For some SUPERB videos, Google Havana: City: City Guide, weather, and facts galore from Answers.com.
This was as close as I came to seeing any "propaganda" and I found it hanging inconspicuously in a small shop window. In a nearby mall, perched over a staircase, I saw a small sign which read "Revolucion Victoriosa en el Nuevo Milenio" [Victory to the Revolition in the New Millenium], and painted across another wall was "Rio Revolucion" [Revolution River]. But that was IT as far as political signs or slogans! I had expected much, much more. We discussed it later and surmised that perhaps the regime was trying to tone it down to attract western investment after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and was no longer subsidizing the Cuban economy...
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Early the morning of our second day in Havana, Cuba, we took to the streets to explore the city. We began in our home El Vedado district with a large open air craft and art show about 1 block from where we were staying. Here we were astounded to find huge galleries of paintings and other handicrafts for sale in a vacant lot nearby.
I picked up a small painting and my friend bought some exquisite wood carvings. We soon found other such exhibits all over Havana. The art and music you find virtually everywhere is truly amazing. Artists display their wares all over, and sell them very cheaply. The wood carvings are gorgeous and of very good quality, as you can see here by this artisan's work.
There is seemingly not a single bar or restaurant without a small samba music group performing either inside or right out on the street. Cuban jazz is incredible. We stopped by a nightclub and saw firsthand the spectacular musicianship and energy of the performers. They played for literally 2 hours without a break, and their stage presence and musicianship was not only good, but frantically energetic as well.
Dancers abound and will often give an impromptu performance. They, too, seemed to erupt with boundless energy, and I soon became aware that I was probably one of the fattest men in all of Havana! For the Cuban diet consists mainly of fruit, beans, rice, nuts and grains, chicken, and fish. Red meat is rare, and you can bet their foods contain NONE of the fattening crap like the high fructose corn syrup and corn starch we find in overabundance in our American diets! Wherever we saw a food kiosk, we saw the same things being offered: hot dogs (they were always out of these, so I have yet to comment on a Cuban hot dog), and Jamon y Case (a ham and cheese sandwich). We early on ordered a very flat dish pizza, which was bland. I don't know what kind of cheese they used on it, but it sure wasn't mozzarella! Overall, the food is fairly bland, without spices. (I attributed their lack of spices to the trade embargo we have had them under since 1960, but I could be wrong). I DID, however, have two exquisite meals in Havana. One was a delectable shrimp dinner right in Cathedral Square, and the other was an all-you-can-eat brunch for $12 at a hotel on the waterfront. It was only open to foreigners (perhaps only they could afford it) and it had everything: ham, potatoes and gravy, beef, chicken, many kinds of fruit and pastries --- you name it!
We even got to "perform", dancing and singing, with one of the groups in a small bar we stopped in as they sang the old Sandpipers' tune from 1966 called "Guantanamera!" The song was actually written by a Cuban, I am told. As you can see, I had a very good time singing harmony and shaking the castanets with the young senorita!
While we walked much of the way, we did indulge in several mini-taxi rides. These little yellow taxis are found all throughout the city, and are relatively cheap to ride. They are for the most part 3-seaters, and sure came in handy when we were fatigued. We rode them down the Malecon, a wide esplanade running 8 km from El Vedado into the old original harbor. All along the way, we were captivated by the beautiful well-kept-up Spanish baroque architecture which surrounded us on all sides. We took dozens of pictures and were never bothered by anyone, including police.
We went to and drank in a bar that Hemingway used to frequent, called La Bodeguita Del Medio. It was adjacent to the beautiful cathedral I stood in front of for the beginning of part I's post. In this bar, I made an amazing discovery. It had the ONLY toilet seat I saw on ANY toilet ANYWHERE in Cuba! That's right, folks: I don't know if toilet seats are viewed as expensive and unnecessary utility parts for toilets, but I saw NONE anyhere in Cuba except in the bar Hemingway favored! Cubans evidently sit on the rim or squat and tend to their business, I guess. Another curious phenomenon: after wiping, toilet paper is never thrown into the toilet bowl and flushed away. Instead, it is thrown into a basket besude the toilet (which is emptied out regularly). But back to the toilet seat in Hemingway's favorite haunt: it was SO soiled with urine, I couldn't imagine anyone ever sitting on that seat!!!
We eventually ended up in the government section of the city and walked all around each government building. On our way there, we were surprised to see several dangerously open slits near the sidewalk right along the huge, wide boulevard leading up to the capitol. We found it odd that such a thing would exist only a half a mile or so from the Cuban seat of government, but then we reminded ourselves that horrible slums exist only a very short distance from our own Capitol in Washington, D.C. The Cuban "White House" and Capitol are housed together in one building shaped eerily like our own Capitol. Just beyond this area lies the office and business section of the city, which we didn't bother to explore. Seen one; seen 'em all.
I had my picture taken outside the Interior Ministry building, home of Cuba's secret police. Its notable characteristic is a huge neon light in the shape of noted revolutionary Che Guevara, who was killed by the CIA while trying to export revolution to Bolivia in 1967. The only thing I can say about a tightly-run dictatorship like Cuba is that I felt far safer at night on the street there than I do even in my own town! Street crime is simply not condoned in Cuba, and no one ever accosted us at all. Though I'm sure we were being watched, I could never detect anyone tailing us, so evidently the sceret police do their job most professionally in that country. I would guess after having had 41 years' experience at that time, that would be the case. We roamed all over at will and were never interfered with, nor were the other foreigners (Danes, Swedes, Germans) we encountered in various bars and other places. Of course, we kept mainly to ourselves and stayed inconspicuous, but it was clear to anyone that we were tourists. To be honest, I was kind of disappointed that we were never stopped or questioned even once!
One of the amazing and amusing things about Cuba is the fact that 1 out of every 5 or 6 cars on the road there are original 1950s-style American Chevys, Fords, or Dodges. As you can see from the photo at right, many are still in pristine shape! It is a tribute to Cuban pride, ingenuity, and determination that they have been able to keep these things running after having been deprived of the necessary spare parts due to our embargo against them for the past 50 years! To be sure, many belch smoke while being driven, and others lack working door or window handles, but it is still incredible to find them running at all. It was exactly like stepping out of a time machine and emerging in 1960!
COMING IN PART III: PINAR DEL RIO ["RIVER OF THE PINES"] - AN EXCURSION INTO TOBACCO AND SUGAR CANE COUNTRY!