Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Letter from Havana

OK, not technically FROM Havana, but a week after our return because I was sick as a dog after getting back.  My first comment on the trip is "GO!" and go soon, because it is still that odd combination of communist tourist spot, and soon I fear it will be just another Caribbean idyll. My second comment, is "Don't eat anything at the airport!"  Boy, did that one get me.  It was the only government food we ate, everything else was in private restaurants or homes, and it was the only place I got sick.  But, after five days of antibios, I'm back and ready to try and put some of my thoughts about the trip on paper (or not paper, but into 1s and 0s).

Cuba is a fascinating country, and I'd advise reading a brief bit of history before you go, since it will make things more clear.  Everyone has an education, healthcare, and a very small government allowance, but people are very poor.  In recent years people have been able to supplement the governmental assistance by opening restaurants, opening up their homes to tourists, and selling gifts and artworks.  You can feel a palpable sensation of a people longing to do more.  I don't think the way their Revolution has progressed is ideal, but by studying their history, you certainly get a sense of what happens when a people are pushed past their breaking point.  Our trip was to see Museums and understand the people there, and spread some good will.  I think we succeeded.  We talked to lots of nice people, many Cubans, but also diplomats, vacationers from Mexico and the UK.  You are advised to bring small gifts, people really are grateful and happy to have anything.  Maybe they'll sell them.  Maybe they'll keep them.  I don't care.  I just hope it improves some lives.  We brought some silk scarves, costume jewelry, lipsticks, Tylenol, toothbrushes, hand sanitizers, and tampons, all things we were told were often tough to get there.  Shortages are common.  For three days there was no Cuban beer to be had anywhere, then all of a sudden it was back.  The Havana airport had no bottled water.  Zero.

Ttraveling with an adult child is fun, and challenging. They can go out drinking with you, but they don't have to do what you say.   I know we both wanted to do things the other just wasn't up for.  But we compromised, found stuff we both wanted to do, had a blast, and a lot of mojitos. (Although I bet she would have had more fun Saturday night if she was with someone who wanted to go out to clubs in the real people neighborhoods.)  I would advise staying in a hotel with a swimming pool and wi-fi, rather than at an AirBnB (or maybe splitting the time if you want to get a view of Cuban family life).  It was very nice to meet a Cuban family and try to understand them in my very basic and limited Spanish, but the beds and private bath we were promised in the booking on AirBnB were just barely that. We were in a room with two beds, but it was a concrete shell with no windows and an ancient Russian air conditioner (which worked just fine). The door was a plastic accordion with a flip over lock.  The bathroom was ours alone, but it was next door down the hall, not en suite, and the shower was a bit small - like couldn't lift my arms to shave under them, small.  I wanted to show my daughter I could still travel like I was an adventurer (stop laughing!!!!!!!) and it was a mistake.  At my age I need a few more comforts.  hell, at her age I needed a few more comforts. Still, we found a couple of great hotel lobbies nearby that were fun to hang out in, had bars and food, and wi-fi, so it all worked out, but I wouldn't do it that way again.  A pool would have been a nice way to cool off from the miles of walking we did.  Probably about ten miles a day.  I highly recommend the Hotel Mercure Sevilla and the Hotel Ingelterra both on Prado.   Get used to carrying around giant bottles of water, because it is very tropically hot and humid, even in January and you should not drink the water.  I even used bottled water to brush my teeth.

The level of decay (and restoration) in Havana is kind of astonishing.  We went back to our rooms one night, and when we came out again the next morning, there was a giant pile of rubble blocking the sidewalk less than a block away.  It had come off one of the buildings in the night.  And the cranes never stop,  There is a great building boom going on as tourist hotels are being rapidly put up, and graceful old buildings restored after the most recent easing of sanctions by President Obama.  People are very anxious to find out what happens next (aren't we all?).

It was a worthwhile trip and I'd very much recommend taking your adult or older children to see it.  Highlights from our itinerary:
Day 1
cool purple classic car taxi from the airport
had our first and located the BEST mojito in Havana - La Moneda Cubana, San Ignacio, No. 77 (really we challenged this claim, but he was right)
Dinner at La Terraza - Prado 309  where a tropical thunderstorm punctuated our dinner on an outdoor, covered terrace
Day 2
Walked Havana Vieja
Museums Bellas Artes and Artes Nationales
Walked Old Havana some more
saw the Plaza Vieja, Plaza des las Armes, Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de Catedral
listened to live music at Bar de Oro
Rooftop bar at Hotel Ingelterra

Day 3
Museum of the Revolution - don't miss the Hall of Cretins (I think they may have to make the hallway longer soon)
Back to Old Havana for more exploration and a visit to the Castillo de la Real Forza
Lunch at Mama Ines Calle Obrapia 60 (have the Ropa Vieja) Restaurant by Fidel's former personal chef.
Happened upon a Three Kings Parade
Had the obligatory too expensive daiquiri at The Floradita and took pictures with the Hemingway statue
Day 4
Memorial Jose Marti
Copelia - Humungous Ice Cream park - as if Disney had designed an ice cream playground for Tomorrowland
Attempted to go to the Christopher Columbu Cemetery.  There are four sides and one tourist entrance.  By the time we found the correct entrance (after having been sent away from three) in the heat and humidity, we no longer wanted to see it.
Lunch at Cosina de Lilliam, most expensive meal we had and well worth it. Calle 48 No. 1311.  Met Jorge and Catia from Ecuador, who were kind and lovely and had a private car, so they gave us a lift to the Hotel Nacional.  Where we met vacationers from Mexico City, a psychiatrist and his psychologist wife who hadn't visited in ten years and were impressed with all the changes.
More drinks and music out in Old Havana.  Cocktails are generally between 3 and 4 CUC (equivalent to dollars) Except at places like the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where they are 5CUC and well worth it for the view of the 1930s hotel and the bar going down to the sea.
Day 5
Amazing wind storm off the sea.  Temperature dropped to the mid 60s and waves were crashing over the Malecon.  It had to be closed to traffic.
Lunch at Casa Miglis a Cuban-Swedish Fusion restaurant.  Spectacular!  Laitad 120 e/ Animas y Lagunas
Day 6
Bus tour with Habana Bus Tour Company, double decker hop on/off busses for 10CUC for the day, out to see Marina Hemingway, nothing is there don't bother and Fusterlandia, which is an entire neighborhood covered in mosaics, and well worth the trip.  One man had a vision and started with his house, then after it was completely covered, he moved on to the neighbors'.  No one seemed to mind.  It really is a sight to see.
Met Mandy and Alex, tourists from Somerset
Long hard search to find the place with the best mojitos in Havana again.  Success was celebrated with mojitos!
Day 7
Home again, but first we had to endure the Havana airport, where you can buy rum at duty free, but they don't mention that if you have a connection, you have to put it in a checked bag, as they don't send it through.  What you can't buy is a souvenir shot glass or a bottle of water.  Not one.  Beer or Coke, and too bad if you don't drink those.  Do NOT under any circumstances eat anything there.  I was hungry (and mostly bored waiting around because you have to get there three hours before your flight) and had a pork sandwich.  Big mistake!!!!  Huge.  Also don't take a connecting flight.  Go direct if at all possible.  So much easier in every way.

And just for fun, some of my stream of consciousness notes/tips from the trip:
1:55 Wed. "OK, now you are the bougiest person on earth. " Miranda van Dijk. (S.Pellegrino en Havana)
The bartender at the Bar de Oro  at Livvia de Oro. has the hard shake down.
No lock, no tp, no seat (many, many, bathrooms)
Met a kid from Rye on line at the churro cart in Old Havana, Sat. night
Ecuadorean diplomat Georgie and his wife Catia drove us from lunch at Cucina de Lilliam to get mojitos at The Hotel National de Cuba.  So nice!
This place makes me miss smoking.
My pace doesn't fit this island.
Bring $1US for tips
Don't change all money at airport. Hotel Sevilla was much better for US $
Best mojito in Hanava. We looked! And nice, kept backpack for couple who lost it.  Older guy totally didn't need to show off simply had the best mojito. Small sign to make sure everyone was paying attention.
Taxi prices are highly variable. And there are LOTS of taxis. So if someone gives you a price too high, bargain. If they won't accept, find another taxi.
Don't forget a TSA lock for your luggage even if you aren't checking anything. Best to keep it locked in room.
Not a place for those of us who don't drink beer. No water in the airport. None.
You can buy alcohol at airport but have to check a bag at your connecting flight.