Friday was a semi-day off from WCMT stuff so Jo and I had the chance to spend the day doing things that were a bit more touristy. We started the day off with another huge breakfast at our casa before heading out into an uncharacteristically damp and gray Havana, onto muddy Centro streets as a result of heavy rain over night. There’s a cold front on its way over apparently…
Before we could start on the tourist stuff we had a couple of jobs that we had to do. Firstly we had to sort out bus tickets for our planned trip to Cienfuegos the next day. Inconveniently it wasn’t possible to buy these tickets anywhere in the centre of Havana so we had to head out to Avenida 26 in Nuevo Vedado opposite Havana Zoo. This was also a sufficiently long distance to warrant a taxi which would hopefully be Jo’s first trip in a vintage car. The fortunate thing about the whole experience was that our lovely vintage taxi was driven by an amazing gentleman called Juan.
For many years Juan had taught English which he learnt as a child in Havana at the bi-lingual school he attended in the days prior to the Revolution. By the end of his career he was mainly teaching English in medical schools to students and doctors. He said this was very difficult because he had to learn a lot of specialist vocabulary. He also found the pronunciation of these words very difficult as he had little access to recorded material to find out how they were supposed to be pronounced.
His car was a carefully maintained 1959 Olympic, which was clearly proudly cared for in very difficult circumstances. He explained that it was very had to get basic parts for cars and basic materials such as oil for the engine. Due to the scarcity of resources he, like many classic car owners, had changed the engine of his car to a Lada engine. He bought this second hand but it was still much easier to maintain than the car’s original engine. He did point out that there were still challenges to this as the engine ran on petrol which was expensive and had to be bought legitimately from the government, as supposed to diesel which was much cheaper and which was also available on the black market. The other big challenge for Juan was that he lived out on the coast to the East of Havana, two blocks up from the beach. This meant, commonly to many areas of Havana, protecting the car against the effects of salination and rust was an ongoing battle.
At this point of the journey we passed Plaza de la Revolucion and Juan started to explain the story of Camilio Cienfuego. Camilio was the third hero in the revolution alongside Che and Fidel, though is probably the least well known outside Cuba. Juan explained that in Cuba Cienfuegos remained highly popular, despite the fact that he had been killed in a air crash at a tragically young age soon after the Revolution. His funeral was a huge occasion in Cuba and on the anniversary of his death each year people still sprinkle flesh flowers into the sea around the country in his memory. Juan, who clearly knew a great deal about the war, also explained that Camilio was one of the only people that Fidel truly trusted. For this reason he was a great ally to Fidel throughout the Revolution. Another story was that the young guerillas used to play baseball together and Camilio would always make sure he was on Fidel’s side because he realised that it would be very difficult if he had to compete against the leader! And that was just about where we ended our taxi ride. Juan gave us his number and said he’d be happy to act as our driver if we wanted to go on any trips in the local area when we got back to Havana.
Once we got out of the taxi I popped into one of the fancy hotels on the central square to check my email whilst Jo stayed outside and took some photos. Whilst I was online I took the chance to confirm the final details with Xiomara who would be hosting us in Cienfuegos, and also found an email from Cary Cruz at FANJ. Rather irritatingly she had been there yesterday when we went to visit and would have been happy to talk to us, though of course I didn’t know that at the time.
Then the jobs were done and finally we had some time to ourselves in Havana. As we were hungry we decided to have our first taste of peso pizza. This is basically a little pizza, which costs 10 NP. It is made freshly in someone’s kitchen and is sold through a hole in the wall, or a window, directly into their house and out onto the street. We put an order in at a stall on one of the side streets between Museo de la Revolucion and Habana Vieja. A young girl took our order but as soon as the owner of the shop found out that she was serving some foreigners she came out to talk to us. She explained that she was 63 and that she ran the shop with her son who was 40. She was very proud of the quality of the pizza that they sold and claimed that people came from all over Havana to eat it. They also served spaghetti and cheese, which is another popular fast food dish in Cuba. She explained that when she served it to local workmen she let them borrow plastic bowls from her, but when she served it to local people to takeaway she made the bring their own bowl or tub: “People all over this neighbourhood have my bowls in their houses,” she explained. “I don’t have hardly any left.” It only took five minutes for our food to be ready. When it arrived the owner offered to let us sit and eat on two chairs in her front room. We thanked her for the offer but declined and moved on because we were keen to see more of the city. We moved over to one of the little squares near the Museo de la Revolucion that we intended to visit after eating. Incidentally – the pizza was amazingly good considering it had only cost us 30p!
The Museum of the Revolution is based in a glorious old building which was formerly a government building and that was a key battles site during the revolution itself. The building was heavily attacked and with the bullet holes on the walls inside as an unavoidable reminder of how bloody and violent the Revolution actually was in Cuba. Over two floors the museum offers and intense and roughly curated chronology of the Revolution and the subsequent political and social development in Cuba. The garden behind the museum includes a variety of cars and tanks used in the Revolution, and the Granma boat that famously brought Fidel and Che from Mexico at the beginning of the fighting.The most interesting thing about the museum was to see it full of school children and young soldiers on National Service, visiting as part of their cultural education.
After this we headed to the Malecón to sit on the wall and watch the sea. We bought mojitos from a café on the front, brought over the road to where we were sitting so we could drink them on the wall, and enjoyed the refreshingly cool sea breeze. The chef from the café who brought them over also stayed to have a chat (Cubans love to chat!) He pointed out the building where he had lived right next to the sea all his life. He was curious to know why I spoke Spanish and was happy to take the opportunity to express his love for his city.
“Havana is a city where people live on the streets and take very opportunity that is given to them,” he explained. “It’s a difficult life here because we haven’t got much but that makes people have an energy to get up and do things. Not to just sit back and let the world pass them by.”
In the evening we ate amazingly good (and cheap) noodles in China Town, then headed back to our casa to prepare for our trip to Cienfuegos the next day