vendredi 30 septembre 2016


Gordon and Gaye, two friends from Melbourne wanted to add La Habana to their itinerary of a tour to South America. We had been friends for a long time, having shared memorable moments together while we were junior doctors in Melbourne.
I made all the arrangements for them in La Habana. I was working on a Medial Project in Rural USA, thought about making a quick trip to Havana to surprise them and be their personal tour guide. I know Havana very well but have never been a tour guide to anyone visiting Havana. I have been a tour guide to friends who were visiting Siem Reap, Cambodia; Cochin, Kerala; Kuala Lumpur and Malacca, Malaysia and Miami, Florida.

 When I show people around, it is concentrated on PEOPLE, CULTURE and FOOD. They had arrived from Melbourne after a long flight with a stop in Auckland and a short stopover in Santiago de Chile. It is a very long way to Melbourne from Havana, Cuba..
 COPA airlines based in Panama started the journey off well with a nice pasta and chicken dish on their flight from Panama to Havana.
 G and g did not know that I would be in Havana.  I had timed to arrive within 30 minutes of each other and Yodel, the taxi owner/driver of a 1958 Chevrolet Belair with his polished car would be their first introduction to Cuba
 They were both as i had remembered them, easy going, jovial and curious and open minded. It makes the my task easy of explaining a country as complex as Cuba
 Coincidentally another australian couple had decided to do a side trip to Cuba from the original plan to visit South America and they joined us. They did not know us before but as easy going aussies, we all fitted in well with each other and enjoyed our companies from the first moment on. I had organized a two bed room apartment for them, called Casa Particular, which are officially licensed private homes for visitors to stay, much like Air BnB. The apartment had recently been renovated, had two air conditioned rooms, two bathrooms with strong hot shower heads. I also took this convenience to have a shower or two at their place. Our first stop was La Flauta Magica, a penthouse bar and restaurant which faces the Malecon, the seaside boulevard as well as the USA Embassy. It is a fine place to introduce visitors to the skyline of Havana and its suburbs.
 We had a lot to catch up on, we were incessantly chatty that set the tone for the next few days when we were constantly talking to each other covering everything and anything to our hearts desire.
Soon they were hungry, they had been traveling all day from Santiago to havana with a stop in Lima, and I had chosen La Casona, an old favourite of mine, housed in a colonial house, known for its specialty of Arroz con Pollo Chicken and Rice.
 I chose Chillindrones de Cordero  Lamb with Mashed Malanga.
 Our days were long, from morning to midnight, as we wanted to pack in as much experiences for them as possible as well as catch upon what is happening in Melbourne and Australia and to reminisce pleasantly those gorgeous days of innocence and ebullience.
 Havana is Hot.. temperature wise as well and we stopped off at La Balliza a cafe open until midnight where a friend of mine, Jennifer an aspiring actress works. Limonada Frappe was cold and welcoming was a welcome relief at this open air cafe. The night air was still warm.
 Cuba is about people and all interactions border on the philosophical. While looking for a old model taxi that would accomodate all five of us, I wanted to bargain down the price from the offered 8 dollars. Why is that, the man pondered, the tourists want the prices down and never say, the price is 8 dollars, but I will pay you 10 dollars? Dollars here refers to the Cuban tourist currency, affectionately called CUC by foreigners and derogatorily called Chavitos.
 Our taxi driver was called The chinaman, while he had no resemblance to the native of Cathay. Cubans are very fond of diminutives, one of the first similarities with Aussies I was to discover, and most have one. I am called the Sultan for my eastern origins  and the propensity for a harem? I dont know.
 El Chino dropped us in front of the Capitolio, an edifice built by the Dictator Machado to resemble its cousin in Washington DC. as is common in cuba, we exchanged telephone numbers, in case we need each other in the future. (this sense of solidarity is one of the great gifts of the Cuban Revolution). Walked past the Teatro Gallego now named Alicia Alonso Theatre after the great Cuban Ballerina, past the Asturian building as well various old and new hotels and historic building onto Obispo street, thronging with visitors, with vendors trying to get your attention.
The surrealism of Cuba would be evident once you have any interaction with the merchants of Old Havana. We wanted to dine at Dona Eutimia, a well known purveyor of Cuban cuisine. Two mulatto men approached us and said he could organize a table for us in front of Dona Eutimia, before I realized the scam. They were from a nearby restaurant and we would be thinking we were eating at Dona Eutimia while sitting at the callejon alleway without traffic. I walked away as soon as I found out the restaurant Dona Eutimia is closed for reparation, the same was to be repeated at the cafe Bianchini where I wanted to take them for coffee and cakes.
I showed the colonial building that now houses Hostal Valencia and they wanted to have lunch there. After an interminable wait we were politely told that neither the chef nor the waiter had turned up for work, so we were forced to eat a government eatery , which is attached to the delightful Old Stock Exchange building. As it happens in government run restaurants in Cuba, the service was inefficient, food lacking and the shrimp served on toast might have lived in another century. It is wise to avoid Government run eating places, not for the fear of your money ending up in coffers of the government but for the simple reason that they are inefficient, food mediocre and the service very sketchy.
 More sightseeing, we would clock in around 18 km by foot that day! the old acqeduct, Plaza de armas, Catedral and ended up in the Plaza Vieja now beautifully restored to its former glory by Eusebio Leal, the indefatiguable Historian of the City.
 A fine cafe at the Plaza Vieja. One other reason not to patronize the government run establishments is that the employees steal, in our case, one look at us and it is obvious we are foreigners and the bill is not produced and the la cuenta or the cheque goes directly into the pocket of the servers. It happened at this coffee shop as did when I bought a bottle of rum at the shop at Havana Libre. It is estimated that government employees working in the tourist sector steal about 60 per cent of the income. The punishment is severe but tourists are not aware nor do they wish to disturb the status quo of the culture of stealing by the government workers. This does not happen in privately run businesses for obvious reasons
 Music is every where, you are welcome to join in. Gordon borrowed the guitar and belted out a number all of us joined in. Cubans truly have the sense of living in them and they are very present tense oriented people who would not give up an opportunity to enjoy themselves. The concept of saving for a rainy day whether it is a peso or a stolen chavito or a drink or a smoke is alien to them. Gordon singing in English, cubans clapping and some of us swaying and all of us  a sudden, a character with slicked hair and with sixties look took the guitar and sang the same song in Spanish! more clapping and stomping followed..Sponteinity is the nature of the game here ..

 We walked some more, this time through streets seldom trekked by the tourists, to expose them to the reality of the housing situation in old havana, on to the splendid architecture of Hotel sevilla and Bacardi building and the old Palace of the President now the Museum of the Revolution. The museum of the Bellas Artes houses the largest collection of cuban masters and sits facing the old palace and the remnants of the old fort of havana while enjoying the breeze from the sea. An obligatory stop to pay homage to GRANMA the ricketty boat that brought Fidel, Raul, Che and Camillo and other 140 odd revolutionaries to Cuba in 1956 and also the missile to remind us of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, JFK diplomacy and the crisis. A poignant moment indeed. 
I suggested that we give our feet a rest and that we enjoy the Hotel nacional and a Mojito there. 
Once again, two taxi drivers, one a cunning huge black man who tried to swindle the australian visitors of the change to a 20 chavito note and the other a humble self proclaimed guajiro peasant. Speaking Spanish is so essential to a visit to Cuba, otherwise you would get only a very superficial glimpse of cuba, it would be like readinng one page of a large book.
 Hotel Nacional reeks of nostalgia. Built or owned by Jewish mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Izzy Rosenblatt, aided and abetted by their cronies in the underworld and its entertainment arm, it was the place to be seen and sing and dance for americans of all classes before the revolution. A visit to the gallery of personalities is a must. While post revolution photos are mainly of political or literary or arts personalities, pre revolution photos show Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn and other people with italian sounding names like Trafficante, Marciano.. It is kempt well and it is pricey but a drink at the patio for old times sake.

 The apartment they stayed were across from the home off my good friends Pinillos and the young girl, Danielita suggested that we try Motivos y Razones, a paladar, a privately owned restaurant for dinner at Avenida F y 5ta in Vedado, our suburb
 It was not a disappointment, we could have white wine there with our dinner which is a  recent improvement for the ever present Mojito, Daiquiri, Cuba Libre and Pina Colada.

 I had grilled shrimps which tasted fresh and malanga chips and rice, with a nice glass of wine (it was a good pour) from Chile. We were talking non stop which we continued on our walk back to the apartment. In Cuba you tend to walk more, it is an inviting climate to walk in the evening and certainly it is the safest place to do so in the Americas.
Elsa, a spanish friend of mine, recalled her trip to Havana in 2006 and said: Yes Cuba is a very safe place but as a single woman I had to be very careful of the words of the Cuban Men!
It is so true... the seductive latin male is personified nowhere stronger than in Cuba.. but physically you will not be harmed walking around Havana at night.
 at the appointed hour on the next morning, unusual for a cuban, the driver Yodel appears in his 1958 Belair for the 250 km sightseeing trip in to the countryside and a dip in the crystal clear sea at Varadero. We were to experience very many surrealistic cuban moments during the day.
Starting off with a diversion where no sign was posted at the beautiful bridge spanning the provinces of Mayabeque and Matanzas. I will recall them one by one inn context
 Earlier in the year, I had mett a young promising artist from Matanzas and he offered to meet us and show our australian friends his historic city. He met us at the Cafe La Vigia, a state owned enterprise in very sad shape. Servers were gathered together in deep conversation while we the clients were left to swelter under the fans from the time of Batista (the dictator overthrown by Fidel)
 in the art gallery next door, a local artist was exhibiting rather bold social commentary in this painting. I wanted to show you two very strong comments about the two giants of the Cuban revolution, Che and Camillo. The above shows the bar code with Che's well known face imposed . Che has become a commercial face of an industry spawning all over the world, not just in cuba. 
 while we can laugh off Che's commercialization as a dream come true in the minds of capitalists elsewhere the above portrait of Camillo a beloved of cuban revolutionaries a far more audacious a painting: a social commentary beyond words.. 
what happened to camillo and his dreams? it seems to be asking.
Camillo died in a plane crash soon after the revolution. Camillando is a world play on Caminando  meaning walking going.. Bold I thought.
 Kudos to the painter, Adrian Socorro, who called his exposition The Jungle of Azucar....once again a world play.. an indirect pointing of fingers at Cuban functionaries as Cuba is affectionately called Sugar by some..
Matanzas is called a city of bridges and one could see many bridges spanning the river that flows into the beautiul bay. Our artist friend Yoandrys Caceres Rivero took us around pointing out the theatres and the beauty of the buildings. We entered the hotel Velasco where nostalgia hung like a wound in your heart. The building dates to 1902 and recently renovated as a boutique hotel.

after wandering around a little bit, we were ready to go to Varadero, the most famous beach in Cuba and also easily accessible.

The grand prize for Cuban surrealism took place in Varadero. Yodel the driver stops at the check point to ask the Police officer a question, who turns on him and calls him to check his papers. Yodel boldly tells him that his passenger is a professor from University of Havana taking some colleagues to show some research he is doing. The police officer becomes friendly and then breaks the news. You are a Cuban, and your passengers are Foreigners, so there is a special law in Varadero, that while you can take them into the Varadero area, you are not able to bring them back from Varadero.For that you must use a locally registered taxi which would cost you 10 cuc for the last 2 km, you can drive them up to that point. We couldnt help bursting out in laughter but we chalked it up to the cuban surrealism that I am so used to.  we resigned ourselves to the turquoise waters and some mojitos on the beach. The Cubans are marvellous people, they charm you while they are taking money away from you, so well that you dont mind loosing the money. The bartender did not have change, how could that be? when I ordered (shout is the australian slang for it) a round of drinks, but he offered to give twice the value for money for the remaining dollars. I know this being a governmental bar, his bank accounts must be swelling much like his belly, and the 20 cuc note was not going to see any cuban government coffers but put to good use, perhaps to repair his house? The cuban economy functions in a way that it took me one year and book by Pierre Bourdieu to understand it. One dollar is worth more than one dollar and it makes its rounds buying in exchange for services before the government gets hold of it.

We were in a Catch-22 situation, we have to take a Varadero taxi, but none were available. Our driver to the right, called his local contacts but all he could come up with was a horse drawn carriage tht could take all of us. Since you were going to pay 10 cuc to the taxi, you may as well pay me that, said the coach driver with glee. I enjoyed riding on the footmans stand, through the streets of Varadero for the required distance.
It had been a long day and it was a welcoming sight to see the Pinillos family waiting for us and soon enough, rum, cola and glasses appeared for a few drinks. David the owner of the cafe appeared and we had a pleasant chat. The night was getting tardier and a snack at the cafe open until midnight seemed a good option.

The next morning the Pinillos family who lived across the alleyway surprised us again, with a full cuban breakfast and it was so wonderful to see how happy they were to be of help to us.
After the hectic day and a near 300 km drive on a 1958 Chevrolet Belair through the Cuban countryside, our aussie friends, just getting over their jetlag crossing the southern hemisphere, wanted a morning of rest and opted to go to the pool at Hotel Nacional.
Another lesson in Cuban Surrealism was lying in wait for us. The pool attendant, Nadia, couldnt be friendly enough, but gently informed us that it would cost us 5 cuc each to use the pool, but there is a catch. you have to consume a minimum of 15 cuc each. all of us were taken aback but the aussie travellers resigned themselves to the delights of cuban magical realism. After all it was a Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier who invented Magical Realism and our good friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez from Colombia boosted it with his novel, Hundred Years of Solitude
I have travelled to nearly all the spanish speaking countries of this hemisphere (Paraguay would be the last one) but I can tell you with somewhat of a great pride that nowhere in this hemisphere magical realism is practised to such a fine, eloquent level as in Cuba. 

Now that the neurotic relationship with USA is achieving some sanity on both sides, a visit to the Marina Hemingway can foretell the future of many yachts from Miami, owned by Cuban "refugees" docking at these facilities. We drove through the leafy streets of Miramar, Siboney and other exclusive suburbs (they were for the very rich before the revolution, but Miramar elegancy now houses Embassies)
I wanted to surprise my friends by taking them to a part of Havana which would never see any tourists, to the house where a good friend of mine lived with her Russian trained husband. Their daughter was celebrating her 22nd birthday on this 22nd day of the month. I called her on her cellular phone, she asked me where are you? I told her, just go to the balcony and look south.. she was indeed surprised and felt glad to practise her English with the Australians and my friends were equally impressed with the speech and thoughts of this young cuban girl. At no time did she criticized the system which has given her so much but expressed a desire, like most educated Cubans, for chance to visit other countries and also have an opportunity at variety and comfort that is easily available to professionals in other countries. I am certain she will succeed, this intelligent daughter of Cuba.

Casualidad es no tan casual, we chime in Cuba, reciting the famous stanza by the Brazilian poet Thiago de Mello. Before I left Cuba, just three weeks before returning to welcome my australian friends, I had kept some cuc with some friends.  I never thought that would come in so handy, so quickly.
Like most travellers spending a period of time travelling in various countries, my australian friends left the country with a small amount of USD and Australian Dollar and with a debit card that can be used anywhere to withdraw the local currency.
But they had not known the Cuban System of Surrelistic thinking, unmatched in the world.
They tried CADECA the official currency exchange where there is always a line, curiously enough full of Cubans changing foreign currency into Cuban Pesos. No, they said, we do not have any relationship with Austraian commercial system so we cannot advance money on your cards. ATM might be an answer they suggested with a knowing smile, a few more ATM visits and each time rejected, my friends took the local advise and presented themselves at the foreign currency desk of the biggest bank in La Habana. After multiple attempts, the bank teller had no explanation except to suggest that they could try to use it at restaurants (hey? what is he talking about?) or shops (and thus deprive the workers a chance to steal?). 
As the sun was setting, we decided to drown our sorrow in some well prepared Pina Colada, Caipirinhas and Mojitos.. the server attending us was a student at the University studying Social Communications, a lovely girl called Lisandra. She must have seen the pain in the faces of our australian friends and she came over to me and said in Spanis, an excellent example of solidarity: I overheard you discussing the difficulties in obtaining exchange , I talked to the manager and he has consented to offer a discount for all the food and drinks for your group.
We celebrated it with a glass of wine each and a delicious Paella.
The lovely Lisandra is on my left. I am sure I will see her again at La Flauta Magica
This is the 22 year old who celebrated her birthday on the 22nd and we had a chance to share an improvised mojito her russian trained father made for us, at the balcony of her house.

Seafood Paella, tasty and satisfactoy and came with a discount! to help out the australians

I am well known for bargaining but I spare no change when it comes to travel. My australian friends offered hospitality, food and drinks in Melbourne, Australia and I immediately made a committment to travel there to enjoy it. All is well that ends well and my friends had enough money for the rest of their trip to the enchanting island, the one I call Isla Rica, my rich island which is a moveable feast.
It was their last day. apart from sightseeing and cultural introductions, we talked non stop. everything that has touched our lives in the past and now. Even the Cubans remarked how similar the aussies were to them, open, liberal minded, easy going, not averse to food and drink, and non stop chatters and boisterous in arguments. By this morning I knew that I would soon return to Australia to continue where we left off here. Talking about our times in australia, lost and forgotten loves and dreams, once again the innocence of growing up in australia made its appearance. I savoured many moments that had absconded into the crevices of the brain and its memory cells. I felt closer to my friends and felt very grateful for Australia for making me the person that I was to become many years later. 
I invited my friends for a simple lunch at La Roca a staple joint for me and the food was simple cuban fare but it gave us time to put finishing touches to our boisterous conversationns over the course of the past four days 

Yodel our friend and chauffeur arrives at the appointed hour by then four australians were ready for their south american journey, the 1958 Belair Chevrolet could hold them and their four travel size suitcases.

I felt a sense of loss but it would have been much worse if I were being left behind in any other country than Cuba!
their flight took off for Peru and a Cuban friend arrived to console me, over a nice glass of wine from Chile an some Shrimp stuffed fish at a nearby eatery. It as a great pleasure for me to talk to my cuban friends about the visit of my australian friends and how I became a full fledged tour guide.
The four days in La Habana were some of my best days in this city which is a never ending emotional and psychological feast for me. Thank you and Gracias and see you soon in Melbourne, to walk the very same streets that would bring back the fragrances of my adolescence.

My iPhone informed me that in the four days we had walked together in the fading elegance of La Habana, we had taken 65000 steps which is much more than the distance of a Marathon!
and we did have Marathon sessions of talk..
Soon after they left for the south, I began my journey to the North. As I sat in a cozy seat on a QR flight to DOHA, sipping something to tantalize my tonsils as they say, I felt an intense sense of nostalgia for my little island and the feast of a city, La Habana. I normally feel sad leaving Cuba for my international project assignments, but this time it was intensified and I knew that Gordon and Gaye had contributed to it.