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Sunday 6 Apr 2008
Habana, Cuba

Day Uno

Left Dublin at the god-awful hour of 6.20am to Paris, connecting with the Air France flight to "La Habana". The plane wasn't the best: cramped seats and the old-style TV screens hanging from the central aisle instead of inserted into the seat back in front of you. Not the best start to the holiday, I thought.

Then a moment of true excellence: the food, oh my god the food. Over the course of the following 9 hours we were served 3 trays overflowing with fine cheeses, delicately smoked chicken, divine chocolate mousse desert, coupled some damn fine French wine.. and even small bottles of rum. They could barely balance it all on the tray. ALL WAS FORGIVEN!

The drinks cart was even left stowed in the galley and we were encouraged to take whatever we wanted from it. I helped myself to a carton of orange juice, while others got wasted on more beer. All in all, it was a great flight, and I highly recommend it over the alternative method of getting to Cuba from Europe: Cubana Airlines (which for 200 euro less can transport you in a communist-era Russian jet... not to mention the worst flight record of any airline on the planet.. sleep well Wink)

On board the flight I got chatting to George from Switzerland, who was fluent in Spanish as well. This would prove very handy once we arrived at the airport.

As soon as we arrived... and after some confusion over which luggage belt was being used (they ended up splitting all the luggage among 3 separate belts, so you had to constantly keep moving around looking!), myself and George headed off to get some money changed (it's wise to get local money BEFORE you leave the airport), and encountered our first jinetero before we even left the building.
This guy wanted to take us up to the second floor where there was apparently a different cambio with no queue (take note other travellers), but evidently once we got up there he would ask us for 1 CUC (about 0.75 eurocents) for his help. Already wary of such people thanks to advanced reading of the Lonely Planet (read my previous entry!), we declined and stuck to our queue.

George's Spanish skills came in handy very quickly once we got out to the taxi rank, since practically no-one spoke English, and he managed to negotiate a good deal to split the taxi ride into Habana Vieja (the old town, where we both happened to be staying) for only 15 CUC each (normally 20 or 25).

Driving from the airport to Habana Vieja you are instantly aware of the situation in the country...

The first thing you notice if the complete LACK of advertising. ANYWHERE! Of course why would you need advertising when the government has nationalised every business?!

Instead what you see is billboard after billboard of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro prints, coupled with nationalistic slogans such as "Viva La Revolucion!" "Hasta la Victoria Siempre!", and many protests (quite rightly) to the US embargo which has so evidently caused havoc in the country (and ironically strengthened the resolve of the Cuban government to hold firm).

Next thing you notice are the original 1950s cars (many kept in great shape). Also the lack of working seat belts in all taxis coupled with the mad MAD reckless driving! At this point I made my first comparisons with Vietnam, and this would hold strong throughout my trip to Cuba.

We also passed through Plaza de la Revolucion with it's huge Jose Marti memorial (the father of Cuban independence from Spain) and the Ministerio del Interior building with it's famous Che Guevarra mural on the wall.

Eventually we found ourselves driving along the famous Malecon (the wave-swept corniche of Habana) and got our first glimpse of Habana Vieja. Now I was told that the dilapidated appearance of the buildings in the old town were detrimental and ugly, but to the honest I feel they added to the character of the place, and illustrated the struggle the people have to face each day. Rather than being ugly, I believe the dilapidated buildings tell many stories and how the people have had to adapt to survive (a common Cuban trait).

Barefoot kids in the streets playing 'baseball' with pieces of stick and old bottle caps; a man reaching up to a basket full of food lowered down to him on a rope from a palader in an apartment above; these and many other images of real-life Habana made me want to grab my camera as soon as I got out of the taxi.

Cuba is almost EXACTLY like the stereotype and everywhere you go you are reminded of a photo you would have seen somewhere before (i.e. Buena Vista club lookalikes singing in bars, people sitting pensively in their doorways beside a huge communist mural on the painted wall, people dancing everywhere)

Back to the current situation... I arrived at the casa particular I had apparently "booked" on hostelworld a few nights before, only to find that the room was double-booked! Doh! Apparently the hostelworld method doesn't guarantee a room, it just pays some guy to ring up the casa to see if a room is free.. if it isn't you don't get a mail back saying so.

Thankfully, the casa owner was a helpful chappie that brought me along to one of his friend's houses (Casa Mayi y Castillo - (53-7) 863 1938) nearby which turned out to be a grand apartment on the 7th floor of a 100 year old colonial building run by a lovely couple Mayi and Jesus. The views of the Capitol building and the Malecon were magnificent from up here and the room was decent enough! Although the price of 35 CUC (including breakfast) was reasonable to me at the time, I soon discovered that it was relatively expensive and you can get most casa particulars for around 20 CUC.

Exhausted and still full from the AF flight smorgasbord, I didn't head out that night, but rather crashed around 9pm (2am for me) with the window left open. Soothing me to sleep was the gentle warm breeze carrying the distant sound of someone practising their trumpet buena vista-style. Ah yes I had truly arrived in Cuba Cool


zzzzzz ... *crash thunder* ... "wh..Wha!"

Tropical rain storm rolling in over the Malecon... gah, I'd just left Ireland to get away from the rain! Hope it is only temporary...

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Perdido en Cuba de Fidel

Travel blog by peterforan

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2 weeks in which I crap-dance salsa-stylee in my own inimitable way; terrorise the Cuban people after one-too-many mojitos and visit bars where they actually ENCOURAGE people to smoke cigars as big as your leg. If I get time I'll take in some culture..

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Photo Album

  • Habana at...

    Habana

    Cuba

    Habana at night
  • San Ignacio...

    Habana

    Cuba

    San Ignacio plaza
  • Trumpet...

    Habana

    Cuba

    Trumpet player on Malecon
  • Malecon

    Habana

    Cuba

    Malecon