We step out of our casa particular in Vedado, a suburb of Havana, and immediately see what will become the familiar silhouette of Ernesto Che Gueverra. As expected, there are frequent reminders of Cuba's history wherever you turn--inspirational quotes from Cuba's national hero, José Martí, and dates of historical importance that most, if not all, Cubans know by heart: July 26, El Triunfo de la Revolución, the Triumph of the Revolution; October 10, the War of Independence; January 1, Liberation Day.
We arrived last night from a direct four-hour flight from Montréal. We showed our passports to the customs agent, answered a few questions, and made sure that only our tourists cards were stamped. Baggage claim was an agonizingly slow process. But once we exited the terminal we were welcomed by Joél and his father, Paolo.
For US$25 they drive us to Señora Aleida's house in Vedado, where we will be staying for the next three nights.
Tourism flourishes in Cuba despite the embargo imposed by the United States in the 1950s. Luxury hotels cater to well-heeled Canadians and Europeans willing to pay up to US$500 a night for a room. Our travel ethic has always been to get closer to the local people and their culture, so we opted to stay in casas particulares, private homes with rooms for rent, throughout our travels in the country. Señora Aleida and I have been communicating via e-mail for three months prior to our arrival, finalizing our itinerary and booking other casas to stay in once outside of Havana. I told her we wanted to go to a beach. She arranged for us to visit four.
Havana looks exactly how we've seen it in magazines and in photographs: it's a museum in itself. Old Cadillacs and Pontiacs cruise the roads. Pre-revolutionary mansions have a faded grandeur suggestive of more materially prosperous times. They are now badly in need of paint jobs and general upkeep. Almost everything is touched with a bit of disrepair. But some things, like the old model cars whose engines have been replaced, are ingeniously and almost lovingly maintained. The newer cars we see on the street are from Europe and Korea. There are no fast food chains except for one that's appropriately named El Rapido and Ditú, a chicken joint.
Cubans apparently do not hang out in coffee shops, but we see people waiting by their stoops, by their balconies, or by their windows. There are lines for pizza folded like tacos, lines to buy helado, or ice cream, lines to enter stores, and lines to either board a bus or catch a ride with a taxi particular. There is a lot of waiting in Cuba and we imagine, expectation as well.
Our first full day in Havana and Vicente, who lives downstairs, is waiting outside to drive us around for US$20. We've followed the advice of others who have come before us and have brought the basics with us, things like soap. Señora Aleida prepares our first breakfast consisting of one of the many tortas, omelettes, we'll eat over the next couple of weeks. There is bread, butter, fruit, and most notably the thick, black Cuban coffee that could probably fuel cars as well as fuel our mornings. She sits with us after we eat to finalize our itinerary. She provides us with detailed instructions on when and where to make our connections, all in Spanish.
I understand most of what I hear but not good enough to answer in complete grammatically-correct sentences. The boy is a better in Spanish and so becomes designated speaker for the rest of the trip.