Monday, May 26 //
Let me start by saying that we’ve been having issues with my old room (E) so I’m not in a new room (X). One of the windows is broken in X and the air conditioning doesn’t work that well so I’ve been sneaking into E at night through the balcony so I can get a good night sleep. With that out of the way, I woke up in E, made my way discretely to X and then had a desayuno especial at the Costillar: fried eggs, bread añejo 7 años (also known as croutons), and some mediocre fruit. Walking town 23 and then up J, I made my way to the university arriving to my first class of the day, Latin American Philosophy, a few minutes late. Nothing a permiso won’t solve. We talked about a rare subject—race—and the difference between its conception in Latin America and the rest of the world. For the most part, the profe made great points, except when he said race is messed up in el imperio and that Mariah Carey is considered negra. Maybe I’ve been gone too long and things have changed. Anyway, after a break and return to the residence, I went again to my other class today, History of the United States. We watched “Soldier Blue” which must’ve been made in the 70s about the U.S. treatment of American Indians in the 1800s. No surprises there.
After my last class and making plans with friends to go out once I get these papers I’m not writing done, I went to Jaqueline’s to get a hamburger and to my surprise, fresh pineapple juice too. I haven’t been there in a while because franky, a pork hamburger gets old after three months, but I’ve definitely been missing out. She must’ve changed up the recipe a bit… I think I saw peppers in there! Back at the residence, I spent the afternoon “working” on my paper and more accurately, watching George Lopez. At sunset, I took a coco taxi to the Malecón and stayed there for a few hours, enjoying a Cohiba and taking pictures of one of my favorite spots in Habana. I was there so long I missed dinner! That leaves me with a Crunch bar (from Brasil) and María Integrals to munch on before I go to and hopefully, continue working on my papers.
Tuesday, May 27 //
I was supposed to begin by day with History of Latin America (1929 to today), but that was cancelled due to an event going on at the University which explicitly said it would not cancel classes. Education is really important to Cubans, except if you can find an excuse to miss class. After spending some time just hanging out at the Facultad, I made my way back to the residence to try and make some more progress on my final paper for Latin American Philosophy (due tomorrow, of course).
Lunch was at Fabio’s today—since I’m leaving early I can afford to spend $4 on pasta instead of $.50 on a mediocre sandwich. That $4 put me at $0 in my wallet though so I had to bring the last of my dollars and change them into CUCs at the bank. Unfortunately, one of the windows wasn’t open so a normal five minute transaction took a full hour. Waiting in line is one of the things I won’t be missing about Cuba… except that they do it with style. Given how much of a Cuban’s day is spent in line, there’s a system in place to ensure that you don’t actually have to wait in line, but you still keep your spot. Just go to a line and ask for el último and you’ll see what I mean. Tonight’s going to be low key. While I’ve absolutely got to finish this paper, Deadliest Catch and Alaska Experiment are on so we’ll see how that goes. Tomorrow’s my last day of work though. Regardless of whether I finish or not, I’m enjoying my last weekend here in Habana (including Thursday in true college style).
Wednesday, May 28 //
I actually managed to finish my José Martí paper and after going to the Habana Libre to print it, turned it in at my professor’s office near the University. Next stop was my favorite place for pizza, San Lazaro No. 1019 esq. Espada (esq. is short for esquina which means corner, all addresses include the neighboring streets since many buildings don’t have numbers). They have Pizza de Cebolla (onion pizza) for $10 pesos, or about 40 cents. The only downside is that you have to wait about fifteen minutes since it’s so popular. Today, that turned into an upside as I debated with another student about the best pizza and she told me that the place in her neighborhood (Santo Suarez) is better so we’re going there on Friday to prove it. That argument put me a few minutes late to my U.S. history class, but again, nothing a permiso won’t solve. I think the highlight of the class was when we were talking about the elections of 1888 and the profe said those were recognized as the most corrupt elections in U.S. history then paused and laughed, saying “well, until 2000.” Ah, U.S. history. My final assignment is to write a paper about what people in the U.S. think about Bush. I think everyone knows what Fidel and Raúl think about him.
With classes over, I returned to the residence and was on my way to the gym when it started raining, something we haven’t seen here in Habana for months. That finally pushed me to check out the gym at the residence which I had heard was terrible, but is really perfect for one person. Dinner here was similarly surprising: steak with seasoned rice. Given steak is heavily controlled by the state and seasoning absurdly expensive, dinner featured an unusually tasty combination. Actually, dinner has been really good this week. I think it’s because a group is back that complained the bad food was a form of discrimination against feminists. I spent a few brief seconds thinking about the paper I’m not going to turn in tomorrow before getting to work on compiling all the things I’ve learned here so I can make a guide when I get back. This time in a week, I’ll be in Canada!
Thursday, May 29 //
Since my only class of the day—History of Latin America (1929-today)—was cancelled, I walked over to Coppelia where there’s a guy who rents mopeds. Transportation has greatly improved here over the past few months, but with just a few days left on my trip here, time is very important so having the moped will allow me to save about four or five hours of traveling time per day. First stop was a cruise down Malecón to catch a picture of el Morro (the fortress that’s across the harbor) and then make my way to Plaza de Armas. One of the buildings in the plaza houses a pretty sweet museum of the history of Habana. It even has Havana’s first fire engine! From there, I walked to the artisan’s market, bought a painting, and went back to the Residence to drop it off.
I set off for lunch in Barrio Chino, but made a detour to the Museo de Ron (Rum Museam) in Habana Vieja by Plaza San Francisco. The museam doubles as a Havana Club distillery (on a very small scale) allowing visitors to see the whole process from start to finish and of course, sample the goods at the end. For those of you who know Cuba, I’m talking Añejo 7 Años. Being that I was in the area, I stopped in the Bar Dos Hermanos, Habana’s oldest bar which had excellent camarones enchilados, sautéed shrimp in a Caribbean tomato based sauce. You can be assured I’ll be eating well these last few days.
Back at the residence, I found out I was still in Cuba, discovering that I would—yet again—be changing rooms for some obscure reason. Accomplishing that task, I set off for the Malecón to see the sunset and then to the Meliá Cohiba hotel to get some wireless internet (don’t worry, still dial-up). After running into another group of U.S. students (form USC), I went back up Avenida de los Presidentes to the Residence and showed Gloria (the lady who works at the front desk) all my pictures of Cuba since this will be the last time I see her before I leave. She’s been out of Habana a few times making her a very well traveled Cuban, but in four months, I’ve visited more places across the island than she has her whole life. While transportation has vastly improved in recent years, it’s still difficult for Cubans to travel because if they don’t know someone where they’re going, they won’t have anywhere to stay (hotels and casas are just too expensive and Cubans truly don’t have extra room in their houses to start).
Friday, May 30 //
After a less than stellar breakfast at the Costillar (at least we had huevos a la orden), I gave Gloria a ride back to her apartment and made my way over to the Hotel Nacional to meet Lt. Commander Rod Rojas of the U.S. Coast Guard whose title here in Havana is “Drug Interdiction Specialist.” As the only U.S. official—military or civilian—who has direct contact with Cuban officials, his job expands to meet nearly all needs that come up regarding international law enforcement. We talked about his job here and his career as a Coast Guard Officer, confirming my desire to apply for Officer Candidate School next fall. Who would’ve thought I’d reach that decision in Havana?
By the time I got back to the residence it was already noon and given that I have a lot to do today and tomorrow, I had to get started. First stop on my Havana list was Casa Natal de José Martí, the birth house of José Martí. The architecture reminded me a lot of Trinidad and the museum had just the perfect amount of information to make it a worthwhile yet quick stop. Continuing upon that theme, I made my way the Plaza de la Revolución which holds the Monumento José Martí. Since I’d already been to the museum before, I went through the exhibits quickly so I could go up to the top of the monument to the mirador de La Habana. For that you get a certificate acknowledging that you’ve been to the highest point in Havana, a seriously great view.
I spent the rest of the afternoon cruising around the streets of Miramar, what I think of as the country club section of Havana. After the majority of owners fled Cuba in the 1960s, many of their homes were converted to embassies and official offices that are very well maintained. Being in this section reminds you of how rich the elite of Cuba were in the 50s, but also of how unequal Cuban society remains today. The highlight of my visit was probably lunch at the Meliá Habana Hotel which has—hands down—the best burgers in Cuba, but I also stopped by Club Habana (the former yacht club for rich Cubans which is now just a yacht club for rich foreigners), Marina Hemingway (a massive marina that is almost always empty since nobody from the U.S. can visit it anymore), and Karl Marx Theater.
How could I forget my quick picture of the clock at Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street? You’re not allowed to park on Fifth, but since part of the sidewalk is collapsed, I just left my moped there to take the picture and just when I came back was stopped by a cop, who promptly saluted me. He told me I just took my most expensive picture of Havana and was going to have to pay the state a multa (fine) of $30 CUC before I left. When I showed him my carné (Cuban ID) he said he could give me a break for $15, but he ran out of tickets for $15 so he had to try for $5. I don’t really understand what he said to his partner next, but he said I could just go, but should come back with beer and rum for them since they were going to have to work all day (5 hours). Ahh, Cuba.
After dinner and trip to the gym on the roof of the residence, I came back to my new room and unpacked so I can figure out what I’m leaving here and what I need to take back. I bought way too many books. This’ll be interesting.
Saturday, May 31 //
I got a relatively early start to the day, arriving across the harbor at about 10:30 to the La Cabaña Fortress and Havana’s lighthouse. The first chunk of my visit was spent at the guardhouse, talking to the guards about U.S. politics and what this upcoming election means for Cuba. I am convinced that Cubans follow our election closer than we do and probably know more about it than the average U.S. citizen. The majority are Obama supporters with that group split into two sectors: one thinking that he will open the doors for Cuba and the other understanding that any change in U.S. relations will be slow. With the clock ticking, I made it to the fortress and saw the great views of Havana offered by its lighthouse.
On my way over to the Christ statue, I ran into a set of Soviet missiles ominously pointed north, not too far away from some canons. I don’t even know how to explain it, but that sight was just so absurd to me that I had to take a picture. The Christ statue has another great view of Havana, this time extending well into the bay where the commercial shipping operations are. What was supposed to be an easy five minute trip back to Havana Vieja through the tunnel ended up taking me two hours since the police wouldn’t let me through on a moped (even though it’s faster that half the things on the road). Instead, I had to wait for an hour and a half for the ciclobus which is essentially a really old bus with the seats removed so you can stand with a bike inside it. Just love that inefficiency! I wouldn’t be disappointed next either, waiting over an hour for my Cuban-Chinese food in Barrio Chino. Lo Mein, sort of.
After a brief stop at the residence, I then made my way to the Necrópolis Colón, a huge cemetery that should be more accurately described as a municipality. My two key stops there were the Firefighter’s memorial (constructed after the deadly 1890 fire) and the American Legion memorial. Seeing anything about the U.S. is always interesting in Cuba. My plans to go out were put on hold by rain (everything in Havana closes when it rains) so instead I went through my photos from the past few days and worked a bit more on thinking about packing.
Sunday, June 1 //
First of all, I can’t believe it’s already June! With that in my mind as I woke up, I got an early start to the day and made my way to Luyanó to get some jugo de tamarindo and sweet-talk the shop owner into selling me one of their glasses made from old Havana Club bottles. Driving around Habana for the last time, I just took in the sights on the way back to Vedado where I had to turn in my moped. For some reason there wasn’t a line at Coppelia so I enjoyed an ensalada especial of vanilla, literally a “special salad” this is the $5 peso gigantic bowl of ice cream that Cubans wait hours for. Needless to say, I lost my appetite for lunch which ended up helping me out so I could walk around Habana Vieja without having to wait two hours for food at a restaurant.
I really enjoy the atmosphere of Habana Vieja and how you can swerve out of the impeccably restored streets of Mercaderes and Obispo to see the “real” Habana just two blocks away where it doesn’t look anything’s been done to the buildings since 1959. For the first time I brought my camera along with me which was a good idea so I can show people what this place looks like, but also a terrible one since I had to explain why I didn’t want cigars at every corner I passed. Ahh, the hustlers. While I took in all the sights I wanted to see, I was anxious to get back to Vedado and shed my camera and with that, the only visual clue that I’m a foreigner.
I skipped the Costillar dinner tonight and took the P-9 to Santo Suarez to get what a friend of mine from the University told me is the best pizza in Havana. Luckily the stand is just a block away from her abuela’s house so we had plenty of time to enjoy it (she was right by the way). Over coffee produced in Miami (she has family there), we talked about the two Cubas that have interested me since long before I touched Cuban soil—one that is reserved for foreigners and one that is reserved for Cubans. Only a few groups of people get to cross those boundaries: international students and Cubans with family abroad or who work in the tourist sectors. What links these three groups of people? Take a guess. Money.
Riding the P-6 back to Vedado, I realized I’m really going to miss this place beyond my imagination. While I expect to return to Havana in the near future, I don’t see myself living here again and certainly not as a student. Between all the problems that Cuba has and people who have to resolver everyday, there’s something that I’ve found here that I haven’t ever experienced much elsewhere—alma (soul).