I wanted to write a few tips on things to do in Havana first, but I just couldn’t wait to tell you about my lovely tour around the city and the transportation in Cuba in general.
So, we will start with a sidecar motorcycle. And Hemingway. And some colorful street art… You don’t think that they have anything in common? Well, think again.
I was so eager to visit the house where Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. He lived here for 20 years, after buying the house in 1940 for a bit over 12,000 dollars. Everything about Cuba was just perfect for Hemingway – the sun, the fishing, the rum. Oh, that was such a “must-see”.
Transportation in Cuba
So, I went downtown to find a taxi, since the house is about 15 kilometers away from the city. The settlement is called San Francisco de Paula, and the house Finca la Vigia. (Hemingway named it, meaning “the lookout house”.)
As I was approaching what seemed to be an improvised taxi station, I remembered how they advised me back at the hotel about the transportation in Cuba, “not to hire taxis without the official tag”, since those were probably “illegal” and “you can get tricked in so many ways”. I saw a few motorbikes on one side of the parking lot, with some improvised taxi signs taped across the shield. “I don’t need a motorbike, a car would be better”, it crossed my mind.
“Step in, please”
Going among all those cars and all sorts of, well, “vehicles” Cuban style (more about the means of transport in one of the next posts), I saw a gentleman with glasses, smiling, welcoming me to his taxi, waving and pointing to his – motorcycle sidecar?!
Don’t get me wrong, I only saw those in old movies, mainly related to World War II. I didn’t know that they still existed. And that’s transportation in Cuba for you.
I didn’t know how to react. And while I was amazed by the sight, my driver ripped the small paper saying “Taxi” to pieces since he thought he was no longer available. What choice did I have?
“Step in, please”, he said. I needed a few instructions on how to board this vehicle (while being in a skirt), and sat in the small cart with some kind of rubber around my feet. (That thing was pinching my knees from time to time.) And before I knew what was happening, my taxi driver put on his helmet, took a glance at my book (I was showing him where I wanted to go), and we took off.
Although I felt every little hole on the road while we were bouncing like crazy, my hair was messed up and my knees turned red, I had so much fun. Just imagine that annoying sound of a small bike (luckily, not that loud so that we could talk), going around town, people smiling and waving to you… I was like a little star, well, the one with a bad hair day and red knees.
My taxi driver was informed and knew a lot about the world. It was easy to see that he was well educated and this was his way to earning some “hard currency” on aside. His regular job at some administrative office got him less than USD10 a month.
While we were chatting about the world, a woman waved and we stopped to say hello. She was my taxi driver’s friend, coming from work, and given the poor public transportation in Cuba, she was hitchhiking. She looked at me and asked “if it would be too much trouble” to give her a lift. And now, there were three of us on that sidecar, creaking down the road.
After we got to know each other, she said she wanted to give back the favor. We were nice enough to give her a ride given that the transportation in Cuba is quite challenging, she said, and she was going to take us to a place “I’ll fall in love with”. We turned around another corner and got into an alley – covered in murals.
An artistic alley
We parked that small sidecar and three of us went strolling around the place. They were explaining that it was called Callejon de Hammel, and was a kind of Afro-Cuban sanctuary.
Its name derives from legendary French-German resident Fernando Hammel, a wealthy merchant who took the entire quarter under his wing. The colorful 200 meters mural, a beautiful Havana street art for which the street is now famous, represents the work by naive painter Salvador Gonzales. He wanted to pay homage to his varied cultural roots by representing all the religious cults and movements of African origins that are still active in Cuba.
Oh my! I was stunned by the scenery, so many colors on the walls, a bright red car, and a blue phone booth. It was just beautiful. I was going around saying “wow” all the time, and the lady said that it would be easy to meet the artist if I was interested. I strolled a bit more instead, didn’t want to disturb the man. I took so many photos and went away with a few more “wows” when I was told that rumba shows are organized here on Saturdays, popular with tourists and locals alike. People just gather and start dancing. Well, it’s Cuba after all.
And what happened with Hemingway’s house, you wonder? We are on our way there, don’t worry, that’s the next stop.
But first, imagine a swimming pool, the one where Hollywood actresses took a plunge decades ago.
The full Cuba SERIES