After a 6 hour flight and a 1 hour bus ride, I arrived at my hotel in Havana just before dawn. In the past I’ve always opted for a window seat on the plane and I always wondered how I never got stuck with the middle. Well, this time I got the middle, sandwiched between an old lady who snorted in her sleep and a Persian guy who rocked out all night to intense club music so loud that I could hear his headphones over mine. Needless to say, after I finally checked in, I flopped out on the bed for some much-needed rest.
The next “morning” I headed out into Havana and was met immediately with stifling heat and calls of “Taxi? Taxi senor?” – two things I’d have to get used to. Before the taxi driver was even done with his barrage of questions – “where you from? You like chicken? Where you want to see?” – I was already sweating profusely and finding some bottled water became the priority. Tap water is somewhat potable in Cuba, especially if you have a strong gut, but bottled water for drinking makes sense. Inevitably you will drink tap water, whether it’s in your ice, your coffee, or daiquiris. Anyway, it was just stinkin’ hot, low 30’s with high humidity and a pounding sun.
Speakin’ of stinkin’, there’s a smell to the city that immediately reminded me of Manila. I think I once described it as a mix of coal smoke and sewage but after more deliberation I’ve pinpointed it a bit more. It’s like a coal fire being extinguished with piss. And of course, there are the microstenches, like sewage, rot, or exhaust. I can’t say I was really all surprised since there’s a fair amount of garbage laying about, just without the random little burning piles like Manila.
With my hotel being just on the edge of the Rio Almendares greenway, I figured I’d head down there and follow the shady route down to the ocean in the Miramar neighborhood. Recently, they’ve made efforts to clean up the river but the banks are still dotted with plastic and the odd turkey vulture picking at some entrails. It was slightly cooler in the shade though.
I guess I’m not painting a very pretty picture of Havana, and maybe even being a little unfair, but this is the reality of what you notice coming from a western country. The filth and the poverty that we are often shielded from at home is all around and impossible to ignore. So let me give you a better picture of what Havana looks like by explaining a little about my destination, Miramar.
In the early 20th century, when the Cuban economy was growing rapidly based on sugar exports, Miramar was a fairly swanky neighborhood, just a few kilometers west of the city center. Its where the wealthy built ornate homes amongst palm lined avenues. Embassies and the homes of diplomats dotted the area and American mafia socialized in clubs like the Tropicana. It was one of the wealthiest areas on this continent. But that’s all changed since la revolucion.
Today these ornate mansions, with their tall wrought iron gateways and winding driveways, are more like a spectre of themselves. Some are inhabited, some are even well maintained, but many are in a severe state of dilapidation and decay, with roofs often caved in, walls and doorways crumbling, and plants taking root in the oddest places. Still, the buildings have grandeur and the details around the windows or on columns are impressive, even with peeling paint or chunks missing. It’s a shame to see this beautiful architecture fade like this but some have found a new purpose.
Most embassies are still in Miramar, and so are the diplomats who work there, so some homes have been kept up or refurbished and they look magnificent with fresh coats of pastel colors and manicured tropical gardens. When you see them, it’s easy to imagine the whole neighborhood looking like that. But the image is quickly shattered when you look next door and find a building of equal worth inhabited by squatters, with fires burning in roof-less second story rooms and naked children running through the dirt yard. You don’t want to stare but you can’t look away. It’s almost apocalyptic in some cases. And yet the next guy down the street will be, say, a policeman with a wife and 3 kids, and he doesn’t really see anything wrong with this insane dichotomy. He just wants to get the oil filter replaced on his ’76 Lada.
So I walked around and around, looking at all kinds of weird shit like this and eventually found myself down by the waterfront with a bit of a hunger mounting. I figured I’d check out the diplomercado. It’s one of the bigger supermercados and, at least for a while, had a reputation for carrying better and more expensive imported items. I was in for another shocker. Shelves weren’t soviet-bare, but maybe half the shelves were stocked, and the stock didn’t provide much variation. The condiment aisle? 500 bottles of generic ketchup and 50 bottles of generic mustard. Sure, you could get basics, but not much else. There was no produce at all.
But the lack of produce is for a reason; each neighborhood still has its own little agromercado where farmers sell their goods. And it’s funny that it’s most likely all organic, non-genetically modified, and grown within 20kms – all things that eco-minded westerners will gladly pay and an arm and a leg for at their local boutique market. In a similar fashion, Cubans reduce their eco-impact by just plain having less stuff. No car means no pollution. No money means they’re not shipping a new Ikea dining table from China just because the old one looks kinda old. The irony, that many people in poor countries are employing cleaner and more efficient practices than us, isn’t new and it isn’t lost on me.
But without sounding like a whiney westerner, I did have some hurdles to overcome to buy some locally grown Cuban produce: the currency. Here we go, you might need a pen and paper and a protractor. There are 2 currencies: the Cuban peso and the Cuban Convertible, aka the CUC, which is worth 27 times the peso. In theory, the peso is what locals use for essentials like electricity or bread, and the CUC is what tourists use for luxuries like toilet paper or a can of beer. Some places only sell stuff in pesos, other places only sell stuff in CUC. Some places won’t accept pesos from tourists and other places don’t care at all. Generally though, if it’s sold in pesos, you probably don’t want it and if it’s sold in CUC, it’s probably too expensive for Cubans. So, a ride in a local shitbox taxi with other people crammed in will cost you pesos (if you’re willing to do it), a ride in a fairly new metered taxi will cost you CUC, and a ride on a municipal bus might cost you neither if the bus driver is one of the those ‘viva la revolucion’ guys are he enforces the Cuban-only rules. It’s confusing at first but it essentially means that anything other than ultra-cheap pizza and ice cream from street vendors is bought in CUC. But lemme tellya, you become a pretty popular guy when you buy ice cream for an entire school class.
After figuring all this out and walking all over Miramar and seeing some fantastically weird stuff, I headed back to Hotel Kohly. I wouldn’t say it’s a modern hotel, but its good by Cuban standards and the rooms are clean. More importantly, it’s outside of the hustle and bustle of central Havana so it’s like a little oasis to return to in the evening, with an inviting pool that I likely won’t use and a great little pizzeria that I likely will use right now.