Another hot and sunny day – Jo’s first in Havana. We started the day with breakfast in our casa before heading out to explore our neighbourhood.
The first thing that struck you as soon as you went outside was how busy and vital the place was. Even early in the morning the streets were full of people going about their business. Our casa was at the top of Havana Centro, just below the Malecón so we wandered down through the neighbourhood getting a feel for the place as we went.
Havana Centro is often ignored by visitors to Havana. The neighbourhood began to develop in the 19th century following the demolition of the city walls in 1863. The buildings tend to be between 4 and 5 storeys, built mostly as apartment blocks. It is for this reason that it is a very densely populated part of the city. Laid out on a grid pattern it is easy to navigate and mainly residential so it is the perfect place to get a feel for hoe Cubans live in Havana. Now, many of the buildings are in a tumbledown state with many empty lots where houses have collapsed or are collapsing. We walked on to one of the central squares before heading on to the Old Town.
As part of my trip I had arranged a meeting with Roberto Perez at FANJ so at 1pm we headed out to their offices in Miramar, to the West of Havana. This is Havana’s upscale residential district, laid out in an expansive grid of shaded streets, lined by fine mansions. It is a real contrast to Havana Centro where we started the day! Most of the original owners of the houses left Cuba following the Revolution leaving some of the mansions to fall into ruins.
When we finally arrived at FANJ it was a real pain to learn that Roberto actually wasn’t there as his travel had been delayed following a trip to Canada. Fortunately Roberto’s wife Michelle was there and showed us around the museum and talked a bit about the work that they were doing there. Michelle, who is Australian, had previously worked with Bill Mollison and was hoping to develop more international relations for FANJ.
FANJ are a civil, non-governmental, non-profit, continuing the legacy of Dr. Antonio Núñez Jiménez through research and development programs and activities that promote a culture of values toward nature on the local, national and international levels in order to harmonize society and environment. Their aspiration is to create a Cuban society with a developed environmental consciousness that recognizes Nature as part of their identity.
They are now a recognized organization with experience and ability to work, committed to the Cuban society and the world in solving environmental problems, with a perspective that integrates the sociocultural dimensions throughout. It was fascinating to learn about the work being done at FANJ and to look at the collections that they have on show there, but the most interesting thing was to browse through the huge collection of photos that they have on site. Antonio Núñez Jiménez was a close acquaintance with the Castros and it was fascinating to see the intimate and relaxed pictures of Fidel and Raul that were included in the collection.
After that we walked back into Miramar and headed to a mini-market in one of the big hotels that is common in this neighborhood where we bought some water and a snack, which we decided to carry down to the sea front and eat there. We settled down by the water on a concrete bench and we were soon joined by a young guy called Lazaro. I had come to learn in Cuba that you shouldn’t assume that everybody is attempting to sell you something. And even if they are they usually soften pretty quickly when they realise that you can speak Spanish! Lazaro was a great example of this. He just genuinely wanted to chat about life in general and life in the UK. He was especially interested as he said that Cubans rarely met people from the UK who could speak Spanish.
Lazaro explained that he worked as a fisherman out of Havana. He was fascinated to know about the climate in the UK and more about what Manchester was like. He also asked the typical questions about Manchester United and football in general – I hate football but it can be a great conversation starting point in other parts of the world! He explained that lots of people in Cuba followed the big Spanish teams, especially Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Lazaro also gave me a 3NP note as a present because it features the face of Che on one side. I felt sorry that I didn’t have anything to give back to him as a memory of the UK, especially as I later learnt that it is very common for hustlers to try and sell 3NP notes to tourists as a souvenir of their visit. Then it was time to head back into town and say goodbye to Lazaro-
“Will you be coming back down here whilst you’re in Cuba?” he asked.
“Will you ever come back to Cuba?”
“Possibly one day.”
“Well if you do come back, come and say hello – I’m here nearly everyday.”
After relaxing back at our casa and tidying up we headed back into town to Habana Vieja where we sat out in front of one of the cafes and had pizza and salad with Cristal beer for tea.
On our way back to our casa we were stopped by a jinetero trying to get us to go to a salsa club. Once again his mood changed when I started chatting to him in Spanish and I had my second football talk of the day (he was another Barcelona fan) Then it was back to our casa to sleep for the night.