|Russian Yak 42 – probably built in 1960’s|
We ducked our heads, clearing the low doorway bulkhead as we entered the plane – an ancient Russian Yak 42 – still in use by Cubana Airlines. The flight was three hours late leaving the Cancún airport. Strange, considering there are only two Cubana Airlines flights per day; one from Havana in the morning, and one from Cancún in the afternoon.
|This is ‘completely normal’ Really?|
We secured our seatbelts. Lawrie buckled his, I knotted mine, unable to adjust it to a different size. The plane was completely full, with no other seats available. As the pilots started to taxi the plane onto the runway, the air conditioning and lights were turned off. The flight attendant cheerfully announced; “Don’t worry. It is necessary to turn off all extraneous power to assist with takeoff.” Seriously?
When the plane cabin filled with a white smoke, she made another cheerful announcement. “Don’t worry. This is completely normal. It is condensation forming as we climb into the atmosphere.” Really? Completely normal? A few minutes later a loose armrest from another seat slid past our feet. By then we were laughing in nervous acceptance of flying inside a mechanical disaster. One hour to touchdown. Perhaps we will survive.
|Office buildings are used a apartments|
Landing in Havana we scrambled off the death-trap, refusing to think about the return flight. That was three days away, there was lots to see and do in the meantime. The bus ride deposited us in the centre of Old Havana at the Hotel Plaza. The one-hundred-year-old Hotel Plaza is rich in history.
At one time is was a home to a wealthy Cuban family, later a luxury hotel with famous guests such as Albert Einstein, Isidora Duncan, and Babe Ruth. The hotel has retained some of its historical features, bas-relief ceilings, impressive white columns, and colourfully tiled floors – but the rooms are plain, tired, and functional.
|Lawrie and a beer – Bacardi building behind|
Our favourite place to spend an hour or two was at the roof-top bar, overlooking the city, and the impressive former Ron Bacardí corporate building. Bacardi Rum was started in Cuba in 1862 by Spanish born Don Facundo Bacardí Massó. His descendents grew the company ever larger with each generation. Bacardí family members initially supported Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries, donating tens of thousands of dollars to the movement, and acting as intermediaries between the revolutionaries and the CIA.
Shortly before the takeover on January 1st 1959 the Bacardí family realized their holdings were in jeopardy, moving the ownership of the Company’s trademarks, assets and proprietary formulas to the Bahamas. The Castro regime confiscated the remaining Bacardí assets on October 15th, 1960 – while nationalizing all private property on the island as well as all bank accounts. All over Havana, abandoned offices that were built for bankers, accountants, lawyers, and corporations have now been put to use as apartments for Cuban nationals.
|Riding in a coco-taxi in Old Havana|
We spent the next three days exploring the city. We joined a tour bus for a guided tour around the old embassy sites and mansions. We walked to Ernest Hemmingway’s favourite bar the La Floridita where he is said to have invented the Daiquiri drink. We explored along the Malecón (seawall), through the art flea market. We toured the city by night in a coco-taxi, a yellow egg-shaped two-person contraption attached to a motor bike.
Whatever transportation was available we used it. With the American trade embargo in place since the revolution there are dozens of 1950’s and 60’s American cars limping along, lovingly repaired with bits and pieces, anything to keep them working just a little longer. New cars have quite recently been imported from France and Germany. While new motorcycles and tour buses have been brought in from China.
|Many old American cars still in use|
As we toured the city, one feature struck us as quite odd. There are no signs, no advertising, nothing. No signs to indicate a grocery store. No signs for restaurants. No signs for gas stations. We saw a few posters depicting the famed revolutionary Ernesto”Che”Guevara, but none of the living, and equally famous Fidel Castro. Visually it was a treat to not be bombarded by advertising, but really confusing when trying to find a restaurant.
Our first night in Havana we asked the doorman at our hotel for a recommendation for dinner. He handed his door duties off to a fellow worker, and said; “Follow me.” We walked down dark streets, along a twisting confusing route, blithely trusting that we wouldn’t be robbed – eventually arriving at an unmarked door. The doorman indicated we should follow him inside, up five floors of progressively narrower stairways, and through another door. A restaurant! We would never have found it ourselves. We tipped him – and he left us there. Was that a good idea? The food was good, not quite the spicy mix that we thought we would find in Cuba. We were told that because of the ongoing trade embargo spices are too expensive, and hard to find. Cubans had become accustomed to blander food. We drank local beer, ate local food, watched local people enjoying their dinners. Eventually we knew we had to attempt to find our hotel again. Fortunately Lawrie has a good sense of direction and he led us back to the hotel – via a slightly more circuitous route.
|Various forms of transportation in Cuba|
At the end of our three day mini-vacation we headed back to the airport – dreading our return flight on Cubana Airlines. We arrived in the airport, the requisite two hours before departure time. And waited.
We watched while the flight crew wandered out on the tarmac, coffee cups in hand, to chat with the maintenance crew. Work stopped. The group increased to a dozen people. They sipped coffee, gestured, laughed, sipped more coffee.
We waited. Two hours! Ah, that explains the why our Cancún flight was behind schedule.
In the end we made it safely back to our home on Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
Lawrie, Lynda and Sparky