The Old City Havana Cuba

Habana Cuba city streets alive with music

“The old squares concentrate the past into an essence that is so rich,” suggests Barclay, “that it is indigestible unless taken in small sips.” Each square has it’s own unique flavor, which seems to change with the hours and light: melancholic in the rain, bustling and alive in the sun, and voluptuous when a hot midnight is illuminated by lamps and vibrates with the guitar music and the muffled heartbeat of an African drum.” For us the scenes and sounds are breathtaking.

Colorful markets and friendly smiling people

     The old market, set up on the street near the waterfront under white umbrellas is overflowing with arts and crafts of unusual and artistic flare. We are mesmerized by the sounds of music from live bands vibrating in the streets coming from a multitude of directions as we wonder aimlessly through the narrow rows of brightly painted papier-mache fish and masks, carved leather bags, precious wood carvings in Afro-Cuban realism, munecitas (dolls), painted clay beads and paintings so abundant they make up an isle all of their own.
       It is hot and humid but the breeze off the water is refreshing as are the innocence and disarming charm of the people. Mainly of Spanish origin there are about 12% black and 22% mulattoes of mixed ethnicity as of a 1993 census. Most of the Cubans were more interested in sharing something with you than getting something from you. They retain a pride and lack of pretension. The artists were intent on pointing out how their art depicts the life they live under communist rule. One points out the black cats on the roofs of the buildings in his painting then points to the cameras on the rooftops of the building behind us. He speaks freely of his ideals and allows me to photograph his work but not him personally. They do not push us to buy their work yet one sale would enable them to buy extra food or allow them to eat in the dollar-only restaurants where the good food is served.

One of the outdoor cafes on the streets of Habana

So much is allowed per person from the state grocery store per month six pounds of rice, eleven pounds of beans, four ounces of coffee, and four ounces of lard but only when available. Their conversations are of concerns for their everyday survival. We chose not to eat in the tourist restaurants although a beer in an outside café on the Cathedral plaza was comparable to price as in the states. Instead we chose to eat at one of the ‘paladares’, private restaurants but we found they are taxed by the government to run. We found the food very good quality but the price of $20 each for a meal and drink a bit steep. Typical Cuban fare is mostly peasant fare, lacking in sauces and spices. We had chicken and pork the pork being a wild havalina. The Cubans consider vegetables “rabbit food” but we had a nice dish of sliced beets, tomatoes and radish with a side dish of fried ‘platanos’ or banana. Rice and beans seem to be the most abundant and available everywhere. Soft drinks are imported from Mexico or Canada and there is no shortage of canned fruit drinks produced locally. The coffee here is enjoyed thick and strong , like espresso, served in tiny cups and heavily sweetened.

Old American vintage  cars line the streets of Habana

I was most impressed with the site of hundreds of old American vintage automobiles parked between Russian Lada’s and Japanese makes. Studebaker, Edsels, Chevrolets, DeSotos and Cadillac’s flooded into Cuba for 50 years during Batiste’s days. But then came the Cuban Revolution and US trade embargo. In terms of American autos, time stopped when Fidel Castro took power. Steve went into an auto museum and saw the car once owned by Che Guevara, a 1960 Bel Air. We did not see or hear much about Fidel Castro but Che Guevara’s photo, T-shirts and hats with his picture were everywhere. Although he was killed by soldiers in Bolivia as he tried to get another guerilla revolt under way it was obvious that Che Guevara is the Revolutions authentic guerilla hero. For two days we tromped streets of this vibrant town with a population of 105,000. I had expected to see a run down city but found it not as bad as some third world countries. Paint was peeling from many large buildings but many others were under repair and those that were completed lacked some character. But the people seemed to elicit an apology for the run down conditions of which I did not see a need. In all it was very clean, the people obviously taking some pride putting in hard work to keep it that way and a strong belief in themselves as self-reliant individuals. To travel here in such a diversified and friendly environment is to me one of the worlds best kept secrets
                                                                   NEW CUBA
                                                                   The Internet
As of June 2001 there are no Internet Cafes in Cuba. In the larger cities you may find a computer in one of the tourist hotels. They are sometimes located on the upper floors, like at the Hotel Plaza in Havana, where the locals are restricted from going. There is one computer in a small back room where you buy a card for $5 for one hour. Same in the Marina Hemingway only this computer is in a room of the small post office. In Cienfuegos the Internet office had only been open for five days situated in a telephone office across from the tourist Hotel La Union. Here the price is $15 for five hours. We were told the card would work in other cities like Pinar Del Rio but we found this not so. In that city we did find the computer in the back room of the telephone/post office but as of yet it is not set up for tourists using their own connection. We noticed there was browser to go into the Internet but you can, however, send and receive email on their connection but at the cost of $1 US for each message sent or received same as at the Marina in Cienfuegos. We thought we could connect in Maria Gorda the small dive center on the tip of the west end of Cuba by using the telephone to call Cienfuegos and using the dial up configuration they gave us there, but the phones were down. To call the states using that dial up system from Cuba the cost is $2.50 a minute but the connection is difficult to get and very slow over long distance lines. Although Cuba seems to be getting into the Internet they are still not widely available and then they are only as good as the phone systems. In rural Cuba we found people who had never heard of Internet.