At the end of Prado, a cluster of magnificent buildings appeared. One was Gran Teatro de La Habana, an architectural masterpiece. I was very impressed by its details. A row of restaurants were on the ground floor. My tummy was grumbling in the late afternoon. I entered a patisserie – Pastelaria Francesa. The interior wall was pink and the waiters and waitresses dressed in black and white. The display cabinets had a selection of cakes, sweet and savoury pastry and great smelling coffee. It was busy, however, the atmosphere is wonderful. Service is mediocre but pleasant. Armed with two pastel de guayaba (sweet guava pastry), I managed to get a table outside on the corridor. This is a great place to watch the daily lives on the main street and catching the actions across the Central Park. The street is crowded with taxis, horse- carts, and the iconic beat-up American cars. Some in bright gleaming colours with open tops enticing tourists to take a ride. Salsa music wafted through the humid and tropical air. Musicians played catchy Son and salsa tunes to the delight of tourist and locals a few doors away in the building, at Hotel Inglaterra. Although the food here is average, I loved the relaxed pace, convenient location and reasonable prices. Unfortunately, you are also exposed to “jineteros“, street touts.
I met Alexis at the cafe. He spoke Spanish to me only to realize that I was not a local. He thought I was a “Cubano“, a Cuban, likely from Baracoa, a far eastern town dominated by Afro-Caribbean people, being dark-skinned. Strangely he did not enter into the cafe. A street hustler perhaps or wanting something I thought. Before he continued, I asked him if he wanted to sell or want something from me. If yes, please go away but if you want to talk, that’s fine. I am not one to shun from a conversation. He spoke little English. When popped the question of Cuba opening its doors to the Americans, he was sceptical. This is the reason for my travel to witness Castro’s Cuba before it changed for better or worse. Alexis wanders off.
I belief, with the imminent relaxation of US trade embargo sanctions, the cost of living will go up as new imports are allowed in. Wages will take time to catch up especially for the State employees. The upper and middle class, and those involved in the tourist industries will benefit the most. The have and the have not’s at the onset. More importantly, the State policies governing socio-economic has to change. Overall, with the relatively poor living conditions, it doesn’t seem good in the short-term. Time to explore Old Habana, “Habana Vieja“.
Walking is the best way to explore this part of town. Paseo de Marti roughly separated Centro Habana and Habana Vieja. As I strolled along the narrow streets, its derelict and tired-looking facades of buildings remain elegant and with lots of old-world charm. Balconies, arches and pillars appealed to me. On a street in Centro Habana, I met Angelo, a fairly white bici-taxi (a three-wheeled Pedi cab) driver. He spoke good English. He was trained as a MRI technician and earned about 20CUC per month. He left school at fourteen to provide for his family. After the revolution life became difficult for the family. When sanctions were imposed, his father couldn’t cope to provide and committed suicide. His sister drowned while desperately fleeing the country. He had to care for his mother. Initially renting a bici-taxi, he eventually owned one and is quite happy. He earned more than four times his monthly State wages. He has a wife and kids to think about. When asked about Castro, he snapped. “I hate him. Muerte“, death to the Revolution”. He was visibly disturbed. I can understand his bitterness. However, Che Guevara gets a thumbs up.
Angelo is one example of educated professionals whom have now abandoned their jobs. My casa owner is a pediatric doctor! Obviously, their income is much higher. This phenomenon will continue to become wide-spread with the removal of the trade sanctions. Will this bring about shortage of skilled personnel to build up the country later? Most Cubans are employed by the State (paid in Moneda Nasional) and for those whom need more, just to survive, there are no options but to get involved in tourist related activities. The real money, CUC, becomes available. I decided to take a ride with Angelo on his bici-taxi for 3CUC. It is quite a sum to pay (compared to what locals pay) but it was more the company. We ended up at Hemingway’s mojito joint, La Bodeguita Del Medio on Calle Empedrado. For obvious reasons, the place was packed with people wanting expensive mojito’s.