To Cuba – first impressions

José Martí Memorial

With the streets clear, my Uber app announces one minute to arrival at the Hotel. I barely have time to wheel out my bags onto the pavement. It works and quotes a fraction of the price to the airport. I’ve been told that visas have to be applied for at the port of destination, so I’ve come out early to suss it all out. There is in fact a special check-in/bag drop area for anyone going to Cuba. I check in on the machine, pay for baggage and trundle off to find somewhere to write and recharge the laptop. When it’s time to collect the visa, I find that it’s $100 – a far cry from the on-line charge of $16 a few months ago before the US election. I just wonder who is making the best of this deal. I note with amusement that in the list of reasons for travelling to Cuba there is no ‘Tourist’ option, the best one seems to be ’To support the Cuban people.’  I’ve decided to pay for two bags this time but once again, the gate desk is asking people to voluntarily check in carry on bags for free. No one is taking any notice of the weight or dimensions of bags. I probably could have got away with it. The flight to Havana is only forty-five minutes and immigration is fine.  On first inspection the airport looks modern, perhaps a bit frayed around the edges – like some of the Heathrow terminals. The toilets are operated by infra-red sensors and there are extendable gantries for planes to hook up to. There is, however, a long wait in the baggage hall and during the time, the lights go out, plunging us all into darkness … twice.

 

Fildel
Ché

The transport team arranged by Densil’s air b&b are there to greet me.  ‘Cambio’, I explain, and they point me to a long queue outside. I wait for about 15 minutes until suddenly they realise that there is a money change desk at the other end with no queue and I’m hurried towards it. My driver, Maria, is middle aged and in charge of a bright yellow Peugeot. At first she says little, but I find out that she’s educated, her mother was a teacher and her daughter, an accountant has married an American. They are waiting for her residency in the US. I ask Maria if she is tempted to go, No, she loves her country and wouldn’t go. It’s just that she can earn more money doing airport transfers. Often her answer to my questions is ‘It’s complicated’.

I ask about the increase in tourism. ‘Is it good?’

‘Yes, but they have to respect the way we do things here and follow our rules.’

Central Habana

I wonder how the country will cope with a flood of foreign investors. Suddenly a huge bunker type building appears in the distance with a rather stunning spire. Maria tells me ‘That’s where Raúl works.’ The spire, once we are past it, turns out to be a memorial to José Marti a founding hero of Cuba. Facing him on tower blocks are cartoons of Ché Gevara and Fidel, whose picture is still to be seen, pronouncing ‘we love Fidel’ or’ long live Fidel’. I notice all the classic and vintage cars on the road. Everywhere there are ancient Ladas from the USSR era. Old American cars from the 50’s and 60’s are mainly used as taxis, but there are modern cars and yellow taxis as well. The sense of a make do and mend economy is everywhere. Cuba must have the largest collection of classic cars in the world, probably worth a fortune.

Percevenrancia Oppisite Densil’s

Cassa Densil is a block an a half away from the sea-front. The street is crumbling almost bomb damaged. Some houses are brightly painted; others are in a state of near collapse. The road has been dug up to lay something but piles of rubble remain and black bitumen has been partly laid to cover up the excavations. Denzil’s, as advertised on the Air B&B site is old-style colonial. These streets look to have been built in the early 20th or late 19th centuries and the place is full of antique-like furnishings. Whilst not exactly dusty, there is an air of decay as if Miss Haversham will appear at any moment. My hostess is an Italian woman called Barbara. She visited several times and fell in love with

Lobby of Densil’s

a local. She has a little English and I have to slow down for her. She takes me up onto the roof, where breakfast is served to give me a panoramic view and orientate me. I get directions to local restaurants and pointed in the direction of the Parce Centrale, where I’m told I can get a map of the city. It is somewhat disconcerting to be without wifi connection or even a mobile network – no whipping out my phone to bring up google maps. I attempt to contact the Orca water polo guys, but it doesn’t work even though I have all bars showing. I guess the world will carry on without me for a week. The possibility of Trump-free days is attractive and I realize that the British election will happen while I’m flying from here to Dallas.

The roof

It’s still light and I make for the sea-front, a long sweeping street called the Malecón. In the fading sun-setting light the sight is stunning, but turning around to look at the once-grand Edwardian era houses, crumbling away, the extent of neglect becomes clear.

Sunset on Malecón

There’s a new sea-front bar called La Abadia where I stop to have a beer. It’s been built with modern a sail-like roof structure in a gap in the terrace. As I sit and watch the sunset, a brightly lit blue-sky gap appears in the darkening clouds suggesting a way forward, a good omen.  I’m heading east towards Castropolo – a restaurant recommended by Barbara.

Suddenly a striking new sculpture appears. This blackened female bust has a shocked expression at her own disintegration, but there is also an air of defiance about her. I choose the downstairs section of the restaurant as Barbara says it’s cheaper. Locals seem to be the main customers and there is a party of five who scrape their left-overs into a real doggy-bag. Later they also get bags for their un-touched food. It seems nothing is to be wasted. A large party arrives with a very elderly grandmother who can hardly walk – I’m happy to sit at the back of the restaurant just watching and listening to the live music. My mixed grill of fish is a bit chewy, but tasty and more expensive than expected. It’s time to walk along the sea-front as I’ve eaten too much. I can see people on the wall on the other side of the road but before I can cross, I’m approached by a prostitute

Female bronze

who is quite young and very pretty. She’s nicely dressed and does the usual, asking where I’m from. Not many people here have heard of New Zealand here and the best I can do is say near Australia. ‘Ah’ is the reply, but I add – ‘but not Australia.  I quickly tell the girl ‘I like boys’ – I should really be saying ‘I like men’. This seems to work and saves wasting her time. I cross the road and immediately am approached and gently touched on the arm by several more attractive women. The same exchange happens and I decide to abandon my walk and re-cross the road back to Cassa Densil.

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