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Hard times in Havana on a Caribbean cruise

When Somerset Maugham said ‘A sunny place for shady people’ was he referring to Havana?

It was a place I had always wanted to visit. As a small child my relatives would jokingly bid each other farewell as they threw ‘End of the World’ parties during the missile crisis. I never really enjoyed the parties, too worried that I wouldn’t see my Aunts & Uncles again or my Parents or my Grandparents, couldn’t understand & was a bit perturbed about their nonchalance to impending doom.

Tom Waits, Chuck Berry, Roxy Music, Warren Zevon & others mention Havana in song lyrics, Waits even sang about being in a Cuban jail!!

I had researched the web for quite a few months, printed out maps & an itinerary, stocked up with pencils, rubbers, sharpeners & exercise books as recommended by previous visitors. We were ready to disembark, what could go wrong?

Custom’s officials will stamp your passport if you ask them, they may also decide to have the contents of your backpack tipped onto a table for inspection as they did me. My poor wife was still trembling half an hour later & still has nightmares of sending food parcels to a Cuban prison!

We changed Sterling into CUC’s, Cuban currency exclusively for visitors.

Out on the street the sun was dazzling & the traffic loud. We managed to body swerve the gang of taxi drivers who were insisting we take one of their tours as Havana was much too dangerous for tourists!!!

Ignoring their warnings we pushed on through the vibrant pedestrian cobbled streets, now sadly neglected but strangely adding to Havana’s mystique. Colonial arches & colonnades abound, lots of plants & greenery, plenty of churches, even a Russian Orthodox one. Meandering through the thoroughfares, old cannons were stuck nose first into the cement for bollards. Colourful canopies cast shadows, laundry hung from balconies. There were pets for sale in cages, also exotic birds. Ice cream vendors doing a fine trade on a sultry day. Kids played baseball down side alleys.

I spied an old guy sitting in a doorway holding white paper cones on small sticks. Cigars….they had to be! Although I’d heard that you must only buy cigars from official government approved shops.

In the USA it is illegal to drink alcohol openly in public, a way around this for street dwellers is to put whatever they are slurping, be it bottle or can, in a brown paper bag.

Everyone & their wife know what is in the brown paper bag, so do any Police officers. They may tut, they may disapprove but in general a blind eye is turned to this minor infraction. Surely this was the Cuban equivalent, an old man down on his luck just trying to make a living selling medium sized cigars wrapped in white paper with sticks poked in the end so that if you have forgotten your cigar-cutter then a hole is already there for you to suck on. Genius! I asked for 2, he spoke no English, me no Spanish. After much gesticulating we settled on a bundle of 6 for 2 CUC (about £1.40). I only had 10 CUC notes, he gave me change in local Peso notes, many Peso notes, I felt like a Peso millionaire….well maybe a thousandaire.

My wife & friends had kept on walking whilst I’d carried out my transaction & I caught up with them, jubilantly proud, eager to boast of my acquisitions. I asked my wife for a light as I slowly began to unwrap the paper cone……my heart sank as peanuts fell out. Not only was my wife & friends laughing uproariously, I’m sure the majority of the street was as well. 15 minutes in Havana & suckered.

Cuba 1 Bob 0.

We had made friends with two couples aboard the Thomson Dream. Melody & Phil (whom had come away for Phil’s 60th birthday celebration) from Mansfield, Mandy & Darren (whom were on Honeymoon) from Swinefleet near Hull. Phil is a big music fan, he had talked onboard about a famous Cuban band that I’d vaguely heard of. The Buena Vista Social Club. Upon hearing this mentioned by a local guide who had approached us, spoke perfect English, he was interested & after being assured that smoking inside was OK, we all followed. A couple of minutes later we were sitting in a well presented bar which may or may not have been the original setting for the BVSC, even our guide was unsure, telling us that a handful of bars purport to be the real one as Fidel had closed it down many years ago whilst under the impression it could have had an adverse effect on the new Republic. A band played Salsa on the small stage but instead of coming round with a hat they tried to push their autographed CD’s at 15 CUC a pop.

Not for me, although the others purchased one per couple. Our guide helped himself to Mel’s cigarettes (as did the waitresses) & stuck a couple of Mojitos onto our bar tab.

Losing the guide we trundled on, absorbing the many different Salsa sounds coming from every shop & bar along Obispo St, the heat beginning to increase, I even scored a couple of real cigars from a Tony Montana look-a-like & got my change back in CUC’s.

Surprisingly Havana has its fair share of beggars which mildly bothered me. I thought under their regime that everyone was catered for to some extent or at least nobody went hungry, even if it was octopus 7 days a week. I felt sorry for the 1 legged man approaching me for a hand-out. I’m far from wealthy but was on a Caribbean cruise, my conscience kicked-in and I gave him a handful of Peso notes that the peanut seller had given to me.

“No good, no good……I want Dollars or Euros”

He pushed the no good cash back in my hand & we wandered off in search for a bar.

The Hotel Inglaterra, just across from Parque Central, looked as good a place as any, old white colonial 4 storey structure in seemingly good repair, making sure there were smokers on the veranda, we sauntered in.

Bucanero beer, very welcome & a lovely crisp, cold taste with it, but at 3 CUC’s a bottle a wee bit on the expensive side, equating to over £4 a pint. Looking out from our table, the cars, the buildings, seemed like we’d gone through a time-warp, back to the 50’s, only the modern clothes gave it away.

Time to enjoy one of my cigars. Had to go inside to the cigar shop to get the end cut off & got berated by the nice lady tending it for buying cheap rubbish from the street. I turned down her offer of an ‘official’ 10 CUC cigar, she clipped the end for me & said I’d be back after a couple of drags.

I’d read up on the net the procedure on how to correctly light a cigar. No lighter or matches to be used for fear of tainting the flavour with butane or sulphur. I lit the paper from one of my peanut pokes that we had kept for souvenirs, presents or just emergency rations. Dipping the cigar end into the alarmingly rising flame, I rotated it & began to puff away but dropped the burning paper onto the table cloth causing my party to start a slight commotion by screechingly pushing back on their steel chairs, scrapping the floor & vociferously chastising me whilst Darren poured my beer on the potential bonfire. A mean eyed waiter appeared, called me something in Spanish…Puta Madre I think… & changed the linen & replenished our drinks. I tried to give him a couple of pencils & an exercise book as an apology but he just laughed in my sorry face.

The cigar nearly ripped my lungs apart, so after not too many drags I ditched it & reverted to my roll-ups.

Amid the planning for Havana I’d failed to notice John Lennon Park until a few days before we flew & had to hastily fit it in to my meticulous walking itinerary which would have told me exactly, give or take 100 yards, where we would be at any time of the first day. The park was a bit of a distance from the Hotel Inglaterra. The corner of Calle’s 8 & 13 was our destination, probably 4 kilometres as the crow flies. Mel & Phil informed us the previous evening that they were up for our tour as long as there was not a lot of walking due to back & leg ailments. We paid our bill & flagged down a red Cadillac taxi. Six of us piled in for the 15 minute journey with Ariel, our driver.

John Lennon Park has a statue of him sitting on a bench. Fidel had prohibited any playing of The Beatles in the early sixties fearing that they may have been more subversive than Cuba’s own BVSC. Somewhere along the line he must have changed his opinion as he himself unveiled the statue some 10 years ago & now here we were posing for photos next to Lennon in Havana……but there was something missing….his trademark National Health round spectacles! No problem, the regime caters for everyone, or nearly everyone. The ‘The Keeper of the Glasses’, he had to be in his 90’s, appeared out of thin air & made the statue complete by supplying the missing specs. Imagine they’d get pilfered by tourists if just left on.

No bars in or near the park, at least we couldn’t find any so after half an hour we started our trek to the Al Capone Hotel that was featured in Godfather 2.

I’ve never read any evidence of Capone actually staying here but convinced myself that he must have at one time or another between the place opening in 1930 & his indictment for tax evasion in 1931. It’s really called the Nacional Hotel, an imposing structure perched up on a hill overlooking the seafront & I wanted us all there to watch the sun go down over the Malecon (the seafront) at 6.30 pm with cocktails in hands.

2 kilometres looks no distance on a small map, one & a quarter miles sounds shorter. The only thing that seemed to be getting shorter on our sojourn was my new found friend’s fuses.

”How much further…where are all the taxi’s….are you sure this is the right way…are we nearly there yet?”

My shortcut resulted in the weary walk taking an hour but we made the Nacional with time to spare before sundown although at this time of the year (March) the sun sets behind the hotel. Still, we had our Mojitos outside & later went inside for a nose around.

Hall of Fame was quite impressive, depicting all the celebs from opening to present day that have stopped there. No photo of Mr Capone.

I could have stayed on & had a few more drinks but my wife & friends were worn out, a little tired & wanting back to the sanctuary of the Thomson Dream. In the Cadillac ride back I was a little concerned that they would never talk to me again. My itinerary was crumbling like the beautiful architecture & needed a drastic re-write.

What would day 2 in Havana hold for us?

Havana Day 2

After an early breakfast in the warm morning sun outside the self-service Lido restaurant on deck 9, rear of the ship, I sat & awaited the Kangaroo Court.

Mel, Phil, Darren & Mandy limped up to my table, legs aching, looking a little fragile & passed sentence that I was unfit to hold office of unofficial tour guide & was herewith sacked but would be spared from walking the plank.

They would be doing their own thing today, which would involve taxis & buses & hardly any trekking. We agreed to reconvene later that evening & compare what the day had thrown at us. We bid adios on friendly terms. I consulted my folder & tried to memorise today’s itinerary & do the re-write in my head.

There couldn’t really be that many streets in Havana could there?, plus it is nearly all a grid system. Similar to New York City & a few years back we hardly got lost there at all.

Now sitting having a smoke with Iris & Morag they reminded me of the Hop-on Hop-off buses that I had meant to include in the itinerary but had somehow been omitted.

Fed & watered we hit the streets again. Up the narrow Obispo, only looking forward, passing many bars, past the El Floridita that was calling to us like the Sirens of Circe, we were not going to be distracted, purchased bottles of water & carried onward to the Capitolio building.

For a brief moment you could imagine yourself outside the Capitol building in Washington D.C. Until that is you see open top red London double-decker buses……oh they have them in DC also. Well we were not in London, not in Washington but Havana & it was time to give our legs a rest & hop on a tour bus.

Iris & Morag had strongly emphasised the importance of collecting your tour bus day pass when alighting the vehicle. Wise advice that I should have written on one of my Post-Its tucked conveniently in the front of my back-pack. My memory was full from the earlier digestion of the itinerary & it failed to register.

This was more like it, atop the bus, wind rushing past us, holding on to my 10 dollar Honduran hat that was made in China. Taking the same route as our first Cadillac ride the previous day but with a higher perspective, appreciating that Havana is a big city, much bigger than my A4 map printed out from the web! Along the Malecon, seeing the Nacional Hotel again but this time from the front in all it’s grandiose splendour, along to our first stop, Revolucion Square.

Onboard the Thomson Dream there was a Sky television film crew recording a show with a working title of ‘Showboaters’, scheduled to go out around the end of June. ten all-singing, all-dancing contestants had to be whittled down to one & the winner, we understood, would be given a six months contract with Thomson Cruises.

The average age of the participants was 21 apart from Gill whom we had got to know & was in her mid-fifties. (not a guess, she openly told us without us asking).

We came down the stairs approaching our stop & noticed Gill near the front of the bus. We went over & chatted briefly, she had been voted off the show but was content to be going home to her family, flying out that evening. Bidding farewell & in danger of missing our stop we hopped off.

Did we pick up our day passes? Did we heck. 5 CUC’s a head down the Swanee. Not so much the loss of cash but my incompetence began to induce an ever so slight headache. My re-jigged, updated itinerary was slowly unravelling.

The square was immense, a grandiose image of Che Guevara adorns a building diametrically opposite the Jose Martini tower. It is said that Fidel has talked to over a million people in the square on occasions. Hard to acknowledge but then again I am no judge of the size of crowds & once believed that the entire population of the world could fit on the Isle of Wight standing shoulder to shoulder… but that was in the mid eighties & I could now imagine Portsmouth & Gosport being used for any overflow.

Far off in the distance we could see the Capitolio building. The heat began to jostle with my headache for attention. No shade at all. The sun was doing its damnedest to fry the back of my neck & having some success. Wearing my ‘Stones World Tour 1974’ t-shirt was unwise, no protection. I’d promised Sue, my wife, no long walks. Not this day.

Over where the buses pull in there is a taxi rank of sorts. Not exactly taxis, more of a hybrid of a moped & a bubble car. A Cuban cut & shut. Think they’re called Coco taxis.

Not being in the mood for bartering & still silently chastising myself for not picking up our bus passes I was ready to agree any reasonable price for the trip back to Capitolio to resume our tour.

“How much? No, no, I’m not paying 10 CUC’s. Come on Sue we’re walking”

I thought my wife was going to cry.

My bluff worked! We got summoned back & only had to pay 5. I was moderately alarmed that our female driver wore a crash helmet & there weren’t any seat belts in the back.

Fears were unfounded, she was an excellent driver & delivered us safely to our destination. Only complaint…the constant buzzing sound that the taxi emitted only served to compound my headache.

On to Park Square, a quick smoke in the cool shade of the trees & a re-vamp of the itinerary. It had to be condensed & I’d do it on the hoof. All the data was up there, it just had to be taken apart, streamlined & put back together. Piece of cake. No need now for a map, I knew where we wanted to go. Bear North, North East & arrive at the Placido De La Artisania where all the street caricaturists hang out & get our drawing done with a charcoal pencil that we were providing, the artist could then keep the pack of 10, plus a couple of sharpeners.

“No-one speaks English & everything’s broken…” sang Tom Waits. Was he referring to Havana?

My built-in Sat Nav must have been playing up this day. An hour later the map was being passed around an alfresco bar South, South East of Park Square. Tears began to well up in Sue’s eyes, self-loathing is not a trait I’d associate with myself but it was pretty evident right there, right then.

I could hear the sirens of El Floridita mocking me, a taxi could not be found for love or Peso when all of a sudden an angel in the guise of a bicycle-come-rickshaw driver took pity on us & after sampling our third form of transport that day we were being welcomed by a dapperly-dressed doorman into possibly Havana’s most famous bar, the El Floridita.

There is a scene at the end of the old movie ‘Ice Cold In Alex’ where the surviving trio sit at the bar staring at cold condensation running down their tumblers of Carlsberg lovingly anticipating the treat they were about to experience.

No such subtleties applied to us, the bartender knocked us up a couple of daiquiris, Strawberry for Sue, me Banana. The straw only got in the way & was rapidly dispensed. Didn’t touch the sides going down but a fierce ice-cream head rush quickly ensued, to the point where I thought my cranium would surely explode….then it was gone. My original headache & ice-cream headache had merged together as a double negative and produced a positive feeling of well-being.


The next two we savoured a little but they were too nice to just look at, better off getting them down our necks.

Had to be the dearest bar in Cuba for drinks, 6 CUC a pop but we were tourists on our holidays spending the equivalent of a local workers weekly wage on one drink. How those unsmiling bartenders must have hated us! Even more so when I left pencils & sharpeners as a tip.

Nearly forgot to mention that this bar is touted as ’The Cradle Of The Daiquiri’ & was frequented by such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway & Spencer Tracy amongst many others. Had a few photos done with Hemingway’s statue that props up one end of the bar.

The Bodequita bar, another supposed Hemingway haunt, was rammed full when we arrived & had to give it a miss.

A mini sirocco whipped up on our return to the main drag which is the Obispo. Technically a sirocco is only found in the Med & North Africa but I don’t know what they are called in Cuba. The wind was blowing up dust at a ferocious rate & stung our sunburned legs, arms & faces. Even the locals looked slightly anxious, diving into shop doorways, the street seemed almost deserted. Cue another bar.

I’d forgotten about my stash of local Pesos. Tried putting some on the toilet attendants tip plate & got told to take it back & make with some hard currency, same story when the band came round with the hat. Jesus…you couldn’t give the stuff away.

Hunger pangs arrived so we headed back to the Dream, a little tipsy, very weary & probably just a smidgeon wiser than 8 hours previous.

I had learned that sometimes in life things do not work out exactly as you had planned them, something my wife had been trying to tell my stubborn ass for the last 25 years.

Havana Day 3

We heard a sorry tale at breakfast on our last day in Havana. A couple had been robbed late one evening & couldn’t get back on the ship. Boarding passes & more importantly, passports, had been stolen. I heard the British Consulate got involved & had been able to ‘express’ new passports for pick up in Barbados. The couple were allowed back onboard although I never did meet them. What a sour taste this must have left, hope they manage to put it behind them.

The new Palacio De La Artisania

Good job that we didn’t make it to Palacio De La Artisania…it wasn’t there anymore, it had moved. Overheard onboard that some folk had been to the new location & wasn’t far from the cruise terminal. Exit, hang a left, 10 minute walk. Look for a mini Colosseum with an old train engine being renovated in front of it.

Arrived quite early as the Dream was to set sail at 1pm. Too early in fact as only a third of the indoor stall holders had begun to open up. Couldn’t find any caricaturists for our drawing, plenty of paintings for sale but much too large to get back to the UK.

Bought some presents, Maracas, wooden magic boxes, leather bracelets, key rings, fridge magnets & various other bric-a-brac. One guy (Raul) spoke good English & as he couldn’t help me with my request for a Cuban watch strap he knew a man who could. Left his stall & took us to a rotund, unshaven, menacing Dude who resembled one of the prison guards in ‘Midnight Express’.

No watch straps but he did have fake Cuban car number plates on display for 5 CUC’s. Showing interest, he beckoned me further into his wooden stall & after checking over his shoulder & saying something to Raul in Spanish that contained ‘la policia’, he unlocked a cupboard & pulled out a genuine plate, ‘profesionales’ he told me. Raul informed us that the ones under lock & key were the real deal. 25 CUC’s. Didn’t fancy getting caught with one of these at customs & have Louis Theroux do a documentary of my daily routine in a foreign jail.

I bought the replica for my eldest son to compliment the print of Tony Montana that hangs in his flat.

Managed to find a straw hat that could be rolled up like a Panama, 3 CUC’s, about 2 quid. Should have bought a dozen.

On our way back to the ship we spied an elderly street cleaner with broom & barrow. He motioned for us to come over & showed us the contents of the cart. Word on the street must have been to look out for Bob…he’ll buy any old rubbish!

Got rid of our remaining CUC’s at the port terminal purchasing more un-needed toot.

The Lido Bar - ashtray Aparthied

The Lido pool bar was a strange place.

An invisible line ran through the centre of it separating those who smoked from those who didn’t. Most smokers seemed to get on well, you would just plonk yourself down at an available table, introduce yourself & complain over the lack of smoking facilities. I’m glad it was this way, we met many wonderful people, at times we had 2 tables put together to accommodate more of us.

The other side appeared to be a bit subdued with couples reading books, not talking & only 2 at a table but I’m sure they enjoyed themselves.

The ship’s captain would tell us a sea faring story every day as we left port. He was probably a really interesting guy but Germans are not renowned for their humour & although he did get a few titters from other passengers this was normally our prompt to go & get ready for the evening.

That night a sequence of events in a short space of time totally freaked Sue. The ship’s TV’s had no reception, more because we were still sailing in Cuban waters than a news blackout. A blustery wind had blown up, emptying the deck, rain teemed down, everyone was inside. Half heard comments from passing folk kept referring to …Japan…earthquake. I received a text from my teenage son Callum.

‘Don’t want to worry you Dad but there has been a big earthquake in Japan which has created a Tsunami which is heading towards Haiti’

Haiti is one half of a large Caribbean island, the other half Dominican Republic, our next port of call! Callum’s geography is not the best, he must have meant Hawaii. Today was emergency drill day, only for new passengers. They ran around like headless chickens trying to find their muster stations in bright orange life jackets just as we had a week earlier. Loud instructions came from the tannoy, the only word that seemed to register with Sue was ‘emergency’.

Iris & Morag studied a large, print map of the Caribbean on a wall. Iris confirmed a Tsunami alert for Haiti having had a similar text from her son. The ship slowly rocked. I tried to explain where Japan was in relation to the map & asked Iris to show me her text message.

‘Oh, it says Hawaii not Haiti, ye ken?’

Sue burst out crying, she didn’t want her children orphaned. I felt terrible, as if it were my fault & consoled her the best I could. Should have been me worrying as I can’t swim.

Stayed in the Medusa bar & watched a good Filipino band for the remainder of the evening & we both got hammered on cocktails.

More tales by this author on his own blog.

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