• Michelle Vernal

Viva La Habana


This article first appeared in Essence North Canterbury Magazine

By Michelle Vernal


“Do you think anyone’s coming?” my husband, Paul asked me wearily pacing outside Havana’s Hosé Martí airport. We’d flown in from Cancun, Mexico via the budget airline Interjet where he’d already fended off the advances of a fast talker trying to offload a suitcase full of Cuban pesos. “Well, it was all arranged,” I replied pointing to my phone as if it were to blame. Our boys, aged 11 and 12 put their ten cents worth in, “Nobody’s coming.” They were right. We’d arranged via email to be picked up from the Airport and taken directly to our casas particulares (rooms in a family’s home), the best option for a family. As that no longer looked likely we clambered into a Russian-made Moskvitch taxi with dodgy suspension. We sorted a fixed price for the 20km or so journey and bounced our way to our accommodation in Centro Habana.

The taxi driver expertly negotiated the labyrinth of crumbling, colonial streets that make up the Centro District before swerving in to park kerbside. Luis, our cigar puffing host whom it transpired, had no record of our reservation, and thus no available rooms ushered us inside his eclectic casa. We were seated in an interior courtyard with a fan whirring beside the wrought iron table setting. A woman appeared and asked if we’d like refreshments and a few moments later we were served cola and espresso. Grateful to be out of the heat we sipped our drinks and tried to relax amidst the potted ferns and vintage styled furnishings while Luis looking every inch the wheeler-dealer sorted us out alternative rooms.

It wasn’t long before a woman clad in head to toe Lycra, the Cuban woman’s national dress, with a shock of afro hair arrived. She beckoned for us to follow her and as she had a nice smile, we donned our backpacks, braced ourselves against the heat and traipsed after her. The boys were doing battle with their wheelie cases as we followed her swaying, backside down the middle of the pot-holed street. We sidestepped all manner of deposits while being watched from doorways by elderly eyes. Scruffy dogs roamed free sniffing around for titbits of which there were plenty while children played on the streets their mother’s calling to each other from apartment balconies overhead. The skyline was strewn with washing and at the intersection ahead of us; classic American cars rumbled past, tanned arms resting on the wound down windows, fingers tapping to the blaring drum beat. It was an assault on the senses and street theatre at its best.

Casa Amanecer wasn’t far and only a block back from the Malecon, Havana’s eight km sea promenade. It’s cooling sea breezes, and the wide pedestrian-friendly path was to prove a respite from the heaving streets of Centro. We spoke no Spanish, our hostess no English but we managed to sort rooms both of which came with an en suite and were at odds with the dilapidated exteriors of the buildings around us. A roof terrace proved to be a hidden gem to relax after a day spent pounding pavements. It was here Paul, and I sat under the stars sipping cold Cristal beers while the boys were happily mucking around downstairs. The streets below us were like a setting from a Film Noir. Earlier that evening I’d watched as an old man across the way lowered a bucket via a rope pulley from the window of his top-floor apartment. A woman appeared from below, tipped water into his bucket, and when it was full, he pulled it back up. On the neighbouring terrace, a soiree was underway, and a beautiful black woman was singing Afro-Cuban Jazz to a small group of tourists. Muslin drapes floated above their fairy light lit dining area. I took a mental picture and stored it away in my forever file.

Havana isn’t just a photograph waiting to be taken around every corner it’s also a city of contrasts. Vedado, with its art deco style, feels orderly. It's home to the Plaza of Revolution and is overseen by buildings whose facades feature giant steel memorials to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It’s also where the flying saucer shaped ice-cream parlour of Coppelia’s can be found, a local’s favourite since 1966. We weren’t so smitten with the kiosk off to the side of the famed building reserved for tourists or the security guard who insisted Coppelia’s was for Cuban’s only. Ignoring him, we checked out the swirly interior, and the boys got their promised ice cream sundaes.

We followed the Lonely Planet’s walking tour of old Havana in touristy Vieja, and it didn’t disappoint giving us a glimpse into the city as it once was. The buildings were beautiful, the cobbled streets clean and the plazas colourful. It's here tourists gather to admire the architecture, watch live radio being recorded, to slurp cold beer outside restaurants while listening to jazz, and of course to visit a cigar store. There’s something deliciously covert about venturing upstairs in an unfamiliar hotel, opening a nondescript door and finding yourself stood in an Aladdin’s cave of cigars. As a writer, it was a thrill to sign my name on the wall of La Bodeguita restaurant/bar - Hemingway’s favourite haunt.

All romantic notions were vanquished, however, after a bone-rattling ride in a speeding Lada to see the nightly firing of the canons’ from the Fortress of San Carlos de Cabana. The car’s windows provided the only air conditioning, Cuban salsa music deafened us, and it was interspersed with our driver yelling “Boom!” He did this not just to startle us but to check we were on the same page as to our destination. By the time we piled out of the taxi, my hair had morphed into a bird’s nest, and we were glad to be alive.

For our 11-year-old, The Museum of Revolution was a highlight; he was taken with the visual if somewhat one-sided history of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. So too was sitting in a plaza near the grandiose Capitolio Nacional building eating slices of cheese pizza, served on cardboard from a hole in the wall restaurant.

For Paul, and I though Centro was the star of Havana. Raw and real, it’s a slice of life. As a family what we took away from our stay there was how very little we need to be happy. Havana is achingly beautiful, falling down, incredibly frustrating and unique. My fingers are crossed that with the lifting of the embargo, and Fidel Castro’s recent passing Cuba doesn’t lose too much of what makes it a place where you really can expect the unexpected.

We obtained Visa’s for Cuba at Cancun Airport they can also be arranged through the Embassy of Mexico in Wellington Email: nzmexico@mfat.govt.nz. Cuba’s a cash economy, ATM’s are scarce and locals use the Cuban peso. The CUC or Cuban convertible peso is the favoured currency. Its value equals the American dollar and as a closed currency can only be purchased upon arrival in Cuba. Our accommodation at Casa Amanecer which included two rooms and a generous breakfast cost around NZ $112.00 a night.

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