Friday, 21 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 16 (Fri, 21 Mar)

Here we are in Habana (Havana) at the Saratoga Hotel. I'm up early and it's still dark. The rumble of traffic outside is starting to increase, but it's still fairly quiet. The room has two very tall French windows opening onto small balconies above the traffic. It doesn't get light until about half past seven, so I decide to have buffet breakfast first. The Anacaona Restaurant is supposed to open at seven, but didn't open until the front desk chased them up at 7.10. The meal was very good and I was definitely the first in. What do you mean, you've never heard of the famous girl band of the 1930s, the Anacaona Sisters? Neither had I, I'm afraid. Check out Times article.

Armed with a not-very-good city map supplied by the hotel, I set off on foot. You can't see Havana Bay from my room, so I headed for the water through 'Old Havana'. It turned out to be a good time for a walk - still cool but the place coming to life in the rather leisurely way that seems typical of countries with hot climates. A lot of shops and offices open from 8.30 'till one, close for extended lunch and re-open from four p.m. to 7 p.m. I've never seen a city with so many decent buildings in desperate need of repair. The colonial period has left Cuba with some grand public buildings but also street after street of, to my mind, quite elegant buildings. In hot climates, correct building proportions are crucial. Even quite humble housing has a ceiling height of at least twelve feet, often much more. Street level is normally reserved for commercial use or entrance stairs. People live on the floor above, which the Americans call the second floor but the British call the first floor. This living floor often projects forward across the pavement, supported on pillars, forming a shady and cooler colonnade for pedestrians. The front living room invariably has a tall window facing the street, or a window with balcony, and the locals seem to like nothing better than standing at the open window watching the world go by. This design aims to provide reasonable living conditions without fancy modern tricks like air conditioning. This approach is called 'passive thermal design'. During the day, I saw a number of people visiting houses. Each time, the visitor would stand in the middle of the road and bawl out the name of the person required. Some buildings are just two-storey, as described but others are three or more storey, accommodating more living floors. Domestic buildings often have stucco with quite elaborate reliefs, but grander places appear to be stone. Some buildings had the rough surface I associate with volcanic stone.

But there's been chronic under-investment in maintenance over a long period of time. Once water gets into the fabric of a building, the consequences can be seen all around Havana. The buildings either become partially uninhabitable or they fall down completely. Some of the collapsed building sites are now in use for car parking - a bit reminiscent of the bomb-sites in England after the Second World War. It's not just the buildings. Except on main roads, road surfaces have crumbled and cracked. Pavements demand wariness - deep holes abound.

There are plenty of old cars about - not just the 'Chevvy' that you hear of but Fiats, Ladas, all sorts. There are quite of lot of the old 'GM' bus design that I always associate with American yellow school buses. Lorries vary from old Fords through to new. You can be sure anything new is imported. It's not as romantic as in the films of Cuba - some of these old vehicles look as if they've just won a 'Destruction Derby' (they must have won, 'cos they're still moving). Most of the engines are perpetually misfiring so are difficult to start. There are some newer vehicles of all sorts of makes and the more modern buses are 'Bendy Bus' type, just like London.

My route took me East on Muralla (there are small, cast street signs fixed high on the buildings at each intersection - just enough to keep you on track. I assure you it was quite by chance that I came upon the preserved Presidential Railway Coach. You can go inside but I was too early for that: I took some technical record shots instead.

I came out at the middle of three piers which appear to have been built for the big passengers ships. Two appear disused but Northernmost one has been refurbished as a pier for cruise ships. No cruise ship today, but a large sailing vessel is tied-up. After a while, I turn left, away from the bay, to soak up the atmosphere in some of the quieter streets like O'Reilly. I commented some time ago on Avenue Pernardo O'Higgins in Santiago - now we have O'Reilly. Then I go to Parque Central and follow my nose to a parking lot with, in addition to clapped-out cars, clapped-out steam locomotives. Pictures in the parking lot. Then back to the hotel, a little rest and refreshment then purchase a couple of better street maps now that the in-hotel tour office is open.

I'm determined to look at the main railway station and my new maps take me right there. Here, there's another 'museum compound' with more clapped-out steam locomotives. The attendant is a retired locoman and when he sees how interested I am, he follows me from exhibit, chattering incomprehensibly. He shows me very nasty scarring (from a long time ago which, he explains, was sustained when an injector steam pipe fractured. Pictures in the Museum Compound. After I've taken my pictures, we shake hands and I tour the busy concourse of the terminal station. Pictures of Havana Station & the Electric Railway.

Next, I carry on to the waterside and head North past a series of warehouses. An older set of warehouses is currently being restored - newer ones are left to rot, like some of the housing stock. Then I come to a small jetty with a ferryboat moored. No marking on the street to say this is a "Ferry 'cross Habana Bay", except a sign about enhanced security. I notice the ferry is going to 'Regla' which doesn't even appear on my maps. One peso to the man on the jetty and then I'm on the ferry. No nonsense about gangplanks here - the boat ties up and then you scramble on. Strong hands are poised, should anyone need assistance. The crossing is only about five or ten minutes, then we disembark and I walk up into the town, where the pace is even more relaxed than early-morning Havana.

I walk back to the ferry by a different route and am press-ganged by a couple of young women staffing the Regla Museum Annexe. I am given the guided tour in fluent 'Espanol', so it's a good job it's a small annexe. They recommend I check the church next door: 'Free' they proudly say. Uneventful trip back to the jetty on Havana side. There's another ferry to Casa Blanca (no, not that one), just across Havana Bay in a different direction. I decide to cut my visit short because I'm getting tired so I take the ferry back as two powerful tugs escort a Panamanian-registered oil tanker to the oil terminal. Walk back to the hotel for a shower, a meal and an internet session.

Pictures of Havana.