“Viva Cuba! Cuba libre! The cheer went up in the aircraft cabin as my daughter Naomi and I touched down at the Jose Marti International Airport after the short flight from Fort Lauderdale. Most of the passengers were clapping and cheering, apparently Cubans coming home for Christmas.
On other flights I had seen travelers make the sign of the cross as the plane taxied on the runway but I had never heard raucous political nationalistic cheers. This was the first surprise we encountered on our recent six-day visit to Havana. It would not be the last one.
The fellow who was supposed to meet us at the airport wasn’t there. Naomi and I came out into the group waiting outside the small terminal, all smiles and good will. We kept smiling but in time the group dwindled, and we needed to do something quickly. It was 10:30 P.M. on Christmas Eve.
“We spoke with Isael earlier today,” I said. “Should we call him again?”
“Our phones don’t have international capability,” Naomi said. “And we don’t have any Cuban pesos to pay a different driver. Remember we can’t use U.S. dollars here anymore.”
We had learned this unsettling fact during the flight.
When I’m in a pickle, the first thing I do is ask someone nearby for help. “There are still lots of folks here who have phones that work,” I said. “Couldn’t we borrow someone’s?”
Naomi didn’t seem comfortable with that idea.
Then we saw two uniformed airport officials. “How about them?”
Naomi nodded. “Good idea.” She left me with the bags while she accompanied them to their office. One of the men lent her his own phone. Isael picked up and would be there in five minutes.
Sure enough, a small white car soon rolled into the parking lot. It was Isael. Speaking the same language helped us strike up an instant friendship. We had expected to see crowded urban streets near the airport but the broad avenue along which we traveled into downtown La Habana was largely free of traffic. We saw few homes, just straggly vegetation bordering the road and some palm trees in the median.
The scene changed though, once we covered the twenty kilometers into the downtown. In the heart of the city, Centro, we saw more broad lighted thoroughfares but still little traffic. A huge lighted billboard of Fidel dominated the area along with a sculpture of Jose Marti, and metal art works depicting Fidel’s two revolutionary buddies, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. I love that surname. “One hundred fires.” With a name like that, how could a revolution not be successful? The enormous plaza commemorating it was spacious and grand.
Then Isael took us to another area of the city, Vedado. This was the part which was developed in the twenties, thirties, and forties, when lots of money from foreign investors including the Mafia poured into La Habana. It appeared quite “modern,” with its high rises and office buildings. Residential areas nearby looked a lot like California suburbs with small bungalows and tropical plants.
We drove along the Malecon, a boulevard eight kilometers long which borders the sea. We caught a whiff of salty air and saw the city lights reflected in the water, but were still surprised not to see many folks out walking along the sea wall.
Soon we were in Old Town, La Habana Vieja, the third sector of the city. “Casa Colonial, here we come!” we thought as we bumped along the narrow cobbled streets, bordered by buildings of four or five stories with common walls and metal doors and heavy gates, fronting on the narrow sidewalks. We had found Casa Colonial del 1715 in The Lonely Planet guide to Cuba. We were eager to see it. At last we saw lots of folks in the well-lit streets, sitting in the neighborhood squares, visiting or standing in line at food carts. It was nearly midnight. Nobody here seemed to stay home on Christmas Eve. Synchopated rhythms of Cuban music filled the air.
Then we pulled up outside a door facing a dilapidated little park with trees and tangled plants. We saw no sign “Casa Colonial del 1715.” A couple was standing on the curb, apparently waiting for us. They turned out to be our hosts, Yany and Raul, a brother and sister team who had separate quarters on the third floor. Up the dark spidery stairs we climbed, lugging our bags. Raul opened the door to his flat where we would be staying. The room we saw had one table and a TV set. Where was the lobby we’d seen on TripAdvisor, with the painted arches and flags of many colors? The soft cushy sofas? The art work on the walls? We followed Raul and Yany through a corridor to our bedroom. It was spotless with a gleaming tile floor, cheery with salmon-colored and light green walls and two double beds and a small bathroom–but it looked nothing like the bedroom we’d seen in TripAdvisor. It finally occurred to us that we weren’t in the Casa Colonial del 1715 at all. Where were we? God only knew.
As we settled into the room, we laughed at the shower curtain. It was a riot, of white plastic imprinted with little stick figure kittens. Beside each little kitty was a caption in English: “lovely cat”, “funny”, “humor”, “happiness”. What an oddity to see something like that in our bedroom. As one sat on the toilet, it was impossible not to gaze at that silly curtain.
Naomi was quite upset though about the lack of transparency and apparent duplicity involved with our housing arrangement. I thought it rather amusing. It didn’t much matter to me where we were. We were both so weary after over twelve hours of traveling and the beds beckoned. We put our curiosity on hold until the next day when we would try to figure it all out.
Over our scrambled eggs the next morning in Yany’s breakfast room, we tried to piece together answers to all our questions about lodging. She told us that Casa Colonial had been completely booked. The owner had passed all our contact information on to her and Raul, who also ran a casa particular, as AirBnB’s are called in Cuba, but with fewer amenities. Once our room was booked in Raul’s flat, all communication was with Isael, who lived on the first floor of our building. We of course had not been informed of these new arrangements. What had happened seemed perfectly reasonable to Yany. She had a room. We needed one. No big deal.
We were happy about the amenities at Raul’s place. He was glad to change our money, and gave us a good rate. We could avoid standing in line outside the money exchange places. The location was wonderful, in the heart of Old Town.
Walking in Old Havana the next day we found the real Casa Colonial del 1715 on a nearby street. We knocked on the iron gate, and soon saw a woman peeking at us through the crack in the door. We confirmed that she was the duena of the casa particular. I told her we had spoken on the phone, and she had assured me I had a reservation there. The driver however had delivered us to a different place. Could she explain?
She denied ever talking to me. She said the Lonely Planet had listed the wrong number. I had not called her.
We wanted to see that gaily painted lobby and all those flags. We asked her if we could come in? Nothing doing. We would have to be content with not ever knowing what happened. By the time our six days were over in Habana, we took confusion for granted. We became comfortable with not knowing.
We were so happy that we had arranged our housing in Habana Vieja, and not Centro or
Vedado. It was a choice that we made blind. That was the chance we took when we decided to have a trip independent of a tour group. We’d have to make these decisions ourselves, not leave it up to someone else. We lucked out.
La Habana Vieja has over nine hundred buildings designated as historic sites. Many looked as if they needed attention fast. They appeared to be in the process of falling apart. Some were presently being restored and signs mounted on the buildings gave dates for the completion. There were also lots of vacant city lots, devoid of any building at all. Filled with dirt and rubble, they looked like bomb sites. We were told that the building once there over time and neglect had simply crumbled to pieces. Anything left which could be of use had been carted off.
Christmas Day, our first day in Havana, had only one thing missing: Christmas! We saw no Christmas trees, no special colored lights, no evidence of gift-giving, no holiday services in the churches. It seemed like every other day, except it appeared to be wash day. Laundry hung from balconies to dry. Sometimes we would see a clothes line strung across a street with a pulley arrangement so that it could be retrieved when it was dry. What seemed like an ordinary day in Havana didn’t seem ordinary at all.
On our way into a coffee shop, we saw an animal parked outside on a leash. Nothing unusual about that—except the animal was a pig! A huge beast with a coat of coarse hair and a moist snout. A very well-behaved pig, who appeared to be snoozing happily outside the coffee shop. Then Naomi and I, settled with our coffee, suddenly heard loud bleating from outside. We ran to the door and saw that the pig was being placed in a cotton bag because his owners were taking him up the narrow staircase beside the coffee shop. The pig was not happy to have its siesta interrupted. We shuddered to think what awaited him upstairs. Maybe a cooking pot? But just maybe he was a family pet. We hoped so.
Walking the streets of La Habana Vieja, we encountered other unusual scenes. Click click went Naomi’s camera as she recorded a life-sized white ceramic statue on a balcony, looking eerie, like a ghost, as if someone had been stood up, a Juliet without a Romeo. We also saw a peculiar looking bicycle with its seat at least ten feet from the ground. Did someone ever ride that? Impossible. Looking more closely, we saw metal steps mounted on the rod that supported the seat. It appeared that someone was using that metal sculpture to get to their upstairs unit. Unique, but effective, and it looked surreal.
We began to wonder where we would find wifi. Naomi wanted to connect with a friend who was visiting Havana with her family. Internet connection certainly wasn’t available at Raul’s place. Then we saw huge crowds of tourists on the corner outside the Ambos Mundos Hotel. We later learned that at that popular place, anyone could pick up a signal free of charge . We took a picture of a long line of tourists sitting on the curb, punching on their phones.
The surprises never stopped during our six days in Havana. Then we had to go home. Isael was right on time to take us to the airport. He had asked us what terminal we would be leaving from. “Terminal? we repeated, and then told him we would not know that information until we got to the airport. We told him to just take us to the same place where he’d picked us up on Christmas Eve.
So he did, and we waved him a fond goodbye as he drove out of sight. Then we learned that we were in the wrong terminal. For our flight back to Miami, we needed to be in one four kilometers away. Walking there with our bags and no time was out of the question. Raul had changed all our Cuban money back to dollars for us, and we had no money to hire a taxi. We finally convinced a driver for ten dollars to take us four kilometers and we managed to get to the proper place and on the proper plane to take us home. How funny, we thought it was, that our last “event” in Cuba was based on confusion. What a perfect ending for our trip!
One final surprise!