Second Time Around

The first time we witnessed this city, we were amazed. Oh so many things to absorb. But its easy to miss the underbelly. The second time around we’re starting to discover what makes this place and these people really tick. We were happy to discover a rhythm with Havana, integrating into the world around us.

It was another hot day today. Another amazing breakfast feast by Leydiana; my absolute favorite is the Cuban french toast and savory crepes. Oh and I can’t forget that mouth-watering coffee. Its like a decadent chocolate, mmmm chocolate…[channeling Homer Simpson].

As I was fixing my hair in the bathroom mirror, I noticed something move slowly out of the corner of my eye. It was a huge cockroach! Yuck! I remembered seeing a dead one on the lower landing of the stairwell, so I guess I’m not that surprised. This building is over 100 years old and windows are always open. Still, its gross so I had Jake quietly dispose of it, without making a big deal of it. I know that Leydiana keeps this place VERY clean, so its not something to fuss over.

Today we hit the familiar streets of Teniente Rey, meandering into some new buildings. There was a pretty lavish upscale facility with shelves upon shelves of jars. We discovered its actually a pharmacy, or a version of a pharmacy. Not quite like one in the US, this pharmacy looked like a Medical museum. In fact, its both!

I’m still amazed that we can discover new things down these familiar streets. I shouldn’t be surprised though, Cuba is full of enchantment and mystery. We decided to head out in the direction of the harbor. Roberto mentioned a huge open-air market where we could find just about any souvenir we could imagine. And TONS of art. Apparently its a bit cheaper than the shops in town, so we thought we’d check it out.

Today it was really cloudy, which you would think would make it cool. On the contrary it was hotter and more muggy than any other day. It would be nice to get some rain, but instead we were sweating buckets. The streets seemed a lot less crowded too, which was nice. That was the case until we stepped into the building with the market, which was packed with people. My senses were bombarded with bright colors pulling my eyes in every direction.

Today would be a great test in my Spanish-speaking ability. I do have to say that I’m amazed at how quick a new language seeps into your routine. In fact, Jake and I have been enjoying only speaking in Spanish to each other as we walk the streets. Its fun to practice and it makes us feel like one with the locals. I feel confident that I can communicate in complete sentences with people now. Woo hoo.

Jake really wanted a Che Guevara t-shirt. We’ve seen several of them in local shops and thought this place would be perfect. And within about 5 minutes he made his purchase. Our group walked along together, but also independently of each other. We all had different goals, mine was ART. I REALLY wanted to buy some art, but I just couldn’t choose. I think I fell in love with about 20 or 30 different paintings. Where am I going to store these things? Surely not on the sailboat.

I have this friend who owns a bracelet that I have always loved. But it was handmade, custom-design and I have never seen one like it before. That is until I stopped at a booth in Cuba, where a young girl was peddling her jewelry. It was like a tractor beam pulling me in and a magical moment where everything went quiet. There sat a bracelet almost identical to that of my friend’s. I had to have it!

The price tag was only 15CUC. Thats not all that much, but I know that you are supposed to haggle at these places, which is definitely not my forte. Jake and I started talking (in Spanish) about how I really wanted this but only had 9CUC on me. The girl running the shop overheard and said that she would be happy to sell it to me for 9. I was on a high after that experience. We continued to stroll up and down the endless rows of stuff, after a few hours, it was beginning to look old. As would be expected. We all decided now is the time to leave, with our new treasures in tow.

After our super fun morning we headed back to Plaza Vieja, itching to try beer from the yellow brewery on the corner. It was a little bit early yet, so we sat down on the seats near the front and a live band began serenading us. The crowds picked up in the Plaza, today. It seemed like big tour groups walking together – kind of fun to overhear the spiel in English. When finally it did open, we were all super impressed with the tasty brew.

The stifling heat wore us out. We stopped off at the apartment to dump our goods and take a load off for awhile. It was CRAZY HOT in the apartment though. Thats when Don noticed the white units above the windows in each of our bedrooms. I completely forgot that this place has air conditioning! It took a bit to figure out how they work, but those bad boys saved the day. It didn’t take long to cool things off. AHHHH……. its been too long since any of us has enjoyed proper air conditioning.

It was a treat to sit around and chat. But there was also an urge to get back out into the city. So much untapped exploring possibilities and so little time. So, we headed straight back out, in the opposite direction, towards the Museo de la Revolución.

This is like the White House of Cuba. It is the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents prior to and including Batista and became the Museum of the Revolution after the Revolution. Unfortunately when we got there, the museum would only be open for a short while longer and there are no English-speaking tours, and very few plaques of information. Seeing as how this is kind of a huge deal, we thought it would be cool to hire Roberto a second time.

Meanwhile, we opted to hold off on this exploration and headed back to El Museo de las Bellas Artes We have already visited the first portion of this exhibit, focused primarily on Cuban art during the time of the Revolution and some modern-day work as well. Part 2 includes pre-historic through post-modern, art nouveau and contemporary art as well.

We had to cross the street into a second building. From the outside this place seemed so regal. The inside even moreso with its glorious grand staircase entry (I think there were like 200 steps). The building is an art-relic in itself. It reminded me of a medieval opera house with its cathedral ceilings and ornate carvings, tapestries and stained glass. The details are simply divine. Photographs weren’t allowed so we could only capture a few images before cameras went away. 🙁

The museum started on level 4 of this huge building, which seemed a little strange. These rooms were very similar to that of any art museum in the Western world. Oil paintings and classic works from all around the world were displayed. I love the details in these pieces and find it fascinating to study. Then we would move into grand arena-like spaces with shelves and huge stone statues, even mummies and tombs. Oh man how I wish we could snap a photo or two.

The contemporary works were really quite interesting too. Mostly executed in the fashion of multimedia / videography. One room was small with raised platform seating, though not room for a ton of people. The walls were black and the screen was playing a film depicting the stages of a tiny dust-devil that would grow into a tornado. It was done in an interesting, indie-style kind of way. There was no music, just the sound of the wind and the breathing of the camera-person. It was definitely weird.

A second video showed 2 children playing a game with old film strips on the street. As they played, the film would pan out to show that they were in Afghanistan. It followed them as they ran through the streets to their home, through a world of devastation, rubble, homelessness, basically all the terrible things about the state of war. And these kids were devoted to this game, as if its the most obvious thing in the world that they would be playing in this environment. It was a powerful message.

I’m really glad we went through part 2 of the museum. There is just so much to see and learn and I absolutely LOVE this stuff. The crew decided that we would go back for a meal at Cheers (take 2) as we so enjoyed our lunch there, dinner will hopefully be just as good. Plus we were all starving so a big meal would be welcome. And the food was very good, as always, but it came in such small portions (almost like half of lunch size meals) at twice the price. That was a bit disappointing but its okay.

That night, Jake and Don had a “boys night out” while Sue and I decided to enjoy an evening in. The guys hit the streets after dark. Sue and I planned on going to bed early, but instead found ourselves chatting it up in the cozy living room for over 2 hours. When the boys came back they were shocked to see us both awake. It seemed they had a great time. Apparently they found some places for great music (dubbed Cheers 2 and Dirty Cheers) and then stopped of for a super inexpensive pizza that they said was fantastic!

People of Cuba

The next day we took to the streets right away. It was a nice change to go out in the early morning sun and we hoped to find a spot to enjoy breakfast. In our exploring, it turns out, there aren’t quite as many restaurants open for breakfast. We found ourselves back in Plaza Vieja at a small cafe next to the familiar yellow brewery.

The breakfast menu was very simple, only a few options; European, Continental or American breakfast OR an omelet. I can’t remember exactly what everyone else ordered, but I got a European, which consisted of crepes stuffed with spinach and onion, sausage (which looked exactly like hot dogs, but tasted way better!) and all of it was covered in cheese. The meal was supposed to come with juice and coffee.

The food was great as always. They accidentally gave Sue the wrong plate of food though and had to remake her breakfast, which took a really long time. And we also never got our juice that was supposed to come with our meal. We didn’t even bother trying to bring it up and made extra sure that we weren’t overcharged on the bill.

We meandered down the well-worn, tourist-traveled streets today. It was kind of fun, since we really haven’t spent much time here. These shops are super high-end-looking. Sue went back to get some perfume from the apothecary, I almost did the same because it was just so amazing, but Jake talked me out of it. Instead we sat out under a tree next to a fountain and got our people-watching on. It was nice.

We joined our companions and continued back to the large open market by the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the cool fort with moat around it. The castillo shares similar qualities with many other forts, you know, large stone walls and huge canons of iron. This one has a moat. We paid 3CUC to tour the entire place, inside, outside, top and bottom. We even climbed up into the bell tower to see a fantastic view of the city and water below.

In one of the small rooms, there were two women – employees – who explained to us the different artifacts we were viewing, and their significance. They spoke so-so English and encouraged us to take pictures. They were very nice and insisted that we should take pictures of everything. Then they would point to the video cameras overhead, saying that if we move to the side they could take our picture.

Then they started to tell us how they needed money for their kids and asked if we could give them any soap, toothbrushes or toothpaste. These items are almost impossible to come. Even in a goverment-run building, employees will beg for things; money and such. We can’t escape it anywhere.

But upon reflection, its understandable. There are many things provided to Cuban citizens; free housing, free education, free food (to an extent) and free medical care. And while that sure covers a lot, it doesn’t cover everything. On average, a working citizen will earn anywhere from 20-50 US dollars per month (equivalent). It doesn’t matter if you are a heart surgeon, a college professor, a store clerk or a bus driver. So money has to stretch far and wide for anything that isn’t already provided. That includes things like soap and dental-care. So toothbrushes and toothpaste are a huge commodity and thus, quite pricey. And the best source of money for someone working in tourism is straight-up asking for it. Its quick, easy and tax-free.

So okay that’s why we have CUP. We kept on moving through the exhibit, my most favorite spot was on the roof overlooking the water. It was quiet up here and peaceful. And what a great view!

We continued our journey to the cigar shop nearby. The venue was very posh almost like a fancy wine store. There were so many different brands of cigar all ranging in price but as we aren’t connoisseurs, we chose based on name and price. And a more perfect name there couldn’t be; “The Jack & Jill” for a very decent price. How perfect is that?

It took awhile for Jake and I pay because we brought all of our CUP (minus a few spares set aside for tips and such) but didn’t have quite enough to fit the bill. So we had to split the bill and do complicated math to figure out how much we actually had to pay. And all of it in Spanish. CUP’s are worth 1/25 of CUC so it took some time.

Siesta-time came around and we were happy to oblige – especially now with the discovery that we have air conditioning in our place. It was glorious. We sat around for a few hours chatting with Buddy. They have had such an interesting life, such well-explored travelers and super fun people. They too have a home in Colorado and lived there (just like us) prior to the boat-thing. We have so much in common with them. I think the cruiser-mentality bonds us even more.

Its clear that tourism is making a mark here. And citizens know thats where the good money is. Its more lucrative to be a cab driver or work in a hotel than as an educator or a doctor. But with tourism, there is this idea that things will change. The old-world, rustic, crumbling beautiful nature of Havana will lose that feel and be an upgraded, modern city like anywhere else in the world. For many that would be a huge disappointment.

After our reprieve we decided to go check out the pizza place the boys visited the night before. And we all shared a huge ham and cheese pizza and drinks for only 3CUC total. It was so delicious especially considering the price. A great snack to keep us moving. We were all hoping to find a place to sit and people-watch and enjoy a drink.

We meandered around the hood for a bit, down unfamiliar streets. They all started to look the same after awhile. I guess you can become desensitized to your surroundings (though I don’t think that will happen with any of us). We kept walking until we moseyed into an open “palace” on the corner of a familiar turn. Inside we found it to be one of the many elegant and lavish hotels. The entrance was so grand (25-30 feet tall) and huge columns like giant trees gave support to each side. It is called the Hotel Royeul (Royal Hotel).

I ventured around to the back and saw that there is a restaurant – and a pretty good looking menu. Meanwhile an employee walked up to ask and asked if he could help. He mentioned a roof-top where we could get some drinks – HELLS YES PLEASE. We followed him through the grill of an old-school elevator and up we went. It was cool to watch as we went past each floor; since we could see out. We ended at the top which was situated outside, and sure enough there was a lovely sitting area, bar and gigantic patio to walk around. In the center is a dome made of a stained-glass pattern that was SO COOL. I can’t believe we’re up here!

There was a gazebo that was situated above the rest of the seating. It looked like a private space that only the ultra-rich and famous could use, but the employee said we could sit up there if we wanted. This is seriously so unreal. There was a mural painted inside the gazebo depicting oceans, land, angels. And the view from here is so cool. We felt like kings. Don got us all a round of drinks and we were so elated to be here.

It felt like we were in a private world. One that not many have experienced. The breeze was welcome and we could see all the activity of the city below, rooftop chickens and roosters were crowing. When we spent a good long time, we meandered back down to the hotel to take some pictures and marvel at its construction.

Since it is a weekend night, we assumed the town would be extra-lively. We decided to go back to La Calesa Real for another great meal, but noted that there were far less people out tonight. Even the streets were less crowded. That night, team Bosco headed back to the apartment and team Buddy opted to go for a walk to see if there was anything interesting going on.

On our walk back, we found ourselves walking down more unfamiliar streets. We actually got lost and walked an extra 30 minutes out of the way (whoops) before we found the right path again. It was a little scary but also not really. There was a man playing with his young daughter in the street. As we passed, he grabbed her in his arms and ran after a woman who was walking up ahead (opposite our direction). Obviously he knew her and she was pissed at him, for something. But I was most fascinated by the young girl (maybe 4 or 5 years old) playing in the street at midnight as if this was the most normal thing in the world!

It was a great night made even better because we feel more connected to this city and its people more than ever before.

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3 comments on “Second Time Around

  1. Lovely photographs. You really captured the essence of the people and in lovely composition. -Steve

  2. In reading your blogs about Cuba, I feel as if I am along with you guys and experiencing this visit. Your description and the photos are simply outstanding. The Cuban cigar photo is super cool!!! Looking forward to reading more …. and I want to visit Cuba to experience this amazing place too!

  3. aww thanks Steve, Marci & Andrea! Your comments are so kind. And seriously it is such an amazing place I don’t think there is anywhere else on earth quite like it!

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