Cuba, April 1, 2013. Havana: A Beautiful and Ailing City.

March 31st marked a very rare day for me, namely a day in which I did nothing but lounge around on the beach.  It is something I have not experienced in over 13 years.  After a lazy beach day getting sunburned thanks to shitty sunblock, I was ready to embark on another journey and get some more sightseeing done.  On April 1st, I was bristling with excitement to see Havana.  I have read about it, seen iconic photos and was all too eager to finally get there myself.  The short version of this story is that Havana is all it is cracked up to be.

Our plan was to meet up with Carlos and Judy in center of Varadero and then rent a car.  Our taxi into Varadero was a vehicle that one could only find in Cuba: a Russian GAZ luxury sedan refitted with a Toyota engine.  The Cubans seem to an innate ability to make anything mechanical last to the bitter end.  This car actually had a very nice ride and by Soviet-Era standard it was bourgeois plush.  I also liked the retro interior, the sort of trimmings one would expect in a diplomat’s vehicle from an old James Bond movie.

Russian GAZ Sedan
Russian GAZ Sedan (possibly a Volga 2410)

We met up with Judy and Carlos and set about the business of getting our rental car.  Before leaving to Havana, we relaxed for a while over some espressos and met Arturo, one of Carlos’ friends.   Carlos worked as a bartender at the resorts in Varadero and he is quite well connected with the town and its people. Thankfully this made going about the business of renting cars not only easy, but inexpensive.  He helped us avoid the ripoffs and tourist scams.

Carlos, Judy, Elaine and Arturo
Carlos, Judy, Elaine and Arturo

I rented a Kia, probably a Spectra (now discountinued) for a full 24 hours.  The cost was about $70 all in and we did not have to return it with a full gas tank.  Normally, the drive to Havana would take just over 2 hours as the crow flies.  However, we made a few stops to get beers, Pina Coladas and do a bit of mountain viewing in Mantanzas.  It was also an opportune day for me since I was turned on to a stronger brand of Cuban beer called “Bucanero Fuerte”.  This is a darker beer that measures 5.4% alcohol and it is made in cooperation with Labatts.

We took a few brews for the road.  One of the freedoms that one can experience in Cuba is the ability to drink beers while driving and then the empty cans are chucked out the window. Sooner or later, someone collects them on the roadside to be returned for cash.

Sipping fancy girly drinks in Mantanzas
World Famous Pina Coladas in Mantanzas
Sightseeing in Mantanzas
Sightseeing in Mantanzas

Around 1 PM, we arrived in Havana without any problems or barely any traffic for that matter.   Carlos offered to act as chauffeur since he is familiar with Havana and claims driving there is insane.  Compared to Cardenas, Havana driving seems nutty, however, compared to Toronto, driving in Havana is a cakewalk.  Nonetheless, I was glad Carlos was driving as he knows his way around town.

Upon arriving in the city, I was struck by the beautiful architecture and one could see why Havana has been called the Paris of the Caribbean.  Unlike Paris, Havana is a poor city, many of the great old buildings and streets are crumbling away.  Peeking out from all the old architecture, modern skyscrapers are visible and they are better maintained.   Frankly, I do not care one iota for skyscrapers or apartment complexes as they lack any sense of aesthetic appeal and are just utilitarian boxes designed to satisfy the bean counter’s bottom line.  What is hard for me to come to terms with is visualizing how Havana would have looked in its heyday when the city was well maintained and money was flowing in.  What a sight it would have been.  There are vestiges of its original beauty visible wherever you go and even in its dilapidated state, it satisfies and inspires the soul more than any pristine and hideous post-modern building.

You can get an idea of what I’m talking about by watching a video of our drive in Havana.

Driving from Mantanzas into Havana

We parked the car and took a brief walk to the José Martí Memorial which is located on the northern side of the Plaza de la Revolución in the Vedado area of Havana.  Carlos and I wanted to venture inside and take the elevator to the top (109 metres).  This is the Havana equivalent to taking a ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.  Judy and Elaine opted out as they have seen it.  Carlos and I went in, scanned some of the Cuban history on display and then rode to the top in a tiny elevator.  Carlos has lived in Cuba all his life and never seen a bird’s eye view of Havana, so he was really happy to get this chance.

Jose Marti Monument
José Martí Memorial
Bird's eye view of Havana.  Complete with bird.
Bird’s eye view of Havana. Complete with bird.

Upon returning to the ground level, one sees an image seen countless times before in history books, news photos and all other visual media.  In Cuba, it is not face or the image of Fidel Casto that dominates the cultural, historical or political landscape.  It is the iconic face of Ernesto “Che” Guevara that stands out.  It is a symbol of mythic proportions and one that remains just controversial today as it did during the Cuban Revolution.  “Che” rises like a graven Christ like figure to the party faithful.  He is as much a sacred and holy image as he is the kitsch that adorns thousands of cheap Cuban souvenirs.  As such, no trip to Havana is complete without the obligatory photo of Che Guevara in the Plaza de la Revolución.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara
Ernesto “Che” Guevara

We treated ourselves to a horse drawn carriage ride through the streets of Havana.  Carlos bartered a decent fee for us, I think it was a mere 10 Pesos. Haggling is a way of life for Cubans and when they go at it, it almost seems like a shouting match.  This ride afforded me the chance to take some photos of the city at a slow pace, moreover we had the luxury of grabbing a few beers along the way.  For the first time in my life I got to drive a horse drawn carriage.  I’m no coach driver, but I will confess that getting the horse to respond was easier than shifting gears on old Cuban motorcycles.

Hey Kids, It's Horse and Buggy Day
Hey Kids, It’s Horse and Buggy Day

After a leisurely ride, we set about on foot again.  Elaine and I were able to get some pretty decent street photography done.  We tried to remain as stealthy as possible, but when that failed and the Cubans saw their photos taken, most did not seem to mind at all.  Our next stop was to visit the famous Cathedral of Havana.

Smiling at the Camera
Smiling at the Camera
Havana Street Scene
Havana Street Scene

Unfortunately, we were not able to go inside of the beautiful Cathedral of Havana as it was closed for renovations. Elaine and I were looking forward to seeing the interior were rather disappointed. No matter, we shall return soon enough and explore this city anew and in more detail.   All was not a loss, we had few drinks out in the courtyard,  I smoked a fine cigar and we watched Cuban and tourist life unfold alike in the square.

Cathedral of Havana
Cathedral of Havana
Aguiar, Ciudad de La Habana, Provincia de Ciudad de La Habana, República de Cuba
Visiting Monks

A few more hours were spent wandering the streets and we took far too many photos, some of which are featured in the gallery below.  Before returning to our resort, Carlos asked if we wanted to visit his brother Nelson on the outskirts of Havana.  I said yes and was looking forward to meeting another member of his family.  I was not prepared for the poverty in Nelson’s section of town, nor for the spartan cramped quarter’s of Nelson’s home.  It is a tiny place, scarcely bigger than a typical suburban living room.  This cramped space encloses a bedroom, washroom which circumscribe a miniscule living room with two lounge old chairs.  The floors are concrete and the walls unfinished.  Yet, no matter how poor these people are, there is still remarkable pride and hospitality.  The sidewalks are swept daily and the houses are kept clean and orderly.

Nelson offered Elaine and Judy the two seats in his living room and wiped off the seats before they sat down.  This simple and gracious gesture struck a chord with me, it’s not something one would be likely to see in the poorest sections of any Canadian or American city.

The Santos clan: Carlos, Judy and Nelson
The Santos clan: Carlos, Judy and Nelson
Nelson's neighbourhood as seen in a $15 Holga lens.
Nelson’s neighbourhood as seen through a $15 Holga lens.

So ended our all too brief day in Havana.  The rest of the photos taken by Elaine and I are can be viewed in the rather extensive gallery below.

If some of the photos have a different “artsy” selective focus appearance from the others, it is because I used a specialized optic: the Lensbaby Composer Pro.  Either you like this look or you don’t.  I’m still getting my feet wet with this quirky optic.



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