Cuba elicits to all sorts of conversations
By Theresa Russell
So close to the USA, but so far away in many respects, Cuba elicits all sorts of conversations and piques the curiosity of those who have yet to visit this mysterious island nation.
Its connection to Ernest Hemingway, cane sugar and rum, and its past as a forbidden fruit tempts the curious traveler to discover and uncover its mysteries. Many tourists will be curious about Havana and only be able to explore the capital city, which displays a past both romantic and tragic.
One of the high points of Havana is its location on the sea. El Morro Castle is perfectly situated to protect the entrance into the harbor as are the cannons at the National Hotel at the other end of the Malecon. Those cannons didn’t defend against pirates or privateers, but rather against the U.S. during the Cold War.
The iconic hotel hosted important guests from around the world. It overlooks the bay and also has immense gardens and public areas.
Havana consists of several distinct neighborhoods, including the popular Havana Vieja (Old Havana) that gives visitors a glimpse into its past within a small area. Not surprisingly, the Plaza Vieja is very popular with restaurants, shops, the amazing Camara Oscura and even a craft brewery.
The streets between the plazas in Old Havana are full of interesting scenes, and people trying to add to their set income of $40 per month. Doctors take jobs as tour guides or fruit vendors while ladies dress in traditional costumes and smoke cigars all in hopes of receiving a tip in CUCs (Cuban Convertible Peso) – the more valuable of the two currencies in Cuba and the one which foreigners use.
The streets between squares are bustling with locals and tourists, many of whom seek out Hemingway haunts, museums or restaurants. A model of diversity, the locals exude a hospitable warmth and proudly show their country to the uninitiated. Some even share more than cursory information even though they could be putting themselves at risk in this still oppressive country.
The food is surprisingly uninspiring with ropa vieja, a shredded pork dish, being a local specialty. Fresh fish abounds as does pizza and pasta. Go figure! Daiquiris and other rum drinks top the list of alcoholic beverages.
The country remains relatively safe although some petty crime does exist. English is spoken by many, and rudimentary Spanish goes a long way for making new friends and getting around. Americans must meet one of several conditions for visiting; the requirements and paperwork are greatly facilitated by the tour operators and cruise lines that have license to operate there.