ms. fresh fish

Habana Libre!
December 24, 2010, 2:16 pm
Filed under: family, recommendations, travel

I received a call from my sister about a month ago: “We need to book a trip. We need to go before Christmas. Can you sort it out?” Me: “Absolutely.”

And so off we were, about two and a half weeks later, to Havana, Cuba with a sketchy hotel booked, insufficient knowledge of Spanish and no Cuban dollars to our name (because you can only get them when you get there, or so we hoped…). My sister and I have never really travelled together, aside from a weekend to Vancouver to visit Dad & Elli and see Neil Diamond. I was a little worried, I have to say. I was going to Cuba with a person who does not eat any seafood, does not drink any alcohol or caffeine and loves to shop. This did not bode well for her enjoyment. What I found out about my sister, after all these years, is that despite her home-based rules, she is a master at go-with-it-ness. No she did not eat any fish, and no she didn’t drink any alcohol (but has learned that she absolutely can have two cafe con leche at 10:30 and then proceed to sleep for ten hours), and the shopping – well, she had some people to prove wrong, and so she did.

Havana is a crazy city, and I was reminded of Naples the entire time. Here are a few observations:

Buildings: You’re constantly surrounded by stunning, beautiful buildings that are completely dilapidated, and the whole time you’re looking around, you can’t help but flash back to what they must have looked like in their hey days. The architecture is varied, from classical to (what I call) romantic, to art deco, to 60s funk (again, obviously I’m not an architect). They generally look abandoned, until you look a little closer and notice that people are coming in and out of them, living their lives in them. They have electricity, and apparently running water. Laundry hangs from the window. There are flashes of beauty everywhere you look and because of the contrast, it makes it that much bolder.

People: First of all, Havana is sexy. This is not to say that I’m going to start sporting undersized, flashy clothing to be like them because, quite frankly, I wouldn’t be able to pull it off as they can and would just look like one of the more ridiculous characters on Corrie. Cubans exude confidence in their bodies and wardrobes that makes New Yorkers look like wallflowers. The dark side of all of this is the heavy machismo culture, leading to what was the incessant call-outs and air kisses, until my sister screamed at one of them (who had been following us for about a block) to STOP! I think he got word around town and we weren’t bothered much after that (aside from the 60 year old homeless man with a frisbee duck-taped to his head and wet sock-mitts who salsa’d with my sister on the sidewalk before attempting to make out with her… but other than that…).

We thought that as two women travelling alone, we were getting the worst of it, but in speaking to some of the men that were staying at our hotel, they were clearly getting an even more advanced form. Prostitution is unbelievably widespread and they were constantly approached. I was happy to hear that if they are selling themselves, they are asking a reasonable amount (about 50 tourist pesos, which is 2.5 times the monthly income there). Judge away – but if they’re going to do it, charge these dudes what they can pay.

It also became clear to us that there are a considerable number of men AND women who travel there just to have Cuban afffairs. You see them everywhere – older white men and women with their young (sometimes VERY young) Cuban lovers who they are fondling incessantly. It’s quite disturbing, and led to us giving a number of dirty looks. Us? Judgy? Never!

Dancing: One of our missions was to dance while there. This proved harder than we thought. As two women travelling by ourselves, we received many “invitations” and we had no idea which we could trust, so we ended up not trusting any, unfortunately. We had a disco in our hotel, so we ventured out one night, only to be danced AT by what seemed to be a 16 year old BOY. Unable to shake him, we headed back up to our room. The next night, we found some Irish dudes who were finding women similarly aggressive so the four of us went dancing together and were actually able to dance… until 4:30. Dancing: Check!

Our second dancing adventure happened thanks to my sister’s German twin who we met at the hotel and who was on – wait for it – a salsa TOUR (my new life mission!). She had been travelling Cuba by herself for two weeks (she did not recommend the solo aspect) and graciously sorted out a lesson for us on our second to last day with her teacher, Tito. So.Much.Fun. Lessons from my salsa teacher included: let the man lead, repeatedly; relax, also repeatedly; and one variation of relax, which was: stop pushing me. Awesome.

Medical System: The Cuban medical system is highly romanticized, and not all unjustifiably. That said, going by some of the hospitals, I can say very confidently that no Canadian would feel comfortable (unless you live up north on a reserve or Inuit community). Again – looked abandoned, no windows, some window frames filled in with bricks. Luckily, our hotel had a doctor on-call, so when I needed to see them on the second day for my wicked, hacking cough, it was no problemo. I hoped and prayed that it would be a hot Cuban doctor, and so she was! She was lovely and I was very confident in her abilities and knowledge. She gave me a prescription, a whole whack of hilarious unsolicited advice about our fertility problems and sent me off. They also followed up with me throughout the week. The pharmacies are, well, again – basic. I’m hoping the locals aren’t paying $25 Cdn for amoxicillin though…

Food: Oy vey. This part is difficult. I had two good meals there (lobster enchiladas and a white fish with their rice and black beans), more cheese sandwiches (read: safe) than I would have cared to eat in a lifetime, and some pretty terrible (get it down your throat because you need some sustenance) meals. So, all in all, not surprising that I ended up puking on the plane and have been laid up with food poisoning for almost two days now, I guess. No wonder I had a dream that there was a McDonald’s in Havana (blasphemous, I know).

Safety: As long as you’re not an idiot (i.e. carrying your passport, heaps of money and ostentatious jewelery around), my sense is that most people are fine. The police are ubiquitous (one person told us that for every one uniformed you see, there are five in plain clothes) and we never felt unsafe, despite walking on back streets at night that if our husbands had seen, they would have had heart attacks. Aside from the men, people aren’t that interested in tourists, aside from a polite greeting.

Shopping: We were told repeatedly that there was nothing to buy in Havana. Oh really? So what of the handmade leather sandals that we bought for about $15-$20 Cdn? Or the handmade not-tacky leather purse for $5? And the jewelery? And the dresses? Yea – don’t listen to anyone who tells you that. They couldn’t see past the dilapidation.

So, all in all, would we go back? Absolutely. Gladly. The city is fascinating and teeming with life. The people are both wonderful and hilarious. And aside from the food poisoning, I have rarely been so fulfilled by a vacation.


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