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Journal - 29-Mar-2001, Thursday, La Habana, Cuba
(Trip: Cuba)

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Click for larger image! Coco Taxi. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,Havana,la habana,tourist,museo,museum,revolution,revolucion,travel,coco,taxi,sea
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Click for larger image! Old Havana. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,Havana,la habana,tourist,museo,museum,revolution,revolucion,travel,coco,taxi,sea
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Coco Taxi
Old Havana
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Click for larger image! Jose Martí. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,Havana,la habana,tourist,museo,museum,revolution,revolucion,travel,coco,taxi,sea
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Click for larger image! Che Guevara. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,Havana,la habana,tourist,museo,museum,revolution,revolucion,travel,coco,taxi,sea
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Jose Martí
Che Guevara
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Click for larger image! Cuba Libre!. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,Havana,la habana,tourist,museo,museum,revolution,revolucion,travel,coco,taxi,sea
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Click for larger image! Sunset on the Malecon. Keywords: backpack,Cuba,Havana,la habana,tourist,museo,museum,revolution,revolucion,travel,coco,taxi,sea
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Cuba Libre!
Sunset on the Malecon
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Breakfast is served at eight, Cuban time, which is six, Mexican time. It's an effort to get up - we're exhausted from all the new experiences yesterday.

The fried eggs are notable for their extremely pale yolks. It looks like the chickens have been on a low cholesterol diet or something. The taste is equally pale but perfectly edible. The freshly squeezed orange juice, by contrast, is delicious.

Over breakfast, the landlady explains some of the difficulties in Cuba. She says an average monthly salary is only $8! Eight dollars only just covers the bills and doesn't leave any change to buy food. On the other hand, she says that Cuba is a safe place to live, assaults are very rare, and medical treatment is free - though unreliable.

The landlady mentions that Cuba's economic problems are due to a lack of natural resources. Rather than get too involved, I simply mention that there are many other countries, with no natural resources, that do all right - Hong Kong being the prime example.

Stomachs full, we set off to explore Havana. Near the Meliá Cohiba hotel, there is a new, glass walled, 'communications center'. Its design is like a bus shelter and inside are four pay phones and a clerk selling phone cards. International rates are listed. $4 a minute to call Europe. The biggest card they have is $20 - 5 minutes.

I buy a card and try making a call. A recorded message plays: "We're sorry, your call cannot be completed at this time due to congestion of the lines". Ah well, I tried.

The next thing on the to-do list is withdraw some cash. We don't need it right now but want to know what's involved when we do. We ask at the hotel. The doorman tells us that the ATM in the hotel only has 'convertible pesos'. We'd prefer to get straight dollars, as we haven't seen pesos in use anywhere. We ask at the concierge and are directed to a bank at the nearby Hotel Riviera.

The Hotel Riviera is also a luxury hotel. The 'bank' is a wooden door, on the far side of the lobby, with a man outside. He says the cashier is occupied, and invites us to take a seat.

We wait a minute or two before the door opens and the customer walks out. I enter a tiny office with a glass screen and a cashier on the other side. To withdraw cash I have to hand over my Mastercard and passport. I ask for $100 to see what happens.

The cashier swipes my card in a normal store terminal. When the authorization comes back, I sign a slip - just as if I was purchasing a $100 item. The cashier hands over $100. As simple as that. Cool - it's some relief to know we can get cash whenever we need it.

Monica has fallen in love with the three wheeled taxis we've seen buzzing around Havana. She calls them 'Eggs', and it's not a bad name: The taxis are essentially a three wheeled motorcycle covered with a round, yellow, fiber-glass body. The driver sits on a molded fiber-glass scooter seat. Passengers sit on a bench behind the driver, protected by an egg-shaped hood.

An 'egg' to Old Havana, where the interesting buildings are, costs $4. We climb on board. Our legs stretch on either side of the driver.

As we take off, I feel like we're traveling down a main street in an electric wheel chair. The poor engine feels like it was designed for cutting grass, not carrying passengers. The fiber-glass hood effectively blocks off the drivers rear view, making pulling into traffic a lot of fun. She seems to use audio cues to determine if any cars are approaching.

We're told our vehicle is called a "Coco Taxi" because of the shape. We prefer "Egg". The Coco taxis offer a one hour tour of Havana for $12. It sounds reasonable, given the high costs of taxis in Havana, so we go for it.

Our trip is characterized by wild swerving to avoid pot holes, loud beeping from other vehicles (usually just after the wild swerving), and deep lung fulls of smoke and grime. A strong wind blows all manner of dust and muck in our faces, and we ride along with eyes half closed - eyelids on rapid blink.

Thanks to the strong sea breezes, air pollution doesn't seem to be a concern in Havana. Many vehicles belch thick, black, smoke, at a rate that would put a burning Kuwaiti oil field to shame. The sky, however, remains a charming blue color. Good job Havana isn't located in Mexico City's valley - the population would have died-off years ago.

There seems to be huge amounts of car rental offices in Havana. The country is obviously receiving a lot of investment to build a tourist infrastructure. I wonder where the money is coming from. Maybe Spain? There seems to be investment in skills too, as occasional signs of western, consumer-centric, business practices are spotted.

The first stop on our tour is Cuba's first hotel, the Hotel Nacional. A long line of Mercedes taxis are parked outside a beautiful old building. Inside, the original decor has been preserved and, apart from the air conditioning, one can imagine we're back in the early 1900's. We walk around and take a few pictures. There is a sign for a 'Business Center' with Internet access. Great, we'll come back later and check it out.

Round the corner from the hotel is 'La Rampa'. It doesn't seem to be anything more than a street with an incline but the driver announces it as a famous landmark. Driving up the street we pass a small park with long lines of people winding around it. They're patiently waiting to buy famous 'Coppelia' ice-cream. The park seems to be an outdoor ice-cream parlor. The driver says that, as tourists, we don't need to queue - we can go right to the front. I wonder about the work-ethic of a country where there are long lines to buy ice-cream on a week-day morning...

The taxi whines along bumpy streets to 'Plaza del la Revolucion', a landmark we passed yesterday. A tall, industrial, tower cum obelisk marks the site. A large statue of José Martí sits below the tower, looking out over a featureless carpark-like square. On the other side of the square is the building with the ironwork rendition of Che Guevara's face.

It's possible to ascend the tower to look out over Havana. We're told we have to buy a $5 museum ticket to do this. We ask if we can use the tickets later to return to the museum - right now we just want to climb the tower.
"No, you have to visit the museum first".
"But can we climb the tower and come back later to see the museum, without having to pay again?"
"You have to visit the museum to climb the tower".
It seems hopeless so we give the tower a miss, planning to return later on our own.

The next stop on the coco-taxi tour is a cemetery where a guide takes us around some impressive tombstones. She says there was inter-family rivalry to create the finest tombs and this explains the elaborate works we see, many of which are the size of a small room.

The guide shows us the highlight of the cemetery, the grave of a girl who supposedly performed miracles. The story says that the tomb was opened some time after the woman's death, to find her body perfectly preserved, and a baby in her arms. The woman continues to be revered like a saint in Havana, and a steady stream of visitors leave flowers, touch her statue, and ring a bell at the statue's base.

Returning to the cemetery's entrance, the 'free' guide asks for $5. This is in addition to the $1 entrance fee we both paid. We pay the fee, a bit annoyed that it wasn't announced up front. I wonder how it is that the guide can expect $5 for a 10 minute tour, if the average wage in Cuba is $8 a month?! Something doesn't seem to be adding up - one usually expects a low wage country to have cheap services but this doesn't seem to be the case in Cuba.

The taxi motors on to Old Havana, the only place we we're really interested in seeing. Here the driver drops a bomb: We've been 2 hours already and so the fee, so far, will be $24. She tries to persuade us to go for another hour. We get out.
"So that will be just $24".
"'Just' $24?" I respond, with a hint of sarcasm.
"Yes", she says simply, looking somewhat surprised, and perhaps offended, that I should consider $24 to be a lot of money. In Mexico you can rent a four-wheeled taxi all day for $24.

As we move around Old Havana, we have to field offers of taxis and cigars from all sides. I very quickly start to tire of the constant pestering. If I wanted a taxi I would ask for it. Do the drivers who hiss at us as we walk past think I'm too dumb to spot a taxi, or know that I need one? If we ignore them, they continue to shout after us, as if we really must need a taxi, even if we don't realize it.

We pass a cigar factory. It costs $10 to go inside and look around. We're really surprised at the prices everywhere. This is a third world country charging more than first world prices - and with an attitude that their prices are cheap!

There are some impressive, monumental, buildings in Old Havana, one of which contains 'el museo de la revolucion'. The entrance fee is $4. We're feeling drained and a little unwell. Once inside the museum we sit down to recharge a while.

The museum is a like big book, with the pages laid out on the walls. There are very few exhibits. It's quite interesting, however, to see events from a revolutionary's point of view. There are photos and news clippings covering about ten years before and after the revolution.

Some of the exhibits are torture implements apparently used by the Batista regime. The revolution suddenly seems perfectly just and necessary after seeing a contraption for slowly removing finger nails!

The best thing about the museum is that it offers some good vantage points for photographing street life in Old Havana.

Part of the museum is an outdoor exhibit of 'Granma', the yacht that Castro and his revolutionaries used to 'invade' Cuba from Mexico. The boat is not much bigger than a pleasure boat; it's difficult to imagine an army launching an attack from it! I think the fact that they were successful shows how much popular support there was for the revolution at the time.

Water in the museum shop is $1 for a small bottle. Let's try outside.

The first store we find outside also charges $1 a bottle. We resign ourselves to the price and quench our thirst.

Walking down the street, a woman asks Monica for soap. This seems in stark contrast to a taxi that charges $24. Could it be that there are two Cubas - those that have access to dollars and those that don't?

We wander aimlessly around Old Havana, taking pictures. There are lots of derelict colonial buildings with people living in poor conditions. Most Cubans look very healthy, with muscular physiques, but seem to lack the resources for anything but the bare essentials.

Everywhere we go people are trying to get a tourist dollar. One man is selling maps of Havana. They're of the style that are usually given away free at tourist information centers.

We find a shop with a relatively decent guide to Cuba. It's aimed at the 5-star hotel set, not us, but seems to contain the most useful information we've been able to find so far. We buy it for $21.

There is a museum dedicated to Alexander von Humbolt, a 19th century scientist who carried out some of the first scientific studies of Spain's new colonies. His story is an inspiration; he seems to have done more in his one life than most people could do in twenty. The museum only has about ten small exhibits. The rest is posters with text printed on them. A guide walks us around, reading from the posters. She has a lot of enthusiasm and seems to be proud of her 'great' museum.

As the evening draws in, we start to walk back along the sea front to our lodgings. About half way, we tire of walking and decide to take one of the taxis that have been offering their services all day. A strange thing happens. Not a single taxi is to be seen! We end up having to walk the whole journey. Murphy's law.

A hearty supper is served at our lodgings and we retire early to bed. My toes feel numb again from all the walking we've done.

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Cuba - Rotorua, New Zealand - Christ Church, Dublin - Monument Valley, Arizona - Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico - Staffa, Scotland - Huamantla, Tlaxcala, Mexico - Costa Rica - Tule Tree, Oaxaca, Mexico - Fiesta, Mexico City - Making Lacquer, Olinalá, Mexico - Talavera Ceramics, Puebla, Mexico - Mata Ortiz Pottery, Mexico - Lebanon
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