Caribbean Islands | Cuba | Havana – Cuban injuries
It had to happen. No trip is complete without someone falling over. I refuse to let go of this one – a month after we got back and I find I have dislocated a bone my wrist. A longer lasting souvenir than the piece of Cuban shipwreck that stayed in my finger for awhile – a splinter from a sunken vessel. And all for old cars and cocktails ..
We had a few more days in Havana at the end; it was not enough. Running though the streets, pre-fall, looking up, thinking, ‘but I haven’t seen enough of these buildings!! We can’t be going yet!’ looking for the perfect ending, an old car to chauffeur us back to Mr Beard’s, we stumble along and then I fall, hard, one foot in Havana’s frequent holes. Sexton forgot to say ‘look out, ridge!’ and down I went, hands and knees dribbling blood. Then I got up, all the more determined that we take our last ride in 1957 Chevy, NOT a 1982 Lada.
We caught a lift to Havana from Trinidad, in an air-conditioned modern car for the same price as the bus, arranged by our wonderful casa particular. We took in Revolution Square, which seemed to be a just a car park littered with crushed Cuban flags – remains from Fidel’s last speech. We didnt realise the actual HQ was behind the ugly Jose Marti monument until after we’d taken a ‘coco taxi’ into the old town. A Coco-taxi is like a fairground ride or an Indian motor-rickshaw – all open at the sides, with three wheels, and all the fumes of city summer heat, carbon monoxide, sweat and filth. Old cars sped by. A dog wearing a hat and glasses and sitting up like a child was in a basket on the back of a bicycle.
We took in the convent-turned-museum, where we saw the only truly mind-blowing music of our entire trip. A choral group, about 20 men and women, all singing harmonies and different rhythms.
When a guy we met Cayo Huseo (Centro Havana, short street covered in murals) heard we liked Perez Prado and Trio Matoromoros, he must have cringed just as much as we did when he told us he liked Craig David. What is it with these Cubans? Such a rich, wonderful culture – plus no Internet, no McDonalds, almost no contact with the outside world – yet they have f*cking Justin Timberlake blaring from everywhere where there was no live band. Homogenised Western (lack of) culture even here on this isolated island.
We did a lot in one day. So we could relax the last day? The day before had been busy, too, but without a plan it did not feel so rushed. The guy in Cayo Huseo asked why we had to go. I was annoyed to see Sexton had bought him a drink as we were leaving. Why were we buying him a mojito? We weren’t even going to have one ourselves. This guy turned out to be a real hustler. Later we bumped into him in the Casa de Trova. Yes, we had been talking about the place, as a friend in London had also recommended it. It was a totally chilled local kind of place, no food or drink on sale, just some chairs and people taking turns doing these music skits, there were old Cubans dancing, fat people in Polyester, a guy tap dancing in a bright red jump-suit. The only foreigners were the types you can tell have been on the road long term – dirty old sandals, beards, and unintentional dreadlocks. As we went to leave the guy from Cayo Huseo asked us for money ‘for the band’. Well the ‘band’ had not passed a hat. There had been no doorman. If were going to give to anyone it would be the woman who was compering. And she wasn’t collecting any money. The guy asked Sexton again on the way out, and he said he’d given to the woman.
We went on a quest for $1.50 mojitos; too many of our guidebooks were out of date. We finally discovered an unnamed corner bar where they did have the drinks for $1. It was the Cuban equivalent of a local pub in Stoke Newington which we call ‘Heaven’s waiting room ‘ – the sort of place where old guys drink all day cos it’s so cheap. A fight broke out, and cops hauled someone off. Just like the Rochester in Stoke Newington. Only in London the police don’t bother, the barmen just throws them out. (We learned later that people get thrown in jail for something like a minimum of 3 months just for barroom brawling. Domestic violence gets 6 months.)
We hit the music museum, then went to the Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito which was no better than anywhere else. In fact Hemingway never said the quote on the wall there either – ‘My daiquiri in the Floridita, and my mojito in the Bodeguita’.
Hanoi was good and cheap as promised but eating always makes me overheat and now I was melting. We don’t usually eat at that time (4 pm) but Sexton had skipped breakfast and I thought I’d better take advantage of the cheapness (a rarity in Havana Old Town.) I’d had an edible $1.20 pizza earlier at a 24 hour place on 23rd street, in Centro Havana. Too much food for that heat.
Next we found ourselves back in the rum museum bar (it was too hot to walk far, hence all the bars), being hassled by beggars and an out-of-tune band trying to flog home-made CDs. The guitars were out of tune anyway. Vocals never seemed to be out of tune. So maybe it was the heat and humidity and the oldness of the instruments that made them sound awful.
We took a sort of run-down passenger ferry to Casablanca. The fare was meant to be $1 each. I handed the guy $5 and he gave me 3 CUBAN PESOS change – about 15 cents. Ok, I thought, taking back my 5, and giving him instead the fare in pesos, which was much less anyway.
It was a 45 minute walk to the fort, full of more hassles. Tired and grumpy, we learned the fort entrance price goes UP at 5 PM, and it was now 6. We watched the sun set over the sea from an ant-infested hill. Sexton was really fed up by then. I asked if he would rather be on Windmill Hill back in his hometown of Gravesend, Kent, and he said yes. We had some great times in Cuba; it was just too hot and we never quite adjusted to the heat.
Then we went into the fort anyway, where mostly Cubans were gathered to watch the nightly firing of canons. And then on to the Casa de Trova, which we had thought was somewhere else entirely but I guess places move around, especially these Trova houses, which are basically private parties. It would have been better if we hadn’t been starving by then, and if that hustler had kept asking for money.
Our last day we decided to have a relaxing time at the Marina Hemingway. Our flight was at 11 PM. We would have plenty of time to shower and get ready after a day at what was promised by Mr Beard to be an excellent swimming pool.
It took us quite awhile to find a classic car (1955 Dodge) to take us to Miramar, the posh district and home of the Marina. The pool was packed; not one seat or lounge chair was free. I had a quick swim and we went to eat mediocre food at a restaurant called ‘Fiesta’, where unappetising paintings of bulls with blood dripping from their sides decorated the walls. Just silhouettes, but still, not good for us. We prefer the bulls to win.
Back at the pool the loudest game of bingo in history was going on. The loudspeakers were ear piercing, as if the bingo players were in Miami and not sitting right here. ‘veinte treint-y-tres ocho .catorce .’ clouds filled the sky and we decided to hit the old town – one place in particular.
The Floridita takes credit cards, as long as they are not from a US bank. If it’s your last day in Cuba and you have a VISA card there is no better way to spend the day then working one’s way through the daiquiri menu.
I consider myself somewhat of a cocktail expert. The Floridita makes the BEST cocktail I have EVER tasted anywhere. Some might call the place overpriced (a $6 cocktail compared to an inferior 12 Euro one in Berlin? Or a weak ?7 one in London? At least you’re getting quality for your money here) and over-touristy. But the décor was perfect 1920s; we just loved it, and thought of a few friends back home who would love it, too.
Some crappy musicians came in, guitars out of tune, mumbling the words to the Che song, barely recognisable. They came over and played ‘Mack the Knife’ for us, badly, and looked confused when we only gave them one dollar. I guess its meant to be more upmarket here, but we were more interested in smoking our cigars and drinking our daiquiris. They went away without another song.
When the band wasn’t hustling the small tables, the piped in music was perfect – just the right volume of old Cuban music. The bartenders and door staff were all dressed in suits and bow ties, and were all polite and cheerful. Sexton and I coined the phrase ‘upping it’. If rich people go ‘slumming it’ then there must be a word for scruffy people who, on the very odd occasion, pretend to be rich. Thats what it felt like anyway.
The strawberry daiquiri was probably the best. The normal one was excellent, too. Then I had the Hemingway, which has double rum, no sugar, and grapefruit instead of lime. And as we were reading about him in the guidebook, Hemingway himself walked in and sat down at the bar. White hair and a beard – it had to be him. He was carrying a digital camera.
Then I had a peach daiquiri, and banana one, and finally cherry to round it off. Even the expensive Floridita sandwich was tasty. Sexton matched drinks with me, only he had the rum version of a bloody Mary, or a rum and coke.
Americans coughed as we puffed on cigars. Entire tour buses came in and looked around and left – oh, the horror, to be on a tour and not be able to drink here all afternoon!
The last drink was to Che, whose picture is on the 3 Peso coin we were tossing whenever we were indecisive. Che didn’t let us down when he advised us to split the Marina Hemingway and head for the Floridita. We tossed again now and Che said no to another drink. ‘Best out of three!’ Sexton and I slurred in unison, already flagging down the waiter, even though having another drink meant cutting it very close to get home, and there for to get to the airport.
It was worth every plastic penny I signed away when the bill came. Such a wonderful end to our holiday! We stumbled outside still searching for an even more perfect end to our ending – our chariot home, a 1955 Chevy or Dodge just for us. Yes, one must come! We walked to the busy road nearby. Many plain taxis passed and beeped and tried to stop but we shook our heads. It was getting late but we had to have an old car. After that drinking session how could we get in a crappy modern car?
An old blue Dodge stopped. We asked for ‘Park John Lennon’ and he didnt seem to know where it was. I pulled out 2 different maps before the guy said no, he would not take us there. Not at all! Not for any price! We didnt even get to make an offer, he just looked at where we wanted to go and said no. We realised later than he must have been a ‘Cubans only’ taxi, not licensed to take foreigners, and as we were staying so close to Fidel, in a cop-ridden area, it was not worth the risk.
Oh no! Time was getting on. We HAD to get an old car. We rushed, drunk, walking in the street where the pavement was dug up and there were pipes and rubble everywhere. Then, back on crooked pavement, craning my neck to see buildings I’d missed – how could we be going already? And where was our perfect old car?
Splat. The fall. Legs twisted. Hands flat down, cuts and grazes. More taxis tried to stop but I was still determined. And insisted more than ever to find an old car. We walked much further and faster, only to give up in the end. There were no old cars. No perfect ending. And when we got back to Mr Bread’s, all sorts of new guests had arrived, we had no time to get ready for the flight, we were drunk and bruised but at least we enjoyed Cuba to the end – almost.