Friday, March 24, 2017

Havana, Cuba... Part One

From Miami International Airport, we were wheels up at noon. We quickly climbed over the Keys and in 37 minutes we were touching down in Havana, Cuba. You hear all your life how close Cuba is, but until you make this flight, it just doesn't register viscerally.

We sauntered through immigration where we had our visas and passports checked, then we dropped off our health certificate/insurance form at a little make-shift table before we went through customs and suddenly, we were good-to-go. Our cabdriver, Oscar was waiting for us with our name on a sign. He grabbed our bag and we marched to his bright yellow Kia for the 40 minute drive to Havana. The four lane highway taking us into the city was virtually deserted until we came into the outskirts, then it became increasingly more busy with buses, taxis and cars buzzing about.

Old Havana from the other side of Havana Bay

All pretty normal stuff.... what wasn't normal were the vehicles. You've heard about it, but nothing quite prepares you for this visual feast. The majority of the vehicles were from the 50's: Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Chevys, Fords and a few Edsels, Packards and Studebakers thrown in for good measure. These steel behemoths were often painted in startling pinks, oranges and yellows; quite stunning after leaving our shiny late model world of charcoal, white and grey cars.

As we made our way past bleak apartments and weathered Soviet-inspired buildings often with white busts of Lenin as prevalent as lawn jockeys in the U.S. in the 50's, we passed monuments to the revolution and to Fidel and Che Guevera. It wasn't long before we began to see more and more examples of the famous Havana Colonial Period architecture. Soon, we turned on the main boulevard, the Prado, which is lined with Baroque buildings some dating back to the early Spanish Colonial times. These buildings house hotels, cafes and small, often rundown, apartments.

The infamous Hotel Nacional.. reputed to be controlled by mobsters the 50's

We unloaded at our hotel right on the Prado, dumped our gear in our room and quickly made our way to Le Paseo del Prado. We could see the splendidly domed National Capitol Building (now under restoration) which is virtually across the street from residences in apartments many which are bedraggled, some even have upper floors collapsed into rubble. It is common to see apartments festooned with laundry garlands draped over cast-iron balconies next to hotels catering to affluent European and American clients.

On the Prado

Over the next three days, Sara and I explored Havana. Our trip was simply superb. We walked virtually the entire length of Old Havana never once feeling threatened or nervous. When we were tired of walking, we caught a classic car taxi or hired a tricycle to more leisurely take in the city. Everywhere we went, the people were open and wanting to talk about America, Cuba and the lifting of the embargo.

Many of the outdoor cafes offered terrific music

Mojito: sugar, lots of bruised mint, Havana Club Rum and soda

Our meals were terrific. We ate at small cafes and family owned paladars. The mojitos, as well as the sights and sounds were at times, overwhelming. 

Sara had brought school supplies, scrunchies for  girl's hair, and baseball cards for the fans we had heard were so dedicated in Cuba. One of the most meaningful highlights of our trip, was the passing out of these goodies. I would suggest to anyone wanting to visit Cuba to bring some similar presents.

School supplies elicit big smiles
Havana was on our bucket list... we didn't scratch it off with this trip... we intend to return another day.
....From here, I'll let the photos do the talking except for a few specific events that require a bit of explanation.

When the baseball guys (who meet daily at the Parque Central to discuss their national sport) realized we were passing out free cards, the smiles got bigger and bigger.

Sara gets a baseball lesson from one of the experts.

Checking out the stats on the back of a card.

We should have brought more!

And then there were the scrunchies... man did these lovely little girls love the scrunchies! Mom was thrilled too!

...and they weren't a hit just with children!

We met these young ladies outside the Museum of the Revolution. Sara offered them the last of her hair scrunchies. Two of the girls (who I suspect were sisters) got into a tug-of-war over a scrunchie. They laughed shyly, then fought good-naturedly and finally were reduced to giggles. 


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