Vive Cuba

The objectives of this trip were two fold: first to miss the worst of the winter in the United Kingdom and second to see Cuba before it is invaded by multinational corporations especially Starbucks and McDonalds. My brother threatened to pay a native Cuban to carry around a Starbucks sign and hold it up in front of me whenever I attempted to take a picture! Both objectives were to some degree a failure, I arrived back in the UK during the worst snow storm for eighteen years and a number of brands had already invested in Cuba e.g. Adidas was quite prominant. I did get to see a beautiful country populated by a beautiful, friendly people that seems to be caught in a 1950s timewarp but on the cusp of massive change.

My original idea was to spend one week in Havana and one week in Santiago de Cuba, however after talking with the travel agencies in Cuba and discovering the train to Santiago could take three days and the bus took a minimum of sixteen hours. I decided that a better idea was to spend one week in Havana and one in Trinidad. I also spent a day doing an organised tour to Vinales.

The characters

Troll:Well if you are reading this you must already know me to some degree so the less said the better!

Fredrico:Owner of the first casa I stayed at in Havana. Definitely a nocturnal creature, he slept all day and went out to party just about every night around midnight! Normally would surface around 9h30 after I had already had a cold shower, he had to turn on the boiler when you wanted hot water.

Jose:I met this guy in a Havana cafe on the Malecon, he was drinking neat rum by the glass as mixers are expensive while rum is not. He is a good example of a tourist hustler. First he warned me not to change money on the street, good advice offered by just about everyone I met, and then he offered me a casa to stay at and then offered to sell me cheap cigars and then offered to find me some chickas!

Andy 'Babs' and Kate:I met this couple on the beach in Trinidad. He is an army demolitions expert, soon to be leaving Cuba, and she is a professional artist / graphic designer. We had a couple of beers and cycled back to Havana together. They were on a very tight budget and managed to live to a budget of £300 a week! I ran into them again in Havana at the airport and we got, ok I got, a little bit drunk before the flight left!

Jacqueline:A beautiful girl either working in the oldest business in the world or who was looking for marriage and a way out of Cuba

Tony:Owner of the third casa I stayed in for my last three days in Cuba

Dirty Sanchez:A twenty three year old Australian traveller, he got his nickname from his pathetic attempt at a moustache which he had been growing for three months after a bet with his brother. Only in Cuba for a few days before heading off to Cancun for a sailing trip to Colombia. One of the funniest guys I have met in a while!

Big Friendly Giant:A massive South African who turned heads wherever he went, he was probably the biggest bloke in Cuba at the time. He had just lost his contracting IT job in London, where else would a South African live, and decided to go travelling.

Blue Lagoon:South African, nicknamed for bearing more than a passing resemblance to the star in the movie Blue Lagoon he spent a good deal of time trying to persuade me that Discoteca Ayala is 'lekker man, it's a disco in a cave'!

Jefe:Australian, nicknamed after spanish for boss, she was traveling with her real life boss but was the boss during this trip as she is a regular visiter to Trinidad. Speculation was rife about her motivation for visiting Trinidad for two months every year, we agreed that it was more than just the scenery!

Felix:Cuban, owner of the casa I stayed in Trinidad. His wife was a great cook and his daughter was studying to be a medica (doctor). They didn't speak English which helped me improve my Spanish and made my stay in Trinidad a very pleasurable one.

Tomar:Canadian, I met him at Casa de la Musica and after a few beers watching the sun go down talking about the changes in Cuba he offered me a place to stay in Vancouver. Might just take him up on that!

Jim:Canadian, I met him at Casa de la Musica and we got talking after I pointed out a game the kids were playing, chasing each other up a tree and then trying to dislodge the climber by throwing rocks at him. Jim had lost his job and took a one way flight to Cuba to drink and um 'party' his way around

Mike:Canadian, I met him at Casa de la Musica with Jim. Apparently quite the mover on the dance floor but we could persuade him to get up on the dance floor.

Havana

The flight to Havana was a direct one on Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick. It should have been a comfortable if long flight of ten hours, however I had the misfortune of sitting in front of someone who had the audacity to remove his shoes even though he had the most stinky feet I have ever smelt. In fact it was so bad that the couple sitting next to me preferred to stand next to the toilets drinking glass after glass of wine than sit anywhere near him. Of course being English, we would never actually complain to him about it!

When I arrived in Havana, I caught a taxi to my first Casa Vista al Prado that was run by a very friendly young guy called Frederico. The room cost CUC25 (£19) a night and it was huge but had a shared bathroom. I didn't have breakfast at the Casa as I wanted to get out earlier than 9h00 when the other occupants had their breakfast, however it looked very tempting consisting of bread, eggs, fruit and coffee. The downside was that hot water was only available when Frederico was awake as he had to turn on the boiler. Depending on how long he partied the night before it could be quite late before hot water was available. However as I discovered later Cuba does not seem to believe in really hot power showers anyway, the best you can usually expect is a tepid trickle! Every morning I also got a free wake up call from the chickens on the roof across the road, at sunrise you can hear their calls echoing across the city. As I soon discovered Cuba is not exactly the quietest destination in the world.

The next morning I got up early and went for a walk to get my bearings in the city, this usually meant a stroll up Prado, as the locals still call it. This two lane road, in each direction, devides Havana Viega from Havana Central. The central walkway is deserted 'early', which in Cuba is before 09h00 in the morning, but is usually full of artists, ball games and kids from the surrounding schools doing their Physical Education classes.

Prado

Prado, the street separating Havana Viega and Havana Central

At the end of Prado I passed Parque Central, the Capitolio National and the Gran Teatro. Parque Central had a rather nice statue of Jose Marti. I soon discovered that Jose Marti's name and face are everywhere. Normally every school has at least one bust of Jose Marti. He is Cuba's national hero, the original freedom fighter, who was martyred while fighting for the independence of Cuba against the Spanish by charging them on a white horse while wearing a black jacket. I guess camoflage was not fashionable in those days! After my experiences of Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa where its law that every shop has to show a portrait of the president I expected to see Fidel Castro's face everywhere in Cuba however aside from the paper posters advertising the 50 year celebrations of the revolution and obviously in the museums you hardly ever see his image. The most prominant images are those of Jose Marti and Che Guevara. Perhaps this will change when Fidel dies but I doubt it. I think in the west we think Fidel is the revolution and that without him it will crumble but we are very wrong. It is Jose and Che who are the real symbols of the revolution, and these symbols will endure long after Fidel is gone. Support for the revolution still appears strong, especially amoung the poor and the elderly. America's Helms-Burton Act and embargo have done nothing to change this. In fact if anything it has strengthened the communists hold over Cuba, just as sanctions against Rhodesia strengthened the resolve of Rhodesians to hold out against outside attack and how sanctions against Robert Mugabe have been used by him to strengthen his hold over Zimbabwe to the detriment of his people. The irony is that you can still buy American products in the shops, e.g. coke and Californian wine are available and as I learnt at the Museo del Ron even the barrels used to age rum come from Whisky production in the United States.

In the evenings the Parque Central is alive with the sounds of arguments, around politics and sport. I guess it is Havana's Hyde Park Corner. It seems to me that the Cuban's love a good argument, a small dispute will quickly get an audience who eventually take sides and debate the merits of each side of the argument very loudly with much flinging around of their arms. In Trinidad I while having lunch I watched an argument develop over an hour, and it eventually attracted a very vocal audience of about thirty people. However these arguments never seem to involve any physical contact or violence.

Parque Central

Parque Central, Jose Marti statue with Capitolio and Gran Teatro in background

The National Capitolio is a scale copy of the Capital building in Washington, apparently you can go inside it but every time I tried to enter it I was chased off by the security guards. One guard didn't even let me stand on the stairs! In the evenings it seems to be a favourite place for the local kids to play baseball. I liked the fact that just behind the Capitolio is a graveyard for old steam trains, which is very odd since it is no where near the railway stations. Washington didn't have that!

Capitolio National

The Capitolio National, a scale version of Washington's Capitol building

Between the Capitolio and Gran Teatro is San Rafael, a pedestrianised street which is the main shopping street in Havana and also a great place to find one of those 'hole in the wall' street food shops. The stores in Cuba are quite interesting, at most of the shops you can't actually touch the goods. Normally the goods are displayed in glass cases or in the case of food on shelves behind the counter and you have to ask the shop assistant if you want to buy anything. This also goes for toy stores, imagine that at Hamleys, not being able to play with all the toys before buying! All products are available in Cuba, its just that you have to search for them and they cost a lot. For example when I needed new AA size batteries I had to go to five different stores asking each shop keeper if they had batteries and when they didn't where I could get them. The range of each product is also limited, so for example there are not five hundred types of cereal here. Come to think of it I never saw cereal, I guess it doesn't fall into the cholesterol food group loved by Cubans. However there is definitely no need to pack your suitcase with sandwiches which one English couple I met had done!

Havana Central

Havana Central, main shopping area between Capitolio and Gran Teatro

I was aiming for Plaza Viega, one of the four squares in Havana. Havana Viega's main tourist attractions are centred around the four squares and Obispo which is the main touristy shopping street through Havana Viega. I got a bit lost which is not hard in the maze of streets, and it was then I noticed the queues for all the small shops and places to eat street food. Later, after three days of eating at the resturants (£7 for dinner) recomended in a travel guide I was way over budget, and what's more the food in the resturants was not very good and the portions were not exactly large. At that point I converted some of my Convertible Pesos for National Pesos and decided to 'eat like the locals' from the street vendors and 'holes in the wall', the travel guide and Frederico warned against doing this saying I could get sick but over two weeks I never had a problem with the street food even eating fish burgers. My diet normally consisted of ham or roast pork rolls for breakfast (13p), a mini pizza cooked in a 44 gal drum over a wood fire for lunch (44p) and black beans, rice and pork for dinner (£1.10). This was much cheaper and to be honest much more fun than eating in a deserted resturant that the locals could not afford. The only rule I followed was that I only ate from places that had a good sized queue outside! In Trinidad this rule was more difficult to follow, as the town is small there are very few places to eat so I tried eating at the casa. The food was fantastic, including one night where I had a massive lobster, rice, beans, sweet potato fries, salad and a pudding with ice cream! I basically survived on one big meal a day, suplemented with the odd pizza. If not on a budget this is what I recomend you do. The cost is similar to resturants, £5.6 for dinner, but the food is far superior.

Havana shop queue

Havana, queue like the locals for better value. In this case a butcher

Plaza Viega is the southern most of the four plazas. As per the other plazas has undergone significant restoration funded by UNESCO and helped by donations from western countries, for example Spain donated the camera obscura (yellow building with tower on top) and Japan has donated the planetarium equipment. The planatarium is still under construction / reconstruction (white building to the right). A lot of Havana is under reconstruction, everywhere you go they seem to be building and painting, the Cubans however are not what I'd call a hard working race. The rate at which they work would challenge English builders for slowness, if they got some Polish builders in Havana would be restored in a matter of months! A few of the travellers I met said that you could see how magnificent Havana must have been in its heyday, but to be honest I preferred the dirty, broken areas more than the restored tourist areas.

Plaza Viega

Plaza Viega, looking towards the camera obscura and planetarium

While in Plaza Viega I saw a sight which emphasises the constrasts you see in modern Cuba and I had to get a picture of it. A couple of school kids where doing excercises led by a teacher in the square in front of a shop, that would not be out of place in Newport Rhode Island (it sold flashy yacthing wear) at which they could never afford to shop or would never be interested in shopping

Plaza Viega

Plaza Viega, children doing excercises

For me the highlight of this square was Cuba's only micro brewery pub, Taberna de la Murralla, but then I like beer! The pub also had pretty good salsa music at night, which by my definition means acoustic. It is also where I met a couple of the usual tourist hustlers on my final night in Cuba. They insisted I joined them and were quite friendly asking the usual questions that you get in Cuba, 'where are you from?' and 'how long have you been in Cuba?'. After a while they tried to persuade me to come to their place, where there would be beers, chickas and plenty of fooky fooky (sorry, bit crude). When I pointed out I had 10 pesos left they didn't seem discouraged at all and said that would be plenty. I decided to beat a hasty retreat and they started insisting I buy them beer. After refusing they got a little aggressive and so I left. This was the only time I met any aggression from the Cubans, mostly you say no and they will leave you alone.

Plaza Viega

Plaza Viega, looking towards Taberna de la Muralla

From Plaza Viega its a short walk to Plaza De San Francisco De Asis, named for the monastery in the square. The monastery is now an art museum, where this guy called 'Anonymous' seems to have painted most of the works and done most of the sculpture. His output was truly impressive and he seemed to have lived across three centuaries! For me this monastery and its contents were one of the highlights of Havana, especially a painting attributed to the school of Caravaggio. I was impressed by the art I saw in Cuba, despite Kate commenting that it was quite naive and she should know being a professional artist. Maybe that's the charm of it. Everywhere you go there are galleries, shops, street traders selling and creating art. I intended buying a piece for myself as a momento of Cuba but unfortunately I exceeded my budget and could not afford to even though a good sized oil painting can be bought for less than £30. The Cuban's love of art and music is a product of their school system, where every child has to either do art or music as a subject. Whenever I passed a school there was always the sound of music, especially drumming coming from the classrooms. Outside the monastery is a bronze statue, of whom I have no idea, but it was obviously well loved since his beard and fingers where shiny from all the rubbing it got.

Plaza De San Francisco De Asis

Plaza De San Francisco De Asis, Iglesia y Monasterio statue

Behind the monastery is a beautiful if small garden dedicated to Mother Teresa, one of the few green spaces in central Havana. In it I noticed a sculpture which made me smile, it showed a family around a table where the child was playing computer games, the father was reading a newspaper and the mother painting her toenails. It was called 'Table of silence'.

Plaza De San Francisco De Asis

Plaza De San Francisco De Asis, Silencio de la mesa in Mother Teresa garden

One of the strange things of this building is that it's misshapen, the end wall is at an angle to the rest of the structure. Inside they have painted this wall in an effort to make it look like the building continues naturally. I wonder whether they built it that way to fit within the city walls or whether the building was modified later to allow the road to pass by?

Plaza De San Francisco De Asis

Plaza De San Francisco De Asis, Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asis

The courtyard in the building was one of the few quiet spaces I found in Havana. It convinced me that this is how buildings should be designed, that is two or three stories around a central courtyard. I guess could call it inside out compared with the architecture we have in England and the USA where a building is surrounded by gardens. If I ever get to build a house, next to my 'bar on a beach' I am going to build it like this.

Plaza De San Francisco De Asis

Plaza De San Francisco De Asis, Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco de Asis courtyard

From Plaza De San Francisco De Asis it is another short walk along fully restored streets lined by expensive galleries, resturants and shops to Plaza de Armas. This is my favourite Plaza in Havana it has a daily book fair, where every stall owner seems to sell the same books on Che, Castro, Lenin etc. It is very difficult to photograph though as it is dominated by a very formal park in the middle lined by massive trees. No lying on the grass here! It was a great place for taking a break during the middle of the day as it was cool under the shade of the trees and if you got a good bench you could listen to salsa from one of the resturants lining the plaza without having to contribute to the hat that goes round at the end of each set! Cheap of me I know. It was also a good place to watch life go by. It was here I saw two Aussies bargining with a book seller for about thirty copies of a book on Lenin, I was tempted to point out to them the irony of using capitalistic means to acquire a treatise on socialism!

It was also here that I met Jacqueline, she was a stunning young woman who was either looking for business or looking for a passport through marriage off the island. She told me 'I am beautiful girl' which I had to agree with and she kept on asking me to invite her for a cup of coffee. I felt quite sorry for her, she was so young and although smiling you could tell from her eyes that she was obviously not happy. For a country where the penalties for working in the trade are so severe, Jacqueline could expect to get four years in jail if caught, the trade is very pervasive and open. As I was travelling alone I was often asked if I wanted a chicka normally after asking if I wanted a cigar. At times it was frighteningly casual, in Trinidad for example two girls asked if I wanted to come to their resturant to eat, when I said 'no I've eaten thank you' they immediately said 'do you want chicka?'. It was like 'oh well men have only two needs, food and sex and you've already taken care of the food'. I thought it was sleezy when I saw the odd old tourist bloke with a young local chicka but it goes both ways, later I saw a women in her fifties with a young cuban bloke. I asked the locals what they thought of it all and they were very mercenary about it all, 'he's paid for it so what is wrong'. To me it seemed horribly like exploitation, in Europe (Amsterdam) or USA (Las Vegas) you could argue that the girls have a choice (well some would) but in Cuba?

At the middle of the park is a statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes and one morning I noticed a pigeon sitting on his head, which seemed very irreverent to such a cultural hero that I had to get a picture. Those of you who know me, know that I have a distinct dislike of politicians and especially those who are idolised as heros. This is a product of living in two countries, Rhodesia and South Africa, where politicans failed their people spectacularly.

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes

The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales behind the statue, used to be the governers residence during the Spanish colonial period and then became the presidential residence before it moved to the building housing the Museo de la Revolucion in 1920. It is quite a spectacular building that contains the Museo de la Ciudad (City Museum). I enjoyed this musuem as it contained a very eclectic mix of uniforms, weapons, and Napolean furniture. I'm not sure what the Napolean link was, maybe one of the presidents or governers was a fan of the little tyrant! A role model maybe? The building itself was also beautiful, built around a central courtyard which had a resident peacock and a few less animated statues of cranes!

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas, Palacio de los Capitanes Generales

One of the strangest sights I saw in Plaza Armas was an orchestra setting up one day towards the end of my holiday. I thought, finally some music which isn't a poor imitation of lounge music or 'lift music' (see my comments on Cuban music later). The locals seemed a bit bemused by it all and the plaza's resident band seemed more annoyed than bemused. I waited expectantly, and then eventually they started playing..... salsa! The orchestra was the St John's youth orchestra from Canada and they were there to 'jam' with the locals. One of the girls playing flute got an extrememly bad case of stage fright, and left after one tune in tears. The Cubans found this very interesting and spent a quiet a bit of time staring at her. I hope that the experience doesn't put her off for life! I was impressed with the, only, violin player in the group as she carried the entire string section of each tune.

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas, youth Salsa orchestra

From Plaza de Armas it is another short walk to Plaza de la Catedral, which is named after the Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana. I really liked this old cathedral as the stone work looked like it had been hewn out of rough coral! It is also very different from any cathedrals I have seen in Europe. This square is the start point for the hundreds of bus tours that rocket through Havana from Vedado every day so is madly busy with stupid package tourists who rush around, snap a few pictures and then go back and fry themselves on a beach in front of a all inclusive hotel called 'Costa del Sol' or something like it. They may as well be in Spain! In Trinidad I met a Polish couple who had booked their entire stay at Vedado, after two days they left to go backpacking as they were so bored! These tourists also queue to get into La Bodequita del Medico which was made famous by that old drunk Ernest Hemingway, I tried to get into this bar a couple of times as apparently you 'must' have a mojito while in Cuba in this bar but it was always too packed. I don't quite get why the Cuban's push the Hemingway angle, maybe its just a quick way of making a buck! How capitalist!

Plaza de la Catedral

Plaza de la Catedral, Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana

The Plaza is very beautiful though and there are a couple of interesting galleries worth taking a look at, I looked for Wilfredo Lam gallery, but I never managed to find it. I'm not too worried about missing this 'must see' gallery though, as I'm not a fan of his work or Picaso for that matter who inspired Lam. I did like the 'Taller Experimental de Grafica' which has contemporary ink prints. I especially liked the print of a bull peeing where the bulls penis was replaced with a bottle of the local beer Bucanero! I wonder what Budweiser would think if you made a similar print with their beer, in case you are wondering Bucanero ain't half bad!

Plaza de la Catedral

Plaza de la Catedral, Casa de Lombillo and Palacio del Marques de Arcos (1746)

Obispo is the center of nightlife in Habana Viega, it stretches from Plaza de Armas to Capitolio National. It also contained my favourite Panderia (bakery) where, unsurprising I guess, you could get anything cake related as long as it contained sugar! I didn't really like the resturants e.g. Casa de Paris that I visited along here. They were very expensive and the music was not very good

Obispo - Plaza de Armas

Obispo, leading towards Plaza de Armas from my favourite Panderia

Obispo also had a couple of good Librarias (book stores) where you can see examples of how Cuba is on the cusp of change, Harry Potter and Che share the same shelf space!

Obispo Libraria

Obispo, Libraria

In addition you occasionally chance upon a sight that probably hasn't changed for the last hundred years. For example I came across a knife sharpener who was sharpening some scissors for a mother and her primary school age daughter. You can tell she is at primary school because she is wearing red and white, senior school kids where yellow and white! You can tell the local think its winter as she is wearing leggings. There are schools everywhere in Cuba, even on this busy street there is a tiny primary school which is open to the street so the kids can see everyone wander by. I am not sure how they concentrate! If the revolutions' only contribution to Cuba is education, it is a massive contribution! Apparently mothers get one year of maternity leave at full pay after which the kids go to primary school, as part of the primary school education they get taught what to eat and how to grow it (reminds me of Rhodesia where we learnt how to grow green beans and tomatoes at Junior school) and at senior school the kids are required to spend one month a year working in the fields (not sugar plantations though) on the farms from as young as thirteen. This is seen by Cubans as part of their civic responsibility! Makes a GCSE in media studies look a bit week doesn't it?

Obispo Knife Sharpener

Obispo, Knife Sharpener

The largest Museo in Havana is the Museo de la Revolucion, this is housed rather appropriately in the old Presidential Palace that was occupied by America's lacky Fulgencio Batista before he fled into exile.

Museo de la Revolucion

Museo de la Revolucion with one of many games of baseball in the foreground

The Museo presents a rather one sided, unquestioning view of the revolution but I guess that is not too surprising and besides museums worldwide always tend to present a one sided view of things. The exhibits, which consisted mostly of old grainy photographs (note to all revolutionaries out there, make sure you have a good cameraman present), blood stained shirts, guns and personal effects of the martyrs, are labeled in English and Spanish which is helpful as my Spanish is still very weak. You could spend days reading about it all! It also showed a bit of paranoia about America's role in Cuba, especially concerning the USS Maine explosion which was the pretext for America intervening in Cuba. Cubans believe it was America who blew up their own ship in order to have an excuse to invade. I think its unlikely, but who knows? Besides there is a fair amount of paranoia in America about Cuba! The building was also quite beautiful, especially in the main hall.

Museo de la Revolucion

Museo de la Revolucion, amazing room decorations

The Museo also has a heavily garded exhibition of the Granma on which the Castros, Che and the other 'bearded ones' sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1959 to start the revolution. Its amazing to think that from such a small start they were able to take over the whole country and a year later defend it against the American supported contra-banditos! When you see the home made weapons they had, including a "tank" based on a tractor it is even more astonishing! I think it just shows how little support Batista had, even amoung his army! The Granma has been heavily restored and is behind a massive glass case, they could do with cleaning the windows however as its just about imposible to see! I also thought the name Granma is quaint, the local newspaper is also called the Granma!

Museo de la Revolucion

Museo de la Revolucion, the Granma exhibit

I was also in Cuba in the 50th year since the revolution, more by luck than anything. It looks like they are gearing up for a massive celebration of the event.

Museo de la Revolucion

Museo de la Revolucion, celebrating 50 years of revolution

Perhaps the highlight for me was being able to wander around the cabinet room where Castro and Che held parliment during the first few months after the revolution. It seemed like a very simple room, with a simple table and decorations. I wonder what the new cabinet room looks like now?

Museo de la Revolucion

Museo de la Revolucion, the cabinet room where Che and the other ministers met after the revolution

As you exit the Museo you are confronted by charactures of American presidents, the last of which was Bush senior. Somehow I don't think American tourists would appreciate them, but as I am not a fan of either Bush I found the last quiet funny. The comment is also very true, every tightening of the embargo has led to consolidation of power in Castro's government

Museo de la Revolucion

Museo de la Revolucion, mocking Bush senior

The sea wall protecting Havana from the Atlantic is called the Malecon. For those who don't know Cuba seperates the Atlantic to the north from the Carribean in the south. I wonder how many people going to Varadero for a Carribean holiday realise they are swimming in the Atlantic? The sea is normally calm and dead flat, but for my first three days in Havana it was whipped up into a fairly big swell that crashed over the wall and onto the street. It must be terrifying in a hurricane! When it was calm I considered going for a swim with the locals, but the water did not look too clean so I gave it a miss. The whole street is undergoing a UNESCO funded restoration, so at present there aren't too many places of interest on it aside from a few cafes. The photograph below was taken from the Castillo de San Salvador de Punta (1589), which had a small museum of items raised from ship wrecks, as it is a bit of a walk from the plazas and was not included in the tour bus itinerary it was also very quiet. I think the staff thought I was slightly mad (loco hombre) as I wandered around outside in the rain while they all ran for cover.

Malecon

Malecon, on a less than pleasant day

In Havana you can't fail to miss the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana which dominate Havana Viega from the heights above the harbour. Getting to these forts is not easy, the guide said to catch the pink metro bus but failed to mention where the bus leaves from. I tried a few times to catch public buses in Havana but failed to understand the bus system, there are no bus route maps, no time tables and the bus stops are not exactly clearly marked. Eventually I gave up and got a taxi for CUC 5, on getting to the park they wanted another CUC 1 for the outside and CUC 6 to enter the castillo. When I saw loads of tour buses parked up I opted to go to Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana instead as it was much quieter. The Fortaleza was built after those dastardly British had managed to capture the Castillo and Havana in 1763. When you see the Castillo and its massive moat you can't help but be impressed by those Brits, apparently they tunneled their way in! The Fortaleza was almost deserted so I had the run of the place to myself, there were a couple of small museums one of which had a very good collection of swords, daggers and bayonettes and the other examined Che's life through pictures and personal artifacts. On the way back I was determined to catch the bus, so I walked past all the taxis offering a ride for CUC 5. When one illegal taxi driver offered me a ride for CUC 3 in an old clapped out 1950s Buick I just couldn't resist.

Castillo de los Tres Santas Reyes Magnos del Morro (1589-1630) from Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana

Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro (1589-1630) from Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana

I discovered that the Plaza de la Revolucion is quite a walk from Havana Viega, but it was worth it. This is where Fidel Castro and now Raul Castro give rousing speaches to the crowds. As I disvovered in the Museo de la Revolucion, the people even 'thank their Commander in Chief for taking the time to explain any mistakes he may have made' to the people! The plaza is dominated by a massive 142m high memorial in the shape of a star and a 14m high statue of Jose Marti. Most of the travellers I met thought the statue was 'ugly' but I liked its brutal soviet style. It reminded me of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw which is also hated by most who see it and by most of the Polish.

Plaza de la Revolucion

Plaza de la Revolucion, 17m marble statue of Jose Marti in front of the 142m high Memorial Jose Marti

In front of the statue there are steps or benches for the party and rather uncomfortable looking marble seats for the leaders of the party. I especially liked the unequal nature of the seats, some (for the President) where slightly raised over others which I found quite amusing. In a socialist country of equals some are more equal than others

Plaza de la Revolucion

Plaza de la Revolucion, in socialism some are more equal than others! Where the president sits during public addresses

There is a massive mural of Che Guevara on the wall of the Ministerio del Interior on the other side of the Plaza.

Plaza de la Revolucion

Plaza de la Revolucion, Che Guevara mural on Ministerio del Interior

And finally behind the statue is the Comite Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba which now houses the government and Castro's office. I'm not sure how much influence Fidel still carries in Cuba. The Argentinian President was visiting Cuba while I was there and apparently the highlight of her trip, according to the Granma, was meeting Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro also writes a column in the Granma, although in the last one I read he said he was going to write less and write on subjects other than politics so he wouldn't be seen to be interfering in Raul's government. I get the impression that he still 'advises' Raul quite a bit though! The Granma also had an article showing Fidel's new green credentials, apparently he ordered the replacement of all the 'inefficient' thermo electric (coal fired) power stations with a distributed network of small diesel powered stations. I may be wrong but I think that thermo electric stations are less polluting than diesel powered ones!

Plaza de la Revolucion

Plaza de la Revolucion, Castro's office is in the Comite Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba

Everywhere you go in Cuba there are murals and billboards supporting the party and exalting the people to defend the revolution and work harder. These are normally outside the neighbourhood Comités de Defensa de la Revolución. The CDR's provide services to the neighbourhood such as ration cards, but I suspect they also keep an eye on the Cuban people making sure they don't get out of line. As one Havana bloke said to me 'welcome to Havana, city of two million people and one million police'. A Canadian traveller told me that the only difference he has seen in three years is the police are less brutal than they used to be, but I saw some police using pepper spray on a huge guy who was drunk and arguing in a cafe. Most tourists love the political graffiti and take a photograph of every one they see but I liked this non political one I saw.

Plaza de la Revolucion

Havana, not all graffiti is political

When I got back from Trinidad I was going to stay in Frederico's casa however he was away, probably partying, but he put me in touch with Tony. Tony showed me the room, which I think was actually his and his wife's room as it had a lot of personal items in it. I was a little disapointed it didn't have any windows and therefore no view but as I was tired from the bus trip from Trinidad and as I figured I would only be sleeping there I took it anyway. When I was signing the paperwork I noticed there was an eight feet deep hole in the front room. Tony was installing a water cistern, its a pity that on the first night he decided that 11h30 was a good time to use a jack hammer! The neighbours didn't like it either and after the usual long, lond 'discussion' he stopped digging. I think once its finished it will be a nice place to stay, so long as you don't mind not having a view! Cuba does not suffer from sub prime mortgage crashes or boom and bust negative equity. In Cuba if you need housing you put your name on a list, when the government identifies a suitable house they work out its' value based on your income, this value is entirely artificial and could be very low e.g. $7000. You then pay this value off at a fixed rate per month. When you die the house does not go to your children, but they have first option on it (so houses tend to stay in the same family). The government then works out its new 'value' based on whoever is occupying it, this could be lower or higher than the previous value, which is payed off monthly and so on. I guess the positive aspect of this system is that everyone is housed and there are no wild speculation or investment in property, the negative aspect is there is not much incentive for people to improve or maintain their own house.

Havana Casas Particulares

Havana, my Casa Particulares for the last 3 days

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