It seems fitting that as I was emerging from one of the most tumultuous emotional lows I had experienced in a long time, I would decide to visit communist Cuba… right?
In truth, the trip was booked while I was still in a jet-lagged stupor post-Bali and hadn’t yet traded my travel legs for stable ones. Tyrhone needed a new tourist visa for Mexico, and rather than drive to Belize again we decided to make the most of the cheap low season rates from Cancun to Havana.
The quick just-over-an-hour flight across the Caribbean pond belied the utterly contrasting experience which awaited us there. We’d seen the photos of vintage cars and heard the stories of bland food but nothing would prepare us for the contradictions of heaven and hell contained within Cuba’s staunchly guarded borders.
We fell for it’s charms immediately. Shuttled into a unlicensed vintage car, we paid more than we knew we needed to for a ride from the airport to Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, the tourist haven of the city.
The young driver was friendly and sincere enough, waiting for us as we exchanged our Mexican Pesos for local ‘Convertibles’ or ‘CUC’ which is the currency created for foreign visitors to the country. 1 CUC is equivalent to about 1 USD which is equivalent to about 24 local Pesos (the currency used by Cuban locals).
When he dumped us on the outskirts of the old town and asked us to pay him inside the the car before we got out, we realised that perhaps he wasn’t quite as sincere as we thought. By then, though, I’d already added a tip to our over-inflated flare. Havana saw me coming and she reeled me in, hook, line and sinker.
As we wandered down narrow streets flanked with crumbling colonial remnants of Cuba’s Spanish history in search of our guesthouse, ‘standing out like a sore thumb’ does not even begin to describe the feeling of being completely out of my element.
Of course, I plastered on my “I’ve got this, I’m totally cool with all these stares from locals and these hustlers chasing me down the road,” shield of armor rather than collapsing into an insecure puddle on the grimy street.
Truth is, I love travel and I hate it. I love experiencing new places but sometimes I hate feeling so foreign and so freaking white. In Cuba, I felt like a dumb tourist because that is exactly what I was.
Turns out it would take me a while to embrace that fact and so I would feel out of my depth for, well, about four out of the six days we were there.
The Casa Particular we had semi-booked via email (we had never actually heard back – internet is extremely scarce in Cuba) was in fact quite lovely. For 30 CUC we sequestered an elegant, tiled room with high ceilings, an antique (a word which is redundant in Cuba) chandelier and a private terrace overlooking Calle Habana.
Owed by a vivacious woman with a mostly male staff, it was a clean and well-run place with a roof terrace-slash-bar where evening meals were served (and, as luck would have it, also home to a litter of kittens).
Over dinner that night Tyrhone remarked quietly that he had never eaten chicken with so much gristle in it and racked his brain to think of what part of the bird would be so… ‘chewy.’
The cats, however didn’t complain about the extra food.
Deciding to skip breakfast at the Casa the following morning, we headed out into the steamy Havana heat in search of decent coffee.
Enter ‘El Dandy’ cafe, which would prove to be a tiny oasis of style and flavour during our short stay. Excellent coffee. Friendly yet understated service. Simple yet tasty snacks served with something we found missing from much of the food we ate… love.
El Dandy cafe – #401 Calle Brasil cnr Villegas
It was so refreshing to discover a place which seemed to care about what they served.
Old Havana is full of fancy-looking state run establishments which are full of uninterested staff serving uninteresting food. It’s actually quite a shock to sit down at one of these places and witness the flavourlessness of the whole ordeal.
And honestly, I found this quite depressing.
Of course, I soon learned why – the government controlled food supply made the basics like flour and eggs readily available, but other ingredients like fresh meat and vegetables a lot more scarce.
Spices and other flavor enhancing embellishments are rare as hen’s teeth (though maybe Tyrhone had found those in his dinner).
Succumbing to our role as naive tourists and weary of ‘friendly’ people on the street trying to wrangle money out of us, we then made a bee line for the hop-on-hop-off bus stop located opposite the Hotel Inglaterra. For two hours we proceeded to sit in gawking, slack-jawed bliss for the entire route around old and new Havana.
It seemed to me that ‘new Havana’ was indeed a little brighter and more full of life than the old. On well maintained, tree lined streets, art-deco style apartment buildings housed families going about their daily lives in the face of harsh economic and political challenges.
We paid 5 CUC for the ride around town which was all many Cubans would hope to earn in a week of work. No wonder the waiters in the fancy restaurants of Habana Vieja didn’t give a shit. Who among us is going to smile for $20 a month?
Who Fidel? Who?
Things started making sense but that didn’t make it any easier. That evening, after trying to watch the sunset from the malecon while being accosted by touts, we sat down at four restaurants and walked out of three.
There was the fly-blown gringo-filled restaurant on Calle Obisbo (we dodged a bullet there), the ‘Paris bar’ where we were ignored until we just left, and finally, our casa which, as luck would have it, had closed the kitchen for the night just before we dragged our weary asses up the three flights of stairs.
We were left with one final option aside from going to bed hungry – a fancy looking bistro down the street which we guessed was going to be as disappointing as the many places we’d tried.
Turns out our last resort happened to be the best restaurant in Havana. Spotless, welcoming and most importantly, serving up delicious cuisine made with love. As I cut into the juicy fillet of swordfish, expertly cooked and beautifully presented, I could literally taste the passion which permeated through it.
In a town which had been seemingly sucked dry of all genuine entrepreneurial spirit and was forced to revert to underhanded and desperate tactics to make ends meet, we couldn’t believe our luck at finding Habana 61, an alternate universe of creativity, elegance, and… flavour.
After devouring delicious entrees, main courses and desserts, we were able to reward their great work with our tourist dollars and this time, feel really good about it.
Thanks for reading! Part Two of our Cuban adventure is coming soon…