viva la cuba libre!

despite it's rocky start, our cuba vacation can now be declared an unequivocal success!  what an amazing country.  i highly recommend it.  as i recently stated in an email to a friend, havana feels like africa, but looks like europe, only it's friendlier, cheaper, dirtier and there's live music on every corner.

we arrived at our case particulare late in the evening.  despite the hour, or perhaps because of it, the streets were thumping.  restaurants were overflowing and groups of habaneros loitered everywhere, eyeing our taxi and making jokes or giving friendly waves.

we rented a room in a private home in the old part of havana for 4 nights.  the house was apparently owned by a physician, but as he was away at a conference we never met him.  one other room in the house was rented as well, but we never saw the guests.  at $30/night we enjoyed the entire space to ourselves for all 4 days.

my favourite feature was the balcony, offering an anonymous view of daily life in havana.  the living room and dining room were beautifully decorated and featured voluminous 15 foot ceilings.

our bedroom was sparsely decorated but functional.  the only downside was the old school spring mattress that had certainly seem more comfortable days.  after the first night, kylie moved to the secondary foam mattress and i had the springs to myself.  don't worry, this was not due to any excess marital discord.

in the 2 weeks before our departure for cuba, i could be witnessed striding the forest trails near our house with ty running in front and niko crashing through the bush, while muttering, "no quiero comere aqui, pero quiero babere algo por favor"  (i don't want to eat here, but i would like to drink something please).  no, i was not delirious from dehydration.  rather i was embarking on a short pimsleur spanish course, and i'm sure glad i did.  we were surprised at the large proportion of people in the tourist industry who did not speak any english.  (the neighbour lady who managed our case particulare for example).  for the most part we were able to get by with kindergarten spanish sprinkled with french words embellished with an exuberant spanish accent.

our first night in havana was valentines day.  we found a dream location for dinner in cathedral square, featuring 5 separate restaurants in one ex-palace, an art gallery and of course a cathedral.  it seemed as though a documentary was being shot there in the evening, as someone helpfully erected lighting making for a photographer's dream setting.

the next few days were spent reigniting our old travel m.o.  which has not been operational since we had ty.  basically, kylie and i walk around a lot, turning corners depending on which way looks interesting and consulting maps only when thoroughly lost.  for the most part we eschew museums and i CANNOT STAND guided tours.  i get twitchy and irritated within 30 seconds and soon find myself confronted by AK 47 toting guards when i veer suddenly into unguided territory (bad experiences in egyptian tombs, where guides are occasionally mandatory).

this mode of tourism makes for more of the random memorable moments involving meetings with locals and unexpected delicious finds.  it can also mean occasionally going hungry when mealtimes are missed, or thirsty when safe water is difficult to find.  to kylie's extreme credit, she was game for this type of touring despite being almost 7 months pregnant.  we took lots of breaks in parks and cafes, and stopped for more cappuccinos than we have previously, but this being a week trip instead of a 4 month trip, our budget could absorb the hit.

this brings me to my next point.  one which i would like to make emphatically.  anyone you have heard complain about the food in cuba has never been to havana.  the food in western style all inclusive beach resorts which are located in cuba probably deserves its poor reputation, but THE FOOD IN HAVANA IS AMAZING!  restaurants are reasonably priced and cafes are downright cheap.    3 course meals with multiple drinks can be had for the price of an entree at earls.

foamy cappuccinos are $1-2 and tasty pastries are in the 20-50 cent range.  as a general rule, we ate cheap for breakfast, had multiple pastries and coffee for lunch and went all out for dinner. 

serendipitous discoveries such as aztec style drinking chocolate pulled us through our occasional episodes of hypoglycaemia.  we avoided meat except at the higher end restaurants (chris h. our intestines thank you for this valuable lesson) and didn't get sick at all.

another wonderful thing about the meals in cuba is that most of them come with music!  as mentioned, live music is everywhere.  in any given crowd, 3 people are carrying instruments.  we saw some flamenco and bopped to a band fronted by the piano player for the buena vista social club.

i even got to have a bit of a jam session with some wandering troubadours in a park.  their gregarious front man, skilled in the art of wooing tourists extemporized a song including lines such as, "stephen harper, your prime minister, he is from calgary.  it is far from vancouver, where they care about trees."

one of the aspects of cuba that attracted me was the profusion of 1950s american cars.

they are everywhere and in all states of repair, from beautifully restored hotrods with aftermarket rims and exhaust systems to oil belching rust buckets to sidewalk blocking derelict wrecks with 4 flat tires.

the era of the classic car is coming to an end in cuba however.  up until last year, no one except government functionaries or commercial drivers was allowed to buy a vehicle made after 1959 (the year of the revolution).
this rule is being relaxed, and the dying fleet of oldsmobiles, buicks and mercuries is slowly being replaced with ladas and kias, a change that is good for the respiratory system, but bad for photographers.

another aspect of cuban culture that struck us visually was the plethora of super cute female police officers and security guards in uniforms complemented by fishnet stockings.  in canada, the only time a female police officer could get away with this would be if they were involved in a covert prostitution sting.  in havana it seems to be the norm.
one morning i was walking around our neighbourhood while kylie slept in and came around a corner only to be brought up short by a 6 foot tall black policewoman sporting a flaming afro, fishnet stockings with legs to match, and a gun.  i briefly considered getting arrested.

to reinforce the central theme of this blogpost: havana is awesome.  in february the weather is perfect, the accommodations are cheap, the food is tasty and the people are friendly.  there are certainly the inevitable touts, but they are much less persistent than their african counterparts and much more pleasant.  enduring their pitches for cheap cigars is preferable to eating resort food and being bundled on and off tourist buses while being told what to look at and where to take pictures.  havana is an independent travellers dream.

speaking of resorts though, next up: playa sirena on cayo largo.
viva la cuba libre!


Haley said...

Great travel endorsement! I want to go. Mike has always wanted to go to Cuba and meet Castro, I'll have to show him your post :)

marcandorkylie said...

mike would love cuba! fidel is a bit of recluse i think. we walked around a lot and didnt see him once!
mike would also love all the varieties of rum available for cheap. i was able to develop a palate for different high end rums, and brought a bunch of bottles home to go with our cigars.

Unknown said...

hey bro - sounds great! when you back?? and where's the link to the air canada fiasco?

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you had a wonderful time. As always, I thoroughly enjoyed your well-written, wholesome commentary. Love from Auntie Cheryl

Lowell & Julie said...

Okay, so I seriously LOVE the pictures! Especially the first one. In fact, i would even PAY for a picture like that. Good thing you're my brother and you love me, and you would just give it to me for free though... :)