We sprung out of bed early, on Christmas morning, eager to explore the historic Habana Vieja.
Walking along a main drag, Calle 23, locals slowly began their daily routines. They waited patiently for the bus, made their selection at the fruit market, and chatted on park benches.
Although it was indeed Christmas Day, the religious holiday had scant importance in this socialist nation, and was carried out similar to any other working day. Indeed, it was a stark contrast to the fast-paced rat race that would characterize a typical morning commute from Jersey City into Manhattan. But here, with an easy Caribbean pace, there was no sense of urgency or worry – regardless of how quickly you moved, you were bound to achieve the same end-result.
We exchanged a couple hundred Euro at a cadeca, plenty of cash-money to keep us going for a few days. Then we had breakfast at the diner-style restaurant that sits beneath the historic Hotel Tryp Habana Libre, which as the story goes, was formerly operated by Hilton Hotels, but with Fidel’s triumphant arrival into Havana in January 1959, los barbudos (“The Bearded Ones”) commandeered the hotel and turned it into their revolutionary headquarters.
After breakfast, rumor had it that the Habana Libre was one of the 35 places in Cuba with WIFI. It was Christmas after all, and I felt the need to wish my loved ones a Merry Christmas. I purchased an hour of WIFI from the front desk, and tried making some calls via Google Hangouts. A poor signal prevented any meaningful communication from occurring, and several frustrating attempts, I began to taste what it was like to be on an island with limited contact with the outside world. The notion of being disconnected from the buzz of life back in New York was a welcome change that I had embraced, though as I stood in the vibrant lobby of Habana Libre, I began to realize how utterly different life would be to live in a city without access to WIFI.
Before we left the hotel, Deirdre proposed we go to the top floor, which turned out to have an enclosed, rooftop bar with a spectacular panoramic view of Havana:
Departing Havana Libre, we walked east along Calle Neptuno through the Centro district (central Havana), getting our first true glimpse of the real Havana. Impoverished locals living in dilapidated apartment buildings, passing time lazily in the shade to avoid the intense heat and humidity. Nobody seemed to care that a couple gringos were strolling down the street, and we were occasionally greeted with cheerful ¡holas! and smiles. One man tried starting a conversation with me, asking me where we were from, then asking if I was interested in purchasing some tabacos (cigars).
At the time, I didn’t feel comfortable taking photos in this district, uncertain of how safe we really were. As the trip progressed, I soon began to notice throngs of tourists walking around Havana Vieja with fancy cameras hanging from their neck, which prompted me to take more photos. Upon arrival, I chatted with Sara about safety, and she assured me that strict laws were in place to prevent crime, particularly to protect foreigners, since their economy has become increasingly reliant on tourism.
We made our way to El Capitolio (the former capital building), adjacent to Parque Central, home to the infamous Esquina Caliente, where local béisbol aficionados can be found passionately debating for hours on end (Anthony Bourdain even swung by when filming an episode of No Reservations).
From there, we walked further into Havana Vieja (old town district), where I was eager to check in to El Floridita, a bar famed for being Ernest Hemingway’s favorite spot to grab a drink. Packed with tourists, we grabbed a couple daiquiris, marveled at Hemingway’s slouching statue (along with a photo of him and Fidel), and enjoyed some live music.
From there, we walked along Calle Obispo, a main tourist drag, where we popped into a few stores. We wandered around the colorful Havana Vieja for the next few hours, checking out the immaculately well-preserved conglomeration of plazas, including Plaza Vieja (amazing mojitos), Plaza de Armas (where I purchased a poster), Plaza de las Armas, and Plaza San Francisco de Asis.
We wrapped up the afternoon by strolling down el Paseo de Jose Martí, where we popped into a restaurante that served some delicious fried yuca fries, well complemented with a cuba libre. From there, we reached el Malecón, an esplanade that spans from Centro Habana to Vedado. Tired from a long day of walking, we took a taxi back to our casa particular in Vedado.
Sara and Mario had graciously invited us over for a Christmas dinner at their house, which we understood was somewhere outside of the city, though we weren’t sure where exactly. After all, plugging their address into Google Maps wasn’t a viable solution. After a lengthy call with Mario from the landline in the apartment, who provided me with instructions that included walking to a local plaza, grabbing a taxi (un auto, as they would say), taking it until Calle 8, then walking a short distance, where we’d hopefully find Mario waiting for us.
We successfully caught un auto on a highway towards Calle 8. Though we soon discovered that the driver had dropped us off well short of Calle 8. Walking down a residential street, a couple of locals informed us that we were nowhere Calle 8, so we got into another taxi. Finally arriving to Calle 8, we crossed the four-lane highway to search for Mario, who had told me that they lived on Calle 8. After twenty minutes of wandering around with no sight of Mario, asking strangers if they knew of the Mario and Sara household, our hunger and frustration climaxed to the point where we gave up on the idea of enjoying Christmas dinner at their place, and began considering our options back in Vedado.
We waited on the highway, holding a bottle of Havana Club rum (intended to be a housewarming gift), for nearly fifteen minutes, waiting for a taxi, though none were to be found. It was then that a familiar car approached; the same car that brought us from the airport. In what will forever be known as El Milagro Cubano (The Cuban Miracle), our friends Raiza and Yasser appeared with giant smiles. By chance, they were en route to downtown Havana (where Raiza works as a musician), and had saved Christmas!
Raiza and Yasser pointed us across the opposite side of the highway (Calle A, not 8), where we found good ole Mario, patiently waiting for us. In vintage Cuban style, finding our way was a bit complicated, but well worth the reward.
We cracked open a few cervezas upon arrival, while Sara began giving us impromptu salsa lessons, as musica blared from the living room speakers, with the door wide open. For Cubans, la salsa es la vida.
La cena fue riquísimo, and quintessentially Cubano.
The menu: traditional cerdo asado (barbeque pork), along with arroz congri (Cuban Rice and Black Beans -an ubiquitous side dish), lechuga (lettuce), and yuca. Yasser taught me the expression, “¡Come yuca!,” which roughly translates to “Eat shit.” in English.
For a dinner that almost didn’t occur, it turned out to be one of the most memorable dinners of my life. We talked, we ate, we laughed, we drank, and we danced. It was an unorthodox way to spend Christmas night, though it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to share an authentic, delicious home-cooked meal at the humble home of an endearingly warm and hospitable Cuban family.
Raiza and Yasser offered to drive us back to our casa particular that night, which made our lives far easier. We’re forever thankful of Sara, Mario, Yasser and Raiza for that unforgettable experience.