… said Fidel to Deedee as they were sipping on a Mojito and listening to the band playing in the background. She looked at him and smiled wryly, “Seriously, Fidel?”
Deedee’s still trying to find the vocabulary fit to describe her latest adventure in the land of salsa, rum, cigars, colonial architecture, lush nature, and total oppression.
After a short roller-coaster of a plane ride on Cubana Airlines (the cabin screws loose and shaking, condensation forming on the aisle ceiling, and dew dripping from the overhead seat fan) Deedee arrived in Havana Airport, a dark sullen place. Passport control asking his “strategic” questions, “Líbanesa?”… “Si”; “Tourista?”… “Si”.
Deedee got in the taxi heading to Habana Centro, where she had (against her will) pre-booked a hotel online: Hotel Bellevue. Well, bellevue was right, but that’s about where belle stops. Not Deedee’s kind of place… but then again, she wasn’t planning on spending her time in the hotel, so yalla, ça va.
Checked in, dropped off her bags, and went for a walk on the Malecón (yaani el Corniche taba’ Havana). She stopped at Prado No. 12 for her first Mojito and live Cuban band session. She sat at the bar to watch the bartender making her Mojito. In the end, he tops it with a dash of Angostura… hmmm, an original touch that gives it the perfect bitter kick. It was actually the only time during her trip that anyone made a Mojito that way. Gracias por el “tip”, amigo.
She spent the next two days discovering the capital. Havana Vieja is á la Solidere, yaani Legoland style. Some of the buildings have been renovated by the government and the area caters mainly to package tourists… Deedee hates package tourism… in fact, she has come to the conclusion that tourism in general just spoils travel for people like her. It spoils the natives as well. Suddenly any foreigner becomes a walking Dollar sign… dommage.
Centro Havana is poor, worn out, and feels deserted. There is a sense of melancholy in the air, a defeated expression in the red eyes of the drunken old men hanging out on the street. The shop windows haven’t been cleaned or re-dressed since 1960-something, but then again, there’s hardly anything in the shops to display in that window, so why bother. Why not kill time playing a game of dominos.
Vedado is a whole other world. That’s where the big hotels, theaters, casinos and extravagant life of the 1950’s took place. It’s like going to a whole other city. Wider, cleaner, well groomed avenues, grander colonial residences, and more modern architecture. Coco Taxis (three wheeled vehicles) lined up on the side of the street waiting for passengers. A slightly more vibrant neighborhood, yet still mulling in that melancholy.
Deedee had one special dining experience in Havana during those three days. She actually had to reserve a “table for una” at the Paladar La Guarida as it turned out to be a hot spot for foodies (“thanks” to travel guides and the Oscar nominated Cuban film “Fresa y Chocolate” which was filmed there). Located in an old colonial mansion in Centro Havana, the entrance is manned by a huge black bouncer. You walk into a hidden oasis filled with sounds of playing children, crying babies, and chatting mothers, then climb up the spiral staircase to reach a deserted floor adorned with the family laundry. One more flight of stairs and you reach a door, ring the bell and they let you into their home turned restaurant. Paladars are privately owned family restaurants that are usually located in the family living-room-turned-dining-area. The decor was decadent and warm, the food is “not bad for Cuba” considering ingredients are not easy to come by. At the end of the meal, Deedee had a glass of Havana Club Añejo 7 Años and a bottle of sparkling water. This became the digestif of the trip.
More later… hasta luego!