13 Apr First Impressions of Cuba
First Impressions of Cuba
At the Habana airport, we pushed past tourists boarding shuttles and taxis, shouting their expensive airport-rates, out to the parking lot full of classic 50’s cars and finally reached the cyclone fence where we asked an stranger how to get out to the road.
“The highway?” He asked, raising an eyebrow.
Out on the highway, I was happy to have my red Gregory pack that I got back in 2005 when I went backpacking with my mom. Eight years later, my pack has been nothing but true blue. It’s a great size and really comfortable. Okay, but enough discussion of how much I love my pack …
After walking for a bit, a taxi slowed down to talk to us. We asked her price and refused, however, she didn’t go away. She said, “Get in. I’ll give you a ride, anyway.”
It was a hard offer to refuse, so we hopped in. The woman was quite the character. She had a wild laugh and almost no teeth. When she talked, I thought her eyes might pop out of her head. At one point her car died and she explained (like it was nothing) that without a fuel pump how she had to blow into her gas tank to manually propel the gas to the engine. Sometimes she got a mouthful back. No biggie. She also told us that people like to joke that she’s always “blowing tube.”
After walking around Habana Vieja for a bit, we were eager to drop our packs and get some food in our bellies. We asked around for paladares (eateries) only to learn they were all closed due to the hour. We were wandered around the city from door to closed door until we found El Porton. Over a cocktail, we chatted with Jean and his father David, both trained chefs and warm, kind-hearted people. We told them we were looking for a place to stay, a casa particular, or private house that the government permits to have guests.
Our budget for the trip was a tight one, with approximately 40$ a day between the two of us for food and lodging. David took us to a guesthouse around the corner that was 20$ a night. We were expecting to pay double in Havana, and since David, his wife and father were so helpful we didn’t mind over-spending a bit on our first meal: lobster and chicken with mushroom sauce, rice and beans, and salad.
Rene owned the guest house on Mercedes in Habana Vieja. It was painted in pastel colors and had 20 ft. ceilings. We stayed in a guest room upstairs with sheets, a fan and a hot, high-pressure shower. After cleaning up, we wandered the town, looking for live music. We walked through the imposing (although decaying) Caribbean Colonial Architecture, sitting down by fountains and looking at the full moon. We were invited into several clubs, but turned down the offers. Instead we dipped back into the dirty streets of Old Habana and wandered around them admiring the beauty of a decaying thing.
We ended at Bodeguita del Medio, the bar where the mojito was invented. There was a sign that said “Mi mojito in La Bodeguita / Mi daiquiri in El Floridita” written and signed by Ernest Hemingway. The bar was about the 16X16 (or 5X5 if you’re into the whole metric thing) and packed with people, including a band crammed into the corner cranking out amazing Cuban classics – just the things I had expected to hear like Chan Chan and Dos Gardenias Para Ti.
We swilled down the most delicious mojitos and staked claim on a small corner of the bar where Sean chose our cigars. I mean, we had just arrived in Havana, so he selected some Romeo and Juliets and we smoked right there in the bar, dancing and sipping cocktails.