Nightfall over the Harbor


Picture a pompous-looking voluptuous lady in high heels and black laced stockings holding a fancy notebook, pretending to have some important business.  She was the one (not) greeting us at the door of the 1514 restaurant at the main boulevard in town.  This was a favorite restaurant for the locals and people who showed up seemed to have made a reservation.  We did not.  Even though the restaurant was nearly empty — it was very early for dinner — the pompous lady, without ever looking at us — made us wait in the parlor for 2-3 minutes before she graciously pointed to the door: we were allowed in.  Is this a phenomenon of a society where nobody really has any power or authority?  The little bit you are given has to be stretched as far as possible no matter how ridiculous the result. 

The food at the 1514 restaurant was delicious.  We had it two nights in a row.  Smoked chicken, rice, tomato salad, flan, and locally brewed beer.  The first night the bill came for 87 local pesos.  We had no idea what to do with this.  The waitress converted it for us into $/CUC 12. That seemed a bargain.  This time, the food was equally delicious.  Instead of 3 beers and one flan we had 2 beers and 2 flan and the bill came to 67 local pesos which this waitress converted into $/CUC 5!  Something was very wrong with this kind of math. But either way it was a steal.  We could not quite believe it.  Elevator music throughout, bathrooms without soap or toilet paper — the usual.  We wondered if there just is no point in putting movable amenities into the bathrooms.  Would they be stolen?  There is toilet paper around.  We have seen it.   Soap can be found in any of the stores at the boulevard.  Why are Cubans putting up with something like this?

The lady in black laces reminded me of a brief moment in town yesterday.  A museum we wanted to visit was closed for construction.  From the entrance hall I could see that it had a very beautiful colonial court yard.  I asked if I could take a picture.  The lady guard pointed to a latticed door: from there I could.  Obviously, that was impossible.  Why not from over here, I asked, pointing to the wide open door leading into the courtyard.  It is not allowed, she responded.  Says who?  I asked.  She had no answer and so I stepped right in front of her, taking that forbidden picture of the courtyard, shaking my head.  Was she serious?! 

She probably shook her head after us obnoxious Americans, too.  What BS!    

Stupidly, I wish I knew how, I had lost my 5-hour phone card that was to last me throughout the trip, allowing me to connect to the internet in those wifi plazas to at least check email.  No problem I thought, I will just get another one.  Yesterday I stopped at one of the ETECSA offices, the government run monopoly company of communication in Cuba and was told the cards would be available “maybe tomorrow”.  What was that supposed to mean?  They are out of cards?  Today, I headed for the even bigger ETECSA office at the other end of town and guess what: I was told the cards would be available “maybe tomorrow”.  The third largest town in Cuba without phone cards!  No cards, no email.  I am sure there are some wheelers and dealers around, prepared for such a situation.  But since I am not a local, I did not know where to find them… Patience.  Let’s see what Santiago will bring.  Maybe tomorrow?

Yesterday, since we had nothing but time, we ventured to the one last plaza of note which we had not seen:  The Plaza de Revolution.  It is not part of the historical center and as the name indicates, was built much more recently.  It was not worth the hike.  A few busts commemorating revolutionaries, one to honor the work of teachers, a gazebo, somewhat out of place, a replica of a cave, a small zoo (we did not go in), the stadium, and a cultural center for rent.  The park had no soul, no charm, no center, except for an over 100-year-old tree which was spewing nutlike seeds around which really hurt if you got hit.  The best of all was an old man on his bike who in a home-made taped-up cardboard box sold ice cream sandwiches, sherbet between real dough.  Delicious!  They were 3 pesos for a huge piece.  He was overjoyed when we paid him 1 CUC, or the equivalence of 25 pesos since we had no smaller change. 

Speaking of ice cream.  Cubans love it just as much as their cup of coffee.  We discovered an ice cream parlor for the locals which we just had to try out.  Where there are long lines, something is happening, something is available.  I remember that rule from East Germany. It was always a good idea to get in line and then ask what was for sale.  And if you had the time, it was an even better idea to get whatever it was they had, as it may come in handy as a barter commodity if you did not need it yourself.  That’s how I felt when I spotted a place with a long, fast moving line, a sort of a cafeteria in which people consumed ice cream, for the most part. 

We entered a dark, tiled room where an old lady was perched in a high chair with a cash register in front of her.  We had to pay for something; we did not even know what.  Why not?  We held out a $20 note and she threw up her arms.  So I pulled out a $1, and got quite a lot of change, but I don’t know for what.  She handed us two greasy pieces of faded cardboard and sent us on our way, into the cue.  At the moment when it was our turn, we handed over our greasy tickets and were served two scoops of ice cream — vanilla or strawberry, take it or leave it — with some sprinkles, some fake whipped cream, and a bit of caramel sauce — the old lady had chosen.  We happily ate.  25 cents for both of us.  Celi had spotted some cake as one other option and so back we went to the old lady.  Torte — dictionary to the rescue.  And again we paid 25 cents and this time we got cake.  What a system.  I wonder if there are different choices each day or if that’s just it.  It was very tasty.  These were our first encounters with local eateries.  Not bad.

Our casa mates, a French couple, were lucky — they had rented a car and were on their way this morning to Santiago de Cuba.  They even offered to take us along.  But with all of our luggage that would have been too much of an imposition.  We had to wait around until the afternoon, when our bus (Havana-Santiago) made a stop at Camaguey.  The bus was full.  Some of the passengers on it had been on this bus already for 1/2 day or more to get this far.  The ride was uneventful. 

It was dark when we arrived in Santiago, and as I had hoped for, a taxi was there to pick us up.  You’ve got to love those Cubans!  No matter how messed up their country, how maybe, perhaps tomorrow, or never things are around here, they are reliable.  And that, even though I did not have an answer back about our transport from the bus to the casa. We just put our trust in them.  And it was and is well placed.

Good night.

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