Return to Havana

The Havana photo set is located here

We didn’t get a really good look at Havana the first time around.  Sure, we walked along the Malecon (a sea wall that stretches along the harbour front), we got scammed, had a nice dinner overlooking the fort and got an afternoon of Afro Cuban drumming across the street from our casa, but we didn’t fully explore the old quarter and boy are we glad we came back and gave it a thorough going over.  Old Havana is being lovingly restored by a passionate local architect and the results are amazing, especially in contrast to the crumbling decay in the rest of the city.  It feels more like an old European city with soft lights and a genteel feeling.  It helps that cars are not allowed in.  Being able to stroll along the street without noisy belching traffic is a rare luxury in Cuba.

I had been feeling more recovered from my food poisoning when I contracted another dose on my first night in Havana.  We went to a restaurant recommended by the casa owner.  I had half of my fried fish which didn’t taste too fresh and palmed most of the remainder off to the waiting street cats who exuded a tough, rather than cute, attitude.  One of the cats sneezed on my leg under the table but as I didn’t lick my leg I’m pretty sure that didn’t give me the food poisoning.  This bout caused me to throw up a lot which made a nice change.  It didn’t really kick in until the following night by which time we had managed a good stroll around the city with a couple of museums and the camera obscura.  I don’t know how Havana came to have a camera obscura installed but it is surprisingly cool.  The camera obscura has a surprisingly long history.  It is a device which reflects light through a pinhole to reproduce reality in a darkened room.  The one in Havana had an operator who spun the camera around for a 360 degree view of the city and could change the focus.  She took great delight in showing us where her husband’s car was parked, telling us that he didn’t know that she could spy on it.  The image has a paint-like quality to it which makes moving objects, like laundry flapping on the line, appear all the more surreal.

Despite being a bit ill I had made a commitment to go out salsa dancing to practice what we had learned.  First we had a few forts to look at in the blistering morning heat.  Havana has a long history being founded in 1592.  It was used as a gathering point of the Spanish flotilla  before they sailed back to Spain after they had plundered all the gold from the Americas.  Pirates of the Caribbean is not a whimsical film title, they really did exist and sacked towns mercilessly.  In the end Havana had three forts and a gate which they pulled over the mouth of the harbour every night.  This didn’t save them from the British who set up camp on a ridge opposite the harbour in 1762 and shelled the crap out of the city.  The Brits held Havana for a year before peace broke out and they traded Havana for Florida. The forts are in impressive shape and work is still going on to restore them.

For dinner that night we craved anything but the standard Cuban meal so we went to a Middle Eastern restaurant.  The food was fine but had been put the the usual Cuban blandifier.  The most unusual part of the night was the animal begging at our table.  It’s usual to get some dogs and cats hanging around but at this place there was a white rabbit which hopped up on its hind paws, front paws crossed, to beg for food.  It gulped down the cabbage Sarah gave it, as well as some onion.  We have no idea whether this is good for a rabbit or not but it sure enjoyed it.  Four other rabbits were kept in a large bell-shaped cage at the back of the restaurant’s courtyard so I guess this is some kind of gimmick.  Either that or they have a rabbit special on the menu every now and then.

Sarah got us tickets to see some Cuban contemporary dance in a grand old theatre much like the state theatre in Sydney.  The dancing was much like you would see in Sydney as well, which is to say very good but abstract at times.  We’re not really sure how this Cuban choreographer managed to be so on the world pulse in terms of current contemporary dance ideas.

Then it was our turn.  We took a stab in the dark and went to a nearby music house that has a variety of different music on different nights.  Our energy levels were low so by the time we lined up, paid, got in and realised that tonight was latina video DJ night we couldn’t be bothered tracking down any live music.  We were probably too early for the real action to start but once there was a big enough crowd on the dancefloor to cover us we shuffled out and did our very basic salsa moves.  No-one laughed at me so I escaped unscathed and Sarah kindly said I did very well.  We decided not to do the dirty dancing lift in the end, not wanting to show off.  There were a few western sugar daddies doing the white man upper bite as their much younger dates cavorted around them.  We then got our final bicicletta through the potholed and darkened streets to our casa.

Our taxi to the airport had the blessing of air-conditioning as well as an interesting taxi driver who had been in the Cuban military when they were sent to Ethiopia to fight Somalia.  He drove big trucks over there so he seemed capable of getting through Havana traffic without incident.

We weren’t really sorry to be leaving Cuba, a month felt like more than enough.  The country is so full of contrasts for us.  A lot of people are genuinely warm and friendly but a lot of them were simply trying to get money out of us.  The political system provides free healthcare and education (to an extent) but there is no public transport. It’s very easy as a tourist to travel around but Cubans are not allowed to leave their own country. Music is everywhere but often the same refrains are belted out every time.  There is a lot of potential for tropical food but the cooking is monotonous and uninspired.

It’s impossible to separate the strands of communism, the embargo and the poor Cuban economy.  If this is an experiment is socialism it was never given a proper chance to succeed.  Cuba has done amazingly well to get this far with little international support.  It is a small country and by no means down and out.  The people have pride and a lot of joy but they definitely want change and to open the country up more.

We felt claustrophobic just visiting for a month so I can’t imagine how it feels to live there all the time. It probably helps if you like salsa and don’t mind the heat.

The Havana photo set is located here

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