I’m still looking over my photos and thinking about some of my experiences in Cuba.
Cuba is everything people say it is. The architecture is phenomenal, Havana bustles, the classic cars are a real treat both to drive in and to watch on the road. I walked the Malecon, Havana’s sea wall, a number of times and couldn’t get enough. It’s beautiful by day and night. No matter what the weather, it makes a statement.
When I returned to Havana, after just over a week in Vinales and Cienfuegos, I ended up staying in a hotel in the Vedado area. I asked about a restaurant and the receptionist sent me to a place nearby that served only full-course meals and was mostly in darkness. I’m not sure if it was because they thought it was romantic or they had trouble with the electricity. Lighting is dim in most places in Cuba, as though the light bulbs aren’t very strong, but I don’t remember seeing a candle the whole time I was there.
I decided I wasn’t that hungry and left, but at some point returning to my hotel I took a wrong turning and found myself passing by Cafe Mamaine, a hip-looking little place with very young staff and a bright front room. The bar was well stocked and the English/Spanish menu emphasized drinks and tapas.
The only ‘meal’ the cafe served was a pork cutlet and a couple of vegetables. I had that plus chocolate cake (which was three layers of white cake with chocolate icing — very tasty) and coffee.
After I had eaten and paid, I told them that I had a problem. I was staying at the nearby Hotel Victoria but had no idea where it was, which made them laugh. One of the staff looked up the address on her cell phone and gave me directions. Everyone seems to have a cell phone and just like here, it acts as a lifeline.
I liked the place so much that I went back the next night, which had unexpected repercussions.
Returning to my hotel, I passed a gas station across the street which reminded me that I had been going to find out the price of gas. Since there’s only one source, there’s no need to post the price in large numbers that a driver can see from the street, as we do here, so I needed to have a close up look at the pump to find out what drivers were paying.
There’s a lot of traffic everywhere — public transport buses, tourist inter-city buses, the hop-on hop-off bus, taxis for both local and long-range rides — and I didn’t see any evidence of a sense of conservation. Vehicles idle for long periods, the tourist buses often seem to travel half empty. A couple of times I tried to buy a ticket for the tourist bus and the agency tried to sell me a ticket via a taxi that as far as I could tell just duplicated service.
I surmised that people were buying gas in the national currency and making money by driving tourists for foreign currency. That’s why I was curious about the price of gas.
(For those who don’t know, Cuba has two currencies. Foreigners have to change their dollars to Cuba’s second currency at a rate of $25 to one Cuban convertible dollar.)
So I stepped off the curb to cross the street, which was not well lit. I suddenly sensed that there was a pothole just about where I was to step and it made me hesitate. My foot came down hard and off-centre and I felt a very sharp pain in my ankle.
I hobbled across the street, assuming the pain would go away, and looked at the pump. Gas was selling at $1.20 a litre in foreign currency which in Cdn dollars is about $1.60. I went inside to talk to the attendant and asked him what the national currency price was. It turns out that no one can buy gas in the national currency. Which suggests an awful lot of people have access to foreign currency and taxi drivers don’t have as big a profit margin as I thought.
One curiosity satisfied, I was able to satisfy another the next day. What is Cuba’s health care system like?
By the next morning I wasn’t able to walk easily without holding on to the wall or any conveniently placed article of furniture. Both the chambermaid and the hotel receptionist told me I should go to the clinic and gave me the address — the one that foreigners use, I was told.
I wasn’t looking forward to long hours in Emergency but was having enough trouble that I decided it was worth it if I could get my ankle bound up.
The taxi delivered me to a clinic that had an attendant outside to direct people. The whole place was compact, modern and seemingly well-run. There were a number of people in the waiting room and a number of others came through while I was there. There seemed a mix of foreign and Cuban patients.
After about 15 minutes I was shown into a consulting room and spoke to a doctor who had about as much English as I have Spanish. But hand gestures convey a lot and everyone at the clinic seemed used to dealing with people who don’t speak Spanish. He examined my foot, said it wasn’t broken, that I had an esquince (he wrote it down. It means sprain) and that the most important thing was to ice it five or six times a day. He also gave me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory which I was able to fill at the pharmacy there. Everyone was very pleasant and helpful, very professional.
The consultation cost $25; the prescription $18. The whole thing didn’t take half an hour.
It put paid to my plans for that day, however, which had been to take a local bus to a well known beach just outside of Havana and take a long walk in the sand. Instead, I spent most of the time in my hotel room with ice on my ankle. I’m happy I had the best all day walking shoes – or my feet would’ve been totally numb after that crazy walk.