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Author Topic: Steve's 2009 Trip, Part II  (Read 36016 times)

Offline JohnnyCastaway

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Steve's 2009 Trip, Part II
« on: February 23, 2009, 10:07:05 PM »
Continues here.....

Thanks greatly John. For those that were wondering, it was simply taking too long at dialup speeds to open the long thread with all the photo so I kindly asked John to start the continued thread...... and for that kindness.... I might give you a sip John. Read on to find out.

« Last Edit: February 26, 2009, 09:24:40 PM by Steve_YYZ »
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Offline Steve_YYZ

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Re: Steve's 2009 Trip, Part II - Thursday night Feb 26
« Reply #1 on: February 26, 2009, 09:27:06 PM »
Sunday Evening Feb 22.

Today was the 47th Wedding Anniversary of Paula’s parents so as we did last year, we take them out for a nice celebratory dinner. This year, the chosen location was the Restaurante Emperador in Vedado. It’s located on the ground floor of the Edificio Focsa on Calle 17 y M and while not cheap, it’s very reasonable for what you get. The only really expensive things would be the lobster and shrimps but if I wanted those, I’d choose elsewhere to eat. But they have a great meat selection.

As you can see, it’s an elegant place to dine for those nice occasions

Here’s Paula and I with her parents. A 5th member of our group took the photo.

I had the Gran Solomillo steak, medium and it was amazing. Perhaps the best steak I’ve had in Cuba. And actually cooked just the way I like it and nice and tender. (10.85 cuc) We also had a nice Spanish red wine Campo Viejo Crianza (2006) from a reasonable wine menu. The others at the Filete Mignon Choron (8.85 cuc) and the pieces were a good size as well. With all the trimmings of course including fresh vegetables and salad. Of course desert and Cuban coffee rounded out the meal nicely….. burp!!!

All together, five of us ate and enjoyed the bottle of wine for a total cost of 92.50 CUC plus tip. For fine dining in Havana this was quite reasonable and for sure you couldn’t touch that in Toronto.

For those who don’t eat off resorts that often, or at all, here’s the menu from the Emperador so you can peruse the selection. I think it’s big enough to be legible though still in Spanish.

After the leisurely 3 hour dinner, the family was off home and I moto’d down to Vieja in my endless quest for good Internet. I finally found some one-hour access cards at the Hotel Plaza where I posted my last report from. And the speed seemed to be much better. Perhaps I allude this to it being very late at night and absolutely nobody else was using the internet café at the same time. Maybe when you don’t have to share bandwidth the connections run faster? Who knows, es Cuba!

So on my way home from using the Internet, I cruised down the Prado and my usual route along the Malecon. And lo and behold, the dam El Morro was actually floodlight. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been by with my big camera and tripod trying to get a nice photo of it at night. And the lights were always off. And tonight, when I only had my little pocket Fuji camera, the darn thing is lit. So here’s a 5 second time exposure of it with no tripod, just the camera braced on the seawall. Oh, and who can tell me what’s wrong with the photo? Here’s a hint. Look at the seawall a little in from the right-hand edge. Oooops… seems the long exposure allowed the camera to see into the darkness and…. Gotcha!!! LOL!!
Definitely going to have to re-shoot this AGAIN!!!

Monday Feb 23.

Sort of a miserable cool cloudy day today so nothing special planned. Took the moto and went to 5 y 42nd and 3ra y 70 Supermercados to do a bit of shopping. Both are located in the Miramar area of western Havana. Dodged a couple of rain showers and was very lucky not to actually get caught in one. Rode on wet (and VERY SLIPPERY) pavement in a few places so it was a slow and cautious day. It almost seems a futile quest this year to find a turkey so I can cook my traditional meal for the family. So I’m now starting to think about an alternative Plan ‘B’ that I can find the ingredients/spices for. The food situation is definitely odd this year. As I noted earlier, it’s the selection that seems reduced, not the quantity. There are simply no fresh potatoes to be found anywhere. There is plenty of Malanga and also Sweet Potatoes, but not the traditional kind for papas fritas. So at the Mercado today, of all things, I found a freezer full of bags of Cavendish frozen Potato wedges from P.E.I. of all places. So I can’t get a local potato but I can get imported fries from Canada at a cost of 2.15 CUC per bag. Go figure? All the locals tell me that the word is out that fresh local potatoes will be in the stores by mid to end of March, which I gather is the traditional harvesting time for them.

It’s sprinkling off and on tonight and as I have no wish to get caught in a rain shower in the dark on Havana streets, I’ve decided to simply stay in and read this evening. Tomorrow’s another day. Besides what’s a little rain? I saw on the Toronto Star website last night that it’s only a high of –7C and snow in Toronto. Damn…. This rum tastes better after reading that! LOL!!!

Went down to Paula’s today to help her install a new printer and driver on her computer. You got to love those folks at HP. The printer itself has a little screen and you can choose the language it displays in. So we set that up for Spanish. But the install software comes in English only (hence the need for my help). The installation guide is in English, Spanish and French, but the operating guide is in only English and French. Go figure that out!

An interesting, but noxious experience at Paula’s apartment while I was there today. The gov’t comes into a building and “fogs” the entire building, including inside each individual apartment. For those who have been to a Dubois trailer pack, it’s the same type of noisy insecticide belching fogger John uses on each container when it’s full. Residents have absolutely no choice and it’s a mad scramble to cover delicate items and all the foodstuff and then… bam! They fill the apartments with fog and everybody has to wait outside for at least 20 minutes, with all the windows and doors closed. Then you can open up and air the place out. But the “fog” leaves an oily residue behind on all flat surfaces. Even the tile floor is incredibly slippery until things get washed up. And from what I gather, it’s becoming a weekly thing. The purpose is to control mosquitoes and any chance of Dengue. But it means a weekly clean-up and serious wash-down for all residents.

Had a bit of a fight at the gas station this morning. I stopped to fuel up the moto and a full tank cost me 2.80 CUC. The stations are “full service” so after the guy pumps the gas I give him a 5 CUC and wait for my change. Well instead of paying the cashier inside, the attendant wanders over and starts to fuel another car, with his back to me. So I have to sit and wait till that’s done, then politely ask for my change. Oh, that’s for me he said. (this was all in Spanish BTW) No, my change please I say again and he replies momentico (a moment) and goes inside. Well out he come and gives me 1.20 back. No senior, A Cinco (five) necessito DOS y Vento, no Una y Vento cambio!!! So this goes back and forth for a few minutes and when I threaten to call el Jefe, well he pulls another CUC out of his pocket and hands it to me with a scowl. Gee, does the scowl come with the full service? It’s not so much the amount of the money, but the attitude of SOME Cubans (thankfully not all) that all the change is always theirs….. NOT!!! I’m simply not giving a 2.20 tip for 2.80 worth of gas. I had planned to just take the 2 and let him keep the coins, but after this, well buster, you get, nada! I should say that it’s not rampant, but situations such as this occur often enough to simply piss-me-off. Sure I’m a Yuma but that doesn’t mean I’m a walking ATM machine. So I’ve resolved to always carry lots of small change and small bills and try to give exact change in those situations that would seem to warrant it.

However it does all seem to balance out somehow. I stopped at the local Panaderia (bakery) to pick up a small loaf of bread and the service was very friendly, quick and no hassles at all. The small loaf costs 6 pesos MN or about 33 cents CDN. That’s where those domestic pesos come in handy. Butter (mantequilla) costs 1.35 CUC for sweet butter while salted butter is 1.65 CUC per 250 gr.

Wednedsay Feb 25.
Another cool breezy day today (hey, enough of these red flag days!!!) so I took the moto and wandered down through Nuevo Vedado, Kohy and the Miramar areas. I took a nice ride down through Parque Almendares which runs alongside the Rio Almendares and down to Boca de la Chorrera or the mouth of the river. Watched a very nervous almost 15-year-old girl in an elegant fancy dress being phototographed for her official Quince-Años photo. The mother and a make-up/hair stylist were also there. For those that don’t know, the Quince-Años “coming-out” of a young Cuban lady is a very big deal. Very much like the old debutante custom of years gone by. So I sat and watched from a distance for a while then motored on.

At the mouth of the Alemendares, there is this really neat building but I have absolutely no idea what it is, why it’s there, or what it signifies.

Riding along and exploring the streets of Miramar, I came across this large park and monument dedicated to Mahatma Ghandi inscribed “Apóstol de la Páz y la no Violencia” (Apostle of Peace and no Violence). It’s enscribed with the dates of the life of Gandhi, but not the date the monument was built. The things you find but don’t expect to find in Havana.

Feeling a little nostalgic (and homesick LOL) I swung by and took a photo of our Canadian Embassy in Cuba. It’s always nice to see our flag blowing in the breeze and that little piece of home.

Then of course it was time to go shopping. As my time in Cuba is slowly running down, I need to start picking up those special items that I want to bring home with me. But first, one thing that’s interesting in Cuba is parking. Stopping at the Commercial Center or any other major shopping area, tourist area, etc where parking is needed, you look down the street to find the “Parqueador Estatal” or State Parking Person. They’re easy to spot because they all wear red caps and red vests with Parueador Estatal and the Havana Club logo on the back. They are generally sitting at the side of the roadway/street under a big umbrella or walking about. There is no official parking “rate” but generally for foreigners or rented vehicles you can figure on about .40 Centavos CUC per hour. There is no ticket, no official time record, but mostly an honour system of paying the guy for the time you were there. I never leave less than .25 centavos no matter how short a time I’m there. The Parqueador’s job is simply to watch the street and the vehicles and see that nobody touches them and help you find a spot when parking is tight. All very friendly, all VERY civilized and not at all like Toronto…. Running like a crazy person only to find that you’ve got a $30 ticket for 2 minutes over your paid time and they’re just waiting to pounce! Sometimes I really do wonder which country is more civilized?

Oh, and the shopping. Well as some of you know, I no longer buy souvenirs per se, simply because I’ve already got too much stuff in my apartment that needs dusting. So I now shop for that special “consumable” as my souvenir budget. This year, I found a real winner. (sorry Eric, LOL!!!)
It’s a bottle of Ron Santiago de Cuba, Extra Añejo, Viente-Años and is the special 485th Anniversary Bottle to celebrate the city of Santiago de Cuba. And just like that…. Poof…. There goes the souvenir budget.

Well I learned a new word in Spanish tonight. “Crudo” which is exactly how my porkchop was cooked in the middle. Oh, it means RAW!!! I ate at the Hanoi Restaurant in Vieja, a place I’ve visited many times before. Not outstanding food, but the price is reasonable and the service not too bad. Well not tonight. I ordered porkchops and one was absolutely raw in the middle. And of course it took forever to get their attention to get it sent back. Definitely not a high point in eating tonight. Mierde happens!!!!

Offline Steve_YYZ

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Re: Steve's 2009 Trip, Part II
« Reply #2 on: March 03, 2009, 04:52:31 PM »
Friday Feb 27

Well today was a different day yet again. Last year in Toronto, I was introduced to a Cuban guy Eduardo who was visiting his brother who lives in Toronto. Their family home is down in San Antonio de los Banos southwest of Havana. I’d been down there last week on a moto ride. So today, I went back down to actually visit this time and Paula came with me. Yes, two of us on the tiny moto. It can be done……carefully!!!

Here’s Paula and I on the moto.

Yes, under the helmet that’s too large for her, ready to ride, and perched like a fly on the back of a giraffe is none other than Paula. It’s one way to get her to hold on tight! LOL!!! We actually managed to ride over 100 kilometers like this including two stints along the Autopista. The most difficult part was getting my long legs folded so that my knees would clear the handlebars.

Once down in San Antonio de los Banos, it was a day of socializing and relaxing. First stop was to visit the grandparents of Paula’s son (ex-husband’s side) and I have to say that I’m continually just blown away by genuine Cuban hospitality. We’re no sooner invited inside and seated and voila….. demi-tasses of scalding hot, strong Cuban coffee and flan. I pity a visitor to a Cuban home that doesn’t like the strong Cuban style espresso. They lead simple uncomplicated lives but are so genuinely warm and friendly, even to a towering giant of a stranger. Look at the photo of us. That door is actual size…. I have to duck considerably just to fit through it.

From there, it’s a quick moto across town to meet Eduardo and his lovely wife Miranda. It was such a great day that we decided to lock up the moto at Eduardo’s home and head off for a walk along the banks of the Rio Ariguanabo that runs through town. We mosied along to this lovely tranquil setting and an over-the-water restaurant where it was time for the inevitable photos.

The Rio Ariguanabo

Family photo time…..

Me at the river

Paula at the river

Miranda, Paula and I

Paula, me and Eduardo

After that, it was time to wander over to a local Moneda Nacional restaurant where they only use the local Cuban Peso. The 4 of us had a beer each, ate a great meal of Chicken Cordon-Blue with fried malanga and salad, and the total bill was 232 pesos. Calculated in CUC, that would be approximately 9 CUC total. You can figure that 4 CUC of that was just for the beer alone, so you can see eating is cheap in MN. There are definite advantages to traveling with locals who know where the good places are and in MN to boot!!!

One neat thing that happened 3 or 4 times during the day at San Antonio was a flypast of a Mig fighter at very low altitude and full military afterburner. I understand that there is an airfield to the southwest of the town and it must be close because when the Migs fly past, they have obviously just taken off (with afterburner) and are just in the process of starting to climb away. They were right at the south edge of town and no more than 500 to 1000 feet altitude…. Moving very fast! The sound was incredible and it’s obvious there are no noise abatement procedures here!

So it was a very pleasant day only followed by a nice ride home just before sunset. We did make it home before dark but I got this nice image along the way.

Saturday Feb 28

Well today was a productively wasted day. Sounds like a contradiction eh? Well as some of you know from past years, I always cook one special dinner for my Cuban host family. It’s always been a traditional roast turkey dinner with all the fixings that I’ve brought down from Canada. Stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, etc. Well after three solid weeks of looking, I’ve determined that there is not a turkey to be found in Cuba. It’s the first time I’ve been stumped. So what to do? Well, I’m going to roast 3 large chickens complete with stuffing and that will have to suffice this year. But shopping in Cuba is never a quick easy task.

First stop is the nearby Tienda where I was able to get my beer, juices and soft drinks. All except the real honest to god Coke that I also wanted. So as I’m limited to just how much I can carry on the moto, it was load up all the drinks and back to the casa to drop that stuff off.

Next up was a couple of bottles of wine for dinner. So it’s off again about 20 km to Supermercado Palco way out in the very west end of Miramar where they have a good wine selection. Picked up two nice bottles of Argentinian white table wine for 7.10 CUC each.
I also picked up my chicken there, frozen whole chickens. They are imported from Brazil. You can get local chicken but for the most part, they are already sectioned into pieces so if you want to roast a whole bird, it’s imported time. The only local whole chickens I’ve seen this trip are about the size of Cornish Rock Hens so they simply won’t do if I want to stuff them. The imported ones weighed 1.5 kg each and cost 4.30 CUC each. I also bought a 1 kg bag of long-grain rice here for 1.95 CUC. Was stupid and forgot to get my cans of Coke here at Palco, one place that always has it. Idiot…. Idiot…. Idiot….!!! But I’m NOT riding 20 km back to get it! TuCola will have to do.
One thing I did note that had my jaw dropping. I bring (smuggle) 2 pounds of Canadian Lazy Maple, maple-smoked bacon into Cuba. Cost…. $3.99 on sale at Metro in Toronto. At Palco, a one-half pound pack of just regular bacon is priced at a whopping 8.20 CUC. So the two packs that cost me $7.98 Canadian in Toronto would have cost me 32.80 CUC here in Cuba. And that’s regular bacon, not the maple smoked. Jaw dropping prices!!!

Next stop, I need bread for my stuffing. So it’s off to the local Panaderia for a couple of loafs of nice bread but thankfully it’s on my way home from Palco so not a big detour. Cost 9 pesos MN each. There’s those useful domestic pesos again.

I need onions so it’s stop once again at the local Agromercado to pick up 2 pounds of onions for 6 pesos MN/lb. (there are 24 Cuban pesos to 1 CUC).

And lastly, I wanted something sweet for desert, so it’s one more stop, this time at a different Panaderia that has delicious chocolate-filled pastry rolls for 1.20 CUC each! Yiikes, that sweet tooth costs plenty!

So the only thing left to buy for tomorrow night’s dinner is ice-cream but I can get tubs of that locally within a 5 minute walk.

So as you can see, shopping is almost a full-day task at many different places if you want to work towards a planned menu. It’s why most Cubans go to the local market, see what they have today, and THEN plan that night’s dinner. It’s just far too complex to work towards a Canadian style “shopping list.” Es Cuba!!! And for sure I couldn’t imagine a Cubano doing the same thing and having to depend on the buses to get around. There’s something to be said for the convenience of the moto.

Oh, but one funny (NOT) thing happened today. I had another run-in with a local cop, this time one of the flashy “attitude-rich” guys on the Motorcycles. On my way out to Palco, I had stopped along the way to take a few photos of some of the incredibly luxurious mansions in the outer Miramar area. I also thought I’d take a stock-photo of the Havana Palacio de las Convenciones (Havana Convention Center) the site of many Havana trade fairs and conventions. You know, the kind of place that they promote to businesses and other governments to hold conventions at. Well from the commotion and idiotic comments from this cop, you’d have thought the world had ended. He insisted that as a tourist, I am not allowed to take ANY photos anywhere in Havana EXCEPT within Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and sites “Turistico”. Everywhere else it is “Prohibito” according to him. I’ve never heard anything so idiotic in my life but not wanting to enrage the situation, I put my camera (only the pocket digital one) back into my pocket, said I’m sorry, and he waved me on my way….. but followed me until I was almost at Palco. I think my deliberately slow pace on the moto (30 kph) finally taxed his somewhat limited patience as when he finally passed me, it was with a full-throttle blast and roar! Showboating at it’s finest. The funniest thing however is that at no time did he ask for my camera, ask me to erase my images, or anything like that.

So here’s what the commotion was about.

The Palacio de las Convenciones

One of the nice mansions

GAWD…. Are we having FUN down here!!! Es Cuba!!!! LOL!!!!

Sunday March 1st

Well what a day this turned out like. I had a nice relaxed breakfast with the family then was out on the moto to get some ice-cream for our dinner, then back to the casa. The plan was that I was going make all the preparations for the roast chicken dinner, then head down to visit friends, then we were all off to a concert. It too me about two hours to get everything done in the kitchen and everything ready for the oven. Gawd, I miss my own kitchen! Working in a strange kitchen, not knowing where anything is, nor what is available to use, really slows the whole preparation process down. So with everything done, I got showered and ready and off to meet my friends for the concert I went. Mi Mamácita had all the cooking instructions and just basically had to start the oven up, set the temperature, and at 5 pm put the pan from the fridge to the oven. She has an amazing new 6-burner gas stove and oven (a gift from her Canadian-living daughter) and this stove actually has an oven temperature you can set. Not like the old oven with “big-flame/small flame”.

Here’s the before and after photo of the chicken.

So I was now off to meet my Cuban friend who also had visited Toronto last summer. We left the moto at his house (safely locked inside) and off we went by his car (old Lada) to the concert at the Zorra y El Cuervo, the jazz club venue down on La Rampa (Calle 23). My friend is an avid rock’n’roll guy and on Sunday afternoons from 4 to 7, the jazz club becomes a rock haven. The group was a local Cubano group (professional) called Tesís de Menta (Thesis of Mint) and they were very good but awfully LOUD for my tired old ears. Coño, why is it that some bands seem to think they need to deafen you? I finally ended up stuffing rolled-up tissue in my ears as make-shift earplugs which brought it down to bearable levels. The female lead singer has a dynamic voice and power that reminded me of the sound of the late Janis Joplin. I didn’t take any still photos, but did shoot quite a bit of digital video for my friend so here’s a frame-capture from the video.

So up to now, everything was going as planned. The concert ended at 7 pm and we figured to be at the casa for dinner by 7:30. We come outside and it is POURING rain. We drive back to my friends house, but he needs to pick up his wife and one son, plus we have Paula, her son, and his other son already in the car. That’s 7 people with me. Great, now is when I wished I rented a car, not a moto. But Plan “A” was for me to ride the moto home, and I know I have dry clothes waiting, so it’s on with the helmet and off I go. Oh, and just to make everything perfect, Havana is suffering from a power outage and every single streetlight/traffic light is out and the city is BLACK!!! They are still loading the car up with people, but I head off anyway to get a start on the journey (about 10-12 km).

Well I get about half a kilometer down the road, when…. sputter, wheeze, then quiet as the engine on the moto dies. Coño!!! and a few other choice Spanish expletives cross my lips. It’s not gas because I have ¾ of a tank so it can only really be Chinese electrics that don’t like the rain. Here’s a hint….. neither do I. Well I played with it for a while until my friends come along, see me at the side of the road and stop. Now what to do? Well it’s obvious I can’t leave the moto there, so Plan “B” is to leave it back at his casa and somehow fit 7 people into the Lada. You know that half-kilometre I’ve made? Well it’s uphill almost back to his house. So they drive along and I push the damn moto up the hill. Phew! At the top, I give the starter one more try and son-of-a-bitch, the damn things starts. It’s idling rough, but does at least clear at higher revs. Ok, let try this whole thing again, back to Plan “A” but they’re going to follow me, just in case. Wheeling about, I head off again towards home only to get about 1 kilometre before…. Yup, you guessed it, the moto dies again. This time it appears to be terminal. Time for Plan “B” again but this time it’s a 1 kilometer push including UP that damned hill again!!! If you aren’t rolling on the floor laughing at this, you lack a sense of humour because that’s about all that was keeping me going by this point. I’m beginning to thank the rain and blackout because at least this has kept my humiliation from most Cuban eyes.

So back finally to where I’d started at my friends house, we put the moto inside and somehow 7 of us pile into his Lada. Him driving, a wet me in front, and 2 adults and 3 teenagers in the back. We did in fact make it successfully back home and by that time the power had been restored so after a change of clothes we’re finally sitting down to dinner at 8:30 pm. I’m now glad that I bought 2 bottles of wine and don’t have to drive any more today. The dinner was a great success and despite the difficulties of the day, it ended with a wonderful meal shared with my great friends and Cuban family. I didn’t get any good photos of the dinner, but here’s one of the table spread. The wine, rum and food were taking precedence.

Monday March 2, 2009

I got up and hitched a ride with a Colectivo (Cuban peso cab) and got down to my friends casa to pick up the moto. Well it’s been inside overnight, fully dried out, and started up and ran like a charm. Grrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!! So lesson learned is that in future, I’ll bring along a can of Silicone Motor Electrics spray and treat my rental moto to some protection at the start of my month in Cuba. Less grief that way I would hope.
The rest of today has been quiet, peaceful and relaxing. Only 5 more full days left in Cuba. Where did the time go?
So tonight I took the moto down to Vieja to use the internet. Well in typical Es Cuba, there is no internet until tomorrow. Coño!!! This has been a very cold ride for nothing. And though I’ve heard it is very cold in Toronto at the moment, that doesn’t cheer me up much because to ride the moto, I’m wearing a polo shirt, a sweatshirt, a hoodie, AND a jacket. Oh, and for the very first time in Cuba, I wore gloves to keep my hands warm. Now for Cuba, that’s cold. Not sure of the exact temperature, but likely in the very low teens or lower. Will try the internet again tomorrow.

Well it's Tuesday afternoon and the Internet is working. So here's the next installment.

Offline Steve_YYZ

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Re: Steve's 2009 Trip, Part II
« Reply #3 on: March 14, 2009, 10:06:36 PM »
Wednesday March 4

Today I decided to head down to Vieja and just wander about the old city with my camera. Nothing specific in mind to shoot, but rather just walk about and see what catches my eye or what is happening. So I rode the moto down and parked it in my usual spot beside the Hotel Plaza and started by wandering down Calle Obispo. Besides, I was hungry and there are lots of places to get “Peso Sandwiches” along Obispo. For 10 pesos MN (about 45 cents Cdn) you can get a lot of food for little price.

The first thing that catches my eye, and ears is a loud drum playing, horn blowing group of buskers on stilts coming down the street.

But after a few minutes, these buskers are really starting to piss-me-off. They carry long sticks with a hoop and sock on the end with which to collect tips and money. So I did in and give them 1 CUC and start taking photos. I’m walking backwards in front of them trying to get a “good” frame that captures expression, action, etc. But one guy (the leader I presume) now says that I have a “grande camera” and am taking more than one photo and he now insists that I “owe” 5 Pesos CUC for photos. Well this gets obnoxious and ugly and now every time I bring the camera to my eye, he’s waving his arms and getting in my way and blocking me. I’ll have more on this whole issue of “paying” for photos later in this blog.

Walking farther down Opispo and whoa!!! There’s a guy with a machine gun waving people over to the other sidewalk. Seems they are delivering a good pile of money to the Cadeca and not taking any chances.

All the way down at Plaza de Armas, the pigeons are having fun playing in the fountain while the arches of the Palacio del Segundo Cabo make a nice composition.

I admit, I’m fascinated by the lovely grace of the use of arches in Spanish architecture. Whether as external elements such as above, or as grand entrances to fabulous interior courtyards such as these.

Palacio de la Artesanía (Also known as the Caracol Bldg) This building also has a reasonably good cigar shop, and a shop where you can buy T’s and Polo Shirts and where you can find genuine Cuban Baseball Jerseys.

There’s another beautiful courtyard at the Hostal Palacio O’Farrill which is also unusual in that it’s a four story building, and each floor depicts a different century of development.

Working my way along Tacon, you come to perhaps one of the most ornate police stations I know of anywhere. The Policía Nacional Revolucionaria Comandancia General building another of those wonderful structures that I need to research the history and background of.

And of course, everywhere you wander there are wonderful old cars just begging to be photographed….and not wanting a Peso for the privledge.

Everywhere I wandered in Vieja, it was obvious that more buildings are being restored and without doubt they love to use bright colors of paint on many of them.

Plaza Cathedral is one place that I never seem to get tired of visiting or photographing.

One thing new this year is along the east side of the square. There is this “iron man” now leaning casually up against one of the pillars. There is also more restoration work taking place, to what end I don’t know.

And the Cathedral is now open for self-guided tours. In other words, just walk in and wander about. Lots of hustlers “offering” their expert tour guide services. LOL!!!

Now in regards to the whole issue of paying to take photos in Old Havana. IMHO, it’s gotten totally out of hand and it’s now become a royal pain-in-the-ass to actually walk around Vieja with a camera. Take a look at the following three photos. The first was taken with a 300mm lens from long-distance, playing “peek-a-boo” around the pillars so I wouldn’t be seen. It’s the type of candid, non-posed images that I look for. But once you’re “spied”, then the ladies actively hide their faces, or in this case, hold a flower backet in front of their faces. She sat like that for literally 20 minutes while a “Mexican standoff” took place between her and at least a half-dozen trying to take photos. I found the “peek-a-boo” image of her looking around the basket kinda funny in itself. But they sit right on the front of the Cathedral and you literally can’t take a photo of the building without paying them, or having them covering their faces in the foreground of your image. Totally asinine situation. But what really saddened me was the third photo. Again, I shot this unobserved with a long lens looking for that candid moment. But when they eventually saw me, well lo and behold, they also demanded pesos. It now seems that even schoolchildren have learned to come and sit around Vieja in the afternoon and make pesos from the tourists for photos. While I sat at a local patio and watched, they must have made at least 12-15 CUC in the short time I was there. Why go to school when you can become rich by playing to the tourists, even as schoolchildren. The school uniform just becomes their “prop” and selling point. Can I blame them, well not really. We the tourist(s) have created this situation by our indiscriminate throwing about of pesos to those “poor people or cute kids”. Perhaps out in the Campos it’s different, but in Havana, it’s fast becoming no fun to wander and take photos. Because even if you pay, what you end up with is a collection of “posed” photos, with nothing candid or real. That single reason alone might be enough for me to de-list Cuba as my travel destination in future.

So having had enough of Vieja and the antics of the “professional” models, I figured it was time to head back up to where the moto was parked. I chose to walk up Calle Empedrado from Calle Cuba to Monserrate. It’s a great street to wander along because once you get west of the block that contains La Bodeguita del Medio, it quickly becomes a gritty street bustling with the everyday life of Habaneros.

Calle Empedrado

It’s also where I got a great lesson in why Cubans always carry a plastic grocery bag folded up in their pocket or purse, for those occasions when a necessity is seen in a local shop. For weeks, there has been no fresh on-the-bone ham available to Habaneros. I did manage to buy some “Cooked Ham” at one of the CUC markets, but at 11 CUC per kg, it’s far too pricey for an average Cuban. The on-the-bone ham is a staggering 15.95 CUC per kg at Palco or 3rd y 70. So here I am walking up the street and I glance into the showcase window of the local Carnicería (butcher) and wow, there’s a real ham on-the-bone and as it’s a local Cuban peso shop, it’s priced at 30 pesos MN per pound. That’s equivalent to about a buck seventy-five Cdn per pound, a great price. So I quickly yank out my plastic bag and buy a 5 pound hunk of it. Of course, if you don’t have your own bag, you’re out of luck or carrying it on a piece of newspaper. My Mamacita who owns my casa was thrilled when I handed the chunk of meat to her and I benefited by having the most amazing ham, cheese and onion omelette the next morning. Yum!!!!

A little farther up the street and I pop into the local Agromercado to pick up some fresh produce. As you can see, at this Mercado, the selection is quite good and plentiful, and all priced in Moneda Nacional. However that still doesn’t mean that they won’t try to make a little “extra” on an obvious Yuma. I needed green peppers and picked up 4 but they were quite small. The price is 5 pesos per pound, clearly posted on a sign. Well the lady says 20 pesos to me. Hello, 4 little peppers can’t even weigh much more than a pound, and she wants 20 pesos. When I point this out to her (all in Spanish) she immediately apologizes and says 10 pesos. That’s still high (at my casa, I weighed the peppers at 1.25 pounds) but as 10 pesos is still only about 50 cents Cdn, I just couldn’t be bothered arguing anymore. And then of course, every lady in this photo also asked me for a “peso” for being in my photo. I politely replied no gracias!

So that ended my day’s wandering about Vieja and the experiences of being identified as a tourist.

Thursday March 5

Well it was a lovely day today. Nice and warm with a calm or light breeze and an ideal day to just get out and moto around. One of my favourite rides in Havana is down through Parque Almendares alongside the Almendares river. The road is simply beautiful, smooth pavement, twisting, trees meeting overhead and an oasis of serenity right in the middle of Havana. There are lots of bikes riding down there as you can see. Take a close look at the middle photo. Count the feet/legs! LOL!!!

Down at the mouth of the Rio Almendares where that strange building is, there were also fishermen trying their luck. They cast their nets then drift along for a while before bringing them up. I never did see them actually catch anything, but like all fishermen, patience must be the virtue.

From there it was eastwards along the full length of the Malecon. It’s such a pleasure to ride along the Malecon and every city should be so lucky as to have a shoreline drive like this. Here’s a couple of images from along the Malecon.

The waves seem to always crash somewhere along the Malecon and water ends up spraying high into the air.

Passing Avenue Paseo, it’s easy to make a quick stop at the Galerias de Paseo for a little shopping or to grab a cold drink.

When you get to the area near La Rampa and the Hotel Nacional, looking along the Malecon lets you clearly see the dominance that the Capitolio has on Havana’s skyline.

And from far across the outer bay, you get an entirely different perspective of El Morro and the lighthouse. You can really appreciate the height and defensive capability of the ramparts. For those who are interested, this view was shot with a 600mm lens.

Arriving at Paseo de Marti (Prado) I now turned up the Prado heading into the city. You pass one of the 2 pair of lions that ceremoniously guard this street.

For those who don’t want to ride a moto, there is always the wonderful view from atop the Havana Bus Tour double decker operated by Transtur, here going up the Prado

For me however, I loved the month spent on the moto and the total freedom to be out and about Havana. Here’s me, “che” Steve and his Scooter Diaries on Plaza de la Revolution with Che’s iconic image on the Ministry of the Interior (MINIT) building in the background.

Friday March 6.

Well today is my last full day with the moto and I’m headed out for a major exploration. I’ve got my new Guía de Carreteras (Road Guide), my camera pack and a full tank of gas. The plan is to ride south right across the island to the Caribbean port town of Surgidero de Batabanó, about 75 kilometers away. Why there you might ask? Well because it’s on the Caribbean side of the country and also because that’s where the ferry to La Isla de la Juventud departs from. I’d been to la Isla many times but always flown down to Nueva Gerona. Just curious what the ferry was like.

I went out of Havana along Avenue Indepencia and Boyeros past Jose Marti Airport, then onward to the town of Bejucal and down to Quivicán. Then I proceeded to get totally lost. Maps notwithstanding actually finding the correct road out of a small Cuban town can be a big challenge. All the way down to Quivicán the sun had been in front of me but upon leaving the town, it was now over my right shoulder. Hmmm…. Whither we go? Well the road was good and I’d thought I’d gone straight through the town of Quivicán, but slowly the sun is falling back behind my right shoulder. This is not good so I simply decided to keep going and take the first good looking road to my right. Ok, found one and now the sun is back in front of me, but I have absolutely no idea where this road goes. Well eventually I come to another small hamlet and it actually has a sign. Hey, I’m in La Julia, only about 25 kilometers from where I wanted to be, but I can now find the road to Surgidero de Batabanó. Once you get into the southern half of the ride, the road and terrain become very flat and visually boring. But I press onward in bright sunshine and short sleeves. Can’t beat that anyway. The road is not too bad, but you do have to pay attention and try to find the smoother parts of the surface. There’s a rumble behind me, a blast of a horn, and an Astro bus passes me at Warp 9 so he must be headed somewhere. I wonder if there is ANY other speed those big busses drive other than fast! But eventually, 2~1/2 hours after leaving Havana I see the ocean ahead and roll into Surgidero de Batabanó. What a dump! Take your typical Cuban small town, make it a port industrial town, make it dirty, give it no redeeming features, and that’s the town. Why did I bother? But I head down to the waterfront where’s there’s an old concrete pier and rows of now rotting pilings headed out into the Caribbean.

The moto on the pier

There’s a gull or pelican on every one of the pilings

And this is the Ferry to la Isla.

And what is perhaps the only photogenic building in Batabanó, the train station sitting at the very end of the tracks, circa 1917.

But it wasn’t a totally wasted day. It was a very nice ride down along some very pretty country roads with very little traffic on them, especially the northern half of the route which has nice rolling hills.

By the time I arrived back at my casa in Havana, I’d ridden just shy of 200 kilometers for the day and oh my god!!!! Does my arse hurt and I can’t sit down. Next time (if there is another) I am definitely going to take down a 12” square, 4” thick block of memory foam for the seat on the moto. But would I do it again, absolutely. Great way to get out and see the countryside.

Saturday March 7.

Well the only plan today is to take the moto back to the dealer in Playa, then have lunch with Paula and her son at on 7th Ave. As there is no credit for gas still in the tank, I took a nice long ride around the city in the morning both as a final look around and because it was another beautiful day.
Taking the moto back, I also took the chance to chat with the guys at the moto dealership on some things that I was curious about. When renting a moto, it’s clearly understood that you are responsible for any damage to the moto. But I was curious as to the maximum liability that someone could face in the event of the total write-off of a moto. And that amount surprised me. If you totally write-off a moto and have to pay entirely for it’s replacement, the amount you would owe would be $1245. CUC. Far less actually than I thought it would be though of course the best bet is to do no damage at all.

After the moto was turned in, I became just like every other Cuban….walking! So I walked up to 7th and 26th to the restaurant for lunch. This is a great place when you want comfort food. Great burgers, sandwiches and honest-to-god thick creamy milkshakes. Here’s Paula’s son and believe it or not, both the sandwich loafs are the same order, all for less than 5 CUC.

Here’s the inside of the restaurant, very casual and the TV was tuned to the Canada/USA World Baseball Classic from Skydome in Toronto. Now that kinda makes you homesick.

And me, chowing down on one of their burgers.

After lunch we walked over to the 5 y 42 Commercial center for some shopping then I took a cab back to my Casa to face the dreaded task of packing to come home. But it’s pretty easy to pack to come home. Just open the bags and THROW stuff in. No folding required. Four bottles of rum, 100+ cigars, MonteCristo’s, Cohiba’s, Peso and mini’s.

Dinner plans were to meet Paula at her house then we were off to Restaurante La Torre perched high on the 36th floor of the Focsa Building in Vedado. I had a funny time actually getting down to the city from my casa in the suburbs. Generally I walk out to Boyeros and flag a cab down. Cost is typically 7 or 8 CUC to Cerro (beside Plaza Revolution). But there just didn’t seem to be any cabs tonight. So I thought, what the heck and flagged the MetroBus Cuban domestic bus. Well he stopped and the fare is 40 Centavos, or about 2 cents Canadian which of course I don’t have because I carry no Cuban domestic coins. So I stuffed a 1 peso MN bill into the coinbox and that was ok with the driver. Twenty minutes later and I’m right down to the main bus station and it was an interesting ride. For sure I got some strange looks from the locals but nothing threatening or worse than riding the TTC here in Toronto. I also discovered (thought don’t know if it’s typical or not) that some Cuban men are real gentlemen. Partway along (I’m standing) and two ladies with toddlers get on and immediately these two guys (mid-20’s to 30) stand up and offer the ladies their seats. Now that truly surprised me. So it was a quick, cheap and interesting ride and something new for me to experience.

La Torre is an interesting restaurant. The entire outer wall, floor to ceiling is window, and the entire inside wall is mirror. Makes for a very open concept feeling, however it also echo’s every little noise in the restaurant and it feels quite sterile, not intimate. But the view is tremendous.

Here’s what it looks like, looking down on the Hotel Nacional and eastward towards Vieja.

The food at La Torre is excellent and though expensive by Cuban standards, it not any worse than a good restaurant in Toronto. When the bill was presented, the waiter had the surprise of his life when I challenged the bill and pointed out that it was in error. They had forgotten to charge us for the wine and I pointed this out to them. The look on their faces (the manager came over) was priceless. I guess not too many people point out that they’ve not been charged enough. But for two people, lobster dinner and one large steak, cocktails, wine with dinner, flan and coffee, the tab came to 62 CUC plus tip.

There’s also a bar side (west side) where you can sit and have drinks and look at the view from that side. So after dinner we had a few more drinks and found ourselves looking down at the US Special Interests Section along the Malecon.

So that was my last day in Havana and just like that, another month in Cuba is over. Some parts passed quickly and other parts seemed to drag. There are definitely changes taking place, but sadly as a tourist not all of them are for the better. There’s more of an underlying attitude of separating you from your money. People walking up to you on the street and asking you for money just because you’re a tourist. Wanting you to give them things you are carrying, wearing or using. In my opinion, it has become more pervasive, more annoying at times. But I also had some great times with my friends, and they graciously hosted me over for dinner, drinks etc., and it didn’t cost me a thing. So much really depends on how you are perceived, either as a tourist, or a long-term friend.

Sunday morning it was really only a point of remembering that the clocks had moved forward by one hour and to get to the airport on time. But with a 1st Class Cubana ticket home, check-in is a breeze, security was very quick and then a quick stop at Duty Free for another bottle of rum (Barrel Proof) and on board I went. Thankfully, although Cubana still flies to Varadero before heading up to Toronto, they no longer make all the passengers deplane and go into the Varadero terminal. You can relax onboard till it’s time to depart again. At Toronto, I declared all my excess rum, excess cigars and still got waived right through. Now that surprised me but I’ll cheerfully accept not paying taxes.

And my final Cuba pic for this trip….. the Casa dog Tina who always welcomed me home. She’s now 16-years-old, grey and grisled, but always remembers me.

Hope everybody’s enjoyed this year’s blog.


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