Decadence, Decay and Definitely Dynamic – Havana Cuba for 2.5 days.

The history of Cuba is  long and turbulent and since Christopher Columbus landed there in 1492 it holds one of the most complicated Latin American Sagas to date.

Its story is not unfamiliar. The echo’s of a colonial nation’s struggle murmurs throughout Latin American history.  Cuba’s story is an unadulterated version of the Spanish exploitation of a land’s natural resources, enslavement of people and corruption of government and power. Hundreds of years of struggle for freedom and autonomy has a heavy price tag that is paid to date in patience and still unresolved.

Jose Marti, the famous and revered Cuban poet said that the Island of Cuba belonged to Cubans and it needed to be run by Cubans. He even attempted to overthrow the Spanish in the late 1800’s but with no success. This was a counter directive against the years that Cuba was controlled by the Spanish. The people of Cuba suffered as the Spanish built and extensive infrastructure of farms, industry and urban decadence. Havana, its capital could have been considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world before 1960 and has since  has fallen into great decay. The American presence here was enormous and they muddled in political affairs for decades including support for Cuba to oust the Spanish stronghold but even this kind of support ended. It is pretty simple, the Americans and the Spanish wanted to be a part of Cuba, the US even attempted to purchase it from Spain as the US was an enormous land owner of Cuba. Cuba was in the middle of a tug – of – war for its resources and it really only wanted to be independent.

Cuba was up against too many odds to be independent.  If you combine the beauty, natural resources,  geographic and strategic position to Latin America and its proximity to the US,  the momentum of power began to take over over the island by greedy businessmen and politicians. By the early 1900’s Havana becomes a playground for American and Spanish Agriculture, Industrial and International Businesses.  It becomes a Haven for bankers and a playground for rich tourists. Havana  becomes something like a “Boardwalk Empire” run by thugs, mafia and greed. After Spanish Rule, American Influence and 100’s of years of stronghold, Cuba is taken over by a revolutionist named Battista who’s greed becomes apparent to the people of Cuba. Under Battista, the Cuban population dipped into deep poverty and corruption.  What was considered the financial hub of the America’s becomes a haven for the rich and a hell for the poor all fueled and supported by the Dictator, the United States and  Spain. In the meantime, a young man named Fidel attempts a coup – fails and is jailed. This made Fidel even more determined and after a reorganization in Mexico, returned to Cuba with a plan. Fidel teamed up with Che and had a simple idea:to put the island back in the hands of its people that were on the brink of starvation.  In 1959 – Revolutionists drove tanks into a city ruled by excessive  greed and brutal rule. In a short time a dictator is ousted, Americans and the Spanish landowners are booted and the fate of Cuba fell into the hands of Fidel. At the beginning he promised social and financial equality for all Cubans, in the end, his rule is of the most controversial governing powers in world history. The Americans actually supported Fidel for a moment but that relationship quickly fizzled when he ousted the US from their land ownership and the relationship is weak to this day.

The Leaders of the Revolution Che on the Left and Fidel on the Right

Fidels’ promise to give people a social and equal existence turns into a power struggle that almost results in a nuclear war with the US and Russia! This small island became strategic pawn for cold war chess game. In retrospect, that the US turned their back on Cuba in embargos resisting the new government turned to be deprecating for the Cuban people and the Cuban cause. This forced Cubans into the hands of communism. Within  years of the take over the country was broke, the agriculture business was decaying and Fidel needed help and got it from Russia, the US’ main enemy.

The city of Havana and the country of Cuba as the world knew it was brought to its knees and today remains bruised.  53 years after the tanks rolled into Havana no one can argue that Cuba is one of the most interesting and unique island nations in the world with enormous problems. Still there is a pride instilled in its people that hope for better days.

The exiles of the revolution are bitter. They lost everything to the communist regime.  These ex hoteliers,  industry owners, lawyers, doctors and bankers turned a blind eye to such inequality in the early part of the century and left immediately after the revolt. Most can be found today in Spain or Miami.  This “1 percent” was knocked to their feet in a Dr. Shovagoesque way . The 99% completely took over its streets, mansions and buildings. Most of the decadent homes were cut up into apartments and a complete halt on imports effected the way Cubans lived. There is a great social struggle between those that left and those that stayed and for the last 50 years there were the escapees, caught in the middle. Cuba might have been at its worst with the fall of the Soviet Regime. Support for Cuba dried up and it resulted in Cubans washing up on Florida Beaches daily.

Today Cuba is thought to be populated by supporters of the government and ex patriots of the Old Cuba and people that generally suffer. The Cubans now living in are much different than their grandparents and definitely different than the exiles.  With the strength of the American Embargo fueled by ex Cubans against Fidel – the story continues with strong opinions on both sides.

There was no doubt on anyone’s end that a revolution needed to happen; how far it went is something everyone can scratch his or her head on. Brother Raul has now taken over power from Fidel who still gives weekly radio addresses to its compatriots. Raul has begun to lift laws that regulated the people so heavily for the past 1/2 century and I am told Cuba is on the brink of change.

Today there are no fast food restaurants, no advertisements, and certainly no Banana Republics. Besides a few post war soviet modern buildings you could argue that the city of Havana has literally been frozen in time, but at who’s expense? Frozen would also mean that it is preserved which this city is most certainly not. Unesco came in recently and named Old Havana to be a world heritage site, granting funds to renovate and restore but I would bet that a million structures need renovation, so having a square rebuilt and repainted barely makes a dent.

For Cubans to survive Patience is needed and in the period that Cubans have lived under the latest regime, one could argue its had its most difficulties and downfalls. Cubans have had to reinvent the meaning of survival. There is a tourist industry that thrives on their misfortunes and Havana is the heartbeat of this heartbreaking story. People might say “You must go to Cuba before it gets ruined” and other might argue, “don’t go to Cuba, it is already literally in ruins”. There is something to say for a country  with No Home Depot’s, Walmarts or fast food chains. Something beautiful  about billboard-less country side and 7 TV stations to choose from. Something intoxicating about the idea of socialized medicine and free education for all.  There is also something tragic about people driving cars from the 50’s because they have no choice, watching buildings literally fall around the people due to neglect and decay and people literally having nothing but surviving on utter basics. Sure they have peso rum, cigars and good music, but I would think that begins to wear out. If you are human and you visit you see holes in the system and you dream of cleaning out your basement and throwing it on a ship and bringing it down. Cubans need everything.

NYC – HAVANA via MIAMI the First 24 Hours.

Miami International was insanely busy and the check in for flight to Havana even worse. After I sorted my visas and passport with our travel guide we are relieved that we are carrying on. “We” is my friend Lisa and me who are going to see our friend Sandra for her birthday party!  Lisa lived in Cuba for a year and it has been a decade since her last visit. As you know by now I always fly carry on and now with duffel, the line up of Cubans flying to Havana with large suitcases is daunting. Everything is plastic wrapped and I already feel that they are supplies for relatives and friends. Diapers, tissues clothing and such. Basics are really basic in Cuba and sometimes-resident needs to decided between laundry detergents and cooking oil. I am happy I packed soaps, tissues and candy for anyone that will take and regret not packing 20 suitcases of clothing and medical supplies.

We board our charter flight and take off in a sky of clouds… before we even reach cruising altitude, Sky King Charters announces its descent and as people begin to cheer we approach the runway. Below is lush green trees and farmland. I even see cows from the air.  Our gentle landing is welcomed… we made it – Lisa starts to cry.

Cuba in the Mist

Cuba in the Mist

Customs and Immigration was painless and an officer actually helps me with my paper work. As we walk through the custom doors we here welcomed cheers and noise, as there are hundreds of people waiting for our flight to come out. We see a sign that says our names.

For some reason I am inclined to hug our taxi driver as he greets us with a smile! We made it! HOLA!!! As we arrive to his car I am shocked. It is a 1954 Buick and his girlfriend greets us and off we go…

My Airport Pick Up – 54 Buick

The sun is setting and Lisa starts asking our driver Remy and his girlfriend Amaris questions.  They immediately talk about the changes Raul is making with big smiles on their face.  We pass a grocery store and as they point saying, its the country’s first. Not the best – they carry all the same brand, but none the less a grocery store!  The pollution is thick and the car rattles down the road. I am startled that the car still runs. As we sit deep in the back seat we pass billboards in support of the revolution. As we get closer to the city, Amaris talks of her son who went to the University of Havana and is now an engineer. As we enter the old city, the university is on my right and  am told that the government allows cell phones but no interent. YET! They even tell us that foreigner might be able to buy real esate in as early as 5 years from now! Remy shakes his head in excitement and we turn the corner and drive the long driveway toward the National Hotel. This will be the first of many examples of the “Once was” in Havana… Remy and Amaris say goodbye and I am handed a business card with Remy’s picture on it and his number. Yes, things are certainly changing… I just got a business card from a communist.

Remy Amaris Lisa and Me! The first Cubans I met! SO PROUD!

My first sip of Mojito at the National is a brilliant one. I exchange some euros for Cuc’s the countries local currency for tourists. (There is another currency for Cubans that is worth literally nothing, its the Cuban Peso). As the mint and Rum pacify my soul I sink deep into my chair. We realized it took us 11 hours door to door to get here and we were thrilled. Sandra suddenly arrives and we have a plan. Remember! Sandra is the birthday girl!  We jump into the Buick and start cruising to our hotel.

Cruising down the road I notice the water on my left and the old fort ahead! “Esta el Malecon?” I ask our driver. “Si SI, estas el Malecon!”

The Malecon with Havana’s Fort in the Background

And I scream!!!!!!! This walled watered edge road is another symbol of Cuba and it is called Cuba’s living room. At night people promenade the wall, make out and talk. Friday and Saturday nights Cubans stay out all night singing songs because they have nowhere else to go, since most Cubans live with generations of family under one roof.

The Hotel Terral is 2 weeks old and it is located right smack in the middle of the Malecon.  Our room overlooks the Caribbean and just 70 kilometers north is Key West. The US actually never felt so far as I see the strong current in the sea. On the horizon are police boats – this is the shortest passage between Cuba and the US and escapee rafters get picked up all the time for the attempt.

We throw on our dancing shoes and head out to enjoy our fist Havana night! Lisa and I run into the Tropicana to meet the rest of the group that has come for Sandra’s birthday. On arrival, I feel as if we just arrived to the Fountain Bleu hotel except there are no cars being valet’d. As we walk through an enormous lobby a man approaches us. “Are you Lisa and Stephanie? Come with me”. How did they know it was us? In Cuba there are many unanswered mysteries and this is the beginning of a few. The Tropicana was the creme de la creme of Havana night life in the early part of the century. The who’s who of the world came here to watch the Cuban entertainment. Tonight –  Dancers, Musicians and Performers rock the night away to Cuban favorites as a somber crowd of tourists watch. The show felt dated and I realize I have seen my 2nd “once was” in a matter of an hour. I think you know where I am getting with this. This city is the Capital of “Once Was…” that some how “Is.”  If that makes any sense.

A cast of of characters!

Dancers at the Tropicana!

Life’s a stage.

After way too many glasses of Havana Club Rum, the birthday group  jumps on the stage with every other tourist and starts dancing. It was hysterical. A kind of end of night Dirty Dancing where performers come out to grab audience members and do the mambo. I have to say, when I arrived to the Tropicana, I thought “OH NO TOURIST TRAP” and it really is – Still we had a blast. Even though the service was slow – something you have to get used to here in Cuba and the food fair it was well worth it. In Cuba, all you really need is some good rum, a good cigar some music and friends. It is a recipe for love here in CUBA!

After the dance party on the stage we leave the Tropicana and we convince the driver to take us into town to go to a night club.  This is a whole other experience entirely. I am told to watch out for Jinetera’s. Male or Female escorts looking for foreign tourists to date, marry or mooch off of. It is a method of survival here in Cuba and there are accounts of 13-year-old girls hooking up with 50-year-old Foreign Men to bring back money for the family or escape. Even stranger it is socially acceptable and married couples might escort on the side. Even doctors might do it. The dollar or the euro is much stronger than the Pesos or the Cuc and Cubans do whatever it takes to make ends meet. Rations are good for about 10 days in Cuba. The rest is left to you. This is the type of survival that Cubans have adopted as a culture. It is an unspoken fact that Cubans will entice you, be kind to you and even say I love you – for a quick buck. Cubans might be considered liars or cheats – I say that are opportunists. What is so sad is that I don’t think the revolution preached theft or prostitution as a part of selling the revolt. The people wanted equality. Times became so difficult here they evolved into the survivors they are today. It is an observation and you could argue that people all over the world have to survive… I decide it is not the surviving part that I criticize, it is the “No Choice” in the matter that really bothers me. People in life, need to do what they have to do… Cubans are not exempt from this.

We find out  that the Jinetera sictuation is decreasing. with the new rules, girls might open up a manicure shop or a hair salon before turning tricks! This news give ms great relief. For those that still turn the tricks, I heard that Foreigners actually come here specifically for the service of the escort and some even marry them. Most of the married couples that head back to Europe end in divorce. Some kind of Russian bride agreement.  At the dance club, 2 of my guy friends are attacked by the woman and  400 dollars got stolen out of Jose’ pocket. I remind myself to keep my eye on my bag and carry as little cash as possible. And that even though fading, I am staying away from a Hot Cuban at all costs! 🙂

As the night of dancing comes to an end, we stumble home. The streets of Cuba are totally safe. It is fascinating. You can walk anywhere and nothing will happen to you. I figure I will give it up for the regime. Something good! Finally! Even though it looks like Beirut, the streets of Havana have a ton of life in them, I found throughout the trip that the streets were much more exciting than any club, restaurant or bar we visited. By 2 am with blisters on our feet we walk back to the hotel and I fell into bed. Day one was a long one, having been up for 20 hours, I was looking forward to al little rest.

Buenos Dias Havana.

Coffee and a Sammy to go! Behind me an Art Installation.

There are no “TO GO” cups at the Hotel Bar, as I beg for my Coffee and Sandwich before I board the Tour Bus. I decide to cut open a plastic bottle and it works! Happy as a clam, we start our tour of the city. Within minutes, we realize our tour guide is a total commy. Still he points to his city proudly, and I am always out of sync with the guy.  Where he sees a renovated building I see 50 crumbling ones. Where he shows us the upper class neighborhood of Miramar, I see a battered version of the Rhodes in downtown Miami. When he shows us something to the left, it seems I am more interested with what is on our right. Still we struggle through the tour and make our first stop at the cemetery, which reminds me of one you might find in New Orleans.  Here you see people polishing decadent burials of Marble and gold and where we find our Amelia. A local saint whose miracle is that she died at childbirth. At her burial, he child was place at her feet but 5 years later, when they removed the top of the tomb. The baby was lying in her arms… A MIRACLE! It is the only gravesite that has fresh flowers placed every day by locals. You can also make a wish and Amelia might grant it. I somehow forgot to make one, but considering what I have seen so far, I think there is nothing to wish for, my life seems pretty good. My secret wish is that she grants all wishes to Cubans who need and want something.

Cemetery Workers

Amelia – La Milagrosa

Tombs of the Past.

Reminded me of New Orleans

I being to wander and realize I am thirsty. I look through a window of what seems to be an abandon building, and I see bread!!! I open the door. And enter my first Government Run Bakery. I initially gave it a C+ until I ate a sticky bun and I changed it to an A+ Delicious! In my first Cuban bakery and I can’t decide if I am impressed or depressed. I decide I am impressed (honestly I did not even think they had any). I buy some sticky buns, some almond cookies and big bottle of cold water and i am charged what seemed to be local prices – not tourist prices. Literally like 3 dollars. We all board the Commi tour bus and see a few other things. on our way to Old Havana and the Fort.

The Bakery

Before we Board the Bus we see a fruit stand and decide to buy some bananas, I pull out the Cucs and realize he can’t take them. The People of Cuba get paid in Pesos and if they get Cucs, the government charges them to convert them. At many of the places you are forced to pay with Pesos and often times small fruit stand guys don’t want the Cuc’s it is too much trouble! I realize that this system is lame. Charging your people on your countries currency is a crime to me and it makes me angry. As we drive along the roads I notice that not much has been done as far as preserving the city around me. I saw a bit last night, but in daylight it is daunting. 

Looks Like Miami Beach!

Our Local Fruit Stand. Pesos Only!

Patriotism or Death!

The Homes on the Malecon

Revolution Square  is like a big parking lot. Tourist Buses cruise by and people take pictures of the cities main communication hub, some offices and Marti’s Monument. 

Marti’s Tower!

Gentle Reminders

On our way to Old Havana we stopped on top of the Castillo de Morro we start to get a glimpse of old Havana. When we reach the top of the Fort, we get the whole picture os the city. It is here that I met my favorite horse Genardo and where we got to soak in the HUGE port City of L’Havana! it was just amazing.

Genardo and Me. The Sweetest Horse in the World. He sank into my arms and let me love him. At first he was head shy, but then his head just dropped down. SO SWEET.

The Birthday Group, From Miami, Ohio, New York and England!


Overlooking this city, I realize I get more confused as this city reveals itself to me. It is like an onion and as I peel layer after layer off my eyes begin to burn.This city has so much to see, so much life in every nook and cranny and it is daunting. At the same exact time, it has so much death. If you wonder how the Egyptians lost an empire, come to Cuba. Like the sands of the Desert that covered an entire civilization, so does this salty air that eats away at the walls of this city. Every day, something breaks, something falls and something cracks. I suddenly worry. How could a city just evaporate like this?

More to come as we continue to peel the Onion! Lunch at a Parador, Rain in the Old city, Art Galleries and More!



Old Havana, L’Havana Viejo

Our commy tour guide was getting sick of us. We were scattered, uninterested in his speeches and hungry. I sat in the front seat of the tour bus and just smiled at Tony our Bus driver. He was so sweet and told me that he did not like the city, he lives outside the city in the country. If you are wondering, Cubans don’t speak the best English. During days of the cold war, they taught Russian in schools, now it is French and German or Italian. So when I say I am speaking to people, it is in a terrible broken Spanish that I learned living in Miami. Still somehow I get by. You can read so much by someone if you just listen to the tone and watch them. Even if you can’t understand anything, and in the end? You can laugh, put your hand on their shoulder and just say “Desculpe – pero – No ENTIENDO….”

I tell Tony the driver thank you and I wish him good luck. As we step out of the bus and start heading into the interior of the old city it gets extremely hot. Our first stop is the a main square just recently renovated with the help of UNESCO. Our tour guide is very proud. I count the buildings and wonder if they can multiply this by 10,000 to even get this city back into shape. You can see here that the crane is renovating yet another building that they could only salvage the facade for. Many of the building are rotting from the inside out and I suspect this is how a ton of these buildings will be dealt with.

A square in Old Havana

Still somehow you then realize, well there is a crane – a crane operator and workers? So that must be good for the people of Cuba. Wages however are regulated. I don’t know if these guys get the same as a baker or not. I never found out. Walking through we get caught in a rain storm. There is nothing better than a tropical rain to cool you down on a hot day. We take cover in an art gallery that has the most beautiful courtyard and we are hung up there for about 45 minutes. It is here that I am able to buy post cards and by a commi newspaper to see what they are talking about. The Pope just visited so the headline was “The POPE SHUNS THE US FOR THE EMBARGO”. The other headlines are “CUBA HELPS LIVESTOCK FARMERS PRESERVE LAND.” Another is “DOCTORS SENT TO ABU DABI TO PERFORM SURGERIES!” What I notice about the papers is that there are very few ads. I also notice that they are very anti american. “America stops this! America stops that! Finally there is an article that Cuba is starting a 120 year old club. That Cubans are so healthy that they should all live to 120 years! I second think the socialized medical and wonder – maybe it is that good? The tour group cruised around and braved the rain by the end. We were really hungry and wanted to get to lunch so we started walking toward the Palador. The magic of the rain on the streets and the cool air and the sounds of the city were beautiful. Here are a few things we saw along the way to lunch.

Boy in Barber Shop

Coconut Delight. Possibly the Most Delicious snack! Coconut mix with Raw Sugar and place in a palm leave. Whole food would go nuts for this!

Girls in a Cigar Shop

Outdoor Book Stand.

Flea Market Table of Pins

Bead Girls! Beautiful Ladies selling me Beads!

Not EXACTLY sure what they are selling here. None the less. Havana Food Shop

“Once Was” Courtyard. These are a Dime a Dozen in Havana. Just Beautiful.

It is obvious that people struggle here.

THIS IS A BAR. Their inventory was 1 bottle of Peso Rum and Cigars. They were open for business.

A Government Run Pharmacy

Girl In Pharmacy

Signs of Old Spanish Catholics – Cubans in general are not that religious.

Stephanie in the Rain

Don’t get me wrong on some things that I am writing or even some things I am leaving out! Cuba is confusing. driving around in private homes along the way you saw people with tiny stands in their driveways. Selling fruit or bags or something. This was ILLEGAL until recently and people are excited to start small businesses. You have to remember, you can’t open the flood gates of Capitalism in a country that does not even pay taxes or rent!!!! Think about it. I mean, if you can figure out a way to make a little extra, you don’t need much! Education if free too? If you get the good grades – then you get the education. Cuba actually exports engineers and doctors. Can you imagine exporting Brain power in a country that barely had toilet paper? It is extremely complicated here. As the Onion peels and my eyes burn, it actually gets more confusing. Just before lunch our tour guide brought us through a small flea market where you could purchase books and old magazines and pins. It was here we met our little band that serenaded us. When they were through, we mentioned to them that we had extra guitar strings. Cubans love to play music but barely have enough money to buy supplies. The guitarist here was playing on Nylon string and wire! Lisa’s husband packed her guitar strings and when we told them about it strings they offered to go pick them up! We told them where the hotel was and they said they would come a little later to get them.

At this point we get really hungry, leave the band and start running to the Palador. On our way – more sites to see and more people to meet. Beautiful walk through the rainy streets of Havana. We are now ready for lunch.



Dogs in an Archway

El Paladar – A Cuban Original!

The Paladar is a Cuban invention. Some how some where, some one said, in order to make a few bucks and help feed the growing tourist industry, if you have a home, you can put a few tables in your front yard, or on your porch or roof – cook and charge for it. Even though the Cuban government put a limit to the amount of seats, today you see Paladars with as little as 10 seats to as many as 100. When we walked into Paladar Dona Eutimia we were immediately embraced by the decor. It is like being in someone’s living room/dining room. Our large table of guests were nestled into a corner with a large dining room table and all seemed just right. I was thirsty for a local beer which in Cuba would be a Cerveza Crystal – in my opinion DELICIOUS! What is funny about Cuba is that they also have their own “cola’s” and their own bottled water. Cuba is self sufficient in so many ways and so dependent in others. I took a walk around the restaurant and was happy to see a woman at the cash register. This is the Dona in Eutimia and the small kitchen in the back held mostly men. The servers were men as well. I liked that a woman was in power here. Her Palader was beautiful.


Cuban Beverage Choice



Dona Eutimia Palador!



The Dona at the Register! GIrl Power



The Feast!



The Chef!! BRAVO!!!

The food was delightful! The atmosphere perfection. The company of our group was warming and actually this meal was the first meal I really sat down to have in Cuba. Beans, Rice, Salad, Fish, Plantains! Fresh Bread, Garbonzo Beans, Croquetas! The works. The service in Cuba is SLOW but like I said, patience is a way of life here and in the end patience will give you pleasure. I was so excited about the meal that I asked Dona to get the chef to come out so that we could applaud him. He came out somber and humble and as we Cheered he smiled!!!!!! We thanked him for this beautiful meal and he was happy! I wondered how many times people have actually done that. Selfishly I figure, NO ONE.


I drank 2 COLD beers, which smoothed the edge of the hangover from the night before and somehow gave me energy for what was ahead. We walked the streets, grabbed a coffee and talked politics. What else would one do in the city of Havana. Politics is a major subject. You could argue that Cuba is a failed state – you can also argue that other countries are failed states but with no educational system or health care. You can argue that if you are going to be poor, maybe CUBA is the place to be. You can also argue that even if you are poor in a country with open borders, there is the very idea that you could with hard work, GET OUT. In Cuba, unless you are a good swimmer – you don’t.





Pulling at my Heart Strings and Guitar Strings

The afternoon was somber, we cruised around, had our coffee and with such late summer sunsets realized that we had to get back to hotel to get ready for the nights festivities! It was the night of Sandra’s Birthday and we had a birthday dinner reservation for 9pm. The sun sank into the Sea and we went to our hotel wondering if our band was going to be there waiting. Sure enough, across the street on the Malecon, sat the 3 performers for 6 hours ago. They told us that they had been waiting for a few hours and we believed them. Not only were guitar strings the incentive but so were other wishes. Our lady asked if we could spare some soap and perfume.

Before leaving for Cuba, I thought, well, they must need soap toilet paper, shampoo and creme. In addition, I figured candy would not hurt so i brought about 200 pieces of candy as well. Thank god for cleaning out my closet – we ran up to the room, grabbed the guitar strings and I made a care package of good for the girl. Soap, Shampoo, Q tips, Perfume, and whatever else I brought. I think I even brought a roll of TOILET paper! When we brought it back down to them, the lead man made a speech. He thanked up for the strings and the woman thanked us for the goods. They serenaded Sandra for a few minutes for her birthday before they went on their way. We felt so good about what we had done! I was so happy!!!

These guys waited 6 hours for strings.

We parted ways, and I find it strange that I might never ever see them again. We start walking towards our second Paladar for Sandra’s Birthday Dinner. As we walk along the streets, we are considered walking in Havana. It is not Old Havana so it is even worse off than what I saw today. NOT ONE BUILDING IS PRESERVED. There are piles of ruble outside peoples homes, dim street lights once in a while and people walking on the streets. There are stray dogs (or not) and music coming from the buildings. We keep walking until we get to a HUGE double door. When we walk in, we find 4 guys playing Dominos, seems to be the local game here and I feel as if I am in an Old Theater. I notoce a clothing line and a marble staircase. I also notice the Fidel’s picture on the wall.

The first thing you see.

As we climb the steps it is an erie feeling of being in an empty theatre. But you keep peeking toward the back and you see the clothes hanging, the water barrels andyou relize this is a place where people live. I have to look into it more, but people are placed in homes. It seems like once you are placed, you don’t leave, which is why generations send up living in the same space.

This is home to a bunch of families.

Hallway toward the Rooms.

As you continue to climb the Marble staircase, you wonder, WHERE am I GOING? And then you learn. Welcome to the Paladar Guarida which means the “foxhole”.

This place is well – simple – beautiful. The Cuban tile on the floor, the gold walls and the history in between. We drink out of glasses from the 50’s east with forks from the 40’s. The table cloth is lace from the 30’s and the pictures on the wall, centuries. I would say that this Palador is the pride of Havana which is why they have a few more seat than what is leagallly allowed. Remember when I say – you learn one rule and it is broken around the corner. In Cuba, you have the black market, the grey market, the government run market. Then there is the cash market, the peso market and then the international tourism market. Rules break at moments when they are made. Even thought they call this a faimly run restaurant, it is a well oiled machine. The Servers are beautiful women in black dresses. They are well educated. The wine list is international, the menu is a combination of French, Italian and Cuban and they even wrote “infused” in one of the examples of the dishes. There are tourists in the joint and we have with us, 2 Cuban artists. This might sound strange, but they were all cleaned up and using both a fork and a knife when eating. They ordered the most expensive dishes and one of the artists decided it was too spicy. I can’t decide if this was the truth, they had been there before or this was their first time. The artists happen to be a couple, but I felt them to be unapproachable. You ask questions and they quickly reach a dead end. Cubans in general don’t talk much about important stuff. Politics, America and the things that we would really want to ask about. There is a shrewd unspoken rule that you feel that if you ask. “HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEING IN THE FREAKING PLACE!!!!” that you might not get a straight answer anyway.

We dined and drank amazing spanish wine and had a fabulous time. Here are a few picks to get the gist. This Palador was written up in Cigar Aficionado. The creme de la creme of Cubans and tourists dine here. It was a beautiful place, but not “Cuban at all”. Another “Once Was” that totally “Is”.

Dinner at the Paladar

Ornate Walls Warm You.

After our beautiful dinner, we leave feeling full and tired. It is about 1 AM and we are ready to walk the safe streets of Havana back to our hotel. I did not know it yet, but I wanted sleep to be ready for my last day in Havana. Little did I know it was going to be one of the best days of my life.

Love, Stephanie

p.s. Happy Birthday Sandra!!!

Coco Loco

Waking up, Lisa and I realize, it is the first moment in probably weeks that we can just wake and not stress out. We pull the curtains open and we see the sea in front of us. As the streets buzz with 1950’s like traffic sounds, I actually stretch. We organize, take photos and enjoy our perch for a moment. Today we are planning to see old friends. Not mine, but Lisa’s. She had a large bottle of Tequila from Duty Free and we were going to make it a surprise. Lisa lived in Cuba for a year, and she lived with Carmen, a Cuban radio announcer, her girlfriend, her grand mother and those that came in and out to rent rooms. Like the Palador, you are actually allowed to rent rooms in your home to tourists in Cuba Before we set out on what we KNOW is going to be a long day of visiting and walking we take a moment to soak in where we are right now. Of our balcony is the Malecon, and people are running, walking or cruising by. Just off the sea wall is a man in an inner tube fishing. I lean over the balcony and look down onto the street. The cars here alone are a reason to come here, especially if you like the classics! I snap some pics, take a shower and head down for a coffee and my Coco Nut.

Man fishing, View of the Malecon

Breakfast of Champions!

Our Hotel Terral, Next to a crumbling building.

The Sea Wall – The Malecon!

We decide to take a COCO taxi to Lisa’s old Neighborhood. These are 3 wheeled  taxis are in the shape of a COCONUT! There is no other way to describe Cuba and our trip on this COCO taxi than with this video. It is not edited. It is in real time and in increments. Please sit back and relax. Soak in what you are about to see. It is pretty insane. The streets of Havana Cuba.

Carmen and Neptune

There are so many things I can say have changed my life. Visiting Carmen is on of them. Arriving to the door we were hopeful that the surprise would work. The friend that greeted us asked Carmen’s girlfriend if we could come in. Larissa, peeked out and said! “Lisa?” She recognized her from pictures that Carmen had shown. I don’t know and still do not know the history of Carmen’s life only that my good friend Lisa rented a room out of her home 10 years ago for about a year. At the time, Carmen’s mother was 79, today we find her at 89. Back then, Carmen had a girlfriend that Lisa did not love, today we meet Larissa who is just the best. 10 years ago, Lisa said that people were not even be able to sell things on the street and today, small businesses are sprouting up everywhere. Lisa was coming “home” to a new place.

When we were welcomed into Carmen’s home we were told she would be home in about 5 minutes. Until then, we were able to wander around and find abuela (grandma). At first when you walk through the huge doors you come into a large parlor. We were welcomed by Carmen’s Grandfather’s Butterfly Collection  with pieces of furniture from days past. This home is an indoor/outdoor house. So the staircase  is outside and the living areas around. This house has 2 floors and a roof. On the street level is the main kitchen with the 3 rooms for rent. When you walk downstairs it is where you will find where Carmen lives with her mom and girlfriend. It is very clean.  There is a small kitchen, a sitting room and 3 bedrooms that each hold the original furniture. There are fans everywhere to keep the place cool but truthfully the living is a little rough. It could use a little face lift.

In the second bedroom, we find grandma who is curled up in her bed staring at the ceiling. She is suffering slightly from memory loss due to old age, but you can talk to her and she will react to you holding your hand. She was so frail and Lisa was so happy to see her. Within moments Larrissa warns us that Carmen is back, so we hide around the corner and wait for her to come! In moments, Lisa jumps out and surprises Carmen! SHOCKED!  I immediately start crying as they hugged and laughed and Carmen kept saying. “I can’t believe it!” We all sit down to talk and life feels really good. After a while we urge Carmen and Larrissa to have lunch with us and they agree but first we have to feed grandma and get her set up for the day.

This is when it hits me, the newspaper is bullshit, 120 year old club? Here I see an 89 year old and her daughter slaving away for her mother. Carmen feeds her mother,  baths her, she administers medication. After spooning watered down rice and chicken into grandmas mouth we changed her and put her in front of the TV. She does not have a proper chair for her frail frame, so Carmen has devised a system to tie her in with a bed sheet in an old rocking chair.

It takes two people to move grandmother and I realize it must have been a while since grandma left the house. The stairs to the upstairs are narrow and metal. Carmen says that her mother screams for her every night and it is exhausting. She also tells us she needs diapers for her. Either she can’t get them or they are too expensive, so she has to wash them and reuse them. Wash and reuse them??? I feel frustrated and with regret, I wish I had traveled with a list of things Carmen and her family needed. Grandma is spotless. She is taken care of with a strong hand of a daughter born the year of the revolution! It is insane that in this crumbling home this family lives here. I notice things around the house like samples of shampoo and conditioner and creams most likely left behind by tourists renting rooms. I see tons of shelves of books and cd’s. Clothing is hung to dry and as we were there, the floors were being scrubbed. The Cuban tile throughout the house with a mixture of concrete was cool on your feet. I notice no carpets in the house.

We leave grandma and Lisa and I realize that it is probably the last time we would see her. All if a sudden I feel sad and say a small prayer to myself. I am going to miss Abuela.

Lisa in her Old Living Room at Carmen’s

Grandfather’s Butterfly Collection.

Carmen’s Floor

Cuban Tile in the Original Kitchen Now reserved for those who rent rooms.

Abuela and Lisa’s Hand Holding and reunion after 10 years.

The Renuion, Larrissa on the Left, Carmen Center and Lisa on the Right.

As we walk through the local neighborhood toward a local Paladar I notice the street life more vividly then in old Havana. I wonder where all the people are going, I wash people walk by and I am curious about how they feel about Cuba and what has come of it. Along the main avenue we are greeted with large walls of propaganda and even though I notice I wonder if the people do anymore.

The Palador was small. It seemed like everyone was local  we are handed our menus by a sinister looking man. When we start discussing what we are going to eat and realize we have different menus at the table. One was for non Cubans and one for Cubans. When we mention it, he takes the cheaper menu away and Carmen says  “Pero Soy Cubana” – (But I am Cuban) and I looked at her and burst out laughing and said – you are with Gringas, you are a Gringa now! I was shocked at the fact that one of her “Comrades” was charging her Gringo prices. I think she was too. That’s Cuba.

The lunch came and we devoured every bite. THE FOOD HAS BEEN EXCELLENT IN CUBA! We were laughing and talking and my favorite part was talking music with Larrissa who LOVES Barry Manilow and the Culture Club. She also told me how shocked she was when she first so Boy George recently saying she could not believe that person sang Karma Kamelean. We laughed!

On our way back Carmen says, she is going to take us somewhere since she knows I love animals. Just around the corner was a man who had a small botanical garden where he grows plants – has dogs and cats and raises ducks and rabbits for food. The dogs he resuced from the dumpster. The cats are stray and his rabbits and ducks although he loved them, are is bread and butter. The plants? Beautiful! Orchids and ferns and tropical plants….

The ducks and the rabbits are fed  nothing else but veggie scraps. They come from the local fruit and veggie vendors who come to him when the veggie are too ripe. One of his dogs that he found thrown in the dumpster “Princess” quickly becomes my friend and all in all I feel I am in this little oasis. One thing I notice is the Marti poem on the wall.

Saying goodbye is never easy. We did and we promised to see each other again and in less than 10 years. Lisa and I start to walk down and I thank her for inviting me on this magical day. Carmen, Larrisa and Abuela are just the best.

Lisa and Carmen at the Front Door.

The Cars in the Neighborhood

Typical Home. Cubans don’t pay rent. Several generations might live in one house.

Gentle Reminders

More Gentle Reminders

Home on the Street

THe FEAST for the Gringas!

Gringas eating at Gringa Prices!

Local Fruit

More Gentle Reminders.

An Oasis in the middle of the city!

The Rabbits!

Marti on the Wall!

Larrissa, Princess and Me.


The Good Bye….

Lisa decides that the only thing to do at this point is walk  Neptune Street. Neptune is  Havana on a slice of pavement. It is a must go when visiting.

That’s next on the trip!


Love, Stephanie