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Book 7: Cuba, Southern Italy, Greece


FOR MY FAITHFUL READERS, IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME, BUT HERE IS THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF VAGABONDING AT 60. Please note the dates. As per usual I am writing this back in my home in beautiful, at this time of year, (July) upstate New York.

Habana Cuba, at Casa Hilda y Alejandro. Highly recommended. This is a small Casa Particular in Habana Vieja, which is the way to go if you want to meet the Cuban people. Alejandro Sr. lives in this 5 room apartment, though he considers it a house, with his wife Hilda, his son, Alejandro Jr. and his wife. They rent out the only extra bedroom to tourists for 30CUC per night, and that has only been legal for the past few years. After his son picked us up from the airport, Nanette spent the first night with me, and then went to meet up with her artist group from NAWA.

I spent many long hours talking (in Spanish of course) to Alejandro Sr., which was buena practica para mi. He told me that his son, Alejandro Jr. is trained as a meteorologist, but is forced to work as a taxi driver because that is the only way he can make sufficient dinero. When he worked for the government, he was paid approximately 400 Cuban pesos per month. The tourists use CUC'S, and there are 25 Cuban pesos to the CUC, which is equal to one US dollar.Generally things are not that cheap even for locals, despite the dual currency system, and it is more or less impossible to live on this amount of money (Equal to less than $20US). He makes much more driving people to the airport for 25 CUC's in each direction.

Doctors and other professionals in Cuba make 800 to 1000 pesos or about $US40 a month, not nearly as much as waiters. On the other hand, medical care is free, most people have some kind of government job, and everyone has some of their basic necessities provided for. At the same time everyday life is clearly a struggle for the vast majority. And there is corruption, as always, in the government and the police. Alejandro clearly understands the political issues involved, both now and during the time of Batista, when his grandparents owned and rented 24 houses, which they lost after the revolution. It was, and still is not possible to buy a house, or an apartment, but through a complicated series of trades, he managed to obtain this place. However, he does not condemn the current system totally, and presents a rather balanced view of the government. He is well educated, and because he managed to procure a Spanish passport due to his Spanish/German background, he has been able to visit relatives and friends in Florida. He is trained in telecommunications and has access to the internet in the company he works for on a part time basis. Internet access is a rarity here, so he is one of the lucky ones.

His son has been fortunate to have spent a year or so in Calgary, Canada, in part because his wife is a nuclear engineer,and got a temporary position teaching at the university there. His English is quite good as a result, as is his wife's. During the boom times of the petroleum industry in Calgary, he was able to get work for the oil companies predicting the level of pollution in the city that was generated by oil production. After oil prices dropped precipitously, this was no longer possible. And so, while his wife worked at the university he was forced to take on a number of menial jobs, although he was still much better off then here in Cuba. He and his wife have recently obtained their visas to return to Calgary for two years, and plan to do so in the spring when his wife will resume teaching at the university.

His wife Hilda was not feeling well, so I didn't see much of her in the four nights I spent here, but they were lovely people, and made me feel like I was part of their family. Alejandro Sr. was incredibly helpful and full of useful suggestions. He even surprised us by showing up to say goodbye when we were out to dinner for our last night in Havana, and no longer staying at his place.

Building of Casa Hilda y Alejandro (1st floor)

After another lengthy discussion at the breakfast table today, I wandered around Habana Vieja on my own, taking pictures of the elegant, but largely decrepit buildings along the Paseo del Prado, and the renovated heart of the tourist district on Obispo Street. Though most of the buildings are late 19th and and early 20th century, they are a mix of colonial, neoclassical, art deco, and incredibly ornate baroque styles.




Just off Obispo Street, heart of the tourist district

A More typical building on the Paseo

The Capitolio, looking very much like ours does in the US, frames the end of the Paseo, and is now surrounded by scaffolding so that the renovation can be completed. (Or is it to prop up the dome?)


As noted in many guide books, most of the buildings look largely as they did when they were constructed, mostly a result of benign neglect and lack of dinero. Right now Habana looks even more scuffy than usual, as many of the smaller streets have been dug up to install new water and sewer lines.


What makes the city especially inviting is the blessed lack of traffic, at least in this old part of town, and of course, there are the ubiquitous 1950's US cars scattered about, many of which are taxis.



There are also several old plazas with colonial churches and a mix of other styles, looking very much like Spain. For a large city, Habana simply invites strolling about in a leisurely fashion.



As Alejandro and I discussed, if the place is inundated by Americans because of the changes Obama has wrought, it will be good for the economy, but a disastre for Habana because of the lack of infrastructure. There are no McDonalds or Burger Kings here, and I hope to God they keep it that way. Not likely, at least in the longer term.

Generally most everyone is very friendly and welcoming. I have experienced no animosity towards Americans, but because of the economic conditions many people are, if anything, overly interested in befriending tourists, in the hope of trying to get a CUC by acting as a guide, etc. As I was standing on Obispo street, a woman came up to me and starting chatting in Spanish, and then asked me if I could buy some milk for her child. Thinking this would cost a dollar or two I agreed, but when we went off the nearby market, they wanted to charge me 13. I refused this, but ended up paying 6.6 CUC for a gallon of milk, realizing as I did so, that she probably had worked something out with the manager of the market to kick back 3/4ths of this amount. Oh well.

Lunch counter and market for locals

On other days I took shots of locals on the street.




I couldn't resist these kids right on my block

On Sunday, I walked about a mile or so to a small alley in Centro Habana. This part of town is grittier, and for the most part, is clearly not a tourist area. The buildings are in worse disrepair. However, I had read in the Lonely Planet that today there was outdoor Rumba drumming and dancing on some small side streets. When I arrived at the Callejon, there were a number of tourists there, as I had been forewarned. The alley was decorated with various Santeria paintings and Afro-Cuban sculptures, all of the funky variety. There was no music however, and I sat down on a bench next to a young German kid. We chatted for a few minutes about Cuban music in general, as he had been here for almost two months. Eventually the drumming began and I stood on top of a bathtub sculpture to get a better view. All the drummers were women. This was a surprise, and then there was some rigorous dancing with both men and women, some of whom wielded fake swords, and all wearing colorful costumes. It was fast and furious, but unfortunately, didn't last more than about 20 minutes.




Soon a Rasta looking guy came over and tried to sell me a homemade cd. He said it was the only way for him to make an extra few bucks. His English, learned in the streets, was pretty good. I asked what his commission was, and then gave him the 2 CUC that he indicated. This made us friends, and he proceeded to rail against the "fucking communist system," that never paid him a living wage. He didn't blame the Americans and clearly understood the difference between our government and the people, as I have found most people do. He didn't understand why Fidel and his brother Raoul, were such good buddies with the "fucking Spanish, who killed more Cubans than anyone else." He was indeed a Rasta, he explained to me, and was duly impressed when I told him I had seen Bob Marley in person before he died. He said there were a number of Rastas in Cuba, and "the fucking government hates us because we smoke ganja, talk about freedom, and think for ourselves. He wore the typical Rasta black,yellow and red cap over his greying hair and looked to be around 50. Later I asked his age, and he said 48, which is why, he added, " he couldn't wait too long for the fucking government to change its ways."He showed me a picture of his wife and son, whom he said, he couldn't really support. Then it was time to introduce me to several of his friends, a few of whom also had dreads, but not all. Another younger man, with a bit of grey hair, said today was his 36th birthday. His English was also good, and he said it was because he worked in the Fort Museum and got a chance to speak to tourists. He wanted me to know that his monthly salary was 350 Cuban pesos or about 15 CUC. Una broma, he said, a joke. Manuel, the Rasta fellow, went off to buy some cerveza with money I had given him, but returned with a small carton of rum, no cerveza to be found. We passed this around, as well as several other cartons that had mysteriously appeared and Jorge, who's birthday it was, said he was happy now because at least he was getting to do some drinking on his birthday and was able to spend time with his girlfriend, who he then introduced me to. It wasn't long before Nayari sidled up next to me on the bench. In her early 40''s, and skinny, she was not especially attractive and had burns on part of her face and hands. She handed me a small plastic cup of rum that was making the rounds, and then started flirting with me, calling me her esposo, or husband. She did not speak English and so we conversed in Spanish. I don't know whether she had another esposo or not, but she did say she had a 9 year old son and worked as a dental assistant.

Manuel then suggested we go into a shop owned by Salvador, a local artist. Currently he was in Miami doing something to promote his own art. Apparently he is fairly well known, but in my humble opinion his art needs all the promotion he can give it, since most of it is all the same primitive pseudo-African looking stuff. Not withstanding, Salvador it seems, has money, and is the chief organizer of the rumba gatherings on the Callejon. Because he was not there, the music didn't last nearly as long as the 3 to 4 hours it usually did. Too bad. Manuel went on to tell me that Salvador was kind of the neighborhood benefactor, and was responsible for all of the street art on the Callejon. Interesting to know where he got his money. I didn't ask, and it is hard to believe he got it from his art work, but quien sabe? Always hard to account for taste in art.

We went back outside to drink more rum. Jorge talked more to me in English while Nayari was trying to kiss me at every opportunity. When Jorge got stumped with an English word or two, despite my attempts to talk to him in Spanish, he turned to a young, and rather clean cut black man (everyone here was black), and asked him how to say it in English. It turns out that the soft spoken Pato, was a professor of English at Habana University. He also happened to speak French, German, and Italian. Damn impressive for a 27 year old.

Continuing our discussion, both Jorge and Manuel said, after I asked about it, "that of course, even in the fucking communist system there is racismo. White people, or at least lighter people, as much of the country is mulatto, always get the better government jobs." Pato agreed with this as well. "Todo el mundo," I chimed in. "Siempre lo mismo, todo el mundo." (Always the same, all over the world). After a time, I said I wanted to start walking back to Habana Vieja and mi casa, and Manuel said that he lived there as well. Nayari said she would walk with us, but went off to get her resident papers because she might be hassled by the police if was seen walking with me.

While she was gone, Manuel asked me if "I wanted to fuck her. Not very pretty," he said, " but I heard she was really good lay and it was obvious she has eyes for you."

I said no, "that my own esposa might not like that too much."

"Is she in Cuba?"

"Yes." I said.

"Well anyway, " he went on, "she's not here so what difference does it make?"

I said thanks, but no thanks, and when Nayari returned in a few minutes, she insisted on holding hands and calling me, mi amor. When I held back, she said, that she thought I was timido. Not wanting to insult anyone I said that I liked her, but was not interested in having sex. She still wanted to hold hands for a bit, which, somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to, at least for a few minutes. We started walking back in the direction of the old city, and not having had anything to eat since the morning, and by now it was 5 PM, I asked if there was anywhere we could stop so I could get something to eat. They took me to a little place in someone's house, and although Manuel and Jorge at first said they were not hungry, they quickly changed their minds. I didn't really have enough money for everyone, but agreed I would pay for Nayari to eat, and then give them another 5 CUC to go out and get some pizza. Of course they were hustling me, but I have to say they did it in a nice way, and I didn't feel threatened in any way. It was more like I felt sorry for them, which I'm sure they counted on, and if I had the money, probably I would have bought dinner all around. Nayari of course was thrilled with her meal, probably the best she had eaten in a while. She wanted my address and email, even though she has no way to get in touch.

Nayari lounging in the restaurant

The professor showed up, and apparently knew the owner, as she gave him a free plate of food. When they returned from the pizza place, we resumed walking, and they pointed me toward the Museum of the Revolution, not far my casa. They said they would continue on their own as it might not be good to be seen with me. Perhaps they were all scamming me a bit, and none of them lived in Habana Vieja, but it was an interesting way to while away the afternoon, and to talk with them about life and politics in Cuba.

The following day, today, on Alejandro's recommendation, I took the a bus tour around the city, which is quite spread out and much of it looks different than old Habana, complete with the occasional Russian style, ugly block building, and a few fancy and expensive hotels. I got out at the university and walked around for a bit, and there were some interesting old neoclassical buildings there, also in disrepair. Nearby was the Cuba Libre Hotel, formerly the Hilton, and supposedly Fidel's headquarters immediately after the revolution.

Next stop, Plaza de la Revolution. Now the political center of Cuba, there were enormous sculpture like faces of Cienfuegos and Che on the side of two adjoining buildings, as well as a rather phallic looking monument to Jose Marti.


Posted by jonshapiro 14:27 Archived in Cuba Tagged people children photography buildings_postcards

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Terrific blog and pix, Jon. Thanks for letting us join in your Havana adventures!

by Debbie Panitch

Thanks for the timely visit to Habana! As always great pix & stories!

by Rhinda

You do know how to have fun --and share it. Joan

by Joan

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