The old part of Havana (Habana Vieja, they call it) reminded me a great deal of Cartagena with its fairly well-preserved colonial and often brightly colored buildings. In just our first two days in Havana, however, I was most astounded by the Cuban people. Lora’s guidebook says that the locals earn on average U.S.$25 a month and that, in some cases, even doctors double shift as waiters by night. The people are extremely friendly and accommodating, helpful and vibrant.
On our first day in Habana Vieja (the old part of the city) passed just one restaurant that appeared affordable for locals called El Restaurante Bucanero, where everything – even lobster pizza – was less than $5 and mini mojitos and Cuba libres were just $1.
Another surprise for me was browsing the books in the Plaza de Armas. Nearly all of them were histories, biographies, or autobiographies of Che or Fidel, collections of poetry by famed pre-revolutionary José Martí or Nicolas Guillen, or a mish-mash of Revolutionary cartoons. Sprinkled throughout the racks were Lenin, Marx, and Malcom X books. I saw a Spanish version of the Communist Manifesto.
Frank found some good old-fashioned, hand-rolled Cuban cigars and I purchased my own for $5. It’s the smallest one and the most mild, but boy did it pack a punch. I slowly made my way through the mini-cigar for a solid week, though it was common to find “caballeros” (Cuban gentlemen) dressed in their finest suit and smoking an enormous stogie. At the end of the first day of our Habana exploration, we discovered La Floridita, the bar that Hemingway made famous.
The following day was full of rain – from when we woke up until 5 p.m. it was a constant and miserable kind of drizzle. Despite the poor weather, we made a very full day of it, as it was the perfect day to stay inside by visiting the Museo de la Revolución and watching a ballet at the Gran Teatro.
Lora and I spent a good 3 hours browsing the very odd propaganda-filled, revolutionary museum, which is housed in the old Presidential Palace. Some things I learned: Che Guevara is really hot; so is Fidel Castro but less so; the Revolution and overthrow of Batista is a really fascinating story; Fidel doesn’t hate America, he hates the capitalist nature of American society and the holier-than-thou mentality of the U.S. administration.
The museum lacks modern updates, so bringing my camera in (for an extra $2) to take photos of the displays and interior of the “palace” was pretty useless. Nearly everything was displayed in glass cases, and most of the Revolutionary artifacts were copied photos. There were some seemingly worthless items on display as well, such as spoons used by second commanders or patches worn by soldiers, but other items like Fidel, Raul, and Che’s attire or letters were rather interesting to see.
In all, I see the Cuban Revolution that culminated with Castro & company’s march into Habana as an awfully great feat of determination and heroism. In school in America we learn about Fidel in a completely different way, so I’m grateful to have learned both sides of the same story. To be perfectly frank, I don’t blame Fidel one bit for his hard feelings toward the U.S. I also think Fidel did a bold, noble, and heroic thing freeing Cuba from a criminal like Batista.
However, I still don’t understand what drew Fidel to Communist ideals, nor what made him stick to such extreme socialism beyond the Revolution into today. Fidel is a brilliant lawyer, one who would have clearly recognized how socialism couldn’t possibly solve the problems that his nation faces today. While Cuba’s health care, organic farming, and education are some of the best in the world, the reflection cast is not the same. I walked through the crumbling city of Havana, witnessed with my own eyes how families are packed into shared apartments, and heard personal accounts where citizens rely on monetary deliveries from overseas to survive. There is something dearly wrong with the Cuban system: a sound quality of life is nearly impossible or certainly not easy to achieve.
Following our museum visit, Lora and I had a local beer (Bucanero Fuerte – which has a whopping 5.4% of alcohol… I was happily buzzed) at Hotel Inglaterra, a $1 mojito at the Bucanero Bar just down the street by the Capitolio, and then a Floridita daiquiri a few more blocks away (at that same bar that Hemingway made famous in the 60’s). Between these pub stops, Lora and I procured four tickets to see a performance of the National Ballet of Cuba at the Gran Teatro, a 200 year-old architectural gem. The ballet itself was only average, but well worth the $10 ticket.
We were sufficiently hungry by the time the ballet was over, so we headed to the eclectic yet delicious paladar (privately-owned restaurant), La Guarida, which was made famous by the Cuban film “Fresa y Chocolate.” These paladares are pretty much the way to go if you want to get the authentic Cuban dining experience, so I intend to have many while I’m here. While there are a few paladares that are actually legal, there are many others that are not government-approved. They can only be legal if the private home that houses the restaurant pays a heavy tax to provide meals for tourists.
I have a feeling La Guarida is the real deal. Not only was it on the third floor of a dilapidated residential building in Centro Habana, the marble stairs leading up to them were steep and precarious. Then, of course, was the interior of the restaurant. There was a small sitting room and then three small rooms that seat up to twelve in each (most paladares are not allowed to host more than twelve, so this one likely pays higher taxes to be host more people each night). The kitchen spits out healthy meals from a room smaller than my bedroom. We were seated at a table in a room with a mish-mash of Christian, film, and art paraphernalia. Instead of sitting one to a side of the table, Lora and I sat on one side together, tightly squeezed in.
We really splurged on dinner. Between the four of us, we ordered a bottle of Italian Rioja, two appetizers (eggplant caviar and chicken in spinach crepes), a main course each (I had a delicious grouper; Lora had pork medallions; Frank had swordfish; Peter had chicken curry), followed by a yummy “three chocolates” dessert. The bill came to about $30 each (pricey!), but really worth it considering the atmosphere, company, and unique experience.
We capped off the evening with a brisk and slippery walk along the Malecón, which was pretty barren with locals. The waves would crash up off the wall and onto the promenade making it very difficult to walk down, but it was worth the experience, and something that I couldn’t have done had I been traveling on my own. We passed by the U.S. “Special Interests” building, which is the only thing resembling an Embassy here in Cuba.
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