our first day in Havana

Get this. From Atlanta, you can fly 90 minutes and land in a parallel world. It has 2 currencies: the CUP for locals (featuring faces and colors); the CUC for tourists (featuring statues and shades of brown). Doctors, engineers, and teachers forgo their $60/month, $40/month, and $20/month salaries to buy 1989 Peugeots or even older Russian-built Ladas for $50k to be private taxi drivers, which you can tell from the “P” leading the string of characters on their license plates. Any new cars you see will start with a “B” and be government-owned.

New German-made cars will start with a “D” or “E” because they’re driven by diplomats or are owned by an embassy. There are beautiful, enormous houses built 70+ years ago when sugar was expensive and the rich got richer, but now they hold embassies; the stacked units throughout downtown Havana are dilapidated and surrounded by stray dogs, happy people, and surprisingly limited amounts of litter. Everyone wants to know where we’re from and is surprised and delighted each time I say “Estados Unidos.” Bright colors shine through the decaying concrete.

“How did you get this car?” I asked a driver in his 20s after we learned it’d be 20 CUC to get back to our B&B from the other side of downtown. “Did you inherit it from su abuelo?” He barely speaks English, and I barely speak Spanish, but I think his answer is “yes,” though it’s more complicated than that. The body of his ’57 Chevy looks perfect, yet the back seat is coated in a plastic sheathing; the diesel engine cobbled from parts sent by a relative in Florida transports us through what I thought would be a quiet Sunday night drive across town, but it’s anything but– thousands of men, women, and kids roam the sidewalks, gather in parks to use the public wifi hotspots after keying the string of numbers and letters on the cards for sale at nearby corner shops. It’s 1955 meets 2010. “Can I smoke a cigar?” “NO!” the driver says with a smile.

Our B&B is Casa Mirador La Colina in the Vedado district, across from the pharmacy school at the University of Havana (founded in 1728). It has a rooftop lounging area.

Our host lives down the hall and shows us to our white bedroom with its adjoining bathroom; it’s like a hostel, but with better coffee and breakfast food. The windows are open, but we can use the window A/C unit to cool it at bedtime.

We’re there under the “support the people” visa, so we have to plan every activity every day such that any dollars and time spent are supporting and helping the local people, not the local government. We only ride in cars with tags preceded by “P.” We stay away from the shiny new hotels the various drivers proudly point out as we drive by.

Before we left Atlanta, I exchanged all our dollars for Euros to avoid the 10% exchange penalty we’d have if transferring U.S. dollars to CUCs in Havana. Once we land, we stand in line to get our CUCs, which the teller hands out in mostly 10s. I feel like a crack dealer.

The pre-arranged driver meets us at the airport and takes us to the B&B where the innkeeper provides a quick tour of the kitchen and the patio where we’ll get breakfast. We descend 4 flights of stairs back to the street to enter our convertible for our first tour–a classic car tour of Havana.

Our driver points out the various embassies–the tallest and most impressive is Russia’s–as we see the “good” parts of the area; we cross a river and wind through green canopy-covered streets; the air feels cooler and cleaner.

We ascend to the fort high above the skyline, concluding at the historic Hotel Nacional for mojitos and cigars on the patio overlooking the water.

We followed the sidewalk a few paces and saw a bunker of sorts with a locked iron door and this sign:

It’s our 14th anniversary, so we have dinner several stories above the city in a residential building; it’s called Cafe Laurent and is one of the many paladares where Americans are allowed to dine. The reviews are great; the service is good; the food is good. We love the views best.

After dinner, we go to a red phone booth and stand outside at 9:40 so we can be first to enter at 10pm. We’re led underground, pay 15 CUCs each, and sit at the table next to the stage. We’re in La Zorra y el Cuervo — the Fox & Crow. A woman plays jazz flute and provides vocals, another plays bass, another plays bongos, and a fourth plays keyboards. An older man plays the sax, and a younger man plays drums. The 2 included drinks were weak, but the music was awesome; we stayed until they ended after 1am. It’s probably my favorite experience of the trip.

Friday morning, we followed Neptuno Street into old Havana, and there’s so much more to tell and so many more photos to upload, so they’ll have to wait for the next post…

One Comment

  1. Deborah Moebes

    It’s two countries, one superimposed on the other–totally a parallel world, that’s exactly the right description. The music and the rum and the art, though!! Unreal.

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