Cuba – Habana
I arrived at Gatwick very early in the morning, climbed sleepily off the Gatwick Express and waited for my friend Kati to arrive, reflecting that I would rather be literally anywhere else in the world than at an airport waiting to board a long haul flight. Having done my fair share of long flights, the novelty has definitely worn off, and now the thought of airports, check in desks, scratchy plane seats and hours of frustrated sleeplessness fills me with horror and the strong feeling that I really should have just stayed in bed.
In fact, the only thing that really did get me out of bed at 6am on a Tuesday to board a flight was the anticipation of that first morning after the first night in a new country, waking up to the sounds and smells of a brand new place and knowing that it’s all there ready for you to explore. It’s a bit of a cliche, granted, but that first morning is often all it takes for me to feel comfortable in a new place. But Cuba? I fell in love right away. As we were walking through the airport car park, in fact. It was hot, there were palm trees, the sun was doing that gorgeous golden light thing it does right before sunset, and we were surrounded by beautiful old American cars. Kati and I sat in the taxi heading towards Havana feeling like we were on our way home to a place that we had never been.
We stayed our first night in one of the Casa Particulars which can be found all over the country. Cuba’s answer to youth hostels, these B&B style homestays provide comfortable homely rooms, without the dorm-style sleeping arrangements of a hostel. In a country with no ready access to the Internet, your homestay host is also an invaluable help in booking accommodation in the next city you plan to travel to, as they can often fix up a week of accommodation in numerous cities with just a few phone calls.
Our host, Jorge, was very friendly and keen to give advice, and always seemed to be waiting patiently at his dining room table, no matter what time of the day or night, for Kati and I to ask him for directions, or where the best place to buy bus tickets was, and in more than one occasion he assured us that Havana is not a city of violence, and that if anyone wanted to steal our money they would so in a very friendly way. On our first night we headed out to quickly grab food, with directions from Jorge, and soon realised that if we were melting in the heat at 9pm, the midday sun the next day would be unimaginable. We also very quickly got used to the stares, wolf whistles and propositions of every man we passed. I know that this is considered an integral part of Latin American culture (at least according to our guide book), and I get a fair amount of it where I live in London so I’m used to ignoring it and carrying on walking, but the near constant attention gets quite annoying, and I have short sharp words with anyone who tries to touch or grab us. Kati speaks excellent Spanish and sadly I do not, but I think the words I choose are pretty universally understood.
That first night we also learnt that the ‘Information for Vegetarians’ section in our guide book, a short section which basically said ‘Lol good luck’ was, if anything, a little optimistic. Cubans just don’t understand vegetarianism, and they probably think we’re insane for requesting plain rice and salads when we could be having anything from their huge menus of meat and sea food. When we requested food with ‘no meat’ the waiter proudly reassured us that the vegetarian stew we had ordered contained ‘only minimal pork!’
That night I was woken repeatedly by a man walking around blowing a whistle (no idea what he was doing but he did it for three hours between 11pm and 2am), who was then succeeded by a man selling bread (not sure if he was actually selling bread or if the man with the whistle had paid him to stand underneath my window and shout ‘Panidero!’ repeatedly, just for a laugh) and then around 4am, when the bread man presumably realised that there’s not a huge market for bakery items in the middle of the night and had finally left, a cockerel began crowing. In the middle of the city. For two hours.
We were so excited to explore though, Havana really is so full of life and colour and music, and the grand colonial architecture and huge vintage American cars lend a kind of gentle elgance to a city which in other ways seems to be falling apart, full of crumbling buildings and cracked pavements. We spent the first day running around in the sticky heat, exploring the old town (Habana Vieja) with its plazas and ancient streets, eating fresh churros, enjoying the sunshine and taking shelter from the occasional showers, enjoying microbrewed beer from a cafe in the square and confidently setting off in one direction only to discover that we were completely lost and having to retrace our steps. The city is set out in a very neat grid pattern, which should make navigation easy, but sparse street signs and our habit of wandering and getting distracted meant that we ended up zig zagging all over the place, watching the way that the city can go from bustling tourist streets to ramshackle residential areas within a few minutes.
That night we wandered the hot, close streets and, after getting caught in a rainstorm (much to the horror of the locals who seemed to believe that unless we took shelter in a doorway we would ‘atraer nuestro muerte’) we arrived at El Floridita, the bar where Hemingway, in the throes of his post war disillusionment, once drank thirteen double daiquiris over the course of an evening. We made a considerably more conservative order, and then perched in a corner, sipping our daiquiris and tapping our feet to the live music. A statue of Hemingway himself stands in one corner, propping up the bar, and it’s easy to imagine that not that much about El Floridita has changed since he lived here.
Another night of whistling and ‘Panidero!’ brought another sunny morning, heavy with humidity. We set out to walk across the city in the opposite direction, this time ending up in Verdano, where the streets are slightly shabbier, until we eventually hit the University district, which is basically a metropolis in comparison to the dilapidated streets just minutes away. Here, we dragged our sweaty, sticky little bodies along the sea front in the midday sun until we came across Hotel Nacional, a huge, grand old building surrounded by palm trees, fronted with an impressive driveway lined with trees and the choicest vintage Chevys. We actually approached from what seemed to be a staff entrance, and when we finally found the driveway we mucked around for a while gawping and taking photos and applying bug spray and wiping our sweaty sunglasses on our shirts before it occurred to us that we could probably, you know, go inside.
We smiled graciously at the doormen and just like that we were in the huge air conditioned foyer, from which we could take a quick turn around the grounds, peek at the swimming pool and enjoy the incredible ocean views before retreating once more to the foyer, where there were sofas and, finally, miraculously, wifi.
So here I am, attempting to sum up this crazy, beautiful, sweaty, confusing city into just one blog post before my hour of Internet access expires. (And I still need to text my Mum cos she hasn’t heard from me since I set off). All I can say is that Cuba is like nowhere I’ve ever been before, the people are friendly, sometimes too friendly, the weather is moody and changeable but the sun is glorious, and if you’re a vegetarian then good luck to you my friend, you’re going to need it.
Tomorrow morning we’re taking a bus to Villa Viñales, where we’re hoping to do some hiking, and then we’ll be headed to Cienfuegos, Cuba’s ‘little Paris’.
Not sure about wifi access but I’m hoping for the best!