado on foot.

While we were walking along the impressive Avenida Paseo, we were hailed by a man who invited us into the invitingly named Casa de Amistad (House of Friendship). We took him up on his offer to show us through the first floor of mansion which was, before the revolution, the private residence of someone rich enough to import the finest sand from the River Nile to render the dining room walls.

The architecture was perfectly designed for the climate: it was cool and breezy inside notwithstanding the ostentatious displays of wealth. Of course, it was no longer a private residence but a cultural centre where there are musical performances on Saturday evenings. We had a coffee and a cool drink in the café there, and then bid farewell to our impromptu guide, promising to return for a night’s entertainment later in the trip.

At length we found ourselves walking past the Hospital Calixto García. A block or so from the entrance we were accosted by a young man who struck up a conversation with us. We were unsure whether he was just being friendly or whether he was what the guidebooks call a jinetero, or tourist hustler. He offered Susie a small copper coin bearing the face of Che Guevara. When she accepted it, the exchange committed us to an afternoon with someone we could now be confident was a jinetero.

Hospital Calixto García in Havana
Hospital Calixto García in Havana

The young man was friendly and charming, and our Spanish was getting an excellent work-out. He told us that his wife had just given birth in the hospital, so we offered to take him out to lunch to celebrate. So began a long walk in which took us past the sports stadium and through the Plaza de La Revolución with its vast empty spaces and towering obelisk.

Our guide was chatty and interesting, and we learnt a lot about Cuba and the locations we passed through. He directed us to a restaurant that was well out of our way. He ordered the lobster and washed it down with two mojitos. After this the conversation grew awkward, and the manipulation became more overt and whiney. When we left the restaurant, Susie simply walked away. I found it difficult to shake him, so I gave him 10 CUCs to buy “nappies”. He then vanished like a genie.

We returned to Vedado many weeks later, and while we were admiring a sculpture of Don Quixote we were accosted by a friendly old man. We chatted with him for a short while, and as soon as he produced a small copper coin, we smiled politely and then vanished like genies.

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