(1) – First Impressions

Tuesday, April 5, 2005, 6:00 pm, Hotel Havana Libre

Thanks to a severe case of the Revenge of Montezuma (or Ricky Ricardo?..,) I am sitting here in the Hotel Havana Libre and I finally get around to create updates from my first 4.5 days here in Cuba. The Internet connection is definitely the slowest I have ever seen in my entire life, (15 minutes to access my messages at Yahoo..), but I am giving it a shot anyways.

Capitolio Nacional in Havana.

Friday morning I arrived at the airport in Toronto at 5:30 am since my husband gave me a ride before work. The plane was scheduled to leave at 10:30 and several transfers with public transport would have taken me 2.5 hours anyway, so I decided to head there early and read a book.

Air Canada was delayed after all (due to a problem with the water supply on the plane) and we had to wait for a substitute plane from Winnipeg and finally got off the ground at about noon. 3.5 hours later we arrived at the airport Jose Marti in Havana – a reasonably modern airport. However, it took me and the other travellers almost 2 hours to collect our luggage and finally hop into a taxi.

On the way in from the airport I noticed that there was a mixture of industrial developments and agricultural areas, right up until the centre of the city, which is strange compared to Toronto, where there is no significant agriculture until way outside the city. The older gentleman driving the taxi was very friendly and explained a few basic things to me, e.g. that most of the area is industrial and agricultural. He also showed the National Sports Centre to me. Of course you see old cars from the 50s and earlier as well as beat-up Russian Ladas everywhere. Old sidecar motorcycles are also a popular way to get around.

I finally arrived at my hotel at about 6 pm where my brand-new friend Pedro (a connection through a friend in Canada) was waiting for me. I had told my friend that I wanted to really spend some time with locals to learn about Cuba, its customs, its way of life etc.

Pedro is a brown-skinned black man in his late thirties with a common-law wife and a young daughter. An extremely nice person and he´s been very gracious in taking me around and explaining things to me.

After I dropped off my suitcase and refreshed myself a little, we hopped into a private individual’s car (a practice extremely common in Cuba), he paid a few local pesos and we were whisked downtown in a very old beat-up Lada which ended up picking up various other locals along the way.

Habana Vieja is a fascinating colonial city and the age and beauty of the building is astounding. Of course I saw the Capitolio (very similar to the Capital in Washington), several of the big museums, the Hotel Inglaterra and some of the bars that Hemingway frequented.

I also saw the big spider exhibit of 2 metallic spiders that are located right in the heart of downtown, an exhibit by a French sculptress that will stay in Havana until April 28 and then apparently move on to New York.

Spider Exhibit in Havana.

We walked around and chatted about life in Cuba and I started to learn a few things, about some of the practical consequences of the revolution (e.g. blacks have it much better today than before, and there is relatively little racism according to Pedro), and the double economy, where locals receive their salary in Pesos Cubanos, (around US$8 to $30 a month), which is not even close to enough for living, so everybody participates in the underground economy in some way.

We had a reasonably expensive meal in a downtown “Paladar”, a private restaurant in a private home with a maximum of 12 seats, one of the few official private enterprises allowed. When asked about the future of Cuba after Fidel, both my new-found friend and the old man running the Paladar indicated that they thought not much would change after a future passing of Fidel. (Actually the mention of Fidel´s passing often makes people pull up their hands in front of their mouths and start to speak very quietly…).

After the meal, Pedro again flagged down a private vehicle, we hopped in and I got dropped off at the hotel, dropping into bed like a tired sack of potatoes. But I definitely had a great introduction to life in Cuba on my first evening….

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