Thursday, June 1, 2017

Havana Running Part 9- When Life Gives You a Night In Cuba...


.....Add new friends and maybe a little vodka.

But first, the story so far:
So, funny story.  I don't quite know what piqued my interest in the restaurant I wound up in on Sunday night.  Maybe it was current events, maybe it was history.  Or, maybe it was just my need to see a sunset over the water- I was visiting an island after all.

Whatever the purpose, the result was that as the afternoon wore on and I was feeling proud of myself for wrapping up my bit of shopping, I found myself walking toward the Malecon- the sea wall and promenade that makes up the northern boarder of the city.  I hadn't made it all the way to the water yet in my exploring, so I wanted to check it out.

To get there I passed El Floridita, and cut through toward the capital building.  This area is made up of cleaner, wider streets and avenues.  It has some of the city's only 'luxury' stores, and many of the larger hotels.  It's decidedly more 'upscale' feeling than the narrow streets of Habana Vieja, but possibly less charming as well. 

Between the capital and the start of the Malecon you head up Paseo De Marti, which has a raised median for pedestrians that serves as just about everything this time of day- impromptu market, dance hall, skate park, and art gallery.  It extends for several blocks, and takes you to the waterfront eventually. 

It just so happens that one of the more intriguing and random recommendations I came across in my trip planning was for a soviet themed/run/founded/inspired restaurant in this area that was rumored to have a great view of the water.  This is what happens when you spend your week before a trip googling "Havana Restaurant View."  Apparently, these are the keywords to a memorable time that leaves you feeling confused the next time you are within range of current newscasts.

Something about this prospect just seemed strange (and maybe a little timely) enough that I needed to check it out for myself.  As it turned out, it wasn't hard to find.  Between the red flag flying from the 3rd floor balcony, and the friendly man at the door holding a menu I pretty much sorted out I'd found it.
I headed up three flights of narrow stairs (which at this point in the trip has become par for the course) passing Soviet era posters all the way, and found myself in a modestly sized restaurant with both inside and terrace tables.  The interior was air conditioned, but the view outside was what I came for.  I found a shady table on the balcony and a waiter brought me the menus.  One for food, and one for vodka, all printed in Spanish, Cyrillic, and English. The menu also provided the backstory for the restaurant, as well as some useful proverbs....

Since it was still well before sunset, I started with a drink and took some time to just relax after the afternoon of hiking around the city.  The place wasn't full, so I didn't feel bad ordering slowly.  It takes a significant amount of time for the over-connected, information saturated of us to get used to being out of touch, and to start to enjoy the feeling.  It was about half way through my vodka tonic that I really started to unwind. 

The road below wasn't too busy- a few classic cars and busses going by, and the water just a few feet beyond that was calm.  This city is growing on me.

My trips of late have been taking me to places that are the opposite of this- all overly hyped, modern cities that have had such rapid expansion that in many ways culture and charm haven't had a chance to keep up.  They are breathtaking and luxurious, but also exhausting to try and explore.  Many also use their skylines and fast trains to distract from the large part of their residents who haven't had the good fortune to be part of the success. 

Havana doesn't allow for this- there's no cover up.  What you see (and you will see a lot you might not have been expecting) is pretty much just what you get.  The city is a mix of renovated history, crumbling landmarks, and passivity about it all.  You might get woken up by a chicken at 4am, but no one's pretending he's not there for the sake of a 5-star rating, and they'll proudly serve you fresh eggs with breakfast.

I did eventually order an appetizer and another drink, though I couldn't quite bring myself to have the perogies or borsht on an 85deg afternoon.  I went with a salad with pickled vegetables that was surprisingly generous and refreshing.  Here, as just about everywhere I went, the prices were extremely reasonable by foreign standards- drinks for $3-$4, meals for $10. 

 As these trips tend to go, I ended up chatting with some other travelers from the US the next table over.  From this, and the other people I met in transit, I can say that the current visa requirements seem quite relaxed.  No one I met had a strictly defined 'reason' for their trip, and no one seems to have had any issues.  It's still a good idea to familiarize yourself with the current rules and to have everything in place in advance so you know what to say and where to go. 
It did eventually become sunset, which did not disappoint.  Everyone stopped to take pictures as the sun disappeared over the water.  The night started to finally cool off, and eventually I headed back through the city to the Plaza Vieja to get dinner closer to 'home.'  I'll say again how safe it felt walking around, even cutting through the edge of 'Centro' at night.  Again, not clean and shiny by any means, but safe.
What's also striking about Havana is that the entire city is a giant urban art gallery.  Mingling with the obviously commissioned sculpture and the intricate building facades is a multitude of impromptu wall art, murals, and shops selling paintings everywhere.  You get the feeling that this is just part of the culture...because there's time for such pursuits.  And not in the full-time, starving artist trying to make it big and get a wealthy patron way, but in an organic, 'because I can, and I should' way. 
Just one more reason to make days in Havana long, even if it makes the nights short.  Up next- an early morning to start the trip home.

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