Cuba is changing fast, and it’s hard to predict the future for this remarkable island nation and its sturdy people. Political alliances with foreign countries, sometimes their only lifeline, have disintergrated more than once, leaving the Cuban people with meagre resources and starvation. Yet in most of them there is still a strong faith in the Revolution, a national pride and at the same time a yearning for living a normal modern life.
After a long flight via Toronto, Canada, we land at last on José Martí, Havana’s international airport. It’s near midnight and we pass the immigration surprisingly quick and without problems. We carry our backpacks out into the hot night and accidentally fool the long taxi queue outside. We spot taxis some 100 meters away in the darkness under a couple of trees, and jog up to them. It’s turns out to be where taxi drivers take a break. One of them agrees to drive us, and we hear angry shouts behind us as we drive off.
We have booked a room in a “casa particular” in Havana’s old town, and it’s so central that we can see the dome of the Capitolio if we lean out the window. A casa particular is a private guesthouse, but this one is like a small hotel, as most of them are. And they are always clean and comfortable. You find them everywhere in Cuba.
After breakfast we set out to conquer Havana on foot. We have of course read lots about this historical city with its colonial style palaces and shining old yankee cars. But we are still surprised by some things. For example we realize that a western tourist can walk around here unharmed by beggars and trixters. The only people that try to sell us something are very old and harmless. There’s one exception, a man that looks very much like Fidel, offering to be photographed with us. But really that’s just a bit funny.
The buildings lining Havana’s streets and squares are often stunningly beautiful. But many are in very poor condition, partly abandoned and with floors open to rain and wind. Some quarters are just facades, supported by scaffolding. And have probably been like that for a long time, the scaffolding is totally overgrown with trees and bushes, looking like enormous hanging gardens.
It’s sad to see these grand palaces deteriorate, even along the iconic Malecón seaside promenade. It’s probably due to the fact that many houses have no owner, the tenants living there only pays a symbolic sum to the state. Here and there there are campaigns to renovate certain buildings, but it’s just raindrops in the ocean.
Cuba’s political adversaries like to speak about repression and dictatorship. But to a visitor things don’t look that way. People are very friendly and clamorous in a latin way. They love music and dance and are extremely patriotic. We don’t see a lot of police in the streets, in fact hardly any at all. We speak freely with both those who are against the regime and those who defend it. And they speak to us without looking over their shoulder.
We like the green square Parque Central, with the statue of the great hero (no, not Fidel) José Martí, and the Great Theater, a baroque cream cake dream dominates one side. And close to it Hotel La Inglaterra with a nice outdoor seating. Perfect for a coffee or beer, watching Havana everyday life pass by.
After that we head east through crowded streets to Plaza de la Cathedral, and the old San Cristobal de la Habana church, often just called “the cathedral”. Not a huge construction and a rather minimalistic interior as in most Cuban churches. But the square is lively. In the shadows two voluminous ladies preside with cigars the size of children’s arms, and tell fortunes.
And in an alley near the cathedral square we by chance find the paladar Doña Eutimia, which is probably one of the city’s best eateries. A paladar is a private restaurant (as opposed to the state owned ones) and those are always the best options in this country. In the state owned restaurants the service is at best slow and the food eatable.
Two guys approach us and sing and play for us. We ask them to do ”Lagrimas Negras”, a classic sentimental cuban pop song. Which they do, and well too.
In the next chapter we meet the swede who started Havana’s hippest restaurant, and we also learn about the revolutionary that went m.i.a.
Five things not to be missed in Cuba: