I don’t usually travel to lose my baggage

The flight to Cuba is scheduled to arrive late evening. Pity, I wanted to see Varadero’s famed white beaches from the air. All that is visible is the lights of the all-inclusive resorts stretching through the peninsula. The charter pulls in on time, we clear customs incident free. I get a strange sense in the airport. I am by no means an authority on interior design, I’m familiar with most Latin American design, but this leaves me on unfamiliar footing. I can’t find any reference in memory to identify this particular design. The uneasiness is reassuring, we are traveling.

Outside of the airport a parade of buses line up for the all-inclusive resorts. We queue-up for a taxi into town, and wait our turn until a late model Asian import pulls up. A young man takes our destination; we agree upon a non-negotiable fare, climb in, roll down the windows and leave the airport behind. Reaching into his pocket, our driver produces a jump drive and the car is soon filled with the warm Cuba night air and salsa.

My earliest memories of Cuba are black and white, courtesy of my parent’s RCA console television. Cuba came to me via Lucy and Desi re-runs, late-night gangster movies of nightclubs with fruit laden rum cocktails, and of course cigars. I was too young to understand concepts such as fascism, revolution, socialism, or embargo.

View from Malecon to HavanaNot being able to secure a casa particular in Varadero we settle on a beachside budget hotel. Much to our delight we were greeted by a group of pleasantly drunk Russian tourists we affectionately dub “The Russian Circus”. The cracked plaster and the peeling paint indicate the hotel’s better days are left behind. Greasy stains on the chairs’ head rests add to the aging décor. Our rooms is old and dated, air conditioning is supplied by a make-shift window-shaker unit. All in all, in our travels, we have suffered through much, much worse. The routine is routine, backpacks on one bed, much needed sleep in the other.

In the morning we sample the free breakfast buffet, a dubious spread of grey eggs, unidentifiable processed meat and greasy cheese that we eat in the spirit of travelling. The bus leaves for Havana in an hour, nothing left to do but pack and say good-bye to Varadero.

When we started traveling, Cuba was near the top of our travel list, it fit our “trifecta of travel” hot climate, foreign culture, and good food. But, under deeper scrutiny, food became a question. Most literature commented that the food ranged from respectable to poor, but all contained to the resorts. Food off resort was extremely limited in regards to quantity and quality, one article claimed that Cuba would never be a travel destination until the cuisine rose above the “rice and beans” staple. Then the question of accommodations, if not resorts then what? Cuba fell way down the travel list and then forgotten.

The three and one half hour bus trip to Havana is as seamless as it effortless. The bus is air conditioned, has comfortable reclining seating, even a washroom on-board, comparable to any bus throughout North America. The Havana depot is located in Nuevo Vedado, but the bus makes short stops through the city, first, serendipitously, being “Old Havana/Vieja Habana”.

Securing our backpacks from the bus’s underbelly, it pulls away leaving us standing in the shadow of Vieja Habana. Across the street from us a stately restored/maintained two storied Spanish colonial, crisp pastel yellow with sharp white trim. Then our eyes focus on the broader vision; across the street from the yellow colonial, the brightness fades and turns to grey and building after building of urban neglect. Down the street as far as one can see, magnificent Spanish colonial architecture turned wrecking-ball-ready by urban decay. The sight of such craftsmanship and design in its last death throes is shocking. Just as our vision sharpened, now so do our other senses. The street sounds become ever increasingly loud, the traffic, music, taxi drivers hawking for fares.

We become aware of the scent of coffee, fresh coffee coming from somewhere in the decay, and as though on cue, a greeting from someone pushing past through the crowd,

“Welcome to Habana”.

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