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Author Topic: Steve's 2009 Trip to Havana - Part I  (Read 22032 times)
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Steve_YYZ
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« on: January 31, 2009, 08:02:16 am »

Well hello folks. This thread is sort of like a blog in that I'll try to post updates on my travels and photos to go with it. Much as usual depends on internet access, but I'll try to get to an access point every few days at least.
And away we go for another year's adventure........
Steve
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« Last Edit: May 03, 2009, 10:21:22 pm by Steve_YYZ » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2009, 08:56:25 pm »

Friday Feb 6

Well itís been great so far. I was overweight  (169 lbs total) so at check-in I basically had a choice to make. Either pay $35 per bag in overweight charges, a total of $70 CDN, orÖ..pay $120 and upgrade to a first class ticket and have the weight included. So, I took the upgrade and now here it is 8:30 pm and Iím getting served an amazing meal of roast chicken breast, a cold cut plate with salad, proscutto, pasta salad, and sipping on a lovely 7-year-old Havana Club, and enjoying the comfort of a large seat with great legroom, all included in the upgrade price. Now THIS is my kind of AI experience!!!

Beautiful Night for Flying


Cubana Meal


I stopped at the Duty Free to get 2 bottles of Crown Royal and 4 huge Lindt chocolate bars so the weight of those is over and above my check-in weight. Yiikes!!!
This also marks a personal first for me. This is the first time Iíve used a laptop on-board in-flight. But figured Iíd better start somewhere. Only thing that is a small problem is that Iím using an Acer Aspire One Netbook  for the 1st time this trip and itís only got an 85% size keyboard. And I have big hands. So the typing is taking a little getting used to. Kinda slows me down a bit. But I love this little computer. So compact and tiny and only half the size of a regular laptop, and weighs only 2 pounds. Iím sold on this as a traveling computer. Not a lot of battery life, but the Airbus A320 has two AC power sockets between the seats up in 1st class so Iím plugged in and running on AC. Not sure about economy but would love to find out.
Made the stop in Varadero then on to Havana landing just about 12:15 am. Absolutely a breeze getting through Immigration and Aduana. They questioned my 2 large bags and carry-on pack, but when I told them I was going to be in Havana for a full month, they waived me through without even a search. Met my friends who came to pick me up and was at my casa by about 1:30. Tired as hell after a long day so just a quick Buccanero (how nice the first icy cold one tastes) and off to bed.

Saturday Feb 7

Cadeca rate was 1.3886 which gave me 720.15 CUC for 1000 Cdn. Boy does that hurt compared to a year ago when our Canadian dollar was at 1.10 USD. This year, the moto plus the casa kills a full grand Canadian with only enough left over for a few beer. Last year, it left 300 CUC over. Thatís a 30% hit on costs in just one year. Ouch!!!

Got moto. $315 CUC for 21 days + 30 cuc deposit.

Gasoline is 1.10 CUC per liter especial.

Well the streets still have just as many potholes as I remember them. Itís sort of like a slalom ride in some places just to miss them. Coming home at night, I found out the headlights on the Moto donít work properly and youíre riding along and they go out entirely or switch between high and low beam by themselves. And their high isnít even as good as a normal low beam and when itís on low beamÖ.. might as well use a flashlight!!! So as I am going to be doing quite a bit of night riding, on Monday morning Iíll head down to the rental place and see about exchanging the bike.

Got out and did a bit of shopping earlier today and the store seems to have less food selection available then last February. Amazing what one year and a few hurricanes can make in whatís here. But tomorrow (Sunday) I plan to hit Supermercado Palco and also the 3rd y 70 Market and see what the major stores have in supply and selection. Will have to take my big pack with me to carry all the stuff. Iím stocking up my casa kitchen for the month. Need lots of beer to keep those fluid levels up.

Had a great home-cooked meal tonight with Paula and her family. Simple Cuban cooking, rice, Picadillo, salad, malanga and berro. Tasty as heck and a great treat for me. Called it an early night because I really need to catch up on my rest from all the shift work on the last few weeks. What a relief to go to bed and not have to set an alarm.

Sunday Feb 8

Well itís another cloudy, windy and cool day here in Havana. I donít know the exact temperature but it it feels like 20C or slightly lower. Itís definitely sweatshirt weather and will need a jacket while riding the moto.

One of the first things I always have to do when setting up my casa is to get the whole electricity thing worked out. Even off resort you have to be careful and conscious of what you do. So because of using the computer, plus all the various power chargers for cameras etc., I bring an 8 outlet power/surge/transformer power bar with me. As you can see, Iíve also made up a special adaptor that takes a 2 prong AC extension cord (plugged into the 2 pin wall socket) and it converts to a 3 prong grounded plug that the power bar plugs into. The green wire is the ground and as the second photo shows, it goes into a grounding clamp on the water pipe. The power bar has a green diode to show I have a good ground and correct polarity and a red diode to show voltage is within limits and surge protection is working.

Power Bar


Tap Ground Adaptor


Well my thoughts are confirmed. I was out shopping today at the two largest CUC Supermarkets in Havana. Supermercado Palco in Siboney and also the 3rd y 70 Supermercado in Miramar. The real noticeable shortage seems to be in the meats section. Other than some imported Salami or Pepperoni, there is absolutely no local Chorizo or coldcuts and I think for the first time in many years I am simply not going to be able to cook my traditional Canadian turkey dinner. There appears to be none to be found. Thereís lots of local cheese and dairy products, and of course, black-market lobster is always available.

Now, to give you an idea of what prices are like in a CUC Supermercado, which of course few Cubans can shop at unless they have CUC, such as resort or tourist workers.

All Prices in CUC

Jar of Ragu Original Pasta Sauce Ė 4.10
ďComplimentsĒ Pasta Sauce w/basil & Mushrooms Ė 6.10
Quaker Instant Oatmeal (10 paquets) Ė 7.25
ďComplimentsĒ Honey Dijon Salad Dressing (475ml bottle) Ė 5.75
HP Sauce Bold, Bottle Ė 5.55
Mazola Corn Oil, 1 liter bottle Ė 12.85
Can of Yellow Fin Tuna, 170g Ė 3.15
Can, Luncheon Meat (Spam) Ė 4.95
Mr. Noodle package - .65
Box, Special K cereal 510 g Ė 12.00
ďComplimentsĒ jar, Peanut Butter (smooth), 500g, - 5.05
ďComplimentsĒ box, Macaroni and Cheese (like KD) - .90
Spaghetti, 1 kg, - 5.35
Mostaza (mustard) small 320g bottle Ė 1.85
Ciego Monterro 1.5 liter bottle - .65

So as you can see, stuff is expensive even if you can get it. Oh, and the ďComplimentsĒ stuff. There is a lot of their products and they are all bottled/packaged in Mississauga and appear to be very similar to Presidentís Choice stuff, even down to label design, but of course all in Spanish.

Oh, and on my first full day with the Moto, the cops stopped me only once. Seems I still havenít fully grasped the intricacies of a Havana roundabout with 5 streets entering. So the cop was nice enough and explained (in Spanish of course) the correct ďprioridadĒ of using the roundabout. Thank heavenís I know how to say ďestoy perdoneĒ (Iím sorry) and he eventually waived me on my wayÖ. No money or bribe necessary. Phew!!!! But damnÖ. Do Havana drivers love their horns!!! Oh, and the weather this afternoon has finally started to clear up. Nice and sunny and the temp must be up in the low 20ís at least because I no longer even need my sweatshirt. Still quite breezy of course.

Internet access is still 6 CUC per hour and I'm over at the Inglaterra in Havana to type and upload this. It still IS possible (with a bit of "playing") to get my USB key to be recognized and allow uploads of photos to Photobucket and also text from a pre-written Word file. Save connection time that way.

But what a typical Cuban cock-up getting onto a computer. There are many computers available at all the hotels, but they are sold-out of the internet access cards until tomorrow. So they say....... So I basically walked from hotel to hotel to hotel to find one that still had cards left. Bought 4 cards so I have a few spare and can save time later. But this year, the cards apparently ONLY work in the hotel you bought them at. So I guess it's the Hotel Inglaterra for me this year, or until the 4 cards run out.

Hasta la vista my friends..... the adventure begins.

Steve
« Last Edit: February 08, 2009, 09:18:38 pm by Steve_YYZ » Logged

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« Reply #2 on: February 10, 2009, 09:03:18 pm »

Monday Feb 9

Well today sort of started off a small disaster. Sunday night, after uploading my first updates, I decided to head down to La Lluvia de Oro bar on Calle Obispo for a few beer and a cigar. Well it was a good night and the music was great. But arriving back home, I discovered that somewhere along the way Iíve lost my USB key that I use for uploads. Shite!!!! Iíve got a spare 4 g key, but itís a different brand so not sure the computers at the Inglaterra will recognize it. If not, Iíll be down to only typing at the Internet station and not able to upload photos. Fingers crossed.

I left the Oro about Midnight last night and rode down the Prado then back along the Malecon to La Rampa (Calle 23) then headed up to the University. Weird feeling riding along on dark Havana streets, yet people are still up and about. It seems La Rampa never sleeps. But thereís an ethereal beauty to riding along the streets at night, a lit cafť here, music playing there, and people sitting on their steps talking in the darkness.

Today was great in one aspect. While still windy, for the first time I was able to ride the moto with just a golf shirt and still be warm enough. The sun was shining so I rode down to the Transtur Info booth in Miramar and picked up a good map of Havana. With the amount of times I fold and un-fold it during the month I pretty much destroy it by tripís end. Perhaps Iíll buy a second one, bring it home and get it laminated for next year.

Stopped at the Galeria Paseo shopping center to check things out and the food situation is very similar to the other CUC markets. However I did manage to find some good Chorizo (dulce) and bought that along with a nice hunk of Gouda. So now I have some snacking items for late at night at my casa. Still absolutely no sign of a Pavo (turkey) for my family dinner so I might have to start thinking of an alternative meal to cook for the family. I also picked up two bottles of Havana Club 7 AŮos which was on promotion and included a free Havana Club 7 AŮos baseball cap. The HC was 11.90 per bottle.

Put my ďorderĒ in for two boxes of cigars from my normal Havana source. One Cohiba Robusto and One Montecristo #2. Theyíll be delivered to my casa sometime in the next few weeks. In the meantime Iíve got some Cohiba Club, some Romeo y Julieta Minis and of course a pack of ďpesoĒ domestic cigars. So Iím in great shape on the puro front.

As crazy as it sounds, I havenít taken my big camera out of the bag yet. Iím just enjoying getting out and riding around the city and letting the yearís work stress slowly melt away. Iíve been sleeping about 10 hours each night and finally after a few days am starting to unwind and feel rested. Iím also about ľ of the way through my pocket book (Wilbur Smith, ďThe QuestĒ) and itís nice just to sit and read. Thatís the great thing about a monthís trip in that I am in no great rush to run around. Thereís plenty of time for everything.

So, I finally went out this evening for 3 hours and managed to come up with 3 photos. Kind of a frustrating night. Some of the structures that were lovely flood-lit last night (Sunday) are just black holes tonight. I asked some of the security guards and all I basically got for a reply is some nights they are lit, and other nights they are not. Es Cuba!!! So I made do and got a nice shot of the Spanish Embassy. Need to find out the history of this building before it became the embassy. But sadly, modern times are also here. The entire ground floor is fronted with very sturdy steel poles and steel sheeting to ďprotectĒ it from the street? So really, itís only beautiful from the 2nd floor and up.



Then I stopped and went to the back patio area of the Hotel Nacional and got this time exposure of the Malecon. Wish the darn light poles werenít there.



And finally, on Avenue Indepencia where it meets the VŪa Blanca, there is this great fountain and the wind was blowing the spray in a long tail to one side. Seeing as I got a second ďshowerĒ on the Moto as I rode through it, I thought Iíd stop and photograph it as well.



So, I finally got a few photos in the bank and it now looks like Iíll be prowling each night in the hopes that other landmarks are lit one of these nights.

Tuesday Feb 10

Well today was a dichotomy. I started out riding down to Parque Lenin on the southern outskirts of the city. I can only say that mid-week, itís absolutely desolate in the park and other than hawks and vultures soaring overhead, there is not a living thing to be seen. I did find this lovely restored old steam engine from the Wilkes-Barre Pennnsylvania engine works sitting at an abandoned information kiosk. No idea how old it is or what it was used for.



The quiet solitude of an empty park.



One place that did show signs of life was was the Palacio Central de Pioneros, sort of a summer camp for Cubaís Young Pioneers. Letís just say itís a place to brainwash Cuban youth into believing the ďgloriesĒ of the Revolution! No expense spared, there is even a well crafted lifesize replica of the Granma, the boat used by Fidel and the other revolutionaries to return to Cuba from exile in Mexico. So I asked the ever-present security guard for ďpermisoĒ to take a photo and she said si but I could not enter or walk closer to the buildings or grounds. Well I started to take some photos, using various lenses and compositions and lo and behold, she comes running up yelling that I have permission to take ďuno photoĒ not many photos. Go figure! Es Cuba!!! So on my way I went.





So after cruising around the various areas of the park for a while and enjoying the solitude and beauty I decided to start working my way back towards Havana. I headed up through the narrow side streets and pathways of the Parajůn area. And the dichotomy struck me full in the face. How can they promote the ďgloriesĒ of the revolution, yet I am now surrounded by such squalor and hovels that I am loathe to call it housing! For one of the very few times in my life I couldnít bring camera to eye to record what Iím seeing. I am cowed and saddened by the sights. Thereís always a ready smile and a nod as I pass by, yet I canít bring myself to stop and photograph, turning these people into just specimens for la turistaís camera. Seeing this, it brings home to me the almost hopeless task of bringing this country up to better living standards. Iím going to try to go back with my pack full of items that I brought to donate. Soaps and toothpaste etc. Also, Iíll just bring my tiny pocket digital camera and not the big Nikon. Iím hoping that the small camera will feel less intrusive when I ask for permission to shoot. People need to see this, far from the resorts and the tourist excursions. And this ISNíT hurricane damage from last year. Itís just day-to-day life for these people. Eking out an existence.

I did stop at the small countryside cemetery for a few shots. Itís a far cry from the majestic Mausoleums of the Necropolis Colůn in Havana. Here, a nice grave has painted re-bar to surround it and perhaps a stone cross sitting in the weed-choked area. Some graves only have a bent re-bar cross to mark the final resting place. One casket far in the background isnít even buried, but sits forlornly on top of the ground.



So it was a subdued ride back to my casa where ďhard-currencyĒ will allow me to dine in a far better fashion. Then off tonight to the lights and tourist appeal of Vieja and the Cuba that tourists see. Sometimes my mind and spirit just canít make the leap easily.
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« Reply #3 on: February 15, 2009, 09:30:53 pm »

Wednesday to Sunday, Feb 11 to 15

Well itís been a couple of lazy days. It sees I brought one unintended extra from CanadaÖ. A terrible cold! Iíve been coughing and have a good head cold and stuffed up sinuses as well.  Itís the first time Iíve ever really been sick in Cuba and am so glad Iím not just here for a single week. Also luckily I brought a bottle of Benelyn with Codeine and lots of Tylenol so Iím able to treat it. So Iíve slept and read and relaxed for most of the latter part of this week except for late afternoon/evening when Iíve headed out to meet with my friend Paula. We met at a restaurant called Rancho Coquito in the Lonely Planet books, but that the locals simply refer to as Centro Asturiano, down on the Malecon. It has been totally renovated since my last visit and the menu has also changed somewhat. You can no longer get lobster here which is sad because it was one of the best bargains for lobster in Havana. So we sat and drank some cervezas and watched the sun set along the Malecon then still had a good meal.



I had brocheta, skewered kebobs of mixed grill with the usual rice and beans while Paula had a very nice shrimp plate. Between us we split a mixed salad plate as well. I have to honestly say that despite one small hiccup, the service was excellent and for sure this restaurant seems to have learned the meaning of what good service entails. With half-a-dozen beers, some sangria, dinner and two bowls of Crema Queso, the final tab came to 32 CUC which included a 10% service charge (tip) already on the bill. Pretty darn good IMHO for the meal and drinks we had in a great location. Itís a great view from the balcony seats especially after it starts to get dark.



On Friday, I simply said the heck with it and headed out on the scooter because it was so nice and warm. Upper 20ís and very light breeze. Iím fascinated by some of the strange architecture here and things Iíve not seen before. Thereís this building at the intersection of Zanja y Dragoness that reminds me of the Flatiron building in downtown Toronto.



Down by the inner harbour, thereís this church that stongly suggests Eastern Orthodox in itís style but there was no sign to offer further information. It intrigues me and Iíll have to find out more about it.



Down near the Central train station I came across this block that has a Ĺ dozen old train wrecks dropped into the street in front of a row of apartment blocks. No idea why or whether itís part of some future plan for a rail museum, etc. Guess it beats a pink flamingo lawn decoration. LOL!!!



One of Havanaís two great jazz clubs, La Zorra Ďel Cuervo on La Rampa (calle 2) has an honest to god cast-iron English call box as itís front entrance.



And of course Habana Vieja is full of itís usual cast of strange characters, from street musicians to one strange fellow holding aloft a sign saying ďAbrazos GratisĒ (free hugs) and it was amazing the number of ladies stopping to give the chap a big hug. HeyÖ. Whatever works for ya!






Oh, and I have a new Cuban girlfriend who loves big cigars! LOL!!!



And lastly, I met up with two fellow Torontonians (Jim and Michele) from the Trip Advisor Cuba forum and we had a mini pub crawl starting out on the rooftop of the Hotel Ambos Mundos with some cervezas, followed by a healthy supply of Mojitos at la Bodiguita del Medio. Then we wandered up to Restaurant Hanoi for dinner and more drinks, followed up by ending the evening with nightcaps at Havanaís popular Bar Monserrate. Dynamite bar band and music at the Monserrate.

Hereís us hoisting Mojitos at the B-del-M.



So despite feeling under the weather, Iím working hard on keeping up those critical fluid levels and making the best of it. Codeine and Rum is an amazing mixture for relieving pain! The single worst thing about such a bad head cold is that food simply has no taste. So while Iím eating many of my favourites, the gourmand in me simply canít taste to well. Guess that just means Iíll have to come back and eat them all again when I feel better.

Oh, and how do you tell that Cubans simply love their baseball. Well the two Havana teams are the Industriales and the Metropolitanos. Well right beside Estadio Latinamericano are these two apartment blocks. One completely painted in the colors and logo of the Industriales and the other in the colors of the Metropolitanos. And of course all the players actually live in these buildings as well. Couldnít you just see Steve Stavros buying one of those big new condo buildings down by the AC Center, painting the whole bldg in Maple Leaf colors, and making all the players live there. LOL!! Hell, paint a whole building in Leaf colors complete with logo and thatís sure to depress real-estate prices. LOLÖ. Can you tell Iím a Habs fan!!!



Went to a house party last night with a whole bunch of local Cubans. It was a party for ďLa Dia de EnamoradaĒ or what we call Valentines Day. You know, seeing Cubans in their own homes, social setting, a bottle of rum, a few beers, some Sangria and itís just like anywhere else. Good friends having fun and enjoying themselves. But motherÖ. Can they dance!!! I donít think my washing machine on spin cycle moves as fast as those ladies hips! Whoopeeeeee!!!!

Well I had trouble with the scooter today but the end result actually did surprise me. I was way out in the Miramar suburb of western Havana doing some shopping and I also stopped at the Infotur kiosk to pick up some extra maps. Wouldnít you know it. The Moto simply would not start. I tried for 10 minutes and couldnít get that puppy to fire up. Even tried the manual kick-start and that was no joy. CoŮo!!! Itís Sunday afternoon about 1:30 and Iím 15 kilometers from my Casa and about 6 kilometers from the Moto dealer. Well the contract has an emergency phone number on it although being Cuba, Iím not real optimistic but Iím also out of options. So I phoned and actually got someone who spoke English, and he wanted to know the license plate number of the Moto. So I gave him that and in 30 seconds he had my name and contract info. So I told him exactly where I was and he said heíd send someone. Well I honestly figured there goes the afternoon. So I get a cold drink, flop out in some nearby shade and prepare to wait away the afternoon. Surprise!!! In less than 15 minutes a service truck arrives and the mechanic goes to work. Of course the absolute first thing he checks is the gas tank (heyÖ Iím NOT that stupid) but it was brimming full because Iíd just filled it starting out today. So he pulls and cleans the spark plug, checks the ignition etc., and the darn thing wonít fire up for him either. So buy himself, he lifts that scooter up into the back of the truck (thatís some strong Cuban) and away we go back to the dealership. Well I donít really think I could have got better service even in Canada. They re-wrote the contract to give me a new scooter, siphoned the gas from the old tank to the new scooter (hey, itís only 4 liters max, but itís a nice gesture) and in less than 10 minutes Iím off on my way again. In TOTAL, I probably lost LESS than one hour of time on a Sunday afternoon which as I said, surprised the hell out of me. And the new scooterÖ. WOW!!! This one is scary fast, at least 10-15 km faster than the other one and it accelerates like stink! Iím going to have to be careful twisting the throttle on this one and even more careful of the police.

So thatís been the last few days. Feeling sick, making the best of it, a few things happening, but enjoying being in Cuba. Oh, and it was a lovely high of 28C today with a clear blue sky. Iíd only rate the humidity as medium so all-in-all, itís simply the perfect weather Iíd hoped for. I love this time of year in Cuba.

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« Reply #4 on: February 18, 2009, 10:09:15 pm »

Sunday Feb 15

So, letís face it. When youíre independent travelling and solo at that, there will be some evenings when thereís nothing to really do. Iíd already been down to the Hotel Ingleterra to upload to the blog, check emails etc, so, what do you do? Well if youíre a somewhat techno-phile like me, you watch Cuban TV on your Netbook. Before I left on this trip, I picked up this really neat gizmo called a ďPlusTVĒ that is basically just a USB key with an antenna lead coming out the end and a small telescoping antenna at the end of about 2 feet of wire ($79.95 at Tiger Direct) and voila, instant TV on my Netbook. Itís got an 8.9 inch screen and I can either watch in a window, or full screen.

When I first got here, I simply plugged it in, told it to search for channels (digital or analog) and it found the 4 Cuban stations here in Havana. So I can struggle with the Spanish programs, use closed captioning for some that have English captions and there are even English language movies with Spanish subtitles. Neat!!!

One thing I did notice that I found interesting was when I was watching Habana Noitciario, sort of a Havana news program on each evening around dinnertime. Each evening there seems to be a piece about how more ďproducciůn y productivo ser necesariamenteĒ (production and productivity is necessary), which seems to fit into what the governmentís and Raulís position appear to be. God knows thatís whatís necessary to bring a higher standard of living and wages to Cubans. The ďIíll pretend to work if they pretend to pay meĒ philosophy simply wonít do any more.



So there you goÖ.. techno-travel 101 for those who love their toys. LOL!!!

Monday Feb 16

Feel like Mierda today. Didnít sleep well and this cold isnít getting any better. SoÖ. I had to meet two couples from Halifax who Iíd previously arranged to meet for drinks at the Floridita. They did the popular ďtaxi for a dayĒ routine from Jibacoa and theyíre from the TA forum. What the heck, alcohol at least makes you forget youíre feeling bad. LOL!!! So I motored to the city and spent a couple of sociable hours early afternoon down in Vieja, hit a few cultural highlights, and a couple of bars for refreshments. Itís just so incredibly difficult to even know what to say or show to people who basically only have time for a once-over-lightly wide-eyed walk through of part of Old Havana.

So when they had to leave, it was time for me to moto out to the Farmacia Internacional in Miramar and look for something more to help shake this cold. Itís at the corner of Calle 20 y Ave 41, Playa, right opposite the International clinic and hospital ďClinica Cira GarciaĒ. I did find some Panadol, which is similar to Neo Citran. Itís a GlaxoSmithKline product that comes in from Costa Rica. What the heck I figure, so tonight Iím sitting here writing on the computer and sipping hot Panadol. Wonder what Panadol and Havana Club AŮejo-7-AŮos together would make? Just kidding folks! Also picked up some liquid cough medicine called Guaifenesin, which ironically comes from South Carolina in the states and is the Latin American name for Robitussin. Prices arenít outrageous either. A bottle of the cough medicine is 6.95 CUC and the Panadol are .80 CUC per packet. Expensive for a Cuban, but ok by our North American standards.



Oh, and in one of those absolutely humorous moments of Cuban life, the ďOFFICIAL Vested Parking AttendantĒ outside the hospital (who you tip for watching your vehicle while parked) ambles across the street to all the men coming out of the Pharmacy. Did he whisper ďcigars senior?ĒÖÖ nope. Would you believe he holds out his hand with a blister pack of 4 Viagra for only 15 CUC. LOL!!! And yes, I said No Gracias, No Necesario! LOL!!!

So that gets the medical part out of the way today. But once in a while you also just feel like a good dose of comfort food. So it was time to moto off to western Miramar suburb and El Palenque for what I think is Havanaís best honest to god Cheeseburger and Fries plate, with a Coke of course. And you just canít beat the price. The ďCheeseburger Especial, con Papas FritasĒ is only 2.75 CUC and a real Coke, 1.00 CUC. So with the added on ďtipĒ youíre out the door for less than 4 - 5 CUC. A great deal and a nice pick-me-up today.



And along the way through the backstreets I just by luck happened upon one of Cubaís great traditions. A couple had just been married and itís traditional (if they can afford to) for the Best Man to drive them around the neighbourhood sitting on the back of an old car. Horns blaring of course. Iíd just ridden around a corner and saw them sitting waiting for the light to change. I slammed to a stop right in the middle of the street, yelled ďMomenticoĒ, grabbed my little pocket camera from my vest pocket, yelled ďSonrisa y FelicidadesĒ, and got one of those nice slices of Cuban life. Of course my sudden stop to take the photo added even more to the cacophony of horns. LOL!!!! But some moments ya just gotta grab when the opportunity beckons.



Tuesday Feb 17

I was a total lazy-boy today and slept in till eleven. But at least the medicine seems to be working and I was able to sleep for pretty good periods without waking and coughing. Itís a nice warm day about 25C so with no real plan, I just decided to head off on the moto for a ride. Today I headed south of the city and south even of the airport. I wasnít even looking at the map but rather just following any road that looked interesting (and paved) and that generally headed south and west.

Pretty soon itís all rural farmland and without doubt there is some incredibly fertile land out here. There is also artificial irrigation of some fields and the crops look luscious and green. It really makes me wonder how a country with such seemingly vast potential is unable to feed itself. Yes, you can still see remnants of what I assume is hurricane damage, most notable on the fields of banana trees. You can see where branches/leaves have been torn away and new growth is sprouting. But there are also large tracts of land lying fallow and seemingly abandoned and un-worked for a long time.

Crops being Irrigated


One crop has me intrigued simply because I have absolutely no idea what it is, nor why the entire fields are completely covered (including walls) by a thin muslin type fabric. The fields are hundreds and hundreds of meters square and the crop inside is 4 or 5 feet tall and appears to be at the stage of flowering on the tops. (NOÖ. itís NOT that type of ďflower-topĒ LOL!!!)
Absolutely nobody is around, so I stop, grab a few photos and motor along on my way.

Covered Fields and Crops


Flower Tops?


Pretty soon itís mid-afternoon and I know Iím a long way from the ďcityĒ because the little towns Iím passing through no longer have buses, but are back to that quaint Cuban conveyance, the horse and carriage. They plod along on regular routes and for a few centavos (MN) they carry people about town.



So I  figure itís time to stop and look at the map, figure out where I am, and plot a route back to Havana. CoŮo!!! The Map!!! Yup, itís sitting back at my casa on the kitchen table. I have absolutely no idea where I am. Well, the sun has generally been in front of me and to the right on the way down ďhereĒ so Iíll just reverse the process and keep the sun behind me and to the left and motor along and see where I end up. Iím not worried because these roads out here are a simply joy to ride along on the moto. The pavement is good (for Cuba), the weather warm, and the sun is shining. Now how bad can that really be? Well after a while, I spy (can I use that word writing from Cuba?) church steeples to the northwest (front left horizon) and the road is generally headed that way. I come into the town of San Antonio de los Banos, a name I remember seeing on the map. Itís about 35km south-west of Havana so my dead reckoning navigation hasnít been too bad.

I cruise into the town for a look-see and itís pretty much like most small Cuban towns. Thereís a central square and also a plaza in front of the church. The church looks pretty normal but in need of some upkeep on the outside. But the insideÖ. Wow, very nice indeed. I canít find a sign or name anywhere so thatís something Iíll have to look up when I get back.





One thing catches my eye in front of the church in the plaza. A group of about 30 young teenagers (13-15 approx) under the direction of one military shirted adult are working through a series of formations and close-order drills, and shouting out the cadence. Itís the first real sign of young military type assembly Iíve seen in my Cuban travels. It actually reminds me very much of my time as a youth in the Canadian Army Cadets. I grabbed a frame unobtrusively and proceeded on my way.



Thereís a nice little river running through the town and itís a pretty scene up along itís banks.




From San Antonio de los Banos back to Havana was pretty straightforward a ride. I took the main road north which led me up to the Autopista which took me back to the city. Itís the first time Iíve taken the moto on the Autopista and what a treat. Everything from bicycles to horse carts to trucks plodding along. Cars zipping by at 100 kph and the Viazul and Astro buses passing by at what can only be Warp 9!! Thank god itís at least 3+ lanes wide and pretty good pavement. Sort of like riding a scooter up Hwy 400 between Toronto and Barrie! Definitely not for the faint of heart, but a new experience none-the-less.

As long as Iím only a ďshadowĒ on the Autopista and not a ďsmearĒ on the Autopista, thereís nothing to worry about. LOL!!!


So safely back in the city itís time for a quick hot shower and change at my casa then off again to Vieja to meet Michele and Jim at their hotel, grab a cab, pick up Paula and off to a favourite Havana restaurant for dinner. We went to El Aljibe out in Miramar and had their all-you-can-eat ďPollo Asado El AljibeĒ (Roast Chicken in a tangy lemon sauce) with all the fixing (rice, beans, french fries, plantano chips, fried banana, salad). A few Mojitoís to start us off, a nice bottle of Chilean Chardonnay with dinner, traditional Cuban Flan for desert for the guys, and ice-cream for he ladies, with Cafť Cubano and we were stuffed. The entire tab for the four of us, drinks and wine included came to 103 CUC (+ tip), which is bloody decent.

Enjoying coffee and flan at El Aljibe


So that pretty much gets me up to date on the last few days. Today (Wednesday) has been nice and warm (about 25C) but itís been quite windy and blustery so Iíve spent a relaxing day around the casa catching some sun and not doing much of anything. BesidesÖ.LOL!!!!, my arse is sore after yesterdayís long ride!!!
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Steve_YYZ
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« Reply #5 on: February 22, 2009, 11:27:38 pm »

Wednesday Night (late) Feb 18

Well on my way home from the Inglaterra Internet Cafť, I usually come along the Malecon and turn up Calle 23 (La Rampa). Did the same thing tonight but decided to stop at Ave L at the top of the hill at Dinoís Pizza for a bite to eat. First time Iíve ever stopped there. A pizza queso y chorizo (cheese & pepperoni) is 1.90 CUC and while not actually bad, it did leave a lot to be desired. Thin crust, even thinner tomato paste, but an honest covering of cheese and chorizo. But comparing itís approx $2.50 CDN cost with the ďstreet pizzaĒ I get down in Vieja for 13 pesos MN (.65 cents CDN) and it would be a hard toss-up. Now Iíll admit the street pizza only has ham as a topping and not pepperoni, but still a tough call. Oh well, the place does seem very busy with mostly Cubans and their dates so it must impress the chicas. LOL!!!

Thursday Feb 19

Well it dawned hot and sunny today with a beautiful blue sky so what better excuse than to grab the big camera, the moto, and yesÖ the map this time! Feeling somewhat better, I fuelled me with a great omelette at the casa, fuelled the moto with Especial and headed out west from Havana along the north shore road.

Well I hadnít gone much past Santa Fe when I came upon a definite oddity for Cuba. Would you believe motor racing? Karting to be exact, but not your run of the mill tourist go-karts, but rather full-blown 125 cc water-cooled Rotax powered racing karts. Iíll be honest and say that I knew the track was out there. Iíve got a nice Google Earth image of the track and layout, but I was curious to see what was actually happening. The track was closed except for a private test/practice session for one crew. There is a big race-day coming up on March 8th, but sadly Iíll be flying home that day and wonít be able to check it out. Iíve done some Kart racing here in Canada and was itching to take one of these puppies out, but like thatís not going to happen here! LOL!!! Oh well.



Heading westward still, my next stop was along the seaside hamlet of Playa Baracoa. As you can see, there is everything from quite nice homes along the watersí edge to others eroded away with just the foundations still remaining. But itís very pretty and serene along the coastline here but having seen the ocean swell crashing ashore along Havanaís Malecon, it doesnít take much to imagine what it would be like along here during a good blow.



Of course like every little hamlet, there is a church of one sort or another.



And where the little river mouth empties into the sea, itís also very pretty and colourful.



By this point, Iím figuring nothing ventured, nothing gained so I push right on past Playa El Salado which really didnít amount to much except a nice view from a high bridge. Next stop is when I spy smoke and smog ahead and a sharp whiff of crude petroleum fumes assaults the nostrils. Iíve arrived on the eastern outskirts of the industrial port City of Muriel and La Boca, about 65 kilometres west of Havana.

Letís face it. Most of us are aware that burning oil generates virtually all of Cubaís electricity. Heavy sulphur crude at that, and it takes monstrous plants to generate that power. I shot this photo from the outskirts of town because I didnít want to chance photography closer and within sight of the ever present guards.



And lest you think this is bad, let me also tell you that right across the road to the left (out of camera frame) is an equally large concrete plant that also spews a noxious cloud of something or other. I simply couldnít find anywhere to get an angle to get a photo of this plant as well.

So I held my breath and quickly motored past these goliaths and around the headland to cleaner breathable air. I was now in sight of Muriel Inlet, the site many years ago where some 80,000 rafters were permitted to leave Cuba and venture forth across the Straits of Florida to the USA. Basically when Castro emptied his prisons and told them to leave. It was due to the Muriel Boatlift that the USA and Cuba eventually came to an accord where the US would issue 20,000 immigration visas each year and Cuba would stop the rafters exodus. Needless to say, the US has never actually held up their side of the bargain and actually issued the full quantity of visas in any given year. The Muriel Boatlift also had a great deal to do with what eventually became the USAís ďWet-Foot, Dry-FootĒ policy in place today.

Itís still a very busy shipping port with many ships at anchor in the harbour. I could make out Greek and Russian shipping lines for sure, plus others that I couldnít recognize.



The town is nothing really special and looks very typically Cuban, albeit with large wharf/warehouse areas alongside the harbour itself. And of course, the typical govít billboards of one type or another. But this is one of the few places where Iíve actually seen Fidelís likeness used.



Perhaps the strangest oddity that I saw was this Tudor style building/castle high up on the hillside. I tried to get up to take some more photos but three-quarters of the  way up the road is a military checkpoint and the dreaded ďZona ProhibitoĒ which I DID manage to stay outside this time! LOL!!!



However I did manage to find this dirt road/track that I could barely moto up to get a nice overview of the town of Muriel and about the inner one-third of the inlet. The track is far steeper than it looks in this photo, believe you me!



So with the afternoon waning, it was time to bid adios to Muriel and start the long drive back to Havana. And it was an interesting drive.

Partway back and Iím comfortably motoring along and suddenly hear the sharp crack of high-powered gunfire ahead. Lot of it, with both single and full auto fire. And yes, I do know from experience what that sounds like so I rolled out of the throttle and proceeded cautiously up the road and around the next bend. And lo and behold, itís a Cuban Military live-fire exercise at a range located right alongside the roadway to the ocean side. Iíd seen the barracks beside the road on the outward leg of my drive but nobody was about. Well now late afternoon and thereís at least two platoons of soldiers in full gear doing a field stripping exercise and live fire on about a 200-300 meter range. You can clearly hear the zzzzzzzzip in the air as rounds pass down the range, through the targets and into the burms behind. The targets were both standard roundels and also full silhouette type. The roadside is only about 40 meters from the firing pits and maybe 20 meters from the tables where they were fieldstripping their weapons. I stopped to watch and they gave me about 10 minutes of watching before an officer whistled and waved me on my way with a friendly smile and wave. SorryÖ no photos. I may be crazy, but even Iím NOT that insane! LOL!!! However the troops did look very smart, crisp and highly professional.

One other place you pass where I could take photos is the Escuela Laninoamericana de Medicina (Latin American School of Medicine) which is nestled along the shoreline near Playa Baracoa. As we all know, Cuba is very active in training medical doctors from many countries in South and Central America and this is a huge complex of buildings. The water-tower is also an observation tower, but despite asking, I couldnít get permission to climb to the top for a panoramic photo.



In typical Cuban fashion, whenever you drive inter-city you will pass Punto de Controls where they stop Cubans and check identification. Iíve never had a problem and for the most part am waved right on through without problemÖ. Even today! So sorry guys, no ride in a police car yet this trip. Something Iím actually hoping to avoid despite my adventures. LOL!!!



Oh, and Bulldog asked for some photos of me and this yearís moto. Well here you go BD. You can call this moto the Yellow Peril, The Bumblebee or whatever.



And as I had the big toy with me today with itís extremely wide lens, I thought Iíd also give you a treat to see what it really looks like to see Cuba from the driverís seat of the moto. Let me tell you BD, itís some trick to ride the moto at speed and wield a full-blown DSLR and look through the viewfinderÖ.. all at the same time and keeping between the ditches!!! And NO PHOTOSHOP was used!!!



So that ends another long daysí adventure and after 7 full hours in the saddle, Iím now a nice shade of lobster red and feeling equally charbroiled. But itís forecast to rain tomorrow morning so that likely means no riding. Oh, and my arse hurts again! LOL!!!

Friday Feb 20

Well of course the forecast is wrong and thereís not a cloud in the sky! Heck, they canít get the forecast right in Canada, so why would it be correct here? But a cold front has gone through overnight and once again itís cool and windy though bright and sunny. Itís back with the sweatshirt even during the daytime today.

I needed some Internet cards so I rode down to the Inglaterra Hotel to pick some up. Itís better to have them then arrive and find out there are none until tomorrow. Youíd think that something as simple as keeping stock on Internet Cards would be an easy thing to do, but not apparently in Cuba. It seems they only deliver a set number to each hotel each day and once they run out the machines sit empty and unused for the rest of the day. Es Cuba!!
So I get there early today and get a new surprise. Theyíve always had one-hour cards for 6 CUC. Well now somebody has decided to sell only half-hour cards for 3 CUC. Now thatís not really a problem per-se, but Iíve always known that the first 5 minutes is just getting set-up and the last 5 minutes is pretty much a waste because you get caught doing something, sending an email etc and the machine just cuts you off mid process. Now, with only 30 minute cards, thatís going to be twice the unproductive delay just getting things done. Typical Cuban inefficiency or not caring what the customer wants or needs. Going to make uploading photos more difficult and time consuming. CoŮo!!!

I stopped by to see Pototo this afternoon and talked and drank espressos out on his balcony. This is the view looking west up Neptuno from Pototoís balcony. Pototo lives in Centro Habana. The tower is the Monumento a Julio Antonio Mella and the green leafy area a couple of blocks up is the University de la Habana.



Pototo also has a couple of real pretty birds in a cage on his balcony.



Oh, and you want to talk about POTHOLES and obstacles while either driving or riding the moto around Havana. Have a look at these!!! I came across them (thankfully not literally) last night. They just come along and dig up a bad section of the pavement, anywhere from 1 meter to 3 meters wide, and the full width of half the street. The damn holes are at least 6 inches deep as well with absolutely square sides. Of course they donít actually come along and put the new pavement in until who knows when. And the holes arenít marked or pyloned either. So the necessity of NOT overdriving your headlights is readily apparent. The only way safely past is to use the oncoming lanes and drive against the flow as this other moto rider is doing. Yiikessss!!!! I had come across these for the first time the other night on my way home and photographed them today. Theyíre on one of my shortcuts home from Paulaís. Es Cuba!!!



Tonight I rode down to another place reported to have a great hamburger. I seem to be on a quest here. LOL!! So I went to a place called Pan.Com located on 7th Ave, cnr Calle 26 in Miramar, a block east of the Canadian Embassy. Itís pretty much a sandwich shop but what a burger. The Super Cheeseburger is 235 grams, double-pattie, with chips (not fries) all on a huge toasted bun for 3.25 CUC. A funny thing. I asked for a slice of cebolla (onion) to go on the burger and they brought me an entire sliced onion. And it was a darn good burger and the only thing not making it rise to the top is that chips just donít make it the way honest to god French Fries do.

They also have what must be the biggest sandwich Iíve ever seen in Cuba. Itís called the Super Pan Jumbo (560 grams) for 5.00 CUC and includesÖ.. Baguete (125 gr), Jamůn Barra (75 gr), Jamůn Rapido (75 gr), Queso (75 gr), Mortadella (75 gr), Bacon (30 gr), Pierna (50 gr), and vegetables. I have no idea what some of those ingredients actually are but it looks amazing and Iíll have to come back one day and try one.

Oh, and it was incredibly COLD and WINDY trying to ride the moto back to my casa tonight. I had on a long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt and jacket with the collar zipped right up to my ears and was still cold. And the wind was definitely buffeting the moto around and making my eyes water. Not a fun ride actually but Iím back safely in my casa and am going to spend the rest of the night inside. Thankfully thereís an English language sci-fi movie on tonight with Spanish subtitles. So thereís something to watch at least.

Well the weekend has been pretty tame. Just out socializing with friends around Havana and drinking endless cups of espresso, cerveza y ron while visiting. Helped one friend get their computer set-up and fix some problems. Itís amazing how many people have access to some sort of Internet or other and how many ways local Habaneros find to ďwork the system, izquierdoĒ (on the left, meaning not authorized or official).

Had a great meal Saturday night at a place Iíve never tried before. Went to the TrattorŪa Marakas, located at 37 Calle ďOĒ a few doors east of La Rampa (Calle 23) in Vedado. Itís a pretty simple faux Italian looking place with a huge map and posters of Italy on the wallsÖ but the food!!! My god, Iíve got to admit that Iíve not eaten better even along St. Clair in Torontoís little Italy area. I had a combination plate with Lasagna and Cannonelli (sp) with a basket of garlic bread and a half-bottle of red wine and it was superb. Thick and cheesy with real Parmesan and Mozzarella and an honest meat/tomato sauce. Even served traditionally in a deep dish scalding hot right out of the oven. Cost 12 CUC for everything. Paula had a pizza and they actually have a real wood-fired pizza oven in the back of the place. The only drawback was the service. The waiter was polite and efficient, but the kitchen was soooooo slooooooow!!! From ordering the lasagna to it getting to our table was at least 45 minutes. Iíll lay a bet that they only make it to order, then bake it in the oven which is why itís so long a wait. With that much delay, should have had the full bottle of wine! LOL!!! BTW, the dinner without the wine would have been 6.50 CUC. They have several pages of various pasta dishes all for the same 6.50 CUC price.

So itís now Sunday night and Iím at the Hotel Plaza because they are the only hotel in the city that still has Internet Cards available. And lo and behold, they are 1 hour cards. Es Cuba!!! Itís enough to drive me MORE Loco!!!  ROFL ROFL ROFL






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JohnnyCastaway
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« Reply #6 on: February 23, 2009, 10:08:35 pm »

Steve's journal continues in part II

http://www.7daysinparadise.com/smf/index.php?topic=7634.0#new
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Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
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