STORY – Katya Buluy | Bogota, Colombia
PHOTOS – Maria Pozdneacov
For my winter vacation I was supposed to be in Jamaica, but something went wrong. And there I was looking for airline offers and random destinations. Suddenly, I remembered about the Island of Freedom — and all the stars aligned. Everything came together: the tickets price, the dates, accommodations, and my longstanding desire to get to Cuba.
This island is legendary. This island is a dream. An attractive, wonderful piece of land in the Caribbean. I even did not look for company; I wanted to go there alone. I bought a ticket immediately, and a week of life in Cuban socialism was secured.
LOUD AND MULTICOLORED HAVANA. A heartthrob, an inspiration, an eternal holiday… This city is like an old gentleman dressed slightly out of fashion; someone who has forgotten to shave, though it suits him nevertheless. At the same time, it is so magnificent as it ages, for Havana is the heart of Cuba. And when there it felt very clear why Ernest Hemingway decided to vanish in cafes and taverns of the old city, drinking strong rum and no less stronger coffee. The city gave him inspiration because Havana is the heart of this country, which pulses with dancing and singing.
HOW MANY DAYS TO SPEND IN HAVANA? As many as you have! Havana is not a very big city, but there are definitely many things to do. Even just to wander around its never-ending streets, looking at the linen hanging on balconies; staring at never-ending lines old cars of various colors and shades; sitting in its squares and parks, allowing your by-now worn-out legs to rest; to observe locals smoking cigars, reading newspapers, chatting with each other — or maybe starting a conversation yourself.
It is an absolute must go to the Museum of Chocolate (there is an air-conditioner inside, which adds an extrapoint in the hot and humid Cuban weather), and have a cup of freshly prepared drink. There are many other small and cozy museums nearby: the Arab house, Museum of Ceramics, Rohm’s Museum shop, Plaza De Las Artesanías, the Museum of the Revolution… Most of them are free, too.
I was also advised to go to the Hotel Parque Central, all the way to its last floor with the observation deck and pool overlooking Malecón, the ocean, El Capitolio and most of Havana. Well, according to the hotel rules only guests can go there. But with confidence and a business-like expression, I passed through the lobby toward the elevator, and in a few minutes, I was overlooking beautiful Havana in absolute solitude.
THERE ARE ALMOST NO GLOOMY-WEATHER DAYS in Havana, so Cubans told me. Only a few days a year the sun doesn’t embrace the city. For the locals, such weather is considered to be extremely romantic. They say,“Que día tan romántico hoy!” and all run on to Malecón to enjoy watching clouds and the gloomy sea. And while seizing the moment, to declare feelings to the beloved ones.
These pink beauties are local taxis. To be clear: Cubans don’t use them. Lucky owners of these babies give rides to foreign dignitaries and the like across Havana, and receive payment respectively for such an exotic pleasure (spare your cash, greedy capitalists!).
These taxi drivers should carry special State issued permits and must pay taxes and percentage from earnings regularly. But having the luck to be close to the goose who lays golden eggs, the owners know exactly how to game the system and make good money for themselves.
BEFORE GOING TO CUBA, be sure that your credit cards and cash cards work on the island. Though I even called my bank before my departure and asked to activate my cards, I still had no luck using them. Every time I tried, a machine spat them out, with the message: Impossible to Execute the Operation. But I saw so many tourists who did that and withdrew their money from ATMs with ease. I decided to go to a bank and face a State bank official (a green-eyed young Cuban) about my ordeals. He asked the country of my residence (and issuer of my bank cards) and after I replied it was Colombia, he answered: “Aaaaah… Your country is very amicable with America, and therefore most likely all the transactions are going through the U.S.A, and the banking system of Cuba isn’t on friendly terms with America. That is why the ATM is blocking the cash dispensing.” “But I saw so many tourists who were getting their cash with no problems!” I retorted. “They are most likely Canadians, Europeans, or some other guys. And their banks are different.” By the way, even Western Union can provide service to Cubans only, and only if the money sent is a donation. So, while traveling to Cuba bring only cash and only euros.
In Cuba they grow the best and the most expensive tobacco. Cuban cigars are legendary! Many have tried to grow Cuban tobacco seeds in other countries, but it never has worked: the aroma, taste, smell, even leaves don’t properly develop.
It’s all because of climate — the sun, temperature, soil, and air of the Island of Liberty make its tobacco the best tobacco in the world. Those who like to smoke cigars know many secrets of smoking the authentic El Habano. There is a special cutter that prunes a cigar tip. El Habano should be lit with a wooden match only! Do not inhale smoke of pure tobacco (otherwise you may faint!). And “puff” it… In general, there are more than 250 types of Cuban cigars. Coiba is considered the very best. That’s it with cigars. I haven’t managed to learn a lot about them, as I am not a smoker, however, I puffed Coiba a little bit. It was tasty, if it is possible for me to say so, so to speak. The smoke was not so caustic, but soft and pretty pleasant.
THEY SAY THAT THE MOJITO was born right here – in the famous bar-restaurant called La Bodegita del Medio (or “Little warehouse in the middle,” literally). They also say that it was not doing well for many years, until once Ernest Hemingway stopped by randomly for his mojito. Since that time, business had gone slicker than owl spit. Many famous people were guests here: Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, etc. Over time, guests started to leave their photos there, or their autographs on the walls. Then, some tourist by the name of John decided to leave his mark in history as well, while marking the Bodegita wall with his name and date of visit. Then some Jack did the same. That is how it all has started. It is the way a simple Cuban food restaurant turned into a cult place to visit in Old Havana. I didn’t write on the wall myself, but I had a cup of strong coffee. This place is very atmospheric. Rumors say that Hemingway used to repeat the expression: “Mojito en Bodegita, daiquiri en Floridita” (another favorite restaurant of the writer’s).
MUSIC HAS A SPECIAL PLACE in life of the Freedom Island citizens. Music and the style of performance here are very special — and incomparable. When Cubans perform “Las lágrimas negras” “or” Idilio” live, in a bar without windows and doors (it’s hot all year round) everyone just starts moving with rhythm, dancing. And you can ask for the next cup of coffee (or mojito) and just hope it continues forever. …And that is exactly why you need to go to Cuba.
Translation – Nina Hazhala
Editor – David Podgurski
Executive director – Julia Latkina
Thanks Noton kihu shill😍😃