Saturday, May 10, 2008

Havana, Cuba

We fondly recall the day we flew to Cuba. It was a day of waiting 6 hours in the airport for the delayed Cubana airplane. They had not notified us of the delay and when we queried this they made no apologies. When we asked for a reason as to why the plane had been delayed we were told "because the plane is not here..."
This was a nice start to our journey. The insanity continued when we arrived at our hotel. When asked if we could get some kind of discount if we stayed longer the clerk said "you need to know that EVERYTHING is owned by the government. It is not possible to reduce the rate."
Well we didn't stay on at that hotel. Instead we moved to a casa particulare, a bed and breakfast 'owned' by an affable and knowledge- thirsty Cuban (if you come with foreign magazines, he will not let you leave unless you hand them over to him.) As we now knew, everything was owned by the government so how could he own a bed and breakfast?
After the Revolution, his family house was taken over by the state. Many years after paying 'rent' to the government for their house, it was finally back in the hands of the family. However, the house could never be sold only handed down to the children. He was allowed to run a bed and breakfast but he was restricted to 2 rooms only. He was not allowed to hire any staff. Oh and one more thing: He has to dob in guests coming from certain suspicious countries to a special government hotline. Australians are luckily not on the list. Or so he told us... 
"...The moral of the Revolution is so high like the stars." Fidel
As expected, there were plenty of old American cars on the road and all of them were taxis.
Although some were in better conditions than others...

We walked to the conveniently located Havana Club rum factory and took a tour.
After the tour, we enjoyed a glass or two of 7 Year Old Havana Club drunk neat.
One night we decided to check out the so-called "Parisian" style cabaret. IMG_7532
Having seen a real Parisian cabaret, we can safely say this was nothing like it but very entertaining nonetheless.
This photo was taken from the Museo de la Revolucion. On entering, the visitor is reminded of Fidel's top 3 most disliked people who have been placed as cartoons in the 'Cretin's Corner'. Ronald Reagan sits between George Bush and Fulgencio Batista.
We were interested to hear Fidel's take on the history of the Revolution. Unfortunately, it was quite hard to find the propaganda amongst the disjointed and at times incoherent information signs.
There were however a few notable quotables, giving some indication of the paranoia of the regime:
"CIA agents spread the so-called 'blue moss' in our tobacco plantations."
"A bacteriologic aggression of the CIA introduced to our country the virus of dengue and breakbone fever..."
"..between 1971 and 1980, CIA agents introduce in Cuba the pigs fever virus and more than a million animals died.."
Parked in front of the museum is the Russian tank Fidel used during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The synagogue in Havana was not exempt from being taken over by the state after the Revolution. Two-thirds of the building was even turned into a theatre. In recent years the remaining portion of the building was reconstructed as a synagogue using donations from the USA. Short memories have allowed Fidel to claim freedom of worship in Cuba, and even to pose for a photo shoot on Chanukah.
Once housing the Cuban Congress, the Capitolio Nacional is a highly decorated building that is a must see on any tourists agenda. We arrived there ready to take some kind of guided tour only to be told they did not have any. Nor was their any information in the building itself. But we can tell you this. Under the dome lies an imitation 24-carat diamond set into the marble floor, from where highway distances between Havana and other sites in Cuba are measured. The original diamond was stolen in 1946 and mysteriously returned to the president.

In the entrance, this gold statue wins the award for the third tallest statue under a roof. Cuba must be very proud!
While wondering around aimlessly, a woman who worked in the building came up to us and offered to take us into a secret place - the president's office and chamber of senate. She made it seem like no one was allowed in these areas but after a while we were on to her. She wanted a tip. Like every other Cuban we had met, this was her side-business...
One of the proudest achievements of the post-revolution government was its provision of housing for the people. Here you can see one of the thousands of apartment complexes seen around Havana built to eliminate the slum conditions many Cubans were living in. That said, they are not particularly structurally sound causing many tragic accidents. 
Pre revolution, many houses looked like this. Of course after more than 50 years they get a bit shabby. Now many are being done up so tourists like us can marvel at the beautiful architecture of days gone by.
Our trip to the beach in Havana was a bit unusual. We were familiar with the fruit sellers and women in thong bikinis from our time in Brazil.
IMG_7646 IMG_7674
We were familiar with listening to live music on the beach.
But we were not familiar with the sight of cops on the beach let alone a bunch of them just standing around with nothing to do.
Meanwhile, Jez got to sample a Cuban specialty: rum-filled coconut.
Naturally we could not leave Cuba without a visit to the Cigar factory. The cigars are all hand-made.It is true that the leaves are rolled on thighs but not that of virgins and not necessarily of women. Jez noticed a man smoothing tobacco leaves on his thigh. Our guide quickly explained that those leaves would be used in thinner cigars only to be smoked with cappuccinos.
The cigar making process is highly specialised right down to the person whose job it is to sort the cigars by colour. Europeans like their cigars lighter in colour than Americans so they are separated and boxed accordingly.
After our trip to the factory we bought a single Bolivar. We considered buying a big box but our backpacker budget was a little too tight. Instead we bought off the street from a dodgy-looking Cuban. Normally we don't do business with bling-sporting chumps we had already been given the low down. Basically the rule is: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a fricken duck.
Our man in Havana took us back to his apartment where his mate was ready to go. An assortment of boxes appeared from nowhere and were piled high on the kitchen table. Cigars were removed from their boxes complete with stickers and documentation. In front of us they were rolled to show us that the leaves would not fall out - a tell tale sign when high quality Cuban tobacco has been substituted by dried banana leaf.
We sniffed and held them up to the light (we did this for no good reason). Our cigars were quacking and walking like the real thing. We walked away with a fine set of cigars, 25 Cohibas. Unfortunately we don't normally backpack with humidors and so gave them away as a gift.

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