Friday, December 29, 2017

Cuban Explorer, Day 7, Havana, Cuba (Part 3 of 5)

What an amazing day! Cuba where for the last 50 years we were unable to
visit. I was the first passenger from the Holland America Inaugural Cuban
voyage to set foot on Cuban soil followed by Ann and Cathy. I was beyond
excited to start our tour. We were immediately met by our guide, Irina from
CubaOutings, who, by the way, spoke perfect English. In accordance with the
regulations, we are required keep a record of our Education and People to
People itinerary which I have outlined as follows. Visit Old Havana, a
UNESCO world heritage site since 1982, (Armas square, Cathedral square, San
Francisco de Assisi square, Hemingway Hotel and bar). Tour through New
Havana mainly Vedado and Miramar districts. Visit Revolution Square. Drive
by the Capitol Building. Visit the El Morro- Cabaña fort complex and the
Christ statue. Our focus was to learn about Cuba, it's people, government,
culture and take the opportunity to talk with the people and get a good
understanding of their lives in this communist country. So…. Where do I
begin? We spent the first four hours on a walking tour of Old Havana. Our
first stop was the Plaza de San Francisco de Assisi, a beautiful square
named after the church with the highest bell tower in the city, a white
marble fountain in the center and the amazing eclectically built trade
center in Havana. We made our way to the Plaza Vieja resembling the rich
neighbourhood of the 18th century in Havana, where we saw luxurious houses
with columns, arches and stain glass windows and we made a stop at the Ambos
Mundos Hotel, the hotel where Ernest Hemingway lived for seven years, his
room 511, nowadays is a small museum…we went to the roof top restaurant for
spectacular views of the city and surrounding fortresses. We also saw some
of the residences where the buildings were in a state of disrepair, clearly
seeing the difference where the government had its hands involved in
infrastructure and where they had not. Onto the Plaza de Armas, the oldest
square in Havana that originally dates from 1582, to view the fountain and
government buildings surrounding the square. Next, we visited La Fuerza, the
first fortress built in Cuba. Then we made our way to the beautiful Plaza
de la Catedral, the cathedral square is considered as the most perfectly
built colonial square in the whole country with a lovely baroque style. As
we walked along, Irina took us to a Bodega, a food bank issuing monthly
rations. I was shocked to see what a paltry amount of coffee was available
for a month's ration along with what appeared to be a cup of cooking oil to
last a month. That evoked allot of discussion during the day….. We then
went to a local market where we had excellent interactions with the vendors
and their customers… I took the opportunity to capture some nice photos of
people in their everyday life. Our next stop was the House of Arabs, Ibanez
Habana and Mosque Mezita Abdullah. Of course, as I wandered through the
streets of Old Havana, I was on the lookout for souvenirs which to my
delight Havana did not let me down! Our first memories of Havana are ones of
delight at every Cuba cliché: American classic cars; the sounds of song and
salsa drifting from every bar; old gents and ladies sitting in doorways
smoking cigars and watching the world go by; the crumbling but colourful
architecture of Old Havana. There are no advertising billboards on the
walls, instead, we saw images of Che and Fidel, Cuban flags and propaganda.
The time spent wandering the streets of Old Havana was simply amazing, I did
not know what to expect in Cuba and I was truly amazed and in awe of the
buildings and the architecture. Our next adventure of the day was to
explore New Havana in a 1951 Chevrolet Classic car. Seeing all the classic
cars took us back to our early childhood memories…what a collection of
history and resilience on the part of the Cuban people. All loaded in the
1951 Chev convertible, this two-hour joyride in an American classic vehicle
showed us the highlights of New Havana. We began our panoramic drive along
the Malecón, past the famous Hotel National and the U.S. Embassy through the
Miramar and Vedado districts, seeing some of the city's most famous hotels
and embassies. A small glitch, flat tire...this gave us the opportunity to
walk around the block past the Canadian Embassy and lovely mansions while
the driver changed the tire. Next, we visited the Plaza de la Revolucion,
it is a gigantic square that symbolizes the Cuban Revolution due to the huge
rallies that were always held right after 1959. At the Plaza Revolution
pastel-colored classic Fords, Chevys and Oldsmobile's greet you with bright
chrome smiles that belong to a different era. We drove past the massive
city like Havana cemetery, the largest cemetery in the Caribbean. We drove
to downtown Havana and stopped at Parque Central to snap some photographs of
some of Havana's most iconic architecture, including the Capitol Building
which models the Washington's Capitol Building and El Gran Teatro. On our
return to The Old Havana district we stopped at the Almacenes San José
market to interact with the local souvenir vendors for a piece of Cuban
memorabilia. We returned to the ship, took a short rest and Cathy and I
went back to the Plaza Vieja to experience the nighttime in Old Havana… In
Cuba you really do hear music everywhere, with the sounds of live bands
emerging from many bars and restaurants. The bands we saw were excellent and
the locals who inevitably got up to salsa to them were just as good. We
watched them spinning around the dance floor…we loved every minute! Our
People to People interaction requirement was very easy to fulfill as during
our walking tour of Havana, we were able to communicate and interact with
many locals. It is interesting that there are people representing different
professions or social classes; I posed with the flower lady street
performers, one in particular was the gentleman I photographed and danced
along with, he was so original in his act that he utilized both his head,
arms, legs, fingers and feet to sing, play the guitar, maracas and harmonica
as well as juggling 5 puppets to the beat of his music. There are a lot of
street sellers, some of them work independently or in a market. A big eye
opener for us was the elderly gentlemen we spoke to at the Bodega who was
shopping for his monthly rations of approximately 150 grams of ground coffee
and 6 ounces of cooking oil to sustain him for the month. Ann visited with
a guide at the La Fuerza about her family and her daily life in Cuba. We
talked to artisans doing their handicrafts and paintings, one highlight was
the shop Ann and Cathy visited selling lovely hand made and painted hand
fans. The art scene is just as vibrant as the music scene. In Havana
especially, there are many little artist workshops and galleries that you
can pop into and see artists at work and buy direct from them. Our tour
guide Irina explained her family and educational background and our driver
told us about his vehicle. To sum up our day in Habana, we have a few
things to share with you… Life is lived on the streets in Havana! In Old
Havana traffic is minimal with as many cycle rickshaws, bicycles and horse
carts as cars. Instead people fill the streets—kids playing soccer, baseball
with broom ends and bottle caps, women hanging laundry from balconies,
vendors pulling carts overloaded with fruit and vegetables, customers
queuing outside the bodega shops, waiting to use their ration cards. There
really are classic cars in Cuba! And they are everywhere—1950s Buicks,
Chevys and Plymouths in varying states are used as everyday vehicles, as
taxis and private cars. You can follow Cuba's history in its cars from the
pre-revolution American cars through the Soviet Ladas to more recent Asian
and European modern vehicles and added to Havana's magical feeling. Cuba is
unlike anywhere else we've visited. It's a place that provokes strong
feelings and before we even arrived we encountered a huge amount of fervent
pro or anti Cuba propaganda. We didn't know quite what to expect and even
now it's hard to make sense of this bewildering country. What we do know is
that we don't fall into either camp—Cuba isn't perfect, and it isn't evil
either, but it is unique. We felt like we'd almost stepped back in time with
the classic cars from the 50s, bare shops like something from the Wild West,
a lack of advertising and ATMs, and the most limited internet of any country
we've visited (aside from China perhaps). Some of these things seemed like
disadvantages at first but they turned out to allow us to escape from the
hectic world of non-stop bombardment of information. Havana is decaying,
colourful, vibrant and gorgeous. The buildings are beautiful despite the
peeling paint. The ship docked in Vieja Habana (Old Havana) and we spent
most of our time there wandering the streets and feeling like we were on a
film set amongst the vintage cars and lively street scenes. People sit in
doorways smoking cigars, peer down from balconies, and front doors are left
open. Cuba felt very safe and the locals assured us there is very little
violent crime in Cuba. Cuba is changing! Our hosts and the people made us
feel at home and were warm, welcoming and friendly. I loved every minute we
spent in Havana and wished we had more time; What a day we had! I just
wonder what path the Cuban people will take once the shackles of Communism
are lifted. I am very excited about our next Cuban port of call, Cienfuegos
and our tour to Trinidad.

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