June 24, 2016: A Whirlwind Day in La Habana
I woke up early and had free time until 11:30 AM. Not really knowing what was on schedule for the rest of the trip, I took it upon myself to try to see all of Havana by foot. One major spot I hadn’t seen yet was the Plaza de Revolution about 3 miles to the southwest. To get there, I used a paper map..
After passing the Capitolio, I found a wide street lined on the both sides by old buildings forming an arcade for almost a mile. Then the street widened even more and had 2 medians. I then passed a school and botanical gardens. I then hit a T-intersection, wandered through some very overgrown grass and eventually reached some military buildings- which had no trespassing signs. Behind these buildings, there was a huge open space- the plaza. It was at least 500 meters long and nearly 800 meters wide- about half a square mile. The south end had a large obelisk-like structure that was a memorial to Jose Martin, the leader of Cuba’s fight for independence against Spain. On the north side, were two large office buildings. One had a huge metal depiction of Che Guevara with his slogan “Hasta la victoria siempre” which translates to “Until victory, always”. The other building had a similar depiction of Camilo Cienfuegos with the quote “Vas Bien Fidel” which translates to “You’re doing fine, Fidel”. On Fidel’s first night in Havana after the successful Revolution, Fidel interrupted his speech to ask Cienfuegos how he was doing. Cienfuegos responded “Vas Bien Fidel”, which was taken up by the crowd and was a slogan of the early Revolutionary government.
These 3 buildings are among the most photographed in all of Cuba. So naturally, I went up to take pictures of all of them. After taking a picture of the Che building, I was flagged down by a police car. Two unarmed officers got out and told me to delete the pictures because it was a military building. Rather than argue with them, I followed the request and deleted the pictures under their guise. Luckily, they didn’t see all of the pictures on my phone, so I did get to keep one. Perhaps I was too close to the entrance, but this really confused me since there were probably millions of pictures of these buildings. After deleting the pictures, I apologized and walked away.
I walked back through Centro Habana aka Central Havana. It is made up of old and crumbling buildings and appeared to densely occupied. The buildings were brightly colored and often multi-colored in strange fashion that would only exist in a situation where multiple people own the building. Most of the buildings needed a fresh coat of paint and if they did, the place would actually look pretty nice. That said, at the moment it looked like a scene from Blade Runner.
Despite the apparent sketchiness, the neighborhood was completely safe. Hidden cameras were watching at every street corner, so I walked freely and without fear. Eventually I made it back to Havana Vieja.
We then took an Afro Cuban dance class. Unlike the salsa class in Vinales, this time we had ladies to dance with us. It’s hard to tell the age of Cubans (they don’t appear to age), but my best guess is that they were 19-20 years old. Our instructor was Isnavi, a very intense lady who is considered one of the best rumba dancers in all of Cuba. Apparently she has made people cry in her classes, but since she looked exactly like my elementary school PE teacher Ms. Griffin, I wasn’t afraid.
The class began with 30 minutes of pelvic thrusting to the beat of her loud “tacata catacata cata ta ta”. One person in our group was apparently not the best pelvic thruster, so she called him out for having a small penis. The next 30 minutes were spent getting the basic steps down. The rhythm of rumba is not even so we struggled for awhile with this.
The final 30 minutes were spent practicing a routine with the ladies. In addition to coordinating the steps with our dance partners, we all had to incorporate the pelvic thrusts aka “vaccination” moves at the end of each sequence. In the dance, we were supposed to play the interested men constantly staring at the ladies, while the ladies had to play hard to get. By the end of the class, I had definitely gotten a good workout.
From there, we walked through the Cayo Huesco neighborhood and visited the University of Havana, which has a tank in its main quad. We played Frisbee on the street with random children. The Frisbee was invented in 1957 so I probably didn’t have time to catch on before the Revolution, as nobody in Cuba has ever seen one before. I made a mistake and threw the Frisbee on top of a roof. Luckily, an old man on a nearby balcony was able to get a long stick and save the day.
For the evening’s entertainment, we went to a Rumba club where we once again ran into Isnavi and our “dates”. As a gesture of goodwill, we paid their cover. After an hour of sitting at a table and not being able to communicate with the girls, the band walked out and the show began. Rumba music draws heavily from African drum beats. Unlike salsa dancing where you need a partner, rumba dancing can be done solo or with a partner. Most of the rumba dancers at this show went out solo but ended up engaging in a dance-off with one or more people. All the dance-offs were heated and the crowd went wild. Many in our group struggled to find the rhythm and flow of the music and generally agreed that we all preferred the salsa music.
After strolling down the Malecon at sunset, we ended up at the Hotel Nacional, Havana’s swankiest hotel that looks just like the Breakers in Palm Beach. Back in the Golden Age during Prohibition, this was the headquarters of the American Mafia. Times have changed, but the look of the hotel hasn’t. In the bar, they had pictures of all the famous people who have stayed or visited the hotel. Without a doubt it is the strangest listing of people in the world: Paris Hilton, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fred Astaire, Micky Mantle, Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemmingway, Rocky, Bashar Al Assad, Jesse Ventura, Danny Glover, and Vladamir Putin just to name a few. At the bar, we got mojitos and watched the amazing sunset.
Then we got dinner with Sigfredo, the baseball editor of Cuba’s only newspaper, the Granma, named after the boat Fidel and crew took to Cuba from Mexico to start the Revolution. Baseball is by far the biggest sport in Cuba, so this is actually a really big job. This guy has been the editor for 40 years! Not only did he know everything about the Cuban baseball leagues, but he was an encyclopedia about American baseball as well. He even knew the current batting average of Aledmys Diaz, a Cuban player on my favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals. He has been all over the world reporting on baseball including the United States. His dream is to visit Yankee Stadium. Despite all this travel and fame, he lives in a very run-down apartment in Central Havana with no air conditioning. While he liked following American baseball, he prefers watching Cuban games because the players are more animated. There is an unspoken rule in American baseball to not react or show a lot of emotion, but in Cuba players taunt, dance, and yell all the time. I thoroughly enjoyed talking baseball with him.
It was Friday night and time to go out in Havana. We decided to go to Fabrica del Arte. After a 10 minute cab ride, we arrived and noticed the very long line. Unlike LA where you can bribe bouncers to let you in, that was not happening here because of Communism. After 20 minutes of waiting in the line, we were in. Fabrica del Arte was a combination of club, concert venue, and art museum. In the front was 3 floors of art galleries. In the middle, there were bar stations and a projector showing a movie about Suge Knight. In the back, there was a band playing in a room that fits about 500. Drinks cost between $2-10 and ran on an unusual system. Upon entry into the club, everyone gets a card. When ordering, the bartender will write down the price of the drink and payment is done at the exit of the club. Everyone gets a card and must present the card at the exit even if there are no drinks ordered on the card. A lost card costs $30, so I suppose that is the price for an open bar. The club had a combination of well-dressed wealthy Cubans and tourists all intermingling. The people on my group recognized some Icelandic people from Vinales. I headed out by myself around 12:30 after bartering for the cab.
June 25, 2016: The Grand Walk
I woke up at 6:30 am just as the recent graduates were walking in. They must have had an interesting night. Our first scheduled activity was at 11:30, so I had more time to wander on my own.
My goal for the day was to reach a castle called El Morro, which overlooks the entrance to Havana Bay. To get there, I had to take a ferry. Upon arrival at the ferry terminal, there were two destinations. I had not done any research on the ferry- East Havana was not on any maps given to me- so I took the first ferry that arrived. The ferry ride itself was unique, as boats are extremely regulated in Cuba. This is because about 10 years ago, people tried to take one of these ferries to Florida. Unfortunately the boat broke down 2 miles offshore. As punishment and to send a message, everyone was executed. Therefore, a police officer was on the ferry and photos were not allowed.
It took me to Regla, a working-class suburb at the southeastern edge of the bay- the wrong destination in terms of getting to El Morro. I believe that Havana’s geography is very similar to that of the San Francisco Bay Area. The main city is at the western edge of a large bay with the main tourist area in the northeast portion of the city(San Francisco/Havana). Industrial and working class areas are to the south and east across the bay (Oakland and Richmond/Regla). And directly across the bay is a large headland that is popular with tourists (Marin/El Morro). I arrived in Regla (aka Richmond) and my end goal was El Morro (Marin Headlands/Sausalito).
The town was quiet on a Saturday morning. Like Havana, the buildings were all densely packed together, but here they were one story tall instead of three or four. At the far edge of the town was a hill. Ascending the hill, I noticed the first inkling of the shantytowns I was used to seeing in the rest of Latin America. While the vast majority of the houses were nice and well-kept, some people were living off trails in corrugated steel huts.
At the top of the hill, I saw El Morro in the distance and decided I would try to walk there instead of backtracing to the ferry. This proved to be a much more difficult and longer task than expected, as the direct route was blocked by a huge oil refinery. I had to go all the way east and around the refinery. From the hill, I walked/ran for about an hour until I reached the eastern edge of the refinery. A bus headed towards El Morro stopped next to me, but I only had a $5 bill. The bus costs 20 cents and would not give me change, so I did not get on. In hindsight, this was a foolish decision. 20 minutes later, I found a traffic circle, where I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions and to get water. Unfortunately, they did not sell water, so I settled for a soda. He directed me due west down a long wide street lined with Communist block housing apartments. The buildings were about 10 stories tall and were spaced at even intervals. All the residents were sitting and hanging out in front of the buildings in the shade- the area was isolated so there was probably nothing better to do.
Continuing west, I then saw a sign: El Morro – 8 kilometers (5 miles). “[expletive]”. I started to run knowing I had a long way to go about 2 hours until I had to meet up with the group in Havana. The road ended and hit a highway next to the ocean, so the way back was clear (in San Francisco terms, this is San Rafael). I ran along the wide grassy median as swarms of old cars passed by me. At this point, the sun was high in the sky and the heat and humidity was starting to weigh on me. Still, I had no choice but to keep going west. I stopped a few times: to get fresh pineapple juice from a roadside stall, to check out the national stadium where the national track team was practicing, and to check out a random old Spanish canon ruined on a hill above the ocean.
Finally, at 10:30, I made it to El Morro and yelled with joy. The guards at the auto gate were confused when I walked in without a taxi. Ignoring all the souvenir hawkers, I walked straight to the castle with purpose and enjoyed the amazing view of Havana.
I then got into a cab, which took me through a tunnel under the bay. 5 minutes and $8 later, I was back in Havana Vieja. I quickly celebrated my journey with a daiquiri at La Florida, where the drink was reportedly invented- without a doubt the best daiquiri of my life and perhaps the best $6 ever spent.
At 11:30, the group now all together got into two colorful old convertible taxis for a tour of the city. Our driver blasted the song “Bailando” and we were cruising past the Capitolio and down the Malecon.
The convertibles were fun for about 10 minutes before the heat, sun, and humidity started to drain our souls. While I had been to most of the sites from my walking “tours”, one really cool thing we did was stop in a park: Bosque de la Habana. The park looked like wilderness despite being located in the middle of the capital city. As we walked around, we saw lots of chicken feathers evidence of Santeria rituals. Santeria is not just the name of a Sublime song, it happens to be the most prominent religion in Cuba. It is a combination of Catholicism and indigenous African religions. Catholic Saints are paired with an African god- oftentimes a deceased king. Both are worshipped as partners or alter-egos. Observers wear wristbands that are somehow tied to the god and grant some level of protection. Additionally, many rituals are performed. These rituals may try to cure an illness or help with fertility. They do not in any way seem logical according to modern science. One very common practice in Santeria rituals is the sacrifice of small animals, especially chickens. While we did not see this happen, we did encounter a group ready to start a ritual. A lady was holding a live chicken by the wings while casually talking to us. We left before the “fun” began.
The rest of the day was uneventful. I walked a bit more around the old city and bought some souvenirs from the touristy marketplace. Then I napped for 2 hours.
For dinner, we went to a private restaurant where Obsesion was still celebrating their 20th anniversary. The restaurant was located in a converted house. The food was spectacular. We talked about the amazing real estate potential in Havana. Currently a house on the Malecon would cost about $200,000. After dinner, the rest of the group went to an electronic music concert at El Morro (of all places). I elected to get dropped off at the Malecon.
I walked through the dark streets Central Havana. Once again, I felt no fear despite the incredible poverty of the area. Silently, I listened to the creak of the old cars and the distant music blaring from people’s houses. Working my way out to the Malecon, the great seawall at the city’s northern end, I strolled. Despite it being nearly midnight, the place was packed with all types of people: young children, young adults, middle-aged people, and old people all together. There were families, lots of prostitutes, performers, lovers, and friends. Despite the thousands on land, the sea was empty. The only place that compares to this mass and cross-section of humanity is Pondicherry, India. Havana is full of 50 years of unrealized hopes, renewed hopes, and dreams. Despite the grittiness, there is an unmistakable beautify in the architecture and the people. I hope to return one day and see how it changes.
June 26, 2016: A Stressful Departure
In the morning, we said goodbye to our host family and to Roberto, as he had another trip landing in a few days. We left for the airport at 11 am for a 2:45 pm flight. We arrived at 11:35 am, a little over 3 hours before the flight. There were no signs directing us, other than the chaos surrounding one group of check-in counters. After asking, we determined that this was indeed our line. We waited 2 1/2 hours to check-in but still did not reach the front of the line. It is hard to convey the stress of not knowing whether you will leave Cuba on your charter flight. Eventually, someone yelled that everyone from our flight needed to check in, so they opened up a new line for us and we checked in quickly- this was not obvious and we were lucky to have been near where they were yelling from. We then went through customs and the hilarious buzz-open immigration doors. In the terminal, there were two gates that were unmarked. I had just enough time to get a bottle of rum from duty free before we walked onto the runway and onto the plane. 41 minutes later, we were back in Miami.
While the airport left a very bitter final impression, I still absolutely loved my time in Havana and Cuba as a whole. I would definitely return and would love to see the eastern part of the island- I reckon that I could see the rest of the highlights in about 2 more weeks. Change is definitely coming and this is exciting for the Cuban people. With the internet, they are now more connected to the outside world than ever. I am excited to see what lies in store for the island and am very grateful to have seen the country in this state of being on the verge of a huge transition.