The end of an Era: Cuba I.

Havana, April 2015.

It’s been a difficult few years.  For a number of (albeit unavoidable) reasons, I haven’t been ‘away’ for years – have worked through holidays and kept my head down to a degree that, I think, it’s been difficult to raise it above that focused, target driven level.  Have honed the ability to keep going when every bit of me wants to stop.

‘Just do it’ and then it’s done… onto the next thing has become my personal, unvoiced but regularly internally rehearsed, mantra.

It may  It does sound self-indulgent, but it’s important to recognise when ‘life’ is so full that there isn’t much time for ‘living.’

So this year, determined to do something different and see another environment, I wanted to book not only a ‘holiday’, but a trip of discovery – inward and outward.  To broaden my horizons, stop for breath, and put some perspective into my thinking.

“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” – Henry Ford Read more:

“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.”
– Henry Ford

With the changes in relations between US and Cuba, there will undoubtably be huge changes which will sweep across every aspect of ‘Cuba’.  A country that has been strangely isolated; a ‘time warp’ – detached from the rest of the world, (difficult to realise just how thoroughly detached until you see the society, life, environment for yourself). Cuba is clearly on the brink of huge and irreversible evolution.  What better place to experience before those changes take hold?

The largest city in the Caribbean, with over 2.2 million residents; but no commercial adverts at all: That has more of an effect on the everyday life, street landscape, and material focus of the population than one could imagine.

No brand names – other than those on shiny US bonnet badges!

Cuban Cars - like being on a film set, but for real!

Cuban Cars – like being on a film set, but for real!

Havana’s majestic architecture reflects its Spanish roots in many ways –

Founded in the 16th Century it quickly became a flourishing, fashionable city.

Frequented by Americans escaping from prohibition and looking for a good time.  Gosh, they must have found it here!

I can only imagine Havana in its hey-day: like a film set, but on a monumental scale.

Square in Havana; step back in time.

Square in Havana; step back in time.

The glorious, weathered relics remain – like a gracious old lady living in threads of once rich clothes.  In a still imposingly grand, but gently dilapidation palace.  Surrounded by memories and tangible evidence of what once was, but gracefully and proudly getting on with life as it now is.  With a smile.

While all around is increasingly deteriorating.  Slowly crumbling.  The decay, strangely, apparently unnoticed.  Or at least unquestioned.

But with the structure and elegance of former years feeling still – almost – near enough to salvage and reinstate.

Havana’s people are amazing.  Remarkably, admirably resilient.

Living in houses without roofs, hanging their washing on lines strung between glass less windows, extraordinarily ambivalent about parts of their building gently crumbling away.

Streets lined with the most what once must have been the most stunning and luxurious buildings: beautiful plaster, grandiose proportions, now only evident in part.

Magnificent architecture, intricate metalwork, stunning marble staircases, and the remnants of beautiful tiling.

Hedonistic memories of exotic times all around.

Havana showcases a vast range of architectural styles.

Harmony is reflected in the people and the environment: despite the hardships that are so clearly part of everyday life.

Just as Havana’s surprisingly eclectic mix of people rub along happily together, so influences from Spain, America, France and Russia are evident, shoulder to shoulder, in the city’s blocks.

Similarly, buildings draw references from major architectural periods from the last half century.

No wonder, then, that part of Old Havana have been included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

I’m not particularly widely travelled, but Havana is, so far, the only City I’ve ever been to where the guide books are so very much better left at home (with regard to restaurants and accommodation, I’d say that was obligatory!)

At the time of our visit, about 80% of the economy was estimated to be unofficial; almost officially unofficial!

So the usually trusty brands of guide books really don’t seem to know what they’re talking about – perhaps they can’t keep up with the pace of change.

Or perhaps, more likely, they just have to recommend what officially exists… Believe me, the official restaurants are not worth visiting.  Next time, I’ll go hungry rather than return to their unwelcoming, distilled, loveless premises.  If you want to pay London prices (really!) for food that is likely to smell of rank oil, go once for the experience. The menu may look promising (as long as you don’t compare the prices with what you’re used to paying at home – more than I’d expect to pay at a restaurant of my choice in South London!).  But when it comes to what’s brought to the table, it is likely to be pretty uniform – fried food without garnish, unattractively slapped onto a simple, greasy plate, and clearly cooked without any imagination, intuition or apparent care / interest.

Contemplating the dessert menu turned out to be a rather awkward process of illumination of the dishes apparently being offered on the menu: The reluctant waiter, who had given the impression all evening that his two solitary ‘mugs’ customers were disturbing him from something far more important explained with what seemed to be increasing incredulity at our stupidity, that despite the ‘menu’, the desert choice was actually between ‘desert’ or ‘no desert’.

We had one of each.

The latter was the better choice.

When we finally plucked up the courage to venture into a privately run restaurant, it was like a revelation – perhaps actually, a revolution!

Stark comparison to the unmotivated staff serving whatever they could find in the largely empty ration stores and cooked by ‘chefs’ who have clearly lost the joy of cooking and ability to taste; so worn down by rations and sub standard ingredients.  

In unofficial, privately run cafes and restaurants kind, attentive staff welcome you as though a personal guest, into a a well cared for, warm atmosphere.  Small and intimate rather than cavernous, silent and cold.  They offer simple but appealing menus – a range of fresh dishes that were actually in stock.  Simple, tasty, fresh cooking.  Jamie Oliver would have approved!

Starkly contrasting to the ‘official’ establishments’ uniform smell, taste and greasy coating of over-used vegetable oil.  Their bland dishes accompanied by ‘black beans’ which tasted as though they’d come out of a tin that would have been so much better left unopened. 

Why had it taken so much courage for us to venture away from the guide-book recommendations – pop up restaurants, unofficial eateries in Cubans homes and family hosted paladares are what all the blogs about Cuba are buzzing about – for the sake of your taste buds, your pockets, and to get a genuine feel of ‘Cuban hospitality’, chuck the guides, go with the flow and do it the Cuban’s way!

When I got home, I bumped into a neighbour.  He was chatting about the foul rain there had been in London – admitted that ever since his cellar had flooded (briefly) some five years or so ago, he was anxious every time he opened the cellar door and went down the steps gingerly, still imagining that he could smell that characteristic ‘damp’ in the air.  At a time when ‘Mindfulness’ is all the rage as a means of reducing stress and gaining balance in our lives, those hardy, happy Cubans have something to teach us about living in the moment, and making the most of what we do have. Simply.  No fancy titles or theories.  They ‘Just Do It!’

Holiday info:

We stayed at the Hotel Telegrafo right in the centre of Havana – on the main square, on the corner of Parque Central.  Although in the oldest part of the city, this isn’t an area covered by the Unesco patrimony – but a great position, nonetheless.

Built in 1860, the Telegrafo was completely reconstructed in 1911, and then opened as one of the most modern, high profile hotels in the city.  It has a glorious history; raising it’s profile by apparently having been one of the earliest hotels of the region to supply telephones to each room, and dining tables.  As a result, it was (in it’s time!) considered one of the most desirable hotels in Cuba, and hosted high profile politicians & businessmen.

The Telegrafo now still has a definite art deco feel to the interior and furnishings.

In fact, one could (if being honest, but not very kind!), say that the interior hasn’t changed much since then… kept clean, but not appearing to have been updated.  Or, with regard to bathrooms, maintained beyond the essential.

But we chose the Telegrafo for just that – a dive straight into real Havana.  And we got it, in every way 🙂

So I wouldn’t return to the Telegrafo, but I would recommend it as a very well positioned, authentic hotel for a short stay.

It is great value for what it is.

But you’ll probably need a proper breakfast after 2 or 3 days, so that’s the maximum stay I would suggest.

And remember why you chose it!

“Life is 10 percent what you make it and 90 percent how you take it.”  Irving Berlin.