Night in St. Johns Hotel, first day in Havana, look for another place to stay, first impressions of the city
24. March: The light pouring into our room woke me up just after sunrise and, after taking me a moment or two to realize where I was, I pulled aside the curtains and looked out.
The rising sun cast it's warm orange light over the sea and the hazy Havana skyline in the distance, a magical sight! We saw Havana for the first time and what an impression that was!
After taking snapshots of the fantastic view, we decided to check out breakfast, which was included. The waiters were dressed in smart and clean uniforms of a past age (the forties or fifties?) and looked elegantly comical. We found that we could actually communicate with them and ordered some toast, eggs, coffee and tea.
We decide to check out of our room, since it's over our travel budget. We were targeting a "Casa Particular" in Havana Vieja where a friend of ours was already was living. Casa Particulars are Cuban "Bread and Breakfasts", private flats or houses owned by Cubans with rooms for rent. The description of someone who had already been there had me envisioning a nice flat overlooking the Malecon, Havana's promenade to the sea, for just 20-25$ a night!
I had the address and telephone number of the place so I tried calling them from our hotel room. Unfortunately an answering machine was at the other end, so we decide to walk though Havana to find the Casa Particular in person; I was somehow hoping to perhaps find some alternative places to stay on the way there.
We could leave our backpacks with the porter at the hotel, who placed them in a locked room and cheekily demanded a two-dollar fee (counting the bags 'one', 'two' and saying 'two dollars', as if that logically justified the price!). Guessing that he was overcharging but not knowing how to react appropriately to the situation, I said I would pay him after we came back to fetch them. He reluctantly agreed.
We set off in the direction of Havana Vieja and decided to walk along the Malecon. Seeing the sea from it's concave bay was beautiful and it was a really nice walk. Old, crumbling colonial buildings could be seen across the road from the Malecon, some were already being restored.
The flat was on a street called 'Aguilar' (eagle) and I was disappointed about the quality of the neighbourhood. The houses were in a very bad state of repair, the streets were none too clean and relatively narrow, it was quite noisy and smelly. At last we found the house we were looking for, and went in to find the flat. No one answered the door, so we asked around for the landlady. A neighbour called out her name aloud in the courtyard and she answered from another flat where she was talking. We walked up the stairs and greeted her and told her we were looking for a place to stay. She first asked her neighbour if she would have space, but she was reluctant. She then took us to the street a block further to another friend who had a room. It had a separate toilet but no windows. I was not willing to stay in such a room.
We walked back to Linaa's* flat and she went again to her neighbour to try to cut a deal. This time the neighbour, Ulija*, agreed, she allowed us the choice of her own bedroom or the other bedroom. We decide to take hers, so she would have to move her belongings, luckily they were few. Talking about the room rate, she wanted 30 'pesos' per night (meaning Dollars, but I was not too sure about that. Cuban Pesos are worth about 25 to the Dollar, but they interchangeably call Dollars Pesos too). That was definitely too much for us and Linaa bargained her down to 15, to which she reluctantly agreed. I don't believe it was too little for that room, the location, the basic toilet and bathroom. Everything was basic but very clean, which was the only reason I'd stay there, since the noise was almost overwhelming, with radios and TV's blaring at a volume allowing the whole block to listen in!
I was amazed at Annewien's good understanding of Spanish and she could also talk quite well to Linaa* and Ulija*, our landlady.
It was about noon so we decided to hit the streets to explore a bit of Havana and to eventually return to St. Johns Hotel in the evening to fetch our bags. We found a place to eat in Hotel Plaza which serves us a good grill chicken. They have two menu cards, one in pesos for Cubans and another for tourists. When Annewien looks at the Cuban menu out of curiosity, it is quickly taken from her hands by the Cuban waitress! The Plaza is near the "Capitolio", the Capitol of Havana, resembling Washington D.C.'s Capitol, but being thinner and higher.
Lobby of the Plaza Hotel
The Entrance of the Museo del Revolucion, the former Presidential Palace (there are sill bullet holes around the stairs)
The tank Fidel used during the Bay of Pigs invasion is outside the Museo del Revolucion
Cuban Santera dancing with Cigar outside cafe by the Cathedral (she is a highly respected and decorated Santera practicing the Santeria Religion. You can tell by the completely white attire and her beaded necklaces which each symbolize a different Saint. Thanks AD)
We walk back to Hotel St. Johns to get our backpacks. The porter must have been lurking somewhere, since he quickly appears, no doubt to claim his two dollars! I tell him we'd be back soon, since we want to try out the rooftop restaurant first for a meal and perhaps even for some Salsa dancing. They have just opened the place and we check the menu card. We order some drinks and chicken food again.
Chicken would be practically the main course everywhere during our entire trip.
The Bacardi Building (Edificio Bacardi)
Inside the Bacardi Building
The Bar in the Bacardi Building
We get our backpacks, and find a taxi just outside the hotel to take us to Ulija's. It is dark now and navigation by car through Havana Vieja's narrow, dark and bumpy potholed roads isn't an easy task. It doesn't help that the driver doesn't know his away around this part of the city. At one point he almost drives down a one-way street, but, seeing someone he recognizes to be a policeman of sorts, quickly changes his mind, steps hard on the brakes and nervously utters all sorts of apologies to him! Police seem to be the sort of people locals don't want to mess around with!
Ulija had given us a key to her flat so we could come and go as we please. Back in our room, I decide to take a shower (cold, of course, but I've gotten used to it). Ulija has put some individual sheets of toilet paper in the dispenser, how sweet! I had heard all about toilet paper being a luxury in Cuba.
The street noise is incredible even at night but eventually I manage to fall asleep. I guess I awoke a number of times in the course of the night due to it, because it just didn't stop until the wee hours of the morning. It started again at around 6 or 7 the next day! What a place to stay!
* Names of persons have been changed to protect the innocent.