Day 6: Havana, Slum to Old Town

Cuba: Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Image: Photo of block tourist map of Cuba, logo for Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Day 6 - Stormy weather on the Malecón

Image: Detail of photo of Chinese sage, left, and Santa, right, with Buddha figurines at centre, in Chinese restaurant, Havana.
A Chinese Christmas in Havana.

A night walk, miracle luggage, scary meat, Chinatown (Chinatown!) and the Old City

December 19, 2015, HAVANA, Cuba — It's a miracle! Presuming her email actually made it across the Straights of Miami, no one at WestJet paid the slightest attention to Raven's instructions. Our missing luggage, rather than wait patiently for us at CYOW, was instead flown south sometime yesterday. To land in ... Santa Clara.

Anna, daughter of the owner of Abby's Place told us when we came in last night that it would be delivered "around midnight" today (Saturday). Naturally, the promise made no sense, though the actual delivery time did: the suitcase arrived sometime before noon this morning.

I'm glad of the razor (and Raven is more so; she didn't sign up for a bearded man, no matter how sparse mine comes in), but otherwise I've managed well enough, now that I've bought a pair of shorts to go along with my newly-laundered pants, boxers and two (count 'em!) tee-shirts. Raven, however, has been wearing the same bra for a week ...

* * *

Image: Photo of the Focsa Mall seen from Calle 17 at night.
The Focsa Mall at night, seen from Calle 17. Grungy yes, but scary? Not so much.

Nothing (I believe) to do with all the walking we did yesterday, but after a couple of hours or so sitting down to type up yesterday's diary entry, my right knee had practically seized up and my back was threatening to spasm again.

I decided to take a walk around the block before bed in hopes of loosening things up, much to Raven's consternation. She's convinced I'm a bloody naif as a traveller, who might as well be wearing a Rob Me! sign on his back.

I, on the other hand, consider myself an old hand when it comes to getting a sense of big cities and their neighbourhoods. Havana's Vedado district, on Calle 17 near the Malecón, strikes me as one of those places that looks rough, but ain't. It is a gentrifying area (at least for a Cuban value of gentrifying) full of hotels and trendy bars and restaurants. It's a party area, no matter that there are also people living in buildings that would have been long ago condemned in most civilized parts of the world.

Simply put, I have felt no menace in these streets, despite those dilapidated buildings and the spartan lighting. So I told Raven there was nothing to worry about and that I would be back in 10 or 15 minutes. (Her nervousness though, did convince me to leave my wallet and most of my cash behind. I took only my passport as identification. Which in retrospect was probably not the best idea. Ah well.

At midnight on a Saturday, Calle 17 is quieter than Toronto's Queen Street West, but there are people out and about, drinking on patios and inside bars, on front steps and stoops. Among those wandering about the badly-lit streets I spotted at least four or five single women going about their business with no more apparent anxiety than one would see on Bank Street in Ottawa at a similar hour.

In short, I felt vindicated! A lot of Havana looks as if it is inhabited by desperate squatters lurking in the darkness, but it doesn't feel like a slum, nor do its citizens walk around as if they are disenfranchised.

At least, that's what I thought last night, as I struggled with aching limb and back in hopes of getting some sleep.

(In the end it took the help of the pain-killers and muscle relaxant my doctor prescribed for me a few days before we left. And today, Sunday, back and leg are both behaving much better.)

Image: Detail of photo of sign announcing entrance to Chinatown (Barrio Chino) in Havana.
Not quite Spadina and Dundas, but we went in anyway.

This afternoon we set as our target Havana's Districto Capilotolio and the Capilotolio building itself (modelled on, but larger than, the Capitol in Washington DC) by way of the Barrio Chino (yes, Chinatown!), which we only learned existed via our Lonely Planet guide last night. Being a Chinese Canadian of very recent vintage, Raven insisted we check it out, not that I required much convincing; I've enjoyed a lot of the Cuban food we've had, but I do miss Chinese-style vegetables.

Well. I guess I'll keep on missing Chinese food until we get home. Throwing some soy sauce on a plate of stir-fried veggies isn't quite the real thing, Raven reported. (Me, when I saw that the menu listed more varieties of pizza than Chinese dishes, well, I stuck to cerveza.

Image: Detail of photo of Chang restaurant menu, featuring pizza, pizza and more pizza.
I know the Chinese invented pasta? But pizza ...?

If the Barrio Chino ever had a significant Chinese or Chinese-descended population, these have long since departed, or been integrated into the local gene pool. Raven notwithstanding, there aren't many Orientals to be seen, and if there is a restaurant here that might give the local "Chinese and Canadian Food" restaurant in Deep River, Ontario, a run for its money, we didn't find it.

The one we tried, called Chang, featured a bizarrely over-done Christmas motif to augment its random selection of Chinese ornaments, but the menu offered a larger selection of "Italian" dishes than anything supposedly Chinese.

Image: Chang restaurant menu with many Christmas decorations.
Actually, if the restaurants are anything to go by, Christmas is a big deal in Havana.

Onward. After we ate, we carried on through the drizzle and soon found ourselves leaving the Barrio Chino and approaching the Capitolio.

Image: Detail of photo of the author leaving Barrio Chino, the Chinese gate in the background.

The Capitolio itself was a let-down. Like so much else in Havana it is in the midst of renovations, fenced off and out-of-bounds. In fact, it sometimes seems as if all of Havana is either in a state of deep decay or else arrested renewal. I know, I've only spent a couple of days here now, but we haven't seen a lot of work going on around what look like construction sites, or projects.

As with the picture below, which shows the Capitolio's dome in the background, and some sort of (I presume) museum-with-locomotive in the foreground.

Image: Photo of a building with bright red steam locomotive in yard, Capitolio building dome in background.
We never did learn why that locomotive is guarding that old wreck of a building.

The Capitolio building is walled off and, apparently, undergoing massive re-furbishing. What you can see behind the protective walls looks rather striking, but it is more in the potential than the actuality.

Image: Photo of Havana's Capitolio, currently fenced off and under renovations.

And the Capitolio, as we discovered, is only a couple of blocks across the street from the Paseo de Marti (Prado), we decided to check out Habana Vieja (Old Havana), despite the fact the sun had set and there was a steady drizzle coming down.

Admittedly, this might have coloured my (lack of) appreciation for my first meeting with the old girl.

Like so much else in Havana, Habana Vieja has seen much better days, and is in an uncomfortable transition phase where it doesn't know whether it is a crumbling slum, a tourist hot-spot in the making, or a genteel museum.

Image: Photo of a road leading into Old Havana.
Habana Vieja, definitely a work in progress.

Yes, there is a charm to be found in the colonial buildings and narrow streets, but so much is crumbling and rotting, pot-holed and befouled, and so many of the shops only yet another tourist-trap offering the same magnets and "artisan" junk you can find in the Vedado or even in Santa Clara (Raven, who really likes to get a fridge magnet for any place she visits couldn't find a single one labelled "Santa Clara" in Santa Clara, nor a post-card; everything references Havana or just generic Cuba).

All that said, were Raven a drinker, we might have inspected one or two of the local haciendas, and maybe I would have found some charm in the area; for one gets the sense that an awful lot of those people who live in Old Havana are only just waking up to the idea that catering to tourists might be a way out of the crumbling poverty in which, it seems, they currently live.

All of which is to say that I found more of interest during our walk to our intended destinations than in what we found when we reached them. It was on the way that we caught a glimpse of the Cuba no tourist agency could possibly want a visitor to see.

Image: Detail of photo of raw meat and refilled water bottles containing juice for sale on edge of park near Calle Neptuno in Havana.

Yes, the black specks are flies. No, I don't know what's in the water bottles.

We crossed Calzada de Infanta, the border between Vedado and Centro, via Calle M, then jogged west a block to San Lazarro, a major artery, before starting east along Neptuno, a very old and very narrow street that, I suspect, is very nearly as old as Old Havana itself.

Old yes, but I don't think Centro (at least the bits we saw) was ever posh. And what's here now looks brutally poor. There is very little traffic on these streets, and what there is is mostly human-powered. The walls are filthy and crumbling (they're filthy and crumbling almost everywhere in Havana, but more so in Centro). The shops are bleaker, the goods on offer almost comical in their cheapness and mere lack.

Image: Photo of intersection in the Centro district. At left, two men on sidewalk with perhaps a washing machine. At right, a lone car waits at the curb.

A stretch in the Centro Barrio, on or near Calle Neptuno.

On one edge of a square, one of the only spots of green we'd seen in quite a while, were men and women selling fruits and vegetables on the margin between park and road. Not just the ubiquitous green coconuts and other vegetables, but also meat. Raw meet, chicken and what looked like beef, maybe a half-dozen pieces in all, laid out on a board in the tropical heat, unrefrigerated, uncovered and crawling with flies.

We took few pictures, in part because it felt just too voyeuristic, as if we were treating these people's poverty as entertainment.

And yet, we did take some.

Image: Photo of pedestrians on street in the Centro district.

Another stretch in the Centro Barrio, on or near Calle Neptuno.

And ... And yet, despite the ruinous poverty, there was no air of desperation in evidence. We weren't harassed, or stared at, and no one was begging. We were paid no more attention here than in most other places we've walked in both Santa Clara and Havana. Now I think about it, possibly we got less attention. In an area tourists avoid, there are few hustlers out in search of a mark.

An exception were the three men who saw me, camera in hand, near the park. They were pushing an old black car up the street, one of the old pieces of Detroit iron that (for obvious reasons) are prone to breaking down with alarming frequency.

Image: Detail of photo of 3 men pushing an old car up the street. Taken on or near Calle Neptuno

One of the men said something to his friends as they paused, and then waved to me, inviting me to give them hand pushing the old beast to wherever it was thy were moving it. The invitation looked so friendly, so guileless, that I very nearly ran off to help. Only the fact that I would have been leaving Raven behind, and a sudden memory of the back pain I'd suffered last night, kept me from it.

Image: Photo of the interior of a small mart not meant for tourists. The shelves are nearly bare.
Walmart has nothing to fear from the stores in the Centro Barrio of Havana.

Instead I just offered a friendly wave in return, and hoped it didn't look like too much a tourist's snub. But damn it, I'm regretting my lack of action still!

All that said, when we decided we'd had enough of the Old City, we also decided not to test my hypothesis that Neptuno would be as safe for a white man and an Oriental woman to wander through in full dark as it had been during drizzly daytime. Instead, we made our way towards the ocean, and the Malecón de Habana.

Image: Photo of the Malecon, with waves crashing onto the road.
Note: We learned the next day that much of the road had been closed to traffic because of the storm.

And the ocean? The sea was angry this night, my friends! Wave upon wave smashed down upon the breakwater, spraying the boardwalk with salt water and sent a fine mist high into the air. We stopped for a mediocre (and relatively pricey) supper at a famous (est. 1929) restaurant whose name escapes but the chief pleasure was in the weather, and that made up for any relative disappointment in the food.

And that's about it. More of the same, but with cooler, windier and wetter weather.

Image: Photo of ruined building, left, next to renovated building right, along the Malecon.
Two buildings along the Malecón, decay and renewal in uneasy cohabitation.

Havana is a city of bewildering contrasts and, indeed, contradictions. It is the heart of a "socialist" economy that provides (world-class) health-care for all, but that can barely provide (really awful) toilet paper for any.

Which reminds me of how our day started. Coming back from an incredibly cheap and reasonably tasty breakfast (my plate of braised pork, with rice-and-beans and a small coleslaw style salad, coffee and choice of alcoholic beverages came out to 3.85 CU (About five bucks Canadian, and including a 10% fee for the server!), we stopped at that model of state-owned business, the Panamericana "grocery" store to pick up a few more bottles of water. Because, you know, apparently socialism can't manage to get potable water to the people's water faucets.

This morning, the socialist economy couldn't get bottled water to the people, either.

Image: Photo of interior of Panamericana store showing beer where bottled water was yesterday.
Yesterday, the shelf at right was loaded with bottled water. Today, there is only beer.

Where yesterday there had been half an aisle of the stuff, today there wasn't a single bottle of agua to be found. In its place was only a rich bounty of Bucanero Fuerte. Naturally, I bought six cans, and assured Raven we would find some water elsewhere. (And miraculously, I was right. On our way home from the Old City, I noticed a literal hole in the wall store, where an entrepreneur had water and liquor and beer available. Same price as the state store, but this place actually had it in stock.)

Havana is a fascinating and energetic metropolis, a weird mix of decay and growth, however stunted the latter; but it is a bit too familiar to what I know for me to innocently enjoy those differences, as I did in Santa Clara. If, as a tourist, I must accept poisonous tap-water, endure brutally foul air and a government that forbids me internet access unless I can prove I am not a citizen, it is much easier to do so without complaint if the physical environment is so different one might be in a different world or time entirely.

I know, I'm talking aesthetics. I'm romanticizing, exoticising, the Other in a way that risks condescension at the best of times.

Image: Photo of the author looking out upon the Malecon after supper.
After supper, watching the storm, I ponder Havana with the taste of Bucanero in my mouth.

I'm certainly not trying to tell you that the people of Santa Clara are on the whole happier than the people of Havana. But at the same time, I am mindful that one of the main reasons Raven came to Canada is that her home city, in order to "modernize", gave itself over entirely to the gambling industry as its superhighway to modernity and wealth.

Macao's economy is now almost entirely dependent on tourists. Its citizens have a lot of money for the moment (though there are shortages. If you work for a casino in Macao, you can easily afford to travel the world; but buy a condo? That's another story), but they don't make anything, they only cater to transient desires of visitors. To try to paraphrase something Kim Stanley Robinson put into the mouth of one of his characters, there is ultimately something hollow and demeaning in making "service" the basis of your entire life.

Castro's revolution succeeded in large part because Cuba had become a whore at the beck and call of gangsters and the idle rich from other lands. Will the redevelopment now apparently taking root in Havana, that seems modelled on the "success" of those resorts off-limits to all but foreigners and local employees see the country return to that kind of economy and all it implies for a way of living?

Is it even possible to base a fundamentally (or at least, aspirationally) egalitarian society on an economy based on the trickle-down leavings of tourism? Can Cuba modernize on its own terms, without blindly stumbling China's path and becoming a land of grotesque and brutal inequality?

I dunno. But meanwhile, I keep thinking of the agua we couldn't buy today, and of the vast selection available in the Lácteos case at the Panamericana today.

Image: Photo of the Lacteos case featuring one kind of cheese at the Panamericana store.

Next up: Day 7 – Cocotaxi, Habana Vieja & a '56 Ford Fairlane (sort of)

Previous: Day 5 – Schleppin' back to Viazul

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Havana, day & night

Great insight on what it's like in Havana, not revealed in any travel book.

Yet only the first layer

Thank you. Meanwhile, I'd like to go back. As with any new place, a few days is hardly enough to do Havana (let alone Cuba) proper justice.

Cuba blog

Some interesting insight into today's Cuba. Well done!

Re: Some interesting insight

Thanks Randy, I'm pleased you're enjoying it. It certainly was an interesting trip.

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