Friday, July 15, 2011

Mojitos in Havana

I had been to Havana in Cuba during the last week of March 2011 with my husband.

We were dying to escape the cold weather of Toronto and decided on Havana for it’s short distance from Toronto, it's history, it's warm weather and as we had never visited before.

You may wonder why we did not leave during January or February when the winter is more brutal..… we chose March as we did not want to return to winter again after the warm climate of Cuba !

We had a wonderful time there! The people are friendly and warm. The weather was gorgeous (I did find it a bit too hot at 25 celcius but got used to it after 2 days). We had a wonderful time walking endlessly in the streets of Old Havana. The buildings and some plant & trees, reminded me so much of India, that I am convinced  that the Spanish who took over Cuba, 500 years ago, had brought stuff from India to Cuba or put stuff from Cuba in India. Two examples:  the doors of some buildings seemed exactly like temple doors in south India and the Gulganji trees found in Mysore( in India) grow here.

Some Havana experiences

Cars: The cars in Cuba are old American models, huge and flamboyant! One will never see such cars today in any other country in such large numbers. Due to the US trade embargo, the Cubans cannot import cars and are managing with the cars they got many decades ago from USA !  Most cars are used as taxis and most are flamboyantly coloured-where else can you see pink, purple and fluorescent green cars but in Havana ! One can see many visitors stopping in the middle of busy roads photographing these cars. The Cubans imported the Lada cars from Russia  for a while which is a small car like the fiat or premier padmini in India and the Lada is another car one sees in Havana but not in the US or Canada . I read somewhere that most of the old American cars do not have the original engines running in them. One proud car owner opened the bonnet and told us that his car has the original engine and that not many cars have that.  The Cubans are  an extremely ingenious people, who creatively recycle and use what they have. Poverty is a cruel but effective motivating agent for creativity. I saw a huge tin drum, cut neatly and used to hold burners in a resturant. I saw plastic coke bottles used as a drain pipe in places where the pipe was broken! I saw water melon seeds used to make women's purses and lots of seeds and coconut shells used to make lovely exotic jewellery!

Canadians and Americans can learn a lot about recycling from the Cubans! It is mind-boggling to think of the millions of cars junked in North America and the waste and pollution it entails and compare it to the Cubans who are using 50-60 year old cars today.

Buildings: Ironically, Havana today, is famous for the decaying of it’s once grand buildings. There are hundreds of grand old mansions, maybe 200 years old, with high ceilings, marble stairs, walls covered with beautiful tiles, ornate work in plaster on the outside …figures of angels, gargoyles, symmetrical designs, flowers and leaves. These mansions are now in varying stages of ruin with plaster falling off, the roofs missing in some, trees growing in the walls & beautiful stained glass broken in the once lovely windows. People are living in these decaying houses and are unable to afford repairs. 

The people are friendly and do not mind if you peek in and many sit with doors open (it’s hot) and one can see neat interiors with few but beautiful antique furniture. (the chairs I saw in some homes would cost a fortune on the antique market in New York !).

Lots of people sell things just outside their doors and I spotted a girl sitting on a chair outside her door selling candy in a plate on her lap! We were told by a tourist guide that free trade has been allowed in Cuba only since last November! And people try to make a little money by selling things.Most people sell just one item. I saw an old lady selling only garlic for example.
Many museums, government offices, schools seemed to be accommodated in buildings which were once homes. Many of these buildings (i.e. the current homes, museums, offices) have a open-to-sky space inside the house. It is wonderful…open to sky, yet private and reminded me of the Tarvads in Kerala which had similar courtyards.  Some of the restaurants we ate in had this space inside which was both cool and sunny; sheltered from the street noise and with a relaxed atmosphere.
The open-to-sky bit of square in those houses fired my imagination ! I thought of the many many things I would do there on sunny days & nights and rainy days too.

We spent a day at two in areas outside central/old  Havana i.e. Vedado and Miramar. Here the houses are newer, in better shape, smaller i.e have one or two floors and some resemble the houses seen in  the 60s and 70s in the Malleshwaram and Gandhi bazaar areas of Bangalore in India: Bungalows, with gardens in front and a few trees. It was like walking in some residential  lanes of old Mysore.
This is one of the houses slowly decaying...see the tree growing at the top of this house, with roots ruining it's walls!

Here above  is another house in ruins but inhabited by people

People: The people are very very friendly and approach you smile at and talk (Hola is the greeting ) to tourists, even if you do not understand Spanish. They do try to speak in English but it was difficult for us to get what they were saying! Many asked us where we were from and when we say Canada , many did say they have friends or relatives in Toronto or Vancouver . Many ask that their photos be taken and it was a change from Canada where people are reserved and don't talk to strangers ! Some do ask for money when photographed like a guy who was dressed like Chi and some old men; but some just enjoy being photographed and are excited to see their photos on the camera!

I saw a group of 5 girls aged between 4 and 7 playing in front of their house(with a ? mother seated on a chair outside her door, keeping any eye on them)and they asked us to photograph them. All of them were laughing and had plastic stuffed in the top of their frocks, as if they had breasts!  I was both amused and startled by the body image they seemed to have of themselves at this age. And also startled by the amused tolerance of the mother/lady with them! It made me realize how differently girls develop  their body image in repressive cultures like mine and in Cuba! I recall girls growing in India being shy/ashamed and covering up their chests especially when they attain puberty.

While walking through the lanes, we passed many houses with paintings, ceramic and wood sculptures for sale. We walked into a few and realized that the artists lived in these homes and worked at and sold their works from home! They were very welcoming and did not mind at all when we stepped into their homes and even lead us inside to have a better look! Many artists were very very talented and we bought a small painting from one. I would have loved to buy the wood or ceramic sculptures but as I was not sure of getting it back to Canada safely, I regretfully din't.
I don’t want to sound condescending but lots of the works were abstract and this was amazing to me. I think I assumed the art would be simple as I assumed this culture to be very simple…Let me explain myself...As I did not see computers, cell phones, etc, I assumed that somehow the country has not progressed and were functioning at a simpler level. But the art was modern and abstract. It is  a pity that such artistic talent remains hidden in Cuba and many of the artists cannot afford to travel or afford to  advertise or market their works beyond the boundaries of Cuba. I know that some are using the internet, some have exhibitions abroad, but still, they are not able explore the international buyer's market fully. With the low income of majority of Cubans, there could be few or no buyers of art works in Cuba. Or buyers who appreciate art but do not have purchasing power.So how the hell can the Cuban artists progress?   Many artists do not speak English and this to me, this is another  big hurdle for them.

I got the impression that Black old men spoke better English than others as they turned out to be the only ones who spoke to us in English outside the hotel. One of them who had a long chat with us told how poorly paid they were in Cuba and wondered where the money was. Thinking back  about my Havana visit, I realize that the few people who spoke to us made only veiled references to the corruption in the government and their own unhappiness with their pay and other issues. I now think that the happy people I saw around were either faking it or were ignorant of a lot of things or simply resigned to their lifestyle. A tourist guide made several veiled references to ‘the brothers’ , their life style, the government works, etc but he never dared to openly say anything negative about either Fidel or Raul during the entire 10 hours he was with us! I really thank God that I am in a free country where I can talk freely and can question the government openly without fear. Even in India , which is so damn corrupt, the poor can at least verbally vent their anger and frustration unlike in Cuba , where people are too fearful to either vent or talk.

Food: The food was one thing which was not really satisfactory for us. But maybe we should blame our narrow taste in food for that. My husband is a strict vegetarian and I like my food to be hot and spicy. In Havana , there is more of sea food and meat than vegetarian choices  and all food is bland and not spicy at all! I did not find red or green chillis or chilli sauce or even black pepper in  hotels and we had to put up with the blandness. My husband enjoyed  black beans and rice while I ate the seafood, pork and chicken. I loved the Mojitos (Rum with lemon/lime juice with sugar and a sprig of mint) which were refreshing after walking in the sun for hours ; I  had them daily with lunch and dinner. I have decided to make it at home too in summer……… grows wild in my backyard and now I can finally use it!

We tried different hotels for each meal as we did not want to repeat a restaurant. The most delicious food we had was at a paladar i.e. a home with a room converted into a dining hall with a few chairs and tables. The food was delicious, the family was welcoming and we were escorted to this paladar (hidden away in a residential area) by the security guard of a place we visited! We asked this guard where was a good restaurant and he walked us all the way to this place, instead of just giving us directions. The house itself was spacious and beautiful, there was a pet dog wandering around and the rooms we passed through to get to the dining room were neat .

We had breakfast daily at our hotel (Parque Central). It was a daily breakfast buffet with a collection of cold meats, breads, eggs, fruits, vegetables, cereals, juices, etc. I tried to stuff myself so that I could last longer but I would inevitably become ravenous by 12 or 12.30.
 I liked the décor of all the bars and restaurants we went to. They had an old world charm to them. The decor often consisted of wood and stained glass windows, chairs with goat skin seats, old ceiling fans rotating lazily high up in the ceiling and not really cooling.
 I have eaten in several Indian restaurants in India and Canada & USA and have liked the décor in only one! The rest were all pretty tasteless or garish or decorated with an assortment of art work with no running theme.....I personally believe that the resturant owner simply buys what he likes and puts them up on the walls. He may also be putting up whatever he gets as gifts; My dissatisfaction with Indian resturants decor maybe the reason I keep looking out for décor in resturants.

 The bars we visited had a wonderful ambience…the wooden chairs were old and shiny---polished by years of butts sitting on them; the stained glass windows were colourul in a subdued way, the old black & white photoes, the paintings and wooden art on the walls were interesting.

All or nearly all restaurants and bars have live music in the evenings and some have it at noon time too. Walking on the streets, the music fills the space and it is really pleasant.  I don’t know Spanish but the songs sounded very happy and romantic. 

I must mention here that I did visit hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway apparently spent many years. I also visited the room he lived in and took a few photos. I did not visit his house in Havana which was a few miles away and supposedly very nice…with views of the sea, his fishing boat, the graves of his pets, etc.

Another hotel of historic interest is Hotel National. Apparently all the VIP visitors to Havana stay there including the Mafia bigwigs, stars of the film and music industry.(At least that is what the guide told us). One feature which intrigued me was that the tourist guides point out many hotels to us as if they are points of interest. I cannot imagine why hotels should be of any interest to us while sight-seeing Havana.

Shopping:  Cigars, Rum, Honey, Wood work such as carvings (statues, ash trays, etc), jewels made of seeds of various plants and trees, paper mache and cloth dolls and puppets were the most attractive wares to me. One unique beauty of Cuba is that one will hardly find any “made in China ” products here ! Every thing sold here seems to be manufactured here, produced or grown here. The people here are creative and many souvenirs sold are actually recycled items. I saw a coke bottle lid used in a key chain; a coke can, covered with clay and shaped into a cup. Since it is difficult for Cubans to import much (Thanks partly due to the US embargo on trade and the  Cuban government's restrictions and the absence of free trade), they have become experts at recycling.

I bought a lot of seed jewels, a couple of ash trays carved of wood, a clay art work, purses made of water melon seeds. My husband bought a painting and the print of an artist he admired a lot in the museum i.e. Pedro Pablo Oliva. Lots of people buy the Che Guevara posters, prints, T shirts but as I had read a lot of negative stuff about him, I was not interested.

Museums: We did visit quite a few museums. Many were small and we zipped through them in just a few minutes. As the writing in the museums was in Spanish, I could not understand what was being said.

We went to a place right in the centre of Havana where old train engines have been dumped and took several photos. Here a few of the photoes.

We also spent a half day at one of the largest mausoleums of North America i.e. the Necropolis Cristobal Colon. This place has many famous people buried here: freedom fighters, poets, rich businessmen, etc.  Several of the  tombs are grand and  built with marble and granite. Many are adorned with  beautiful images of Christ, angels and the Madonna. I doubt if anyone can afford to build such grand monuments to the dead anymore in Cuba now!

We went to the famous cigar factory but as we had already visited a tobacco growing farm; a barn nearby where the leaves were dried; and also seen the entire cigar rolling process, we did not bother to see the cigar making process. My husband did buy the famous Cohiba cigars…both from our hotel gift shop and outside. Needless to say, the hotel’s gift shop’s were great while the cheap”Cohibas”, he had been conned into buying made him feel sick after smoking.  Lots of people, walked up to us almost daily and told us they have a ‘brother’ or a 'cousin' in a cigar factory who can get cheap but good cigars! We had to keep saying no to them.
We went to the car museum with antique cars but did not enter as it was too dark to take good photos and we just took a peek from the outside(and saved on the entry fee)

We also visited a factory making alcohol and saw the whole process. The building reminded me of the small scale
 industries buildings in Peenya of Bangalore of the 1980s! The process was partially mechanical and partially manual. A machine filled the bottles with  alcohol and sealed them while, women stuck labels on the bottles. We bought a bottle here as it was sweet and we like sweet tasting alcohol!

We bought rum at our hotel and paid just 5$ for more than a liter. I wish I had bought more but I dont want to pay duty and I  don’t think I could have lied calmly and got away with it  at the Canadian border!

Outside Havana : We went on a trip outside Havana to a place called Vinales.
We visited the cave Cuevas del Indio which had an underground river running through it. We also visited a tobacco farm(with a barn for drying) and an alcohol factory as I mentioned earlier. I also saw a sort of weird flat top mountains. I was amazed to see the Brahman bulls here, a breed I have not seen outside India . (I later discovered on the internet that Brahmi bulls have gone from India to the US to Cuba as early as 1868). But the bulls here in Cuba were a bit shorter and definitely heavier than the lanky bony Brahmi bulls I have seen in Indi. The Brahmi bulls in India are either ploughing fields or  used for begging. The Brahmi bull is considered as sacred in India and male beggers cover this bull with a colourful, quilted blanket and lead them from door to door begging
We spent a day outside Havana when we visited a place called  Vinyales. It is an agricultural area, growing tobacco and has weird flat top mountains. There is also a cave with an underground river here. The small town or village we pased through was neat and clean unlike my village in Tumkur district of India; The houses in Indian villages I have seen have  open gutters in front  with black water running which is disgusting!
 Once again, the houses of this town reminded me of houses in small towns in India-the weather, the houses, the palm trees, the fields, the bogunvilla and Oleander flower shrubs, the people……it was just like any rural area in south India.There was a nice church in this small town. We also visited a liquor factory where a type of  liquor called guabita del pinar is produced and bottled.

But now I am wondering if this was a 'showcase' village, menat to impress tourists while the 'real' villages are actully far more dirty, poverty stricken and not unlike Indian villages. I got this suspicion after reading a Cuba based novel of Kaminsky where a visiting Russian police officer is taken to a 'model prison' which seemed seem ideal while all other Cuban prisons are not!

All in all, I had a great time. I wish I had planned better and visited more places in Havana which I missed this time. I wish I had bought more of the seed jewellry, more rum and bought agave honey(agave honey costs a lot in Toronto).I wish I had gone to a few beaches. But there is always a next time isnt it?


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