Sunday, February 12, 2012

First Time Cuba

Plaza de la Catedral, Havana
The server places the refresco importado (Coca Cola) in front of Margarita and Heather.  I have la limonada (lemonade), which is fresh, tart, not too sweet and far better than anything I could have imagined.  We have spent the morning exploring Havana.  Our first time in Cuba.  Margarita is our tour guide, a teacher who helps Cubans learn English.

This is the hottest we have been since arriving in Cuba 5 days ago, our first time away from the cooling winds off the Atlantic Ocean.  We are staying in Veradero, 135 kilometres to the south of Havana, in an all-inclusive where having fun and relaxing is the prime activity.  Cubans have reminded us that this is their winter and indeed I see many with long pants and closed-toed shoes.  Most days I wear capris, short sleeves and sandals. 

We are lucky.  The weather for our vacation has been full of sunshine and temperatures from 26 to 28 degrees Celsius.  Other Canadians who have come to Cuba this year have had rain and cold weather. 

Our intention today was to catch a bus from Veradero to Havana; we went to the bus station at 7:10 am.  The cost is 10 pesos for the one-way trip.  When we got out of the taxi, a man with bulging chest muscles enveloped by his Canada t-shirt approached us.  They offered to take us to Havana for 15 pesos each; they promised it would only be 1 hour and 45 minutes.  The buses take much longer.  Our consideration was short.

The car that got us to Havana was a 1976 Jetta with black windows.  There are few cars on the road.  Especially when I think of home.  The cars that were made in the United States pre-date the time that the US put an embargo on Cuba – 1960.  Cubans are very handy with caring for their possessions, a matter of necessity being the mother of invention. Most of the cars are full of passengers; Heather notices that the drivers are men.  On a previous excursion into the country, the tour guide told us about Cuba’s national sport – hitchhiking – and that is what we saw along the route.  When we got to Havana, our taxi driver made us an offer.  He will take us back to Veradero at the end of the day for $20 pesos each. 

Margarita decided that double-decker bus is the best way for us to see New and old Havana.  We got off the bus at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, considered to be the oldest stone fortress in the Americas.  Inside we found treasures retrieved from sunken ships, replicas of old ships such as Columbus’ three, and weapons used to defend Cuba. 

View of Old Havana from the Watchtower
On the second floor, the attendant offered us to go to the Watchtower, which is up a spiral staircase.  I say yes!  I ascend alone.  At the top I see majestic views of Old Havana.  I wished I knew more about architecture.  Back on the street, we find our way to the Plaza de la Catedral.  In the centre is a café.  It is here we have chosen to sit before the rest of the tour.

We ask Margarita many questions about life in Cuba, about how the money system works (there are two types of money in Cuba), education (education is free), healthcare (there are a shortage of supplies), where she goes to vacation (Veradero).  This is a conversation that winds its way throughout our day. 

Behind me I can hear the four-man band playing.  Live music is a fundamental part of Cuban life we are discovering.  Three adorned women have set up stations on the edge of the plaza with two chairs, a table and a doll.  “They help you with your future,” Margarita tells us. 

A woman supervises the washroom inside.  She hands me four squares of toilet paper.  A dish with coins sits on the table beside her.  Margarita has advised me the amount of the tip.  I put in my 10 cents beside the $1 and $2 pesos.  When I come out of the stall, my coin has vanished but the others have remained.  I figure she doesn’t want to encourage my kind of tip.

When I return to the table, we decide to walk to La Bodeguita del Medio, famous for being the birthplace of the Mojito and the celebrities who have hung out there.  The walls are covered with signatures of the famous and not so famous.  The place is packed.  “Would you like to see inside?”  I nod.  Margarita steps into the restaurant and leads us around the tables, into the back and out again.  I am impressed with her confidence.

Bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway at La Floridita
Back on the street, Margarita suggests that if we want to see El Floridita, it is close.  El Floridita is another restaurant-bar, famous for daiquiris and for being a favourite spot for Ernest Hemingway.  Margarita asks if we want a daiquiri.  I can see the place is busy.  “Not for me,” I say.  Again, she offers to show us the place. Again, she breezes inside. In the left corner of the bar, there is a bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway.

There is a lot to see in Old Havana.  The buildings are mesmerizing, some in disrepair and some having been restored over the years.  I see hotels and restaurants and bars and apartments on the upper floors.  What I do not see is places to buy clothing or food.  Along one street, we find a place next to a bar that sells ron (rum). 

We wind our way to the train station where we have agreed to meet our taxi driver at 6 pm.  With many more blocks to go, we hire a taxi for $3 pesos.  He lets us off close to a restaurant.  Outside the restaurant, the maître d tells us that this is the best food in Havana. 

The food is great, one of the best meals we have had in Cuba so far.  The price is surprisingly high.  That’s the way it is in Old Havana. 

Heather watches the time.  We leave the restaurant at 10 minutes after 6.  Margarita is not concerned.  “He will wait.”  I wonder how she knows that.  She shrugs her shoulder and leads us down the street to the train station.  The taxi is not in front.  We walk through the train station and down the block.

“Where are we going?”  I ask.

“To meet the driver,” she says.

Around the corner and down another street, we find a line up of cars.  Our taxi is in the middle, our driver waiting for us.

And this is how we learn about Cuba time.

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