Fri. July 5, 2019:
I woke up at 7am because Brent was fidgeting with the air conditioner. Apparently, it was set to 10C and he was cold. In the bathroom I could hear a rooster crowing outside, it was way too early for any of this. I went back to bed and slept until after 9am but still woke up in time for hotel breakfast. I had no idea what to expect of the breakfast buffet. I certainly didn’t think that spaghetti would be on offer. Yet there was no bread and butter to go with the meats and cheeses. I stuck to my go-to: pastries and baked goods. The little vanilla donuts with crispy tops and soggy bottoms were oddly good given the state. The best part was the coffee. Can’t go wrong with a good cup of coffee. After breakfast we headed out onto the back terrace of the hotel. We walked to the edge of the property to see if we could get down to the Malecon. Nope, it was down a steep cliff and across a road. But we could see it. We also saw the giant Cuba sign on the edge of the property. It must have looked nice from down below. We also spotted a peacock hanging around behind one of the outdoor restaurants.
When we initially told my sister and her husband that we were going to walk to Old Havana they balked at the idea and told us to take a taxi. We waved them off. A 40minute walk is nothing for us. The heat and humidity? Id been to Florida in July, two years ago we did Georgia and South Carolina in May- it would be fine. You forget how exhausting the heat and humidity and sharp sun are. Even at 10am we were sweating. It did not help that the first half of the walk we were headed in the direction of the sun, it was just glaring. We also didn’t have any water, mistakenly thinking we could just pick some up in a shop along the way. We also learned that jaywalking is not an easy task. We were trying to get across the street to the Malecon, the ocean-side sidewalk. We were on the lookout for San Lazano tower. Google said it was a point of interest. Off in the distance I could see something tower/statue looking. I focused on that, I just had to get there. Except before we got to it, we saw a small stone (cement?) tower. It was just a cylinder by the side of the park near the road. Google lied. It was not interesting at all.
We were such tourists, Brent in his Hawaiian print shirt, me in my tropical floral maxi dress. A tour bus stopped for us, except it was going in the opposite direction!! A guy ran across the street, dodging cars, just to offer us a horse carriage ride. No thank you, we said. And just as quickly he ran back across. It was disconcerting watching locals jaywalk. They went lane by lane, often standing in the road waiting for it to clear, or else just running for it. That was pretty much the entire walk: guys striking up a conversation about the Blue Jays (Brent was wearing Jays hat) and then offering us a tour or a taxi. The trick was to not stop walking, be friendly but keep walking and say no thank you.
On the way into Old Havana we passed by La Bogedita. It was on Brent’s list: have a mojito and order the pork. It was famous for inventing/perfecting the mojito and because Hemingway drank mojitos there. Appropriate to the celebrity status: there was a huge crowd spilling to the sidewalk outside. We would try again later in the day. At Plaza De Catedral we got to peek inside the cathedral and the view from the lobby was good enough that we didn’t feel we needed to pay admission to tour the place. Our plaza tour continued with a stop at the Municipal Plaza followed by the Plaza Des Armas. There was no second-hand book sale going on at Armas but we were debating coming back the next day. As I was photographing the fountain, a guy approached Brent and quick-sketched him and then offered to sell it to him for 3CUC. It was a funny drawing; his chin just had a bunch of lines on it for the beard. We happened on the parade my sister had told us about by chance. A dog joined in and was barking like mad at the people on stilts, he followed along as they went- bark bark barking. Somewhere around the time we got into Old Havana we saw a drink vendor and we made a quick detour. Brent had a beer, I had a TuKola (it tasted like Coca-Cola mixed with Dr Pepper and root beer) and most importantly: we got a giant 1.5L bottle of water. I chugged that soda so fast.
The heat and humidity were getting to me, I was feeling groggy and getting grumpy. I had worn my GAP slides because the forecast called for rain and there was no way I was going to get my leather sandals soaked. I had totally forgotten that by “rain” they probably meant Florida-style not Toronto-style. A quick burst which would immediately start drying. The cobblestones were not my friend. The offers of taxi rides had subsided now that we were in Old Havana. They had been replaced by offers from restaurants. Free wi-fi is not as enticing if you’re roaming and can use your phone as you would at home. We passed a small park that was FULL of stray cats. We had already passed 1-2 stray cats sitting around in front of shops or wandering but I had no idea just how prevalent they were. I was overwhelmed. I wanted to scoop them all up and take them home. There were at least six cats in this park alone. One was munching on a fish head while three others looked on. Two others were lounging in the shade. Another was laying smack in the middle of the sidewalk.
Our next stop was Café Escorial in Plaza Vieja. I had read about it in Lonely Planet, the recommendation was confirmed by my brother-in-law’s mother. I was psyched. The plan was to buy coffee to take home. It did not occur to me to have a pitstop and actually drink a cup. That is just how braindead I was (lack of sleep combined with the sun/heat). We were near where my sister was saying but she wasn’t answering her phone so we continued on. We walked over to look at El Capitolio. It was a beautiful building unfortunately marred by restoration work on the domed roof. It was totally modelled after American capitol buildings. At this point the air was so thick with humidity, you could tell it was going to rain. It had to, it could not be this humid and not rain. We paid for admission to both sections (national and international) of the Museum des Belles Arts without realizing it was two separate buildings and that the international one was down the road. It was only when we finished the first building and realized it had all been Cuban artists. The collection was bigger than I’d expected and very varied. I actually enjoyed the modern art because it was so small a selection. I liked the paintings by Tomas Sanchez the most. It was also really great to be inside away from the sun and in the AC. Refreshed and with only half a bottle of water left (it was that hot) we went back to La Bogedita to try our luck again. It was still really busy, so we sidled up to the bar in the tiny opening and ordered mojitos. The guy was a mojito-making machine. He would line up 10 glasses and just pour into all of them in a row. I wondered how many mojitos he must make in a day. It was kind of fun to be surrounded by other tourists all doing the same thing. We reached peak tourist moment then.
We slowly made our way over to the convent where my sister and co. were staying. Just as we got there the rain started up. We couldn’t have timed it more perfectly. We sat on wicker rocking chairs on an outdoor covered terrace in the hall, Adrian had command of the room for his nap. I had brought Camilla the Bulk Barn snacks as requested and now we just tore into them. Except for the yogurt-covered pretzels. Those had not fared so well in my bag and the heat turned them into one melted blob. The heat did, however, improve the Reese’s pieces. Oh man were they good with their soft melty centres. We had about an hour or so to get ready for the baptism, plenty of time to rest our feet and drink more water. My feet were so swollen, sweaty and dirty, I ended up washing them in the sink. Eventually it was time for the baptism boy to wake up. It was cute watching him groggily process that his aunt and uncle randomly appeared in the time he had been napping.
We milled around the convent courtyard while friends and family trickled in. I did not expect so many people to be there. I had to wear a shirt to cover my exposed shoulders and man was I sweating bad. It was a nice short service in the convent chapel. I didn’t understand anything except the word for water and I recognized when they started the Our Father Prayer. Apparently, the priest had made some jokes that everyone found hilarious. The nuns had made fresh-squeezed mango juice for us for a mini-reception afterwards. Adrian loved it, he chugged a whole glass, only stopping momentarily for air. I agreed, it was delicious and it left me forever after craving fresh-squeezed mango juice. I even briefly toyed with the idea of buying a juicer when we got home.
Afterwards we all headed out together to Helad’oro, an ice cream place that had opened in 2016 and was recommended in Lonely Planet. We ran into one of Alexis’s friends but as they were chatting, I got distracted by a nearby cat. Just as I had setup my shot, some people walked right into it. I was ready to turn around and be all like can you believe these people to Brent… when I realized it was they who had walked into my shot. They continued on, assuming I’d join them but I fell behind still trying to photograph the cat. I did manage a great photo of them having a confused discussion. I was surprised at how good the ice cream was, and doubly surprised that they had my beloved Speculoos. Camilla and Alexis had ordered theirs in a cup and they were served their ice cream in little plastic drinks cups which amused me for some unknown reason. We walked back to Plaza de Catedral to eat our ice cream. Adrian wanted to pet a stray cat, the cat wanted the ice cream, there was a bit of confusion and worry. But most importantly I got more great photos.
Brent and I walked to El Floridita bar. Setting a new benchmark for most tourist-y activity of the day. Inside was jam-packed with tourists. Once again, we had Hemingway to thank. This time the drink was daiquiris. The condensed menu just listed daiquiris 6CUC. What flavours?! All around I could see red and white ones. The lady beside us ordered one strawberry, one banana so naturally we copied her order. Except as Brent was ordering I noticed the fuller menu. We could’ve had better flavours! Instead we had a daiquiri in each other’s most hated flavours. So, we only traded a sip. Despite the citrus-y note, it still tasted of banana. The blenders in the bar were just constantly going, but they were actually drowned out by the live band that was playing. Once again, we were squeezed into an impossibly small spot by the bar with barely any room to move.
It was a long, slow, hot walk back to the hotel. I was tired and hazy. All the fishermen from the morning were gone and there was hardly anyone on the Malecon. Even the small sardines that had littered the ground were gone. We took a short rest break in the hotel while I scrambled to empty my foggy brain into my travel notebook. I gave up after finishing Thursday’s entry. I was too hungry to function. We wandered around the hotel to scope out all of our food options. We found a little shop where I got some Malaysian Pringles called Mr. Potato. We finally settled on the outdoor restaurant with the peacock in back. They had ropa vieja and moros and cristianos. Both items from the 1001 Foods book. I ordered the slow-roasted-pit pork. How could I not? They had a statue of a pig on a spit outside! The dishes came with three sides: bean soup (it was just beans, not soup at all), rices and cristianos and moros which was basically just a mix of a different type of rice and beans. To drink I had a Papa Hemingway cocktail (lemon, rum and maraschino cherry) which really hit the spot. It was odd that we were not offered water or a dessert menu. As dinner was winding down one of the peahens (we determined over the course of dinner that there were two peacocks and two peahens) jumped onto the fence near the table behind us. She got shooed away and flew up to the tent over the restaurant. We could hear her scratching around walking up above us. At least they had quieted down. During dinner they were so loud, just screaming at each other. One of the peacocks was chasing a peahen, first she sped-walked away from him. So, he picked up the pace, even sticking his neck out in front. So, she started to run and threatened to fly away.
After dinner we wanted to get a drink from one of the other hotel bars and walk the grounds but apparently each of the outdoor hotel bars had a seating area and they bring the drink to you. We wandered around, found the nice pool and eventually watched the sunset over the ocean and the Malecon. It was a beautiful sunset but hard to photograph because of all the damn street lights. On the way to the elevators we passed the front desk and the lady was drinking a tiny cup of coffee and it so made my day. Back in the hotel room we actually hit up the minibar. One: it was relatively cheap compared to what we were used to, but two (more importantly): we had such limited options. I had another TuKola, this time I added some 3-Year Havana Club for a true Cuba libre cocktail. I was (again) surprised at how many TV channels we got. At first there was nothing on so we just kept flipping channels hoping something would change. In the end I was able to watch 13 Going on 30 with no commercials- much to the detriment of my writing.