Cuba – Havana Vieja

Day 2 began with bright sunshine and blue skies, kind of a mixed blessing given how hot it gets. I loaded up at the breakfast buffet, trying to be somewhat conscious of what is safe to eat and what is not. I’d probably have no problems digesting tap water but there’s really no reason to risk it. I’m generally sticking to beverages that come in a sealed container.

Feeling rested and rejuvenated, I headed east towards Havana Vieja, which is about 5km from my hotel. Most tourists would hate being so far out of the tourist zone but I usually find cities like this pretty fascinating to walk around, so 5km of Cuban stickball games, yards full of clucking chickens and smoke belching old jalopies is just fine with me. And forgive me if I repeat things cuz, like I said, this place is kinda complex and some subjects will wrap around and bring us back to a subject I addressed earlier.

Did I mention the cars? I don’t think so. Of course the cars here are generally pieces of shit but they are pretty interesting pieces of shit. I’d say a quarter of the cars date back to the 40s and 50s, before the revolution when American cars were easy imports from Miami. So you got old Chevies, Buicks, Desotos, Cadillacs, and the rest with fins on the tail and the faded chrome. They are often painted in colorful pastels and some of them seem to be in decent shape but upon closer inspection you find plenty of bondo and lots of rust that’s been painted over. They puke smoke and almost implode when they hit bumps and many of them are hilariously overcrowded. Also, it’s common to have an old American car that’s been refitted with a soviet Lada engine. But they’re great and they certainly add to the ‘no puedo decir’ element of Havana. In most of my street photos, I fit the jalopies in somewhere – if there isn’t one passing by just count to 10.

This guy showed me just about every detail of his car, I could barely get away

As I made my way out of the suburbs and into town, things got predictably more hectic. Buildings became denser, older, and more run down. I really didn’t think it would get worse than the squalor in Miramar but I was wrong. It’s hard to believe that people live in places that have holes in the walls and collapsing roofs but they do. I suppose in a climate like this, there is no need for anymore but I’ll get to that later.

Once you get through Havana Vedado and Centro, you hit the Vieja and its really quite stunning in an architecturally morbid way. As in other places, there is a massive amount of urban decay and dilapidation but it’s so dense that even a blind man could take decent pics. Almost every building on every block is a little architectural gem, some just walls surrounding an empty lot of weeds, others with laundry hanging from every balcony and madres hollering down to their shirtless ninos in the street below. Lots of racachaca going on. I suppose there’s not that much to say, and besides just the photos alone can speak volumes a lot quicker than I can write them.

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People are generally friendly and they want to know where you are from but as is the case in all poor countries you have to wary of anybody who seems to be just a benevolent amigo. Usually people with children are on the up and up but a guy like Alex Mejia Ortiz is pretty clearly out to separate you and your money. Alex struck up a conversation with me outside the Bacardi building in a fairly touristy part of town. I chatted a little bit in spanish and he seemed quite surprised that I knew so much espanol for a Canadian. “Would you like to see a bar where Che Guevara and Fidel Castro used to drink?” he asked in espanol. And there it was, the scam, far off on the horizon but coming nonetheless. I said “uuhhhhhhh…” and we were off.

A few doors down, he ducked into a doorway and motioned for to come inside. I had heard the horror stories of tourists going with locals to a remote bar and then having to pay a $100 tab for 4 drinks to get out in one piece. But this bar was small and on a main tourist street so I went in cautiously. Lo and behold, he wasn’t lying. This dingy little hole in the wall that tourist would ever wander into was legit. The photos on the wall showed Che and Fidel living it up and mugging for the cameras and it was clearly the exact same bar. The bar was the same, the tables were the same, and even the dirt in the corners looked like it had been there for 60 years. It was actually pretty cool. He ordered 2 mojitos which I knew I’d be paying for so I confirmed that they were only $3 each. The door was also close enough and bouncerless so I could make a run for it if need be.

Mojitos may have been invented in Cuba, daiquiris too just down the street at the Floridita, but they certainly weren’t perfected. You get a much better mojito in Vegas. Here they are served with mint flavoring and cheap ingredients, but the side of Che and Fidel at this place made it worthwhile. Down the hatch it went in a few gulps and after a little chatting I paid the $8 bill (I know, it should’ve been 6 but w/e) and was on my way. Moments later it occurred to me that it was pretty likely that it was made with tap water and I grew a little concerned that I might be looking for a bano very soon but everything was ok. So it was a fairly painless lesson in scammers and boozing.

They’re not particularly tourist savvy here, mainly because there aren’t that many tourists to practice on. With Americans locked out, and Europeans far away, tourism is pretty mellow compared to other places like Costa Rica or Thailand. It’s a nice change, it feels more real. There are just enough tourist services like currency exchange or western hotels to set your mind at ease though. Oh, and from looking at the hotels in the Vieja I was glad I was in the ‘burbs. My hotel is a couple notches above any of them and I was glad to have someplace quiet and clean to return to with a great pool.

Not your typical Vieja hotel. This is Hotel Nacional and its the only place in Cuba with wifi

You have to pay for everything in Cuba, museums and churches included. Most are not worth the price of admission. Like a car museum – really? Why would I want to see shitty old cars in a Cuban museum? Hell most of them are basically the same as the taxis parked out front. But I did go into the museo de la revolucion and it was worthwhile. It’s basically a blow by blow account of the glorious victory of the socialists over the imperialist pigs, and it’s all housed, appropriately enough, in the former presidential palace. It’s all pretty comical actually. Laos had a similar museum about the Vietnam war of American imperialist aggression. They have American TV here and they obviously know how much better we capitalist pigs live, yet most people still have this nostalgic appreciation of la revolucion. Of course, they seem to emulate American style in any way they can.

Museo de la Revolucion courtyard

Pock marks from the revolution

Decorated by Tiffany & Co

After el museo I sat in the park eating some leftover pizza which was good btw, watching shoeless kids play soccer and kinda laughing to myself about how cheap this was working out. A typical pedi-cab driver approached, trying sell me a ride. I politely declined. He tried harder. Then all of a sudden he stepped away from me and said something like “senor hay santos malos aqui!” while pointing to a pile of rotting fruit. I looked at the fruit and back at him and he getting the fuck out. He was trying to say that it was an offering to evil spirits and he wasn’t just playing it up for the tourist, he believed it. I was wondering WTF these piles of fruit were in the parks. Religion here is kind of a mix of Catholicism and voodoo. I believe that if I don’t believe in it, it can’t hurt me so smiled at him and took another bite of my pizza.

A Soviet ICBM leftover from the Bay of Pigs incident

El Malecon is the long seawall that thousands of Havana-ites flock to on the weekends. It’s nothing super amazing but it has a nice breeze and I couldn’t help but look north and think that una vida mejor is just 90 miles away. I’m not sure how many Cubans try to defect these days but it seems to be a lot less than you’d think it would be.

Most modern buildings here suck. Boring concrete blocks. But one caught my eye because it had guards stationed every 50 feet or so around it. When I started to cross the street toward them, they immediately ordered me back to the other side. So I had to holler “que es el edificio?” It’s the office of American interests and I guess it’s been the sight of some heated protests. Honestly, I think Cubans make a much bigger deal about the embargo than they need to. When the Castro brothers are dead, I really wonder what will happen here. With an uncorrupted government, they could probably make huge improvements here. I think the world, including the US, is starting to see the failures of capitalism, with the 1 percent taking far more than ever before. Maybe some socialism has merit. I mean hey, Obamacare seems to heading that way.

The Office of American Interests

The Office of American Interests

A 2-fer. You get ugly modern architecture and a jalopy stuffed with people

I got back to my hotel just after sunset and I drank the coldest and most delicious sprite ever. I estimate that I walked 20-25kms and I still didn’t see as much of Havana as I’d planned.

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