A week ago I landed in Havana, having had Cuba on my radar for two years already. I’m not quite sure what the attraction to this Island, 80 miles from the US coast, had for me, but when Camila Cabello’s song ‘Havana’ became a hit, it was a certainty that I should visit, tying in with the topic of my third SwitchBitch Book.
I know no one in Cuba, and only four friends have visited the island. Bernard Gutman is a whisky and cigar aficionado, and he raves about the country, having visited more than once. He sent me details of his favorite spots to have cocktails at, and what to drink where, helpful advice, as cocktail drinking is new to me. Annette Kreuck and her family from Germany visited Cuba last year, and she was very helpful with restaurant recommendations, as well as in recommending San Lazaro 115 B&B as accommodation, with such excellent service that they wished that they had left more of the
organisation to the B&B, and its owner Abel.
SwitchBitch Book 3 documents continuing my journey of Spiritual Development, commencing with walking the Portuguese Camino, from Porto in Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a 300 km walk, which I completed in 15 days. A number of my posts on this Blog have shared some of my experiences on my pilgrimage.
But the real focus of the new Book is learning to dance the Salsa, coming for lessons in the heart of Havana, the origin of this dance. As the man is the leader in this dance style, and the woman the follower, it will be a challenge for me to let go of control. For the last two and a half years I have danced to the rhythms of DJ René and his team, and danced on my own in the main. I dance my own style, and therefore I am fully in control when dancing solo. I have never danced the Salsa, nor have I been for any lessons in Cape Town, even though they are available.
I have signed up for a course of ten Salsa lessons at the MariSuri School of Dance, just ten minutes from where I am staying in Havana Centro. The staff is friendly, and Roger my teacher is patient. The control issue has not yet arisen, nor has the control button been pushed for me. I have learnt so far that the rhythm of this dance and its music is 1-2-3 5-6-7, and Roger counts this beat throughout the hour lesson. I have learnt a number of steps, and he tests me by making me do them, in no particular order, never knowing which step will be next.
I will be repeating the dance experience in Buenos Aires, in learning to dance the Tango, for which I have attended two weekend workshops in our country some time ago. Similarly, the man is the leader in this dance style, so it will test the same control issues for me.
I am guided in Havana by the B&B I’m staying at, with a map provided and key attractions, restaurants, bars, and nightlife to visit recommended. There was a copy of a Lonely Planet ‘Cuba’, somewhat dated in being a 2017 issue. It is jam-packed with information, almost too much. I was advised to buy the 2018-published Heidi Hollinger’s ‘300 Reasons to love Havana’, and I find it a succinct guide, filled with lovely photographs, and divides Havana into sections, and then guides one on what to see in each of these.
Havana is not for the faint-hearted, and definitely not for credit card shoppers, for those desiring cleanliness, or for internet junkies, but it is a city for travelers wanting a refreshing, different experience, who love smoking cigars, who love drinking cocktails, who love Cuban music, and love dancing of course. And a love for the ‘Fifties Retro helps.
The Lonely Planet Guide writer describes Havana and Cuba as ‘expect the unexpected’: ‘Cuba is like a prince in a poor man’s coat: behind the sometimes shabby facades, gold dust lingers. Its these rich dichotomies that make travel here the exciting, exhilarating roller-coaster ride it is. Trapped in a time warp and reeling from an economic embargo that has grated for more than half a century, this is a country where you can wave goodbye to everyday assumptions and expect the unexpected. If Cuba were a book….layered, hard to grasp, frequently misunderstood, but – above all – a classic’.
Brendan Sainsbury’s, the writer of the Lonely Planet guide, writes why he loves Cuba: ‘For me, Cuba has always had the allure of a forbidden fruit. I love it for its uniqueness, creativity and survivalist spirit: but, above all, I love it because, despite 60 years of setbacks, it remains an upbeat and open place.’
The city boasts its architectural cultural heritage, but it is a shame to see so much in ruin and degradation. Fortunately one sees renovation work everywhere, and some beautiful buildings are getting a second lease on life. After seeing so much degradation, it was a shock to me to see what must be Havana’s most modern building, the Packard Hotel by Iberiostar, a cage of glass, situated in the trendy Passeio Del Prado. More classy, and with a greater match to Havana’s cultural heritage, is the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, having renovated an exterior facade and created a totally modern interior, including a sixth floor rooftop bar. Rooftop pool bars are very trendy, the Packard Hotel having one too on its sixth floor, as well as the Saratoga Hotel.
Hollinger writes in her introduction :
’Havana is changing at an alarming rate, yet staYs transfixed in time. The past and the present could not mix better. To me, it is the most exciting place on earth. As soon as I leave, I want to return. It is never enough.
Havana is visceral – the sights, smell and sound. And ever so sensual. There is nothing like walking its streets and breathing in the life. You need to punch yourself to believe the 360 degrees panorama is real: the Cuban rhythms in surround sound as you stroll by, kids playing soccer barefoot in the Piazza, the mosaic of humanity in the open doorways, and the exceptional beauty of the eclectic architecture which holds a surprise around every corner. Plus the smell of the black billowing exhaust from the vintage cars permeating the city…..only to be refreshed by the microclimates spattered around the city…..
No one looks you more in the eyes than in Havana. It is the city of stares, of sincerity and of kindness. People share, lend a helping hand, talk to each other, respect the elderly. The lack of internet connectivity has kept the habaneros true to their roots. They are affectionate – even complete strangers talk to each other in endearing terms.
Havana is a welcome respite from advertisements. This is the land of no brands.’
I would like to share my first impressions of Havana with you:
As I was in Europe, and more specifically in Spain already, I booked an Iberia flight from Madrid to Havana. The slightly cheaper alternative option from Madrid would have been AirEurope, and I wished I had taken it. The flight is nine and a half hours long. Dealing with Iberia two years running, a disaster each time, has made me decide to never use them again. Last year they cancelled a flight to Nice, due to a French aircontroller strike, and we were accommodated in Madrid at the airline’s expense. This year I was stopped at the boarding gate, and asked for my tourist visa, which the airline did not offer as part of its package, but is the usual way for one to obtain it. As I booked my flight whilst I was walking the Camino in Spain, all communication from the airline has been in Spanish. I was deemed to be in the wrong, and had to book my own accommodation in Madrid, for two nights, as the flight could only be rebooked for two days later, at a ‘small’ penalty of about R2000, in addition to the R10000 one-way ticket cost. I was not the only one to be left behind by the airline, and I saw a passenger looking heart-broken and crying. My suitcase went off to Havana without Iberia making any attempt to stop it, as I was told by the ground staff of the airline, which was a challenge in 36C Madrid! Iberia has a department and counters throughout Madrid airport, but they must be the worst ‘Customer Service’, I being told different things by the staff at various counters, including going to the German Embassy in Madrid to get the visa there (!), or going to a travel agency in the airport building, without telling me how to find it. I found the travel agency El Corte Viajes, paid about R1000 for the visa, and I could have got onto the flight if all of this had been picked up at my check-in four hours prior! The check-in staff had no clue, this being a very expensive error, costing me the accommodation in Madrid, the cancelled accommodation in Havana for two nights, and the ticket re-issue fee! I have detailed this experience, to make sure any prospective visitors to Cuba buy the visa prior to departure, Best at a travel agency. The food served on board Iberia, as well as the restricted beverage offering, and the sloppy service completes the disaster that is Iberia, owned by British Airways, I was told!
The other aspect about travelling to Cuba is the fact that traveling with credit cards is almost a waste of time, it being a cash economy. To date I have found two five star hotels (Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski – VISA only: and the Packard Hotel – both VISA and MasterCard) accepting credit cards. The Cohiba cigar shop takes a 3% surcharge if taking payment by card. Due to the stand-off with the USA, Diners Club and American Express credit cards are not welcome at all. This means that one should travel with Euros in cash, but I found it hard to budget for the amount to bring. As I had Euros left over, I exchanged a first amount at the airport, and will have to experience changing some more at a bank. I was told that one can draw cash from credit cards in a bank, but I fear doing this, in case my card plays up, despite my bank being aware of my travels in this country. I am extremely careful with my spending here in Cuba, and have been lucky that I can pay my accommodation by credit card via a secure payment system, translated into dollars. The country has two currencies, and a dual pricing system. Tourists are charged in CUCs, roughly 1:1 with the Euro. Locals are charged in CUPs. The dual system can cause a problem, especially when this confusing system can be abused. At a little fruit shop nearby I wanted to buy tomatoes and an avocado, and the shop person, who could not speak English, typed into a calculator 10 for each, making it a total of 20. Luckily I calculated this in Rand, and in CUCs it would have been R 300! When I told my B&B host, he said the price was in CUPs, needing a 0,50 CUC for the avocado pear. Phew, that was close. I have seen a supermarket marking its alcoholic beverages in both sets of prices.
A fantastic example of the friendliness and kindness of the Habaneros, was meeting Osmery at the airport. I had gone through passport control, and I was surprised that one had to go through security, to get into the rest of the airport building. All of us stood at the luggage carousel, very slow in new luggage being spewed out of a hatch. My suitcase had flown to Havana without me on the day of my original booked flight, and I had expected Iberia to place it on the carousel too. After a long wait, with no sign of my suitcase, I went up to a lady in a uniform-type outfit, and explained my suitcase
problem to her. I did not know that she had nothing to do with the airport, and that she is a tour guide, who had come to greet some clients. Osmery took me to Lost & Found immediately, spike to them in Spanish, I gave them my old boarding pass with the luggage sticker, and they found it in a storage room. I was very happy to be reunited with my suitcase, after the two day absence. Osmery then took me to the Currency exchange office, which is outside the airport building, whereafter we looked for the driver who was meant to pick me up at the airport, organised by my BnB. There was a throng of persons with signs, but none with my name on it. Luckily Osmery’s husband is a taxi driver, and they dropped me off at my BnB, wanting 30 CUCs initially, but my BnB had advised me to not pay more than 25CUCs.
My immediate excitement was seeing the first old timer vehicles at the airport, almost exclusively used as taxis. I read that the parts inside the vehicles may not be the ones related to the brand of the car, but could be Russian or self-made parts. The cars look amazingly clean, and the strong bold taxi colours are a sharp contrast to the greyness and destruction of much of Havana.
I write a detailed Facebook post every day, sharing with my Friends my experiences of Havana, warts and all. My posts are public, open for all readers to read and follow.
Throughout the rest of this month I will be introducing different facets of Havana to my readers. The city is like a multi-layered onion, a surprise around every corner, and challenging every prejudice one may have here.
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Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein