Our day in Havana was absolutely amazing! After navigating the ritual morning bus throng, we boarded a tour bus bound for Havana. Our tour guide was a university student named Nilan, who was working on a Masters degree in English at the University of Matansas. She was funny, interesting, and very informative. During the two hour ride to Havana we learned so much about Cuba! She talked about its history, economy, politics, geography, industry – did you know that tourism is the second largest industry in Cuba? The biggest is what they refer to as “brain drain” – the exportation of intelligent, educated people to other countries to educate and work. That surprised us. When you look at the housing, you might think of Cuba as a backwards, third world nation, so it was surprising to learn that they are leaders in fields of medical research. Many medicines have been developed there, and several major breakthroughs in research have come out of Cuba. Nilan talked about culture, class structure, agriculture, architecture – you name it, she touched on it. She discussed openly their relationship – or lack thereof – with the United States, and we also learned that over one million Canadians visit Cuba every year. Cubans love Canadians – and hate Americans. This sentiment was echoed later in a conversation with one of the drivers at our resort who told us that Cubans love Canadians because we have three things in common – we are both polite, we are both friendly, and the Americans hate us all! He followed that up with the comment “Fuck Americans! We don’t need them!” Imagine that said in a very thick accent and it was almost amusing. I would imagine they also love the money our visits bring them…..But I digress. Back to the bus tour.
She also told us about the colour system used for license plates in Cuba, and about yellow people – and yes, the two are related. I’m going to talk about it, because I found it fascinating. License plates in Cuba are different colours, depending on who owns the vehicle. If the plate is green, it’s a military vehicle. If it is yellow, it is a private car, but less than 4% of Cubans own their own car. Black is a diplomat. Blue or Brown is a car owned by the government, but used by a citizen. Many people who work in government jobs are provided with a car, but there are certain restrictions…I’ll get there in a moment. Red plates are temporary permits, unless the number begins with a T, in which case it is a rental car, or a tourist – related vehicle. The jeeps we used for the jeep safari, for example, all had red plates beginning with T. White – well, white was kind of hard to understand. It’s a special plate, issued to a visitor who is in an important position. For example – there are representatives of a Canadian oil company from Alberta living and working in Cuba, aiding in the development of Cuban oil fields. Those people have white plates on their cars.
Now back to the yellow people. Because so few people own their own cars, hitchhiking is a way of life in Cuba. So much so, that it is organized. At a major intersection leading out of town you will find a person seated at a table, beneath an umbrella for shelter. This person is dressed all in yellow, and it is his job to co-ordinate hitchhikers. If you are in Varadero and you need a ride to Matansas, you go to the desk and check in with the yellow person. He will find you a ride, and to do so, he begins flagging down cars. Here’s where it gets interesting. Remember those blue and brown government plates? If you have such plates on your car, and you have room in your vehicle, even just for one person, you must stop at the yellow person’s table and see if there is anyone who needs to go in your direction. If you do not stop and the yellow person takes your license plate, you can lose your car. Fascinating, no?
Needless to say, Nilan’s discussions made the miles to Havana literally fly by. We made a brief stop at a roadside stand for a bathroom and drink break, then pushed on. Arriving in Havana, we were dropped off in an area of old Havana. As we got off the bus we were immediately besieged by vendors selling everything from cones of peanuts, to hats, to tshirts and more. Capitalism is growing in Cuba. I won’t go into huge detail about the buildings we saw, but the architecture of old Havana is lovely. It is ornate, old, and has a distinctly European flavour to it. Unfortunately, much is very shabby, and as Stephen put it, all of Havana looks like it would benefit from a simple coat of paint. Now, Nilan’s discussion of weather may have explained this neglect somewhat. She was telling us that Cuba is frequently hit by hurricanes, but there is seldom loss of life because the government has a strict evacuation program. When a hurricane is expected in a certain area, the government sends out buses and everyone is evacuated to shelters. When the hurricane is over, the people are returned to their homes, and the damage to the houses is assessed. Whatever is needed to repair the houses is provided free by the government. No insurance claims there! However, she explained that often restoration and renovation programs planned by the government must be put on hold because the necessary funds and materials must be given instead to victims of the latest hurricane. Interesting.
So what else did we do in Havana? We did a walking tour of old Havana, visiting many significant buildings, and seeing lots of fascinating things. Then we loaded back on the bus for a visit to a cigar factory. Read that as “visit to the factory outlet so people could buy cigars and rum”. Stephen and I waited outside. This factory store was in an unbelievably decrepit part of town, in terms of appearance. If it were in Toronto, you wouldn’t stop, but drive quickly through with your windows up, doors locked, praying you got out SOON! Yet this was a busy area, with a dance academy on one corner, a government grocery store on the other, and scads of tour buses circling, waiting for their chance to disgorge their cigar-purchasing tourists.
After the cigar factory we went for lunch to a lovely open air restaurant, where we had the usual chicken, rice with beans, and potato-like root thing. Following lunch we were taken to Revolution Square, and allowed off the bus to take photos. Photos of what, I’m not sure, because the Square is essentially a large parking lot whose only apparent claim to fame is that Fidel Castro once gave a speech there that lasted for 8 hours. Back in the bus once more, we were shuttled off to the Capitol building which is currently undergoing renovations (in between hurricanes) so we weren’t able to go inside. There were lots of photo opportunities outside though, with beautifully maintained classic American cars dating from before the Revolution. These cars are all over Cuba. Once connections with the US had been broken, it became more difficult to obtain cars, so the owners lovingly restored and cared for the ones they had. It is nothing to see vehicles dating from the fifties, and even a few from the late forties, driving along the streets. Russian cars were once common, apparently, but it doesn’t seem they lasted as well as the American ones. Now mostly what you see on the streets are Japanese and Korean cars. We saw lots of Hyundai.
It was finally time to head home, and Nilan talked for only part of the trip, allowing those who needed it to drop off to sleep. This part of her discussion was more of a social nature, talking about religion and holidays, and education. Cubans don’t celebrate Christmas as we do. Having been Communist for so long, with no acceptable state religion, they stopped celebrating all the “church” holidays. It wasn’t until relations with other countries were opened up more, and restrictions on religion and churches were eased that church holidays began to resurface. She made reference to a specific instruction from one of the popes in which he told Cubans they needed to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ. So they did, but it’s more of a family thing. No trees, no decorations, very few gifts, just family getting together and enjoying a special meal.
Back in Varadero once more, we were dropped off at our resort, where we changed for dinner, went to the nightly show, and once again crashed, to sleep soundly all night.