During the drive from Juan Roberto Gomez airport, I felt almost voyeuristic glaring out the window of my air conditioned shuttle bus at the locals in their various modes of transportation around the Veradero peninsula. Many traveled on bicycles or late model American made cars. The only thing older than the cars appeared to be the buildings for which time had seemingly not stood still.
At my resort, I sat on the edge of my private pool with one foot swaying in the water as the sun gently caressed my back. The stresses of my work life back home dissipated as I sat admiring the beauty of my private villa. It was hard to believe that this was the same yellow star that shines down on me in Canada. There I am grateful for the 20+ Celsius days. Here, I welcomed any breeze that may blow in off the Atlantic Ocean.
To truly discover Cuba, however, I knew that I needed to leave the resort. The two hour drive to Havana from my hotel, the Villa Cuba, was an experience in itself. Though many of the buildings were run down in neighboring communities, like Mantanzas, the laundry that hung from the windows was sparkling white, and there was no litter cluttering the highway. Outside of this city of bridges, was a breathtaking view from the tallest bridge, 112 m high. Turkey vultures circled the sky in this lush valley dotted with palm trees.
Arriving in Havana, Cuba’s capital city of 2.2 million people, I was unprepared for the street hustlers. Jinteros were people I had read about but was not ready for them either financially or emotionally. Luckily, the hair “scrunchies” that I handed out went over quite well. Thankfully, even a Santera priestess was impressed with her newly acquired possessions.
Outside of the cigar museum, one man, claiming he was a journalist told us that we Canadians are very fortunate to have our freedom. How could anyone argue with him – we are; free and fortunate. Ironically, this chance encounter took place across from a former presidential palace, and kitty corner to the Granma memorial. Granma was the boat that carried 82 fighters to the island in 1956, including Fidel Castro, and the beloved former Argentinean, Che Guevara.
Across from the spectacular Capitol building is Central Park which is known as a “hot corner” in Havana where men argue vehemently about Cuba’s national pastime – baseball. A tour of any one of Havana’s 65 cigar factories can be quite enlightening. Upon being in the sweltering heat of this multi-level building, I don’t know how I can justifiably complain about the lack of air conditioning in my office ever again. The speed with which the dozens of hand rollers perform their task in order to meet the 120 cigar quota per day, is phenomenal. Quality is controlled at a number of levels of the process which would explain why Cuba is home to the world’s finest cigars.
Revolution Square is home to a marble statue of Jose Marti, a National hero. For a fee, one can board the elevator to the top of the square’s tower to look out at Havana. Events at this square include concerts, National Holidays, and parades. More evidence of Cuba’s love for Che exists in the form of a two-dimensional image of his face adorning a building across from the Marti statue.
No tour of Havanawould be complete without visiting Veijo Habana (Old Havana). Plaza de San Francisco is located near the waterfront on looking the Sierra Maestra ship terminal. Banks and exchange houses are located on the plaza’s northern side. Once the former palace of Spanish governors and a Cuban President, the Museo de la Cuidad is on the only street in Havana with wooden cobbles. In the centre of the museum’s courtyard stands a statue of Columbus. At Cathedral Square, you can bargain for souvenirs at the market. It is here, at Plaza de La Catedral that you will find, La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Ernest Hemmingway’s stomping grounds, and home to what is said to be the finest mojito (the national drink of Cuba.)
Meander through the narrow cobblestone streets of this area of magnificent architecture and see Cuba through the lives of the locals. You may happen across spontaneous dancing. It is inarguable that there is no forum of music or dance more beautiful or sensuous than Latin.
Though the image of the beggars is a somewhat haunting experience and seeing the scab ridden starving dogs on the streets was also heart wrenching; these are not the images that I take home of Cuba. I felt very privileged to be a guest in their beautiful country. Cuban’s may be a poor people, but they are rich with culture.