I've always had sort of a mental block about Cuba as a travel destination. It always looked nice, but i was never drawn to it. Then when i was quite young i became a cigar fanatic, worked in the business, smoked and smoke cigars nearly everyday, so Cuban became more interesting for that reason. But the problem then was since then everyone i know goes to Cuba regularly. I hear about it, i see pictures and it loses all sense of wonder and mystery. Time spent living in Miami did nothing help this. So for years i didn't go. Finally, with the US embassy opening and the likelihood that all manner of capitalist horrors will soon follow (chipotle, walmart, real housewives havana), it seemed like a now or never situation.
The weird thing is that while i am here alone, the trip was coordinated with two friends from Canada - Stripes and Noodles (to preserve their anonymity) - so we could all attend the annual Partagas cigar festival, which encompasses a couple of events, dinners, and specially rolled cigars for the occasion. I never travel with people except my mother, so i had some serious trepidation about this idea, but we are flying snd staying separately so i should still have enough alone time. It shall be a new experience.
I arrived in Varadero on a sunny sunday afternoon. The flights to Havana were crazy expensive, but not Varadero, which caters to the all inclusive crowd. I have to say rarely have i seen such an unattractive group of people as i did on that flight. Fat, sloppy, slack-jawed hicks traveling with Molson Canadian t-shirts and boxes of Tim Hortons Timbits. The couple next to me were so large that the use of arms rests were an impossibility.
Anyway, on arrival i opted for the more expensive one hour taxi ride to Havana over the inexpensive three hour bus trip. I was happy with my choice. We sped past the lush countryside, empty beaches, and industrial complexes, past the odd cow, policeman, or boy selling fresh cheese and guavas by the roadside.
Arrival in Havana was pleasant. It really does look like all of the pictures: beautiful 2-3 storey buildings in poor repair but wearing colorful paint jobs. Bicycle rickshaw taxis. Fortresses by the sea. Sidewalk cafes with live music. Endless shops selling colorful knick knacks and anything and everything with Che Guevara. It is all very visually appealing. The downside for me is, it all looks familiar. Mostly it reminds me of Cartagena, which is fine in that i liked Cartagena, but so far i haven't gotten that rush of excitement on seeing something new, but it really is lovely. The two things that do seem special and unique are the 50s American cars, which really are ubiquitous and not just for tourists; they actually use them and they are beautiful. Also the amount of buskers is notable. There are on every corner almost small bands playing Cuban music and jazz and they are great.
It is worth pointing out at this point that all of these observations have been made by me while walking in Havana Vieja (the old city). This is the postcard perfect area which is the city's oldest and filled with churches, squares, and wonderful streets lined with appealing bars and cafes. This is the area in which i am staying, just off the Plaza Vieja, at a casa particulares called Marta y Israel. A casa particulares is basically someone's house in which they rent out a room or two and provide breakfast. By far the cheapest option for accommodations. I really like this place: easy to find with a great location, a nice interior, a rooftop patio, clean, hospitable and it has AC and hot water. What more could i want?
The seating was outside on a narrow cobbled lane. White table cloths, candles, a band playing soft Spanish music, and a vegetarian meal on the menu. I stayed and had cigar and ate my dish of bland but delicious (extreme hunger leads to lower expectations) rice and vegetables and the softest, tiniest, whitest dinner rolls. After eating the rice and one of the rolls, i was stuffed but i didn't want to let them go to waste, so i began surreptitiously slipping the rolls one by one into my bag. My attempt at remaining invisible was cut short when the band - a group of six musicians, whom i had fatally tipped 5 Cuban pesos earlier because i hadn't a smaller note, encircled me at my table and began to serenade me at close proximity with romantic songs. The main singer sat down next to me and, with his face no more than 12 inches from mine, made ceaseless, soulful eye contact while singing Bessame Mucho. The whole restaurant looked on at my visible discomfort and the dinner rolls poorly concealed in my fists. Three songs this went on for. I smiled and tried to find a place to look other than the eyes of the singer, but that just made it more awkward. At least the music was nice though at that moment i longed for the comfortable anonymity of recorded music. I had a laugh when it was over and again when i ate the successfully pilfered dinner rolls for breakfast the next morning.
The walk back to my casa was pleasant, past throngs of people congregating in the streets for drink and dance and get lost in the warm, dark air.