We woke up in our casa particular in Trinidad and ate a breakfast of eggs and fruit the host mom had made for us.
Gustavo told us the driver was waiting outside. We looked out the door and saw a new-ish Hyundai and felt a sigh of relief. We grabbed our bags and walked towards it. Gustavo said, "no, not that one, this one…" and pointed 2 cars down to the right. Um…Gustavo, this is NOT a "modern car." I think "modern" means something different in Cuba than it does to us here in the US.
Our ride to Havana. For 4 hours. With 5 people.
A nice couple from Italy was already in the back seat. I climbed in with them and Adam took the front passenger seat. Danny, the driver, spoke no English. Nobody said a word for 4 hours. As we rolled down the road, I heard a terrible noise from the rear right corner of the car every time we hit a bump. I asked Adam what it was, and he said "oh, just the tire rubbing." Great. Danny drove really fast, and in the center of the road, not in his own lane. Did I mention there were no seat belts?
The worst part was that, with no cell service, I couldn't even text Adam things like, "I'm gonna die in a fiery crash just like Princess Di!!" So I just kept tapping him on the shoulder and making huge eyes and pursed lips at him instead. (In hindsight, I probably could have just said it out loud, since nobody spoke English.)
My view for 4 hours, from Trinidad to Havana
There was also no AC, so the windows were down, making the tire rub noise even louder. I couldn't even lean on the door to sleep, because I was afraid it wouldn't hold me and I'd wind up rolling across the street like tumbleweed. At one point, I looked out the window and saw a horse next to the road that was peeing a super strong stream of pee. Adam looked back at me to see if I saw, and I looked at him to see if he saw, and we both busted out laughing. The absurdity was too much and I got the giggles. I think the Italians thought we were nuts.
We finally arrived in old Havana, where we would stay for the remainder of the trip. Old Havana has two distinct parts, crumbling barrios and a nicely restored part. We drove through the crumbling part to get to our casa, so we were a little nervous at first. But we arrived to find that we were staying just outside the nicer part by about 50 feet. The city has put up cannons (literally, cannons buried in the street) to mark off the pedestrian-friendly tourist area from the barrio. We were just outside the cannons. Our casa, called Casa Telefonica, was where the very first telephone call had ever been made on the island of Cuba.
The family that lived in the house, Elvis and Madelena, spoke no English, but they had an on-site concierge, Alejandro, who worked from 9-4 each day. He was very friendly and recommended a place to eat lunch. We dropped our bags and headed out. Walking there, we were both shocked at how stunningly beautiful old Havana is. Lunch was amazing, and our waiter looked exactly like young Barack Obama. When I told him that, he said he hears it a lot, and he considers it a huge compliment. Aww.
Me with Young Cuban Obama
Young Cuban Obama delivers our food.
I have that same Sputnik lamp at home! But mine has all the bulbs. Oh, Cuba.
Beautiful lunch spot
We continued walking around the area and stumbled upon an outdoor flea market in Plaza des Armes. Interestingly, the street here is made of wood, not cobblestones.
I found a couple of 50-year old pendants for Madelyn that had her initials on them. The vendor said they were from an old school.
We walked to the waterfront and took photos of some of the old cars. I knew before coming here that Cuba had a lot of old cars. But I could never have imagined just HOW many. They are literally everywhere, and make up well over half of the cars on the roads.
Next we walked towards the Cathedral Square, which took us through the crumbling part of Havana. At this point, I started getting really thirsty. Adam asked a man where we could buy water. The man walked with us to a bar, where we bought a few bottles of national water. As we walked back, the man asked us to take a look in his store in exchange for his help. In Havana, nearly every residential building has a "store" in the front room. They sell things they have made, and a very small inventory of other things. As I purchased a handmade doll, the man pulled Adam into a back room of the house. Like "store," I also use the term "house" loosely. There was exposed wiring and crumbling plaster everywhere. I stayed out on the street with the women, who tried to teach me a dance. At this point, I started thinking Adam had been murdered and was being cut into small pieces, but I refused to go into the back room to investigate. Finally, he came back and told me he had bought a cigar and that everyone inside had been very nice. The man was proud of his house and had just wanted Adam to see it.
It was then we realized that we had to adjust our American perceptions a bit to fit Havana. People in Havana are brutally poor, but they are not dangerous. They just want to sell you some goods, or have a conversation. They rarely see Americans, or even blonde people, so they were very curious about us. We commented time and time again that we would NEVER walk through East LA or South Central in Los Angeles. We would likely be robbed blind, if not worse. But in Havana, there is very little crime. After realizing what was happening, we never once felt unsafe or threatened in any way.
We walked down a crowded street past La Bodeguita Del Medio where the Mojito was invented. An old man stopped me and told me I was beautiful and asked if he could take a photo with me. I thought it was weird since he wanted us to use our own camera. But we complied. Then he asked for 1 CUC. LOL! It didn't make me feel scammed as much as it made me sad that I wasn't really that beautiful. Oh well, lesson learned. This would happen many, many more times over the next few days. Sometimes we gave them the money. Other times, Adam told them to beat it. It just depended on the people and the situation.
We went to see the cathedral, where a mass was in progress. It paled in comparison to the cathedrals we have seen in Europe, but was still lovely. We walked back to our casa to settle in. I tried to take a shower but the water was FREEZING. We had noticed earlier that the casa had really nice linens and brand new, fluffy towels, so we knew there would have to be some other flaw! There was also no wifi. But we didn't expect that. The nearest wi-fi was about a mile away, at a hotel.
Alejandro recommended a place for dinner - Cafe Bohemia on Plaza Viejo — so we headed out. The plaza was way more impressive than the restaurant!
The entire plaza used to be a parking garage, but they knocked it down to create a public gathering space, and restored all the buildings around it. They all have before and after photos hanging near their doorways. There is also a lot of public art, including this statue. A Cuban nearby explained to me that it represents women's power over men, which is through sex and food. (That is a greatly cleaned up version of what he actually said to me!)
At the café, we ordered bruschetta from the menu, but the waiter said they couldn't get any tomatoes today. So we had pineapple daiquiris and veggies with spicy cream cheese instead. We would find more later.
We decided to explore outside the cannons south of the plaza, which looked super sketchy! Some guys were blasting Michael Jackson's "We are the World" out of their doorway. Adam started singing it, and they joined him in the song! It was one of those moments that somehow makes perfect sense in Cuba.
We walked down the main shopping street, Calle Obispo, to try to find dinner. A guy named Sergio stopped us on the street and asked him to come eat in his paladar upstairs, where we could have 4 courses and a drink for 12 CUCs. Adam told me it was up to me, and I was starving, so we followed Sergio up some stairs and through the kitchen to get to the dining room. There was live music — way too close to us! Awkward.
I told Sergio we were from LA and he promptly freaked out. He said his "hero Jack Bauer is from Los Angeles!" Ha! Sergio collects business cards from people from the US. He had five, and showed each of them to me. He told me he would email me, and said he said he is so happy that "the big beard" has recently allowed them to have Internet. He asked us if we had anything with a US flag on it that he could have, but we didn't. He told everyone in the restaurant we were from LA and said we get free mojitos (which never arrived).
While I adored Sergio, dinner was terrible! I ordered ropa viejo (which is saucy beef), but I got very dry shredded pork. Adam poured oil on it to try to revive it. About this time, the place started filling up and Sergio started seating strangers together. We didn't want to sit with strangers at the 2 empty seats at our table, so we choked down the food and left.
We walked to Floridita, the bar where the daiquiri was invented and Hemingway used to hang out. I had a strawberry daiquiri, which was so yummy! Adam was happy they had Jack Daniels, as this was the first time we had seen it in Cuba. So even though this was the cradle of the daiquiri, Adam had Jack.
When we walked out and over to take photos of an old car, an old man with a cute baby said "Beso for the baby!?" So I kissed the baby on the cheek. He then said "the baby is hungry. Do you have some pesos?" Ugh. I gave him a CUC and we left. I asked Adam if I could buy 20 American singles from him. He said he would just give me 20 and asked why I needed them. I said, "to give to babies!" He rolled his eyes.
We walked to the port, where tons of people were gathered to watch a cruise ship leave. We decided we wanted a convertible cab, so we walk towards the Malecon, where we had seen a bunch. After some time, we finally found the perfect pink convertible Buick. The owner, Michael, rode in the passenger seat, while his driver drove around. Michael told us his father lives in Florida, and has only been back to visit Cuba three times in 22 years. Michael has never been to Florida to visit him. That made me sad. He dropped us a the Hotel Nacional so we could have a drink on the huge porch.
We hopped in a cab back to go back to the casa, and made the mistake of not asking how much the fare would be before we started driving. The driver tried to fleece us – he wanted 15 CUC when the ride should have been about 8. Adam tried to dispute it, and we got in our first disagreement of the trip. I feel so awkward in situations like that. I would much rather just pay and leave. But Adam, bless him, has the fortitude to argue. I started walking while they worked it out.
We returned to the house at midnight. (The casas give you a key to their front door and your room, so you can come and go as you please.) I tried to take a shower, but the water was SCALDING HOT. WTF. Oh, Cuba.
Tomorrow: I fall in love with the children of Havana.