Having Fun In Havana

Chapter 5 - Exploring Havana, Cuba

Day 4, Wednesday, February 22, 2017

After dinner the night before, there was one other event that Matt had arranged for us and that was to be entertained by a young group of musicians who performed for us on Havana’s Malecón. These enthusiastic young men put on quite a performance for us and passersby, with rumba, salsa hip shaking rhythms as well as some rock and roll tunes. It all created a mellow mood to cap off our first evening in Havana. Wrapping up the evening, we all hailed a taxi for a ride back to Casa Blanca, our B&B. The taxi that transported us was a 1950 Mercury and it’s proud owner very happily told us about his ride including that it was powered by a Land Rover diesel engine. Though the back seat springs were mostly sprung, we had a blast on the drive. Several days later we would cross paths with this car again.

Mark Nowery, my traveling companion, had a very special personal interest in visiting Cuba, and particularly Havana. You see, his parents honeymooned there in 1938, having taken some home movies of several locations around the city. As well as the movies, Mark’s mother had kept a detailed (and entertaining) diary of their memorable time there. From the movies, Mark had  reproduced several still pictures of sites his mother and father had visited. It was Mark’s intention to locate these monuments, buildings and sites and visit where his folks had also set foot 79 years before. It was fun to find those places and imagine what it might have been like all those years ago. From the old pictures and Mark’s new ones, he could compare any changes that had occurred over the years. I enjoyed this nearly as much as Mark. Among other things, Mark’s mother wrote of another young couple they chummed with including the night life and hot spots they frequented in Havana. Helping relive those moments in 2017 with our group was well worth it and fun.

Cruising along Havana’s Malecón

Previously I mentioned The Malecón. What, you may ask, is The Malecón? Briefly, it is a wall and roadway along the sea that extends for several miles along the city’s coast line. This is a favorite roadway to watch the cars cruise, especially the old ones. It also is perfect for strolling, sitting on the wall, for musicians to perform, all while affording great views of the city and the sea beyond.

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Our Bed & Breakfast in Havana, Casa Blanca (White House), was in a nice old home owned by Boris and his wife (whose name I have forgotten). Though the house had seen grandeur days it still held its’ dignity quite nicely. The hosts prepared simple breakfasts for us including a selection of fresh fruits, an omelet, meat, bread, juice, coffee or tea. The table was always set very early when I arose before everyone. 

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I would sit in the front living room where I began writing down some of my stories. The first morning, sitting there alone, Boris asked me if I would like a cup of expresso with sugar. "Why yes, thank you”, I said. He then went about making it and brought me an expresso in its’ small cup. 

I sipped it whilst writing on the laptop. And so it went for the next several days while we were in Havana, me up early, writing, Boris bringing me a cup of expresso. Though I will dispute it, John and Mark, slow risers that they were, thought I was a bit too energetic when I would return to our room to rouse them. Imagine, a little cup of expresso having that much power. Really!?

Matt had full days planned for us and a early start each day was needed to fit in everything. Frank, our driver with his 1948 Ford taxi, would be outside waiting with Big Blue and Raul, our other guide, would also be at the curb waiting for us. After we were loaded in the taxi, we drove up the street to pick up the rest of our crew and then we were off to explore each day.

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Is this where the 3 bears slept?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Oh geez, the first morning in Havana and it was raining. Not such a good sign for us who were looking forward to staying dry while in Cuba. After breakfast Matt took us to an ration store, where Cubans could buy food stuffs with their CUP currency. There were no products displayed on shelves as in our supermarkets, instead there were long counters around the room where customers went and ordered what they sought from a clerk. It was a very plain room and not many buyers. It was notable to us that in one corner were two very large vats from which was dispensed vinegar or dry wine. I guess customers would bring their own containers and have them filled with either liquid. Interesting...

Right next door was an open air market - MUCH busier than the ration store. In addition to fruits and vegetables, sweets, etc, there was an open air meat market. A cute scene was a cat waiting by the meat counter for any tidbits that the butcher might let slip for the kitty.

As the rain let up, we headed off for a brief peek into Cuba’s largest arts/handicrafts market, which gave us a taste for coming back to buy some souvenirs. Up the street we walked to the Depósito del Automóvil, a collection of automobiles from 1905 on. Until a proper museum can be built these cars are stored here and curated by Eduardo and his wife. It was a very interesting place getting to look at the really old cars, some trucks and Harley Davidsons too. 

Loading back into Big Blue, our next destination was to visit the Cathedral Square area. Walking with other crowds of people down a narrow street, we soon emptied into the square dominated by the huge cathedral on one end. This was a very busy, popular destination and a must stop for visitors. It was colorful and busy all around. A short walk led us to our lunch stop, Doña Eutimia down a little courtyard. Crowded and obviously very popular, Matt had reservations for us, which let us pass by eager diners who had arrived without having a table set aside for them. Here we enjoyed a few rounds of mojitos and maybe another Cuba Libre for me. I remember ordering albóndigas, which is served in Cuban style differently than in Mexican style. Here it was a meatball meal, whereas the Mexican style is as a vegetable & meatball soup. Either way, it was delicious.

Wadling back outside, our walking tour led us through Plaza Vieja, dominated at one end by a huge rooster statue riden by a person with a huge fork. I can only imagine the significance or meaning of it, but it was a fun piece. Having made good use of old war supplies, the park utilized cannon balls as part of the decor and boundary lines of the park. At other places along our tour, the Cubans had planted old cannon barrels in the pavement as barriers in the streets. It was an ingenious way to make use of weapons of war. 

As we passed on, a group of young boys were kicking a soccer ball as spectators looked on. Such activity always brings smiles to people’s faces. This park, as most of them in Cuba that we saw, would be great places to just sit and people watch all day. All sorts of people and happenings were ongoing throughout the day.

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Walking down more side streets, crowds of people venturing to their own places, we stopped at a silk screen/print shop, where we were shown some techniques on cleaning a silk screen and where we were free to search through prints that were also for sale. That wrapped up our touring for the day, as we again boarded the bus (Big Blue) for the return to Casa Blanca, our B&B. 

Having several hours to spare, Mark, John and I walked a short distance to the Malecón where the sea was restless and was sending waves crashing into and over the wall. From where we observed, a particularly forceful wave slammed into the malecón wall, the force of the water so violent that it blew up through the manholes and curb drains, erupting upward and outward blowing water and rocks across the Malecón roadway. Luckily no cars happened to be driving by at that moment, but it did slow them down as ones coming along braked for the high water now draining back into the drains and to avoid the rocks on the road. 

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With storm clouds out over the water, the skies had darken, but other than a few drops, the rain kept out to the sea. Soon, however, the beginnings of a rainbow began to emerge to the East. In sight with huge old cannons, the sea pounding against the Malecón wall, dark skies and the birth of a rainbow, this day left a lasting memory in my mind. The afternoon was rapidly drawing to a close as we peered out across the sea and the heavens above. The brilliant sky, now cleansed by the rain and strong winds, cast colors of the setting sun upon the remaining clouds.

Wandering back to Casa Blanca, as we passed by El Presidente Hotel, a park across the street from the hotel presented a mystery for us. This park had several statue bases, including a larger central one that were distinctive in that all the statues had been removed and inscriptions on the bases were removed. No one we talked to could shed any light on the missing monuments. Would it be possible these had been pre-revoluntionary presidents or other capitalists who were seen as detrimental to the new Cuban regime in the early 1960’s after the revolution? I wonder.

That evening we returned to Old Havana for dinner at another upstairs restaurant, El del Frente. We were crowded around a table with little room to spare between other tables, but the drinks and the dinner were exceptionally good. Back on the street we strolled a few blocks to an ice cream/sorbet/gelato shop and each chose his own unique flavors to enjoy. My choice was guanoabana, a tropical fruit with tureen de mani, which I believe is a peanut. It only seemed appropriate to try something different and do as the Cubans do. It was very good.

Brenda looking lovingly at her sizable tropical beverage

One of the places that Mark’s parents frequented on their honeymoon in 1938 was the Floridita, a bar/restaurant that was up the street. We went there next only to find it extremely crowded as the patrons drank, talked and listened to a small band. On the walls were pictures of past decades and the patrons who stopped by in their day. If we had found a photo of Mark’s parents that would have been an amazing discovey. It was obvious from the old photos that people once dressed their best more often then than in the current day and age. Being well dressed seemed to convey a more gracious feeling.

Due to the Floridita being so overly crowded, it did not take long for us to alter plans. The Hotel Inglaterra was across the Parque Central. There we went to the roof top bar to have a night cap and to enjoy the views. Just as we were feeling comfortable, the clouds let loose and down came the rain. Quickly running for cover we managed to stay dry under the bar canopy, but then called it a night and headed out to close our night. With the rain not quitting, we hired a cab (but a boring modern model, not an old one) to take us to the B&B. A lot had been packed into the first full day. 

The following days were to offer us even more to discover. 

Mark and Brenda checking out photos 

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School kids on their way home. Capitolio building in the background

A young laborer resetting paving stones in the street

kdonald940@cox.net © Donald E. Kline 2012