Monday, January 11, 2016

Cuba Day 5: Havana Good Time (Except For The Milk Lady!)

Madelena made us a breakfast of fruit, juice, coffee, bread, and a tortilla dipped in scrambled egg then cooked (why didn't I ever think of that?!). We ate with a nice couple of men from Seattle, Keith and Sylvano (I think. We never could remember his name). As we were walking out the door, Alejandro told us to be sure to use bug repellent because there have been a few cases of Dengue Fever lately. Lovely. 

We walked around to take photos and go to the pharmacy to get something for our mosquito bites, but it was closed.  So instead we headed to the Museum of Chocolate, which conveniently, is also a restaurant. Adam had chocolate milk and I had hot chocolate with cinnamon. 

They gave us a few free little bon bons with our drinks. It was unlike any chocolate we have ever tasted. There were tiny crunchy little bits of sugar in it. I don't think I will ever like American chocolate again. 

We had a good laugh at the menu, which said, "Chocolate, bat, bat, whitewash, sugar and canola. Infancy's tidbit, and the grandmother's memories. The cocoa's chocolate, aromatic and dark American Bitneriaceo, nutritious past, exquisiteness of the future." -- HUH?! Something was definitely lost in translation. 

We went to a different flea market, where I bought some rings made of old silver spoons. They recycle EVERYTHING in Cuba. While we stood on the street in awe at how long the Western Union line was, a guy placed a parrot on Adam's shoulder for a photo, and it bit him on the cheek, actually drawing blood. Great, now we will have Dengue Fever AND Bird Flu!

Thirsty, I headed into the grocery store for locals. WOW. This is the largest grocery store we saw in Havana, and it truly turned my world upside down. I am a very picky eater, so seeing where Cubans buy their food made me realize I would probably die if I lived there. And it made me appreciate home so much more. These Cubans would faint from shock if they walked into a Trader Joe's!

It's set up like an old five and dime, with shelves behind counters, so you point at what you want, and a clerk gets it for you. But the selection is terrible! There was one small shelf of canned goods, one section of dry goods, and that section on the left was the entire pharmacy. The entire beverage section is on the right. 

Below is the prepared foods counter, where they sold fried chicken, government sodas, etc. 

As I was taking this photo, a stray dog walked right in the front door of the store, and nobody cared. Also note the large hole in the floor. 

The egg lady rationed out eggs, while the dry goods lady measured out everyone's rations of sugar and flour.  

This guy was measuring out portions of little gray discs. I asked what they were, and he said, "Sweet! Cookies!" Gross.

Feeling really bad for these people, we left and kept walking, looking at souvenirs being sold from people's homes.  Some lady with no top front teeth told me her baby was hungry and asked if I could buy milk. I said I wouldn't give her money. She said that it was not about money, that the government rations milk, and she had used her ration for the month already, but they would sell milk to tourists. She asked me to hold her adorable baby and for Adam to take photos, so I did, of course.

Then she asked me to follow her into a store, which was very much like the one we had just left, and she asked for a case milk from behind the counter. The cashier grabbed it (they were like juice boxes, but with milk inside — about 30 of them). The cashier looked at me and said something in Spanish which sounded like $3.00. I handed her 5 CUC. She firmly shook her head "no" and showed me a calculator that said $32!!!! All three of them, including the baby, stood there looking at me, waiting for me to pay. At this point I had forgotten she said it "wasn't about money." I felt pressured, and wanted the baby to have milk, so I forked over $35. In that split second I figured that $32 is nothing to me, but is HUGE to her — so I just went along and paid it. The cashier handed me back three dollars in change, and the lady held out her hand and said, "por favor? Por la bebe?" (That might be French, but you get the idea.) At this point, I was so irritated, I just gave her the three dollars. She took the baby and the milk and ran away quickly, leaving me standing in the store in shock! Adam walked in and told me he had just been approached by a prostitute on the street. He was in mild shock too!

As we walked, we talked about how the milk thing was definitely a total scam. There is no way that milk costs $32 when the monthly salary in Cuba is $30. I'm sure she returned to the store later, and got about $25 in change back from the cashier. Whatever, lesson learned. From now on, we decided, the answer is no. We also decided that we should probably stay inside the cannons. (This lasted about an hour.)

Hotel Saratoga Bar

We went to the hotel Saratoga for lunch and half an hour of Wi-Fi. We tried to order a Mediterranean salad, but they had run out of tomatoes. We had chicken sandwiches and fries. 

The hotel was near the Capitol building, so we took tons of photos of old cars in front of the building. Adam commented that "if you want an old car in front of something in Cuba, all you have to do is wait 2 minutes and one will come along!" It was so true!  

We passed a guy that was out cold on the sidewalk -- drunk with a bottle of rum at his feet. This became my favorite photo of the entire trip:

We walked up the Prado art walk and looked at paintings (Adam bought some), buildings, and cars, cars, cars...

...And even a man riding a super tall bicycle while wearing jorts! (Jorts are pretty much the official man uniform of Cuba.)

On our way back, we met a nice Cuban couple who told us it was the 80th birthday of one of the members of the Buena Vista Social Club and he was playing at a bar nearby. We followed them to the bar, but were a little nervous after the Milk Lady of Havana incident, and feared that this might also be some kind of scam, even though the old guy was really there, really playing music. So we stayed for only a few minutes, and then left. William seemed like a really nice guy, and I felt bad afterwards for not trusting him. Cuba will do that to a person. 90% of the people were very nice, and just wanted to share their culture and life experience with us. The other 10% wanted nothing but a quick buck. The problem was trying to figure out which was which.

We strolled past two adorable boys in a doorway, and started taking photos of them. They immediately started posing for us and hamming it up. I asked Adam to give them an American dollar and he pulled out two  -- those two little faces absolutely lit up! Adam said, "one for you, and one for you!" (in Spanish). The older brother said "YES!!!" And fist pumped. I swear, he fist pumped. He was so excited!!! Right then and there I decided I would spend the next 24 hours handing out dollars to the children of Havana. Outside the cannons. Adam agreed to fund my efforts.

Two boys, in the entrance to their house. Where they live. :-(

As we were negotiating my funding, I saw a chunk of a building fall off and land on the ground right before my very eyes. Oh, Cuba.

Back at the casa, we said goodbye to Alejandro, because he would not be working tomorrow. We gave him $50 for all the help he had provided, and all arrangements he had made for us.

Six weeks before leaving for Cuba, I made a reservation at La Guarida, a restaurant that is famous in Havana because it appeared in an award-winning Cuban movie "Stawberries and Chocolate." I was super excited about eating there. Alejandro called to confirm our reservation, and they said that they did not have it. They said, "oh, you made it on our website? Yah, that doesn't work."  Just one more plan that fell through.  


Alejandro recommended a rooftop restaurant in place of La Guarida, so we headed there instead — a nice paladar called La Monida Cubana. The food was actually delicious and the place had great views.  I had the ropa vieja that I had wanted last night, and creamed veggie soup. It was so good that it made climbing several sets of narrow marble stairs all the way to the roof worth the effort.

A lady also staying at our casa told us that an orchestra was setting up in the square a block away. We walked over and asked somebody what time the orchestra starts playing. "Tomorrow," he answered. Haha. Of course. 

So we walked to the waterfront to watch the cannon show (every night at 9pm, they blast off a real cannon from the fort across the channel, and it is LOUD!)  and saw tons of bats flying around in the park.  While we waited for the BOOM, we talked about Alejandro. He told us that his dad lives in Florida, and qualifies for a government letter that lets him bring a car back to Cuba with him. This letter is so rare, and so hard to get, that people who import new Hyundais or Honda Civics are able to sell them for $280,000 in Cuba. Seriously, that is the going rate. We were so confused by this, and wondering how anyone could afford that. (And no WONDER there aren't any modern cars.)  

Adam taking a photo of 1 of the 4000 dogs and cats we photographed in Havana

On our way home, we stopped in a little living room souvenir shop. I bought 2 bags, screen printed with scenes of old cars. The owner wanted 24 CUCs. I offered her 20 and she flashed a smile to her husband that told me I had just been had, but I didn't care. We ended up buying a bunch of other stuff from her too, and chatting for a while.  The lady loved my Alex and Ani bracelets and asked if I would trade them for something in her store. Sadly, I had to say no. I had just purchased them with Madelyn on our cruise, and we picked out matching ones to represent our trip, so they were too sentimental (and a lot more valuable than any of her wooden trinkets)!

As I fell asleep I realized that the grocery store, the Milk Lady, William, the two little brothers, and the souvenir lady had done a number on my conscience. I felt really guilty about all I have in life, just for being born where I was born, and how little I am able to help others. Tomorrow would be a day of helping — one Peso Americano at a time.

Until mañana,



  1. Dear Jennifer:
    I'm loving reading your blog, it's really good also to be a part of your Cuban adventure.
    Please just one note, about the cars price, it's actually, 28,000.00 for a small, second hand Hiunday, but not 280,000.00. Still really crazy prices, but just to have the exact information.
    I remember I told Adam about this, and the one priced at 280,000.00 it's a Peugeot. new, all these are government prices, and actually nobody here can afford that. Because, like I told Adam, there is no payment facilities, so it has to be all cash :(
    Thank you very much for your visit and hope to see you soon again.

    PS: Next time you should bring Madelin.

  2. Ohh, sorry, It's Alejandro. 'the' Alejandro of the picture jajaja

    1. Hi Alejandro! It is so great to hear from you and I am so happy you are reading the blog! Thanks for the clarification. That makes more sense. It still is a crazy price tag - especially for the Peugeot! (If you read back further on my blog, you will see I spent the summer in France, so I know about Peugeot!) Yes, when I return to Cuba, I will definitely bring Madelyn. She would adore it.

      Obama mentioned ending the embargo in his State of the Union speech last night. Perhaps soon you can come visit us in Los Angeles!


  3. I told you I become a reader of your blog, and I already read a lot of old posts, mostly the France trip. It's a placer to be in your blog, hope to see you soon, here in Cuba or there in the US ;)