Tag Archives: Havana

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Later in the afternoon, at Panorama Hotel in Miramar, near the beach with wind swept coconut palms, I met two guys with a parked pink classic American car. He had a breakdown and awaiting for a mechanic. I asked if this happened often. He had just rented this car to earn some money and hoped this incident did not happen often. The conversation changed to my cost of travel and living expenses in Malaysia and New Zealand. One of them is an engineer. He earned about 35 CUC a month. His electricity bill and living expenses far exceeds his earnings. He had to find ways to earn and pay off the difference. Daily lives hardships are visible everywhere. Like everyone else, they make do with whatever they have or can get. The one thing he is rich with is confidence, laughter and hospitality. A common attribute of most people I had met.

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One iconic image of Cuba must be the classic American cars of the fifties. They come in all shapes, size and make. This includes Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Plymouth, Dodge and Bel Air. Especially in Havana, there are everywhere. Most of the shared taxis on the road are these cars. These cars were imported in the hey days of the American controlled economy. After the revolution and the American trade embargo, the repairs and maintenance of these cars deteriorated as spare parts became unavailable and unaffordable.

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So how have the Cubans’ managed to keep it going. Look closely what is under the hood. Exterior is the most original part although some sort of decapitation and reattachment had tactfully taken place. Under the hood, parts from mainly Japanese cars had been cannibalized. These began as desperation and eventually bloomed into Cuban ingenuity. Make do with whatever they had. It is still a great sight, like being in the movies. Only thing is it is real life to the locals. Unfortunately, these cars are the cause of the black chocking fumes that plaque the streets of Havana. If you have any thoughts of getting one as the trade embargo eases, think again. Remember, these cars are still running due to Cuban ingenuity. They are not “wholly” genuine. Buying one is the easy part. Getting it to be near ‘original’ state is another matter with huge cost outlay! In my view, these cars belonged here, only in Cuba.

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I strolled around looking into buildings. Posters of past leaders especially Cienfuegos, Che Guvera and Castro are pasted all over on walls and within buildings. Some of them are propaganda messages. The famous saying – Socialism or Death! These are just examples of who is in charge and what they want the people to hear and see daily. However, life goes on.

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My final evening in Cuba, I walked around Old Havana’s colonial quarter. Near the Cathedral, on Calle Emperado, I met artist Sanlly Viera. His paintings mainly captured Habana’s daily lives and street scenes. With the potential of well-heeled American tourist, he may be in an advantageous position to improve his business hence income. The people involved in the tourist will certainly benefit directly from the potential influx of tourist. What about those on the fringes, like the butcher, the farmer, the street sweepers I see daily on the Malecón? There will be some income to the State from the tourism industry, it will certainly be insufficient to expand its coffers to pay for the urgent need of fixing the crumbling housing, and basic amenities. Let alone expanding the property markets. Releasing business to operate privately will certainly bring the income through taxes, but will take time to build up. What about employment, as most of the working population is under the State’s payroll. How is their income going to improve? Only time will tell. However, the anticipation of positive change has the man on the streets ‘excited’. A promise of betterment from the current culturally rich and economically poor lives.

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In the early evening, I again wandered around Centro Habana just to sink in the last sights of what I believe is a unique environment – a mixture of a past colonial architecture, hardship caused by politics and aspirations,  a nation held to ransom and the admiration of the people’s ingenuity and self-reliance. The romance of Hemingway’s Havana is certainly alive today. There will be changes but how is this going to affect each Cuban. Living on low wages, mostly employed by the State with an average income of US$30 per month. The cost of living will rise, how is the average Cuban going to cope with this? If foreigners are allowed to buy properties, how can the locals compete, financially? These were some of the questions in my mind as I strolled down the narrow but atmospheric streets.

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At Plaza Cathedral, a few restaurants are scattered opposite the Colonial Art Museum. I met Senora Habana as she was heading home. We greeted like old acquaintances. The dinner was great. I strolled through the old renovated streets towards Plaza Francisco and eventually ended at Francesca. One last coffee accompanied by typical live Cuban music from the nearby hotel. The full moon shone brightly on Capitolio and the magnificent theatre. A guy walked in, shook my hand and offered a “la chica”. It was like talking about sports or travel. Just a normal coffee table conversation. This cafe had been a great place to savour Habana’s street scene and to have a break. I just wanted to continue wandering the streets but it was getting very late. I retired to my casa.

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My final day in Cuba. One day shorter than I had planned due to last minute changes by the airline to my outbound flight. In my casa, a lovely young girl (couldn’t remember her name) was helped maintain the place. After a big spread breakfast, I had an hour before Yani, my taxi driver, is due. Her reminder, sharp 10am, rang loudly in my head! When I opened the door, an elderly woman sat at the doorway. She had a calm look and gave a gentle smile. She epitomized the Cuban people – calm, inner happiness and simple. Next to my casa, on the same block is a vegetable and butchery store. The prices of items were listed both in Convertible Peso (CUC) and Moneda Nasional (CUP). An assortment of beans, the main local diet – rice and beans; fresh vegetables like long beans, onions bulbs, yams; and fresh fruits like pineapples, papayas and bananas. Next door, all parts of “cerdo”, pork meat, was chopped up and displayed on the shelves. The place was clean. At the end of my street, I took in one last sight of the pastel building blocks; stripped wall exposing the orange bricks underneath; the roar of a modified old car; the chatter and laughter of the residents on this street; the sound of some construction work nearby; the fluttering of cloths hung on the balconies and a fading call of a street vendor.

 

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Cuba is a living museum. I considered myself lucky to have been here with eminent change on the near horizon. To have witnessed, touched and experienced a little of Castro’s Cuba.

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After about fifteen hours on a Viazul express bus, I arrived Habana after exploring eastern Cuba as far as Santiago de Cuba. The bus ride was comfortable. I caught a taxi driven by Yani, one of the five women taxi drivers in Habana. She is lovely but tough. A no non-sense street-smart kind of person. Perhaps the occupation dictated her behaviour. She was skilful in negotiating the narrow and busy streets. She lived with her two-year old grandson, daughter and her sister. She is separated. So is her daughter. Drinking and some other reason which I could not understand had caused the family break-up. Mind you, all conversations were in Spanish. Nearly all the women I spoke were separated and alcoholism, especially amongst the males, is a major issue. It is breaking down families. She was delighted to talk about her grandson. However, with a sigh, she is saddened that her daughter, only twenty years old with a son, is single. I asked her if her income is sufficient. She said……all well. I liked her. I made arrangements for her to pick me up the next day for a ride to the airport. She stressed several time, be ready sharp at 10am.

After settling into yet another casa was organised by ‘my casa’ operator. He called it “Associates Casa”. This, like the earlier one, did not have the official blue symbol on the door. I did not care. Thereafter, I headed straight to Pastelaria Francesca. I settled down with a hot cup of Cuban coffee and some sweet pastries. Middle-aged single male Europeans chatted intimately with young Cuban women. Sex trade is prevalent but low key. I am not judging but some girls were just too young! I enjoyed the views on the streets and savoured my last day in Cuba.

Manfred, an elderly Australian man joined me. He lived on his own and had lived here for over ten years. In his own words, “I am a true Socialist. I truly believe in the Revolution and support everything Fidel had done. He had fought against the mighty US and its corrupt practices of suppressing Cuba and its Revolution. Castro had given its people a mandate and they had chosen to go with his ideas”. This was from 1959 onward. With the US blockade, the people had suffered in many ways. “But Castro asked his people, do you want to give up or fight back. The people choose to stand up”. In 2015, those sanctions were still in place with talks of thawing this blockade is just beginning. “Electricity is subsidized. There is no poverty or hunger in Cuba”.

I accepted this, from my own experience. “There is no hardship”. This thought was in contradiction to the people I engaged with – Angelo, the bici-taxi driver in Habana; Adrian, an engineer at a shipyard; Antonio, a casa operator in Santiago and the average man on the street. How about people like Diana and Sarasi, a single mothers with kids  –  feeding, clothing and schooling.

Manfred is certain that there is little unemployment. There were hundreds, particularly youth, standing around parks, boulevards with nothing to do. He reckons there are the guys whom don’t want to work. He added, that some people worked a couple of days and hung around on their days off. What about the low stocking levels and high prices in retail shops I had visited? He argued that there is plentiful and the prices are subsidized. Cooking oil cost 8CUC? He deferred. Only 2 CUC. What about people wanting to form an opposition party? This is not allowed for a simple reason. Manfred argued that these parties will be financed by the US to plot against Castro. He continued, “Cuba is teaching the world how to manage a country where everybody is happy”. Really? This is subjective as to whom you speak to. Generally, people are happy. Perhaps that they are all in a similar boat and this happiness comes from within. I don’t think it is a “gift” from the State. Helping each other and had created a strong sense of community. This attribute is born out of necessity. Yes, there is little corruption and yes, there is low crime rates. Everyone told me that it is safe to walk a night. I am sure there are small pockets where no one talks about. This is expected in any city and towns. One final question Mr Manfred, why are there numerous spy cameras around towns? Manfred’s response is “to keep the tourist safe and to keep crime rates down.” Is it not obvious that these gadgets are fixed to monitor the general population? “Definitely not”, he said with conviction.

We turned our conversation towards the Chinese and Indians economies. Manfred continued, “don’t trust CNN, Fox News and BBC. They tell lies. There are programs that claims China had reduced poverty; elevated poor population by numerous percentages; committed and moving away from burning fossil fuels; giving people wealth. The Chinese people are happy. This information came from one of the news programs here.” On one hand you mentioned that the media is misinforming. However, the local media program is telling the truth!

“It is. It is made in Venezuela, I think”. “Who is Cuba’s best buddy, Chavez? Although no longer around, there is still strong support”. I said that China’s economy is a false economy. The growth is propped up by the central government to show the world that it is growing. There are numerous buildings that are empty. I had seen whole townships completely devoid of people. The locals know it. I continued, in China, the central government can direct people to move, like it or not! Remember, the Chinese people are happy. Slogans like this are advertised at every train stations and prosperous towns. When Chinese people are interviewed, the say everything is good for them now. Turn off the camera, away from the prying eyes, you reckon the story is the same? Fear from punitive actions by the State, represented by plain clothed cops, ensure this party line is towed by everyone. As you speak highly of the Chinese, from a trusted media, what about the same in Cuba? I did not wait for an answer.

I left the cafe with mixed thoughts about Manfred. Is he for real or is his desire to support Socialist deeply rooted that he can’t see reality. However, he is not in the same boat as the ordinary Cubans. Cuba is thought provoking and the reasoning is challenged by your own thoughts and perspective. There are no answers, just questions with perhaps no answers. You can only see so much, hear so much, feel so much which leads you to formulate your own limited thoughts. The good, the bad and the ugly is all there to witness today. It has been a contradiction since the 60’s.

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A neighbourhood fresh produce and butcher shop close to my Casa in Centro Habana. Prices were quoted in Moneda Nasional (CUP). This shop occupied an empty lot of an apartment block which is completely missing. Around this block, half empty buildings as parts of the structure had collapsed. In some buildings, bricks were exposed and only the facade of upper floors remained. The Cubans are resourceful and make the best of any situation.

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 The Cubans, especially the women, are a great ambassadors of self-confidence. Perhaps born out of necessity.  The only dress code seem to be no “nakedness”. Shot pants, sleeveless singlets and tight body hugging Lycra seem to be the norm. The dresses can be transparent, tight, short, and outlandish by our standards. Not by Cuban standards. Women do dress feminine. Generally, the women are beautiful with fantastic complexion. Women’s appearance is about practicability rather than necessity. Self-esteem is high especially amongst women. How they are perceived is irrelevant. There is no “tummy-tuck”. Everything is “hung out” for all to see.
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Today I ventured towards Barrio Chinos, just behind the Capitolio on Calle Industria. Along the way, I met a hard working typical-looking Cuban man in a workshop. With his shirt off, baseball cap and a cigar, he made a great picture. He obliged. A major road work was in progress on this small scale industrial street. I passed a run-down train workshop or resting place. Strangely I just walk pass without paying further attention. I love train rides. A grand entrance marked this neighbourhood. It is a collection of outlets and was busy with people shopping and retailing. Strangely, I could not recall observing any Chinese. They once occupied this “barrio” in numbers in business and restaurants. With the onset of the revolution, a grim reminder of communist China, they packed up and left. There are a few remaining though.

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A small park was packed with classic American cars of all shapes and size used as collective, shared taxis. Black fumes choked the area as the cars departed with their passengers. Further up, at Parque el Curita, a row of classic car all primed up and glossy just waiting for tourists’. There were hardly any around here today. This is a working class area of Centro Habana.

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Cuban housing is in crisis to say the least. After the revolution, many homes were abandoned as some locals departed overseas mainly to US. With Castro’s policy of giving everyone a home, people were moved into these vacant apartments and buildings. Most of these dwellings are multi-family. However, over the last 50 years, these buildings have deteriorated in structure and quality. The state of plumbing and electrical wiring are all suspect and needing urgent repairs and replacements. Even a coat of paint is unaffordable. Nothing can be done today. Building materials are controlled by the State. Due to the poor economy, not much can be given to the public. Although housing is free, most locals can’t afford the upkeep with their meagre salaries. I noticed several electrical meters on the ground floors of apartments, not knowing whether it is working. Hoses run across roads in places where piped water is defunct or non-existent. The supply of these essential amenities are infrequent. The fitting and furniture are dated although usable. Roofs and ceilings do leak in the tropical weather. As such, many families are cramped into tiny apartments. Interestingly, the apartment of my Casa has a lift that worked. Some buildings, only the ground floor is habitable. The upper floors are just a façade with no floors. Electricity and water was available throughout the day. Throughout Centro and especially along the Malecón, many apartments and dwellings were being renovated and resulted in piles of building materials stacked neatly along the roads. They all aspire to be like the fully renovated buildings in Calle Obispo, in Habana Vieja. There exists an upper and upper-middle class of Cubans, perhaps from remittance from overseas. These homes are well kept and maintained. Like the villas in Miramar neighbourhood as I passed while on the red open-top bus. Buying and selling of houses is now permitted, legally. However, affordability by local residents is limited. Some along the Malecón has been bought up by migrant Cubans, particularly from US. Having said all that, Havana, with its crumbling colonial buildings, remained a romantic city. Minus the negative political climate, with a little cuba libre and son music, might even be paradise!

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Cubans can swap properties with each other, a battering trade, but were unable to buy as all properties are deemed to be owned by the state. Each is allowed to own only one property. However, this had changed as properties can now be bought and sold in the open market. In Havana, it would be at Prado. Prices vary, some advertised at US22,000 to US25,000. Properties under renovation and being bought up are by overseas Cubans or through their proxies/families as foreigners are not permitted to purchase. With an onset of boom in tourism, more buildings will be renovated.  However, materials must be available to start this new revolution. The poor will certainly not benefit directly. The gap widens in a so-called Socialist State where everyone is equal! Well, they are not! Socialism or Death, Castro’s words still reminded the Habaneros on walls and posters. Economically, a reality check is much needed.

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On Prado, cars and shared taxis waited to ferry students back home. These students are lower secondary. The higher levels wear a navy blue uniform. The juniors wear a white top with a maroon scarf with maroon pants and skirts. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, 99.7%!

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This morning I decided to wander around my neighbourhood in Centro Habana. Piles of stones and rubble lay on the streets. Several building were under renovation. Is this the sign of new developments?

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People queued everywhere. At supermarkets, grocery stores, banks, meat and bread shops. A crowd had gathered at an egg distribution shop. Men and women queued along the sidewalk and waited patiently. At a butchers, stacks of beef ribs with little meat were unloaded from a truck into the shop. Inside was just a solid concrete table and concrete floor. The bones were just plunked onto the table. Some fell onto the floor. The butcher just picked it up and threw it onto the concrete table. Where has all the meat gone? When business began, the buyers just collected the rib bones and either put them into a bag or just carted it away in the their hands, exposed. Forget about refrigeration and hygiene. Transactions were conducted from behind grilled doors and windows. Once all of today’s stock or supply is sold, the next delivery is uncertain. You may or may not get one tomorrow. This is the reality on living in Cuba. Everything is limited and supply is sporadic.

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Another queue had already developed. This time mainly women. They pulled out their ration card and waited until the shopkeepers were ready. The ration card, “liberata”, determines what and how much each person is entitled to buy as specified by the State. Basic good included rice, sugar, cooking fuels and oils, eggs, bread, beans, coffee and even salt. Prices are listed on the wall. The quality may not be the best but available at discounted prices. Meat products can be obtained from local “carnicería” (meat store) and dry good from local convenience stores, “bodega”. Most of Cuba’s basic needs are imported and controlled by the State.The State incurred high expense to import, store and distribute these goods.

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Along a narrow street amongst the dilapidated apartment blocks, I noticed that some front doors had large carved wooden doors. They resembled Indian doors. The interior of builds had high ceilings. Iron grills covered almost all the ground floor windows for security purposes. On the upper floors, there were ornately designed iron grills on all the balconies. Potted plants added green and colours. Clothing hung to dry on lines tied to the walls. The sun hardly shinned onto the surfaces as they were blocked by the closely arranged apartment blocks.

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Business were conducted on the ground floors. I loved those business conducted through small windows, mostly grilled. One of these was a tiny cafe. 1 CUP for a sweet espresso coffee. Pizza, ice-cream and even daily sundries and supplies were conducted behind counters. All transactions were in local peso, the CUP, Moneda Nasional. One must develop a sharp eye to view the prices of items displayed on the shelves. There is no such thing as feeling the items, looking at the instructions or reading the ingredients.

Most business are still controlled and conducted with supervision from the central government. However, this is slowly but gradually relaxing. One example is locals acting a agents selling houses and properties on Prado. Advertisement hung on tree trunks and hand held posters had turned Prado as an open-air real estate ‘offices’. Some are merely exchanges, people move into each other’s property mutually. The new ‘opportunities’ included hotels and accommodations like the Casa Particulars, taxis, and restaurants. Mainly seem to be related to tourism.

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A clothing store sold seemed like an extensive selection of dresses and shirts. A Che Guvera T-shirt cost 12CUC. Nearby, household equipment including fans and electrical kettle were displayed on shelves. No many to choose from and the cost beyond reach from most Cubans. I passed a supermarket and the shelves were stocked to a minimum. Some empty.   Supply is hard to get and if available, it is expensive. So, it made sense to keep the inventory low. Turnover is also low. There is a sense that life here is really hard but basics are available. Education, medical, electricity, water, essential food items, transportation are all subsidized or free. Anything more is considered luxury. There are the well to do Cubans. Those I met at the bars, planes and high-end restaurants.

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Despite the hardship, I did not see any beggars or people on the street starving. One thing is for certain, naturally Cubans are friendly and love life. They view these major set-back of government control as life’s challenges. Most don’t like it, but they carry on. What have we got to lose but to be happy, said a man. Despite all the daily hardship of rations, limited freedom of speech, long queues and an uncertain future, Cubans are very hospitable and ready to party. You don’t have to have much to be happy. Just walk down to the Malecón!

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There are two set of prices, CUP and CUC, at many retail outlets including groceries, supermarkets and general stores. Prices in CUC are mainly targeted at tourist and rich Cubans. These items are usually considered ‘luxury” by the state. This includes anything that is not basic requirements for living.

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A neighbourhood fresh produce and butcher shop close to my Casa in Centro Habana. Prices were quoted in Moneda Nasional (CUP). This shop occupied an empty lot of an apartment block which is completely missing. Around this block, half empty buildings as parts of the structure had collapsed. In some buildings, bricks were exposed and only the facade of upper floors remained. The Cubans are resourceful and make the best of any situation.

 

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An entry into yet another wonderful and architectural square, Plaza San Francisco. This is the second oldest square in Habana. Potted plants provided some greens on the large cobbled stone square surrounded by buildings. On the opposite end is Convento de San Francisco de Asis. Built in the end of the 16th century, it was later altered into the baroque style in 1730.  Statues, fountains, the church with a tall bell tower and the impressive basilica gave this square a significant nostalgia of the old colonial world. Across a busy street from the square is the “Terminal Sierra Maestra”, Ferry Terminal.

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Near Plaza Vieja, a uniformed museum guard explained a little bit about life here. He earned 25CUC a month and it is quite insufficient to buy anything more than basic necessities. He was quite inquisitive about my cost of travel and living in New Zealand. He suggested that he move to NZ to work and better his life. I did not object but suggested that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side. I quipped that the people here ‘happy’ and seemed to be contended. He agreed. People make do with whatever they get. He reassured to that even though poverty is real for most people, crime rate is very low. It is safe to walk anywhere in Havana after dark. It might sound unreal, I concurred that was my feeling too. Perhaps, it may be that I am not white and blended easily and therefore not targeted! The guard quickly returned to his day job. He is just, only just getting by economically. Crime rate are perhaps low as the punishment for crime is severe. Perhaps, since most Cubans are in the “same boat”, they look out for each other. A sense of community prevailed. I could sense this attribute.

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After a long pause and playing with a little kid at the square, I continue my journey on the road of the colonials to Plaza Vieja. This square was once the site of executions, processions, bullfights, and fiestas. The Spanish colonials had brought their traditions to this idyllic Caribbean island. Perhaps I was already tired of walking for the day as I found this plaza not particularly exciting. A few metallic modern artworks occupied some corners of the plaza. The fountain in the middle had ceased operation. One building that caught my sight is the Factoria Plaza Vieja, a restaurant. To quench my thirst, I stopped for a cool sugar cane drink mixed with lime juice. It was heavenly. Sadly, for a country that once produced large quantities, I rarely found any sold on the streets.

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On my return to my Casa, I opted to take a new street. The sun set early in the Caribbean. Street vendors tried to get their last sales of the day before heading home. Older people gathered to catch-up on the day’s events. Office workers clutched their handbags with some shopped items in their hands. Time for me get a nice cool shower too. One interesting feature on the streets are the use of old canons at traffic barriers. Just stuck into the street.  At the end of the street, the massive white dome of the Capitolio faded into the soft and hazy twilight.

On Prado, I met Alfredo. He offered some Cuban cigars. Apparently, today only, they are at half price and this offer only comes by once a month. A great sales pitch but to his disappointment, I declined. We started talking. The population of Cuba is 11.5 million, and in his exaggerated estimate, about 6 million are police officers. In Havana alone, with a population of 2.5 million, there are about 1 million cops! I found these figures incredible. He continued, there are security cameras on every street, about 100 meters apart. Are they to keep a close watch on the society?  Cuba is still a state controlled society. Only then I noticed all the cameras Alfredo mentioned. Fortunately, the Cubans seem not to mind this close public scrutiny. They are friendly, helpful and easy going. What about the lifting of the sanctions I asked. He was happy and expected better things for Cubans.

Across my balcony, I peeped into my neighbour’s apartment. A lady meticulously discarded bad rice from a container. The furnishing was a mix of leather sofa and colonial wooden and wicker furniture. As I walked on the streets, I noticed this furnishings almost everywhere. Stained glass windows and potted plants added some freshness to the fading and peeling exterior. Next door, washing hung on line fluttered in the open. There was hardly any sunlight. The houses that were painted were all pastels. This seem to be the norm around here in Centro Habana.   Further down the street, water hoses ran across the street. I know that my Casa had all the basic amenities. Some might not have. People lived in close proximity and tolerated each other. Perhaps there were no options. Neighbours genuinely helped and looked out for each other. A few classic cars were parked on the road. Some had not moved at all. The sun had almost set and night was creeping in.

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For dinner, I headed back to Patisseries Francesca. I had been snacking all day and just wanted to have a small dinner. Just coffee and some sweet pastries. There was live music nearby. A full moon brightened the night sky. Unfortunately, the air was intoxicated with fumes from smokers. As I left the cafe, a man invited me to a bar next door. As we talked, he offered “senor, quiero una la chica”, mister, do you want a girl? I suppose, like all other cities, this is the reality of life here.

The Gran Teatro de la Habana was lit up like a Christmas tree. It was fabulous. Open top classic cars invited tourist to take a ride. Yellow taxis lined up along the street for a potential fare. The street was busy.

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I walked around Habana Vieja after sunset. It is livelier and with a slight coolness of the air, everything seem pleasant. Calle Obispo’s cobbled path is lined up with numerous cafes, bars and restaurants. Live music between three and six piece bands created an atmospheric environment. Everyone seemed to be into the so-called Buena Vista music. The tunes are catch, a mixture of Son and Salsa. The double base, bongo drums and guitars all made fantastic rhythms. People on the street, especially the Cubans moved and grooved to the music. At the end of one street, slightly weaned out of people, a beautiful young girl sat by herself. I passed her but could not help admiring her beauty in the moonlit night. Later, as I returned to the same place, she was seated on a wooden park chair. A man sat on the next chair. He called me over and offered if I would like to have her for the night. She was young and looked innocent. She did not speak English. Hardly out of school, I thought. It disturbed me. I understand that life is tough here. Survival by any means perhaps. I cannot judge. What is her life all about? I don’t know. With the imminent return of American tourist, I wondered if this low profile ‘profession’ of hers’ would be corrupted.

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I headed back to Pastelaria Francesca for breakfast. Freshly boiled Cuban coffee was uplifting. Not too sure about the pink interior. Service can be erratic and sometimes you wonder where all the waiters had gone. Today the lady behind the counter was delightful. Paseo de Marti was crowded with cars, buses and people surrounded by impressive colonial buildings including the off white and under renovation Capitolio building, the Gran Teatro de la Habana and Hotel Parque Central bathed in the morning sun. Old American cars and “newer” cars along with bici-taxis, bright yellow egg-shaped scooters, horse carts, “collectivo”, Shared taxis, cramped buses and horse carts occupied this busy main street. Amongst these were immaculate and shiny ‘Old” American cars with open-tops and leather seats parades around the Central Park. A joy ride for a price. This place in Centro Habana is a hive of activities amidst a heavy smell of diesel fumes. Opposite is the green lung Parque Central, Central Park where I caught the bright red open-top tour bus. It is a great way to see Habana’s highlights and costs’ only 5CUC. Part of the ride goes on the grand Malecón, Plaza de la Revolution, Necropolis Cristobal Colon, and the coastal Miramar area. My purpose was to head to the Costa Rica Embassy to sort out my visa. Delays yet again as there was no response from San Jose.

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This part of Centro Habana is a great place to people watch and check out the high end accommodations like the Parque Central, Inglaterra and Telegrafo Hotels. Then, there is the majestic Gran Teatro de la Habana (theatre) and the iconic Neo-classical and Art Nouveau style Capitolio. Unlike the mellow residential areas, this area is bounty with activities, people and music. To get some respite from the balmy heat, just pop under the canopy of the trees in the Parque Central. Watch the street touts doing thing and the women flaunt their bodies. Everything seemed uninhibited and casual.

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My internet requirements are courtesy of Central Hotel – just buy a phone card from the bar and head upstairs into a private room for the terminals. Comfortable and convenient. However, they do have the option of saying no! Be nice. And after that, if you fancy a ride in one of the tuned-up classic American open top cars, there are plentiful around this area. It was not compelling enough for me. From here I headed to the train station, hopefully, to secure a ticket to Santiago de Cuba. The staff however was unwilling to give me one. “No para turista , solo para los cubanos”, not for tourist, only Cubanos. I left disappointed. Perhaps I should have brought a Spanish speaker.

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In the hot afternoon, just off the main drag at Parque Central near Calle Obrapia, I entered Cafe de Frances. I was back into Habana Vieja. I was sweating profusely as the blinding sun shone directly into the cafe. The oscillating fan helped a little. I wanted a paella. I have some limitations of what I eat – no meat especially pork and its derivatives, chorizo and sausages, that is commonly used.  I wanted vegetables and seafood. “Jo qiero paella de verduras e mariscos”. Order done and the wait began. This is an atmospheric cafe and bar and fantastically located. Schools girls in short navy skirts and knee-high socks laughed and played in a nearby school. A big dish was served. Perfect – shrimp, fish, langoustine with a few vegetables.  It was a filling but satisfying meal.

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I ventured deeper into old Havana. I started at Plaza de Armas. This is the oldest square in Havana built in the 1519. It is a tranquil place with shaded Parque Cespedes. This part of old Havana is high restored. Cafes, bars and restaurants lined the perimeter of this plaza including a high-end hotel. The huge Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, former official residence of the governors (Captain Generals). On the paved street, many impromptu used books stalls had been set-up. No one is in a hurry and the quiet pace was perfect on this humid day.

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Walking aimlessly in this part of town was great. In the well restored streets people, tourist and locals, wined and dined. Restaurants staff entice people to try their fare or just to have a drink. Music filled certain parts of the streets. Calle Obispo and Mercaderes (Merchant Street) seem to be the most popular. I refueled with sweet snacks from local vendors along the streets. At one shop, a lion dance and beating of drums caught my ears. A group of Chinese all dressed in traditional outfits celebrated the opening of this outlet. Time passes slowly but the twilight was creeping in. I continued wandering along these wonderful colonial buildings and arrived at a cafe filled with patrons.

 

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It was past 8.30pm when I arrived at the Malecón. The wide waterfront six-lane boulevard along a wall to protect from the raging Caribbean Sea is quintessential Cuban. It stretched about 8km from Vedado to Habana Vieja. The locals gathered here to cool-off, couples embraced each other and friends chatted and played. Street lights lit up the empty road. The other parts of Centro Habana had very few of these. Today, the ocean waves gently hit the protective wall. Towards Vedado, tall buildings rose along the rocky shores. My first day in Havana had been an intoxicating and enchanting. The romance of old world charm particularly the plazas in Habana Vieja is very tangible. The Cuba that I had experienced today is certainly “lost” in a time warp, going back about fifty years. The people lived out their lives in the open, combined with its crumbling but elegant architectures, it is indeed a living museum. However, change, for better or worse, is inevitable.

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I returned every evening to the Malecón. It has a magnetic effect. Perhaps it is the sounds of the crashing ocean. Perhaps, likes the locals, this is the places to come contemplate, entertain and met people. I loved the idea that anyone could just come here and feel free as the cool breeze refresh the mind and perhaps the souls. One day, a small group of musicians played simple tunes and another a single guy revered up the volume of his radio. This prompted spontaneous dancing by a few. Families gathered with little kids running around giving the parents much need time for themselves. Young men fished on the craggy rocks below the wall. The living density in Habana is cramped and dense. This place offered some respite from your family and neighbours. Strangely, no boats on the water.

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It was a very warm night but I managed to get some sleep. My excitement of being in Cuba had not dwindled. I was on the narrow streets of Centro Habana.  As in the evening, the ‘open living’ style of Cubans played out. While having a chat, they shopped from the mobile sellers. These vendors whistled and called out advertising their wares. Fresh vegetables, bread and few more. People on the upper floors talked through wrought iron guard rails on the balconies. Life here is slow and somewhat mellow. Young children played soccer on the street with a worn-out ball. I know baseball is big in Cuba but I did not see any kids with a ball and a bat.

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I walked past several American cars with shiny exterior. The drivers sat in the shade in a nearby park. I reached the waterfront.  Beyond the port, a fiery blaze from oil production site. Across the inlet is the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaa (Fort of Saint Charles), simply called as La Cabaa. Towards the entrance of the bay, westward, was the impressive watch tower of Castle of los Tres Reyes del Morro. I did not venture across. Under the watchful eye of a statue of Neptune, on the Malecón, I met Mandrill. He and his mate were fishing but for the moment it seemed to be futile exercise. I had seen the make-up of the Cuban population and its external influences. The physical appearance of a Cuban in my description – European White to African Black and everything in-between. With this broad skin tones, mine qualified easily. Just need to speak Spanish. The Cubans seem not to distinguish the differences and that was wonderful to see. They were one. I loved this distinctive Cuban culture – singularity.

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Mandrill described himself as mostly Spanish, part Irish and part “unknown”. He quipped that his wife is an American and the reason for his spoken English capability. His fishing ability was hopeless for the last three hours. The gas flame continued to puff smoke into the atmosphere. Mandrill commented that the water around the island is polluted with oil drained from the ships. This is a fact as I witnessed slick oil floating in the south when I flew into Cuba. Numerous stretches of dark brown slick oil inter-spaced by the ocean currents and wind. A pristine coast under threat. I suggested that fuel must be cheap here. Mandrill just said, the fuel is low-grade and the reasons for the Habana’s air pollution.

Twilight was setting in. The Cubans understandably due to the heat, humidity and perhaps with no fans or ventilation, resorted to sit at their door steps and sidewalks. The front doors are left open with a view into Cuban’s private lives – watching TV, dining, having a conversation in rustic setting and charming wooden furniture. I remembered my childhood days in Malaysia. We would sit in the porch or on the road having a rest or conversation with family and neighbours. The porch in Cuba’s densely packed housing is the street. The ground floor was most exposed. In the upper floors, people hung around wrought iron balconies amidst hanging cloths conversing with their neighbours. It is a close-knit community. Amongst these people was Umbereto and his sister Ana. Typical Cuban style, shirtless with his belly hanging out and Ana with hair curlers on rested on the front door. Like most Cubans, they were friendly and wanted to communicate with me. When I mentioned that I lived in NZ, it hit his sweet spot. He was cricket mad. He even declared that he is the only one in Cuba. He immediately took me into his home. The path from the doorway led into a small courtyard, tidy and filled with potted plants. The path branched towards several doorways. He was not kidding. The walls and cabinets in his house were filled with cricket memorabilia. A set of crease embedded onto a side of a cabinet. His wife just laughed when he mentioned that his 100% love of his life is cricket. I suggested, perhaps 80% wife and 20% cricket. Umbereto just laughed. As I left his place, his last words were, “me casa tu casa”, my house is your house. I felt welcomed.

I returned to my Casa in Centro Habana. The slightly cooler air was a blessing in this windless narrow street. Similar to streets in Habana Viejo, the locals were out in force on the streets. Like the Cubans, I too hung around the balcony and watched everyday Cuban life unfold below. I loved these sights were people are living their lives normally. From my third floor room balcony, I surveyed my street. The building facades were crumbling with iron rods sticking out of some. Some were painted in pastel colours and mostly faded and worn surfaces. Renovation work partially completed and some needing urgent attention. The city’s choking fumes from vehicles did not help. Despite the hardships, the streets were clean with bins dotted along the street. Piles of stones and rubble were stacked on the sides of streets. On the far southern end, the towering dome of the Capitolio was under renovation. The corner fresh produce stall had closed for the day. I decided to have dinner at my Casa (well the operator’s) tonight and an opportunity to meet my fellow Casa “mates”. The Casa owner is very enterprising and had a few accommodations for rent both in Centro and Habana Vieja.

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Angelo suggested another place where Cubans frequented. Soothing music filled the hot and humid Habana air. They were Son (with a African beat) music, the precursor to modern Salsa music. I loved it immediately. This is Bar El Vinales. I invited Angelo to join me. He was taken aback. Although he had brought guest and tourist here for several years, he had not had a drink before. He seemed overwhelmed. I seldom drink alcohol. This was an exception, immersing into local culture. The Mojito was refreshingly good and costs 5CUC. There were many locals who could afford to dine and drink here. People danced spontaneously to the live music. It seems everyone and anyone can dance. The ambiance and atmosphere topped up with culture and fun was simply great. Live Son and Salsa music, a bit of Cuban Rum, the laughter and “la buena vida”, living the good life combined with the heat and sweat seemed like a great mix for an intoxicating afternoon. I loved it.

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Angelo dropped me off at the end of Calle Empedrado, just past La Bodeguita Del Medio which terminated at Plaza de La Catedral. This lovely cobble stoned plaza with adorned with a wonderful and ornately carved Baroque styled Catholic Cathedral as its centerpiece. The plaza is enclosed with similar building filled with offices, museums, artisanal shops and restaurants. The setting sun had cast a strong light on the Cathedral known in Spanish as La Catedral de la Virgen Mara de la Concepcin Inmaculada de La Habana. Completed in 1777, the main building material is coral obtained from the sea floor. Two towers rose beside the Catedral de la San Cristobal. The interior is simpler than the grand exterior. However, loud music and songs blared from huge speakers took away the sanctity of the church.

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Two ladies dressed completely in white with coloured bead necklaces sat outside one of the buildings. Walking on the streets, I had noticed mainly women with this dress code. A black doll statue on their side. These are practitioners of the Santaria, an old religion or practice with its roots in Africa. It was brought in by the African slaves. Whether it is superstition, cult or witch craft, today it is intertwined with the catholic religion and the practice is widespread and deeply rooted amongst Cubans, particularly of African origins. I frequently encountered women dressed all in white gowns on the streets of Habana.

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As I exited the plaza, I met another practitioner of this Afro-Cuban religion, Santaria. Initially I just watched her. She had a calm and composed demeanour. On a table, a black doll dressed in red was placed beside a newspaper article with a photos on it. She must be popular. Her outfit was simple with a dash of colour from the numerous beads on her neck. However, her colourful extended fingernails were outrages.  I had to talk to her just to find out what she is all about. My hesitation is my lack (in fact basic is an over-statement) of Spanish. In the meantime, tourist just took pictures of her, paid a few CUC and continued on. I approached her. She had practiced this culture for many years and a fortune-teller. I noticed cards on the table. She continued that her origins are from the Yoruba people of Africa. I managed to converse for over half an hour. Besides the word she uttered, I was caught up in my mind about her personality. The jiggling of the necklaces every time she moved. The unlit cigar she held in her fingers laden with rings.  The gentle smile she gave to the passer-by. She was a colourful lady.  I managed to “translate” some parts of her story. It is a shame that most people just walked past. As I left, she called to me, “amigo, hasta luego”. Her name is Adelaida Borges Senora Habana.

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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.

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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“.

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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.

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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.