Monday, May 22, 2017

Havana Running Part 5: Bienvenido a La Habana

HAV Airport
Preview: What Would Hemmingway Do?

Part 1: Relaxing

Part 2: I Promise Not To Call This Sleepless In Seattle

Part 3: Just Sit Anywhere

Part 4: Taking It South

I'd heard horror stories about customs at HAV airport.  So had my fellow travelers, and we were all bracing for the worst when we got off the plane.  However, it turned out to be the exact opposite.  I don't know if it was because I was early off the plane, or because I didn't check luggage, or a combination of both, but it took me about 5 minutes, jetbridge to curb.  It was so fast I had to wait for my driver to arrive.  And he was on time, or at least as on time as there is in Cuba.
The airport itself is as you would expect- charmingly contained chaos, but on a small scale.  (Note from my future self a few entires from now- this will turn out to be more or less my experience with Havana generally, and I'm fine with that)  on the recommendation of other guests of my Casa, I didn't bother with changing cash at the airport, and instead skipped the lines and changed it with my host.  I'm not sure if this is a normal thing to do, but it worked out fine for me.
The view from my Casa
About 25 minutes later, my taxi rolled through the congested and narrow streets of Habana Vieja, and I was met by Jorge, my host.  He showed me up 4 flights of stairs to my room on the rooftop.  My room is small, but the facilities are renovated and it HAS AIR CONDITIONING that works!! The roof deck is common space, with tables where the guests of the several rooms Jorge rents relax between adventures, and where breakfast is served for $5 CUC per day.  US dollars convert to these 'Convertible Pesos' at 1 to 1, but with a 10% tax.  That's one downside of Cuba- you don't get the benefit of the strong dollar here, but most things are much cheaper than at home so it works out. 

Jorge gives me my key and the 411 on this part of Havana- don't change money on the street, don't buy cigars on the street, and understand that locals offering to 'go have a beer' are not buying you a drink, but offering for you to buy them one.  (This happens to me not 2 hours later, and it takes away any guilt I might have felt otherwise turning the guy down point blank.)
With those admonitions, he leaves me be and I get settled quickly, then head out into the city.  As a last minute thought, I'd printed out some maps of the area with points of interest, and they came in very handy.  
I'll just say that being old enough to have come of age before everyone had gps in their pockets has its benefits here.  As I got myself oriented, I made myself promise to teach babyflyer how to read a map for real.  It was so satisfying to be able to navigate confidently on my own without having to ask for directions.  Even though most places I go in the world in a pinch I can turn on my data roaming and pull up directions, or hail an Uber, it's a matter of basic travel to be able to map read well in a new city.  
I started out by walking around to a few of the more prominent sights in Habana Vieja- the Capitol, up to the start of the Malecon, and back through the narrow streets to the Plaza.  I knew I'd be best off finding dinner close to the Casa my first night, so I wandered the Plaza and found a balcony table overlooking the square. (My review of this in next post)
Plaza Vieja
My initial impressions of the city- having been a fairly widely ranged traveler the last several years, Havana is unique.  Everyone I'm sure says that, but I mean it in a particular way.  I've spent a fair amount of time in Mexico, as well as Peru, Euqador, and Panama, and Cuba is a more beautiful, more crumbling version of the best parts of these places.  The architecture, under the rubble, is stunning.  The detail, the grandeur, is beautiful and tragic in one.  
It's also, and I can't emphasize this enough, shockingly safe feeling to walk around, even as a solo female traveler.  Now, I don't want to give carte blanche to walking around at 2 am with cash visible in your pockets.  Like anywhere, common sense is important.  It also has that feeling you get in many places, especially in central and South America where you know everyone's got a hustle going, and haggling is commonplace for everything.  
What's different here is that while the streets I walk through are in disrepair, and anywhere else I've been would be solidly on the wrong side of the tracks- like back alley, dark doorways, stray dogs, sticking out like a sore thumb with my blond hair wrong side of the tracks- I feel safe.  The offers, the catcalls are there, but aside from maybe swindling me out of a beer or a few extra CUCs on a pedicab ride, I don't get that itchy feeling in my traveler brain that I better watch myself or something more seriously will happen.  It's both confusing and refreshing at the same time.  
Around Habana Vieja
I've heard that penalties for actual crimes against tourists are stiff here, and maybe that's the cause, but there's also an eerie feeling that no one here has much, but also no one has nothing.  I don't get asked for change on the street, but I get plenty of offers for directions, transport, and goods, all for a cost.  To me, it's far more preferable.  A simple 'no, gracias' and I'm on my way.  
After walking for about an hour, I have that telling feeling that if I don't find a place for dinner and relaxing soon, my body's going to tell me just exactly what it thinks about what I've put it through in the past 36 hours.  Heeding that, I head back to Plaza Vieja to see what I can do about that.  
Up next- an evening watching out over Havana. 


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