Saturday, November 9 – on our own in the city
It’s beginning to feel familiar here and we have a morning ritual – strong coffee from the espresso pot on the porch. The weekend street sounds are different. It’s a bit quieter. We dress and head to the Mercado at the FOCSA (public housing project) to see what is available for us to buy to stock our larder. One of the strange things about Cuba is that there are two forms of currency, the peso and the cuc. The cuc is exchangeable on the international market so it’s what the tourists get in exchange for their own currencies. The peso is national money and it’s what the citizens are paid in. They have different values (the cuc being almost equivalent to the US $ and the peso worth about 1/24th of a cuc). Some stores take only cucs, some take only pesos, some take both. Open markets and street vendors take pesos. It’s a confusing way to shop and a precarious way for the Cubans to live. The market we go to takes cucs and has a limited supply of goods to sell. There is some cheese and prepared meats, pasta, crackers, rum and beer and soda. No dairy and no produce – and no coffee! Nonetheless, the market is crowded. And the little kiosk stores along the way are open. One selling a few plumbing supplies, a faucet, some tubing. The next a music store. They are really people’s patios, converted into pop-up shops. This burgeoning entrepreneurship is something that is temporarily legal in Cuba, but we’ve been told that that will change with the new year, closing the opportunity for these small private enterprises. The streets are teeming with people.
After we bring our groceries home, we head out again – back to old Havana. It’s our first time taking a peso taxi on our own, and we do fine. He drops us off at the Parque Central and we begin to wind our way to the malecon (the sea wall). On the map it looks grand and green. In reality it’s a dirty parkway lined with crumbling buildings. But before we can even get that far we are waylaid by a friendly local who tells us it’s salsa festival and cigar festival day and tries to guide us to a restaurant where the Buena Vista Social club is playing. We politely listen for a minute (they are all way too young to be the BVSC) and then slip out on our own. We are clearly foreign tourists without our Cuban hosts as guides. We hurry down the now familiar streets to the beginning of La Prado, the once grand promenade that extends from the center of old Havana to the sea and make our way up the street. The promenade is filled with Cubans, enjoying a leisurely Saturday. There are children skating, people sitting and talking, vendors selling tourist items, handcrafted clothes and paintings and we spot a few prints from the Taller Grafica Experimental. We walk through the “real estate” section where people are advertising apartments for sale and rent on handwritten cardboard signs. The mood is relaxed and festive even though it’s incredibly hot and humid. We stop for a great lunch at a recommended restaurant and then head back out into the thick air and towards the Malecon to make the long trek back to Vedado.