The Havana Diaries – Wandering

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 take a hop on hop off bus tour. I usually hate those cheesy things, but this seems to be the best way to get coverage of the city as a solo traveler. It’s 10:30 when I get on the bus, but it is already cramped with tourists at the upper level. I sit in the less crowded lower level of the bus, and open the window to allow the wind to blow in my face. As the driver takes us from stop to stop, I come to the conclusion that the bus tour is a waste. The only interesting stopping point is Plaza de Revolucion and Parque Central. The majority of the other stops are hotels. What’s the point?

I get to Plaza de Revolucion to see what is probably the most Instagrammed tribute to Che, and check out some old cars in the process.

After riding around Habana for a few hours on the tour bus, I head 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.

You know how your grandma takes that leftover ham from Easter and Thanksgiving and makes 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’m sick of Lafayette, and the entire US government is useless, and I trust no one’s motives, there’s no place like home. And the reason is simply because of family and the memories I share with them.

Since I was in the area, I walk behind the capitol building to the cigar factory. No tours are happening, but I check 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 smoke, but it was nice to know how much I’d need just for a few.

I go back to Melia Cohiba hotel to use the last minutes of my wifi, and screenshot for my life. I hope I can survive the rest of the week without internet access because I’m not paying $10 to this hotel again. I’ve decided that I won’t make a return to Cuba until I can get 24-hour simple and affordable access to the internet everywhere.

Leaving the Melia Cohiba, I see a mini market right across the street. This entire time I’ve been walking past greatness and didn’t even know it. They had water by the jug, soda by the liter, and snacks! I buy a jug of water, and what looks like root beer soda.

ciego montero mate
I later learn that mate is not root beer. It tastes like Dr. Pepper mixed with cherry mixed with despair, but when right out of the refrigerator on a hot Habana day, that thing tastes delightful.

I get back to my Airbnb with all of my liquids, and get prepare for the night. Tonight I am 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 arrive to a long line of locals at 11:00 pm. At the same time that I arrive, I tour bus full of old white-haired foreigners pull up and cut the line. Those VIP privileges must be nice.The line moves quickly, but the show itself doesn’t begin until 12:45. I’m an old lady now because I’m sitting here yawning while thinking that America would be in the thick of things right now and Cuba is just getting started. The live band begins to play a “fusion” of different genres, and everyone begins to dance. Although the opportunity has presented itself on many occasions since I’ve been in Cuba, I haven’t tested my dance skills yet. This turns out to be the perfect place to get on my feet and feel free to move to the rhythms.I look around at some point in the night/morning, and notice that no one is seated. What can we do to implement this in America, I briefly wonder. 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 don’t really feel like doing anything today since I stayed out at Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht until right before dawn, but I press 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.

Malcolm X park

Like many of the parks in Habana, this one isn’t very impressive. There was no shade to shield me from the hot Habana sun, so I only stay long enough to admire the fact that Malcolm gets love in Habana. How random!

I continue my birthday stroll, and all of a sudden see a bunch of tour buses outside somewhere. This is obviously the place to be, so I walk into what I learn is a cigar factory. I ask the man at the front desk about tickets, and he tells me they don’t sell them, and I must purchase them at my hotel instead What about the Airbnbers of the world? I’m 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 leave and grab some lunch at La California in Centro Habana. As soon as I turn onto Concordia, I see a tour bus parked directly in front of the paladar. These buses are everywhere, and it is starting to annoy me. Luckily, La California isn’t crowded, as the tour group consists of about six adults rather than a full busload.

I have the option of sitting out in the courtyard or outside, and request to sit with the air conditioner without thinking twice. It’s the little things in life that matter – like cool air. Getting a bit bored with bread, I try 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 continue walking along the Malecon into the night, still admiring the beauty of the people and the architecture in Habana. I reach Vedado, and hang with two ladies at Cafe Madrigal. The place has a really nice vibe for just relaxing with newfound friends. They are both graduate students taking a break from life, and we share our crazy stories of Habana thus far. It’s clear that we enjoy it here, even with the little nuances that can irritate us.

Friday, April 8, 2016

I sleep in Friday, but decide to see more of the Vedado neighborhood. I stumble upon a park a few blocks from my casa that is selling paintings, sculptures, t-shirts, and other souvenirs. I browse, but see nothing different from what was being offered at the art market I viewed earlier in the week.

Running out of lunch options, I decide 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 head home, and get ready to head to Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The theatre recently underwent a timely renovation, and the results are breathtaking. It is the most beautiful building in Havana in my opinion.

Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso

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 arrive and stand in the lobby with a glass of wine until the doors of the theatre are opened. Once inside, I get someone to assist me to my seat. I’m on the second row of the theatre right in the front in the middle. Nice, I think to myself.

As it gets closer to performance time, another person approaches with a ticket for seat B2. The theatre usher requests my ticket, thinking I may be in the wrong seat. She then asks me to move down one seat to B3. Moments later, a group of three approaches – one with a ticket that involves seat B2. Again, the usher requests our tickets, but walks away and leaves everyone standing around while she figures it out. She returns a short time later, and makes me get up. Say, what?

I follow her all the way to the P section, where there is an empty seat that she wants me to take. Now, I want to tell her about her self, but I don’t know how to cause a scene in Spanish. Therefore, I take my newly assigned seat and shut my mouth. Ahh, the Cuban way of things! The program begins minutes later, and consists of four selections. Acosta’s interpretation of Carmen is my favorite.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Today, is my last full day in Habana, and now I know how much I have left to spend on souvenirs. I go back to Almacenes San Jose, and buy a t-shirt, and a few pieces of art. Then I head to the cigar factory behind El Capitolio, and buy 5 cohibas. Fairly hungry, I stop on the street and buy this Hawaiian pizza and a strawberry ice cream cone. It isn’t very good, but it satisfies my hunger.
I continue to the Museo de Revolucion, which like many of Habana Vieja’s buildings, is being renovated. The museum tells its version of the revolution, and I enjoyed the historical  aspects of it.
Sabado de Rumba is next on my agenda. In the Vedado neighborhood, Sabado de Rumba is 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 doesn’t provide much shade from the hot Habana sun. Not even my umbrella can prevent the burning sensation on my skin from the sun. Here I meet Van, a Cuban who now lives in London, but has a Jamaican vibe. He’s a super cool guy who introduces me to every person there that he knows can 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 don’t stay at Sabado de Rumba the entire time because it is just too hot for me, and my skin is on fire. I hang out at my Airbnb until it’s time to go to Fabrica de Arte, and take a taxi to the popular night spot. The taxi has tv screens inside playing this song about the Malecon that I’ve been hearing regularly since I’ve been in Habana.

Yes, Fabrica de Arte. It has been the most recommended spot for me to visit in Habana. I arrive there are 11:00 pm to see a line wrapped around the building. I stand in line until 1:00 am, and as soon as I get to the front of the line, they decide to stop letting people inside. This is pretty much the last straw. I’m so fed up with Cuba, and I can’t wait to get back on US soil.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

I wake up early, and walk outside to find a taxi. None are in sight. I even walk a few blocks down to Melia Cohiba hotel to see if I can find one. None this early in the morning. I ask my Airbnb hostess if she can call one for me, but no one answers. I finally hail a colectivo, and he takes me to the airport. The streets to the airport aren’t lit, and the lights on the old car are not bright enough. Plus, we are taking a little longer than I remember to get to the airport. Is it really this far? I start thinking of what I can do in case of an emergency, but then I see the road sign notifying me that the airport is just ahead. Phew!

It’s illegal for collectivos to drop off people at the airport, so the driver pulls his taxi sign off the roof and hides it next to the seat before we arrive. Instead of dropping me off in front of the check-in area, he has to drop me off in the parking lot and I have to walk from the parking lot to the check-in area. I pay the only person available that morning to get me to the airport, and roll my two pieces of luggage through the parking lot.

The Copa check-in line is ridiculously long this morning, and now I’m wondering if I’ll even make it to the gate in time. One of the agents begins to ask people in line when their flight leaves, and allows those who are cutting it close to move ahead. I finally check-in, and go back through immigrations.

The immigrations agent takes my passport and and tourist visa, stamps it, and sends me on my way. I head from Havana and Panama with ease, and have plenty of time to take a short trip into Panama City, but it is just too hot to be strolling on foot in the Central American country Once back in New Orleans, I realize that the airport offers Global Entry, but there are no kiosks. It’s a separate line, and I still have to speak with a TSA agent. He asks me how many cigars I brought back from Cuba, and I tell him five. He tells me not to do it next time. I’m looking at him like he’s crazy because I read the federal regulations and I know what I can and cannot bring back into the country. For the sake of argument, I nod and take my passport back. He welcomes me home, and I smile. It never felt so good to be back on U.S. soil.

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