Travel: Habana Calling
It is easy to understand why Hemingway fell in love with Havana. The days are sultry, the people are warm and rum flows freely
The live band is belting out a catchy ‘Son’ (Cuban music from which salsa originates) number. The bartender across the counter pours me another long Mojito — half a glass of ‘Havana Club’ rum is standard. It’s my third drink for the evening. It’s still early. We move to another bar. This one is far more crowded. Some of the tourists are trying to do the salsa. Another Mojito and the party soon spills out into the street. As the calm from my first drag of the cigar settles in, I look around. We are at the Plaza de la Cathedral, named after the large Baroque cathedral that straddles one of the edges. It’s way past midnight. The plaza is awash with yellow light from the halogen lamps, which is bouncing of the limestone walls of the surrounding mansions. Combined with the blue of the wooden shutters and the railings lining the balconies, above the adjoining porticos, the night has a magical, almost seductive feel. We start talking to a couple of local shop-owners. We are now in one of their homes. I make myself another Mojito in the kitchen, which is small and very sparse. The living room itself extends into the street, which also doubles up as a courtyard. One of his daughters is trying to improve my sense of rhythm. She is not succeeding; I keep stepping on her feet. Another one is rocking her two-year old son. The husband and wife are dancing expertly, as are the half a dozen neighbours and friends. The husband’s mother smiles at me from her rocking chair, when I catch her eye. I try to focus harder on my salsa. It’s 5 a.m. and I stagger back to the hotel. Just another night in Havana.
It is easy to understand why Hemingway fell in love with Havana. The days are sultry, the nights even more so, the people are warm and rum flows freely. In fact, the main pedestrian street in Old Havana, Obispo, is lined with his favourite haunts — from La Floridita to La Bodeguita del Medio. Predictably, drawing the most tourists, today these jaunts serve the most expensive cocktails in Cuba ($5-$6) but for many like me, that’s a small price to pay. We also visit Hotel Ambos Mundos on the same street; Hemingway’s home for many years, and where he started writing For Whom the Bell Tolls .
Old Havana or Habana Vieja, a UNESCO Heritage site, is the heart of Havana, with its narrow cobbled streets and baroque and neoclassical squares. And there are unexpected treasures around every corner as we discovered by venturing into the Johnson Drug Store — an old style apothecary with cabinets lined with medicines in beautiful porcelain flasks. Just don’t make my mistake of actually trying to buy medicine — it’s only a museum now.
The next day we venture out of the Spanish quarters, walking along Paseo de Marti — a wide boulevard that leads to the Capitolo, modeled after the US Capital building and the seat of the Cuban Government before the Revolution. This is the Havana of post cards — pastel coloured Art Deco/Nouveau buildings fronted by brightly coloured 50s Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles. Even today almost half the cars on the road are gorgeous classic American cars, though, just to even the scales, the balance are largely ugly Russian Ladas. As one of the taxi drivers proudly tells me — Cubanos are the best mechanics in the world, how else do you explain 50-year-old cars with a million miles under their belt? A smattering of new Korean cars is beginning to appear though — signs that nothing stays the same forever.
Bored of hotels and the tourist areas, we move to a ‘casa particular’ in the residential neighbourhood of Vedado, overlooking two of Havana’s most famous landmarks — the Art Deco Hotel Nacional, and Malecon, the 8-km seawall that runs along a large swathe of the city. Malecon is to Havana what Marine Drive is to Mumbai — a nighttime promenade for Habaneros — a place to fish, to socialise, to party and to fall in love.
Remembering that we are, after all, in the Caribbean, and having had our fill of history and architecture, we decide to spend a day at the beach. Playas del Este, the Havana Riviera is a collection of six beaches to the east of the city. With turquoise warm waters and soft white sand, it is a great way to spend the day and meet some locals. On the way back, we stop by Fortaleza de San Carlos and the nearby Castillo del Morro for sweeping views of the city across Havana Bay. The Fortaleza is where Che Guevara established his command headquarters after the Revolution.
In fact it’s almost impossible to not notice the images of Che, Castro and other important figures from Cuba’s many independence struggles while in Havana. Not to be missed is the Plaza de la Revolución built around a memorial celebrating Jose Marti, Cuba’s national hero, and right opposite a large mural of Che.
It’s difficult to make sense of what the Revolution means for ordinary Cubans. Walking around outside the tourist area, I feel like I have been transported back to India in the 80s or 90s. Long queues for the supermarket, for telephone exchanges (to buy scratch cards to use the barely available Internet), for ATMs and for pretty much everything else. And even inside the stores, it is basically bare — no plethora of brands or choices; or just no rampant consumerism (depending on how you want to look at it).
And largely everything is controlled by the state, though that is changing now. There are even two currencies, one only for locals (peso) and the other for foreigners (peso convertible), pegged to the dollar, which makes everything expensive for tourists. So despite Cuba being a developing country, holidaying here is like Western Europe. It also means that most amenities and luxuries targeted towards tourists are outside the reach of almost all Cubans.
But despite the obvious hardships, Habaneros are warm, happy and generous people. And a little Spanish here goes a long way, especially since most people don’t speak any English. It gives you the opportunity to see the real breathing city. Havana is definitely like no other city in the world, possibly a throwback to simpler, more romantic times. But with the increasing likelihood of American sanctions being lifted soon, that may change. So go before this Havana is gone, I definitely plan to go again.
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