Long exposure of the Malecon and the sea on a cloudy day in La Habana
Long exposure of the shoreline near the Malecon on a cloudy day in La Habana
This is a piece written in first person by father. I helped edit and provide photos these four episodes which we are going to release once a week. Stay tuned and enjoy!
After getting off the plane at the La Habana airport, I zipped through immigration and customs without any hassle. David was waiting at the closest spot allowed. Standing next to him were two odd looking fellows holding a home-made cardboard arrivals sign with "Weinstein" crudely scribbled on it. They were wearing yarmulkes saying "Shalom" to everyone that arrived.
We sat down away from the crowds and talked about David's efforts at rediscovering my long-lost cousins in Cuba. We then took the escalator upstairs and I noticed the ceiling of the arrivals hall was covered with duct work of every size and shape imaginable, very cool. It reminded me of the movie Brazil. We left the airport and David gave me a briefing on how to get to La Habana. We walked to the main road where "Maquinas" had a route to a bus stop. It was now dark and there was no one standing within a half a mile of where we were. Out of no where, the two men from the arrivals hall appeared from the shadows. As they approached we wondered how they found us. David realized they were also looking for cheap ride to town just like us.
When they joined us, the larger of the two guys was very animated and spoke in a loud voice. We agreed to share the cost of getting to the bus stop. After flagging down a Maquina, the men we had dubbed "Shalom Schlomo" and the "Rabbi" helped negotiate a fair price. I got in the back seat and felt I would wind up in the trunk. After we were moving, Schlomo shared the days events with the driver. "Weinstein" never showed up with his poke full of shekels and they were flat busted. After I crawled out from the back seat of the Maquina, Schlomo ran down a departing bus which we all boarded. Once again we paid their fare, 50cents USD for all of us, for the trip into La Habana. They got off the bus with us near the capitol building and I decided I would give them a Hebrew test. I said the first three lines of a prayer in Hebrew. The big guy looked at me blankly me and blurted out "Happy Cuba" in English, we all shook hands and took off. So it begins.
The Capitolio building by night in La Habana Vieja, Cuba
We walked around the capitol building which looks just like the one in Washington. While I watched our bags, David crossed the street and came back with 4 cents worth of soft serve "Frozen." The cones looked vaguely like chocolate and felt like I Can't Believe Its Not Butter. I wanted the cone itself so I ate it all anyway. We decided to eat something more substantial before going to our Casa Particular, a home-stay. David had scoped out a Pizza place nearby so we headed there. The front of the pizza place was no wider than a set of French doors. Inside a one man operation cranked out 9" pan pizzas. Outside there was a small crowd of people waiting for their turn to order. I managed to sit down on one of two seats on the sidewalk that looked like a seltzer box turned on its side. A woman came over to me and offered me her last two bites of what seemed like pizza. I tactfully declined. "Gracias, pero no." She then said she was going to sit on my lap and David jokingly said go ahead. To our surprise, she did. She wasn't a small person so I asked her politely "por cuantas horas?" "for how many hours?" She got off me but then preceded to stoke my forearm and demanded David buy her beers. At this same moment the pizzas arrived, David gave her one in order to buy her off and told her to leave. She gladly took the pizza but continued the demands for beer. Once again we urged her to leave but she wasn't budging. When David raised his voice, the pizza guy came out and the Jinetera "female hustler" left. A few bites later, a second Jinetera sat down and David read her the riot act, she got up and left. As my kids would say "You got sat on." I have used this word more no more than five times in my life since junior high, but that woman was a Skank. We got to the Casa and I huffed and puffed up two flights of stairs of with a total elevation gain of 36 feet. We met Alberto the owner and Odie the housekeeper. I had traveled for two days solid and I passed out.
The corner of St Lazaro and Paseo Jose Marti, La Habana, Cuba
Iglesia Santo Angel Custodio in HDR, La Habana Vieja, Cuba
In the morning, we heard a loud pop and the electricity went out. From the balcony Alberto pointed out smoke rising from a nearby building. I thought we were in the middle of the second revolution because this was Election day. We went downstairs and followed a throng of people towards the rising smoke but it turned out to be just a blown transformer in empty old newspaper building and everyone soon lost interest. David and I then went to the Malecon where the city meets the sea. There was a strong wind and low fast moving clouds. The waves were breaking on the wall but not splashing over the top. We walked down the Malecon to the oldest fort in Cuba which was the first to guard the harbor. We then went into Old Habana where David took pictures of an old church that reminded me of Guadi in Barcelona. We meandered around and figured that 45% of the houses were restored, 35% were just shabby, and 20% looked like they could become "Derrumbes" which means "a building that spontaneously collapses." We found a luncheonette where we ate $1 plates of rice and beans with fried chicken. There was a side dish that was possibly a root with the consistency of sawdust and held together with a binding agent of some sort. A separate counter sold low grade pastries for 4 cents each. These were like sponges with pink icing. Much like the "Frozen" I ate them anyway. These counters were inside a large building which was a store-type-thing. They sold shampoo, soaps, plumbing supplies, dishes and cigarettes, etc. But alas, no salsa or condiments whatsoever. These items were typical of every other store we went to in Cuba. After lunch, we hit a street called Obispo which is pronounced locally with several letters missing. Which letters I could not tell you but the resulting sound was something like "Ah-wee-po." This street funneled all of the tourists from surrounding streets and and it was a bit like roller derby. We left old Habana and returned to the Casa for a Siesta.
The Cuban National Flag hanging in La Habana Vieja, Cuba
Old Truck, Graffiti, and hanging shoes, La Habana Vieja, Cuba
Later we took a ride in a Maquina across La Habana. Let me tell you my impression of Maquinas. I originally thought that there were about fifty of these pre 1960s American cars which were polished and served as a background for tourist photos. In fact they are real taxis and there are thousands of them in various stages of decrepitude similar to the houses of old Habana. Some were glistening and polished A-grade-show-room, and others were like two tons of rolling bondo. Regardless of their condition, they all belched huge clouds of blue black toxic fumes. The Maquina gases only added to the general inescapable low-lying level of colored air, we breathed it anyway. We used them gladly as you can get a cross-town ride for fifty cents or a ride to the airport which is almost 30km for 80 cents as opposed to $25 in a tourist taxi. Many of them had three-speed-on-the-column shifting which David had never seen before and was the same type as first car I learned to drive. I originally thought they were mostly from 50s but a lot of them were from the late 40s. A testament to the mechanics.
Old cars or 'Maquinas' on Aguila street in Centro Habana, Cuba
We arrived at Vedado which used to be the mafia's hotel and gambling center. It is a more modern part of the city. We met an Outward Bound connection of David's and decided to eat Hot Dogs because we they were very hot and not sitting around all day. These tubies cost 40 cents each and featured a smattering of pseudo ketchup and mustard which were the first condiments I had seen in La Habana. The spot we ate at was not a table but a little ledge that protruded from the building. It could fit three people but only as a table for two and table for one. The setup reminded me of Nedicks only in miniature.
We walked around a park that was a city-block square. It turned out not to be a park but the biggest ice cream venue/operation in the entire world named Copellia. There were several entries with sentinels allowing a certain amount of people to go in as small groups. After waiting in the line for a while we were directed to a table where we sat down and ordered our ice cream. These were called "Ensaladas Mixtas" which consisted of five medium scoops of ice cream served in banana-split dish. Somehow we ordered seven of these for three of us. There was only vanilla and guava, apparently they had run out of chocolate earlier. When it arrived I was astounded at how much ice cream they had brought us. This was good ice cream, not like that Ersatz "frozen" of the night before and it only cost us $1.20. The three of us ate it all, basically our dinner consisting of one hot dog, a soda, and tub of ice cream. We took a maquina back to the Casa and crashed.
The facade of Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis in Habana Vieja
The next morning we found a vendor selling tortillas (egg sandwiches) and bread (hamburger rolls). The bread was slathered with some yellow greasy stuff of unknown origin. The man standing next to us at this doorway counter ordered his hamburger rolls with white grease called mayonnaise. I guess we just got lucky.To be fair these were good rolls more like potato bread than Shursave cheapies. We accessed the Internet in the Hotel Inglatera, which is the poshest in La Habana. We also made arrangements for a bus tickets to Cienfuegos, our next stop. We then went to the Museo de Arte Cubano, but someone told us it was a National Dancing Day and many of the museums were closed. Cerrado. Go figure. So we rolled back to Habana Vieja and found the luncheonette again. Sitting at the long counter we ate pork chops with rice and beans and a side dish of plantains which could be identified accurately. In the evening we walked to the Capitolio and David took some wacky pictures with a tripod and different lenses at various times during the sunset. For dinner we had pizza.
Let me describe this pizza to you. It is cooked in 9" cast iron pan. The bread is thick and spongy but good. There is some hint of red sauce followed by a topping of some kind of cheese. When they come out of the oven they are really hot and you hold them folded in a piece of thin cardboard. They are mildly tasty and for 40 cents you can get two of them. However, they are not on par with New York Pizzeria. It is now our blando staple. I think there is only one recipe for dough, sauce, and cheese because they are incredibly consistent. You could order one with ham, which was more like Bologna and did not change the flavor, hence it was totally unnecessary. Before bed, Odie arranged for us to stay in a Casa she knew about in Cienfuegos. So the transfer mafia began.
The next morning, we said goodbyes to Alberto and Odie and schlepped our bags to the Hotel Inglaterra. We sat on the veranda pretending to belong there. I waited with the bags while David got some egg sandwiches and more hamburger rolls with the yellow stuff. Our breakfast cost less than a dollar and the veranda folks were likely paying over $10 for coffee and a croissant. We ate our DIY breakfasts and got on the bus to Cinefuegos.