Words by Gary
A city’s heartbeat and energy is a thing of true beauty. If I think of cities that consume me with their vibrancy and voraciousness I would list Bangkok, Amsterdam, London, Ho Chi Minh City and New York. I take comfort in the pandemonium and relentlessness that a city can generate. Throw in the myriad of architectural wonders, smells, gourmet delights, relationship with nature and the attitudes of its locals and your senses have plenty of work ahead of them. It’s this reason I had longed to visit the Cuban capital and be enveloped by her alluring traits.
Rachel and I talked about visiting Havana early in our twenties and i’d made the call earlier this year that I wanted my 42nd birthday to be in her embrace. In my mind’s eye she was exotic, gritty, romantic and full of song, with a touch of abandon – as all truly great cities offer. Take note old Sydney town!
Just over 2 hours in a non descript Air Mexico cabin – the reposado was a small bonus mind you – we touched down at Jose Marta airport to start a four week journey of this fabled island. The Obama administrations’s recent diplomatic efforts with Cuba had paved the way for Americans to access this island with limited fuss. Without a word of a lie I reckon Havana is presently the world’s most sought after capital city to visit in light of the green light given to her 350 million neighbours to the north. Never before have we had so much difficulty obtaining accommodation in a city. It shouldn’t be too long until the beachside village of Varadero overtakes Cancun as the premier Spring break destination.
After cruising through Immigration and Customs we queued up for the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC’s) which are pegged to the US dollar. You can’t purchase this currency anywhere outside of Cuba and if you’re looking to exchange foreign currency then euros and Canadian dollars are widely accepted. US dollars attract a 20% commission at most places and Australian dollars are not Exchangeable anywhere.
My first impression was the collection of classic US made cars on the roads. Until 2011 it was illegal to purchase pre-1959 vehicles so the bevy of Buick’s, Chevy’s, Dodges is a sight to behold. Most of them splutter complete with carcinogenic plumage but a small batch of them have been preserved and restored to their original glistening glory. Then there’s the Lada. The Russian automotive gift to the world that keeps on giving. It’s a visual throwback that is replicated no where else on earth.
We had been lucky to find a 2-bedroom Casa particular in the Central district of the city by a Cuban tour guide friend of a Canadian couple we met at Spanish school in Guanajuato. Literally the last available digs up for grabs. As our taxi coasted towards Calle Crespo 73 it was hard not to affected by the dilapidated state of our neighbourhood. It was like neoclassical Paris had tangoed with current day Damascus – a city once so devatsatingly beautiful but now in devastating need of some TLC.
Havana in her prime must have rivalled the famed classical cities of Europe – no wonder it was a romantic escape for Hollywood’s silver screen stars in the 40’s and 50’s. Put plainly, our little street had seen better days. Edifices were mildew stained and weather-worn beyond recognition, a reflection of the neglection imposed by decades of socialist rule.
For over 50 years Havana was imprisoned to the elements without a paint brush or scrubbing brush in sight. It certainly didn’t scream ‘inviting’ – a notion that wasn’t lost on Amalia and Ruby who seemed a little confronted at the scene of poverty and disrepair that greeted them. What you soon learn about Havana is that the surface appearance is superficial – sure it’d be nice if restoration had a more prominent role to play – and once you get your bearings you’re soon drawn to the real essence of Havana’s appeal. The people.
Frightfully poor and a million miles away from the material world my first take on Cubans was how present and alive they appeared. In conversation, in laughter and in song they ooze untold passion. Brilliantly animated and upbeat — except those that worked in the hospitality biz, a point i’ll elaborate on later — their enthusiasm was palpable.
After checking in to our basic but comfy casa we set off towards the Malecon in the setting afternoon sun to tuck into some Cuban fare at the Castropol restaurant – influential fella was Fidel! Here our love affair with Cuban lobster began and at $15 a piece could you blame us?
So taken was Amalia that she wanted another immediately. “If you can find one for under fifteen bucks tonight, then it’s yours” I challenged. Two hours later she’d spied a $12 crusty and the deal was done. Except we opted for a restaurant experience that will firmly chart the top 10 meals of 2016. Paladar de Mercedares – a delightful first floor restaurant, lovingly restored boasting the most humble and obliging wait staff Cuba can offer — and that’s saying plenty! — with a guitarist and violinist of the highest order. It was the start of my 5-day birthday fiesta and we celebrated and dined in true style. Grilled meats and seafood, Chilean carmenere and ended with an 11 year Santiago de Cuba Ron. Oh, and we played some awesome 500 and wore ear-to-ear grins the entire meal. Truly fabulous night!
One of the more refreshing aspects of Cuban living is that wifi and cellular technology is almost impossible to come by. The positives: people converse with each other and screen time is virtually non-existent. The flipside? Well, independent travellers who rely on that little trio of arcs are in for a world of hurt. To access the digital world you need to buy a wifi card, scratch off the password and locate a designated hotspot. But forget grand visions of downloading Game of Thrones – sending and receiving emails is as good as it gets, if the signal decides to present itself that is.
What separates this city from her splendourous rivals in Europe is the music that emanates from the cafes, restaurants and street corners. And they nail it all — the mournful, the passionate, the festive, the downright sexy. The music literally stops you in your tracks and reels you in. So evocative and alluring. And when a Buena Vista Social Club number gets a run I’m a slave to the music. Nearly every restaurant we visited in the initial three days of our stay had a small ensemble playing the most infectious local numbers. The other thing that strikes you is that EVERYONE can dance, regardless of age, size or stages of enfirmament. Music and dance are the tantalising fibrous sinews that bind this country together. If you’re having a shit time of things, find a beat, groove and everything will sort itself out. That’s one thing this country has and never will have to ration: cracking tunes.
In 2016 I had set myself a brief but defined list of goals. Three pursuits that, when achieved will make me a far more complete and contented man.
- Learn Spanish
- Learn to surf
- Learn to dance ( I read a quote before I departed Oz that “if a man cannot dance then he cannot know how to truly make love.” I like the cut of this guy’s jib.)
I singled out Cuba as the place to start objective number 3. Watch this space…..
For my 42nd birthday I purchased some choice Cuban cigars and a bottle of Mulata 15-year Ron. Staple ingredients to any worthwhile Havana visit. The real treats though lay ahead, with Rachel, Amalia and Ruby laying the foundations for what would prove to be the best birthday to date. It went a little something like this:
- Birthday breakfast in Plaza Viaje dining on fresh ham and cheese croissants, fruit platters and locally roasted coffee — ‘cortado fuerte’ is the safest bet to guarantee a brew that’s fit for consumption
- A visit to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes which houses purely Cuban art. Pop art section is the star of the show here
- A 75-minute tour of Habana in a pink 1953 Chevrolet driven by former Cuban decathlete Luis. Talk about loving yourselves sick. A treasured experience that will take some topping
- A private lunch at Ateleier restaurant in Vedado, feasting on confit of duck, fresh lobster, eye fillet, asparagus, tomato and Parmesan all washed down with a yummy Sonoma Chardonnay. The Cuban chef spent sizeable time studying in France and it paid off. Up there as one of the bets dining experiences in recent memory
- An evening with members of the Buena Vista Social Club. Need I say any more?
Understandable why this birthday extravaganza is without peer. The final vignette of the day was Rachel and I sitting on the doorway step to our modest dwelling in our PJ’s smoking a Cuban cigar at 1:30am to consign the day to the finer recesses of our memories. Sign me up for another hit out!
Besides tracking down a wifi hotspot and finding an ATM that agrees with you, the hardest thing to find in Havana is good service. Once you’ve taken your seat you’ll need all the guile, patience and conspicuousness you can muster cos’ for the most part they ain’t interested in serving you. When you finally do manage to summonse a waiter and place an order there’s no guarantee it’ll make its way to your table. Perhaps it’s the lack of training or maybe a lack of interest or perhaps more pertinently that beer your ordering equates to nearly half their daily pay and the injustices between what you have and they don’t is all too pervading for them? I don’t have the answer but it ranks as some of the worst customer service going, and I was subject to London wait staff for 5 years 🙂
Havana is a city you want to get totally lost in. If it was Rachel and I sans children there’d be a whole chapter dedicated to Cuban nightlife and debauchery, but alas, that tome will have to wait until another time. What I do know is that Havana’s complexion will change considerably in the coming years, the influx of tourist dollars going a long way to restore her old world charm. $2 Mojitos and $12 lobsters will become folklore and socialism will inevitably curtsy to the rambunctious beast that is capitalism adding layers of gloss and sheen. But whatever happens down the track her rhythm, passion and beauty will forever be the hallmarks that make her famous.