You look like a young Fidel Castro

Over my life I’ve been told I look like many different people. Sometimes I’ve been compared with people who don’t look at all like me except for our common red hair. But when the man at the cash in a store down the street told me I look like a young Fidel Castro, it was certainly a first.

I suppose it was intended as a compliment. I told the man I thought el Comandante was a “moreno,” a dark-haired man, but he insisted Fidel has my complexion. Of course Fidel is lighter than many Cubans in this country where the majority is mixed race with a lot of black influence. I think it was the beard that prompted the comparison, though.

I probably looked even more like Fidel when I sat up on my hotel balcony later in the day puffing on a big cigar, a Montecristo 2, the kind recommended by my co-worker Mike. I bought it at the Partagas Cigar Factory, in the city centre, where they have a shop selling all the finest Cuban cigars. Cigars here are not cheap, but evidently they’re a lot cheaper here than outside of Cuba. This one set me back about $8, but it lasted a long time – well over an hour. Smoking a cigar is relaxing, but I question whether the pleasure is worth the money. And my sense of taste and smell must be deadened, because I didn’t experience any of the “nutty” and other flavours that people claim. It just tasted like burning leaves and left me light headed, even though you just savour the smoke in your mouth and don’t inhale.

The Partagas Cigar Factory normally offers tours where you can see the leaves being sorted and hand rolled, but the tours are currently suspended because of the holidays. I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it in later during my stay, but hopefully I’ll be able to see the process somewhere. Cigars are such an important part of Cuba’s identity, whether smoked by such American Mafiosi as Al Capone, who rented an entire floor of the Sevilla Hotel, or by the later revolutionary leaders.

Next to the Partagas Factory, right in the city centre, is el Capitolio, a large domed building that bears a striking resemblance to the Capitol in Washington. It’s a little more weathered looking, and is surrounded by palm trees, but it looks no less elegant. Alas, it too is closed for tours as it is undergoing major renovations.

But I did stroll around it Tuesday admiring the many 1950s classic U.S. cars, most of which now serve as collective taxis. I’ve spotted a few that look a lot like the old 1956 Buick our family owned when I was a kid.

Tuesday was mainly a day to get oriented, and what better way than to hop onto the upper level of an open double decker bus. These run a regular route throughout Havana and are geared to tourists. You pay a $5 fare for a ticket that’s good all day and you can hop on or off as you please. I took the entire route, going along the Malecon and out to Vedado and Miramar, the more modern parts of the city. Vedado offered a glimpse of Plaza de la Revolucion, with its Ministry of Interior building whose outer wall features a giant steel image of Che, taken from the famous Korda photo – probably one of the best known images in the world. Che once worked in that building. We also passed the Colon cemetery, where many famous Cubans are buried, and which features many elaborate monuments. I didn’t stop, but will go back later if there’s time.

Other than that, there was little to inspire me to return to Miramar. It has vast open vacant lots with junk interspersed with luxury hotels, but we saw nothing of interest until we returned to the city centre and waterfront area of Old Havana.

I did some exploring of the city centre on foot, walking along the Prado, a tree-lined boulevard similar to, though not as elegant as the Ramblas in Barcelona. Havana has quite a number of tourists, mostly European, but some apparently Canadian. As a result, many Cubans become jineteros and jineteras, street hustlers, where they can earn much more in convertible hard currency than people like doctors, who are paid in nearly worthless moneda nacional. I am continually harassed to take a taxi or buy cigars – under the pretense that these are top brand cigars at cheap prices, though almost certainly they are fake. Few of the jineteros are too persistent, and most back off if I give them a firm, but polite, “no gracias.”

As the sun set, I photographed people fishing or hanging out along the Malecon with lights appearing along the waterfront. Then I returned to my balcony to finish smoking my cigar.

Ministry of the Interior

El Capitolio

El Prado resembles the Ramblas in Barcelona

Old Havana

The Malecon at sunset

The Malecon after sunset

About Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire is a part-time photographer and photography enthusiast based on Ottawa, Canada.

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