Around Havana and on to Trinidad

The only way to really get to know Havana is to explore it on foot. I was staying in the area known as Centro Habana, which is more genuinely Cuban than the old colonial quarter nearby, la Habana Vieja, or old Havana. It’s a fairly short walk between the two along the streets of crumbling houses built several stories high, and with laundry hanging from balconies, and often people looking down from those same balconies onto the street below. You have to watch where you step – there are sometimes huge holes and other obstructions in the pavement, and streets are narrow and vehicles hurry by. Old classic cars from the 1940s and 1950s belch clouds of white smoke.

On Thursday, I made more of a point of trying to engage people and when possible take photos. I stopped by a shoe repair shop and talked to two men there and the wife of one of the men as I took several photos of them. They had numerous hand tools spread out over the workbench and were engaged simply in repairs, not making new shoes from scratch. They were friendly, and didn’t ask for anything from me, except I agreed to send them some photos. They had been in business 15 years and it was their own shop – a private business.

I also stopped to take some photos in a barbershop that was literally in an alley with beautiful light filtering down. Again, the men there were friendly, and we chatted briefly.

Old Havana is much more geared to tourists and the colonial buildings have been beautifully restored. There are shops and cafés along the narrow streets, and there are people who make a living posing for pictures for tourists for a peso a shot. Outside the hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway used to stay, was a bearded man dressed like Hemingway pointing to a big cigar in his mouth with Hemingway written on it. I found that just a bit too gimmicky so declined to take a picture, but I did take a couple more shots of Graciela, an old lady with just two front teeth in a big cigar in her mouth.

I made a stop to visit the Havana Club rum museum. There they explain the process and history of sugar harvest and making of rum. There was an elaborate scale model of the sugar refinery, and an explanation of the oak barrels, ironically from the United States. Rum is cured in these. Then they showed the range of Havana Club products – from Anejo Blanco, the white rum used in mixed drinks, to Anejo 7 anos, an aged rum for drinking straight. Finally, they ended the tour with a sample of seven year rum. Afterwards, I went to the bar for another and to sit and watch a group play traditional Cuban acoustic music.

Again in San Francisco Square, I encountered a group of performers on stilts, this time dressed all in white. They paraded through the streets performing for people and I followed for a while taking pictures. Some of them had very tall stilts, and it can’t be easy to walk with those without falling.

Back in Central Park there is a spot where a group of men can always be found arguing fiercely. The argument looks very heated and you might think they will burst out into violence at any moment, if you didn’t know better. No, they are not arguing politics or religion, unless you consider baseball a religion. This spot is known as La Esquina Caliente, the hot corner, and it’s a spot where baseball fans hang out daily to argue the game. I’ve seen passionate hockey fans in Canada, but the level of excitement in these men was like nothing I’d seen before.

I ended the day by walking out to Callejon de Hamel, which is an alley that must be unique. It is a celebration of the art, Afro-Cuban culture, and Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion. Walls and buildings are painted and decorated in wild colours, and old bathtubs are inlaid into walls to form benches or simply as decoration. There were sellers of art and of traditional herbal medicines. Every Sunday rumba music is played there. It’s become a bit touristy, but it’s still worth a visit.

Friday I continued my explorations of Havana, this time taking a taxi through the tunnel to the other side of the inlet where there is an impressive network of castles and fortifications. It was nice to be in wide open spaces with clean air and views across the water of congested Havana. Several rooms in the fortifications were set aside for a museum to Che Guevara, who seems to be the most celebrated hero of the revolution. It featured photos of him and personal items such as his cameras – Che had been a photographer as well as a doctor, Minister of the Interior, and numerous other occupations, aside from revolutionary idol. Another room was set up as a museum of torture showing some of the tools of the trade from the colonial period, and pre-revolutionary period. Apparently the garote is more humane than hanging because it kills its victims more quickly. There were thumbscrews, torture shoes, and other instruments  that didn’t look very comfortable.

Afterwards, I walked to the village of Casablanca, passing a huge statue of Christ that was one of the last monuments built by Batista. From there, there is a rickety old ferry crossing the water to old Havana. They search the bags of passengers getting on, even though there are no searches on buses and other travel. Apparently this is because there was once a hijacking attempt with the ferry by someone unsuccessfully trying to make it to Miami. Frankly, anyone crazy enough to attempt to go to Miami on this rickety old boat with just an open floor should have been allowed to go.

I got up very early Saturday, skipping breakfast, to take a taxi to the bus terminal to go to Trinidad. It was a long trip of over five hours mostly through not very exciting scenery – just flat scrub seen from the side of the Autopista Nacional. Only at the end did this scenery get nicer as we passed through Cienfuegos and took smaller roads through hills and along the Caribbean. The bus was comfortable, and except for the last bit I had two seats to myself. The music they played was schmaltzy and not great, but thankfully they didn’t play kung fu videos as they do in Mexico.

The arrival of the bus in Trinidad is greeted by dozens of persistent jineteros trying to collect a commission by taking tourists to rooms for rent. As I already had a reservation in the colonial home of Julio and Rosa Munoz, I just made a beeline through them repeating over and over “no gracias.” Apparently some are so persistent that they will even tell tourists that the home is closed or the owner is dead as they try to divert them elsewhere. I found the home a few blocks away and was met at the door by Julio, who is a horse whisperer and photographer among other things. Their beautiful home has even been pictured in National Geographic in 1999.

Men working on scaffording in Havana.

Shoe repair men in their shop, Habana Centro.

Barber shop in alley.

Musicians at Havana Club Rum Museum.

Stilt performer, Old Havana.

Santeria musician, Old Havana.

Stilt performer, Old Havana.

La esquina caliente (the Hot Corner) where men have ferocious arguments daily — about baseball.

Callejon de Hamel — an alley of art and Santeria religion.

Callejon de Hamel.

“Every Cuban must know how to shoot — and shoot well.” A street rifle range — while guns have a place in Cuban revolutionary mythology, I do not detect the obsession with guns that one finds in the U.S., for example.

A 1950 Chevy near el Capitolio — this man had the hood up, and he said it was the original engine.

Havana from the Morro castle.

A woman hauls food up to her balcony from the street in a basket on a rope.

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

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