After the usual satisfying breakfast , we made an uneventful 4 hour journey into Havana. At government run pit-stops the expectation of serving staff was that we must be German, in fact we represented US, Oz, NZ and UK between us. It seems the majority of visitors are from northern Europe, Columbia or Mexico. We arrived at today’s Casa building to discover that most of us were billeted on the 6th and 7th floor, and the lift had broken down. As these colonial buildings have rooms with 15-20ft ceilings – 7 stories is a helluva long way up. Our suitcases are heavy, the stairs are very steep, dark and narrow without a handrail, and I really didn’t think I could make it up and down several times. I felt quite embarrassed to have to ask the guide if she could find me something a little lower down – which she eventually did. I am now in a comfortable room on the 2nd floor, with an elderly Cuban lady who empathized with my creaky knees and whipped down her trousers to show off her (very neat) hip replacement scar.
We were scheduled for a ‘tourist view’ of the city in 3 open topped classic cars…. Off we went but after 10 minutes the heavens really opened. Two cars had roofs to fold over, but one did not – so 4 of the group and the driver got absolutely drenched. Ours had a roof but no windows so everyone still got wet. At least it was warm rain. Fortunately everyone took it in good spirits, and the restaurant we were headed to was very helpful, handing out towels and directing the fans at us to dry our hair. One of our group seemed to spend ages in the ladies – it turned out that she was drying her knickers under the hand dryer. We enjoyed a tasty meat meal (the fish supply had run out), and then headed to the Hotel International overlooking the bay for a final drink. The Hotel, opened in 1930 is renowned for hosting many famous people, royalty, presidents and film-stars over the years, but is now well past its best, relying on the kudos of the famous faces pictured on the bar walls to bring in the tourists – our guide says it is too expensive for the quality of service…. but it’s on the list of ‘must see/ do’.
Havana is big, sprawling and simply indescribable, and probably needs at least a week or more to do it justice – not possible on this trip. During our brief tour in the rain we travelled through apparently abandoned streets, once beautiful houses falling apart, roads with mud and pot-hole craters, stray dogs and litter galore in the old city. Cheek by jowl were perfect dual carriageways spruce grandiose government monumented areas, huge shiny university and medical establishments and green and leafy parks in the new city. One has to constantly look upwards in old Havana – most of the activity seems to go on at first floor and above… with decoration, restoration and residences above ground floors which look completely derelict. Music drifts out of what looks like a building site. In fact music drifts out of everywhere…. I have a few hours tomorrow before leaving for the airport, so I’m going to explore and take a few photos to show you what I mean.
I have to say, I didn’t warm to Havana in the short time I had there – I had not realized the level of dereliction of the residential areas and it really got to me in the end, even though it has a long and fascinating history. I am sure there are hidden pockets of arts and culture which we didn’t explore, but most of it will be way beyond the average Cuban’s pocket. The buildings are huge and multi-occupied –a dwelling looking as though it was in Aleppo would have washing hanging out on the seventh floor. Mind you, remembering our out of use lift, perhaps they are trapped up there. I understand that mostly people rent and that the buildings/ individual flats are owned by USA absent landlords.
Many of the most ostentatious buildings were built when the American gamblers and mafia exited USA during Prohibition, the buildings left to rot when Castro evicted them back to the USA in the 50’s. I spotted old men sitting on chairs chatting and reading the papers under an arch that would have been condemned anywhere else. Contrast that with the ‘official’ buildings that are being renovated, or are maintained in pristine condition. It must have been magnificent once… and perhaps when the US$ comes back –it will be again. Meat and vegetables were for sale on street stalls –but the shops were half empty with desultory window displays, everywhere was decrepit.
It is hot, so people wear T-shirts, skirts/ tight dresses or shorts and flip-flops – few Cubans we saw were smartly dressed. Unhealthy ‘abdominal fat’ shapes abound. I walked until the rain drove me back to the Casa to pick up my bags. The lift had been fixed – but was distinctly scary, with big holes, a broken gate and a clattering and banging as it descended very slowly.
Anyway, it was back to the queues at the airport – you are not allowed to take CUC’s out of the country but will only exchange to Euros which I hardly ever hardly use … but better than nothing. Back to Heathrow via Bogota, then transfer to an Addis flight and hopefully to Mekelle arriving in 48 hours time and an 8 hour time difference … oh the joys of long distance travel. Made me feel tired just writing that last sentence.
Would I recommend Cuba / would I visit again? Possibly. The people are lovely, the country needs the tourist dollar. Perhaps next time I would explore more of Havana, take my snorkeling gear (the beaches and reefs are said to be lovely) or investigate the S/E end of the island.