I woke up the next day thinking I can’t wait to go and explore Havana. You know, that feeling of fear and excitement in the same time of a new place, when you are wondering if you will love it or hate it.
First, I had breakfast in the small kitchen, and then took my coffee up on the roof terrace. It was just me there and the skyline of Havana looked impressive. I could clearly see the cupola of the Capitolio on one side and the lighthouse from the harbors’ entrance on the other. Between them – a lot of uneven buildings, all colored different, with white laundry drying in the sun, on the roofs. It was very warm but I could see stormy clouds approaching fast.
“Why is it raining?”, I thought to myself. I knew that weather in December can be unpredictable in Cuba but could I be so unlucky? Later I found out that it was just the cold front coming from America, that colliding with the heat would cause storms for a few days.
It wasn’t that bad though. I started exploring Havana by heading towards the heart of the Old Habana, cut straight by Obispo boulevard, hard to miss because of the crowds. I infiltrated in a tour group and got inside the Johnson & Johnson Pharmacy, a still functional drugstore that looked like it was taken out of an old movie. Big white jars were standing on black shelves, each of them decorated with a different pattern. In the middle of the counter, under a glass dome, there was a vintage microscope in mint condition. In the past, this drugstore was not only a place to buy medicine but also a place where people would gather to chat about politics and every day life. Today, the pharmacy sells home made medicinal oils and elixirs and for Cubans, it’s a normal establishment. For me, it was a proper museum!
I ventured on the streets of the old town for a couple of hours, hiding from the rain and observing the daily life. In Plaza Vieja children were playing football. Near Plaza del Armas two men and a guitar were singing Guantanamera. In front of a cafe, a cat was sleeping inside a flower pot. An industrial ship was just passing by, in front of The Royal Force Castle, while owners of classic cars were inviting tourists to get in for a ride around the city.
Then I headed back towards the Capitolio (still under renovation) and then found my way down, to the Malecon. The wind was still powerful and the whole street was closed, as the waves were crashing over the wall. The water didn’t scare me so I crossed over to take some pictures of Hotel National. That was the landmark I wanted to walk to, before going back to the casa and check on my lost luggage.
As soon as I reached Hotel National, the storm started. There was nowhere to hide and the rain was very powerful. I literally had to duck under a big leaf, at the bottom of the rocks on top of which the hotels’ garden is, rushing to get my camera inside my backpack and hoping that it is waterproof.
When the rain stopped, there was nothing left dry on me, so I decided to head back. I took a 5 minutes break in Antonio Maceo park, as my feet were hurting, when a girl came to me asking for a light. I told her I don’t smoke and then she started to tell me about this festival that was going on just a few streets away, saying that I should definitely go. I recognized straight away that it was a scam, and I was right. As long as I stood on that bench, she approached several other people, probably with the same line.
I continued to walk back towards the Old town when another young man approached me. This time, he invited me for a drink. Cuban men can be very persuasive and my feet were hurting, so I sat down with him, without ordering anything though. He actually seemed ok, but again, he invited me at another party, in the evening. He gave me his mobile number, his home number, his work number, even his mother’s number, making me promise that I will call. I found this to be very amusing.
Back at the casa, the owner gave me an address and told me that I have to go there in the evening, to meet my guide and the group I will be traveling with for the next eight days. He also informed me that there were no news about my luggage, the airport was still unreachable.
In the afternoon I met Eliner again, who had big plans for the rest of the day. It was actually very interesting how we could communicate, each of us understanding probably about half of what the other one was saying. We headed towards the Rum Museum and, from there, we crossed the street towards a factory like looking building. I was a bit suspicious but he told me trust him. We passed through a metal detector and, before you know it, we were on a strange looking boat, leaving Havana.
The panorama of the capital left behind was very nice, but where were we going? In 2003, a group of men actually hijacked one of this small ferries and tried to take it to Florida. They run out of fuel about 60 miles from the American coast. But that was not the case, as the ferry I was on arrived safely after 15 minutes to the town of Regla, on the other side of the harbor. The town was very quiet, with small but colorful colonial houses. We headed up on the main street and then stopped in a bar, to get a beer for Eliner and a local coke for me. The moment I walked into that bar, everybody looked at me. They were not used to having tourists around.
After the short pit stop, Eliner showed me the “slums” of Regla and told me about life in Cuba, and how people are forced to survive with almost nothing. The government gives everybody a ration card on which they can buy very cheap a limited number of essential products. They are entitled to less than 3 kilos of rice per month, about half a kilo of beans, 1 kilo of sugar, 1 liter of milk per day (but only for children under 7 years old), 12 eggs (but only from September to December). The ratio card also entitles them to 0,2 grams of beef or 0,4 grams of chicken every 15 days, per person. For everything else, they have to pay the same prices as tourists. An interesting fact is that if you own a cow for example, you are not allowed to kill it for food. You can go to jail for up to 15 years if you do this.
Cuba has a dual currency, the national peso and the convertible peso. Tourists use almost exclusively the convertible peso, which is the equivalent of 1$. One convertible peso equals 25 national pesos. A person that works for the state earns less than 20 convertible pesos a month. This is why, everybody that has an opportunity to work with tourists and gain an extra CUC (convertible peso), they will. And that is why there are so many people that try to do small scams in Havana, for one or two dollars. It’s the survival instinct.
It is a sad reality and if in my country I know that it’s up to me to build my life as I wish, in Cuba no matter how hard you are working and no matter how ambitious you are, you don’t really have options for a better life.
From Regla, we took the local bus to Guanabacoa, another village, where Eliner’s sister lived. We made our way down a muddy road, alongside houses half finished, and as the rain was getting stronger, we turned left and went through a green gate, inside someone’s yard. In front of the house there was an old rusty white Ford, that probably didn’t move for years. Eliners’ brother in law welcomed me with a large smile. He then showed me his own way of making an extra peso: he was an engineer so he built his own device for making sink pipes. He was so proud of it and even if it looked very rudimentary, it was doing the job. He told me not to tell anyone about his little business because if the government would find out, he can go to jail. But I think it is important for people to know how hard life is in Cuba and what sacrifices people have to do to be able to grow their children. And nobody could identify him from these lines anyway.
After talking to him, we went inside the modest house, and met his wife too. She immediately put the kettle on to make some coffee. Their little one was at the table, drawing. Eliner was very proud of him, saying that he had talent and that he wanted to become an artist. The older boy was playing with a friend and his house. He had his arm in a cast because of a game of football. With all the struggles, they seemed to be a happy and united family. I would have loved to stay and spend more time with them but it was already late and I had to go back to Havana to meet the group.
We said good bye and climbed the hill with the muddy street back to the main road. The bus was not coming so Eliner stopped a van. We jumped in front and other people went in the back. It was an actual communal taxi, a car that goes towards a certain area and picks up passengers on the way and stops at requests. As a Cuban, you pay the same amount as a tourist, but in the national peso, while a tourist will pay in convertible pesos, so 25 times more. But because I was with Eliner, they considered me a local. It was quite a long bumpy drive, but with an astonishing sunset above us.
Once in Havana, we took another communal taxi in the form of a vintage Chevrolet and went to Vedado, where the restaurant was. We got there half an hour earlier, so we waited under the roof of a van-shop. Cubans are very friendly people and they will help you and welcome you always.
It was time to say good bye to Eliner and promise that we will meet when I would return to Havana, after touring the country. I was the first one to arrive at the restaurant and neither me or the waitress knew which booking I belonged to. So she invited me to take a sit near the bar. The restaurant was on top of a building, at the 7th or 8th floor, and the panorama of the rainy city was very calming. I was definitely not wearing the proper outfit for the elegance of the place. My face was all red, my hair unwashed due to the lack of shampoo and I was wearing a dirty pair of jeans with a very red tank top. A total disaster.
Soon, our guide arrived and the first thing I did was to tell him my lost luggage story and ask him fold help. The year before, when I was in India, there was a similar situation with one of the girls and the guide sorted it for her. Unfortunately, I was in Cuba and not in India, and the airport would simply not answer the phone for the whole time I was there.
Slowly, slowly, the other members of the group started to arrive and we begun to chat and get to know each other. The first person that did an impression on me was Emma, the 18 years old adopted daughter of an American couple. She was adopted from Romania, the country where I am from. I couldn’t believe it and they couldn’t believe it either that a Romanian (me) was going to be in the group. What a big coincidence!
The dinner was lovely, it was actually the first time I would eat proper food in Cuba. I had a pork dish with yucca puree. The flavors were very nice, especially the Yucca, which I was tasting for the first time, but the meat was overcooked. Cuba is not known for it’s cuisine and I’ll have to disappoint you but the food is pretty basic. Apparently things have moved upwards in the past years and there have been a lot of improvements food-wise, but still, I would not consider Cuba a foodie destination. Unfortunately, even if the flavors are nice, they are not extraordinary and the meat gets overcooked most of the times.
On the way back to the casa we shared taxis. Iris, Emma’s mother, was so kind and when we reached their casa she brought me a bottle of shampoo and one of conditioner. You don’t get to appreciate the little things you have access to until you don’t have them anymore!