We woke up in La Habana. It felt surreal, dreamlike; the way Latin American authors write about magical realism, that which is true, but cannot be. Breakfast was Cuban coffee (distilled and black and delicious even to a heavy tea-drinker like me), a bowl of fresh fruit (bananas and papayas and pineapple, and something else I never quite figured out), and eggs with a slice of cheese, a slice of ham and a slice of tomato.
We chatted with the other travelers at the table, and Adele, a British lady was nice enough to give me a stash of PG Tips tea bags. I had not brought any with me (I typically do), as my experience in South America the previous year had taught me to just suck it up and drink coffee. But tea…I could wax poetic about some tea. She gave me one bag for every morning I would be in Cuba.
Liz and Kate stopped by to let us know they were running late on their end. We agreed to a time and place to meet up for lunch. It was novel now, without the use of cell phones, to go back to the days when you had to just agree to a meeting point, believing the other party would honor it and show on time. It was pleasant, really. Somehow less stressful than constantly checking text messages and re-evaluating set plans.
San Jose Market
Heading down to the water to spend our morning at the San Jose Market, we spotted a boxer training. They were under a massive tree, and she shadow boxed in a circle as the man who leaned against the wrought iron railing shouted at her in Spanish. We passed a crumbling but beautiful church, seemingly out of place, across the street from the San Jose Market–a huge concrete building the size of two Super Wal-Marts squished together. This is not a place that does much business in glass windows, so the large archways along the side had a few bars for structural integrity, and open airways to let the breeze glide through.
Walking in, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of paintings. Good paintings. There were rows upon rows of canvases hung by binder clips, each aisle guarded by a shopkeeper, ready to chat you up with as much English as they had. (Typically not much). The work was clearly better than any tourist trap I’ve seen in America. These artists had studied the classics, and created their own Cuban rift on the styles of Monet, Dali, Renoir, and even Mary Cassatt.
I’m sure our mouths were hanging open, and we spent our hours just wandering through, not buying anything, just looking, until it was time to meet up at the restaurant. It was hot enough by then that meeting up at Carlos’ restaurant, a cold beer seemed like a great idea. Vacation is vacation, right?
The afternoon ahead of us, we took the ferry across the harbor to Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, or Castle Morro. But first! You must use the ferry, walk up multi-colored stairs, wind around to the big giant Jesus. If we hadn’t been with Art Majors, I never would have realized that this particular statue had the wrong sized head on him. Sure enough, when I looked at the head, it did seem a bit small.
Across the street was Che Guevara’s house. The tell-tale sign was the neon red signature “Che” splashed across the building. For 6 CUCs, we could explore the empty house and grounds. We opted not to, despite the fact that we heard a goat nearby.
It wasn’t too hot, so we walked along the road towards Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, or La Cabana. Outside the full-on moated castle, Soviet missiles, old Spanish cannons, and other assorted weaponry were on display. This castle was originally built after a British overland invasion of the OTHER castle, Castle Morro, in 1762. Then they were like, oh crap, we need another castle.
So La Cabana was born! Fun fact: La Cabana has been used as a torture prison under the Castros. Che ran the place for the first five months after the revolution, using the space as a location for political prisoners, the tribunals, and ultimately, the executions afterwards.
But every evening at 9 pm, they shoot off a cannon. We were told it is the only thing in Cuba that is done on time.
We left La Cabana, and during our walk to Castle Morro, we encountered a four man painting crew. They had scaffolding, and the task was to paint the lampposts that lined the roadway a shiny black color. The scaffolding was needed for the height of the posts, but it was cumbersome and took time to set up and take down. Walking next to the already painted lampposts, we thought it was interesting that despite the crumbling of Old Havana, these lampposts were given priority. And then we came upon a lamppost that had fallen over. It was freshly painted, with a small piece of cardboard keeping it off the grass, so as not to get grass stuck against the fresh paint. I guess when the government says Paint the Lampposts, you better paint ALL the lampposts.
The guardian of the port was huge! We played on the fortifications, stopped for a refreshing drink nearby, and then walked around the castle that guards La Habana bay. I even found a little lizard.
The shadows were starting to lengthen, so we walked back to the big giant Jesus statue with the tiny head, and headed back to the ferry. Crossing back over was even better because we got a good view of the water and the city this time.
Dinner was at a very small, single-table place called “The Machine.” The shingle hung above the door was in the shape of a Singer sewing machine. They had one table, and while we had some miscommunications, I ended up with a meal that I loved. When we had thrown a Cuban party a year ago, I had learned how to make tostones, so I was happy to have some in Cuba.
Tostones are plantains that are sliced, mashed into either a cup shape or flat, then fried with a little salt. My tostones rellenos were cup-shaped plantains filled with melted cheese and ham. It was served with a sweet red sauce.
Evening with Papa
We split off from the group and checked out some local music. First on the list was La Floridita, a tourist trap and one of Hemingway’s favorite bars. They’ve even erected a bronze drinking buddy to keep you company while you have a daiquiri. Supposedly, this was also where it was invented. I samba-ed with the bouncer on the way out.
La Floridita was so crowded, we moved to a smaller, open air bar that had been recommended. The music was great, the mojitos were cold, the atmosphere was exactly as I had hoped to find in La Habana.