‘Are you coming back home?’ enquired the friendly American lady beside me on the plane as we touched down to José Martí International Airport in Havana. She had a prominent plastic badge which proclaimed her part of a large group of tourists. Unfortunately, I had no ‘local tips’ to share with her. It was my first visit to Cuba, but her words did make me think that I might be able to pass as a local if I did not open my mouth.
In the next five days, the colourful city with a heritage from American Indians, Spanish and African blood showed me that my Bengali skin tones were not different to many locals, though the variety is as wide as the vibrant experience Havana can offer. But with my camera and DK Eyewitness Travel book firmly clutched in my hand, I stood out clearly as a tourist. Not a bad thing though- as the people of Havana respond with a warmth and eagerness to mingle, practise their English and catch a proxy glimpse of the rest of the world, elusive to them as yet, when they realize that you are a foreigner on their shores.
I rose on my first morning in Havana to discover the sun just over the horizon and a glimpse of the Malecon from my window, alongside a great vista over Havana. Making a note to get up earlier to watch sunrise the next day, it was time for breakfast. Hotel Nacionale puts on a great spread, my favourites being a spicy tomatoey mix of vegetables, and yoghurt with fruits of a drinkable consistency.
I then asked the reception for a city map and discovered that you buy one for 3 CUC from a small shop downstairs. It was a fresh bright morning and though the drivers of the line of vintage cars and yellow C-shaped cocotaxis queued outside the hotel, approached me, they were not insistent when I told them firmly that I was out for a walk.
I simply followed the direction to the Malecon. Guide books will tell you that local people come up to greet tourists, show curiosity but they mean no harm. If you tell them you want to be left alone politely, they bid you ‘happy holiday’ in good spirit. The first person to approach me was a young man who accompanied me from hotel to Malecon and even asked if he could show me around the Old Town and pointed out the dome of the capitol from a distance. I said I would like to do it in peace by myself and he said good bye and good day, cheerfully and left. I would later lose count of how many people came up to me during the course of the day, which included a wizened old man who pointed out where I was on the map, wished me ‘happy holiday’ (seemed the usual greeting) and gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek.
I walked down the Malecon from hotel, turning to my right, up to the first plaza that came into sight. The hotel Nacionale makes an impressive image perched on top of a hill, as it seems when viewed from the Malecon. The walk showed me the ocean on one side and a line of the old style colonial houses in their pastel shades which form the signature of Habana. Along the road cycle taxis, vintage cars, yellow c-shaped three wheeled cars cocotaxis and the occasional horse drawn carriages made a varied spectacle.
At the plaza graced by the bronze statue of a horseman (there are many in Habana and I was not sure which one this was) I turned towards the spire of Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon. Along the way there were more old houses with ornate verandahs, marble staircases which winded up and mosaics at the entrances. The scenes were of children playing, living rooms where people relaxed with cups in their hands, TVs playing and neighbours chatting. The atmosphere is laid back and open. People stare down from verandahs as they hang up their washing or just people watch. A middle aged man with peppered hair came up and asked me where I was from. He said ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ with glee when I said that I was from India. Ultimately I reached the Sagrado where the Sunday service was on. A brief break at a nearby park (where I received a kiss from the elderly gentleman!) and I turned towards the Capitol. I passed the gate of Barrio Chino and I was near the Capitol.
The Capitol is undergoing renovation and a lot of scaffolding covers its façade. However its grandeur is still evident through the work going on. I then took a walk around the four sides of the Capitol trying to identify the grand buildings I saw around me from my trusty guide book. You walk a rectangle by going through Calle Dragones, Calle Industria, Calle San Martin and finally into Paseo de Marti or the Prado which will lead into the Malecon.
Taking in the Parque central, the Hotel Parque Central, the Hotel Inglaterra, the Real Fabrica de Tabacos partagas (tobacco factory), Gran Teatro, the Cinema Payret (Cuba’s first motion picture theatre); the hotel Seville is worth a look as well for an ornate façade; I took a picture with the statue of Jose Marti in Parque Central before I found myself at the start of Paseo de Prado. A pedestrian walk paved with marble and line on either side by pastel shaded colonial buildings with ornate porticos, it had a line of artists and ladies with needlework selling their wares. Decorative street lights and eight bronze lions add to the grandeur. Children were playing with family (it was a Sunday). I realised that at the end I had reached the Malecon and the Castillo de la Punta and Morro fortress walls (which had seemed far away when I had begun my walk that morning, rising from the opposite end of the Malecon) had come into view.
I then turned right, kept walking and found myself before the Museo de la Revolucion. I had a peek to see its grand staircase and the caricatures of Batista and some American presidents. This time I walked around the Museo de la Revolucion and found the Bell Tower and spires of the church of Angel Custodio, the Museo Nacional de bellas Artes, the Museo Nacional de la Musica. Behind the Museo de la Revolucion is the Granma memorial. The yacht Granma is just visible behind thick glass, the yacht that brought Fidel Castro and his comrades from Mexico to Cuba to begin the armed struggle against Batista.
Somehow, walking around the area I found myself back on the Prado. This time I decided to walk through the porticos of the buildings which line the walk. Suddenly a sedately dressed tall, slim woman in a blue frock, a black leather bag slung over her shoulder, hair bound back by a handkerchief, and very practical broad black heels, exited through one of the doors. Our eyes locked and she smiled saying the now familiar ‘happy holiday’. She fell into step with me and asked where I was from (I always find it difficult to decide what to answer- UK or India?). She said she was a salsa teacher in a nearby school. Suddenly she asked me whether I wanted to buy cigars. All alarm bells were going off, but I was taken up by a spirit of curiosity. I admitted that I wanted to buy a box as a memento- no one at home smoked, but a box of Havana cigars would look good in the display cabinet. She told me that there was a woman who rolled cigars in her home nearby for various companies. She could get me cigars at a good rate and in return the seller would give her a ration card. ‘You would be helping me.’ Something in that honesty of getting a commission on my custom touched me. So I followed her for two blocks and entered a modest house, no different from the line of crumbling houses which lined all the roads of Old Havana. A homely living room with a cosy untidiness and modest furniture, walls covered with family pictures, toys strewn around and a table in the midst with boxes of cigars greeted us. ‘Maria,’ called my guide. A woman in her thirties with skin the colour of polished mahogany and dark curly hair, cropped close to her head, a thick gold chain around her neck answered. A bit lost amongst the boxes, I settled for an ‘H Upman’ with 25 neatly rolled cigars, heavily fragrant and packed into a wooden box. The asking price of 80 dollars was settled at 45 and I pushed the box into my bag having a vague feeling that I might have been heavily fleeced in my quest for an experience. However, my guide was grateful for her ‘ration card’ and we parted cordially.
That afternoon I also had the impromptu chance to witness a music festival. As I was approaching near Hotel Nacionale, I saw crowds heading off in the direction opposite to the old town centre along the Malecon. Driven with the rush, I decided to join the young crowd. The atmosphere was electric and energetic in the background of a lovely day. At one point the roads had been blocked off and police were checking bags randomly before people were let into the arena. A huge stage with a screen above had been set up. The young crowd was ordered, well behaved and clearly out there to have some good, clean fun. Lots of girlfriends were hoisted on strong shoulders to get a better view of the performers. The Malecon was garlanded with the youthful throng appropriately framed by a blue sea and heaving waves. I hope this represents the new Cuba, confident, creative, enjoying life and happy. I stayed for an hour, soaking up the vibes and enjoyed the start of the music and then decided to head back to the hotel for siesta.
The conference I was attending finished late afternoon 3 days later. An official bus dropped us off at Hotel Nacionale and after the last group photographs and good byes we all went our own ways to make most of the last afternoon.
I walked down the now familiar Malecon to the mouth of the river Almendrales. It was a fine afternoon and the river shimmered as blue as the sea. Turning right at the fort and old city walls I followed the signs to Plaza de Armas and first found myself before the Church of San Cristobal. I followed the cobbled streets until I came to some colourful shops where I did a spot of very satisfying shopping (wooden goods and pictures at very reasonable prices). Hardly a hundred yards ahead from the shops, the cobbled streets opened into Plaza de Armas with a lively crowd of makeshift stalls selling second hand goods, paintings, notes with Fidel Castro faces; bands of musicians, tourists and lovers. The fading daylight added to the magic. Some more shopping (an old brooch shaped like a pendulum, a pair of silver ear rings with green stone and a painted poster) I turned towards the old town centre.
Somehow I was back on the Prado, this time in twilight. The street lights with their wrought iron decorations were flickering to life. Finally I reached the Malecon and turned back towards the Nacionale one last time.
I stopped at an artist’s shop near the house which has decorations of ‘Caryatids’ (like the Greek Acropolis). Colourful oils and paintings on thick handmade paper and fabric covered a modest room with rusty grilled windows and walls which had seen better days. It smelled Havana. The houses on the Malecon are the same as elsewhere- old, grand, crumbling and proud. The spiral staircases with delicate iron railings, that winded up from the front door accentuated the grace.
The Malecon in sunset colours is a place to savour. The feel of a visit coming to an end was seeping into my bones and I decided to warm up with drinks at a shop on the Malecon, with seats on the portico facing the sea. I watched the sky change colour and the stars begin to appear. I watched families taking a leisurely walk beside the waves which would occasionally rise above the walls of the Malecon and splash on to the promenade. A series of lights outlining the Malecon garlanded the streets as it turned dark. The vintage cars ploughed on the streets and life passed by with a pace that spelled laid back. As I watched groups of young people huddled near a corner, furiously working on their smart phones in a street side wifi ‘hotspot’, I wondered how long Havana would hold on to her old style.
Back in my hotel room, I checked my guide book for the ‘tips’ to identify genuine cigars- they should come in a cedar wood box, be neatly rolled, have the ‘hand made in Havana’ stamp at the back of the box in Spanish. All ticks for my purchase- if this was a fake, it was an extremely good one.
The box sits in my cabinet as planned, one cigar placed stylishly in a gaping mouth of an African wooden mask. I have not had any unpleasant visitations as yet and the mask has the look of satisfied contentment.