Back in Havana after our Vinales trip. Our last full day in this city ended up being a Monday so missed out on seeing more museums as they are closed on Mondays. But hey Havana is a museum so we browsed Havana again and we checked out the bars and hotels too as we finalised some housekeeping tasks.
Near Sloppy Joe’s Bar we had a look inside an antique shop, full of old posters, black and white film photographs and albums, postcards and old magazines including Time. One of the photographs was of Frank Sinatra at Sloppy Joes in the 1950s. Hemingway also patronised this bar amongst many others. We then stopped in the 5-star Parque Central Hotel to change some money so that we could pay for our casa particolare expenses. The doormen let all tourists pass inside easily. Inside it’s all shiny and new with the most modern toilets we have seen (no way no lady standing by with a bucket of water), expensive cafe and restaurant menus, hotel guests on their devices because of the wifi (some locals around the corner outside managing to get it too) and a cambio office.
In Calle Obispo, one of the main colourful colonial streets populated by dedicated tourists, we browsed through the artisan markets mainly selling jewellery, wooden sculptures, clothes and souvenirs. In this street, we saw some famous buildings such as the Droghuiera Johnson building in use again today. Across from the pharmacy is the famous Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway stayed. This hotel was full of citizens of the USA and a whole wall was dedicated to photographs and a signature image of Hemingway. Outside the hotel near the Plaza de Armas we watched a group of businessmen, some wearing Texan cowboy hats, huddle around a tour guide as a Cuban woman circled around them watching them very closely. Further along, looking inside the Hotel Florida, formally a British Club in early 19th century, we found a beautiful art deco sculpture and a marble floor.
I was interested in the plaque dedicated to Garibaldi on the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales building marked here in 1982 : “La ciudad de Roma dedica esta homaneje al hombre que alento la idea de la independencia de Cuba. De el escribio Jose Marti.” (The city of Roma dedicates this tribute to the man who encouraged the independence of Cuba. ) Garibaldi was considered an inspiration for the revolution of independence. I’ve come across Garibaldi a few times on my travels in this part of the world. It brings home the Garibaldi stories my dad used to recount to me in my childhood. In front of the captains building was a healthy looking dog with a paper tied around its’ neck saying “esterilizada” (sterilised) and “no me maltrates” (don’t mistreat me). That’s good news and when we enquired about this dog and some of the others we were told that the dog belonged to the building and that they looked after it. That is good news.
Most of the Havana bars and hotels claim to fame rests on a famous person going there so these places are full of tourists now especially after they have been renovated. The old Havana uses this history to attract tourists even though they had gotten rid of the debauchery I thought they had detested long ago. Even in the Vedado area, hotels like the Habana Libre where we had waited for our Vinales bus uses its’ past, Fidel Castro, Che and Elizabeth Taylor were all here at various times but so did the Mafia come to play here.
Well enough of the tourists. We followed our nose down Calle Cuba into the ruinous areas again for Mike to snap away. Then up the Acosta we discovered a lovely little bridge. This was the Arco de Belen which apparently had been part of a Jesuit Convent. I lingered in front of the stained terracotta arch watching a Santeria woman cross the road.
Looping back to the Parque Central we took a break in the oldest hotel, Hotel Ingalterra, where there were more photographs of the rich and famous including the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. We enjoyed a drink in the bar with beautifully tiled walls and then we tried the internet to check up on our flights and emails after a week without internet. It was 2 CUCS for an hour. It was very slow but worked. I wanted to do the Aeromexico web check-in as I did from Mexico to Cuba but it was blocked. A pop-up box appeared saying that I had to do the check-in at the airport. Walking through the plaza behind the hotel you come across the square where the Cubans can access free wi-fi. They were all there connected but I understand that it is a limited connection with each other.
This time we stayed in the same casa as Mike and Monica had east of Havana Viejo, Deysi Casa Particolares, located in Calle Blanco across from a hospital and next to a fruit market. It’s a gritty and grimy area but lively in the evening with it’s laid back and social vibe. At night there were men sitting outside seated round a table playing backgammon and other games. There were kids in the street playing and hanging out in the dim light. There was music blaring from inside homes and dancing in the rooms that we could see into. Cats on the hunt and prowl. Little takeaways from a window or hole in the wall. We could see high ceilings in some of the homes. Our casa is a two-storey house with high ceilings but Deysi, a colourful and lively personality, built another mezzanine storey onto the first level so she could squeeze several rooms with ensuites on the top and bottom of it. Most of them a boxy room without windows. Ours has a window into the hall which leads to the kitchen where we have breakfast. In the evenings, her daughter has piano lessons in the room next to us. We can hear them in the kitchen chatting and watching TV but they mostly live on their private second storey. In this casa, you definitely know you are inside or under a family home. They live a limited life except for the tourists bringing the world to them and their satellite TV connecting them to US Hispanic channels. They told us that people still live by food rations and restaurants are organised according to how many patrons they get every evening. We only ever saw a couple of supermarkets in the tourist areas and then not much inside either.
In the evening, our favourite bar ended up being the LLuvio de Oro, the Bar de Oro on Obispo, not particularly famous for anything. A relaxed environment, a band playing a mix of Cuban jazz and salsa, a sharp looking Cuban man in yellow trousers smoking a cigar at the mahogany bar bench, reasonable prices, friendly waiters and happy patrons, locals and tourists. Generally Obispo has a nice social vibe in the evening. Walking back past the bright neon light of the El Floridita bar, another Hemingway spot, we noticed the calles seemed a little cleaner on the Monday night. Did they really clean them or was it the mojitos working?
The next morning our taxi took us to the airport, past the Plaza de Revolucion and the Jose Marti memorial. Past the three Havana’s we had discovered. Past the gated mansions of the fourth Havana we had seen a glimpse of. Adios Havana! In some ways, Cuba is one of the strangest countries I have been to. It was almost as if we were paying first-world prices for third-world standards (if I can exaggerate a bit), which made me wonder how long they could sustain this two-tiered setup. We spent more in one week in Cuba than in two weeks in Mexico. On the other hand, good on them for figuring out a way to attain funds. Isn’t it a crime to allow a city to crumble and have people and animals live in it’s poor conditions? Underneath it all people are hungry for change, to improve their standard of living and to become connected again to the world.