An early rise and and a cold shower were a welcome start to our first full day in Cuba.
Stepping out of the air-conditioned room into a sauna like church gave us some idea of the day and week ahead but a breakfast of crepes, honey and tropical fruit put the heat to the back of our minds, for now.
Meeting the Locals
‘Getting to know you’ was the theme of our first session with our Cuban hosts Anaitza, Dyana and Meylin. Sitting outside in the shade we tried to explain ourselves using ‘shields’ and symbols then tried to interpret someone’s. This was really helpful for everyone because obviously we didn’t know our Cuban hosts but the group from Scotland didn’t know each other well either.
Following the introductions we tried to explain Scotland.
You’ll notice from the photo that Rob had brought his kilt. Explaining our national ‘man skirt’ caused great hilarity, especially when the sporran was thrown into the mix.
Lunch was rice, beans, avocado, green beans and beef.
The group decided to go for a wander around the neighbourhood.
They discovered pretty quickly why the street was pretty quiet. It’s way too hot to walk around. They managed to get pretty far, discovering a shop and a hospital, before returning with the reddest faces I think I’ve ever seen!
There was an air of anticipation as we climbed aboard Luis’ Bus to head out on our first venture into Havana. Luyano, where we were staying, is a poor neighbourhood with factories surrounding so we were all keen to see what the rest of the city was like.
Plaza de la Revolucion
The world famous Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square) was our first stop. Fidel addresses the masses from in front of the giant memorial to Jose Marti, educationalist and Cuban National Hero, but it is the iconic image of Che Guevara which dominates the square. The image on the front of the Ministry of the Interior, based on the photograph taken by Alberto Korda, is made of bronze wire. It is simply stunning.
Under Che’s image are the words ‘Hasta la victoria siempre’, the last words written by Che to Fidel. Keep striving until the victory is won.
The National Hotel
Havana was once glorious. You can see it all around. The buildings are beautiful, but crumbling. There are theatres, hotels and galleries. Music is always in the air. In the afternoon we found evidence that the opulent Havana still exists in the National Hotel.
Imagine an old style grand hotel with lots of marble, wood and brass, ballrooms, cigars and cocktails and you get somewhere close to the National. We sat in the courtyard and drank what the waiter promised were the best mojitos in the world… and he wasn’t lying.
But this is Cuba. The cocktails and the hall of fame showing all the famous people who have stayed in the hotel couldn’t be the whole story. And they’re not.
The hotel garden is no ordinary garden. It houses a pool, a bar and bunkers and trenches dug to defend against the potential invasion of America during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
In the evening we travelled over to the other side of the bay to the Castillo del Morro, a fortress begun in 1589. Cuba was an important staging post on the route between Spain and the New World so the fortress has been host to many treasures on their way to Spain.
These days the Castillo del Morro is a tourist attraction with bars, restraunts and museums. Each night at 9pm a detachment of soldiers dressed in period uniform march out and fire a canon.
We didn’t stay long after the gun was fired, which seemed a shame. The canon firing seems to be a real social occasion with the Cubans all dressed up and the bars busy. It would have been nice to just spend some time looking around but instead we headed back to base.
Our group took some time to reflect on our first impressions. Like me, most commented on the dilapidation of the houses and the very obvious poverty which sits side by side with the grandeur of the National Hotel and the Castillo del Morro. It’s a strange mix and it’s hard to tell if life is getting better or worse for the Cuban people.