Sunday, December 23, 2018

Exploring Havana - Tour Day 1

December 23, 2018
Havana, Cuba

Tour Day 1 - Introduction to Havana
The spirit of Che Guevara is alive and well all over Cuba, as evidenced here in the form of a giant, lit "mural" on the face of a ministry building in Revolution Square
We met our group in the hotel lobby for a 9am start on Sunday morning. Our guide, Linett, was on time and seemed organized. Our tour comrades included Risa from Astoria, a married couple from Seattle (Susan and Carrie), and father-son travelers from Pleasant Hill (Sau-Wing) and LA (Justin).

All pleasant enough people, but a very quiet group that showed little enthusiasm or interest during most of the trip. Several of our tour-mates had traveled to difficult or exotic locations – North Korea, Myanmar, Borneo, summiting Kilimanjaro, Machu Pichu, and now Cuba – but by the end of the trip we wondered if they were more bucket list travelers who were looking to tick challenging destinations off of a list. That said, overall everyone got along well and there were no problem-causers or annoying people. Hmmm, were we those people?

Linett kept us busily on the move on Day One. We started with a brief and non-extensive tour of Habana Vieja, the historic center of the city. The highlight for our cat-loving group seemed to be photographing some of the local felines posing on cobblestone streets and in trees. Next it was off to Cuba’s foremost art museum, the Bellas Artes, where a knowledgeable young woman talked us through a few rooms of paintings by famous Cuban artists. It was a good museum tour, but probably the most interesting aspect were the rooms of art from the 60’s and 70’s that rebelled against the new government, societal rules and lack of freedom of expression. It seemed the goal of the tour was exactly that – to show us that there were some oppressive things happening in the early regime, but that they were resolved and now look, we even have rooms at the national museum to show what happened and how we’ve progressed. 

Old town and museum tours finished, we were still the first people in the restaurant for lunch. 

Eating was one of the things about being on a tour that had us most scared. Finding tasty and unique local food is one of the primary delights of travel. Being on a tour, we were concerned that we’d end up in tourist restaurants that served inauthentic food to the masses. Seeing the sign for our first restaurant, Mojito Mojito, did not allay our fears. 

Sitting down in the virtually empty restaurant, we ordered our requisite mojitos, learning with some concern (abject horror?) that our tour mates were not really drinkers, and only a few of us wanted rum in our drinks. This was definitely not the Ernest Hemingway fan club we were touring with.

The mojitos, like most drinks we’d have over the course of the week, were okay, and not too strong. The food was also not bad, with an interesting pumpkin soup starter, some ropa vieja (which didn’t fail to make an appearance at any meal for the week), and fish (meh). At least it was all significantly better than dinner at the hotel on our first night.

After a hearty meal, cocktails, and a Bucanero, Cuba’s version of a strong beer, what better to do next but sit through a PowerPoint slideshow in a dark room, put on by a local professor of music? It was only an hour, and we all stayed awake (if not engaged). It was interesting to hear about the acculturation that happened from pre-Columbian days through Spanish, then French rule, followed by heavy influence by Americans. A good primer on the Cuban sound (as opposed to and not to be confused with the Miami Sound Machine).

This was the last of our people-to-people tour engagements of the day, which gave us the rest of the afternoon to ourselves before we’d reconvene for dinner and the Buena Vista Social Club show. We used our time to go for a walk in the Vedado neighborhood where our hotel was located, followed by some coffees and Scott’s new go-to drink, Havana Club Añejo 7-year rum, at the hotel bar.

Dinner was at a modern, upscale seeming restaurant, where we ordered pork and ropa vieja (if you keep reading you’ll see these words again and again). They didn’t have a table big enough for the full 7 + 2 (seven tourists, a tour guide, and our driver) of us, so we sat at a separate table with Risa, where we got to know her a bit.  The most memorable part of the meal (but not in a good way, as you'll see) was the pre-selected starter served to all of us, comprised of a scoop of mayonnaise-y (Cuban theme) tuna salad served on a lettuce leaf.  Most of it appeared to be destined for the trash bins.  Shockingly, Caroline was a trooper and ate about half of her scoop, claiming it wasn't that bad.  This feat would surely have won her a prize, if there had been one on offer, for most tuna eaten.

One of the more interesting parts of being on a guided tour was being allowed a glimpse into the real life of a born-and-raised-in-Cuba Cuban. Linett, we learned, was in the military for two years. She originally went to college to study film. In Cuba, all college is free through Ph.D. level, but you can’t just study whatever you want. You select your subjects by rank choice order, prioritizing your desired path at the top of the list. Hope you know what you want to do when you’re 17 or 18! Then the odds that you get your top choice are dependent on how well you score on exams. 

After a year at university, she decided it wasn’t for her and quit, much to her mother’s chagrin. But after a short period of time she decided she did indeed want to get a college degree. In Cuba, you can’t just quit and then go back. One way to get back into school is by serving in the military. All men must serve, but service is not required of women. Linett’s sister was in the military, but it sounded like she was kind of a badass compared to ‘soft’ Linett. The family could not discourage her from joining, so she did, and eventually ended up back in school studying foreign languages.  Majoring in French, Linett hopes to travel to France one day.

Anyone who goes to university in Cuba has to serve at least two years community service, basically for no pay, after they graduate. Women serve three, men serve two since they have one year of compulsory military service. But Linette, as a woman with multiple years of military service, did not have to do the community service, so has been working for the tour company ever since graduation, for the past elven years.

So, what does Linett’s education and military background mean to us? Two things. She can speak very good English (along with French and some Italian). And she is extremely prompt, and expects others to be as well.

What this meant to us this night, was that we were at dinner early, finished dinner early, and had about an hour-and-a-half to kill before our Buena Visita Social Club performance started. First, Linette directed the driver to take us over to the Plaza de la Revolucion. We parked the big bus (with all 8 passengers) nearby and walked across a dark overpass to see the big, empty space where huge crowds regularly gather for big government celebrations or sometimes for concerts, like when supposedly a million people showed up to see Juanes, a Colombian pop star. No, we don’t know Juanes, but that doesn’t mean much. The primary features of the plaza are two government buildings (ministries?) with artistically lit visages of Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos, as well as a huge concrete tower dedicated to Jose Marti.

Photos taken, it was off to the nightclub where we imagined Cuban music and lots of dancing. Well, actually we were prepared for a show packed with white tourists. What we weren’t prepared for was a virtually empty club. We sat for probably 45 minutes at our table for seven right at the edge of the stage before anyone else came in. There ended up being eight other people in the room with our group, with a good 20-25 entertainers on stage. The musicians were good, but it was an awkward night of entertainment, even though the performers on stage did their best to pretend it was a packed house.

A very full Day One, that left us with a much better idea of what to expect for the rest of the week. 

Scott, posing in front of our hotel, is ready to take on the day!
An early-morning musician in La Habana Vieja
Statues and squares: old Havana
Old Havana architecture in Plaza de Armas
After giving us a chance to ogle the gorgeous old buildings, Linett pointed out this this section of the street is made of WOOD cobblestones!
Old Havana architecture
This photo is brought to you by cat lovers visiting Havana
We were thrilled to discover a fellow feline-lover on our tour
Spontaneous cat-photography-group-bonding moment in old Havana
This impressively detailed wall mural in old Havana depicts some of the very European-looking residents of old Havana in days of yore
Locals enjoying a Sunday morning on their balcony overlooking Plaza de la Catedral
Old Havana, including Plaza de la Catedral, was pleasantly quiet on a Sunday morning, populated largely by foreign tour groups just like ours.
We crossed paths with this classic car 'parade' on the way to the Bellas Artes museum.  All of the most beautiful old cars in town are taxis for rent by the hour (and they don't come cheap!).
The lobby at the Bellas Artes.  It is a lovely museum and we wouldn't have minded some time to explore on our own after our hour-long guided tour.
Daily life in old Havana's Plaza Vieja
Look honey, we're in Havana!
Lunch-bound in old Havana with our tour group
We enjoyed the interesting public art scattered around town, this one in Plaza Vieja
Our lunch restaurant, Mojito Mojito
At today's lunch we have our first 'welcome' mojito - of many - of the week
The pumpkin soup was pleasant-tasting and hot, despite being served like this
Ropa vieja (kicking off a theme)
After lunch, we arrive at the beautiful, old hotel where our Cuban music lecture is to take place...
...only to discover we'll be sitting in a dark conference room for an hour with this guy (it was actually pretty interesting even if it felt like I was back in school)
Scott's joy at being released from our history of music lecture is quite evident
During our scant free time we were granted that could be used for resting and refreshing before heading to our early dinner, we donned sweaters against the chill (yes, really) and went out for a walk in our neigborhood, Vedado.  Mostly, we saw regular Cubans, newer buildings and old cars.
The building that is now the Habana Libre Hotel used to be the Havana Hilton prior to the Triumph of the Revolution in 1959
At the Melia Cohiba for the touristy Buena Visita Social Club show.  Linett climbed up on the stage to take a group photo of us while we waited for the show to begin.
A view of the virtually empty club at the Melia Cohiba.  That's our group in the distance, sitting at the table in front of the yellow car.
The excitement in the room was palpable when the bandleader entered the stage and introduced the band. No. Not really.
The band was great and the dancers reasonably talented, but we would have preferred going to one of the less touristy nightclubs in town to see regular Cubans out for a night on the town. Oh well.

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