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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Day out in Habana Vieja, night out in Habana Centro

At 6:30AM, EC said his goodbyes, and headed back to the central plaza for the final time. It was still dark when he left, but by the time he got to the plaza, the sun had risen. 

A number of people were already bustling about. Students dressed in white button downs and brown khakis were sitting idly at the plaza, presumably waiting for their bus. Also sitting in the plaza were Margo, a French masters student studying journalism at Columbia, and Jess, a South African PhD student studying anthropology at Stanford. After days of endless Spanish, EC admitted it was nice to have a conversation in English again.

The ride back to Habana was uneventful, though it was only three hours rather than four. Through his window, EC caught sight of a couple men standing in a line, from bottom to top, on the slope of a roadside hill. Each were holding what seemed to be a piece of wood with a blade at one end. And like a machete, they swung the instrument back and forth, cutting the grass in between. That would explain why some grassy areas had random spots of outgrowth since that was no doubt an imperfect technique to be taming grass. 

Once off the bus in Habana, EC gave Tati's address to the throng of cab drivers waiting for the passengers. One driver tried to sell his service for 10 CUCs, to which EC responded with the most exasperated "Nooooooo" he could muster up on the spot. Silly man thought he was going to pay double the price. 

Back at Tati's, EC received a big welcome from Tati's entire family. It was as if they had not seen him in years. Post-greetings, EC decided to visit Habana Vieja, the entire section of which is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. He only knew the general direction of where Habana Vieja was, so with plenty of daylight left, EC headed out hoping he would eventually find it. 

Meandering down calle Neptuno through neighborhood stores selling everyday basics, as well as groceries, EC eventually made a left as he knew that would eventually lead him to the Malecón. 

Though it sounds wonderfully nice to walk along the seaside esplanade, the idea was presented at the wrong time. From where EC stood, it was nearly an hour's walk under the unforgiving Caribbean sun. And that, friends, explains why EC is tanner than he has ever been before. 

To the right, across the four lane road, were rows of buildings in various states. Some had certainly seen better days, perhaps weathered out by the constant assault of sea, wind, and sun. Others were in better shape, looking just as well as those further into the city. 

To the left, the sea wall separated the esplanade from the blue ocean. Just a couple feet from the sea wall appeared to be the concrete base of what may had used to be a pedestrian bridge or some sort of structure. The concrete remains formed self enclosed pools of water that basically served as personal seaside swimming pools. 

Once at Habana Vieja, EC started doing what he did best. Walking around until he stumbled onto something that looked like every tourist should see. Lining the many narrow streets of Habana Vieja were dozens upon dozens of two-story buildings of Spanish colonial architecture. 

The majority of the streets, it seemed, were in the process of renovation. However, pedestrians were still permitted to walk through the construction work. In random order, EC managed to stumble upon the Capitol, which looked similar to that of his neighbor to the south; Cine Payret playing the enticing "Magic Mike"; Plaza Vieja; Plaza de Armas with used books upon used books on Che, Fidel, and the revolution; Gran Teatro de la Habana; Plaza Centrale; and many more. 

While Habana Vieja's history and architectural beauty is worth a couple day's walk, it is as touristy as it goes. The quality (as measured in price) of food and service goes up significantly relative to Habana Centro. The prices in the restaurants and bars in Habana Vieja are higher than what most Cubans can afford. So, if one wants to hang out with other tourists, then that's the place to be.

Habana Centro, on the other hand, appeared to consist more of mom and pops frequented only by the locals. In fact, in walking along Neptuno twice, EC didn't recall seeing any other tourist except for himself. The same held true when he later went to dinner at a cafeteria a couple blocks from Tati's casa. The room, with its orange walls and Christmas lights flashing above the counter, was half full. The menu, pinned to the wall, listed off variations of hamburgers and pasta (apparently a favorite here). The woman behind the counter had a look of annoyance, at least until EC flashed her his Canadian smile. For about 2.5 CUCs, he got a can of coke and a 6"pizza pie with ham. 

When EC returned to Tati's, the electricity had still not yet come back on after having gone out earlier in the day. With no fan or AC for relief, EC sat out on the balcony with Tati and Izza. Tati explained that everyone in the neighborhood was like family to each other. Everyone knew and trusted each other, a dynamic that's often missing in even the small cities of other countries. 

Then, one by one, each darken window across the street lit up. Hallelujah. 

After a short respite in his air conditioned room, EC headed out in search of Gato Tuerto, the one eyed cat. The sun had already set, and with no streetlights, the sidewalks were pitch black except for the occasional headlights of passing cars. In areas with fewer cars, EC used the lights of nearby establishments to guide his steps.

Located next to the Malecón and within a 30 seconds' walk from the Hotel Nacional, Gato Tuerto is a tiny bar featuring live Cuban music. After a 5 CUC cover, patrons are greeted by a stage to the front left, behind which is a wall of mirrors. Lining the left side of the wall was the bar, the primary source of light for the entire place. Best yet, the AC was on hyper mode. 

The first artist was a man in his mid fifties singing, occasionally while playing the guitar, songs that appeared to be well known since others were singing along. After him was a younger gentleman, probably in his mid to late twenties. With backup percussions and dyed hair, he sang to liven up the crowd. The combination of his energy and the faster beats of his songs brought out the same energy from the growing crowd.


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