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Havana, part 1

Arrival, Old Havana, Cañonazo

sunny 83 °F
View Cuba 2024 on amikulski's travel map.

Day 1: How to get jet lag without changing time zones

Our group was scheduled for a 6 AM flight out of BWI. Thing is, we live 3 hours away from that airport and wanted some cushion in case of bus issues or poor weather. That meant departing at 12:15 AM. We tried to nap in the evening before we left, but only DD1 succeeded. Once on the bus, DD1 was again more successful at sleeping. Fortunately I recouped some sleep time on both legs of the flight.

We landed in Havana around 3, but leaving the airport took a while. Some members of our group had purchased internet access cards online to pick up at the airport, but apparently that wasn’t so simple. By the time we met our host families, we were running behind, so we only had time to set down our bags before meeting with the group for our orientation. Then it was off to a spectacular welcome dinner: you'll see it later! By the time we got home, we were beat and fell asleep fast.

Day 2: Our first apagón and Old Havana

We had heard about apagones, rolling blackouts that occur so as not to overpower the city grid. We were getting ready to meet the group when one struck, so it didn’t affect us much in the moment. However, when we reached our first stop, the Centro de Investigaciones Psicológicas y Sociológicas (CIPS, Center for Psychological nd Sociological Research), power was out there as well.

The plan had been for us to sit in an air-conditioned classroom for our talk, but instead CIPS moved chairs into this courtyard so we would have light and some air.

The talk was about Cuban history. Our speaker, Rubén, had a PowerPoint presentation, but unfortunately could not access it because of the apagón. He still did a fantastic job, though! He has a tattoo of Cuba on his forearm and used it as a visual aid when he referred to different parts of the island. He was also a gifted storyteller, with all sorts of anecdotes from the Pre-Colombian tribes till today. There was of course mention of the Revolution in a positive light, but the talk covered much more than that and did not gloss over the Special Period of the 1990s and described Cuba today as being in another sort of Special Period.

Then we toured Old Havana on foot. We immediately spotted line of classic cars for hire.

We visited the cathedral square

and went into the cathedral.

Of course, San Cristobal--because the city's full name is San Cristobal de La Habana--and la Virgen de la Caridad--Cuba's patron saint--were there.

We saw the exterior of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived for several years.

We went to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza and learned the legend of the lady on the weathervane of this fort. She is also on the Havana Club logo: if you don't see her, the rum is not authentic!

We saw El Templete, which commemorates the founding of Havana.

It has murals in the building and a garden outside.

The ceiba tree is considered sacred, so people leave offerings and walk around the trunk for good luck. However, the one at El Templete was getting so much attention that there was concern about damage to the tree. It is corded off 364 days a year for protection, with 1 day allotted for the practice.

We also saw the building that used to house the Havana stock exchange

And the Mother Theresa garden.

We visited the statue of el Caballero de París, a vagrant who always insisted on giving people something in return—a pen, drawing, etc.—to those who gave him money or food. Legend is that if you touch his beard, finger, and foot at the same time, you’ll return to Havana. I had to give it a try!

Havana, especially Old Havana, reminds me of Prague, not geographically, but in the sense that in both places there were so many pictures of pretty buildings that I wanted to take. In some cases, the street level is touristy with daily life going on above.

Also like Prague, we spotted a bride--but no groom. Could she have been a model or getting pics done before the ceremony? She looked too old to be a quinceañera.

We took a lunch break in the Plaza Vieja.

Then we visited a large souvenir market. A snack bar there was selling malta, a sort of molasses-flavored pop. DD1 tried it and liked it.

After dinner, the group met again to see “el Cañonazo”, the firing of the cannon.This is done at exactly 9 PM every night at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a fort that was built in the 1700s to improve the defenses of Havana after it had been occupied by the British for 11 months. Soldiers dress up in period clothing for the ceremony, which starts with them marching, reading a decree, and letting people through the gates.

After that there is some down time to explore the fort. We checked out the chapel.

There were some great views of Havana from the fort as well.

As the hour draws near, there is more marching and preparation of the cannon.

Then boom! And it’s done.

And this first installment is done! Thanks for reading.

Posted by amikulski 00:13 Archived in Cuba Tagged history cuba families teens

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