When I first arrived in Habana at the beginning of my trip in Cuba it was incredibly hot but with dark heavy clouds - there were intermittent downpours and thunder and lightning. Alongside the road from the airport to town there were lots of revolutionary slogans and murals. On the way I passed through Revolution Square, which looks like something out of Orwell's '1984', with the various tall government ministry buildings surrounding a central monument and statue of national hero, the poet José Martí. By law every town in Cuba has to have a street named after Martí; the international airport is also named after him and there are statues and images of him all over the place. I saw the stereotypical images of Cuba - old-fashioned cars and crumbling buildings - but in Habana Old Town there were also some large modern buildings ('modern' meaning built in the late 1950s).
Initially I had just one evening in Habana before flying to Baracoa at the other end of the island. That evening I met my guide for the two-week tour of Cuba, Roger, and we went for dinner followed by a drink at the famous Hotel Nacional, which has a real colonial feel about it. It is a very nice building with large grounds stretching down to the seafront. It was one of the Mafia's many hang-outs in Habana during the 1950s.
After two weeks of exploring some of the major towns East of Habana, I returned to the capital. On my first visit I had been struck by the lack of traffic in the city; now I was surprised how much traffic there was compared to other parts of Cuba! I read that there are 23 motor vehicles per 1,000 people in Cuba, compared to 815 in the US!
There are still many 1950s cars around and I took a tour of some of the peripheral sights in a cool old white convertible Dodge. We cruised along the Malecón and Avenida de las Americas through the upmarket district of Miramar where many embassies are located. We stopped at Parque Prado and saw some crazy-looking jagüey trees, a small Roman-style temple and a bust of Mahatma Gandhi.
We continued on to Parque Lennon with its famous statue of John Lennon sitting on a bench - it has to be continuously guarded because his glasses have been stolen so many times! Apparently The Beatles' music was banned in Cuba during the 1960s, deemed 'too decadent', but when John Lennon spoke out against the Vietnam War he came to be considered a hero and Castro labelled him a revolutionary.
I re-visited Plaza de la Revolución, a vast open space surrounded by a giant image of Che Guevara on the side of the Ministry of the Interior building, a large statue of José Martí, the National Theatre of Cuba and various government buildings.
I walked around Habana Vieja (Old Town), the Plaza de Armas with its book market, Plaza de San Francisco de Asís with the church/monastery, the Fountain of Lions and finally stopped for coffee and cake in Plaza Vieja. Many of the gorgeous old buildings in prime locations are now being used as residential buildings and schools.
I did the stereotypical touristy thing to do in Havana - following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway who spent a lot of time there and wrote of drinking his mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio and his daiquiri at El Floridita. They are two very different bars. La Bodeguita is decorated with nostalgic pictures and bits and bobs, it is so small that you couldn't swing a cat yet they had a live band entertaining the packed crowd while the barman lines up row after row of mojitos. El Floridita is modern and spacious, there was a statue of Hemingway sitting at the bar and a very talented young girl singing.
In the evening I went to the Hotel Nacional for a buffet dinner and the Cabaret Parisien show. I had great front row/centre seats and it was a fun show - a big production with loads of dancers. I briefly visited the bar at the top of the Fosca building - the tallest building in Habana.
Another evening I dined at Paladar La Guarida - the main location for the Cuban film Fresa & Chocolate, which has been converted into a truly fantastic restaurant. It is popular with visiting celebrities and there are photos of many famous diners hanging on the wall.
After staying a couple of days at Hotel El Colina I moved to a beautiful casa particular (guest house), owned by Gisela and run by her son Jose Luis. It was very comfortable and the food was fantastic.
Birds seemed to be popular pets in Cuba and cockerels could be heard crowing from the two and three storey residential buildings right in the centre of Habana.
As the sightseeing continued, I had a very average lunch in Barrio Chino (Chinatown). I visited the Museo del Chocolate for hot chocolate and biscuits and the Museo del Ron where I had a guided tour of the history and processes involved in making Havana Club Rum and sampled some of the final product (rum is the most popular drink in Cuba). I went to the Cámara Oscura, a strange attraction where I could see all around the city in real time. I saw the Bacardí building, a distinctly different architectural style and quite interesting, originally owned by the Bacardí family (of rum fame) but they were ejected from Cuba under Castro.
The Capitolio Nacional building is very impressive inside and out - it is modelled on The Capitol Building in Washington DC. Nearby stands another statue of José Martí in Parque Central in front of the Hotel Inglaterra.
I took a tour of the Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás cigar factory. I saw all the different processes in the factory to turn the tobacco leaves into cigars and make the boxes that they are sold in (I was not allowed to take photos inside though). In the room where the rolling takes place there were hundreds of workers sitting side-by-side at their desks, methodically rolling the cigars. There was a desk on a platform at the front where someone sat reading a book on a microphone which was amplified around the room for all the workers to hear - apparently they do this to entertain employees while they work. They had finished reading Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code the week before. In the mornings the speaker would read out the day's newspaper, I thought it was quite cool.
In the evening I met up with David from my Galápagos trip who was in town with some of his colleagues from the Cayman Islands. We went out for dinner in the upmarket Miramar district but the lobster I had made me very ill so I had to have an early night.
I spent my last day at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes art gallery and Museo de la Revolución - lots of revolutionary propaganda and the famous Granma boat.
I loved learning about the history of the country (I don't mean from the Revolution Museum but more generally) - before visiting I had only a vague understanding of it.
I found that many facililities I take for granted were hard to come by in Cuba - grocery stores, ATMs, internet cafes, pharmacies - it is not the type of place that you can just wander aimlessly and hope to come across a restaurant for example, you might end up walking for a very long time! These things exist of course but they are very few and far between and, even when I found them, there was a high probability that they were closed for some reason (or no reason), or else they didn't have what I wanted, or they had it but for some reason couldn't give it to me. Stated opening hours (even for museums and suchlike) are completely irrelevant - many places open and close at the whim of the person holding the keys. I started to expect it and began to feel like Basil Fawlty in a never-ending comedy sketch. Like the shop that wouldn't let me enter with my bag but had nowhere that I could leave my bag - the security guard at the door simply told me I had to leave it outside the door if I wanted to go inside and he couldn't see any flaw in this policy. Or like when I went to get money - firstly the sole ATM in central Habana didn't work so I went to look for a Cadeca (a place that changes currency and can give money to Visa cardholders); after much fruitless searching for the one that was marked on my map I asked at a hotel, it turned out that the Cadeca was inside this hotel so I stood at the counter while the man behind it slowly counted out a mountain of coins and conspicuously refused to acknowledge my presence. After about five minutes he finished counting the coins, looked up and asked if I stayed at the hotel - I said no and he told me he couldn't serve me and I would have to go to another Cadeca in another part of town! And there were many more such nonsensical occurrences every day. It got to the point where I just accepted it as inevitable that if I went out of my way to find a particular place of interest it would be closed.
There seemed to be music everywhere, all the time, and always the same style, it's like a constant soundtrack. I found it almost intrusive, like there was a lack of privacy and you couldn't be alone.
Having had some time to reflect, I feel like Cuba-for-tourists is a very different country to Cuba-for-locals. There are rules - such as tourists cannot use bici-taxis (though this only seems to be enforced in Habana) and locals cannot use internet cafes - but I'm not clear how much of it is actually written in law or consistently enforced. Regardless, the dual currency and pricing system ensure that the vast majority of local people do not have access to the restaurants and hotels that tourists are herded into. It is possible for tourists to obtain the local currency and use the hole-in-the-wall sandwich/pizza/juice outlets frequented by locals. However, in order for locals to visit the 'tourist places' they either have to work in tourism or become 'jineteros', that is people that chat up tourists in the hope of getting into these places or getting some free drinks or more - everything up to and including prostitution.
In most tourist spots (including casas particulares) meals are served in ludicrously large portions and the breakfasts in particular bear no resemblance to a typical Cuban breakfast. It is a strange hypocrisy that it is deemed inappropriate for Cubans to stay in hotels, use the internet and eat large portions of lobster in fancy restaurants yet this is what visitors to the country are expected to do.
From a geeky economist's point of view, it was fascinating to witness first-hand the way in which the economy operates. However, I found it irritating that, in a country with great health and education and some natural resources, so many people are struggling for basic goods and services because those in political control are wedded to the idea that 'work and struggle' is the best way to live - it feels like they are consciously stifling progress in order to sustain the credibility of their philosophies.
That said, there were some appealing aspects of the Cuban lifestyle. One day I was sitting on a bench, reading, in Parque Central (trying to escape the hassle I got when I was walking around) and I got chatting to an old man there named Johnny. It was such a pleasure to speak to someone who just wanted to chat and play chess, not to get something from me or to sell something to me. After talking to each other in Spanish for a long time he admitted that he actually spoke good English! Unfortunately I didn't have time for chess that day because I had to get back to the casa for dinner so I went back the next day and we played a couple of games and he hammered me - I hadn't played chess for years and I couldn't remember much beyond the basic rules (and not even all of those!). Johnny told me that he was 71 years old, had eight children and five grandchildren and that he loved Cuba. He said people could have as many children as they wanted because health and education were free and if they couldn't pay for their house it wasn't a problem, they wouldn't be thrown out on the streets like in the 'capitalist times' that he remembered painfully. He told me that two of his children worked in diplomatic jobs in Canada - he'd been to visit them in Québec for three months and he didn't like it, partly because everyone spoke French and partly because he wasn't allowed to drink in public places but mainly because he felt people had too many worries - he said that people in Cuba people didn't have that type of stress.
I don't know who to believe - some people desperately want change and some people love things the way they are. I think that the official unemployment rate is something like 1.5% but I find that hard to reconcile with the large number of people that I saw begging tourists for money/pens/soap/sweets, mainly very poor-looking people but also some people that were ostensibly employed as guards in museums and whatnot.
Personally, I didn't adjust to the Cuban lifestyle in the time I was there and I relished the idea of returning to capitalist London at the end of it!