Slow morning. It looks overcast but the breeze that still blows through my open window is warm. I have the day ahead of me before I will join my tour for dinner this evening. I make it down for breakfast in the basement of the Nacional – buffet tables of fruit, pastries, meats and cheeses, an omelette and crepe station and an espresso bar. Not exactly Starbucks but any port in a storm. Breakfast is pretty good accompanied by possibly the worst cup of coffee I’ve ever had. Finding a good cup of coffee would turn out to be a recurring theme throughout the week.
The cab into Old Havana takes me along the long curve of the almost deserted Malecon. A few fishers toss lines from long poles over the sea wall. On the other side of the busy, four lane thoroughfare street after street of exquisitely ornate but ravaged looking concrete buildings with remnants of paint, colours long since peeled away to be indistinguishable one from another. The bleakness is broken occasionally by a lucky building whose number has been pulled in the restoration project lottery, freshly painted in bright pinks, yellows, greens and blues – a hint of the changes that everyone, including Cubans feel is coming. I stroll the cobblestone streets that connect the various plazas of Old Havana and am caught by the sweet and mellow sounds of a clarinet quartet – “Candilejas” – playing Ava Maria in a cafe. I’m happy to spend an hour sipping a very good capuccino and listening to the haunting melodies – a mix of traditional Cuban and North American favourites – until the repertoire begins to repeat itself. I’m very happy to be able to purchase both of their CD’s and I pick up some additional copies as gifts.
Lunch is a seafood “enchilada” at a cafe in the Plaza des Armes, while watching a colourful band of musicians and stilt-dancers. No sign of an enchilada but the stew of shrimp and vegetables in tomato sauce is quite good, washed down with a local beer – Cristal. Local beer would also be a recurring theme throughout the week. Then it’s a ride by Coco cab back to the hotel and a couple of hours by the pool.
Our tour group gathers in the Nacional lobby by seven – at least those of us who are in. Priti, Nicola and I meet our tour leader, Jorge and get the run-down. Two other women are still en route from Mexico and the other of our group is not joining us for dinner. Priti and Nicola are friends from London, travelling together. Lovely women who both work in fabric technology. I booked this tour online through Cuban Adventures who have a terrific, helpful and very descriptive web site. I’ve also been able to talk with their booking agent in Vancouver – Great Expeditions – to get some sense of what to expect. I have not toured with a group before and wonder how it will go.
Dinner is at Castropol – a newly refurbished splash of bright yellow along the Malecon toward Old Havana. We are joined by friends of
Jorge’s that includes another Cuban Adventure tour guide, Romey and his girlfriend, and two friends of theirs from Estonia who are visiting Cuba. Good food – I have the grilled fish – and passionate conversations mostly about Cuba. Much country pride from Jorge and his buddies, with the occasional hint of dissatisfaction with the way the system works – the isolation of not being able to travel freely, the lack of meaningful opposition to government and the limit on information into the country. Occasional contributions from the Estonians on their experience with transitional economies, and rarer interjections from the three of us on systems in Canada and Britain. I am respectful about expressing any kind of opinion about Cuba, particularly in the context of recent world events that make Cuba feel, at least to me, like a bit of a safe haven against the chaos that rocks the democratic governments of Europe and the US.
We get a lift back to the Nacional with one of the Estonians and call it a night fairly early in anticipation of our first full tour day tomorrow.