January 6, 2019
We had an 8:30 a.m. excursion scheduled via the cruise line, but we decided that getting up at 7:00 was not something we wanted to do, so we skipped it. We took our time getting up and about and got off the ship around 10:00.
The excursion was supposed to visit the old Spanish fort and the statue of Christ overlooking the harbor. While we wanted to see them, we also wanted to do some more exploring of the city. We figured we’d hire a cab and visit what we wanted without having to deal with a group.
We stepped out of the cruise terminal and quickly found a cab – a convertible pink 1949 Pontiac (with its original engine!) At the wheel was Yudiel, accompanied by his girlfriend “Day,” who acted as a translator. We managed to pack the four of us inside the car with Yudiel and Day. $40 would get us a one-hour tour of the city.
Our first stop was the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro – the Spanish fortress overlooking the entrance to Havana Bay. The fortress was built in 1589 and was named for the three biblical magi. The morro had been one of the planned stops on the original tour. We stood on the edge of the promontory where the fortress had been built and were greeted with panoramic views of the entrance to the harbor and of old Havana. The boys wanted to explore inside the fortress, so I took them in. The fortress was similar to Castillo San Cristobal in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The boys got a big kick out of exploring the fortress’s rooms and climbing the ramps leading to the upper levels, calling it “The Great Wall of China” (what?)
Yudiel took a few pictures of us seated in his car, and even pretended to steal my camera. We were finding Yudiel and Day to be more personable than Ragith the night before. We loaded back up and headed for our next stop.
We passed through a Cuban military training facility and by an exhibit on the “October Crisis,” known as the Cuban Missile Crisis to Americans. Day mentioned the piece of an airplane that “Fidel shot down.” I would have liked to stop at the exhibit, but the guard would not allow Yudiel to park his cab there. I think seeing the Cuban perspective would have been interesting, since American schools only tell the details from our point of view.
We reached the top of a hill directly across from a house that formerly belonged to Che Guevara. On the hill was the 80-foot-tall statue of Christ. The 320-ton statue was made from marble from Italy that had been blessed by Pope Pius XII. From its spot on La Cabaña hill, the statue can be seen from all over Havana. The Havana Christ’s eyes are even sculpted empty so as to give the illusion that the statue is looking at the viewer from wherever they are.
While looking at the statue, Yudiel asked me if knew the difference between the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and the Cuban statue. Yudiel said Rio’s Christ looks over the city with his arms outstretched, welcoming the world to Brazil. Yudiel then pointed out that Cuba’s Christ has his right hand holding two fingers up by his chin, and his left hand in front of his chest, depicting Christ holding a Cuban cigar in his right hand and a mojito in his left.
We hopped back in the car and started driving back toward Old Havana. Alicia told Yudiel that we wanted to see the “real” Cuba. One of the things we love to do when traveling is to get off the typical tourist path and see the places where only the locals go. Yudiel was happy to oblige. We turned away from the city and into a residential area. We entered an housing complex consisting of several multi-story buildings that would have looked more at home in Moscow than in the Caribbean. We stopped at a lunch counter called “La Orquidea” – The Orchid. For the equivalent of $16 US we got two pizzas and four Cuban sandwiches. These “real” Cuban sandwiches were made on round rolls and topped with ham, bacon, cheese, and ketchup. I washed it down with a can of Cristal beer, Cuba’s national beer. The boys enjoyed their sandwiches and the pizza, and even shared their lunch with some of the local cats who had come to watch us eat.
After lunch, we headed back toward the port to conclude our tour. This is when things took an interesting turn. Alicia asked where we could buy some cigars. Day got excited and asked, “You want cigars?” Of course we did. How could we go to Cuba and not acquire some Cuban cigars? Day told Alicia to wait a minute because she “knows a guy.” Day made a quick phone call. Yudiel made a turn over some railroad tracks and entered a part of Havana that looked like tourists did not go to. The streets were narrow and rough; they were lined with multi-story apartments built in the early 20th Century in neo-Classical styles. We passed groups of children playing in the streets, and old men sitting on stoops followed our car with their eyes as we passed. You could tell that bright pink Pontiacs were not a common sight in these parts.
Yudiel made several turns through the streets until we stopped in front of a building with “106” above the door. Yudiel told us we were there and to hop out.
I began thinking this is how people buy drugs back home. I continued thinking and thought, this is how American tourists get kidnapped in Cuba.
As we stepped out of the car, the front door of the building opened. An older American couple stepped out. I heard the man, who was wearing dark sunglasses and a large Panama hat, tell his wife, “I guess this is where everyone comes for cigars.”
I stepped through the door, which was so narrow that the brim of my hat scraped the edges. Day told us to go to the second floor and go through the open door. We climbed the narrow stairs and found an open door, where a man motioned for us to come in. We stepped inside to find … a living room?! This is definitely not on the normal cruise ship tour. A bald man with a gold tooth, who bore a striking resemblance to Pitbull, pointed at the couch and told me to sit down. If we were going to be murdered, this is when it would happen. The boys didn’t care about what was happening, they saw a Christmas tree with toys under it. On the far end of the living room, I saw a small table with a pile of cigar boxes perched on top.
Why did this man have a large stash of cigars in his living room? Day told us that people who work in cigar factories are given a box each week to take home. Often, additional cigars are “acquired” from the factory with or without permission. The workers then sell the cigars to make ends meet after their government rations run out. Pitbull was one of these workers; we didn’t ask where they came from and he didn’t tell. We made a selection and worked a deal; the kids tried to work Pitbull’s children’s new scooter into the deal.
We asked Day why we went to Pitbull for cigars. She said they and Pitbull have an arrangement. When people need a taxi, Pitbull calls Yudiel. When one of Yudiel’s fares wants cigars, they go to Pitbull.
Our one-hour trip had turned into a four-hour trip thanks to Yudiel and Day. We had a lot of fun, so we hooked them up with a generous tip. They were especially grateful since they would only see a small portion of the $40 fare due to not owning the car. Anything over the original fare was theirs to keep. Alicia and Day even became Facebook friends so we could recommend them to anyone going to Havana.
Yudiel and Day dropped us off at the San Jose market where I got to see my “friends” again. We picked up some last-minute souvenirs before heading back to the ship.
We rode back to the ship on “CoCos.” CoCos are little taxis that look like a motor scooter and golf cart hooked up at a drunken party. In reality, they’re 100 percent Cuban creativity, and totally safe. CoCos have three wheels, they’re top heavy, and passengers sit on top of the gas tank. What could go wrong? Alex loved the ride in the CoCo. It was his request, after all. Ryan, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get out. We survived the half-mile ride back to the ship and got on board.
We took the boys for a quick swim and gelato. Then we stood on deck and watched Havana pass as we said goodbye to Cuba. As we sailed out of the bay, we could hear people shouting ¡Cuba Libre! – “Free Cuba!” – a toast to the island that originated during the Cuban War of Independence. Either they really liked their visit or they were thirsty for a rum and Coke.
As we steamed toward Miami, we spent the night packing our suitcases for home. Our journey was coming to an end.
In the media Communist countries always seem to be portrayed as these places where the people trudge about without emotion, passing a gray landscape of ugly cities where the concept of fun is nonexistent. Cuba was in no way like that. I’m not going to comment on political philosophies, but what I saw in our two days in Havana was a vibrant city with a population full of life. The people have taken cultural ideas from their past and from around the world and made it their own. They possess a can-do spirit that lets them overcome political and economic limitations to make things just work. The people we met look forward to the future when they can share their home with the world with no limitations, yet are proud of what they are now. I can’t wait to visit again.