This is the Havana I have been hoping to see when I first arrived 15 days ago. The hop on-off bus tour that I had then taken and the first 1.5 days of walking around the city had made me question if the next 2 weeks were going to be uninteresting, underwhelming and colorless, just like the construction works, neglected high raise buildings and deserted streets. Either I was staying and walking in the wrong part of the city, on a wrong day, at a wrong time, or something had made the people evacuate the city. In any case there couldn’t have been more of a contrast than what I saw in the same city 15 days apart. The lively, colorful streets, ruins often full of chatting people, occasional stench of garbage, old redone repainted cars, street vendors, people munching on snacks while standing at the counters of roadside food stalls, hoard of tourists, a giant web of electricity wires over the head, bright clothes hung on lines, wide roads and wider squares, horse carts and cycle rickshaws- it was all there. I finally got to see what I had hoped for.
Agreed that all the locals were gearing up for the upcoming tourist season. But I still cannot explain the obvious lack of any signs of local life happening around, which was quite evident later!
These were going to be my last 2 days in Cuba. A half of the first day was spent actually getting to Havana. Like most of the other stuff in Playa Larga (a page coming on that later), inconvenience and inaccessibility was inherent. Instead of getting a “taxi” for a ride to Havana, I chose to get the Viazul bus from Playa Larga to Varadero and then another Viazul from Varadero to Havana. Surprisingly, it worked like clockwork- smoothly and with no delays or issues. Sadly for the guy (with shades) trying to collect some fares for the day in Playa Larga, I did not agree to 80 CUC (for the taxi, of course divided into number of people who share it). I had a better change of not paying more than 20 CUC if I rode the Viazul bus, as the desperation of the guys with shades was telling me quite obviously that he had no other fares for that day going to Havana. I was in no mood to pay that kind of money.
The second half of the day was spent finding some hotel that did bookings for the cigar factory and then getting intoxicated. The casa (casa particular, to be specific- cuban B&B) was right on the corner of a street crossing Calle Brasil, meaning one can find lots of “feel good” bars and restaurants here. El Canchullero, followed by a place dedicated to liquors and cocktails with coffee on Plaza Vieja, followed by Dandy was enough to get me nicely drunk.
Last full day in Havana was spent visiting the interesting cigar factory, buying souvenirs and having some nice food for a very late afternoon lunch and a late night dinner. The occasional heavy showers reminded me of the mesmerizing monsoons in Pune (India). A good Ropa Vieja (in Mama Iñes close to the harbor) and some cool breeze was a welcome combination after the long hungover walk to the cigar factory and the almost suffocating heat inside it. The last meal of the day was an incredible surprise. End of Calle Brasil (Park Central side) , a place called D-next was trying hard to look like an American diner with Halloween decorations (it was 28th of October). Heading there after packing my bag for a “light snack” for the night was the idea. On the contrary, the cheap, mouthwatering-ly delicious and huge portions of burger and sandwiches were almost sinful and impossible to resist. Coming back, I prepared myself for what was going to be a very short night followed by a ride to the Havana airport for the flight back (no surprises there in general, except I did not have to pay the exit tax of 25 CUC, as advertised on lots of websites) .
Knowing Spanish does help a lot. However it is still not enough to avoid being looted as a tourist. You have to look, walk and talk Cuban. Only then it may work. Unfortunately (or sometimes fortunately) I have the look and the walk but not the talk. What did help was the fact that fewer vultures (people selling things to tourists) bothered me and I often got spoken to in hurried (Cuban) Spanish (they don’t pronounce the ‘s’s in only some of their words- like “me guta”,”Gracia” , a street vendor shouting “ecoba … aaaa” – but “desayuno” was just fine!). Obviously I have much to learn about the language and its dialects. But it still sounds musical (as it always has).