24 Apr Settling into Havana
Settling into Havana
We went to the feria after breakfast. Our breakfast consisted of wonderful coffee, milk, a plate of exotic fruits and bread with butter. It cost 3$ USD. At the fair in Old Havana, down by the water, we looked at goods (including drums) and I ended up dancing in the middle of the market when one Cuban started to play. Outside of the warehouse that housed the feria, there was a parking lot full of gorgeous cars from the ‘50s.
We strolled through the Havana streets photographing stairwells until we found a cheap restaurant full of character. El Chanchullero served two options: pork or fish. A plate cost 4$ and came with a big salad and bread. The smells of garlic and butter permeated the air. The walls were covered in autographs, foreign money and writing. We drank rum with our lunch and laughed about everything.
Next, we went to the train station to get our tickets to Santiago de Cuba, 759km (471 mi) away. We planned to go to the other end of the island and work our way back slowly, stopping at destinations along the way. But our greatest source of excitement was the idea of the train, riding across Cuba on the oldest railway in Latin America.
On our way, we saw some cute kids sitting in a doorway and stopped to give them some candy. The nearby men called out that they wanted candy too, and soon, we were dolling out caramelos all over the place. One man gave us bananas while another gave us shaved orange slices.
At the train station, we were re-directed three blocks down the street to buy tickets. Once we arrived, we were passed along to three different windows. Utterly disinterested in selling us tickets, the man at the last window told us there were no seats available. He didn’t even make eye contact. Perhaps I should add here that we were communicating in clear, fluent Spanish.
Disappointed, especially since he told us there wasn’t another train for a week and wouldn’t sell us tickets in advance either, we trudged through Old Havana discussing options. We passed a barber shop, stopping in to ask if we could photograph his Fidel poster. He conceded and professed his love for Fidel. We mentioned our train situation and he laughed. “Didn’t you know,” he probed, “you have to pay a Cuban to buy the ticket for you?”
That got us thinking: true or not it couldn’t hurt to have someone local who might help us navigate the bureaucracy with us. We ended up returning to Taberna El Porton to ask David his thoughts on the matter. He quickly volunteered to do it, free of charge.
After securing another night in Rene’s casa particular, we went in search of Adonis – a kind Cuban waiter we had chatted with in the street the day before. He hadn’t asked us for anything (which is quite rare in Cuba) and we wanted to share some extra provisions we had brought to donate. He’d spoken so highly of his family and we appreciated the selflessness of the
interaction, so we loaded up some of the soap weight for immediate donation
While looking for him, another Cuban waiter approached us in the street (the most common way to get tourists into their restaurants.) After a failed pitch, he leaned in and whispered that he knew of a “real” Cuban eatery.
Skepticism aside, we followed him through a nook of restaurants into an alleyway where we started to believe him. We wound through alleyways and up stairs to the tiny apartment of a woman named Araceli, whose daughter nursed her two year old baby while we ate a 5$ dinner of chicken with rice and discussed Cuba’s changing economy.
“Cuba’s not changing,” Araceli said, “these changes are symbolic. If they thought I could travel, they wouldn’t have given me permission to.” Her biggest frustration was the exorbitant price of items we would consider normal – soap, toothpaste, diapers. “They’re unaffordable,” she said.
Later, we went to Bodeguita del Medio for more mojitos and music. I got slightly better at smoking cigars, but not much. After dancing for a bit in the back corner (of this incredibly famous one room bar), the band stops playing traditional Cuban music twice to play Arabic music so I would dance. The floor cleared out around me and since improvisation is the name of my belly dance game, that’s just what I did.