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Tue May 07 2013: Havana Rough Time...

From Santa Clara, we make amazing time on the only highway in the country. Originally conceived to stretch the entire length of the island, the Autopista is symbolic of the half-realized dream that Cuba has become. After Soviet funding dried up in the 90s, the completed parts of the highway only connect the central part of Cuba to just west of Havana. Traffic is sparse on the road, and we share the ride with a spattering of classic cars, buses and lots of horse-drawn buggies.

Looking at a map, we are just a scant 150 kms away from Key West - our meandering path has taken us to the closest we've been to Toronto in months! Ha!

Beautifully maintained classic cars harken back to a time when Havana was at the peak of its affluence and influence

Reaching the historic centre of old Havana requires riding through kms of urban sprawl, and we peel through the outer layers of dirty factories and railroad tracks, through to the shambles of the outlying neighbourhoods and finally to a seemingly incongruous opulent capital city. From the 1930s up until the Revolution in 1958, Havana was THE centre of tourism in the Caribbean, with casinos, nightclubs and hotels supporting a nightlife that drew celebrities and socialites to the city, out-rivaling Las Vegas. All the revenue and activity attracted gangsters and government corruption. During La Revolucion, Fidel chased out these elements, nationalizing all the businesses, and made enemies of the United States which had their interests and assets in the country seized. The embargo ensued, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the money stopped coming in.

Stone sculptures line the main tourist walkway in Havana

Restoration work being done on the Capitol Building

As the rest of the country fell into decay, there were only funds enough left to restore 10% of the city, leaving a stark contrast between the magnificence of the historic centre and the crumbling ruins of the surrounding neighbourhoods. Just a few steps from the main tourist areas revealed the impoverished state of the people and their living conditions.

Backstreets of the old city

Impromptu game of football in the streets of Havana

There is no shortage of vintage automobiles in the old city

These old American cars are just one of the examples of the contradictions that we saw in Cuban culture. While the imperialist United States has been demonized by the Cuban government, these classic Fords and Chevies have been declared a National Heritage and are a much heralded symbol of the communist island nation. Same goes for the national sport of the country: Baseball. You can't get any more apple pie than that.

The US is not immune to this contradiction as well - ever since the trade and travel embargo, Americans have been trying to sneak onto Cuban beaches and resorts for years now and the Cuban cigar has obtained mythical status in the States.

Our casa overlooks the shores of Havana

We had heard that Jinetero problem was the worst in Havana, and we were prepared once again to check into a hotel, but we quickly found the prices way out of our reach. Thankfully we ran into a fellow Canadian on the streets who showed us a nice casa particular that he had stayed at before, right on the very scenic Malecon. His local Cuban friends taught us how to negotiate discounts: if you find a casa or restaurant without the help of a Jinetero, you don't have to pay the $5 commission. Useful information!

We get a scenic view of the Malecon from our balcony window

We stayed in Havana for four days, taking plenty of time just to relax and hang out in our casa. Everytime we stepped out to find food or shop for groceries, we mentally put on our armor and steeled ourselves for the onslaught of the hustlers' spiel: "Where are you from?" and "Don't you like Cuban people?!?". I was a bit dismayed to see how adept we were at ignoring people on the street. It went against our nature of being open and friendly with everyone we meet on the road.

Cuba is wearing us thin. I can tell that I've lost my humour and we're spending more time sequestered away in our room than out exploring. I don't think we're normally this sensitive to being hustled, but we've been on the road for almost a year now and travel fatigue is setting in. We really need to hunker down somewhere for a month or two, take a break from the constant motion and regroup.

Tall waves crash over the wall of the Malecon, leaving slick patches of seaweed on the road

Every night, city crews clean the seaweed from the streets

Skyscrapers of modern Havana lurk in the background of the old city

There's a lot of competition for tourist dollars in Havana, old Cuban ladies sit in the town square with cigars hanging out of their mouths, charging tourists to snap their pictures. They're capitalizing on the now-famous picture of the Cuban lady smoking a stogie that adorns many travel brochures and tourist guides. And these ladies' cigars remain unlit the entire day!

I don't shell out for this staged photo-op.

Beautiful architecture in the old city

Old historical centre

With a shortage of parts from the outside world, Cubans have developed some creative fabrication skills

We take a ride in one of the vintage automobiles through the street (not streets) of Chinatown

Chinese food was a welcome change from Latin American fare

Asian tourists are pretty rare in Cuba and like our motorcycles, I was the source of a lot of curiousity about my background. For most Cubans, Asians fall into the category of either Chinese, Japanese or Korean - no other races exist. A typical conversation would go something like this:

Them: Chino?
Me: Soy de Canada.
Them: Chino?
Me: Mi familia es de Malasia.
Them: Chino?
Me: *sigh* Si. Chino.
Them: AH! CHINO!


Sunset on the skyline of Havana

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