January 28, 2008 - HavanaWe were headed back into Havana again - but into the newer sections of centro Havana and Vedado. It was another day of chasing che with stops at the Museo de la Revloucion and Plaza de la Revolucion on our to do list.
When the shuttle bus let us off, I immediately noticed a big difference in the city. Today was Monday and traffic was much heavier. Getting off the free shuttle we struggled to cross streets and get to the Prado. In SE Asia, we learned that in crazy traffic you just start walking and people drive around you. This wasn't the case in Cuba - so don't try it. But there also weren't any traffic lights. In the end it was patience that got us across the roads.
A few blocks down the Prado was the old presidential palace that now housed the Museo de la Revolucion. It was a stunning building both outside and in, complete with ceiling by Tiffany and frescos by great artists. The saying goes that between your story and mine lies the truth. And I remembered that as we walked through the three floors of displays; it reminded me of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City - lots of propaganda (obvious and only slightly subtler) but less dogmatic than in Vietnam. I was amazed to read how the US "interference" in Cuba went back over two hundred years when Jefferson tried to buy the island from Spain. The long history certainly provided context for the revolution but still didn't justify Fidel's obvious hatred for all things American. As we continued through the museum, I realised how much my knowledge of Cuba was dictated by American views even when diluted through the Canadian media. Just as my expectations of Cuba had been heavily tainted by American views so had my history. There was so much that I wasn't aware of and so much more that had only ever been glossed over. And with the context provided to make history more comprehensible, I want to read more about US and Cuban relations.
We spent over spent over two hours reading everything and taking it all in and soon my back and feet were beginning to ache. We exited the museum to check out the heavily guarded Granma pavillion where the Granma yacht that carried Fidel and his revolutionaries was housed. However, I wasn't allowed in because I was carrying a bag. I didn't mind so I turned the camera over to Adrian. He returned happy but confirming that I really didn't miss anything - especially since the pavillion was glass and I could see the yacht from where I was standing.
We continued up the Prado into a grittier Havana than we'd seen the day before. It felt less touched and there were definitely more hustlers here than we'd seen before. Nestled in amongst all of it was the art deco Bacardi building. We slipped inside for overpriced sandwiches and a cold drink in the small cafe on the second floor. Then headed back up the Prado to the Congresso.
Despite the area being rawer than old Havana, this is where many 5 star hotels were situated as well as the Gran Teatro. And the hustlers not arguing about baseball in the Hot Corner flocked to us trying to sell us cigars, tours or simply to ask for money. As we passed the tour busses lined up outside the Congresso, the hustlers were like swarms of gnats. However, they weren't very persistent and left when we said no. The Congresso was not just based on the US Capitol building it appeared to be a replica, particularly ironic after the rhetoric we'd been fed at the museum earlier.
Quick to escape the hustlers, we slipped into a cigar factory. The place appeared frozen in time for the last 80 years. No tours were allowed. But the store on the ground floor had a woman hand-rolling cigars apparently for our amusement. She kept going until I took a photo then she stopped for a smoke break and to make a phone call. We hung out in the store and Adrian picked out a small box of cigars. As we were about to leave, a posh british couple entered and tried to purchase cigars but wouldn't listen to the saleman as he explained the pricing - like 10% fee for using credit cards, that the cuban peso is worth more than the american dollar, not less. I thought perhaps the older couple didn't understand his accent so I tried to help but apparently they weren't deaf just arrogant. So Adrian and I left them to fend for themselves.
Back outside, we let our eyes readjust to the bright sunshine before attempting to cross the crazy downtown streets. We headed west on Avenida Bolivar towards the Plaza de la Revolucion. We popped into a store to buy some water and ice cream for the hot walk. It was obvious that we were way off the tourist track when the cashier had to pull out a dusty booklet to look up the convertible peso costs of everything. Although this was far from the tourist track, it felt very safe. The infamous camel buses whizzed past us packed to the gills and like everything else we'd seen in Cuba, they might be ugly, but they worked.
After walking for 45 minutes along the city streets, we finally arrived at the plaza. Essentially, a concrete parking lot with the Jose Marti monument jutting out of the middle. The plaza was lined with government buildings and it was on one that we spotted the famous mural of Che. We had chased Che but with time ticking away and a long walk back, there would be no chasing Fidel that day.
On the way back we walked through the university campus and hospital. It was a leafy, almost suburban area with lovely old houses and lots of shade to protect us from the sun. On the other side of the campus was Vedado with it's modern hotels and glitzy signs. After the 10 km walk so far, our aching feet told us to skip the US Interests building and head straight to the Hotel Nacional instead. It reminded me a lot of the National Hotel in Miami and I wondered who copied whom. This was the site where the American gangsters held their infamous summiton how to take over Cuba. In keeping with the history, Adrian and I planted ourselves at the bar overlooking the Malecon and enjoyed a round of mojitos, piña coladas and cigars.
Time slipped by and we had cut it very close to catch the cab. Thankfully we were at a hotel where a fleet of mercedes cabs waited for fares. We hoped in to one and were dropped off at the bus just in time to get back to the hotel.