Friday, January 06, 2017

Our woman in Havana, New Year’s Eve in Cuba, a trip to a tobacco plant, Miguel and Claudia’s wedding and stories of our stay in one of the last bastions of communism in the world, Castro’s Cuba.

Friday 6th January 2017

The Cuban wedding.  Miguel and Claudia with his family.
Hello everyone,

Here I am, “our woman in Havana” (inspired by Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana) writing this post the morning after we arrived on 27th December from our lovely private hotel, “RentinVedado”.   I shall be chronicling each day and will only be able to publish it once home in Spain as internet here is something of a luxury and difficult to obtain. 

Tuesday 27th December, the day of our trip to Cuba with Toño and Dolores, finally arrived. I wasn’t really mentally prepared for it as it was the middle of our family Christmas but got up to speed, packing the day before, with last minute preparations. But first Eladio and I had an appointment in Madrid at 9 in the morning with a lawyer, yeah a lawyer. I haven’t needed one for many years and hope I won’t for many more.  That meant we weren’t home until 11 and would have to leave the house at 1 when Suzy would drive us to the airport.  It was all a bit of a rush.  We boarded a big, brand new, Iberia Airbus at 4 pm and were facing a 10 hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean in very cramped conditions. 
Excited to be travelling to Havana

Leaving Madrid
Eladio and I hadn’t been on a long haul flight since our trip to Israel and Jordan in 2010 and things have progressed. This airplane had an individual multimedia touch screen monitor for each seat which impressed me enormously. It offered many films, series, documentaries, music and the flight path information.  I watched The Second Best Marigold Hotel and then The Impossible.
The individual multimedia screens on our plane
Eladio mostly looked out of the window, slept or watched the flight path and we both oohed and aahed as we flew over the Bahamas for example.  The food on board was pretty awful and I envied those in Business Class, remembering my many transatlantic flights with Nokia all over the world when I used to travel in luxury.  The space was very tight and next to us was a family with a toddler and baby which cried and screamed for most of the flight.  We left at 4 in the afternoon and would arrive at 8 in the evening in Havana which for us would be 2 in the morning.  We didn’t get much sleep and I wasn’t looking forward to the jet lag we would suffer.

Arrival was much as I expected, a bit of a chaos and very slow.  There were lots of officials, mostly women, dressed in uniforms with miniskirts but wearing black laced tights.  They did look funny. We had been told the wait for our luggage could be up to 3 hours.  I asked one of the officials how long it would take to which she replied I should arm myself with patience as everything in her country, she whispered to me, was very, very slow.  In the end, surprisingly, we only had to wait an hour.
Waiting for our luggage upon arrival at the José Marti airport in Havana
The terminal was much what I expected, a bit forlorn, quite modern but already dirty with many things, such as the escalators, not working and no loo paper or soap in the toilets.  Soon Miguel, my nephew, arrived and we got into a van he had hired where we loaded our luggage and 2 huge suitcases Dolores had brought with essentials that Miguel and his Cuban wife, Claudia, had asked for; many of the things being for their wedding on 3rd January. I should add here that the excuse for visiting Cuba was to attend Miguel and Claudia's second wedding.  You see they married first in Madrid in a simple small family celebration at a registry office and only the immediate family was present;none of Claudia's. The wedding in Havana was for all her friends and family.  In between the 2 weddings Miguel and Claudia had also celebrated their marriage with a family lunch near Montrondo. For the record Eladio and I would be attending all 3.

It is about 20km from the José Marti airport to the centre and the boulevard, El Bollero, was pretty empty. There are very few cars here, mostly taxis, as the general population cannot afford to buy one. There are  more of course in the centre. It was pitch black (it got dark here at 6pm) and the lighting was very dim and the streets seemed empty, even the main square, Plaza de la Revolución, with its gigantic images of Che Guevara, Cienfuegos and José Marti. The latter, whose Father was from Valencia, fought the Spaniards  in the fight for independence and is a national hero.  Everywhere we were to see posters publicizing the ongoing revolution such as this one with Cuba’s beloved Che Guevara.  He is also a national hero and known as one of the “comandantes”.
Che Guevara
Soon we arrived at the lovely private hotel we would be staying at, Rent in Vedado, run by Lorenzo, a friendly enterprising Spaniard, from Brunete in Madrid who, some years ago married  a Cuban pharmacist and moved here because of the crisis in Spain.  The house he lets is very special. 
Group photo upon our arrival at our residence in Vedado
Built in 1920, it is slightly colonial with very high ceilings and is well equipped. The rooms are spacious, not luxurious, but very comfortable.  It feels like being in a private house.  It has its own garden and was perfect for our stay.  The staff couldn't have been more friendly or helpful and I got to know them quite well. 
A shot of the garden at hour residence in Vedado.
After settling into our room we went to bed at around 11 pm in Havana, the equivalent of 5 in the morning.  It was warm, some 24c but thanks to the ventilator, we were able to sleep.  I did so on and off and finally got up at 6.45, local time, nearly 13h in Spain.  Thankfully I was to get my essential morning coffee as the owner had arrived just as I got up. The rest slept on. The weather would be warm throughout with midday temperatures reaching nearly 30c most days, very different to the temperature in Madrid at this time of year.  It was supposed to be winter in Cuba and cooler but I was told that global warming had reached here and that it was much warmer than usual for December and January.

Wednesday 28th December would be our first full day in Havana.  Like in Spain, it was also the day of the “innocents”, the equivalent to “all fools’ day”.  Who knew how it would pan out.  Being our first time in Cuba with many preconceived ideas, I was looking forward to getting to know the city a little and how people here live. I was soon to find out the truth of Castro’s Cuba, one of the last bastions of world communism. 

Cuba, the biggest island in the Caribbean has a population of just under 12 million people and Havana has 2.1 million inhabitants. It is known or was known as the “pearl” of the Caribbean. When Christopher Columbus first set foot on its shores, he described it as “the most beautiful earth that human eyes have seen”.  I tend to agree.  My facts and figures may not be completely accurate as none of my sources are guaranteed so please take them as approximate.  It is famous for its communist system and animosity to the US which is what it makes it so relevant in the world.  Its people are proud and independent, welcoming but mostly impoverished as all the goods we have in the western world are a complete luxury here.  The average monthly salary is about 30 euros per month; nearly the same for street cleaners or doctors.  No one can live on that and thanks to a recent law where people can own businesses, life is getting slightly better.  But only slightly.  From what we learned, the regime seems to be opening too since the accord with Obama.  For instance we were told that just a few years ago a Cuban could be imprisoned just for talking to tourists.  Thankfully today that is no longer a crime. The way of life is frustrating, nothing works, the word “efficiency” is unknown and corruption is rife.  On the plus side, the climate is incredible with sun all year round, the people are kind and all seem to be in a permanent good mood.  I am told one way of making the people happy is to provide them with endless amounts of cheap rum and cigarettes.  And thus they don’t complain. People try to rip you off in the tourist areas but that is to be understood.  Also they are all very well educated and I am told the health system works well.  Cuba I think is probably one of the safest Latin American countries. There is little violence here and robberies are apparently few and far between.   I found the people very hospitable, going out of their way to help a tourist in distress. We were to experience that on many occasions as you will hear later. The revolution I am also told is ongoing to preserve what communism has achieved, a good education and health system.  Unfortunately it has not achieved much else.  The regime’s hatred of capitalism is in evidence because of the sheer lack of global brands such as McDonalds.  I, for one, am happy to be in a country without one. There are hardly any advertising billboards which for me was a relief. In their place there are plenty of billboards with communist slogans which are a site in themselves.
Political signs and slogans everywhere instead of global brand billboards
This one was of Fidel Castro.  He may have died but his presence is felt everywhere, on posters and in people's minds, thoughts and hearts.

In our privately owned residence, our haven of the new capitalism, that morning we all had breakfast together. I had hoped for lots of fruit but was to learn that there is not much on offer surprisingly or only that which is in season.
Breakfast at "Rent in Vedado"
Thankfully there was some toast and butter.  I decided to buy some fruit that day but it turned out to be nearly impossible. The only fruit available at the dismal fruit and veg markets were over ripe bananas, tasteless water melon, over ripe papaya and a strange and not very nice tasting fruit called “guayara”.  The small bananas called apple bananas (plátano manzana) turned out to be delicious. You would think with the climate here, fruit in Cuba would be like in Mexico, spectacular, but no it was very disappointing. Fruit doesn’t grow much here due to a measure by Fidel Castro years ago when he wanted to double the production of sugar cane.  Land for fruit was sacrificed as one of the measures.  However, Castro’s equivalent of the sugar cane five year leap proved to be a failure so today sugar is declining and there is hardly any fruit to be found. What a pity!

Miguel came to pick us up in the morning in a 1949 American gas guzzler taxi with no seat belts and falling apart like most of these cars left behind from Batiste’s dazzling days when Havana was the centre of the world.  They are a sight to see and much photographed.  I heard later that many of the engines have been replaced with new ones but the chassis, etc, are totally dilapidated. That’s not true of all of them as some are very well kept.
Miguel getting into the taxi on our first day
But the taxi was fun to ride in. The driver played loud Cuban music and set us in the mood for the day.  It’s pointless criticizing everything here because there is nothing you can change.  Eladio likens Havana to Aleppo, as so much of it is destroyed, rotting and decaying but that’s how it is and either you take it or you leave it.  I decided to “take” it. 
Miguel and his parents, Dolores and Toño in the back of the first old taxi we took 
Our destination was Miguel’s academy where they give music classes to tourists, mostly from the USA.  We were supposed to drive through some of the main squares and streets of Havana, like the Plaza de la Revolución, but most were closed as it turned out there were rehearsals on for a huge military parade to take place on 2nd January.

Private people here do not have cars as there is no way they can afford them on salaries of 30 euros a month.  But there are many vehicles mostly for the tourist trade which is what Cuba lives on.

The most attractive for tourists are the old classic American cars from the 40s and 50s.  They are in abundance here and much photographed.  The story goes that the Chevrolet models were owned by the middle class and the Dodges or Cadillacs by the rich.  Many of their owners left when Fidel Castro came to power and the government confiscated them and then resold them to people who could afford them. Those who had one and didn’t leave kept the car in the family. When the American blockade came into force, Cuba was unable to import cars and those that they have imported; mostly cars for tourists to hire, are sold at extortionate prices.  We loved them as most tourists do too.  They are attractive to look at but are highly contaminating and the fumes they give off make it difficult to breathe.
Me having a photo taken by one of the classic American cars left in Cuba
Getting into a red vintage car which are the main attraction in Cuba
The academy is small but very vibrant and each class was full.  From there we drove to the old centre of the city and here we had a great guide in “Pepo” (real name Eadberto) who is Miguel’s right hand man in the running of his business.  Pepo was the leader of the University Students Union and is a professor of contemporary history.  We learned from him that 37% of the population is black, like he is and that they come originally from Africa, being brought here as slaves by the Spaniards.  The rest are all descendants of Spaniards, mostly from Galicia and the Canary Islands.  Today anyone who can prove their parents or grandparents were Spanish immigrants can claim Spanish nationality.  However, for many a passport from Spain is pretty useless as they cannot afford the flights. At the end of the 19th century Spain owned Cuba but didn’t give enough rights to the population, although they mixed with them, unlike the British in India for example.  Spain owned Cuba from the late 16th century. So there was a war for independence, led by the country’s main hero, José Martí, whose father was actually Spanish from Valencia. He is even more loved than old Fidel.  Everyone pointed out that the war in 1898 was not against the Spanish people but against the Spanish government. Spain’s heritage is evidenced here everywhere and Cubans refer to Spain as their Mother country; “la madre patria”.
The José Marti statue at Parque Central
Our destination was a cultural building built during the times of the colonialization by the Spaniards, like most old buildings in Havana. Casa Gaia, an imposing building with the highest door and ceilings I have ever seen is where Claudia works as an actress and dancer and which Miguel uses for big groups of pupils who want classes in Cuban dance and music.  The group coming was from the Harvard University Alumni association but first we got a private class in “minor percussion” using local instruments such as the “clave”, the “wiro” and of course maracas which needed no introduction.

Our lesson in minor percussion Cuban instruments
It was fun to try them out.  The group arrived and the class was superb, thanks to Miguel’s excellent team of musicians and teachers. Soon they created a wonderful atmosphere and after learning about the instruments and different types of Cuban music such as bolero, danzón, chachacha, Cuban son, rumba and timba, the tutors got the whole group of about 40 people to perform a concert themselves.
The group of Americans receiving a class in Cuban music
 I was very impressed.

We watched from the back of the class and I just had to have this photo of Eladio, Toño and Dolores sitting in front of the flag of Cuba which is omnipresent in this country.
Dolores, Toño and Eladio sitting with the Cuban flag behind them at Casa Gaia
From Casa Gaia, we took another old American car and drove to the historic centre of Havana.  Here we saw that the beautiful old Spanish buildings were in a better condition than in other parts.  There was lots of refurbishment going on and Miguel told me it was coming from foreign capital mostly. We got out at the beautiful “Plaza Vieja” and walked around in the sun feeling like real tourists.
The Plaza Vieja
From there we walked through the colourful streets to the Plaza de San Francisco where we could spy the sea or the sea front which is called El Malecón and which we had yet to see properly. 
The Plaza San Francisco or Plaza de las Palomas as it is also known.
It was in this square where slaves would be auctioned as they arrived from Africa in the 16th century. Most of their descendants make up the black population in Cuba. Slavery was abolished when Cuba gained its independence in 1898. In the imposing building in this square, La Lonja, Miguel has an office as does the Spanish Embassy.  Then we walked to the Plaza de Las Armas.  On our way we were hassled by locals, out for our money, like these two guitar players.  Eladio had to pay them 1 euro for the picture although they asked for 20 haha. 
Photo with the guitar players on our first day visiting the historic centre of Havana
My next “paid for photo” was with 2 dachshunds dressed in Santa Claus hats, hahaha.  It’s funny but it doesn’t feel like Christmas here. The dogs were lovely but rather dirty and I suspected the one I held was drugged as it hardly moved in my arms.  If it had been Pippa she would have barked like mad.
Another paid for photos, this one with dachshunds dressed in Christmas gear hahaha
Our walk then took us to the Cathedral Square built in the 18th century in the Cuban baroque style and which we found beautiful.  It was funny to see a large Christmas crib next to it in the square as it just didn’t feel like Christmas.
Photo with Claudia in the Plaza de las Armas
Me by the Cathedral
For lunch we were in for a very local treat. Instead of going to a restaurant like other tourists –  from what I can see, only non-Cubans can afford them - Miguel  took us to a private house, run by a picturesque old lady called Fabiola, who was to cook for us in her own house.  We were served very Cuban food which I am not fond of, rice and “frejoles” (black beans) but thankfully there was some stewed lamb and tomatoes and cucumber.  Also on offer was fried sweet potato and fried banana called “tostones” which I hesitated to eat because of the enormous amount of calories they would have.
A lunch of Cuban fare on our first day. Casa Fabiola
We paid a paltry price of about 5 euros per person. 

As we went out I spied a typical bicycle taxi which I would have loved to ride in.  The vehicle reminded me of India as many things do. The main difference is that there are no cows or goats in the street. Otherwise Cuba seems nearly as poor, the streets nearly as ruined and dirty. However the Cubans are very clean themselves.
One of the many taxi bikes
By the bike there was a food market and we went in to have a look at how Cubans buy their food. I should add that under this communist regime, people are given coupons for the basics but that anything else has to be paid for at extortionate prices.  The food from the coupons only lasts them 10 days though. There were only eggs and chicken for sale and not much more.  The market was pretty awful and I felt so privileged with the wonderful supermarkets we can go to in Europe and, which if Cubans saw would realise what a rip off their regime is.
Eggs on sale at a local market in the centre.  There may be shortages of lots of things but eggs were in abundance
From the market we walked towards the Parque Central.  On our way we enjoyed the atmosphere and spectacles created by street sellers and beggars such as the woman in the picture below. If you look closely you will see she has a cat in a pram haha.
The woman with the cat in a pram
There are lots of stray dogs and cats here and they all look emaciated. The Cubans, though, are generally rather fat and I suppose that is because of their diet of rice, beans and fried bananas!

To get back to our hotel, we took a shared taxi, called an “almedrón” or “colectivo” which seems to be the main public transport here after the very old buses “guaguas”. Our ride cost approx. 40 euro cents each. Once back in “Vedado” where we staying we exchanged euros for “cucs” and Cuban pesos.  I have still to understand why there are two types of currency here.  It seems strange and no one is really able to explain it.  One cuc is the equivalent to 24 pesos or 1 euro. I Cuban peso is about 4 or 5 euro cents.

While the men stayed at “home, Dolores, Claudia and Laura, walked to a Cuban friend’s house which was supposedly nearby but the walk seemed long.  We needed and wanted to connect to internet there hahah. On our way we visited another market in the hope of buying fruit. As I said earlier there was little on offer.
The fruit and vegetable market
It was wonderful to finally have some internet and be able to send whatsapps to the girls at home. They had been worried at no news from us. Later we were joined by Toño and Eladio and then walked home. I was told, as we were leaving that nearly every block of flats here has a sort of government warden who spies on all the neighbours, just as there were in the old USSR.  We also heard from the owner of our small hotel that after Fidel Castro died, all the inhabitants were obliged to sign a declaration of loyalty to the regime.  Yes this is still a communist country.  However, according to one man we spoke to in the street the next day, he confided that the majority of people here are anti-Castro and are waiting for Raúl to die and that only then can real change come.  Yes it is communist as I said before but it is a different sort to that in the old USSR, China or North Korea.  It is a Latin American Caribbean communism which I suppose helps as people are more relaxed and also smilingly resigned to how the country is run.  I don’t think I could live here for more than about a month although Havana is charming and enticing if you are a tourist.

Time seems to have stood still here since the Americans left. Children still play in the street as they have no computers or game consoles.  You see them playing football in on the pavements, although the national sport as I said is baseball which the Cubans call “pelota”. Football might not be big here but everyone seems to be a fan of either Real Madrid or Barcelona hahahaha.

Once back at our house, I was in much need of a shower and change of clothes as I felt so dirty after walking all day.  Havana is filthy I should add.  I hear it is only cleaned when it rains and this is not the rainy season.

We went to a recommended tourist restaurant that night called “Idilio”. However we had to wait ages for a table and then ages for our food. The food was very disappointing.  I had lobster which tasted like rubber.  Just as we were finishing, Marta, my niece and her husband, Ministro had arrived – many people were coming from Spain for Miguel and Claudia’s wedding. They were just as shattered as we had been the night before when we arrived.  We all went to bed early after having sprayed our rooms with insect repellent. We had been told there were all sorts of nasty mosquitos.  Hopefully it would work as mosquitos seem to love my white skin.

On Thursday I was up at 6.30 and had to make do with decaf tea I had brought as the coffee wasn’t ready. After breakfast we got ready to go out into town again.  And here we are, all ready to go, Eladio and I in the lovely garden of our house.

Ready to go out one morning. Posing in the garden of our lovely residence
The 4 of us set off for a long walk into town at just after 9.30 which would take us 1.5h along the famous Malecón seafront.  I just have to show you the pavements we walked along, full of pitfalls, holes and cracks.
This is what most of the pavements looked like
I mentioned the wonderful old colonial houses, many of them once belonging to affluent Cubans who left when Fidel came to power.  Some have been restored but many are crumbling like this one.  It is such a pity.

One of the many many crumbling houses
Walking along the famous Avda de los Presidentes we got to the Malecón which is breathtaking although the promenade pavement is mostly ruined.
Eladio and I on the famous Malecón sea front
I don’t know how many kilometres long it is but it seems to stretch forever. Some people told me it was 20km long, others just 2 and others 7 or 8.  I think 8 is the right number.
The famous Malecon promenade
Dolores, Eladio and Toño by the Malecon
We spied many birds here we thought were seagulls but their beaks were much longer.  They may have been albatrosses.  One was perched on a stone and Eladio went up to it, trying to get it to fly away but it made a menacing gesture to my husband.  I didn’t like these birds at all.
The menacing bird and Eladio by the Malecon 
There were signs for no fishing or bathing but both were going on quite a lot.  It would be difficult to bathe as there is no beach or any steps to get down to the rocks, but lots of young boys managed to climb down. 
The signs on the Malecon which said no fishing or bathing and which no notice were taken of
Exhausted and hot from the sun, we finally got to the centre. Not sure which road to take we ended up on the beautiful Paseo del Pardo with its amazing colonial houses.  Unfortunately many of them were crumbling like the one in the photo below. Many street names like the Paseo del Prado are the same as those in Madrid.  The influence Spain had on Cuba was in evidence everywhere.

One of the crumbling houses on the Paseo del Prado
Thankfully the Paseo del Prado was tree lined and we got some shade.
The Paseo del Prado
We reached the Parque Central next to the Capitol building, a replica of the one in Washington.  Remembering our walk the day before, I led my fellow walkers towards the main street of old Havana, Calle Obispo.  Here we stopped at a decent looking bar for a rest, a visit to the loo (they are awful) and a drink. 
A bar we went to on the famous Calle Obispo
Outside a man was selling coconut water and I just had to taste it.
The man selling coconut water on the Calle Obispo
He had a pile of fresh coconuts and chopped mine to put a straw in it for me to drink. Now that’s something you don’t see in the first world.
Drinking delicious coconut water
We left the men to rest at the bar and went to visit a nearby souvenir market we had spied. Olivia had told me there was nothing to buy in Cuba except cigars but there was lovely colourful jewelry on sale and I bought a wooden necklace and bracelet for 3 cucs (3 euros) which I would wear throughout my visit as the string on my pearls had broken.

It was on the Obispo street that we went into the famous old chemist shop, Johnson, and the  famous hotel called La Florida, not to be confused with Hemingway’s bar La Floridita.  It was a beautifully conserved building that reminded me of Andalusian palaces with their big interior patios.

It was also on the Obispo street that we had an interesting conversation with the Cuban waiter I mentioned above, the one who said everyone was waiting for Raul Castro to die.  We asked him how he and his fellow Cubans could bear the regime with its shortages and he told us how most people pirate a connection to tv from abroad adding that in Cuba there were only 3 channels, Fidel 1, Fidel 2 and Fidel 3 which had us in stitches.  He asked us whether we knew the drink “Cuba Libre” which means in English “Free Cuba” which he said was a lie as there is no freedom whatsoever. Funnily enough our next destination was the Hotel Cuba Libre which houses the Real Madrid Football Fan club here and where we would be picked up by Miguel.  In the reception I was able to use my internet card for a minute or two to send photos and messages to the girls.

From the Cuba Libre hotel we walked to the restaurant where we were all to have lunch. It is called Lola K and is opposite Miguel and Claudia’s house in the Vedado district.  It is run by a Catalán woman called Lola and I have to say we had the best service and food since our arrival.  We just loved the place. Lola would be providing the catering for the wedding so we were guaranteed good quality and service.
Lola's lovely restaurant "Lola K" in Vedado
After lunch we migrated to our Cuban friend’s flat for a bit more internet connection, pirated too by the way hahah.  We then walked home on the cracked pavements where you have to look at the ground the whole time if you don’t want to fall. Poor José Antonio had fallen earlier flat on his face after hitting an unseen obstacle on the pavement.

We spent the afternoon chilling out in the garden whilst Marta and Ministro slept to get over their jet lag.  We were waiting for a nail beautician to arrive to do our nails for 1 cuc each but she came so late I did my own.  However she did do Laura’s and Marta’s as you can see in the photo below. What a luxury, if only she had been punctual.  But punctuality is something unheard of here.
My niece Marta having her nails done for 1 cuc (1 euro) at our residence
Miguel had booked a table for the 4 of us that night at a recommended Italian restaurant in the rich area called Miramar.  The waiter we spoke to in the Obispo street said that is where the people live who have access to things normal Cubans do not. So you see communism is as it is everywhere. Those running the system have everything whilst the normal population has nothing.  It reminds me of the famous phrase in George Orwell’s Animal Farm when describing the pigs: “All are equal but some are more equal than others”. That is a very apt description of how things are here.

It was impossible to call a taxi so Miguel got his father-in-law, Juan to take us to the restaurant. He has a classic car too. There are no luxury cars here, no BMWs, Mercedes, etc but I did spy one Audi in the Miramar district.  A table was booked for us at the highly recommendable La Carboncita and although we weren’t hungry we enjoyed half a pizza each. Pizzas in Cuba are very tasty we would find.
La Carboncita restaurant in the dark at night
Hailing an “almendrón” taxi going back was something of an adventure as they were few and far between and people were jumping the queue.  In the end we found a normal taxi and haggled the tariff down from 15 to 5 cucs.  It was difficult to tell the driver where to take us as the streets here are run on an alphabetic and numeric system a bit like the American one. Ours was on street “E” in between numbers 13 and 15.  There are no name signs on the streets as there are in most parts of the world and to see them you have to look for an engraved stone on the ground which is very confusing. The big avenues do have names though, such as Avda de los Presidentes.  The most impressive one is Havana’s 5th Avenue full of security posts and traffic lights.  There are very few traffic lights or zebra crossings and you often have to risk your life crossing the big avenues. I should add that the old cars do not have seat belts either, another potential risk.
The unusual street signs which are to be found on the pavements
Once “home” we all had a cup of tea made of some herbs which were supposed to help you sleep. Well they didn’t as I was awake at 2, 4 and 5 in the morning and finally got up at 6.
On Friday I was up early again. This time I did get my early morning cup of coffee . After writing my blog I had breakfast with the others.  Our plan was to go straight afterwards to exchange more euros for cucs.  However we had to wait to leave as there was a sudden and short torrential shower. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we saw the streets being slowly flooded.  
Ministro and Marta waiting for the rain to stop
The rain brought cooler temperatures which was a pity as the day on the beach ahead of us would be affected. Going in search of an exchange kiosk was something of an adventure too.  There are lots of queues but we were lucky to be there early and didn’t have to wait too long.
Queuing to exchange money
We had to exchange quite a lot of our euros as that day we had to pay the hotel owner for our stay.  He later told us it was the norm here to pay upon arrival, not when you leave which is how it works in the rest of the world. Cuba is different even in this aspect.

That day Miguel had planned activities for the whole group. By then we were 16 as the night before a group of his school friends had arrived with their wives.  To my joy our transport was to be in 3 classic cars. When they arrived, Marta and I took the opportunity to take a photo with the drivers which was a lot of fun as you can see in the photo below.  If you want a laugh please look closely at the t-shirt, one of them was wearing, the driver Miguel calls “Javier el loco” hahaha.
Marta and I with 2 of our drivers
We drove in procession to the old town near the port past the Malecón.  Here we disembarked and walked towards the Plaza Vieja.  In this square our husbands, Eladio and Ministro, were assaulted by a group of omnipresent colourful mulata women who you could pose for a photo at 5 cucs each. That’s 5 euros and a robbery but I thought the picture below was worth paying that money for.  Don’t you?

Eladio and Ministro being kissed by some of the colourful mulata women in the Plaza Vieja
The women left a red lip kiss mark on their cheeks which Eladio instantly removed and I would have kept as a souvenir for the day.

There was a salsa dance class arranged for the group at Casa Gaia.  Below are some of our group dancing.
The lesson in salsa for Miguel's friends and family
As Eladio and I are terrible dancers with no rhythm whatsoever, we passed on the class and decided to spend the hour we had free, walking around the Plaza Vieja. Here we sat at a table at the famous El Escorial café and took the opportunity to take photos of the lovely statue of a woman sitting on a hen with a fork in her hands, who is supposed to be defending her family.
By the woman on the hen statue in the Plaza Vieja
We then decided to take a short tour of the city on one of the numerous bicycle taxis at 15 cucs an hour, but we only used it for 30 minutes as we didn’t have much time. 
Eladio with our bike taxi driver
Our driver called Hirley (funny name right?) took us to see some of the main monuments, including the Capitol building we had not seen properly.  He told us it was soon to be the Congress.
The Havana Capitolio, a replica of the Capitol in Washington
I didn’t know it but the real government headquarters is in the rich Miramar district or so our bike taxi driver told us.  Hirley showed us many other buildings such as the Museum of the Revolution , the beautiful Seville hotel, Hemingway’s bar, La Bodeguita del Medio where they serve the typical mojito cocktail, the main theatre and other well-known palaces and buildings including the imposing Spanish Embassy at the foot of the Malecón promenade. 

Soon our half hour was up and it was time to join the group for the main activity of the day.  We were going to the beach, one called Santa María, some 20km from Havana in the direction of Varadero.  It was not a day for the beach but thankfully the sun would make its appearance later.  We installed ourselves under palm sun shades on the white sandy beach but on terribly rickety and dirty sun beds which we had to pay 2 cucs for each.
Our group on the beach at Santa Marta

The cousins on the beach, Miguel and Marta
The beach was lovely but not particularly clean as I suppose is typical here.  The water was blue and I heard later that from these beaches which are some 90km (not sure this figure is right) to Florida, many Cubans have escaped to the US on rafts and makeshift boats. 
The beach at Santa Marta with its makeshift red flag
The sea was rough and the red flag was flying.  It was also a bit cold so hardly anyone went in the water.  However when the sun came out, the first person to go in was Ministro, Marta’s sporty husband.  I followed suit. But first I had to find somewhere to change into my Marks and Spencer bathing costume.  I did so under a group of coconut palm trees and in a hurry too, lest one of them fell on my head whilst changing. Thankfully none of them did although there were plenty on the ground. The water was warm but the sea so choppy and the waves so big it was impossible to swim.  Once dried with one of the hotel towels I had sneaked out, we went for a long walk on the beach where we had to be careful to navigate around the jelly fish.  At around 5 our vintage cars came to drive us home.  We drove past the Malecón promenade and were amazed to see the huge waves crashing over the stone wall and wetting us.  I was the one who bore the brunt of it as the window on my side wouldn’t wind down hahah.

We came back to take a luxurious shower and soon were ready to go out.  Dinner that night was a formal affair for the whole group, hosted by Miguel and Claudia at guess where? Yep, Lola K, across the road from their flat. 

Lola had everything prepared in her huge kitchen but I what I was most interested in was not the food but her tiny 3 month old miniature Fox Terrier, Lian, which was snuggled in a box in a corner of the kitchen.  I just adored the puppy and spent a lot of the night getting up from the table to go and see it. Here I am holding the delightful creature.  I wonder what Pippa would have thought hahaha.
Me with Lola's toy fox terrier puppy 
We sat down to a beautifully laid table which would soon be full of mostly Spanish delicacies such as tortilla, patatas bravas, etc as well as Cuban food with the proverbial fried bananas I do not like.
Claudia and Miguel at the table of Lola's lovely restaurant where we all had dinner one night

Dinner at Lola K's
We couldn’t believe it when after all the tapa like dishes we were served a huge plate of roast pork and yucca which is like potato.  We were far too full and there was lots left over.
Thank goodness we were able to work some of it off on our 20 minute walk back to the hotel.  It’s impossible to follow my Pronokal diet here and I dread the scales when I get back.

Walking back along cracked and broken pavements in complete darkness was quite hazardous and again a bit of an adventure.  We were shattered by the end of the day and hit the pillow as soon as we were back.

Saturday came and it was New Year’s Eve which we would be celebrating at Lorenzo’s house, our hotel with all of Miguel’s group and friends. 

We had a free morning and decided to ride on one of the newly operated open top tourist buses, a sight I was not glad to see in Havana. Normally I wouldn’t be seen dead on one, but it was the only way we could see the whole of the city.  For 10 euros a head we went on the one hour and 40 minute ride.  The views were good but we couldn’t hear a word the guide said as the sound system was appalling. Perhaps the most interesting sight we saw was the famous Plaza de la Revolución which we had only seen at night. 

The famous Plaza de la Revolución
We got off at a place we now know very well, Parque Central.  Here we went to have a coffee and a quick dose of slow internet at the imposing Hotel de Inglaterra.  By then it was lunch time and we had no plans or reservations.  Instead of staying in the centre we headed back on the slow bus to the area we are staying in, El Vedado.  We had a half hour wait on the bus itself due to the total lack of efficiency.  Watching the driver Orlando and the nice woman guide getting ready to go was a show in itself.  They were a picture of the lack of efficiency here and we all got rather frustrated.  In the end we could only laugh at the situation. You see, as I said before, everything is really slow here and either you take it or you leave it hahaha.

Once in Vedado we tried to find somewhere to have lunch. We made the totally wrong choice by going to a restaurant called Porto Habana housed on the 11th floor of one of the very few high rise buildings.  The only thing good about it were the views of the Malecón promenade and city.
The view from the Porto Habana restaurant, the only good thing about it
The expensive lobster was tough, tasteless and inedible and I declined to eat it.  In lieu of the ghastly lump of thick, white and rubbery seafood, I ordered what was called on the menu “filet mignon”.  It turned out to be another lump of inedible meat.  I had asked for it to be underdone and grilled and with a small salad.  It took the inefficient restaurant more than an hour to prepare it and when it came I took one look and sent it back to the kitchen.  It was tough, sitting on a bed of cheese (I hate cheese) and swimming in oil. In Cuba I heard, beef is virtually unknown and usually very tough so maybe I shouldn’t have asked for it. The bill came to over 100 euros which is incredibly expensive for here so I left the worst restaurant I had ever been in, on an empty stomach and 100 euros poorer. 

Our next appointment of the day was one we were all looking forward to.  We were going to have coffee at Toño and Eladio’s cousin Roche’s house where we to meet his daughter Lecinia, a dentist, and his wife who is unfortunately immobile and in a vegetative state and unable to communicate.  However, her daughter and husband swear she can hear and knows what’s going on. Roche is the son of Constante, Eladio and Toño’s grandmother, Lecinia’s brother who left Montrondo for Cuba in 1920 never to return. However, as you may have read in my blog, this summer his dream came true and he flew to Spain to see his Father’s beloved village and meet our family. The six of us, Toño, Dolores, Marta, Ministro, Eladio and I left our residence in search of a taxi for 6 to take us to the far away neighbourhood of El Cerro.  So far, so good, we hailed a big classic car in the nearby Avda de los Presidentes. The taxi driver had no idea how to get there and frequently stopped to ask people the way.  Finallly we found our family’s humble house.  Worried we would not find a taxi to get back later, we agreed with the driver to pick us up from Roche’s house at 6.30pm.  We were to learn later, once again, that Cubans don’t always stick to their word hahaha. 

On our way we were to see sights tourists don’t usually get to see, more crumbling and dilapidated houses which were once beautiful and lived in by rich owners but now inhabited by numerous families unable to restore them.  Roche’s house was small but obviously a luxury to live in and unaffordable to most Cubans. However, as he had been one of Castro’s fighters and supporters of the revolution he is well looked after by the regime and the house was a gift from the state.  It was very humble in my eyes.  In the lounge, overlooking everything was a portrait of our family’s hero, Fidel Castro.  The family are staunch supporters of the regime and our conversation with them was extremely interesting. 
Eladio with Roche and Toño
Roche welcomed us with open arms and told Eladio that he got to love us all during his visit to Spain.  We had got to love him too. He is a gentle and kind man.  But it was his older daughter Lecinia who captured our heart.  She was named after Eladio’s and Roche’s grandmother and according to my husband looked just like her.  She reminded me of my sister-in-law, Pili.  She dedicates her whole life to her parents, working as a dentist in the morning and then taking care of her mother all of the time. I felt so sorry for her.  She is resigned to it and told me that she had already lived her life and that it was her obligation now to care for her parents.  That sort of dedication you don’t often find in the “first world”. We invited her to the New Year’s Eve party at our residence but she couldn’t go as she couldn’t leave her mother alone for more than 10 or 15 minutes.  All I could do was admire and feel sorry for her. 
Me with Roche and his daughter Lecinia
At 6.30 we stepped out into the street hoping our taxi would arrive but it never made an appearance. That’s when our odyssey began.  We were far away from any taxi route, it was dark and New Year’s Eve and we didn’t know how to find one. Thankfully Roche guided us to a main road some 2km away, walking slowly with his stick and we arrived at a big crossroad called Mónaco.  Here many people were waiting for taxis and few appeared.  We needed a taxi for 6 and it seemed to be mission impossible.  A young Cuban man tried to help us and help us he did.  He finally hailed down a shared taxi which was a very old army jeep and supposedly illegal.  It was nearly full but agreed to come back for us when it had dropped off the riders further on.  In order to make sure it came back, Ministro and I jumped in and joined the passengers in the dark and dingy old vehicle.  It was one of those hilarious moments when all we could do was laugh.  On the ride we saw people in the street roasting a whole pig!  Thankfully the driver was true to his word and once he had dropped off the rest of the passengers he did indeed drive back to the Mónaco square to pick up the rest of our party.  All we could do on our drive back in the priceless vehicle was laugh.
In the hilarious ride in the illegal old jeep taxi back from El Cerro on New Year's Eve
Once back in Vedado, the party at our residence had started with lots of mojitos and loud live Cuban music.  I quickly showered and dressed and put make up on for the first time.  It was a long wait until midnight and I was tired but determined to stay awake until the New Year.  The food was provided by the residence cook and it was to be a barbecue.  I was so hungry after the dreadful lunch I found the pork chops and rice with beans delicious. It was funny to be spending New Year’s Eve in Cuba.  When we were starting to celebrate it was already New Year’s Day in Europe and we had no means of connecting with our daughters to wish them a Happy New Year.  But we were not alone as we had part of our family there, Toño, Miguel, Dolores, Mara and Ministro. And here we are enjoying the dinner at the party.
Dinner on New Year's Eve
When midnight came it was announced by the band and we all drank cider to toast in the New Year. Shortly afterwards Eladio and I made a discreet escape to our bedroom to go to sleep which was not easy with the noise of the music in the background.

New Year’s Day was a holiday in Cuba but because of the revolution we were told, although everyone here celebrates the New Year. We went to our Cuban friends to connect to internet.  On this subject, let me tell you how internet works or doesn’t work here.  There are wifi zones, mostly at the big hotels, and this is where you have to have an internet card which costs between 2 and 4 cucs each and lasts an hour.  It has a user name and code to connect.  You generally know where the wifi zones are because of the gathering of people glued to their phones like the one in the photo below.
An obvious wifi zone
People have mobile phones here but without data. That must mean that there is cellular infrastructure but without data.  It’s all because the government controls telephony and internet. Cuba really is behind the rest of the world when it comes to mobile telephony. I was told that each phone call costs 1 dollar!! This must be the most expensive mobile phone system in the world.  I hope that one day the wifi card system will be replaced by cheaper mobile data.

After reading our New Year’s Eve messages we set off for a walk again.  On our way into town we decided to visit the imposing Hotel Nacional built in 1930 and which seems to be a national reference. It is in fact one of the main national monuments in Havana.
The Hotel Nacional - a national monument
It commands amazing views of the Malecón and there is an exhibition of the 1962 missile crisis.  It’s an amazing place.

From there we were to walk into town along the promenade but it was so hot we decided to take a taxi.  It was not a good day to find one because it was a holiday. Finally we did and jumped into it with a young Ethiopian called Faisal who had come all the way from Germany to visit the newly open Muslim centre.  Each to their own, I thought hahaah.

Once again we arrived at the Parque Central square and started walking along the old streets looking for a restaurant for lunch.  This time we were in luck and had a decent meal at a restaurant called La Imprenta.
La Imprenta restaurant in the old town where we had lunch one day
We had to be back at our hotel shortly afterwards to be ready again to go out at 3.30 for the main activity of Miguel’s wedding group – a guided tour of the old city by Pepo, his right hand man who, as you will have read is a teacher of history and in my mind a walking encyclopedia.

Getting a taxi was once again a struggle but we made it to the Plaza de la Catedral just on time.

We couldn’t have found a better guide in Pepo who not only showed us the main monuments but gave us a wonderful lesson in the history of Cuba. I had no idea for example that the British had governed Cuba for one year at the end of the 19th century and that after the year the Spanish exchanged Florida for Cuba and returned to power.  Not for long though.
A guided tour with Pepo for Miguel's group of friends and family 
After it was dark we parted from the younger members of the group who were off to La Fábrica a sort of discotheque, and went in search of dinner. Finding somewhere decent to eat is difficult here as is finding a taxi.  In the end we had a lousy meal at the Hotel Sevilla where I found my internet card had run out and there was nowhere to buy another. 

The taxi we found to take us back was the dirtiest and oldest I had ever seen. It took some finding as all public transport had been suspended due to the preparations for the military parade the next day. I was told it was to celebrate the arrival of Fidel Castro in Habana 59 years ago. The worst thing about the car if you can call it that were the petrol fumes invading its interior. We could hardly breathe. I wondered at the state of the lungs of its driver, poor man.

Once back at our residence, Rafa, the night warden, had arrived.  He always sits outside in the garden throughout the night as does Pablo the man he takes turns with.  Their shifts are from 7 in the evening until 7 in the morning. Rafa is a young teacher of computer studies.  He told me that as a teacher he earned 16 cucs a month!  However as a hotel guard or warden he is paid 120, considered an excellent wage here.  The owner of Rent In Vedado pays all his staff the same wage and even gives them a paid holiday, something unheard of in Cuba.  No wonder they are a happy bunch of people. Rafa has no car and has to use public transport, the guagua buses.  However the next day, 2nd January, the day of the armed forces, they would not be circulating and he told me he would have to walk home, some 15km!  I felt so sorry for him.  I asked him why people didn’t use bicycles here as a cheaper way of transport but they apparently cost some 900 euros each, so again are unaffordable.  Oh this way of life so frustrates me. 

Exhausted again after another long day, we went to be bed at 9. We had to be up early the next day as Miguel had organised an excursion to Viñales for the whole group which is a 3.5 hour drive from Havana.

We were all up early and the cars, 5 almendrones, were here to transport our group on our trip to Viñales, a tobacco area in the countryside.  Viñales near Pinar del Rio and on the “tobacco route” is only some 140km away.  I asked why we couldn’t take a train which I thought would be faster.  I learned there were none.  It seems there are trains, especially to Santiago de Cuba but it takes 8 or more hours to get there.  The railway line in existence was built by the Spaniards to transport the sugar cane but seems not to have been developed since.  On the subject of sugar cane, it is one of Cuba’s main sources of income together with rum, from the cane, cigars and tourism.

There were to be 27 of us including Claudia’s family and nearly all of Miguel’s friends and wives who had come for the wedding like us.  It was the perfect moment for a group photo and here we all are standing next to one of the cars, owned, by the way, by a Spanish taxi driver, Alfonso, who had come to Spain for love but also because of the crisis.  From Avila near Madrid, he was to be our driver. He told us the old 1949 chevrolet car he has cost him 20.000 cucs (the same in euros).
A group photo just before we all left for Viñales in a cavalcade of classic American cars
We set off in great spirits. It was a lovely warm day.  We drove out of Havana passing the affluent Miramar district where many of the Embassies are.  From Miramar we passed the richest area of all Cuba which I think is called Sibone.  Alfonso pointed out the Spanish ambassador’s residence which was imposing. The houses here were huge, well-kept and looked like palaces. It is in this area you find what is known as zero Zone, the huge area where Raúl Castro lives.  It was heavily guarded and fenced and we were told the Castros hardly ever left it.  Rumour has it there is even an airport there.  So much for equality from Castro’s communism I thought.  I was once again reminded of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. 

We drove along one of only 2 motorways in Cuba and it was in dire need of repair.  Alongside us rode horse and carriages and “collective” lorries.  People lined the hard shoulder hailing them down.  We felt so privileged in our cavalcade of old Chevrolets. Eladio sat in the front wearing his panama hat enjoying the ride.
Eladio in our Chevrolet in Viñales
We stopped on the way at a tourist stopping point called Las Barrigonas.  It was very picturesque and there were donkeys and horses for posing for photos as well as a couple of well looked after oxen.  I had to have a photo with the oxen.
Me with the oxen at the Barrigonas tourist stop on our way to Viñales
From Las Barrigonas we continued on our journey into the countryside.  We left the motorway and went on a very old and potholed road not far from Viñales but which took ages or so it seemed.  Our next stop was at a mirador overlooking the tobacco fields and banana plantations and the many royal palm trees, one of the symbols of Cuba.
The view from the Mirador near Viñales
The place was lively and as is typical here there was a group playing music and dancing.  Nearly everywhere we went we heard music and saw dancing.  It is often spontaneous and when you are having a quiet dinner, suddenly a band appears from nowhere and starts playing like the one in the picture below.
Typical Cuban singing and dancing at the Mirador near Viñales
Being me, I was the only one from the group to dare to take a ride on the ox which was there for the tourists hahaha.
Me riding on the ox at the Mirador near Viñales
From the Mirador we drove through the picturesque Viñales to a tobacco plantation. I had never seen tobacco growing and was delighted with my new experience.
At the tobacco plantation, in the fields. Just behind me is the drying hut
We went inside one of the thatched roof drying huts to be given an explanation by an old tobacco worker. 
Inside the tobacco drying hut.  The tobacco farmer is making a cigar in front of us
He was an obvious expert and after explaining the process he started making a cigar. He told us that 90% of what tobacco growers earn goes to the state and 10% is for themselves. The method is completely natural and was fascinating to watch.  Here I learned that the nicotine comes from the main nerve of the leaf.  Of course we all had to try his cigar.  I did too, taking care not to inhale it.
Me with the tobacco farmer

Eladio and I just as we were leaving the tobacco plantation in our procession of old cars like the one in the photo
Our next stop after leaving the tobacco plant was to see the “prehistoric mural”.  It is actually a huge painting in the rocks to show the evolution of the people in Cuba, from the aborigines onwards.  It was a sight to see.
The colourful mural in the rock near Viñales (muro de la prehistoria de Cuba)
From there we drove to a farm called “Sendero del Paraiso del silencio” (paradise of silence) where all sorts of fruit and vegetables are grown including the delicious banana apples.  Here we were to have lunch in one of the thatched roof huts overlooking the plantation. 

The meal in Viñales
The meal itself was all Cuban food.  We were told that the meal we had was from “tierra, mar y aire” (land, sea and air) meaning we had food from the soil, sea and air and which also means a grand meal.  It was indeed.  The best part was the alcohol free piña colada which I loved. 
One of the dining huts
At 4 we had to leave in order to drive on the bumpy road to Pinar del Río and the “motorway” to Havana in daylight.  It was a nightmare of a journey which seemed never ending.  Thankfully we stopped off some 60km from the capital.  I was amazed to see all the cars park on the hard shoulder and that we had to cross the motorway to get to the café and loos.  The loo is worth mentioning and was perhaps the worst I had seen.  With no running water, the toilet attendant had to pour a bucket of water into the loo after each person had gone.  The place, as you can imagine, was filthy.
Crossing the motorway on our way back to Havana for a pit stop.  Couldn't believer my eyes
We didn’t get “home” until 7.30. We were exhausted and felt dirty and in great need of a shower.  However, we had to rush as Miguel had booked a table for the 4 of us at 8pm at a restaurant called El Mediterráneo, thankfully around the corner from where we were staying. As is usual with restaurants here, there were only tourists having dinner. After all, if a Cuban earns 16 euros a month, no way can he or she afford a meal for 10 euros which is what it cost that night per head. 

Exhausted once again, we went to bed early, just before 10pm, after an interesting conversation about Communist Cuba in the garden with Pablo the night warden. 

Tuesday 3rd January was to be our last full day in Havana and the day of Miguel and Claudia’s wedding, the reason we had come here. The first part of the morning was spent searching for internet or rather searching for an internet card.  They seem to be scarce. It was hot and soon we were sweating walking the streets of El Vedado in search of one.  Finally we found an official internet post with quite a queue.
Dolores in the internet card queue
Here they sell them at 2 cucs each but in the street resellers sell them for 3.  It’s a lucrative business for some Cubans who queue up every day to buy them and then resell them.  Each person is allowed to buy 3 at a time. The queue was orderly but endless and then suddenly out of nowhere a security van arrived with armed police who came to collect the money from the internet card firm Etecsa.  Dolores and I preferred not to wait any more and finally bought 2 cards from a delightful young Cuban woman who was 8 months pregnant.  We then went in search of a wifi spot which we soon found in a nearby park. Here we were able to touch base with friends and family, not to mention work, in Spain.

Our real destination that morning was the tourist market, La Feria de San José at the end of the port of Havana.  Olivia my daughter had told me there was nothing to buy in Cuba. She was wrong though as this market has wonderful souvenirs for sale and at a much lower price than the tourist shops in the Obispo street for example.
At the arts and crafts market, la Feria de San José
I wanted to buy a painting of the streets of Havana.  They are very colourful and finally got one which was a collage of a vintage car with the Cuban flag painted on the local and very famous newspaper, Granma.  I also bought the percussion instruments we had been introduced to, the clave, the wiro and maracas as well as some beautiful necklaces and bracelets made out of seed at one peso each! I left without finding the t-shirt I wanted or the replica vintage car but I would be going back on our last day with Ministro and Marta and would look for them.

From the market which was enormous by the way, we walked to the San Francisco Square, the one where slaves used to be auctioned, in search of a place to eat lunch.  Here we parted with Toño and Dolores as my sister-in-law had an appointment with a hairdresser for the wedding which was starting at 6pm that afternoon.

Eladio and I stayed in town and decided to splash out and have lunch at the elegant Café del Oriente where we told the King of Spain and many other famous people had eaten on more than one occasion.  It was a beautiful restaurant in an elegant colonial building and there was a jazz and piano group playing soft Frank Sinatra type music.  We were in bliss.
Lunch at Café del Oriente
We took a taxi back after haggling the price down from 10 to 6 pesos and were soon back in our quiet and spacious room.  For Eladio it was siesta time and for me it was shower time.  It was a hot and humid day and I ended up having 3 showers that day!

Those of us belonging to Miguel’s group staying at Rent In Vedado, set off for the wedding  just before 6pm which was to take place at a restaurant 100 metres away.  We all looked very dashing in the clothes we had brought.  Here I am with Marta my niece by the door of our residence just before leaving.
Marta my niece and I ready to go to the wedding
The wedding was in full swing when we arrived. There were some 80 guests and after a week in Havana we knew more than half of them.  We were delighted to see Toño and Eladio’s second cousins, Rosa María, her husband Papo and her sister Lecinia who had left her father Roche in charge of looking after their Mother. We were also to meet Rosa’s son “Fidel”.
Our Cuban "cousins", sisters Lecinia (left), Rosa Marí and her husband "Papo"
There was lots of attention to detail at the beautifully planned wedding and first there was to be a ceremony.  Here are the bride and groom at the altar just after it started.
The bride and groom at the altar with Claudia's friends and sweet cousin Indira (in white)
It was a lovely ceremony conducted by Lola, the restaurant owner and the couple’s friend.  Miguel’s best friend “Cabra” spoke as did Claudia’s friends.  There was also to be an ancient wedding ritual where the couple had to mix Spanish soil with Cuban soil into a jar they were supposed to keep forever and if there were problems ever in their marriage the idea was to shake the jar and start again.  I found it delightful.

The piece de resistance of the wedding was music and dancing.  The band was pretty famous or rather the singer, Rae, was and the atmosphere created such good vibes that even I danced and quite a lot too.  Oh how the Cubans know how to dance.
Dancing and more dancing at the Cuban wedding
Missing from the bride and groom’s previous 2 wedding celebrations in Spain was the wedding cake.  But here there was a beautiful one although I never got to taste it.
The bride and groom cutting the cake
We all took it in turns to have photos taken with the bride and groom in groups of friends or families.  I have chosen the photo with Miguel’s family to illustrate this week’s blog. 

It was very warm and the music a little too loud for us “oldies”, thus we made a discreet exit at about 9pm.  I don’t know how long the wedding would go onto but I guessed into the small hours of the morning, at least for the young people.

We walked back to our residence, a haven of peace and quiet, showered and got changed and sat outside in the garden for what would be the last night for Eladio and I.  Toño and Dolores would be going to the Keys (Santa Maria) the next morning for a few days with the bride and groom and some of their friends while we would be returning to Spain. I didn’t want to leave and would have loved to stay for another week.

So we went to be bed at 10pm!!  I was up on our last day, 4th Jan, at 6.30. As I did every morning I had a cup of coffee and went into the garden to chronicle my blog.

As our flight wasn’t until 10.15pm, we had plenty of time to enjoy more of Havana on our last day.  Returning to Spain with us were my niece Marta and husband Ministro. After saying our goodbyes, we got into a pink 1954 Chevrolet convertible car we had hired to take us on a tour of the city.  Our driver arrived on time and we were delighted with our upcoming activity.  We immediately began taking photos like the one below. 
Eladio, me, Marta and Ministro next to our pink 1954 Chevrolet convertible car that would take us on a ride on our last day
Setting off in our pink vintage car
Dionis, our driver, with his cowboy hat, took us on a tour of the new part of the city, the new Vedado and Mirasierra where the affluent people live.  He also took us to what is known as "the lung of Havana", a green area with a huge wood by the River Almendares.
A stop at the River Almendares on out pink car tour on the last day
From there our driver took us once again to visit Miramar where he showed us big ugly hotels and the 5th Avenue. This is the most important avenue in the city and I wasn't surprised to see that the Russian Embassy was located there.  It was a horrible Soviet style building. Russia was once so important for Cuba but no longer is it today.

The ugly Russian Embassy on 5th Avenue in Havana

From the 5th Avenue we drove onto the Malecón sea front for the last time.  We were dropped off at the Feria de San José where I bought more colourful necklaces, a t-shirt I'm not sure I'll ever wear and a replica miniature classic American car.

From the San José market, with plenty of time on our hands as our flight wasn't leaving until 10.15 that night, we walked towards the Plaza San Francisco stopping at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on the way.

Here we were let in reluctantly by a Russian parishioner who told us it was closed for lunch. I persuaded her to let us in telling her my Mother was Russian and my Father had been a Russian Orthodox priest. That's when she warmed up and even let me take a photo of the church inside.  Whenever I see a Russian church abroad I always want to go in, like I always did in Helsinki.

We got to the San Francisco Square and Marta and I immediately headed to a wifi spot for a short internet session. We decided to have lunch at the Café de Oriente again and were lucky to reserve the last table available.  We had 30 minutes on our hands and decided to walk the streets again.  Here I am talking to a group of musicians. This time they did not ask for a coin but I gave them one.
Me and the Cuban musicians on our last day
Once more we ended up in the Plaza de las Armas where they sell second hand books, posters and magazines, mostly about the revolution and the history of Cuba.  
A stall in the Plaza de las Armas
We had a leisurely lunch at the lovely restaurant and enjoyed the piano playing.  To get back "home" we walked to the Parque Central square where we would catch our last "almendrón" or collective taxi.

An "almendrón" or "colectivo" (shared taxi)
It dropped us off at the Linea street where we walked back to our residence. On our way we passed a street where a proper little recycling industry was going on.  A group of men were flattening old cans to sell them as metal. This is how they do it. We couldn't believe our eyes.
Flattening drink cans for reselling on a street in Vedado
We had a 3 hour wait in the garden of our residence until our taxi driver came.  Marta, Ministro and I took the time to walk to the nearest wifi hotspot at the Hotel President for them to check in online.  It was no easy task but we managed it. On our way back to our residence, we had one of our last lessons in how Cuba works.  This time is was about their buses. We saw one which had obviously been bought from Barcelona.  It was very old and dirty and we laughed at the writing on it about respecting the environment.  They hadn't even bothered to remove the Barcelona bus company logo hahaha.

At 6.30 pm. our polite Cuban taxi driver came to take us to the airport.  He came in his 1940 car. We learned from him that he had studied to be a telecoms engineer but only earned 20 cucs (the same in euros) per month.  So when he inherited his grandfather's car, he became a taxi driver. People are educated here, yes, but they cannot earn a living with the jobs available.  It's so sad. Our driver told us he was praying for change once Raul Castro stands down in 2018.  So am I.

Our wait at the airport was long and frustrating.  The controls were ok, what was not were the loos (ghastly) and the cafeteria which seemed to have run out of everything even bread.

Thus it was bliss to get on our Iberia flight and fly towards civilization again hahaha. It was to be 9 hours long and this time I slept thank goodness. Oli was there to meet us when we arrived on Thursday 5th January at midday.

It was great to be home and eat a nice Spanish lunch prepared for us by Salud.  We decided not to go to sleep until the evening to avoid the jet lag and that's what we did.  I even went shopping with Oli for food for Kings' Day today.

So here I am writing again from home on Kings' Day in the morning, still with much of my mind on Cuba. It was a fascinating trip and I'm glad we went. I do hope you enjoy reading about it.  Hopefully things will improve there for the people.  I am praying they will.

So goodbye for now my friends and readers until my next post.

Cheers Happy Kings' Day and Happy New Year to you all
P.S. you can see my album of photos of our trip here.


Susan Chappell-Smith said...

It was lovely to read your blog. It took me back to the days I lived there, 1983-1986. Not much has changed. I went back 12 years ago and stayed at the Hotel National, as I had always wanted to stay there after visiting it many times for my tennis lessons on their courts!
The Cubans used to call the old delapitated houses along the Malecón "barbacoas" as they were split up into many levels with temporary floors inserted like racks on a barbecue and different families lived on each rack!
The British embassy was in Vedado, with views of the fort and malecón.
My old house was 2 doors down from the pizza restaurant you visited in Miramar.
When I was there you could only get fruit and veg sporadically although there was plenty growing at that time, there were no refrigerated lorries to transport the produce from field to city. Many communist supporters from abroad used to come to pick the fruit but, sadly it, usually ended up in rotting piles on the side of the road.
You should never eat beef in Cuba as it's awful!
I had a driver who I paid to upkeep my car, a Vauxhall. I had imported crates of spare parts for it, but they got stolen at the dockside when the car was unloaded. It arrived without tyres or wing mirrors which miraculously disappeared between the ship docking and the car being released to me from customs. He could make it go using the most amazing collection of bits and pieces he scavenged!
I visited vinales with Glenn and had my best meal at the parador there.
The best things about Cuba and Havana are the people, the music and the general sense of fun that exists despite the conditions that prevail there.
Thanks for bringing back so many good memories Masha. X

Afternoon Tea and Talk. said...

Of course it would bring back memories of your time there. It's just an amazing place, unique in the world as if time has stood still since Castro took over. Like the name "barbacoas" of the delapitated houses. You must have enjoyed your time there immensely. Thanks for taking the time to read it as it was soooo long but there was so much to tell. Lots of love