Monday, April 24, 2017

A Return to Cuba - Day I

A few months ago I got a call from long time friend Mark Johnson who had an intriguing idea. Since we were about to celebrate our 50th year of friendship, why didn't we go celebrate with a family trip to . . .

 . . . the longtime Forbidden Island
of . . .

. . . CUBA!

What the heck, GAME ON!

It would be my fifth trip to Cuba and Mark's second. As for Laurie and Mark's wife Susie and daughters Sophie and Mallory, it would be their first trip to the Caribbean's largest island.

The weather may
not cooperate though

So we agreed on when to go (Easter Sunday), where to stay (an Air BnB in the Vedado section of La Habana) and for how long (seven days and six nights).

So lets get started on the story of what we experienced.

Sunday, April 16, 2017:

We got to LAX early on Easter Sunday

We left the house at 5:00 a.m. and it only took us 54 minutes to get to the Alaska Airlines terminal thanks to son Michael's driving.

The line to check in was a tad slow but we sailed through security and were soon met by the Johnson Clan.

Our plane left on time at 8:50 a.m.

Laurie had her wine
so the flight was fine

We arrived in La Habana in
about five hours at 4:55 p.m.
local time

We got through Cuban Customs without a hitch and then converted some of our Euros and Mark's Canadian Dollars into Cuban Convertible Pesos, aka, CUCs.

The reason that we were not using U.S. Dollars is that the Cuban government charges a 10% fee for this transaction as a payback for the long running U.S. Embargo on Cuba. With Euros or Canadian Dollars their is no 10% changing fee.

It should also be noted that while CUCs rate of exchange is good for Euros, it is only used by tourists. The average Cuban uses Cuban national pesos with 25 of these equal to one CUC peso. It can be confusing to a tourist.

We found a taxi cab/van driver at the airport who would take us to our Air BnB that calls itself La Casa Azul for a reasonable $40 CUCs.

With Chela our cook/housekeeper
and Luis our Jack-of-all-Trades
at La Casa Azul

La Casa Azul with Laurie
in the balcony

We had the second story's four bedrooms and three baths at our disposal for the week.

 I loved the Croc on the wall

After picking rooms and unpacking our bags, we decided to explore our new neighborhood on our way to the nearby Malecón.

One of our neighbors

A monument dedicated the 260
American sailors who died when the
USS Maine exploded in Havana's
harbor in 1898

This event prompted the USA's entry into the Spanish-American War.

It was a gorgeous evening
on the Malecón

The Malecón is a traditional
meeting spot for locals on
warm, humid nights like this one

La Habana's Morro Lighthouse
at the mouth of Havana's Harbor

Nice waves

Laurie, Sophie, Mark and Susie
enjoying a windy Malecón

Mallory had spent the previous week in Mexico building houses for the poor with fellow high school students from Seattle. Physically exhausted, she opted to sleep instead of exploring.

As advertised, there are tons of
these 1940s-1950s American cars
acting as taxis in La Habana

Time to wander to a watering hole

A fancy CoCo as they are called

More vintage autos

And another five lined up in
front of . . .

. . . Habana's Hotel Nacional

This iconic hotel opened in 1930 and run by Meyer Lansky's  USA based mob.

My parents spent their honeymoon night at this hotel.

 The entrance to the Hotel Nacional

The Hotel's Hall-of-Fame
bar is the watering hole
we were looking for!

Perfect for the evening's mojitos

As usual, Sophie honored her BIOLA University pledge and only ordered lemon-lime soda pop.

A view from our bar table

Once we returned to La Casa Azul, Luis told us of good paladar in the neighborhood. Paladares are family owned restaurants serving diners in their own homes. 

Paladar Santa Barbara it was

Laurie and Havana Club Rum

What more could I ask for in life?

The food was solid but while a bit overpriced by Havana standards, it was cheap by U.S. standards.

The best part of the meal for me was the fact that we were all, including a now resurrected Mallory, disconnected from the internet due to Cuba's limited wifi and our phone's inability to work in Cuba. Thus we were forced to engage 100% in the dinner's conversations!

After dinner, we found a taxi van willing to take the six of us to La Habana Vieja, the Cuban capitol's oldest neighborhood.

Catedral de San Cristóbal
built from 1748-1767

Where Ernest Hemingway enjoyed
his mojitos

It was too crowded to enter tonight and every other time we came by all week.

How I was starting to feel

We flagged down a green, 1957 Plymouth station wagon on the Malecón and negotiated a good price for our return home to La Casa Azul.

The Plymouth was both rickety and smoky, but still a fun experience to end our first evening in Cuba. 

We sat around the La Casa Azul's
living room for a few minutes
before going to sleep

We made our tentative plans for Monday and Day II of our Cuban Adventure.

Life is GOOD!

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