Cuba Adventures: Under the Toasty Havana Sun

Most of the sites I read when preparing for Havana were in Spanish, so I picked up saying La Habana, which annoyed (or at least confused) my classmates quite a bit. Bs and Vs are interchangeable in most Spanish accents anyway.

We arrived at Havana-Habana shortly after 11 am. The bus drove through the city, stopping at the city entrance, in Habana-Vieja (Old Havana), University of Havana, then finally the bus station.

All of those were more interesting than the Viazul Bus Stop, but since I only had a couple of hours to explore the city, I wanted to be sure that I’d be able to find my way back. And according to my map, the bus station was close to Plaza de la Revolutión, which I could totally visit to say I was there.

My plan: walk around till I found a good place for lunch, then make my way back, stopping at any sort of interesting attraction.

I had the hint of a headache which worried me. I don’t mind headaches as long as they aren’t blinding, but since I’m so insensitive to heat, tiny headaches are the only warning I get before it’s too late. If my body was already claiming dehydration, I wouldn’t last very long.

I got off the bus, and made my way through the parking lot, dodging overbearing taxi drivers trying to give me a ride. The idea of bargaining for a taxi ride scared the crap out of me, so I just avoided all men standing within the general vicinity of a car.

I took the street the bus had came down. I couldn’t find a street name sign, but according to my map, if I walked in that general direction, I might eventually reach University of Havana. So I walked. And I walked. And walked and walked and walked.

Havana was a little intimidating. I knew from my guide book to avoid jineteros and run down areas. Jineteros didn’t seem to be a problem: there were many Cubans out and about, but they weren’t interested in me beyond distant curiosity. I did have a full backpack that would have earned me stares in Canada and my makeup had probably worn off by now, revealing my shiny red face. As for run down areas, I had no idea. My eye wasn’t trained to the local real estate yet and all the buildings vaguely reminded me of Downtown Eastside. (The inhabitants, however, did not. I didn’t see many homeless people, maybe one or two, and even they dressed pretty well and looked relatively healthy.) I just walked along, no one bothered me or came close enough for me to worry about being robbed.

While I was quite happy with the people around me, I wasn’t happy with the available food services. Clearly I was in a residential area, and with the exception of a few street venders and run down corner bars that didn’t turn on the food-snob in me, I couldn’t find a place to eat. I veered off on another major street, hoping it would taking me somewhere more commercial. I studied the intersection carefully so I could find it again. The blue, 3 story building. The yellow house. The crowded city bus stop. The small pyramid on the ground indicating 23/26.

23/26? So those were the street signs. Little pyramids on the ground.

I turned off 26 and walked down 23. Eventually, and I was almost in the University area, a cute restaurant caught my eye. It looked upper scale, which worried me since I wasn’t dressed upper scale. My travel clothes yell tourist, but they’re the best for walking long distances in the heat. Remember that I planed on walking for hours under the blistering sun during the hottest time of the day. My headache was still there but, to my relief, hadn’t worsened. I wasn’t abnormally sad or angry either – my usual hallmark signs of early heatstroke.

A father and son were the only patrons. The boy was about six and was chatting eagerly in Spanish. Too complex and too fast for me to understand. The waitress was a gorgeous Cuban woman, maybe a few years younger than me. Cubans, men and women, are usually very good looking, probably because they take such good care of themselves.

I decided to give it a try. My embarrassment at struggling with Spanish holds me back a lot, but I was quite thirsty and hungry. “Una persona”, I asked.

Most restaurants in Cuba have dress codes, but I think they’re not as strict during lunch hours. The waitress asked me whether I wanted to sit outside or inside. I didn’t care either way. She sat me inside and asked if I wanted air conditioning. I was sweltering, but didn’t want to admit it, so I turned down the offer. I pulled out my guide book for assistance in decoding the menu.

The chicken was delicious. It was greasy in the Cuban way, but it was still lovely. And the vegetables! I envy people who live in places were food can grow. I don’t like vegetables much because they’re so expensive and, by the time they reach grocery stores, they’re rotting. But when I’m travelling to gentler climates, I take a lot of pleasure in eating fresh, flavourful and affordable vegetables.

The meal came with corn chips and pumpkin dipping sauce. On the house, the waitress assured me.

She ran to my table a few times, asking if my thoughts on the food. She seemed a little nervous. I wonder how often they had tourists here. I wished I could speak with her more, but she didn’t know any English at all (that she let on) and my Spanish was too basic.

I asked for the bathrooms, the baños as they’re called in Cuba. I wasn’t sure she’d let me use them, but I didn’t want to find public toilets and fight with a toilet paper vendor. Thankfully she pointed to a door and included “izquierda” (left) in her answer. There was, obviously, no toilet paper, but I had some left from earlier. I took advantage of the few minutes of privacy to reapply sunscreen and retouch my red-face-hiding makeup.

I left the waitress 10 CUC (10$), which covered the meal and included a hefty tip. I turned down change, which earned me the first genuine smile from the waitress. It’s a shame, I thought, that money is your only lever when you’re a tourist in Cuba.

It was past 1 pm by now, so I made my way back. The restaurant, which was named something like La Habana (very original, yes), was on the corner 23rd and Avenue de los Presidentes. According to my map, I had taken the scenic route and I could save a lot of time getting back to the bus station by cutting through Avenue de los Presidentes.

During my time in Havana, I wasn’t comfortable enough to take photos. I felt stared at enough, I didn’t want to draw more attention to myself by pulling out a camera. It’s unfortunate because the sights I saw on my way back were lovely. There were monuments on Avenue de los Presidentes, mansions down one of the roads I strayed on, interesting city busses that were packed with people (I probably could have taken a city bus, but I felt that my backpack was too big to let me fit on one of those crowded busses, besides, I didn’t want to risk not being able to get back) and, of course, Plaza de la Revolutión.

This is across from Plaza de la Revolutión. I sat on those steps to check my map and drink water.

When I first arrived in Havana, I was very subtle about showing that I had no idea where I was or where I was going. I’d pull off into side streets or sit on park bench benches to check my map or drink some water. By the time I was getting near the bus stop, I didn’t care anymore. I walked with my guide book in one hand and my bottle of water in the other. I’m tough, but I was getting tired.

A young guy about my age asked me where I was from and what I was doing. His English was broken and I wasn’t sure of the Spanish word for walking. (Caminar? Like in the Cucaracha song?) “Explorar” I told him. “El estastion de autobús”

He asked if he could come with me.

So you can know how awfully lost I am?

Pride said no. Besides, I was too tired to physically handle company. My endurance is at its best when I’m on my own. I thanked him and he left me alone.

When I reached the bus station on my map, I was greeted by a lovely surprise. This wasn’t my bus station. This was the Astro station. The Viazul station was not indicated on my map. In fact, the Viazul station was so deep in the suburbs that the streets it was on weren’t even on my map.

I could have taken a taxi, but I still had a good hour and a bit before I’d be pressed to catch my next bus. I guesstimated that if I walked South-West for a bit over an hour I’d hit the Viazul straight on. When I’m alone, my sense of direction borderlines on super-human. I was discouraged at how far I’d have to walk, but I wasn’t worried.

I walked down a highway. I walked through a military base (Cuba looooves its military). I walked through a construction site. I walked down beated up roads. I walked through a run down apartment complex. Nothing deterred me from my South-West destination.

As I emerged from a field, pushing the tall grass aside, I came across a little ground pyramid. 24/42. 24. Two blocks over and I was at 26. 26 was the bus station road. I held my breath.

And yes. Yes. I recognized the area. The little chocolate bar. The fruit market. The cars dealership. I was two blocks away from the Viazul.

About a half an hour later, I was sitting on the bus to Vinales, listening to my mp3 player and reading the last few chapters of Naamah’s Curse on my e-reader.

Sure enough, because I had bought my ticket in Varadero, the Viazul people had no record of me, but there was still enough room. And, of course, we made a stop at the Astro station. But it was probably better that I had walked all the way to the Viazul station, because by then the bus was full and I’m not sure everyone at the Astro station was able to board.

And then we were off and I anxiously awaited Vinales.

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