For the tourist, Havana is not a city to stay connected in. Havana is for getting lost in the narrow, colonial backstreets, drinking rum and not worrying about the outside world. This is because, when you first arrive, getting online is incredibly difficult. That means it’s best not to. Do no research and don’t look at TripAdvisor. Havana is a city of discovery.
Our trip starts with a wait at the airport. Anička and I only travelled with hand luggage, but our new companion, Majky, checked hers into the hold. The staff tell us nothing about the delay. The men are dressed in khaki suits or jeans and a t-shirt; the women in short skirts of the same colour and black lace tights. Once Majky’s suitcase appears we catch a taxi to our casa – there’s no other transport. It’s too late to go into centre of Havana and we find a cheap restaurant for dinner. Salsa and rumba plays from the open windows of the houses we walk past.
After a long sleep we wake up early and, over our omelettes, ask for directions to the city centre. Our host advises us to take a taxi, at the very least a coco-taxi, and finally tells us the way via a money changer. We walk for an hour and only cover the first kilometre – there are too many spots that might look good on Instagram. Each of the pink and blue and yellow colonial and art deco houses must be snapped. A pair of pink Cadillac convertibles waits for a family of tourists to lift money from one of the few machines. A black Buick rumbles past; a white one sits by a block of flats with two elderly men smoking from a window on the ground floor.
We hit the main road and speed up like the traffic. There’s less to see until the spire of a church in the distance brings us to a halt. We aim for it, but as we cross the road we spot the sea in the distance; the Gulf of Mexico. A swift course correction takes us past a huge hospital flying a Cuban flag. Cuba used to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world, even if the statistics may not have been trustworthy. The hospital has perhaps seen better days; Cuba has struggled to purchase medicine since the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty-five years ago. An American embargo, in breach of international law, makes it almost impossible for them to do so.
The hospital faces the Gulf. A group of boys play football around a fountain in its shadow. We have arrived on the Malecón – a long esplanade along the sea front. Many of the grand, four and five-storey Spanish houses lie in ruins; squatted in by Habaneros. Another is a huge Soviet-themed restaurant for tourists.
Waves crash against the seawall. They cover the growling, ageing cars in salt water. How they run is a feat of preservation. Soaked fisherman cast their lines. Their rods flick back over the footpath and dip towards the water as they reel their empty line in. We stand and watch.
At the end of the Malecón, we can see the lighthouse on Castle Morro across the bay. The entrance to the silent harbour blocks our path. It’s official name is the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, or the Castle of the Three Magi on the Rock. The complex includes La Cabaña, which was captured by Fidel Castro in 1959 without resistance. He turned it into a military prison, under the command of Che Guevara. La Cabaña was the home of the war crimes trials, based on those in Nuremburg and presided over by Che. For this, Che earned himself the nickname the Butcher of La Cabaña among the Cuban reactionaries who had fled to Miami.
We turn towards old Havana and stop for lunch in a tourist restaurant in one of the narrow streets. We have little choice but it is better than we were expecting, if a bit more expensive than we were planning. Now we are in tourist town. Those who have arrived by cruise ship cram the streets. We pass El Floridita, one of the bars Ernest Hemingway frequented, near El Capitolio, which looks confusingly like the Capitol in Washington.
Obispo is a street full of little shops selling books, propaganda posters and garish art to the tourists. Luxury hotels built before the revolution have stayed the same: expensive. We pass various museums of the revolution run by different committees. Old pharmacies look as if they have been fixed in wax; large jars sit on grand shelves behind the counters. They sell nothing but herbal remedies from under the till. At the end of the street we find a book market and Plaza de Armas, flanked by a palace and another Spanish castle protecting the harbour.
A right turn in the gridiron system takes us towards Plaza de San Francisco. This ancient square was named after the convent on its edge and built to serve the ships docking in the harbour. It is also full of tourists sipping mojitos and daiquiris in the shade of the colonial buildings. We pass through into the inner city, just one street away from the tourists.
Children and teenagers play dominoes on the streets, butchers carve meat in the shade of tumbledown buildings and barbers cut hair behind bars. The preservation that has taken place in the streets of the old city has not happened here. The streets are cut up; somebody has attempted to fit amenities and never finished the job. Remember, this is a country that has not been allowed to trade for twenty-five years.
People wear the clothes of the poor from all over the world – sports clothes. Perhaps they are fake Nike and adidas, Puma and Reebok; perhaps they are unsold stock shifted around the world until they found a buyer at bargain basement prices. Old men sit and smoke on thresholds in more traditional garb. Music pumps out of the glassless windows of every house. Hip-hop, trap and dancehall, salsa, rumba and mambo. The streets are alive.
While there is poverty, it is nowhere near as bad as that we have seen in Egypt or Sri Lanka. There are no shanty towns to be seen or people living in filth. The streets are clean, mostly, and children play on frames in fenced playgrounds. It feels safe. These cannot be nice conditions in which to live, but it seems as if the strife has been alleviated.
The sun begins to set. We have plans to catch a bus from Havana to Viñales tomorrow and need to find the bus station to buy our tickets. We wander back towards El Capitolio – surely the station must be in this area. It’s not. We take a seat in a small park and watch two boys play basketball; each try to shoot a three-pointer every time. A crowd of muscly boys plays winner-stays-on football. We notice people are on mobile phones. There is internet here.
The search for the telecom shop begins. We ask at every corner and end up in a telecom museum. Back into the gridiron we find the office five minutes away. They tell us to return to the museum. There, we tell the security guard we would like to buy a sim card and he takes us into another office. The woman serving us has no English and her colleague leans over to help. There are no sim cards with internet and we must buy a card that allows us to login in to public portals.
Back in the square we learn that the bus station is nowhere near where we are and it’s not possible to book our tickets online the night before. We shall have to arrive in the afternoon and hope we get lucky.