Ice Cream for the Masses
June 3, 2004
It's been fifteen years since we last visited Havana. At that time, the city was looking a little worse for the wear, to put things politely. Actually, it was falling apart. Magnificent colonial buildings were literally crumbling, the streets were ripped up, and everything desperately needed a coat of paint. It was like walking through a war zone except that the city's two million inhabitants were bustling about, apparently oblivious to the ruins surrounding them. Since then, we've read that a lot of effort and resources have gone into restoring the place. Even before arriving in our sailboat in Varadero, a resort complex 90 miles east of Havana, we had decided to return to the city to see for ourselves.
In his previous life, David worked as a planner in Canada's largest city. He wanted to see how Havana was managing to grapple with big urban issues like heritage preservation, housing, and transportation. Eileen had another reason for visiting Havana -- ice cream. According to one of our guide books, soon after the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro pledged that all Cubans should have access to good ice cream. It was largely a symbolic gesture targeting what had been an appurtenance of the privileged class. The result was the production of Coppelia ice cream, available throughout Cuba, and the construction of a giant ice cream parlour in the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana. Looking up from the guide, Eileen said reverentially, "Imagine that, they have a park in Havana entirely dedicated to ice cream!"
We left the marina in Varadero early on Tuesday morning in order to catch the 0800 bus to Havana. Three hours later we were let off at a public square on the edge of La Habana Vieja, the old city. We pushed our way through a mob of hustlers jostling to offer us guided tours, cheap dining, and places to stay. A quiet young woman on the periphery of the crowd came to our rescue. She told us when and where to catch the return bus to Varadero and pointed us in the right direction to Plaza de Armas in the centre of the old city. She introduced herself as Tamara and asked us if we had a place to stay. She pulled out some pictures of her house, which apparently was only a few blocks away. We had come equipped with a list of recommended hotels and private rooms and politely declined her offer.
As we walked away, Eileen commented, "She seemed pretty nice and the photos of her house looked good."
David, the experienced traveller, said, "The guide book warns that private accommodation is often pretty basic and lacks privacy. Let's see some of the hotels on the list."
We pounded the pavement for about an hour and checked out a few hotels. They were all in the 40 to 50 dollar range, pretty basic, and fairly cramped. One had an odd smell. We ended up on the street where Tamara lives. "Let's drop in," Eileen suggested.
The address Tamara had given us was in a row of colonial era, three-storey walk-up apartments. She greeted us at the door and took us upstairs. She lives with her husband, young son, and parents on the top floor of the building and rents out the second floor. The place was spotless. There was a large bedroom with a single and double bed and an adjoining bathroom. All the fixtures were new. She told us we could also use the comfortably furnished dining room and living room. There was a balcony overlooking the street. The rate was $25, plus three dollars each if we wanted breakfast. We registered.
As we unpacked our bags, David said, "Didn't I tell you private rooms are a good deal in this city?"
Armed with guide books, maps, and bottled water, we set out to take the city by foot. In the years since it was first established in 1519 on the west side of Bahia de La Habana, Havana's development has taken the form of concentric rings spreading westward from the bay. La Habana Vieja houses the city's oldest buildings and plazas -- Catedral de San Cristobal, Castillo Real de la Fuerza, Plaza de Armas, and Plaza Vieja, to name a few -- and was originally contained within city walls. These stone walls were demolished in 1863, allowing the city to spill over into what is now termed Centro Habana. The grand boulevard of Paseo de Marti bisects Centro Habana in a north-south direction and is lined with prominent public buildings like the Gran Teatro de La Habana, home of the national ballet and state opera; and the Capitolio Nacional, remarkably similar in appearance to the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. The hotel and entertainment district of Vedado was developed west of Centro Habana following Cuba's independence in 1902.
On our first day in town, we tackled La Habana Vieja and Centro Habana. We were impressed by how much the old city had been physically improved since we last visited. The oldest and most significant buildings had been largely restored. Work was underway on a number of other buildings; in some instances the structures had been completely gutted, leaving only the outer facades preserved. As is the case in almost all the Cuban cities we've visited, the cobblestone streets were litter free and the gardens in the public plazas were well tended.
The general condition of Centro Habana was a different story. Here the main boulevards and most important buildings and squares were in good shape, but elsewhere things looked pretty scruffy. One small street was full of vitality, however: Calle Obispo, a narrow pedestrian-only route running eastward from Parque Central into the old city. Now that Cubans are allowed to earn and spend hard currency (something denied them a decade ago), the stores, restaurants, and bars along Obispo were thronged with customers.
Tuesday evening, we dined in the old city in a restaurant that had okay food for around five or six dollars US and excellent flamenco music and dancing for free. The place wasn't mentioned in any of our guides, but clearly must be written up in some non-English tour books since it was full of European tourists. On the way back to our room, we dropped in at La Lluvio de Oro, a popular bar on Obispo street that features live Cuban music all day and night long. The clientele was a fairly even mix of Cubanos and gringos, which we took to be a good sign of the bar's authenticity.
Wednesday morning we rose to find that Tamara had prepared a great breakfast for us: fresh squeezed orange juice, cafe con leche (hot coffee and milk), watermelon and fresh guava fruit, omelettes, and hot rolls with butter. David tucked in. Eileen cautioned, "Don't overeat; remember, today is ice cream day."
Our pursuit of the fabled Coppelia ice cream park took us west through the more rundown parts of Centro Habana. The buildings and streets markedly improved in appearance when we entered the Vedado neighbourhood. This relatively new district formerly housed Havana's American community; it was developed in pre-revolution days to attract well-healed tourists. A lot of foreign money (much of it from organized crime) was pumped into Vedado's fancy hotels, night-clubs, and gambling casinos. Some notable structures, like the Hotel Nacional, retain their aura of opulence. We made a beeline for Coppelia park, at Calle 23 and Avenida L.
We arrived at the park around noon and discovered that a lot of Cubans apparently eat ice cream for lunch. The place was packed. There was a large two-storey modernistic structure in the centre of the park; radiating from the central building, tree-lined walkways led to several open-air sitting areas. With all these choices, we learned that the key to deciding where to sit to order ice cream was determining which were the "dinero nacional" (peso) areas and which were the "dollar" areas. The ice cream is identical, but costs roughly ten times as much at the dollar tables.
The friendly security guards began directing us towards the only sitting areas that weren't crowded with patrons. Bad sign. We politely refused their assistance and headed for the longest line-up where no one was speaking English. After a 20 minute wait we were seated at a long counter, elbow-to-elbow with a very serious bunch of Cuban ice cream consumers. Of the five flavours available, we asked our server for chocolate and caramel, assuming we'd get a scoop of each. She asked, "Ensalada?" Everyone else seemed to be ordering ensaladas so we said "si", wondering how it's possible to mix ice cream with salad.
A couple of minutes later, she returned with two boats, each containing five big scoops of ice cream. "So, that's what 'ensalada' means," Eileen gasped. "What will the other customers think when they see how much ice cream we just ordered?"
We need not have worried. The server reappeared and placed TWO ensaladas in front of the diminutive young woman sitting next to David. The older guy next to Eileen got the same PLUS a plate of cake a la mode. Eileen was humbled. "And thought I liked ice cream," she said.
The bill was five pesos each, or the equivalent of 20 cents US. David commented, "Fidel wanted ice cream for the masses and what they got were masses of ice cream -- not such a bad deal, if you ask me."