Day 4: Viazul - Santa Clara to Havana

Cuba: Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

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

Day 4: Headin' down the highway ... Havana ho!

I - Adios! to Santa Clara

A passenger vehicle of some sort. I believe it is used to transport workers to and from their jobs, but have not been able to confirm it.

December 17, 2015, HAVANA, Cuba — We woke early, our phones acting as alarm clocks, one of their only uses here in Cuba. (The others are: camera and flash-light. Also, Raven had the foresight to install a map of Santa Clara, which gave us some pretty impressive faux GPS functionality yesterday. But I digress.)

As when we arrived, Carlos and Damari arranged a ride for us after another fantastic tropical breakfast. (Fulsome plug: If ever you want a casa particular in Santa Clara, the Hostal Oasis has my enthusiastic recommendation.)

Image: Detail of photo of breakfast provided the Carlos and Damari of Hostal Oasis in Santa Clara, Cuba

Gorge, who had picked us up at the airport, was otherwise engaged, so instead of a Lada, our trip to the bus station was made upon hard wooden benches on the back of a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motorcycle).

We said a grateful goodbye to our hosts, and clambered aboard. (Note: The photo below is of a tuk-tuk in Santa Clara, but it was not our tuk-tuk. Somehow, in our excitement, we neglected to properly document that ride.)

Image: Photo of a street in Santa Clara, featuring passengers riding in a tuk-tuk

The ride took us south, to a wider road than we had mostly seen, one which boasted several traffic lights before connecting to the road on which we'd made our way to the station yesterday.

Where we once again waited our turn to enter into Viazul's "luxurious" office and, this time, to present our passports in order to buy the tickets we reserved yesterday.

Image: Photo of a driver half-inside the main waiting area inside the Viazul station in Santa Clara. As in most Cuban buildings we entered or saw, most windows can be opened.

The woman behind the counter located our names on the spiral notebook in which they had been entered yesterday, copied our passport information by hand (again!), then punched information into her computer, which set an ancient dot-matrix printer into whirring action. And o! so slowly, it extruded our "tickets".

And then, we went out into the terminal to wait.

Image: Photo of people waiting for bus at Viazul terminal in Santa Clara

Our bus was scheduled to leave at 11:30 with arrival in Havana scheduled for 16:30. Not trusting to announcements made in Spanish, we made our way to the platform not long after 11:00 AM.

About that schedule. Our bus didn't actually show up at the platform until about 11:45. We didn't leave until 12:05, more than a half-hour late.

Image: Photo of Young Geoffrey waiting to board a Viazul coach to Havana in Santa Clara.

And yet, through some miracle of socialist planning, we got to Havana a full hour ahead of schedule, at 15:30.

And this miracle despite two, possibly three, stops along the way so that the driver could report something to police or soldiers stationed along the road, along with a really short rest-stop at a road-side restaurant, during which the driver tooted warning calls on bus' horn before Raven even reached it. (Me, I was rationing my water, so I wouldn't have to test things on the bus or the road. I know, bad reporter.)

Speaking of bathrooms, our coach, which Raven identified as a Chinese-built Yutong bus made surplus ten or 20 years ago and then donated to Cuba, was equipped with a washroom as advertised. At least, there was a door at the back with the appropriate icon on it. However, it was locked, beyond the reach of any passenger, no matter how desperate. Possibly a coincidence, but I wonder whether there will be a functioning toilet when we leave Havana for Varadero?

But other than the locked toilet, the coach was comfortable, if bizarrely-appointed to western eyes.

Image: Photo of the interior of the Viazul coach, festooned with beer labels and other arcana

I liked the fact there was a clock installed above the driver, but was only baffled to see a Mercedes hood ornament over the centre console near the floor, or Bucanero beer decals hanging decorating the rear-view mirror. As for the dolls, I have no theories at all.

The head-rests were covered by white pillow-case-like coverings. Which at first seemed kind of gross, until it occurred to me they could be removed and washed on a regular basis, unlike headrests on Greyhound coaches, which (I guess) just absorb passengers' head-grease from one day to the next. Onwards.

The highway, the Autopista Nacional (A1) is visibly old, but in a better state of repair that many similar roads in, say, Quebec. The major differences between a Canadian controlled access highway and the Cuban version are that I think the Cuban lanes are a little narrower than ours, that there are no paved shoulders and, especially, that in Cuba access doesn't seem very controlled.

Woman crosses Autopista A1 between Santa Clara and Havana

Like the streets of Santa Clara, traffic on the A1 includes not just cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses, — but also bicycles and horse-drawn carts.

Traffic volume didn't approach what you can see during, say, rush on the 401 in Toronto, but it wasn't sparse either. And yet things seemed to work, as they did in the apparent chaos in Santa Clara. That said, it seemed to me our coach probably averaged 80 to 90 kilometres per hour, rather than 100-110 or more.

A little slower than back at home, yes, but, "E pur si muove" as Galileo is said to have pointed out in a very different context.

II - Hola! to Havana

Image: Photo of a street on the outskirts of Havana, near the Viazul terminal, taken from inside our coach.

Our first looks at Havana were almost frightening, as if we were entering a war zone, not merely a poor city in a struggle with decades of entropy.

Image: Photo of a street on the outskirts of Havana, not Beirut.

But it wasn't all decay. As in Santa Clara, there was poverty, but there was no obvious sign of despair or desperation.

But we were no longer taking pictures from inside of an air conditioned coach. We had an hour to kill in a muggy bus station, somewhere in the Cuban capital.

Image: Photo of a busy street on the outskirts of Havana.

Early arrival notwithstanding, it had been a long ride, so plumbing took precedence. By turn, we sampled the national capital's toilets. (TL/DR: Nearly, but not quite, as gross as those in Santa Clara). Bladders emptied, hunger was our next priority. A cafeteria beckoned at the top of a flight of stairs.

If the Viazul cafeteria in Santa Clara reminded me of a run-down gas-station's in Northern Ontario, the one in Havana was more like an undersized bar that had once, very briefly and maybe 20 years ago, hired a trendy chef in hopes of turning a neighbourhood dive into a hipster's eatery.

Now the chef is long gone and so are the pretensions. The cafeteria is a bog room with a long counter on one side facing picture windows overlooking the street, while a dozen tables, maybe three of them occupied, are scattered about the floor. There were at least three staff (male) loitering behind the counter. A small fridge offers the usual two kinds of beer, a shelf displays a half-dozen bottles of liquor. Bottled water and one or two kinds of soft drink are also available.

I selected the least dirty table I could find while Raven made her way to the counter. She waited a couple of minutes before one of the staff deigned to speak with her.

The sign at the door had promised a number of delicacies, (including espagueti, a version of which had so appalled me two days ago in Santa Clara), but when Raven came back, she reported only, "There's no menu. Just sandwiches. 'Beef, pork, chicken, or fish.'"

"Are you getting one?" I asked, and immediately felt foolish. She rolled her eyes and so I got up and and we gathered our bags and went back downstairs to wait for our ride.

Image: Photo of the waiting room at the Havana Viazul bus depot

Yesterday, Raven suggested that the broken toilets at the Viazul station in Santa Clara were a sort of make-work project. Today I could think of nothing else to explain why (at least) three men were needed to make Raven wait several minutes before one of them told her that there was no menu and that she had a choice of four kinds of sandwiches — beef, pork, chicken or fish — no matter what the sign at the entrance said.

We drank bottled water and waited.

Happily, our driver in Havana was as prompt as Gorge had been in Santa Clara. And his Lada was every bit as old, its shocks every bit as shot, its seat-belts, every bit as missing.

But he got us, safe, to Abby's Place in Havana's Vedado district, and barely a stone's throw from the fabled Malecón.

But Abby's Place, the Malecón, Havana itself ... all that must wait until my next entry. For now I need to talk about pants. My pants.

Image: Photo of the Malecón taken from the balcony of Abby's Place in Havana

My kingdom for a pair of shorts!

Remember our luggage? Our lost luggage that, so far as we know, is still in Ottawa? Though I'd had the good sense (or luck) to pack my socks in my own knapsack, and Raven somehow packed a couple of extra t-shirts and underwear in her carry-on luggage, I had now been wearing the same pair of pants (long pants!) for at least five days, three of those in the tropics. Raven said I was starting to smell, and I believed her.

Thank god, those in the capital have more options when it comes to clothing than they do in the provinces. Not only could I buy a pair of shorts, there was a mall right on the next block!

Let me tell you about the Focsa mall.

Image: Photo of Calle 17 in Havana. Focsa mall appears at left, a high-rise over-looking the old buildings on the street

At first glance (see above) it doesn't look that bad. A nondescript apartment tower looming over old and mostly dilapidated buildings on Calle 17 (17th Street), it features a cafe and a few stores at street-level on the northern end, all bearing the name Panamericana name, but each one specializing in a different type of product. There is a grocery store, a hardware store, a toy store, etc. The windows are mostly covered by pictures instead of displaying actual merchandise to passers-by.

But it is the entrance to the mall's interior that I really want to talk about. A tunnel, rather.

Image: Photo of part of the Focsa Mall facade.

When I was growing up in Sudbury, the downtown core was split by a freight yard, a dozen or more sets of train tracks fenced off from the city. At some point it had been decided to build a pedestrian tunnel beneath them.

Maybe when it had been built it had been an attractive amenity, but by the time I found it in the late 1970s, it was a dark hole under the tracks, reeking of urine and stale tobacco smoke, a hang-out for drunks and high-school kids playing hooky.

More often than not, I preferred to hop a fence and take my chances with the trains than with whoever might be lurking under ground.

Image: Photo taken of the entrance to the Focsa mall, a dark and dingy tunnel down which walks a lone shopper.

The entrance to the Focsa Mall isn't quite that bad, but that underpass is what this tunnel reminded me of the first time we saw it.

Yes, the place is as attractive as all that. And with the exception of a well-lit and fancy-looking restaurant, the stores don't look much more attractive.

I suppose, after that tunnel, in which maybe one out of every four over-head lights function, that the clothing store we found, a full 15 or so minutes before closing time, seemed a wonder of western decadence in comparison.

Image: Photo of stores inside the Focsa mall.

The lights were all on and there were actual clothes on the shelves! Shirts, pants, shorts! And a changing room just like at home!

They even had a pair of shorts that fit me! I brought them to the counter and the clerk (a woman) started to ring up my purchase. Then, all of a sudden, she turned from us and let loose a blood-curdling shriek. Raven and I looked at each other in a sort of confused horror, but the woman just listened to a voice reply from the back, then gave her attention to us again as if nothing at all out of the ordinary had happened, then made change for my 25 CUCs.

"Gracias," I said doubtfully, then Raven and I backed carefully out of the store and back into the mall proper before we found our way back through the dismal tunnel to the street.

Image: Photo of Focsa Mall tunnel, looking towards the street.

We decided to stop at the grocery store before going back to the hotel; in Havana as in Santa Clara our hosts warned us right away not to drink the tap-water.

The grocery store was almost as depressing as the mall. The front wall features dirty windows and four doors, only one of which opens. That is guarded by a woman wearing a green-themed uniform of blouse, short skirt and fancy black hose.

Once through the portal, one must navigate past the cashiers' aisles before getting to the merchandise on offer.

And such bounty awaits!

Image: Photo of beer shelf at the Panamericana grocery store on Calle 17 in Havana. Note the two kinds of beer, Heineken and Bucanero.

Well, if you're in search of booze, a display stand of rum greets you front and centre. The front halves of two right hand aisles offer a pretty decent selection of rum and vodkas and other hard liquors. Beer or wine? There is half an aisle of Bucanero Fuerte in cans and imported Heineken in bottles.

And incidentally, there was also a cockroach inspecting the Bucanero, apparently in no fear of a staff member crushing or poisoning it.

There was also a large shelf of bottled water on offer; one brand, two (or was it three) sizes, and a (small) variety of canned goods. One kind of tomato, one kind of tomato sauce, one kind of mayonnaise, one kind of ... well, you get the idea. I'll double-check tomorrow, but I don't think there is anything in the way of fresh fruit or vegetables available.

Image: Photo of canned goods on offer at the Panamericana grocery store on Calle 17 in Havana.

I think there were six or eight people working this thousand square-foot store, which included four main aisles four cash registers and a desert counter on the left. I couldn't help but remember the (possibly apocryphal) joke from the Soviet Union: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."

Onwards. We went back to our room loaded down with a few bottles of water and a few cans of beer, then went back out into the late afternoon in search of food.

Image: Photo of dilapidated buildings and crumbling pavement and sidewalk on Calle 17 in Havana.

At first glance (see above. And below) Calle 17 looks rough. With the crumbling masonry, missing windows, cracked and heaving sidewalks, Havana's Vedado district looks more like a slum than an up-and-coming tourist district.

But run-down buildings don't necessarily mean the same thing in one place as they might in another.

Image: Photo of an old American car on Calle 17 in Havana.

Calle 17 didn't feel dangerous to me, any more than the poverty in Santa Clara felt dangerous, or the run-down state of Toronto's Kensington Market feel dangerous. We've seen no street-corner mendicants entreating passersby for alms, nor desperately pushy hustlers who won't take "Gracias, no," for an answer.

So when a young man stopped us and asked if we were looking for a place to eat, I said "Si," even as Raven tried to pull me away. (If my experiences in Canada make me too trusting in her eyes, Raven's in places like Kuala Lumpur and especially in southern mainland China — where begging isn't just rampant, but organized, sometimes brutally-so — make her too quick to expect the worst in mine.) He gave me a card for a place Paladar Santa Barbara and said we could get good and authentic Cuban food there.

Though he backed off the hard-sell pretty quick, Raven remained skeptical, so we walked around a bit more in the gathering darkness, but nothing leaped out at us as a better bet. So we turned around and found our way to the Paladar Santa Barbara, which turned out to be about two blocks south and a half-block west of our hotel.

Tell you the truth, coming from the 18th century feel of Santa Clara, the Paladar seemed both a welcome return to the 21st century, and an unwelcome return from the fantasy of the Exotic Other. The restaurant is on a side street, a half-block from Calle 17. It features a big sidewalk patio and an interior space of the same size. The wait-staff were dressed more formally than they would be in Canada, but not in the green-and-white, polyester government-issued uniforms. I felt as if I somehow found myself in a trendy bistro in Toronto during the early 1990s.

Image: Photo of Raven taking a photo of (part of) our meal at Paladar Santa Barbara

Still, the tout had been true to his word. The food wasn't brilliant, but it was better than good. The "moro" (for Moroccan) rice and beans was particularly nicely-done and Raven reported that her fish was (as it should have been, this close to the sea) wonderfully fresh.

A male/female duet played non-traditional Cuban jazz and, when we left, we left sated and happy to walk through the gloomy streets, careful of broken sidewalks and pavement.

We had just enough energy to take a walk down to the Malecón and breathe the sea air before we turned back and came "home" to Abby's Place, excited about what we'll find tomorrow.

Image: Photo of the Monumento a las víctimas del Maine from the boardwalk along the Malecon

But for now, despite the fact most of today was spent waiting for or riding a bus: Christ, I'm tired! I expect to sleep like the proverbial dog.

Next up: Day 5 – Schleppin' back to Viazul

Previous: Day 3 – Che sera, sera

Return to Index


If you enjoyed this, please comment or take a moment to share the work via your social network of choice (there are easy links below).

To to be informed when new work appears at Edifice Rex Online, you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

And if you're moved to tangibly express your appreciation, you can do so via Paypal. Thank you!

Spread the word!

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

On reaching Havana

I'm glad you managed to reach Abby's Place safely and well fed. Looking forward to the next day's adventures.
Bob Fowler

Re: On reaching Havana

Thanks, we were happy about that too. I hope you enjoy the rest of my reports - hard to believe they will soon be coming to an end!

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.