We are up at four thirty; in the car by five, being taken to Brisbane airport by the lovely Robin. All sleepy eyed we are there by seven. The news that we cannot board the Aircraft because we have no US visa for the transit of Los Angeles is not at all welcome. Didn’t even know we needed one! Fifteen minutes later, thanks to the staff of the Flight Centre, we have our visas and are checked in.
Fourteen hours to LA, six hours waiting, seven hours to Panama, two hours waiting, two and a half hours to Havana, two hours to get out of the airport and to the boat … thirty four hours in all and it’s four thirty in the morning as we fall into a short sleep needing to be up again by seven thirty. Did I say boat? Yes, another boat … big boat at that! What must you all be thinking?
The mind struggles to take it in … Havana. Since our youth in London all those years ago, Havana has always had a special place in our imaginations. Castro, Che Guevara; the fight against the forces of dictatorship that have held out over all these years. It has taken it’s toll and now that Cuba may be allowed back into the world there is a chance to rebuild that which has been lost. What a different world it is entering.
Irene (from round the corner in Tewantin would you believe) and Gayle, met on the way here, have agreed to share their “tour-in-an-american-car” with us starting at nine. The tour starts with a walk around the old part of town just next to the port. This part of the city has world heritage status and the restoring of many of the old building is well under way, but there is lots still to do.
Enter the lovely Katia, named in Russian style when Russians were the only friends that Cuba had. She used to be a school teacher but that only paid $20 a month after she finished university. Speaking excellent english she can earn more as a tour guide. She tells us that young people are no longer interested in free university education because after years of study wages are still very low. The young man who met us at the airport was trained in computer science but could only earn $12 per month doing that job. Difficult to live on $12 per month.
We walk for couple of hours around Old Havana. Katia is a history buff, enthusiastic and interested in her subject. Although proudly Cuban she gives both sides of the story; the good bits and the not so good bits. In our somewhat bleary state the dates slide through our mind leaving a taste of conflicts, slaves, pirates, spanish oppression, american excesses, bloody battles and a re-educated population looking at last to be allowed to join the world and lift themselves from poverty.
Sadly, she can’t travel overseas, not because Cuba won’t let her, but because countries like Canada, where she has friends, won’t give her a visa. “She might abscond”, they say or “She has no travel history”.
Into our big blue Chevy and a trip around the palaces, castles and fortifications built by one occupier or another over the centuries, we find a crumbling city being slowly restored in recognition of it’s world heritage status.
The tourist trickle is getting stronger by the month and likely to turn into a flood with the first American cruise ship due to dock in May. We are here just in time to catch a last glimpse of Havana before it changes into who knows what.
As we walk around the narrow streets of the old city signs of rebuilding are everywhere. It’s interesting that they have not chosen to clear away the crumbling buildings to make way for the modern. Let’s hope they can keep it that way.
As we move around the city other local heroes appear the most unexpected places. In a bar here; a park there.
Walking around a city not yet clogged with cars, where European inspired narrow streets carry mostly pedestrians and where many taxis are still powered by one pedalling man, is a pleasure. People live among the crumbling buildings; washing on the balconies drying in the breeze.
Shops are small with almost bare shelves; a few cater to tourists selling Che Guevara tee shirts. Cuba has a dual currency, the tourist form being worth twenty five times the one the locals use. Everyone is friendly and we feel perfectly safe even walking around at night when people come out to relax. Sitting on the steps outside a cafe we listen to the music … it is raw and vibrant jazz and feels very Caribbean.
Over the years, the rich and powerful have stayed in Cuba … and when in Havana, they stay in the National Hotel.
And so what are we doing here! It seems we only just got home from our trip to NZ and we are off again. Truth is that the NZ cruise only happened at the last minute and this trip has been planned for some time. It is a relocation cruise on MSC’s ship Opera stopping at all ports though to Germany including our next stop at Montago Bay, Jamaica. We seem to have found that, at our time of life, cruising is a good way to see all those places that we missed earlier. We don’t have to stop travelling … we can keep on keeping on!
That’s enough for this little tale but for those who like cars here are a few to be going on with.