La Habana or Cuba 101

Today was definitely the earliest we have gotten up since weve got here. The bus was to leave at 9am so we had to squeeze in breakfast and pack our gear for a trip we had been anticipating from the moment we decided upon Cuba as our vacation spot.

We’ve heard people singing the song, we’d seen the video in the discotheque a couple of times, read the brochure and the different flavours of the same destination much more than twice, and finally the day was here.

Our tour bus arrived almost right at 9. Our guide for the day was Reuben, and the bus drivers name, at least to make it easier on us, was Elvis (not Presle). We love the Cuban humor.

The bus wasnt quite packed but it was a good sized group – mostly from Canada I believe other than one couple from China.

Reuben was an Encyclopedia of knowledge. I thought I was going to be able to write a bit on the 2 hour trip to Havana but for the most part, he chatted the entire way. For a couple with so many questions about this place and it’s people, we quickly realized this was a trip we should have taken first. From currency, politics, education, religion, immigration, business, housing, the economy, military, and even why we didn’t see banana’s at our resorts, our cranium and spirits would be full by nights end.

The sites from the bus were breathtaking with as full an explanation of these places as possible with how fast sites passed us by.

Reuben opened up questions often and travellers took him up on every inquest. ‘How do you keep the old cars running, where do you get the parts, how much are Cuban’s paid, and why were there two currency?’ Reuben had an answer for everything as Elvis quietly weaved us around the countryside.

I debated whether or not to talk about what we learned as transcribing the sites we’d seen alone would be a long enough post, but I chose (through everything we learned), to do my best to share this knowledge. I would recommend you also do your own research if this is at all of interest as there is little time to fact check with limited WiFi. I will do more research when I get home as well. A lot more. Please feel free to comment or add anything below as well. ‘More input Stephanie.’

One of the sites we learned about, was the modest university which we passed the first hour of our trip. Schooling – including post-secondary, is free. The caviet is that the men have to serve in the army for 1 year before university, and they also must work (paid), for a government company with free training, for another two years after graduation. The woman must also work with this same criteria afterwards, except she must work 3 years. She can also join the army if they wish but I am not sure we asked how this would affect her mandatory work term.

Books are also free, but Reuben talked about how they are all being digitized so students can download them to a USB. As we would later see at a school we toured on our own in Havana, at least some Elementary schools have computer labs. Maybe they all do?

Reuben talked about the mining business and their relationship with Canada, and we seen smoke stacks for one or two plants. They have coal, natural gas, and oil.

I may be wrong in the order but I believe health care is number one with tourism at number three, and agriculture at number 2. Reuben knew one lady who was a nurse and quit to clean rooms at a hotel which pays very well with tips and other gifts left by tourists.

We were curious about the two currencies, Peso’s and Convertible Peso’s (CUC). The tourists are not aloud to use Peso’s but the locals can use CUC’s. Apparently CUC’s came about because America wanted a currency equal to theirs (which CUC’s are). There is talk that with the new government that will come in, that perhaps Peso’s will once again become the only currency.

Catholicism is the primary religion but we would later see a Mosque downtown. We were told Muslims are relatively new to the country.

The one thing we were very disappointed about is the fact their Indigenous people are mostly extinct. At one point Spain tried to cross Cuba and were slaughtered by the indigenous, but when the Spanish did come to inhabit Cuba the disease they brought wiped the Indigenous peoples out. We are thankfully this isn’t completely true in Canada and that we are finally repairing a long history of abusing, assimilating, and generally treating them like third world citizens. We have a long way to go.

One question brought up was the fact there weren’t banana’s at the resorts. This was due to hurricane Irma and her devastation of banana trees.

Reuben had travelled quite a bit and had a good understanding of the world including Canada. Obviously the relationship with America is non-existant which left us also greatful for the relations the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau built with Cuba. It’s an honor to see our flag flown at all resorts.

Our guide talked about the different periods immigration from certain countries happened, and their own history with slaves from Africa.

Lastly, from memory anyway, it was noted that health are is free for all. I am not sure of the details of this care as we know in Canada, there are certainly many holes in our system but it’s great to see the basics like housing, food, education and health are covered.

About an hour in, we pulled over to a highway-side bar and cafe for a rest and to stretch our legs. We enjoyed a couple of cervaza’s, watched as other tour buses and locals alike popped in. It was a busy little hub at which, like we would learn was true of all tour stops, there was an opportunity to also buy souvenirs. We stayed maybe 20 minutes before jumping back on the road.

Our next stop, was the former home of the late author Ernest Hemingway, who fell in love with Havana during his travels and eventually bought a home and a vast amount of property. He used to stay at a hotel at which we would eventual see at one of our stops in old Havana. We quickly realized upon entering the old city, why he fell in love with this place.

Hemingway’s house is now a museum, but you cannot enter the home. The doors and windows are all left open with rope to stop you from entering and stealing things like books, skins, etc as the house is how he left it when he would eventually kill himself due to this overwhelming paranoia he suffered from with people telling time the Cuban government was watching him.

I took panoramic photos of every entrance way and paid a few Peso’s to have a museum staff take my camera into Hemingway’s bedroom for which there is not an open door or window you can peak in from.

There is also a large garage and a tower he had built but there was no way I was climbing that narrow staircase. Cheyenne braved that. Heights and me don’t have a very good relationship.

Down the path a bit, is his old pool and tennis court area, but the courts had been converted to a resting place for Hemingway’s old ship.

With the lineups, it was a bit of a rush back to the bus (as would every stop be we’d quickly find out), and I had to use the restroom to boot. I asked the tour guide who asked the merchant whose business other riders on our bus were buying special drinks from, if I could use their bano. What I didn’t realize was this was their house. I passed by a bedroom, into a skeleton of a bathroom. I felt bad for asking but was appreciative none the less.

Our next stop was lunch, which was at this nice little bayside restaurant with a remarkable view of some ruins and the ocean. Lunch was a tasty toasted meat and cheese sanwhich which hit the spot.

After lunch, we’re were treated to rides in old 50’s cars, touring around Havana checking out a few sites including John Lennon Square, before our final stop in the old cars – the Catholic cemetery. If my memory serves me correctly, The Beatles music wasn’t allowed in Cuba until some time in the 80’s when Fidel Castro recognized them as revolutionary, and memorialized him with a bench statue and a square named in his honor.

The long walk through the cemetery was fascinating, but hot with it being nothing but marbel and concrete. The one grave was a mother who, along with her child, died during delivery. Legend has it that when they dug up the bodies years later, the baby had moved from its original position at her feet, to up around her breast. Many come to the graveside today to pray, bring flowers and other gifts, and the site was alive with flowers adjourning it on this day as well.

I may be getting the order of events wrong, but I believe from there, we stopped off at liberty square where large 3D outlines of a couple of popular Cuban figures, including Che who is everywhere from painted on buildings to in artwork. There were a tonne of old cars parked here which is where I believe the Rolling Stone’s held a free concert a couple of years back. One gentleman, Murphy, from our resort had attended the show. Cheyenne swears she spotted Ryan Gosling in one of the old cars as we were leaving the square. We’ll have to check his Twitter to see if he was leaving his heart in Havana too.

Next was a cigar and rum shop, where you could also get a coffee on fire, where flames were poured from face level into your coffee. It was quite a specactle. We stayed there for another half hour and had the opportunity to go across the street to a market with fresh foods. We didn’t go in but looked inside and talked to a local that lived next door who with a great big smile, told us to have a nice stay.

The rest of the afternoon we had an opportunity to explore Old Havana, with our free time centred around Plaza Vieja. Within this square, we were able to catch a quick tour of an elementary school, Angela Landa primary school – just up the street from our dinner stop, La Bodeguita Del Medio.

La Bodeguita was remarkable. A big, narrow staircase takes you up and around to the top floor, with a Cuban band playing, and a small balcony where you could enjoy the view of the merchants and shops below. All the walls were covered in signatures of all who had been there. Downstairs, the second and third floors – everywhere. You understand from your stay here, why so much artwork – including paintings of old cars, captures the sign to this famous restaurant where Hemingway used to frequent.

We had a few moments to have a drink before checking out a couple of more buildings. During this break, we sat next to a couple from Toronto – originally from Iran, who were asking Reuben about entrepenurealship. The gentleman was floored that someone couldn’t open a second location if their business was running well. He was obviously a big fan of capitalism and I could see, although Reuben was quiet and polite, that he really seemed to love his country and looked a bit uncomfortable with the conversation. The family and their cute little child were wonderful, don’t get me wrong. We all had so many questions. I mentioned Cheyenne and I being big supporters of small business and not so much corporations. My recommendation for visitors is to not knock anything. You don’t have to agree with their way of life but we certainly – by a long shot, can’t say our capitalist systems are really all that great either.

We really hated to leave Old Havana as the sun started to go down on this dream come true, but we were off to catch the bus to an old fort (Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro), to catch a ceremonial cannon shot. The place was packed full of visitors and as usual, there were many merchants selling their artwork. The boom, right at 9 as promised, was loud and woke us all up but it was a great show.

As all great things must, our day in Havana was over. We boarded the bus and Cheyenne edited her pictures the entire ride back to Varadero, and I did some writing. We did stop an hour out at the same rest stop, where I spotted a mother cat standing guard with her kittens, where earlier that day chickens roamed.

Havana is a destination we will never forget. It was magical from the people to the architecture and every stop in between. We’d recommend doing this trip first to really get a good understanding of the country and it’s people to help guide you through the rest of the trip. It’s a long day but well worth the sites and knowledge gained.

Thank you Reuben. You were a remarkable guide and travelling companion. This day would not have nearly been the same without you as our guide.

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