We woke up our second day in Havana, eager to explore! After a nice breakfast at our casa particular (homestay), we set out. We were staying in Centro Habana neighborhood (we stayed in Habana Vieja on our return visit) and really enjoyed the local feel of the neighborhood. There were very few tourists in Centro Habana, so our initial walk through our neighborhood was very much about observing locals setting out for the day. We watched as people made deliveries… someone would drop a bag tied to a rope from their third story balcony, and someone on the ground would fill it with bread or other deliveries. We passed butchers preparing meat for the day, parents hustling to get their kids to school on time, and others walking to work. It was sensory overload, trying to take in all of the buildings and cars, but also getting a glimpse of how life goes on in Cuba. While it may seem very normal from the outset, I tried to catch small glimpses at differences that are often disguised in Cuba. A facade that is presented to tourists is usual very different from the realities of how people actually live. I wanted to observe and absorb everything in site. The government propaganda was hard to miss. The crumbling buildings, the old cars, the macho men, the loud demeanor, the livelyness of it all- it was love at first sight.
We wandered from Centro Habana thru El Barrio Chino and on to Habana Vieja. We got our bearings and navigated the city pretty easily. We visited a friend of a friend’s family in Habana Vieja and continued our walk from there. On Obispo, a very popular tourist street, we ducked into this huge cafeteria. We ate there the following day but it was a very cool space filled with people coming and going. This past week, while sitting at work with one of my Cuban clients, he mentioned that he worked at a large cafeteria on Obispo. When my friend and I pulled up the photos of this place, he was so surprised he almost fell out of his chair. This was the very cafeteria he used to work in, and he was laughing with excitement to see photos including his former co-workers that he hadn’t seen in over a year. He messaged one of his buddies to tell him that he just saw a photo of him all the way in Portland. Small, small world.
After a walk through the neighborhoods (more posts to come with more photos of Havana), we walked back to our neighborhood for lunch. We wanted to eat in a local paladar that was charging pesos (the local money) and not tourist prices of the CUC (foreigner currency). In Havana, nearly everyone leaves their doors and windows open, both day and evening. I was so surprised that in the capital city, people were not worried about it and we got a glimpse into many people’s homes. At one of the open doorways, we stopped to ask a local where to eat. She recommended a place just around the corner and for about $1 each we were served giant portions of typical food. Rice with black beans, yucca, meat, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes.
By then it was late afternoon, and we decided to round out the day by renting a convertible for an hour to go on a drive thru Havana. They line up by Parque Central and for about $25, it is an inexpensive way to see other parts of the city. My friend’s mom’s only request was that we didn’t get a pink car. And, we got a pink car! We negotiated with someone and before we knew it, he was walking us to a pink car :)
One of my favorite sites we passed was the US Embassy. I had seen past photos of Cuba flying 138 Cuban flags in front of the US Embassy, as well as flying black protest flags to hide an electronic ticker on the building that had US propaganda for democracy on it. Now that relations are getting better, they simply fly one Cuban flag in front… but the other flag poles remain.
We polished off our evening with really good pizza at a restaurant called Venami, near Floridita in Habana Vieja. Cubans eat a lot of pizza, but the quality highly varies (by the end of our trip, we were really sick of it). However, Venami’s pizzas were the best we had!
More to come on Havana, before exploring more cities and sights of Cuba!