Wednesday March 4
Today I decided to head down to Vieja and just wander about the old city with my camera. Nothing specific in mind to shoot, but rather just walk about and see what catches my eye or what is happening. So I rode the moto down and parked it in my usual spot beside the Hotel Plaza and started by wandering down Calle Obispo. Besides, I was hungry and there are lots of places to get “Peso Sandwiches” along Obispo. For 10 pesos MN (about 45 cents Cdn) you can get a lot of food for little price.
The first thing that catches my eye, and ears is a loud drum playing, horn blowing group of buskers on stilts coming down the street.
But after a few minutes, these buskers are really starting to piss-me-off. They carry long sticks with a hoop and sock on the end with which to collect tips and money. So I did in and give them 1 CUC and start taking photos. I’m walking backwards in front of them trying to get a “good” frame that captures expression, action, etc. But one guy (the leader I presume) now says that I have a “grande camera” and am taking more than one photo and he now insists that I “owe” 5 Pesos CUC for photos. Well this gets obnoxious and ugly and now every time I bring the camera to my eye, he’s waving his arms and getting in my way and blocking me. I’ll have more on this whole issue of “paying” for photos later in this blog.
Walking farther down Opispo and whoa!!! There’s a guy with a machine gun waving people over to the other sidewalk. Seems they are delivering a good pile of money to the Cadeca and not taking any chances.
All the way down at Plaza de Armas, the pigeons are having fun playing in the fountain while the arches of the Palacio del Segundo Cabo make a nice composition.
I admit, I’m fascinated by the lovely grace of the use of arches in Spanish architecture. Whether as external elements such as above, or as grand entrances to fabulous interior courtyards such as these.
Palacio de la Artesanía (Also known as the Caracol Bldg) This building also has a reasonably good cigar shop, and a shop where you can buy T’s and Polo Shirts and where you can find genuine Cuban Baseball Jerseys.
There’s another beautiful courtyard at the Hostal Palacio O’Farrill which is also unusual in that it’s a four story building, and each floor depicts a different century of development.
Working my way along Tacon, you come to perhaps one of the most ornate police stations I know of anywhere. The Policía Nacional Revolucionaria Comandancia General building another of those wonderful structures that I need to research the history and background of.
And of course, everywhere you wander there are wonderful old cars just begging to be photographed….and not wanting a Peso for the privledge.
Everywhere I wandered in Vieja, it was obvious that more buildings are being restored and without doubt they love to use bright colors of paint on many of them.
Plaza Cathedral is one place that I never seem to get tired of visiting or photographing.
One thing new this year is along the east side of the square. There is this “iron man” now leaning casually up against one of the pillars. There is also more restoration work taking place, to what end I don’t know.
And the Cathedral is now open for self-guided tours. In other words, just walk in and wander about. Lots of hustlers “offering” their expert tour guide services. LOL!!!
Now in regards to the whole issue of paying to take photos in Old Havana. IMHO, it’s gotten totally out of hand and it’s now become a royal pain-in-the-ass to actually walk around Vieja with a camera. Take a look at the following three photos. The first was taken with a 300mm lens from long-distance, playing “peek-a-boo” around the pillars so I wouldn’t be seen. It’s the type of candid, non-posed images that I look for. But once you’re “spied”, then the ladies actively hide their faces, or in this case, hold a flower backet in front of their faces. She sat like that for literally 20 minutes while a “Mexican standoff” took place between her and at least a half-dozen trying to take photos. I found the “peek-a-boo” image of her looking around the basket kinda funny in itself. But they sit right on the front of the Cathedral and you literally can’t take a photo of the building without paying them, or having them covering their faces in the foreground of your image. Totally asinine situation. But what really saddened me was the third photo. Again, I shot this unobserved with a long lens looking for that candid moment. But when they eventually saw me, well lo and behold, they also demanded pesos. It now seems that even schoolchildren have learned to come and sit around Vieja in the afternoon and make pesos from the tourists for photos. While I sat at a local patio and watched, they must have made at least 12-15 CUC in the short time I was there. Why go to school when you can become rich by playing to the tourists, even as schoolchildren. The school uniform just becomes their “prop” and selling point. Can I blame them, well not really. We the tourist(s) have created this situation by our indiscriminate throwing about of pesos to those “poor people or cute kids”. Perhaps out in the Campos it’s different, but in Havana, it’s fast becoming no fun to wander and take photos. Because even if you pay, what you end up with is a collection of “posed” photos, with nothing candid or real. That single reason alone might be enough for me to de-list Cuba as my travel destination in future.
So having had enough of Vieja and the antics of the “professional” models, I figured it was time to head back up to where the moto was parked. I chose to walk up Calle Empedrado from Calle Cuba to Monserrate. It’s a great street to wander along because once you get west of the block that contains La Bodeguita del Medio, it quickly becomes a gritty street bustling with the everyday life of Habaneros.
It’s also where I got a great lesson in why Cubans always carry a plastic grocery bag folded up in their pocket or purse, for those occasions when a necessity is seen in a local shop. For weeks, there has been no fresh on-the-bone ham available to Habaneros. I did manage to buy some “Cooked Ham” at one of the CUC markets, but at 11 CUC per kg, it’s far too pricey for an average Cuban. The on-the-bone ham is a staggering 15.95 CUC per kg at Palco or 3rd y 70. So here I am walking up the street and I glance into the showcase window of the local Carnicería (butcher) and wow, there’s a real ham on-the-bone and as it’s a local Cuban peso shop, it’s priced at 30 pesos MN per pound. That’s equivalent to about a buck seventy-five Cdn per pound, a great price. So I quickly yank out my plastic bag and buy a 5 pound hunk of it. Of course, if you don’t have your own bag, you’re out of luck or carrying it on a piece of newspaper. My Mamacita who owns my casa was thrilled when I handed the chunk of meat to her and I benefited by having the most amazing ham, cheese and onion omelette the next morning. Yum!!!!
A little farther up the street and I pop into the local Agromercado to pick up some fresh produce. As you can see, at this Mercado, the selection is quite good and plentiful, and all priced in Moneda Nacional. However that still doesn’t mean that they won’t try to make a little “extra” on an obvious Yuma. I needed green peppers and picked up 4 but they were quite small. The price is 5 pesos per pound, clearly posted on a sign. Well the lady says 20 pesos to me. Hello, 4 little peppers can’t even weigh much more than a pound, and she wants 20 pesos. When I point this out to her (all in Spanish) she immediately apologizes and says 10 pesos. That’s still high (at my casa, I weighed the peppers at 1.25 pounds) but as 10 pesos is still only about 50 cents Cdn, I just couldn’t be bothered arguing anymore. And then of course, every lady in this photo also asked me for a “peso” for being in my photo. I politely replied no gracias!
So that ended my day’s wandering about Vieja and the experiences of being identified as a tourist.
Thursday March 5
Well it was a lovely day today. Nice and warm with a calm or light breeze and an ideal day to just get out and moto around. One of my favourite rides in Havana is down through Parque Almendares alongside the Almendares river. The road is simply beautiful, smooth pavement, twisting, trees meeting overhead and an oasis of serenity right in the middle of Havana. There are lots of bikes riding down there as you can see. Take a close look at the middle photo. Count the feet/legs! LOL!!!
Down at the mouth of the Rio Almendares where that strange building is, there were also fishermen trying their luck. They cast their nets then drift along for a while before bringing them up. I never did see them actually catch anything, but like all fishermen, patience must be the virtue.
From there it was eastwards along the full length of the Malecon. It’s such a pleasure to ride along the Malecon and every city should be so lucky as to have a shoreline drive like this. Here’s a couple of images from along the Malecon.
The waves seem to always crash somewhere along the Malecon and water ends up spraying high into the air.
Passing Avenue Paseo, it’s easy to make a quick stop at the Galerias de Paseo for a little shopping or to grab a cold drink.
When you get to the area near La Rampa and the Hotel Nacional, looking along the Malecon lets you clearly see the dominance that the Capitolio has on Havana’s skyline.
And from far across the outer bay, you get an entirely different perspective of El Morro and the lighthouse. You can really appreciate the height and defensive capability of the ramparts. For those who are interested, this view was shot with a 600mm lens.
Arriving at Paseo de Marti (Prado) I now turned up the Prado heading into the city. You pass one of the 2 pair of lions that ceremoniously guard this street.
For those who don’t want to ride a moto, there is always the wonderful view from atop the Havana Bus Tour double decker operated by Transtur, here going up the Prado
For me however, I loved the month spent on the moto and the total freedom to be out and about Havana. Here’s me, “che” Steve and his Scooter Diaries on Plaza de la Revolution with Che’s iconic image on the Ministry of the Interior (MINIT) building in the background.
Friday March 6.
Well today is my last full day with the moto and I’m headed out for a major exploration. I’ve got my new Guía de Carreteras (Road Guide), my camera pack and a full tank of gas. The plan is to ride south right across the island to the Caribbean port town of Surgidero de Batabanó, about 75 kilometers away. Why there you might ask? Well because it’s on the Caribbean side of the country and also because that’s where the ferry to La Isla de la Juventud departs from. I’d been to la Isla many times but always flown down to Nueva Gerona. Just curious what the ferry was like.
I went out of Havana along Avenue Indepencia and Boyeros past Jose Marti Airport, then onward to the town of Bejucal and down to Quivicán. Then I proceeded to get totally lost. Maps notwithstanding actually finding the correct road out of a small Cuban town can be a big challenge. All the way down to Quivicán the sun had been in front of me but upon leaving the town, it was now over my right shoulder. Hmmm…. Whither we go? Well the road was good and I’d thought I’d gone straight through the town of Quivicán, but slowly the sun is falling back behind my right shoulder. This is not good so I simply decided to keep going and take the first good looking road to my right. Ok, found one and now the sun is back in front of me, but I have absolutely no idea where this road goes. Well eventually I come to another small hamlet and it actually has a sign. Hey, I’m in La Julia, only about 25 kilometers from where I wanted to be, but I can now find the road to Surgidero de Batabanó. Once you get into the southern half of the ride, the road and terrain become very flat and visually boring. But I press onward in bright sunshine and short sleeves. Can’t beat that anyway. The road is not too bad, but you do have to pay attention and try to find the smoother parts of the surface. There’s a rumble behind me, a blast of a horn, and an Astro bus passes me at Warp 9 so he must be headed somewhere. I wonder if there is ANY other speed those big busses drive other than fast! But eventually, 2~1/2 hours after leaving Havana I see the ocean ahead and roll into Surgidero de Batabanó. What a dump! Take your typical Cuban small town, make it a port industrial town, make it dirty, give it no redeeming features, and that’s the town. Why did I bother? But I head down to the waterfront where’s there’s an old concrete pier and rows of now rotting pilings headed out into the Caribbean.
The moto on the pier
There’s a gull or pelican on every one of the pilings
And this is the Ferry to la Isla.
And what is perhaps the only photogenic building in Batabanó, the train station sitting at the very end of the tracks, circa 1917.
But it wasn’t a totally wasted day. It was a very nice ride down along some very pretty country roads with very little traffic on them, especially the northern half of the route which has nice rolling hills.
By the time I arrived back at my casa in Havana, I’d ridden just shy of 200 kilometers for the day and oh my god!!!! Does my arse hurt and I can’t sit down. Next time (if there is another) I am definitely going to take down a 12” square, 4” thick block of memory foam for the seat on the moto. But would I do it again, absolutely. Great way to get out and see the countryside.
Saturday March 7.
Well the only plan today is to take the moto back to the dealer in Playa, then have lunch with Paula and her son at Pan.com on 7th Ave. As there is no credit for gas still in the tank, I took a nice long ride around the city in the morning both as a final look around and because it was another beautiful day.
Taking the moto back, I also took the chance to chat with the guys at the moto dealership on some things that I was curious about. When renting a moto, it’s clearly understood that you are responsible for any damage to the moto. But I was curious as to the maximum liability that someone could face in the event of the total write-off of a moto. And that amount surprised me. If you totally write-off a moto and have to pay entirely for it’s replacement, the amount you would owe would be $1245. CUC. Far less actually than I thought it would be though of course the best bet is to do no damage at all.
After the moto was turned in, I became just like every other Cuban….walking! So I walked up to 7th and 26th to the Pan.com restaurant for lunch. This is a great place when you want comfort food. Great burgers, sandwiches and honest-to-god thick creamy milkshakes. Here’s Paula’s son and believe it or not, both the sandwich loafs are the same order, all for less than 5 CUC.
Here’s the inside of the restaurant, very casual and the TV was tuned to the Canada/USA World Baseball Classic from Skydome in Toronto. Now that kinda makes you homesick.
And me, chowing down on one of their burgers.
After lunch we walked over to the 5 y 42 Commercial center for some shopping then I took a cab back to my Casa to face the dreaded task of packing to come home. But it’s pretty easy to pack to come home. Just open the bags and THROW stuff in. No folding required. Four bottles of rum, 100+ cigars, MonteCristo’s, Cohiba’s, Peso and mini’s.
Dinner plans were to meet Paula at her house then we were off to Restaurante La Torre perched high on the 36th floor of the Focsa Building in Vedado. I had a funny time actually getting down to the city from my casa in the suburbs. Generally I walk out to Boyeros and flag a cab down. Cost is typically 7 or 8 CUC to Cerro (beside Plaza Revolution). But there just didn’t seem to be any cabs tonight. So I thought, what the heck and flagged the MetroBus Cuban domestic bus. Well he stopped and the fare is 40 Centavos, or about 2 cents Canadian which of course I don’t have because I carry no Cuban domestic coins. So I stuffed a 1 peso MN bill into the coinbox and that was ok with the driver. Twenty minutes later and I’m right down to the main bus station and it was an interesting ride. For sure I got some strange looks from the locals but nothing threatening or worse than riding the TTC here in Toronto. I also discovered (thought don’t know if it’s typical or not) that some Cuban men are real gentlemen. Partway along (I’m standing) and two ladies with toddlers get on and immediately these two guys (mid-20’s to 30) stand up and offer the ladies their seats. Now that truly surprised me. So it was a quick, cheap and interesting ride and something new for me to experience.
La Torre is an interesting restaurant. The entire outer wall, floor to ceiling is window, and the entire inside wall is mirror. Makes for a very open concept feeling, however it also echo’s every little noise in the restaurant and it feels quite sterile, not intimate. But the view is tremendous.
Here’s what it looks like, looking down on the Hotel Nacional and eastward towards Vieja.
The food at La Torre is excellent and though expensive by Cuban standards, it not any worse than a good restaurant in Toronto. When the bill was presented, the waiter had the surprise of his life when I challenged the bill and pointed out that it was in error. They had forgotten to charge us for the wine and I pointed this out to them. The look on their faces (the manager came over) was priceless. I guess not too many people point out that they’ve not been charged enough. But for two people, lobster dinner and one large steak, cocktails, wine with dinner, flan and coffee, the tab came to 62 CUC plus tip.
There’s also a bar side (west side) where you can sit and have drinks and look at the view from that side. So after dinner we had a few more drinks and found ourselves looking down at the US Special Interests Section along the Malecon.
So that was my last day in Havana and just like that, another month in Cuba is over. Some parts passed quickly and other parts seemed to drag. There are definitely changes taking place, but sadly as a tourist not all of them are for the better. There’s more of an underlying attitude of separating you from your money. People walking up to you on the street and asking you for money just because you’re a tourist. Wanting you to give them things you are carrying, wearing or using. In my opinion, it has become more pervasive, more annoying at times. But I also had some great times with my friends, and they graciously hosted me over for dinner, drinks etc., and it didn’t cost me a thing. So much really depends on how you are perceived, either as a tourist, or a long-term friend.
Sunday morning it was really only a point of remembering that the clocks had moved forward by one hour and to get to the airport on time. But with a 1st Class Cubana ticket home, check-in is a breeze, security was very quick and then a quick stop at Duty Free for another bottle of rum (Barrel Proof) and on board I went. Thankfully, although Cubana still flies to Varadero before heading up to Toronto, they no longer make all the passengers deplane and go into the Varadero terminal. You can relax onboard till it’s time to depart again. At Toronto, I declared all my excess rum, excess cigars and still got waived right through. Now that surprised me but I’ll cheerfully accept not paying taxes.
And my final Cuba pic for this trip….. the Casa dog Tina who always welcomed me home. She’s now 16-years-old, grey and grisled, but always remembers me.
Hope everybody’s enjoyed this year’s blog.