In The Navy
I think the unsettling fear that there would simply be no way to access our fund-filled bank accounts and end up pennyless and flying home early was what woke us up at 930am this morning (because that was by far the earliest we’d woken up the entire trip and after dragging our tired selves home only four hours earlier no less).
We got dressed with our eyes closed, packed our bags with ID’s, credit cards and debit cards and hailed a taxi in the hot morning sun to the centre of Havana tourism – the Parque Central. After only two hotel stops I was jumping up and down and squealing (as the hotel guard looked at me confused and maybe even a little judgemental) while the teller counted out the pesos in front of me. We had determined the only way to access money in Havana was to use Visa or Mastercard (and even with Mastercard you had to be at a money exchange with your passport in hand and wait for a thousand dates, numbers and signatures to be scribbled before you could get your cash.
Here I thought after easily using my debit card in countries including Morocco and Peru, surely that would be just as possible here. But the bright-eyed teller informed me that the Maestro and Cirrus services were US-based and the US refused to accept transactions from Cuba. Good information to have before embarking on a trip here. Note to self: Do a little research. At least the basics.
After catching the crowded local bus homoe to save on the taxi fares that were always double the price leaving Centro Habana (home of the elegant tourist hotels), we crashed onto our bed, sleeping upside down (an arrangement we had devised to combat the uncomfortable dips and bumps in the little bed we shared – it was just a little more comfortable the other way around) until mid afternoon came and the sound of a casa wall being taken down finally beat out our seemingly limitless exhaustion.
Oh don’t you love when you turn up to your accommodation to find it littered with local construction workers working away, drilling away, hammering away (hammering is by far the worst) – and oh so happy to greet you in the morning when you walk from your bathroom to your room barefoot and wrapped in a towel with a smile, a quick look up and down and back up again and a friendly “hola”. Yup, that’s right. Our casa was under extensive renovation. Something they failed to mention in the hostelbookers.com write up. The reason I haven’t mentioned this detail up until now is it took about until today for our patience to start running out. The only reason sleeping outside the hours of 9am and 7pm was possible was because we drove ourselves to such high levels of exhaustion each day, we nearly collapsed. But alas, the couple was sweet and the price was right – a mere 8 CUC/night, so we smiled through it and stayed.
Regardless, we were excited to get up and out today. Today we had decided (fresh bills in hand) to head back to Habana Vieja. That old historical area that had stolen our hearts.
Tempted by the idea of saving our newly acquired cash and the true Do-It-Yourself format, we opted against the organized guided tour and carefully tore the pages from our Lonely Planet printed with the Habana Vieja Walking Tour. (Okay, I guess we did use LP so it wasn’t completely DIY. But closer than a guide. This way, although we had a suggested path, we were still in control of our own destiny. Haha.)
I am a huge fan of the city walking tours ever since I managed a fun-filled afternoon in dirty, smoggy Santiago, Chile thanks to the comical LP writers. It’s usually a nice mix of history, museums (which sometimes I skip, not gonna lie), quirky hole-in-the-wall food stops, terrific look-out points and the best local coffee shops. In Santiago it came complete with surprising twist at the end (I won’t tell you what it was – you’ll just have to go to Santiago with your very own LP and find out for yourself – although I really don’t recommend going to Santiago if you’re going to Chile. Minus the amazing metro system, it’s lacking any charm.). Today, ours came with an even better surprise ending, although it wasn’t part of any LP writers itinerary exactly….
But here I’m getting ahead of myself.
We decided to start our walking tour in Parque Central and stroll through the thin streets of Centro Habana to the official starting point at Plaza de la Cathedral. Cars, bikes and people wrestled for space in the streets and the sun was hard to spot with three-story homes on either side. Music poured out of doorways and locals watched and whistled from balconies above. On a Tuesday, mid-afternoon, all these homes were filled with people just watching the world go by. While in Canada, on this very same Tuesday, everyone was speeding down highways and drowning in paperwork sitting in high rises – earning more and more money to buy more and more things.
Just before we reached the Plaza de la Cathedral, we came up on a crowd of tourists posing for pictures with a pen in their hands and a busy blue wall marked up with signatures and names outside the La Bodeguita Del Medio, which appeared to be some kind of local watering hole but was too busy to get even near let alone inside. I still need to figure out what the heck that place was….
Anyway, we figured it must be important, so we signed the wall. And we have pictures of us doing it.
The Plaza de la Cathedral was beautiful. A towering stone cathedral (hence, the name). Cobblestone (eeee my fave). Music. Cuban women dressed up in colorful layered skirts with fruit baskets balancing on their heads. Tables spilling out into the centre where people sat smoking and sipping drinks. We picked up slices of cold cheese pizza from a street vendor for 0.60CUC and cans of cervesa for 1CUC and continued on.
Which landed us then in the next Plaza on the list – the Plaza de Armas – lined with book cases of Cuban poetry and Che biographies and Hemmingway classics. Savannah picked up a soft cover collection of poems translated in both English and Spanish written by a local man during his time in prison.
Next up, and arguably the greatest treasure nestled in Habana Vieja – the Museo de Chocolat. Yup – the chocolate museum. Which from what I could tell was more like a chocolate cafe/factory. List in translation perhaps? As we wandered the streets, trying to read our map upside down probably, we stopped in our tracks as the distinct smell of chocolate rushed past our noses. We followed the scent around the corner and spotted a Cuban man pouring thick brown chocolate into tall glasses. In moments, we were inside at a table browsing the menu (the best menu in the world). We ordered two glasses of cold chocolate for 0.80CUC and a cup of hot chocolate spiced with pepper and nutmeg for 0.55CUC. DREAMY. Seriously. We sat and sipped and moaned and cooed and smiled. A chocolate-lovers fantasy.
As it was getting darker and we still had a few places we wanted to check out (and the aftermath of drinking 10CUC worth of cups of chocolate would probably not be pleasing to our waists), we did eventually move on. We turned the corner into the Plaza Vieja. And here it was. This was the plaza I had stood in six years earlier and fallen in love with Cuba. The moment when I had decided I would be coming back here someday. To Havana. To explore. To see more. I’d been wondering where this place was hiding in the city. Why I hadn’t run into it previously. But finally, I found it. In the corner of the plaza was the walking tours final stop – a tavern that brewed Cuba’s best local beer. We crossed the plaza and walked in through the archways and as I scanned the room and my head looked left, I grabbed for Savannah’s arm.
There sat a long table of exactly 23 British navy sailors dressed in white.
They spotted us at the very same moment and began to cheer and drum on the table causing our already flushed cheeks to burn with a mix of embarassment, flattery and adrenalin. I could literally feel the blood pumping through my heart and the veins in my arms.
I’m not even kidding. This really happened. Yes, I realize it sounds like a scene from a 1950s movie and with the classic cars rolling by us all day and the old historical buildings we both started to wonder if this was, in fact, a dream. But we sat. We blushed. We ordered a pint. We didn’t know what to do. Do we smile shyly and play it cool? Do we just run up and kiss each and every one of them? Haha. When does this ever happen in real life? What does a girl do with 23 half-cut, cute navy sailors in Cuba? Seriously?!
So we sat by ourselves at the bar at first and ordered a pint, probably really to catch our breath and take the edge off with a little beer. And within about an hour the navy sailors had all abandoned their table and were standing around in a crowd by the bar, with us, as we knocked our pint glasses and passed around Cuban cigars.
It turns out this is the first visit the British navy has made to Cuba since the 1959 Revolution. This was actually a rather historical event. And we were there for it! (Oh how I can’t wait to tell that story to my grand children when I’m 85 and wrinkled… and whip up the photos to prove it!) If you want to read up a little more, here’s a link with a bit more information.
http://cubapolidata.com/2010/11/16/royal-navy-in-cuba-for-counter-narcotics-talks/. We ended up strolling with our big band of sailors through the streets a little as cans of cervesa were passed around. We stumbled upon some local buskers and the boys somehow got them to play some Beatles classics – and we all stood around, dancing and singing the lyrics to Hey Jude at an unbelievable volume (23 half-cut men = noise). They showed us pictures of their babies back home. They’d been at sea since May and were only weeks away from heading for home. They were really nice men.
As 830pm hit, we couldn’t believe what we were doing, but we had to bid the boys goodbye as we had promised our friends from Holland we would meet them in the Plaza San Francisco and take them to our favorite tapas restaurant. The boys told us to come find them later if we wanted to – at the Hotel Habana Libre. We made a mental note – in pen with capital letters. Haha.
As promised, our friends walked into the Plaza right on time and we found a table for four after the staff greeted us with kisses and hugs as you would old friends. (I guess that’s what happens when you spent five hours in a restaurant. Haha.) Our band was there again and the Sangria started us off. The night was full of delicious tapas (I won’t list them all again… haha), great conversation and beautiful music. Perhaps the best part was when the lead guitarist (who had been absent the night previous and earlier this evening as well as his wife’s mother was ill) showed up unexpectedly. We heard some gentle guitar from behind the plants and the men rushed up to go help guide him over (he was blind). The four of them played together until the restaurant was nearly empty.
As the night came to an end, again, we found our musicians pulling up chairs to our table. Here the lead singer confessed his love for Savannah and asked her to marry him. He did clarify that since she was in Canada and he was here though, he would have to date other people from time to time and she could do the same. Haha. The conversation somehow settled around marriage and we ended up debating traditions and customs and love. You know, just some light chatting. Haha. Thank goodness the maraca player could translate.
As we bid our new Dutch friends goodbye, we jumped into a taxi knowing exactly where we were headed. As promised, the glass doors to Cafe Turquino opened and the now rather drunk navy men were dancing foolishly in the centre of the dance floor. Cheers and hugs and kisses when they spotted us walk up! Haha. Seriously – how did this happen???
We closed the night with a few salsa lessons and a few cervesa before they had to retire to their ship for a 1am curfew and we headed home, exhausted from all the excitement. I know some of you were expecting a grandious love affair or at least a memorable one night stand to come out of this story (and we weren’t really sure what was going to go down either, haha) but it was all rather innocent. The British navy men are really great guys who can belt out a tune and hold their liquor. But horrible dancers.