My State of Mind
No doubt I will disappoint a lot of people with this post. I never thought of this trip as a pleasure trip. I had read about, saw things and heard about injustices going on in Cuba my entire life; seeing it for myself has been something I felt I had to do for a long, long time.
This blog will not provide a great deal of information on sites to see or restaurants to visit (I will include some of that). It will be more about what I saw with my own eyes and what I learned speaking to the people who live in Cuba. Jet lag will play a role as well — moving through time zones has always been an issue for me.
I studied Sociology and I have an endless appetite for observing and taking apart human behavior; especially group think. Cuba, as I expected it would be, is unique and special in so many ways. Many people fled the country after the 1959 revolution (click for history) and more have fled since. I don’t want to make this a white paper on Cuban politics and how the United States places in all of that. Still, I’d like to make a few observations and share some thoughts on current conditions. You may sense some strong emotions; it’s still very raw.
My travel agent gave me two options for my four nights in Havana. I decided to spoil myself for the housing part of the trip.
SO/Paseo del Prado, La Habana, was probably the most beautiful chain hotel (Sofitel) I have ever stayed in. Five star luxury with some kinks to work out. The property had been closed for a long while because of COVID. They were understaffed and the details were not attended to: no towels or water in the gym, one front desk receptionist, not ready at breakfast, etc. The view of the Atlantic from my room and the location of the hotel, made it a good choice. It is in the Malecón district in Havana.
https://www.lahabana.com › guide › the-malecon
First named Avenida del Golfo, is Cuba’s most famous sea-side avenue. The project was undertaken by Don Francisco de Albear, Cuba’s greatest engineer at the time. Albear came up with a complex but smart design for the seawall, which was to be a lot more than just a promenade.
SO/Paseo del Prado
Be warned: hotels in Cuba are owned by both private companies and the government. I believe the government has a 51% ownership, but I’m not 100% certain of that. You cannot use Cuban Pesos (CUPs) in hotels; you are have to use your credit card or ATM card and you are charged in U.S. dollars. This troubled me while I was there. I prefer not to get into the politics of the matter. I spoke to several hotel guests who disagree with the policy, but they shrug and say they have no control or say. I did, however, learn that individuals who work in these properties are State workers and they earn a bit more money than most people working in Cuba. Breakfast at the hotel was delicious; especially the made-to-order omelets. The pastries were just okay — probably better for me in the long run.
The other thing to mention was that I asked to remain in my room longer because I had a 11:30 p.m. (horrible time to fly) flight to Madrid. I was told it would be $50 for three hours or $250 till 7:00 p.m. Crazy to pay that kind of money; instead I used a “transit room” which had an ocean view and very comfortable furniture. It was secure and free of charge.
The hotel could exchange your dollars or euros, however, the rate is the government’s exchange rate (24 CUPs to the Euro) and I got 95 CPUs to the Euro on the street. People trade money on the street all over Havana. I don’t know how they get away with it or how it works, but it’s good for them and for you. I was told the government turns a blind eye to this practice. One of many oddities in Cuba.
A vast majority of the restaurants in Havana are traditional and very basic. You will not see chain restaurants (a good thing) or a variety of ethnic non-Cuban restaurants. I did pass a couple of Italian restaurants with limited menus and I saw a Chinese restaurant, however, I’m pretty sure it was closed. Many restaurants were permanently closed all over Havana.
La Macorina, @LaComidaCubana, has live music on weekends and the food is excellent and well-priced. Higher-end traditional Cuban fair.
Elizalde, Empedrado, e\ Avenida Belgica y Villegas, La Habana Vieja, is in the Old Town. They have a more extended menu than most and the food is very good — extensive and excellent cocktail menu.
I had several other meals in Havana, however, I would have to say that the cuisine was not remarkable. I had lobster tail in one restaurant and although I was told it was fresh (off-the-boat) and local, it was overcooked. It’s almost a sin to overcook lobster, but I think the dish was $8.
It’s also important to keep in mind that food is scarce these days; I would imagine that restaurants have to fight for product. I did see many corner produce stands with decent fruits & vegetables displayed.
I did not travel to Cuba for the cuisine. I’ve been told that the best meals are prepared in people’s homes. Perhaps because of COVID, only one of these opportunities was presented to me and I thought 30 Euros was a bit high for a home cooked meal in Havana.
Live music is everywhere; on the streets, in bars, in restaurants and coming from homes. Cubans love their Latin beats and so do I. I was extremely pleased to hear and see musicians throughout my trip. See Buena Vista Social Club later in this blog.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is located in the center of the city (near the Parque Central Hotel). Filled with Cuban art dating back to the 16th century, this is a must see. It’s a modern building where you can easily spend hours strolling many galleries.
Local artists were either featured in galleries or had their own galleries throughout the city. Most of what I saw was commercial art designed for tourists, but there were some galleries displaying expensive and magnificent art. I did buy a tile piece (see end of blog).
Two Excellent Tours
I booked an Airbnb walking tour for my first day in Havana. I had just come from a 2.5 ride from Varadero and I had many questions about what I had seen along the way. I also wanted to learn as much as I could about Cuba and Havana. Daniel was an excellent guide. A group of five Austrians had booked the tour, but they were no-shows. It was one of those tours where you pay a small amount and then tip accordingly. It basically means more money in the guide’s pocket as a result of a lower Airbnb service fee. Brilliant for Cubans who earn very little income.
https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/343802 (URL for the tour)
Daniel sold this as a two tour. It was causal and informative. Daniel is a journalist who had recently graduated from university. He was candid and very much in love with his country. It was clear he had some strong thoughts regarding U.S. politics, but he was polite and checked-in before saying anything controversial. He got a large tip.
The second booking on my second day in Havana, was a Cigar and Rum Experience. Abel and his wife have just recently opened Café Virgo where the experience took place. I ended up being the only taker for this 1.5 hour tutorial. Good for me, not-so-good for Abel.
I had a slice of homemade buttercream frosted vanilla and chocolate cake at the café before the start of the experience. Abel was the perfect companion for my afternoon of learning how rum and cigars are made and why they pair so well — each compliments the other and both prime you for good conversation. It was relaxing and informative. Apparently, Romeo y Julieta are the primo cigars, made famous by Fidel Castro and other national treasures. I’m not much of a cigar smoker, but I now know how they are made and how to light them and smoke them. I also learned that a seven year old rum is a mixed blend of barrel aged rum, the minimum barrel having been aged seven years; some barrels can be older than seven years. We drank a Club Havana Rum aged at least seven years; smooth and smokey. It’s about 23 Euros a bottle ($25.50) and considered to be one of the best tasting rums in the world. We drank it straight; my way to drink fine alcohol and Abel told me that it was the correct way to drink it. Café Virgo is a sweet little café across the street from the American Embassy. Side note: I would never have imagined that the U.S. had an embassy in Cuba. I wish I’d known this prior to my visit, I would have felt safer going there.
Abel Carmenate: Facebook and Instagram, Cuba Tailor Made Tours with Abel, 53 52811152 (whatsapp), firstname.lastname@example.org. I highly recommend this experience.
And So This Happened
I started posting some of my photos while I was in Havana. But first, I wanted to share what I’d seen on the streets of Cuba that day. I wrote about seeing a theft and it disappeared before I could finish. Then I thought, well, perhaps I accidentally erased it? I tried posting it again and it was once again removed. I know it’s a conspiracy theory, but I think the government monitored internet, saw what I was posting and removed it before it could be seen by others. I imagine this sort of thing happens in places like Russia, China, and many Middle East countries. I take my freedoms for granted, because that is all I know.
I was walking on a crowded Old Town street and saw a man grab a woman’s neck and then run. It happened quickly and I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. The woman who was attacked was breathing heavily and holding her throat. Apparently, a man tried to steal her gold necklace. Since it didn’t come right off, he ran. She was fairly shaken by the incident and in truth, so was I. I was carrying a man bag with my phone, credit cards, and cash. I moved the phone and cash to my pocket and held my man bag close to my person. I was going to walk around for a few hours, but decided to go back to my hotel instead; I just didn’t feel safe. The rooftop pool and a novel, became my afternoon activity.
The following day I decided to go out with a small amount of cash (CUPs) and my phone. The weather was decent most of my trip; a bit humid, but not too hot.
The Buena Vista Social Club, was an option I chose to ignore. I had seen the documentary a few years ago and my interest was peaked, but when I looked at the menu, I decided it was not worth the money. I had a few people in Cuba tell me that people go there for the music, not the food. Admittedly, if I did go, the food would matter; therefore, I stayed away.
What I Learned From the Locals (I’ll be brief)
Looking for milk: My hotel room had an espresso machine (always good because of my wake-up time). I like milk in my coffee and I had a small refrigerator in my room where I could store it. I ventured out about 30 minutes after my arrival and before my walking tour. I went to a small grocery store near the hotel, however, they were closed for a private party. This was the first time I have ever encountered a grocery store closed for a party, but that’s Cuba for you. I asked the person who came to the door if it would be possible to purchase a small container of milk. Her English was poor and my Spanish is worse. She told me that I wouldn’t find leche anywhere in Havana. I laughed out loud and went back to the streets. This is when I discovered that people ran small businesses out of their homes. They will sell you just about anything they have, but no one had milk. They either shook their heads or said “no leche.”
I was out for about an hour looking for milk; during this time I was approached by no fewer than 20 people. They asked me where I was from and why I was there. While walking, I noticed all of the buildings were run down and the odor from many of them was foul. I engaged with some of these people and learned that milk might or might not be available the next day. I said, what about babies? How do babies get milk? I was told that they got milk when milk was available. This blew me away. Most of the individuals who approached me were looking for a handout. Honestly, I believe they truly need the money.
I went back to the hotel feeling sad and disappointed. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask the bartender in the lobby if he was selling milk. I was given a large glass of milk free of charge — he too received a large tip.
I was hounded by driver’s of the old iconic cars you see wherever you go. They all asked if I wanted a ride. I had no desire whatsoever to spend 30 Euros or more just to ride around Havana in an old car. I know that this is how these men made their living and that it is part of the tourist experience, but it’s not my sort of thing. I’m just an old cynic.
In the days that followed I spoke to several Cubans. I was surprised to learn that they, for the most part, are very happy people. Havana residents mostly live in once beautiful and opulent mansions with a large center courtyard. They are all now divided into many small living spaces. The buildings are mostly falling apart. My tour guide told me that the government (the State they call it) is responsible for repairs, but there are too many in need and no money available to get the job done. There were many unemployed people spending time on the street. I guess few people own cars, making for no traffic in most places. The Cuban government blames the American trade embargo. The United States is one of many countries who will not trade with Cuba. Yet still, Havana residents are happy and have great pride in their country.
Written the Morning of My Departure
I took this photo of the moon (see below) outside my window a few minutes ago. I am extremely emotional today. What I have seen over the last 10 days leaves me with with sobering and conflicting feelings. Although I was born in poverty and lived with little my entire childhood, what I experienced in Coney Island was nothing like what I have seen in Cuba. The poverty here is not so much about money; it has more to do with freedom; the freedom to find work that is fulfilling and feeds the family, the freedom to love freely (homophobia), the freedom to . . .
Yet, so many people I spoke to expressed happiness. Many told me that although they do not have much in the way of material things, they have life, they have loved ones, they have friends, a bed to sleep in, food to eat most of the time, and they have hope. Who am I to say they’re wrong or misguided. For most in Cuba, what they have is all they’ve ever known.
My tour guide told me that religion was forbidden after the revolution. I don’t know enough about this to address it. I did pass a couple of churches, but I do not believe they are currently used for worship.
I found this on the internet:
Is religion banned in Cuba?
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continues to control most aspects of religious life, June 27, 2019.
I know that it is the combination of weary travel and the abject poverty I just experienced, but am so happy to be home in Portugal. I chose a home where social democracy allows for people to live knowing that they will have food, water, healthcare, housing and a government that supports their freedom. Portugal is not a wealthy country, but most people here are well cared for.
It amazes me that I have to leave home to appreciate just how beautiful home is.
What I Purchased (besides rum)
This is a ceramic tile I brought back, unfortunately, in four pieces. I told the gallery owner that I was afraid it might break and she assured me that she had packed tiles a thousand times and that it would not break. Someday I will listen to my own inner voice. Anyhow, here it is glued back together, a forever reminder of my journey to Cuba.
Artist: Manuel Henández Valdés