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Our flight from Toronto arrives at Jose Marti Airport about ten-thirty in the evening.  We booked accommodations in Havana for three nights and the booking agency offered to provide a person to meet our flight and take us to our casa particular.  So, the first person we meet in Cuba is a Czech.  Maria came to Havana in 1961 to work in the embassy of Czechoslovakia.  She married a Cuban and has lived here ever since.  When the Soviets went home in 1991, she not only lost her job but also her pension benefits.  Now she works for the booking agency and, like many Cubans, does whatever she can to make ends meet.  She drives us to our accommodations, but explains that she doesn’t have a taxi license and will be in trouble if caught.  So would we mind paying her inside the car and if anybody asks, tell them we are old family friends come to visit her?

 

Our casa particular is on the eleventh floor of a high-rise building.  Like most buildings in Cuba, the outside is shabby and the ancient and creaking elevator requires considerable faith.  The apartment itself is beautifully kept and filled with lovely old furniture.  The family was obviously of some substance before the economy went bad.

 

It is quite late by the time we reach the apartment and there is little to be seen from our eleventh floor window.  Electricity is scarce and there are few city lights.  Early in the morning, we awake to a cacophony of roosters greeting the approaching dawn.  We think this a bit startling in the centre of a capital city  Just at first light, we peer out of the window and what an enchanting sight it is:  low-rise Spanish colonial buildings with red tile roofs and internal courtyards; wide boulevards lined with trees.  All around the city the sea gleams in the rising sun.  The soft light of dawn is kind to the crumbling, sometimes decrepit, buildings.  We hurry to go out and explore this fascinating city.

 

 

MalenconWe spend the next two days tramping around Havana.  We stroll the entire length of the Malencon, the broad promenade winding for miles along the seafront.  The sun is hot but there is always a cool breeze off the water. 

 

 

 

We enjoy looking at the beautiful old buildings and, of course, the beautiful old cars.  We knew that there are lots of pre-1960 American cars in Cuba still in everyday use, but we imagined there might be a few hundred.  In fact, there are tens of thousands of them, all over the country.  Some are immaculately restored; many are just collections of spare parts, driving in loose formation.   I don’t think there is a functional shock absorber in the entire country.  Many of the cars no longer have their original engines.  It is quite common to see a classic ’57 Chevy or a ’56 Ford two-door hardtop in mint condition.  Only, instead of its original V-8 engine, it has a four-cylinder Perkins diesel, salvaged from a tractor. No familiar V-8 rumble and the black smoke belching from the tail-pipe is a giveaway!

Perkins engine in '56 Ford 56 Ford with Perkins diesel 57 Chevy
Perkins diesel in '56 Ford
 
Beauty '57 Chevy

    Cathedral.JPG (20370 bytes)

Our walking tour of the city takes us to Habana Vieja, the oldest quarter of the city, which originally was enclosed within walls.  We see the bar where Ernest Hemingway reputedly passed a lot of his time but we forgo standing in line with all the tourists to have a mojito in his memory.   Havana is a relaxed kind of a place.  There are lots of tourists, but it isn’t crazy and jammed with people like it always seems to be in European cities. 

 

 

People on the streets offer to provide us with various services, but like all Cubans, they are polite and if you say: “No, Gracias!",  they go away.  Lazaro, a charming fellow, offers to take us to a place to have lunch and since we are hungry, we agree.   He leads us several blocks off the main street, into a working class, residential quarter, to a paladar, a small restaurant located in a private home.  We eat many meals in such paladares and they are always excellent.  After the meal, Lazaro insists we come with him to visit his home.  It turns out that his real objective is to sell us some fine Cuban cigars.   We don’t buy any, but it is very interesting to see how people live.  We climb a narrow staircase to what was once an elegant second-floor apartment.  Spacious rooms surround a large central landing. The ground floor is occupied by a business and likely, in more prosperous times, the shopkeeper and his family lived above. Lazaro and his family live in ONE of these rooms.  I ask him how many families live in what once was a single apartment and he says: “Five.”  “SIX!” shouts a woman’s voice from one of the other rooms.  Life has always been a struggle for Cuban people but when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it became much more difficult.  Castro refers to this time as the “Special Period”.

 

In the evening, after a reinvigorating siesta, we set out to see what Havana in the evening has to offer.  We stroll up and down La Rampa, a half-dozen blocks of Avenue 23, which slopes up steeply from the seafront. This was the centre of all the action before the revolution.  During the fifties, Havana was a playground for rich Americans who flocked there by the thousands.  Parties, gambling, prostitution – everything was available for a price. The city was wide open and La Rampa was the centre of it all.  It isn’t quite that exciting today but it is Saturday night and young Cuba is all dressed up and looking for fun.  (Have I mentioned that there are one or two pretty girls in Cuba?) 

 

A personable young fellow offers to show us a place to have dinner.  He leads us to a paladar in a beautifully-restored old villa.  At our invitation, Yulio joins us for dinner, as we find his company quite charming.  He has a University education, as do most Cubans, and he is a professional musician.  He also speaks better English than many.  His official monthly salary amounts to the equivalent of US$10.  Little wonder that he tries to make a few dollars by offering his services to tourists.  In Cuba, a person who does that sort of thing is called a jiniterro, which means ‘entrepreneur’.  But Yulio says it has become an ugly word because it is also used to describe prostitutes and people who engage in other unsavoury activities.

 

Julio and mother.JPG (13769 bytes)

Bob amd fan.JPG (37112 bytes)At the end of the evening, Yulio, who appears to be enjoying our company as much as we are enjoying his, invites us to visit his home the next day.   He is having a birthday party for his mother and he urges us to come and meet his family and friends. We take a cab about five miles into a poor, working-class part of the city called the “Tenth of October District”.  The cab driver gets lost twice but we finally find Yulio’s house on a narrow side street.  We spend the entire day at the birthday party.  People come and go. We sit on the front porch and drink beer (and some excellent rum).  We meet Yulio’s parents and the members of his band.  We eat a huge meal and we have a great time! Yulio’s mother (53) was a soldier in the Cuban army, posted to Angola.

We are sure there are many more stories to be told, but our primitive Spanish can only manage so much

Susan and fan.JPG (14767 bytes) Julio's family.JPG (20287 bytes)

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