One Walk in Central Havana

One of my biggest frustrations with Havana is the lack of goods available that were easy to find in Santiago de Cuba. In particular, was water which is consumed at rate of 5 litres per day by the Winkel crew. In Cuba, they sell water in 600ml, 1.5L or 5L bottles. When considerating our 5L per day consumtpion rate the the 1.5L bottles quickly pile up in our room. On nearly every street is a small convenience store but all of them sell the same things, cans of pop, snacks, rum and behind the counter out of sight 1.5L bottles of water. More rum than anything else! A store will have two walls, one wall will be full of rum and the other will be mostly empty shelves with a bit of food and some non-rum drinks on them. My first few days, I was having a hard time figuring out where people get groceries here.

I needed to change some Canadian money into Cuban so I needed to get to a Cadeda which is a bank chain for foreigners. Thankfully, the casa helpers knew where one was so with their directions I headed out. On the way, a door at the front of an large catholic church which had been closed all week was open, into an amazing catholic church. Why not I said! I strolled through the galleries to the side of the main church area and took in the sculptures and paintings – all very catholic, with lots of Mary’s and Jesus’s with some saints interspersed. Beautiful and impressive – pictures not allowed. Onward to the bank.

On the way I wandered by Johnson’s Drug Store which was pretty cool.  It seemed like it was in too good of shape not to be for tourists, but there were locals shopping there so it must be both a tourist attraction and a business.

Johnson's drug store.

Johnson’s drug store.


Need something… if it isn’t in one of these jars then it doesn’t exist in Cuba ;)

A jinatero caught me when I was less than a block from the bank and tried to lead me to a jazz festival commemorating the death of one of the Buena Vista Social Club members. This was a movie that Avery, Jackie and I went to in University so I was mildly interested. Once he understood that I wasn’t interested in jazz right now, he told me the address of the festival, which I wrote down, and I headed to the bank alone.

Changing money was quick and easy! Maybe the only thing that is here provide you have your passport in hand! As I left my teller, she was recording the serial numbers of the US dollar bills I gave her, they will likely be tagged to my passport number until they leave the country.

I decided to follow my nose instead of take the quickest route back to home and soon ended up in Plaza del Cristo. The plaza is small with a statue in the middle, but what was interesting is that there were nearly no tourists in the square. This is less than 1 kilometer from the cathedral and Plaza Vieja which crawls with tourists but is off the beaten path. Instead there were 100s of cubans sitting on a low stone wall chatting and eating with each other. Also missing was the incessant calls of “Taxi!” which is how the drivers attempt to get your attention and business. I have made it my goal to not hire the guys who call this to me.

Plaza del Cristo a local hangout.

Plaza del Cristo a local hangout.

On the way to the bank I took Cuba street north from Sol avenue (to use Edmonton naming convention: streets north-south and avenues east-west). I could take Habana street south from the plaza all the way back to Sol so I thought what the heck, let’s try it. Habana street was a gem! It is more real Havana than anything we have seen in Havana yet! Gone were the newly cobbled or paved streets, the jinateros, souvenir shops, expensive restaurants and the bike taxis waiting on every corner.

Instead, the road was a mess of chipped or missing cobble stones and really old pavement with frequent holes and at one point a large trench that was full of workers pulling a new power cable. Everyone on the street was from Cuba and headed somewhere for work, food or a hundred other reasons besides trying to get business from me; I felt like the only foreigner in sight. Unusually I was ignored or at worst stared at instead of harassed. The only food on the street to be had was from the paladar restaurants which is a privately run restaurant. When the targeted customers are Cuban, a paladar usually is a house whose living room has been converted to a kitchen and the front window, complete with rebar grating, serves as the front counter. We have eaten from these quite a few times, always a little leery about health issues, but have had good luck. The food is very cheap, usually made to order and not bad – not great either – but when 3 bucks feeds five people you can’t really complain.

In addition to the lack of souvenir shops there were actual workshops, a metal shop where one welder and a couple helpers put stuff together usually with lots of stick (welding terminology) and rebar. The main customers for the welder were bike taxies who needed rain canopy frames repaired but I think you could take anything to the welder and he would try to fix it for you. I also passed several carpenter shops which smelled just like my garage after the saw bites through the first non-pine piece of wood. I went into one and they had a table saw, band saw, router and some sanders. I am not sure what they make there but they had the tools for nearly any basic job. When they offered to allow me to take pictures for the low price of a dollar, I left. Next was a shoe maker with some pretty squakum sewing machines and a mechanic parking lot.

Welding up the bike taxis

Welding up the bike taxis

Pretty reasonable PPE, the only bar stock they had was rebar though.

Pretty reasonable PPE, the only bar stock they had was rebar though.

Then I stumbled upon an open air market.  This was one thing I have been dying to see since leaving the first world! I went to one of these in Italy in grade 12 and nearly everyday in Tibet so I was excited to see the Cuban version! It did not disappoint, with the butchers cutting right in the market and a plethora of fruits and vegetables on the tables for sale. Compared to the Tibet of 2001, the number of flies in a Cuban fresh meat market was low but not zero. The aisle between the two rows of sellers was not very busy and locals bartered with the sellers voraciously to my delight. It was only 10:00 so likely it was early and sellers were less motivated to take a bad price. Early or not, I don`t think the locals are used to seeing a 2 meter (6’4″) tall white person walk through the local market and I attracted a lot of attention.  A few covert pictures and onto the street again – try not to step on the butchery refuse on the floor… Still an awesome look at local Havanian culture.

Fruit and veggies here.

Fruit and veggies here.

Butchers on the left.

Butchers were at the front of the market and produce at the back.


Typical food at the market in Cuba.  Prices are in Pesos which are worth about $0.04 each.

Typical food at the market in Cuba. Prices are in Pesos which are worth about $0.04 each.

Cuba has high speed internet, but right now the only way for a Cuban to access it is to go to a telephone company building and buy a 1 hour pass.  They can use the pass to logon to one of the telephone companies computers that are in the lobby of the building which usually means waiting for your turn in a line. There is no limit to the amount of time you spend on the computer or what you do. So you wait while people with time to burn watch youtube and surf facebook. Sometimes you see a person actually typing something which seems a little more palatable to wait for but it is rare. Tourists must still buy the one hour pass for access and wait in line just like everyone else.  All of this is very frustrating for a non-Cuban: get off the youtube or facebook and let my check email already!!

In some hotels, there is wifi which still requires a 5$/hour login that won`t transfer from hotel to hotel and is available only in the lobby. All errors on the systems part result in consuming your internet time so you become very good at connecting and disconnecting to their service, though errors still use up half your time. Regardless, its all painful and backward compared to Canada or the US to send an email or surf the web. The only respite foreigners who live in Cuba get from this backwardness is they can also get access to dial-up internet in their homes. Cubans, independent of the amount of money they have, are not allowed to get dial-up internet officially. However, some Cubans do have dial-up at home, usually because they are sharing an account with a foreigner.  Before I came to Cuba I never thought that 56k would be exciting again but after two weeks with nothing or the prospect of a one hour minimum wait in line on-demand dial-up was pretty amazing.

Despite the wait and the cost, which at $5 per hour is expensive for the average Cuban, there is no shortage of users – so the lines grow at the telephone company doors.  To keep the line orderly a lot of the telephone company buildings have had to hire security guards who will only let one potential user in when one comes out.  If you have other business in the building you can usually go straight in but only after shouldering your way to the front of the line and explaining that to the guard.  This earns you more than one scowl from the lined people who think you will butt your way into the internet line on the inside.

Half the line to get into the telphone building for some internet.

Half the line to get into the telephone building for some internet.

Across the street from the line was a cafeteria that was obviously a local favorite. People met here to look over contracts, buy breakfast, people watch and meet with friends. It was busy, dynamic and fun to take in. There were about 10 different counters with different foods and goods available. One counter had the standard sad Havana corner store selection of a couple of soaps, rum, pop and candy bars, another had a grill selling bacon and eggs – the first time I saw bacon on the street in Cuba! Also a couple counters had baked goods, one with donuts and sweets and the other with non-desert items. I had a pig in a blanket which was good even though it was cold. Cost: about $0.25.  There was also butcher and a cheese counter which I bypassed.

Local cafeteria and market.

Local cafeteria and market.

I headed out again toward home crossing a trench in the road where they were pulling new electrical cable off a spool by hand. Where the trench for the new cable interrupts the flow of traffic, a bridge across the trench was setup using the side of an old wire spool, which is strong enough but not wide enough. When bike taxis (which are effectively are trikes) would hit the spool wrong they would get stuck and block the way with one wheel on the spool and one wheel off.  Between the driver, who would get off the bike and a passerby they would push the bike over the trench and continue on their way.

Laying new electrical cable by hand.

Laying new electrical cable by hand.

The "bridge" over the cable trench.

The “bridge” over the cable trench.

The last and most exciting place I found was a store which had a deli in it, a wall of rum (not a surprise) and 5L water bottles which were not on display but available if you asked. I bought one 5L bottle and headed back to the house, though I should have bought two of them because by the end of the day the water was gone. Only two of many hours spent wandering the streets in Havana!

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