¡Buenos dias La Habana!
Waking up the first morning in Havana, after a somewhat squalid welcome at the airport, was a pleasant surprise. As I mentioned in the post before, at the Havana airport I thought it will be two very long weeks. Everything at the airport looked so miserable and shabby. I was wondering where did we get ourselves to. All the photographies that you can see from Havana and Cuba are so lovely, so I thought all of it must be a lie, nothing here is as it seems on the photos. But luckily, very luckily, I was wrong.
After our breakfast at the beautiful mansion, our home for the time being in Havana, we got out to check out the neighborhood first. We were told that we are close to La Habana Vieja (the old town), so there was no rush. We would find out later that there was no rush in general, time passes by very slowly in Cuba.
Walking through the neighborhood, it was very calm, very green, hardly any cars, no noise. There was one mansion after the other, one more beautiful and pompous than the other, but also most of them run down, so that the heart gets heavy to see how the beauty of these magnificent buildings is fading. Welcome to Vedado in Havana, the equivalent of Bel Air in LA, or at least it was some six to seven decades ago.
Even today Vedado remains one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Havana. The location is very central, neighboring downtown Havana, the old town and the neighborhood of Miramar, another affluent part of the city. Once you walk out of Vedado, you get to Malecón, a famous and popular place for social gatherings at the water front.
“It seemed [there are] musical nodes on the planet where cultures meet and mix, sometimes as a result of unfortunate circumstances, like slavery or something else, in places like New Orleans and Havana and Brazil. And those are places where the European culture and indigenous culture and African culture all met and lived together, and some new kind of culture and especially music came out of that.”
– David Byrne
Vedado used to be a neighborhood of the rich, where exclusively the descendants of the Spanish colonialists were living. And as the name itself suggests, Vedado was forbidden to enter for anyone not belonging to this particular social class. In other words, Afro-Cubans as well as the multiethnic race could never see the inside of this quarter unless they were employed at the mansions.
With the revolution in 1959, everything changed. The owners of those palaces left their homes and their possessions. Fidel Castro established a country based on communist values. All people are equal and all people have equal rights. Many of these estates would become schools, hospitals, or would suit other public needs. Others got inhabited by population of different racial backgrounds, which would demonstrate the equality and then there were those that would house different embassies from all over the world. Sadly some of them were left to no use which would result into a complete break down a couple of decades later. With the imposed embargo from 1962, that lasts up to today, Cuba got completely isolated, which means there were no investments of any kind, hence no money for peoples’ basic needs, let alone for maintaining beautiful buildings.
The mansions of Vedado
Once we got out of Vedado to Malecón, we could see the greatness of the city. Even though Cuba is politically closed and economically backward, since there is no export or import of any kind of goods, Havana still looks like a very cosmopolitan, sophisticated and mundane city. It is after all home to five million inhabitants. I was wondering how is that possible? A city, where food is scarce, where there are very few stores (none of them international), practically everything falling apart, how could the city maintain this worldly flair?
Havana is the first communist city that I visited, where there are almost no communist buildings. Throughout history, the whole country, and especially the urban regions, were fully developed. The colonial era left so much behind, that luckily there was no need to build communist like buildings. And with the whole country so well preserved one could imagine themselves either being in a past century, or a couple of decades behind, more specifically the 1950s and 1960s. As we were walking along the Malecón seawall, classic American cars were passing us by. We looked at the different buildings, among them the newly reopened US embassy. We passed by a pretty much run down sports stadium, home to a baseball team, where people were exercising. There were monuments from different historical times, some of them honoring Spanish colonialists, some of them honoring the revolution, that is responsible for Cuba Libre. On many buildings one could see slogans in favor of the revolution and quotes by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, at times also accompanied by their faces on the buildings. They seemed so much alive, as if no time passed at all.
As we were waiting to catch a cab to get to La Habana Vieja (the Malecón is after all an 8 km long esplanade), we got approached by a German couple, to share a taxi. They were our first of many more acquaintances, that we would get to know somewhere on the street, a restaurant or café. We got into a conversation with them. Everybody is interested to know why they chose Cuba as a destination. And we would hear the same answer over and over again, as it was our very own answer as well: to catch the moment as long as Cuba is still authentic before everything changes.
La Habana Vieja is a beautiful and picturesque part of the city. It reminds a lot of Spanish cities with the plazas and colonial architecture. Though most part of the city is falling apart, since the 1990s, Castro allowed the UNESCO to enter the country and so for the past three decades, slowly but surely buildings are being renovated and are under protection. For the past two years, ever since the country started opening itself, even huge hotel chains are coming in and taking the buildings under their wing.
Plaza Vieja and the narrow streets leading to it were the highlight of the day. Colors, buildings, street musicians and general liveliness gave us a wonderfully pleasant feeling. We were somewhere else.
Streets of La Habana Vieja
The wonderful thing in Havana is that the city felt completely safe. Unlike Spanish cities where you almost count to be robbed for example at Barrio Gótico in Barcelona or Plaza Mayor in Madrid or many other towns throughout Andalusia (yes, happened to me at each of these places), Havana was calm and even though there happen to be pickpockets, at least I did not feel any danger at any place or time. A communist system means security and safety. There is police everywhere, but also the people seem very uninterested. They might approach you to talk, but more or less that’s where the story ends.
It was already afternoon and after coffee some two hours ago, we felt like having lunch. So we went to a restaurant in La Habana Vieja, which according to Rough Guide was supposed to serve quite good food. When we got there the place was crowded. An elderly couple at a table offered us to sit with them. We accepted. The restaurant was very much alive, like any other place in Havana. There was music, there was dance. The elderly couple were in Mexico before and it was their third day in Cuba. Soon they would go back to New Zealand. We ordered something to drink and some food. We never got it. The New Zealanders left, we were still waiting to get served and another couple this time from the US sat with us. They were from Washington DC and approximately our age. Now that US citizens were allowed to enter Cuba, there were plenty of them, but not as many as Canadians and Germans. The couple from the US came just for a week, “since it is so close” and told us they were in Viñales before and are going back home after Havana. From them we got the same answer, they wanted to catch the authentic Cuba. As we planned to go to Viñales next (initially we planned to stay there over night), we asked them about all kinds of things. They ordered food, we were still waiting for ours and a very nice conversation took place. We found out that we might not get any transportation to Viñales since all tourist busses were booked out. But the Americans were so smitten with the Viñales valley that they insisted that we try to find an alternative transportation. The food never came. When we asked for it, the waiter said, that what we ordered, they didn’t have at all. We wished the Americans a nice rest of their stay and left the restaurant hungry.
Scene at the restaurant where in the end we stayed hungry.
Walking through the city, we were hoping to find a nice place for lunch. We passed a restaurant that seemed nice, but there was no table available. The waiters didn’t really bother to find a place for us, so again we left.
We were back at the Malecón. The view was mesmerizing. There were already lots of people coming together. People were fishing. The water wild. It was just a beautiful view. There we found a restaurant where we finally got served. Only that they forgot one of the orders. So we ended up splitting a dozen of shrimp with each other. At that restaurant we made our fourth acquaintance of the day. A journalist from Croatia, who is married to a Mexican and who was visiting her sister, who is married to a Cuban and living in Havana. Living in Mexico for seven years already, she felt in the Latin world almost at home. She said she is visiting Europe once every year, but doesn’t really miss it.
Half full after the scarce food that we ended up sharing, we took a walk once more through Malecón before taking a coco-taxi back to our accommodation. We were supposed to stay one more day in Havana and leave to Viñales for two days. Our landlord went with us to the bus station, where we just got confirmed that there were no busses available. Cuba was over-crowded, all the tourist busses were booked out long ago. There was an option with a driver, that we would have taken, but we figured out, that Trinidad, the next stop after Viñales was way too far away. After some talking through, we decided to stay as planned in Havana and to take a driver to Trinidad. Our Dutch-German couple would join us on that ride.
The park next to our accommodation was a wifi hot spot. For the first time we connected our device to wifi, through a wifi card, that you can obtain either at the wifi hot spots or at the post office. The wifi card lasts for an hour. We used that hour before the jet lag kicked in and finally went to sleep.
So much for the first day.
Me at the Malecón
For now I wish you a good night dear readers. Stay tuned, as tomorrow I will be continuing the story.
xx Azra/Swedish Avenue