Not for the feint of heart.
An assault on all the senses at once.
The most vibrant streets: pastel 17th and 18th century architecture, rainbow assorted shades of classic old American cars, the neon/floral print mix and match fashions of the local Cubans and tourists alike are dazzling. However, everything is in ruin and not in any state of repair— Walls crumbling, layers of paint, graffiti, dirt and grime on every surface. Trees grow big and tall on the side of buildings, one thing that has weathered time better here. Bars on windows, artistic iron wrought gates are on almost every home. Stray dogs and cats run around licking trash for snack while they wait for scraps from the local butcher. Clothes strung up on balconies, colorful pantalones flapping in the wind.
As we head down three flights of stairs the din grows louder. You’d think it was a cliché but as soon as the heavy door was parted from its latch, and we’ve just barely stepped outside, a blasting of live Cuban-Caribbean music makes it almost impossible to converse. Add the large trucks zooming by, pedicabs ringing their bells simultaneously yelling, “Taxi? Taxi!” toward us while we try to avoid them. Different music is being played from a shoulder boombox or performed on every corner, whether from within a restaurant or street urchin hoping to earn some pesos. Someone on the 3rd floor is yelling at a friend on the street. The guy in the 2nd floor restaurant is beckoning us up to eat. A man is calling to a stray dog down the road who is running further away. Kids are playing or screaming. Near the main square, a man in a typical black and white waiters outfit stands in the doorway asking in Spanish if we want cigars. It is starting to rain: no. Everybody seems to know everybody.
The streets are busy. Rotting garbage from remains thrown carelessly on the ground, next to feces (stray dog, cat, human?) mix with open sewer lines, baked dumpsters overflowing everywhere. Males do not use restrooms— they just pick any which side of the street and go. Cheap ladies fragrance is sometimes wafted into the mix, a welcome scent from the general leaded gasoline fumes, black plumes pouring out of all the motor vehicles. Cigar smoke lingers, locals and even those working have them lit throughout the day. Pockets of lovely food smells cooking from cafeteria restaurant institutions make for a treat. Little peso pizzas are folded like sandwiches in hand of many locals going about their day… Tempting.
Rubble and uneven streets leave the ankles tested; not being able to walk on one side of the other, sidewalk or road because the holes where the “street” has been ripped up, dug into and never put back is unavoidable. We left our first home for three days, came back and it was hardly recognizable. Sidewalk: gone. Road: also gone a few feet. Two foot deep holes for 30 feet along the path we used to walk. There are also too many piles of crap or large dirty puddles of stagnant water that are a hypochondriacs nightmare. Also: crazy drivers and swaying walkers. The potholes are so large Im surprised cars aren’t stuck in them. If you aren’t paying attention there might be a three foot drop next to a so called sidewalk. Humidity is a sneak that leaves your skin sticky and hair frizzed. Mosquitos here are another breed— Their bite a lasting remark for days to come.
Nothing here is easy to come by. Food being rationed, is an obvious reason. The fare doesn’t taste bad, it is very simple and basic in composition. Jamon. HAM HAM and more HAM. Bread. Flavors are light, almost bland for my palette that likes a spicy factor. Our host graciously made us an “omelette” which was nothing more than a scrambled egg folded in half, no seasonings or additions. Before we left on the trip my bf had to wonder if my spicy addiction had gone too far. Now he sees why I brought the hot sauce and chili pepper packets! Little did I know that I would in hindsight be thankful for a plain egg… Good protein is hard to come by. Our first mojito was also an experience: it was straight rum with a mint twig dashed in it. I watched the “bartender” pour in horror. Most street snacks and menu items are fried— churros, croquettes, tostones, plantains, sugared chips, corn fritters etc. Things that are somewhat available here in grocery “mercados” include: bread, ham, crackers, Kool Aid, Havana Gold rum, unpasteurized dairy products and long lines. I’m not leaving anything out either, not sure how people live off of these items. No spices, sugar, cereal, chips, frozen aisle… These shops are smaller than the average American’s dining room. I didn’t come here for the food but one pleasant surprise was the Chocolate Museum bonbons, which was probably the closest to normal thing I’ve eaten here. One was milk chocolate in the shape of a cigar, a mint liqueur filled milk chocolate, and a praline cinnamon clove mix covered in bittersweet chocolate. Mmmm.