Back in Havana

I was up early Saturday morning to catch the 8:15 a.m. Viazul bus to Havana. Although they told me the night before it was fully booked, they assured me (correctly) that there are almost always cancellations and I would have no trouble getting a seat. The Viazul bus is a hard currency bus taking both foreigners and Cubans. For Cubans only, there is another company, Astro, that sells tickets more cheaply in moneda nacional. Both are modern Chinese built buses — these are not the chicken buses running in old Blue Bird school buses that are common in other Latin American countries.

The ride was pretty smooth after the twisty, mountainous beginning — mostly along the Autopista Nacional, a freeway running through Cuba from Pinar del Rio to Sancti Spiritus where it abruptly stops due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its support to Cuba coming to an abrupt end at the beginning of the 1990s.

Back in Havana, I got a taxi to Hotel Deauville on the Malecon, where I’d stayed before, but this time had to be content with a room with no balcony or Malecon view — just a window looking out at Old Havana and el Capitolio.

I spent the rest of the day Saturday walking around in La Habana Vieja and Centro Habana, picking up a few items — rum and cigars — to take home. I bought the cigars, two boxes of Montecristo 2, at the Partagas Cigar factory, paying the full government price for these, but being assured I was buying the real thing. These are not to smoke myself, but for others at home who enjoy such pleasures. Of course, when I left the factory, I had a number of jineteros tell me I should have bought from them at the “special price.” Jineteros are constantly accosting you in Cuba to buy cigars cheap, but they are almost always counterfeits and low-quality cigars (or worse, banana leaves) with fake labelling. You buy from them at your peril.

I usually found the cigar jineteros backed off as soon as I gave them a polite, firm “no gracias.” One, however, was particularly persistent. So I whispered to him: “Mi tio es Fidel Castro. El me da las Cohibas — gratis.” (My uncle is Fidel Castro. He gives me free Cohibas.) The guy thought that was hilarious, and he walked away laughing.

I bought some Havana Club Añejo 7 años rum to bring back for myself from my shopkeeper friend who thought I look like a young Fidel. But other than that, I didn’t see much to buy to bring back other than a few trashy looking crafts and Che Guevara t-shirts. I did get a book of photos by Korda, the photographer who photographed Fidel and Che and took the famous photo of Che that has become an international icon.

On Sunday, my last full day, I bought another all-day on-off tourist bus ticket and rode the double decker out to Vedado, getting off at the Colon Cemetery.

One think that struck me about Cuba was the relative absence of symbolism about Marx and Lenin. That’s not to say there isn’t the odd place named after them, but for the most part Cuba celebrates Cuban and Latin American heroes rather than the heroes of Communism. There are apparently two statues of Lenin in the Havana area, but both are in out-of-the-way places. Much more popular, however, is a statue to Lennon. That’s right. John Lennon, the Beatle. Originally Castro considered the Beatles a sign of decadent capitalism, but when Lennon started singing against the war in Vietnam and other radical ideas, and when the Beatles became popular among Cubans, Castro did an about face and accepted that John Lennon was actually a revolutionary. So there’s a park in Vedado with a statue of Lennon sitting on a park bench. His round wire-rim glasses kept being stolen, so now there’s a little guy who hangs out in the background, and when tourists appear, he slips a pair of glasses onto Lennon’s nose. Of course, he expects a small tip.

The Colon Cemetery is an enormous area with marble statues and elaborate building-like tombs dedicated to deceased great Cubans, colonial, post-colonial and revolutionary. One of the more popular tombs is easily recognizable because it’s covered in flowers and is almost always being visited by pilgrims. It is said to be that of a mother, who died in childbirth, and her baby. When she was buried, the child was at her feet, but when she was exumed later, she was cradling the child in her arms. Naturally, this was considered a miracle, and pilgrims visit the grave, knock on the tomb with a brass ring, and walk away backwards. For this, they believe, their wishes will be miraculously granted.

From there, I made my way to Callejon de Hamel, the alley celebrating arts and Afro-Cuban culture. Sunday at noon is when rumba concerts begin. The performers were decked out in colourful costumes and the music and drumming were wild and lively, but more than half the people there were tourists. It was very hard to get a clear view of the musicians through the crowds clustered around the performers, but I did manage a few photos. It was worth seeing, even if it had the feel more of a contrived tourist event than of a genuine celebration of the Santeria African religion.

I spent the rest of the day walking around, and took several long strolls down the Malecon, enjoying watching the Sunday evening crowds along it. My trip was coming to an end.

Rumba drummer at Callejon de Hamel.

Fortune teller at Callejon de Hamel.

Marxist-Lennonism: A statue to “revolutionary” Beatle John Lennon in Vedado.

Crumbling buildings along Havana’s Malecon sea wall.

Hanging out on the Malecon at night.

About Richard McGuire

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

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