Wednesday April 6, 2016
I have been in Habana since Saturday, but there’s still much of the city that I have not seen. Today, I took a hop on hop off bus tour. I usually hate those cheesy things, but this seemed to be the best way to get coverage of the city as a solo traveler. It was 10:30 when I got on the bus, but it was already cramped with tourists at the upper level. I sat in the less crowded lower level of the bus, and opened the window to allow the wind to blow in my face. As the driver took us from stop to stop, I come to the conclusion that the bus tour was a waste. The only interesting stopping point was Plaza de Revolucion and Parque Central. The majority of the other stops were hotels. What was the point?
I got to Plaza de Revolucion to see what was probably the most Instagrammed tribute to Che, and checked out some old cars in the process.
After riding around Habana for a few hours on the tour bus, I headed to lunch at a restaurant across the street from the Capitol. It was on the third floor, and had a very romantic ambiance (as seen with the bad lighting in the photos below). Too bad I was my own date! I felt underdressed with my Bob Marley t-shirt and shorts, smelling like sunscreen and geranium. I ordered bread, Cuban-style shrimp, 2 daiquiris (don’t judge), and cafe con leche.
Do you know how your grandma took that leftover ham from Easter and Thanksgiving and made a big pot of beans with it on Monday?! That’s what I had, and I didn’t even know I ordered it. So good, I got the itis and had to get a cafe con leche! But it was a welcomed surprise because just for a moment, I was back home.
And in that moment, I realized that even though I was sick of Lafayette, and the entire United States government was useless, and I trusted no one’s motives, there was no place like home. And the reason was simply because of family and the memories I shared with them.
Since I was in the area, I walked behind the capitol building to the cigar factory. No tours were happening, but I checked the pricing on cigars. $5-12 per cigar, and $125-300 per box. I wouldn’t need an entire box since none of my friends and family smoked, but it was nice to know how much I’d need just for a few.
I went back to Melia Cohiba hotel to use the last minutes of my wifi, and screenshotted for my life. I hoped I could survive the rest of the week without internet access because I was not paying $10 to this hotel again. I decided I wouldn’t make a return to Cuba until I could get 24-hour simple and affordable access to the internet everywhere.
Leaving the Melia Cohiba, I saw a mini market right across the street. This entire time I had been walking past greatness and didn’t even know it. They had water by the jug, soda by the liter, and snacks! I bought a jug of water, and what looked like root beer soda.
I later learned mate was not root beer. It tasted like Dr. Pepper mixed with cherry mixed with despair, but when right out of the refrigerator on a hot Habana day, that thing tasted delightful.
I got back to my Airbnb with all of my liquids, and got prepared for the night. Tonight I was going a few blocks down Linea to Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht. Interactivo has a Wednesday night residency there, and I was told that I couldn’t miss it. I arrived to a long line of locals at 11:00 pm. At the same time I arrived, a tour bus full of old white-haired foreigners pulled up and cut the line. Those VIP privileges must be nice. The line moved quickly, but the show itself didn’t begin until 12:45 am. I’m an old lady now because I was sitting there yawning while thinking America would be in the thick of things right now while Cuba was just getting started. The live band began to play a “fusion” of different genres, and everyone began to dance. Although the opportunity presented itself on many occasions since I’d been in Cuba, I hadn’t tested my dance skills yet. This turned out to be the perfect place to get on my feet and feel free to move to the rhythms. I looked around at some point in the night/morning, and noticed that no one was seated. What can we do to implement this in America, I briefly wondered. Nowadays, people get all dressed up to go out, sit down, and play on their phones all night. What if we all actually danced?!
Thursday, April 7, 2016
It’s my birthday!!! I didn’t really feel like doing anything today since I stayed out at Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht until right before dawn, but I pressed on. While I was planning my trip, I was randomly browsing Google maps and came across something marked as “Parque Martin Luther King,” and it piqued my interest. Was there really a park dedicated to THE MLK? There was little to no reference or photos of the park on the World Wide Web, so I made it a mission to personally find out.
I leisurely walked right on over to the corner of 23rd and F Streets. Lo and behold, there was a park that celebrated the legacy of THE MLK. Not only did they have a tasteful monument with his face etched into it, the other side of that same monument recognized Malcolm X with his etched face. I knew Malcolm had some ties to Cuba when he welcomed Fidel Castro to his Hotel Theresa stomping grounds when no one else would, but MLK? Not so much.
Like many of the parks in Habana, this one wasn’t very impressive. There was no shade to shield me from the hot Habana sun, so I only stayed long enough to admire the fact that Malcolm gets love in Habana. How random!
I continued my birthday stroll, and all of a sudden saw a bunch of tour buses outside somewhere. This was obviously the place to be, so I walked into what I learned was a cigar factory. I asked the man at the front desk about tickets, and he told me they don’t sell them, and I must purchase them at my hotel instead. What about the Airbnbers of the world? I was certain I could have walked into any random hotel and gotten a ticket, but the idea of not being able to buy a ticket to a cigar factory tour on site was backwards to me. Whatever. I left and grabbed some lunch at La California in Centro Habana. As soon as I turn onto Calle Concordia, I saw a tour bus parked directly in front of the paladar. These buses are everywhere, and it was starting to annoy me. Luckily, La California wasn’t crowded, as the tour group consisted of about six adults rather than a full busload.
I had the option of sitting out in the courtyard or outside, and requested to sit with the air conditioner without thinking twice. It was the little things in life that mattered – like cool air. Getting a bit bored with bread, I tried this chicken, cheese and eggplant roll as an appetizer and it was really good.
Even more tired of Caribbean fare, I went with a bolognese for my main course. Also really good.
I continued walking along the Malecon into the night, still admiring the beauty of the people and the architecture in Habana. I reach Vedado, and hung with two ladies at Cafe Madrigal. The place had a really nice vibe for just relaxing with newfound friends. They were both graduate students taking a break from life, and we shared our crazy stories of Habana thus far. It was clear that we enjoyed it here, even with the little nuances that irritated us.
Friday, April 8, 2016
I slept in Friday, but decided to see more of the Vedado neighborhood. I stumbled upon a park a few blocks from my casa that was selling paintings, sculptures, t-shirts, and other souvenirs. I browsed, but saw nothing different from what was being offered at the art market I viewed earlier in the week.
Running out of lunch options, I decided to try my backup option, Decameron. Here, I have some of the best bread of my trip, along with ropa vieja and a daiquiri. The ropa vieja was not as good as Paladar El Idillio, but still well-seasoned, and a good choice.
I headed home, and get ready to head to Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The theatre recently underwent a timely renovation, and the results were breathtaking. It was the most beautiful building in Havana in my opinion.
Next to Alicia Alonso, the most famed name in Cuban ballet is Carlos Acosta. Recently retired from the Royal Ballet, Acosta returned home to Cuba to develop his own company: Acosta Danza. Tonight was the opening night here at Gran Teatro. I arrived and stood in the lobby with a glass of wine until the doors of the theatre were opened. Once inside, I got someone to assist me to my seat. I was on the second row of the theatre right in the front in the middle. Nice, I think to myself.
As it got closer to performance time, another person approached with a ticket for seat B2. The theatre usher requested my ticket, thinking I may be in the wrong seat. She then asksed me to move down one seat to B3. Moments later, a group of three approached – one with a ticket that involved seat B2. Again, the usher requested our tickets, but walked away and left everyone standing around while she figured it out. She returned a short time later, and made me get up. Say, what?
I followed her all the way to the P section, where there was an empty seat she wanted me to take. Now, I wanted to tell her about her self, but I didn’t know how to cause a scene in Spanish. Therefore, I took my newly assigned seat and shut my mouth. Ahh, the Cuban way of things! The program began minutes later, and consisted of four selections. Acosta’s interpretation of Carmen was my favorite.
Saturday, April 9, 2016
This day was my last full day in Habana, and now I knew how much I had left to spend on souvenirs. I went back to Almacenes San Jose, and bought a t-shirt, and a few pieces of art. Then I headed to the cigar factory behind El Capitolio, and bought 5 Cohibas. Fairly hungry, I stopped on the street and bought this Hawaiian pizza and a strawberry ice cream cone. It wasn’t very good, but it satisfied my hunger.
I continued to the Museo de Revolucion, which like many of Habana Vieja’s buildings, was being renovated. The museum told its version of the revolution, and I enjoyed the historical aspects of it.
Sabado de Rumba was next on my agenda. In the Vedado neighborhood, Sabado de Rumba was similar to Callejon de Hamel, but not as touristy. The entrance fee was 5 CUC for foreigners and 10 CUP for locals. I shut my mouth, handed 10 CUP to the woman collecting the money, took my ticket and walked inside. The venue didn’t provide much shade from the hot Habana sun. Not even my umbrella could prevent the burning sensation on my skin from the sun. Here I met Van, a Cuban who now lives in London, but has a Jamaican vibe. He was a super cool guy who introduced me to every person there that he knew could speak english. I chat with a bunch of people, and get invited to Fabrica de Arte later tonight. I agreed to go since I had it on my agenda anyway.
I didn’t stay at Sabado de Rumba the entire time because it was just too hot for me, and my skin was on fire. I hung out at my Airbnb until it was time to go to Fabrica de Arte, and took a taxi to the popular night spot. The taxi had tv screens inside playing this song about the Malecon I had been hearing regularly since I’d been in Habana.
Yes, Fabrica de Arte. It had been the most recommended spot for me to visit in Habana. I arrived there are 11:00 pm to see a line wrapped around the building. I stood in line until 1:00 am, and as soon as I got to the front of the line, they decided to stop letting people inside. This was pretty much the last straw. I was so fed up with Cuba, and I couldn’t wait to get back on U.S. soil.
Sunday, April 10, 2016
I woke up early, and walked outside to find a taxi. None were in sight. I even walked a few blocks down to Melia Cohiba hotel to see if I could find one. None this early in the morning. I asked my Airbnb hostess if she could call one for me, but no one answered. I finally hailed a colectivo, and he took me to the airport. The streets to the airport weren’t lit, and the lights on the old car were not bright enough. Plus, we were taking a little longer than I remembered to get to the airport. Was it really this far? I started thinking of what I could do in case of an emergency, but then I saw the road sign notifying me the airport was just ahead. Phew!
It was illegal for collectivos to drop off people at the airport, so the driver pulled his taxi sign off the roof and hid it next to the seat before we arrived. Instead of dropping me off in front of the check-in area, he had to drop me off in the parking lot and I had to walk from the parking lot to the check-in area. I paid the only person available that morning to get me to the airport, and rolled my two pieces of luggage through the parking lot.
The Copa check-in line was ridiculously long that morning, and now I was wondering if I’d even make it to the gate in time. One of the agents began to ask people in line when their flight leaves, and allowed those who were cutting it close to move ahead. I finally checked in, and went back through immigrations.
The immigrations agent took my passport and and tourist visa, stamped it, and sent me on my way. I went from Havana and Panama with ease, and had plenty of time to take a short trip into Panama City, but it was just too hot to be strolling on foot in the Central American country. Once back in New Orleans, I realized that the airport offers Global Entry, but there were no kiosks. It was a separate line, and I still had to speak with a TSA agent. He asked me how many cigars I brought back from Cuba, and I told him five. He told me not to do it next time. I looked at him like he was crazy because I read the federal regulations and I kew what I could and could not bring back into the country. For the sake of argument, I nodded and took my passport back. He welcomed me home, and I smiled. It never felt so good to be back on U.S. soil.