Old Havana — delightful as ever

HAVANA, Cuba — Old Havana, the sentimental, historic centre of Caribbean island Cuba’s capital city of Havana, continues to click.

Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, everything may be found in the four-square-mile section of the city, one of 15 municipalities in Havana, if one has the discipline and energy to tour and explore.

From Johnson’s Drug Store, aged over 100 years, to the chocolate shop where the product is made in various sizes, shapes and forms to serve up to delightful and awestruck customers, Old Havana continues to be a favourite place for tourists, and those anxious to ‘chill’ after dealing with business matters.

So for a few days in mid-October, representatives of Caribbean and Latin Travel Consultant Ltd, based in New Kingston, added the location to the list of places to be known and appreciated, as they pushed for deeper contacts in their daily business routine.

Never mind some of the ancient, even dilapidated structures that some of the area’s 320,000 people live in, or the touts who either want to satisfy their black market dollar trading, or project craft items for purchase. The key to the visitors was the love shown by the citizens, their willingness to assist foreigners whenever the need arose, and their general discipline. To top it all, Old Havana, a reflection of the island itself, has a low crime rate, as save for the odd incident of misconduct here and there, like domestic/relationship skirmishes, people often walk freely right around the clock.

Many first-timers have been left in awe.

“I have never seen people so disciplined. Imagine, you arrive at a bus stop, you see people there ahead of you waiting on the bus, and you go up to someone and ask if he or she was the last one who arrived at the bus stop,” said Caribbean and Latin Travel’s Anna-Kay Neil.

That arose when Cuban-born Darhyl Lavalle Sanchez, who was leading the way, asked a man waiting if he was the last one who arrived at the location. Such a thing is done to allow for orderly movement into the bus whenever it arrived.

“Yes, this is how the system is here,” Lavalle Sanchez said “The people are very disciplined when it comes to that.”

The culture shock threw the Jamaican members of the delegation in a different world, coming from a society in which joining the queue, for example, in their native land, was virtually non-existent or filled with gaps.

From fortune teller to people hustling to project restaurants, souvenir shops, sidewalk artists, buggy rides, classic cares from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, they are all there — ready to assist whomever is interested, without continuous harassment.

The clean streets, many laid with bricks, some say from as far back as when it was founded by the Spanish in 1519, have maintained their solid base. And if you don’t mind the pungent smell on some streets, the temptation is there for you to walk hours upon hours in search of more vintage.

The Government, in control of an economy that has managed around one per cent gross domestic product growth, annualised over the last three years, due mainly to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and a fallout from political changes instituted by the Trump Administration in the United States, which reversed several agreements forged by the Obama Administration, continues to push for structural improvements, despite the challenges.

Hotels are being built, or renovated, and one, in particular, which housed the former Ministry of Finance in the heart of Old Havana, is being transformed into a major resort, one that will attract countless visitors, those who live in the area have suggested.

“People who really didn’t know are often surprised or shocked when they come here,” said Amado Martinez, a young man who described himself as an artist, though he seemed to be promoting finished craft products for someone else. “Old Havana is really the place to be. We look after all the people who come here whether for a meal, to buy Cuban clothing, cigars, liquor, or take back souvenirs to their countries,” he said, as other visitors walked into the popular two-storey La Bodeguito Del Medio restaurant, opened in 1942, and a place where famed American author Ernest Hemingway used to visit for his mojito drinks of rum flavoured with mint.

It’s a regular sight to have the local music, mainly salsa being offered by bands, under formal or informal settings. Tipping the band members is optional, but many often do so, even as a cup is passed around if one chooses to dine.

One standout restaurant was the Pizza Retro, located in the middle of a tenement yard which offers a backdrop to everyday Cuban inner-city life.

Whether it is about ordering pizza or seafood special, the sights of people cleaning their kitchen sinks in an adjoining room, watching television across the hallway, sending food upstairs from a lowered length of rope made out of sheets, or people en route to main streets walking past patrons waiting to be served with their cats or dogs… it was all part of the large picture.

Maybe what would have wetted all appetites long before though was the sight of a man driving his motor bike and having to contend with his pillion rider falling asleep along the way — one of those humorous moments that was tied into what you can expect in Old Havana.

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