The smell, the decay, the jineteros: my experience in La Havana

La Havana is a very interesting and curious town. It has a special charme, but it is also suffocating, with collapsing buildings and a population constantly trying to trick you.

The first aspect of La Havana that comes to mind is its smell. Of Gasoline. Pollution. Asphyxiation. You can smell gasoline everywhere: on the streets, in the form of the black smoke puffed out from the vintage American cars – that have become the symbol of Cuba and made its fortune, but that also suffocate you. On the buses, it’s the gas that comes in from the holes in the floor. In your bedroom, when even on the 5th floor you are awaken in the middle of the night by a terrible smell of gasoline and you have to shut the window and turn the air-con on even if you don’t like it.

The decay. It looks like the town might break into pieces at any time. There’s an area around the four squares of Old Havana that has been restored and is really pretty. One block away everything is falling down. From the rooftop terraces of the “case particular” (the accommodation in private families typical of Cuba) and some hotels you can see everything, and the decadence is even more visible. The walls facing the streets sometimes have been fixed and painted, but at the back everything is grey and you can see the holes in the walls, the missing walls, the collapsed walls.

Alba dal tetto della casa - Sunrise from the rooftop terrace of our casa particular
Sunrise from the roof of our Casa Particular

On our first morning we went to the rooftop terrace of our casa particular. We were jet-lagged, so despite the tiredness at 6 am we were awake. It was lovely though, because we witnessed the sun rise on the roofs of La Havana. And slowly the town also woke up. The air is stuff even in winter (we were there in the month of December, 2015), so most doors and windows are always open and life happens mostly on the terraces or in the streets. And you can look at it while it happens. One man looking out of the window while brushing his teeth; a lady taking some water from the tank to do the laundry on her terrace; a girl sitting in front of her entrance door on a rocking chair with her baby, she turns the TV on and starts breastfeeding her baby. On the lower floor a mum combs her daughter’s hair; once she’s done, the girl watches tv with her siblings until mum says it’s time to go to school.

Decadence in La Havana: collapsed buildings find new use

Jineteros are expert in tricking the tourists; they are very good in convincing the naive foreigners to buy rubbish or to stay in a casa particular or eat in a restaurant where they get a good commission (5 or 10 USD over a 20 USD price).

During our first day in La Havana we completely fell for it. Well, they are real experts like I haven’t found anywhere else and they are very good at recognizing the new arrivals. Just a few minutes after we got into the street, we had already bought some cigars. “Today it’s the only day of the month when families are allowed to sell cigars, and they are cheaper than in the factories”. Ok. Done, Thank you. I’m not easily fooled around normally, but this guy was particularly skillful, with his smiles, his jokes, the positive presence. Of course the next day was “the only day” too. I don’t know of what quality these cigars are, because who understands anything about cigars? I don’t even smoke!

Hai una caramella per i miei bambini? - Do you have a candy for my children?
Do you have a candy for my children?

In the afternoon an apparently nice girl approaches us, asks where we come from, smiles, laughs, invites us to Che Guevara’s favorite café (by chance just next to her house) to drink a mojito that will cost us 4 CUC (about 4 euro – 4,50 USD, when at the cafeteria of a 4 star hotel it costs 3 – probably its price for Cubans in a place like this one is less than one CUC), so 12 euro gone (because of course you don’t even need to mention it, but we had to pay for her mojito too; which we didn’t mind, but didn’t like to pay more too). Then to the shop to buy powder milk for the baby (first she asked for 5 packets for about 12 CUC, fortunately at the end she was happy with 2 packets only) because she doesn’t work, the State gives her something every month, but it’s not enough, in two weeks it’s all gone.

And you don’t mind buying the milk because it’s better than giving her money that she might use to buy 10 mojitos more (but actually Cubans’ favorite drink is Cuba Libre, mojito is for tourists). No, the milk for the baby is a good and useful thing. But as soon as we waved good bye I remembered I had read somewhere that they ask for powder milk (because it’s easier to convince people to give that then money), and then they resell it. Mmm…

La bella faccia di La Havana - the pretty side of La Havana
The pretty side of La Havana

The following day we “casually” met another couple along the Malecon (the seaside promenade) in La Havana, very nice as usual; the guy talks to Luca in a mix of Spanish and Italian; the girl tells me how great Cuba is with its free education (everyone is graduated, but no one can speak English properly…??), free health system (but if you go to a pharmacy you might not find anything to cure your fever), free security (but everyone lives like in a cage, with grating at doors and windows even on the fifth floor). They took us to a place where an artist sells his work to raise money for a school for autistic children (thanks but I’m not interested) – where you can drink the “negron”, an amazing cocktail that you can find only here (sorry but I’m not thirsty) – and here everything is so expensive, could you buy some powder milk for my baby? (sorry but you’re late for this).

The first time you’re approached you’re happy, you think “how nice these Cuban people are” (and the guy you’re talking to repeats it himself, as to confirm it). Then you realize that the only Cubans that approach you are those that want to trick you. So even if you don’t want to, your attitude changes, you become defensive and your holiday takes a different hue.

Tassisti a La Havana - Taxi drivers in La Havana
Taxi drivers in La Havana

Despite the disappointment, I decided to spend three more nights in La Havana at the end of our stay in Cuba. Because, despite its faults, I have never seen a town as fascinating as La Havana.

More pictures from Cuba on my Flickr album.

The charm of Cuba

The charm of Cuba

In these days of big changes, my thoughts go back to Cuba.

It’s been a peculiar place to visit, full of surprises, bad and good, of disappointments, but surely it is a place like no others and incredibly photogenic.

Havana Cuba
Avenida Simon Bolivar, the most colorful in Havana.

In 2016 the first cruise from Florida disembarked in Havana after many years. Americans can now get individual visa to visit Cuba (before they could only visit on a tour). This of course will increase the tourist flow to Cuba and will bring some changes.

When I visited in December 2015 it felt a bit fake, as if there were 2 levels of life in Cuba: there’s the Cuban life and the touristic life; these two levels are separated and very rarely overlap. Cubans have their restaurants, their cafes, their taxis, their buses, even their hotels, and quite often (like the Casas Particular) tourists can not enjoy them.

While I was traveling in Cuba I was a bit disappointed because of the cheating and the sense of “falseness” I felt looking at the beautiful areas of La Havana with the charming cafes and the amazing buildings, well restored for tourists to admire, when the rest of the town is falling apart (I have talked about it in my post about La Havana).

Malecon La Havana
Fishing on the Malecon in La Havana

But now I can only remember the beauty I have seen. A walk on the Malecon in the evening is alone worth the flight: the view of the sun setting behind the skyline is breathtaking; locals and tourists meet here to chat and to flirt, and between one kiss and the other they try to avoid the big waves flooding the sidewalk; meanwhile the old american cars drive on the avenue that runs along the sea. It’s a postcard that I will bring with me for a long time.

Of course the rest of Cuba also has some spectacular sights. I remember fondly the lush vegetation of Vinales and the ox-pulled plows. The kid dancing in a garden in Trinidad, oblivious of the public she has attracted. The fishermen life and laid-back atmosphere of Baracoa. The welcoming attitude of our Cuban-Italian hosts in Cienfuegos.The charm and the colors of Sancti Spiritu, like Trinidad, but much more authentic. The young Cubans working at the resorts in Guardalavaca, relaxing and dancing on the beach before their shift starts. The Cubans skyping with their family abroad in the few spots where there is wifi.

sancti spiritu cuba
Socializing in Sancti Spiritu

I don’t know how this opening will affect the other world feeling you have traveling on this island. I hope Cuba won’t change much, otherwise it will lose all its allure.

A day of travel to Shiraz

A day of travel to Shiraz

February 18, 2015

Maybe it was better if we took a private car from Yazd to Shiraz, with a stop to visit Pesargade and Persepolis, that would have cost 110 USD, but would have saved us a day of travel. If we had met someone else to share the car with, we would have done it; but we didn’t, so we are here waiting for the bus.

This morning we took a bus from Fahraj to Yazd, where we had to ask to two bus drivers how to get to the main bus station; one of the drivers got off the bus under the rain to stop another one that was leaving and explained the other driver where we needed to go. In any other country, we would probably have been told “Get a taxi if you don’t know how to get there”.

Breakfast, bus Fahraj-Yazd, two buses to the Terminal (the long-run bus station), half an hour wait, and at 10.40am we leave. VIP bus with wide seats and a TV just in front of us. Nice to watch a super-romantic movie where you can imagine kisses and hugs (just imagine, in Iran public display of affection is not allowed, not even on TV). Finally in Shiraz, at about 5pm.

I have seen few smartphones here in Iran, less than in the Dominican Republic or Tanzania. Probably because it’s not easy to find an Internet connection. Anyway, I’ve found out that a sim card with no Internet costs about 3 dollars, with internet 10; maybe it’s a bit expensive for the local wages, but the service is available.

road in Iran
“Pit-stop” along Iran’s roads

9.20 pm Niayesh Boutique Hotel. We got the last available room at the Niayesh, so maybe if we came by car and arrived at 7 pm (because you need at least 2 hours to visit Persepolis, plus Pesargade and the necropolis) we would have to look for another place. And it would have been a shame because the Niayesh is the only hotel in a traditional house here in Shiraz, a house with an inner courtyard surrounded by rooms. It’s a meeting point for tourists, so hopefully we’ll meet someone to go to Persepolis with, otherwise we’ll have to take the bus and it’s not easy, especially for Pesargade.

We had dinner at the restaurant of the hotel and it was delicious.

So we arrived in Shiraz at about 5 pm; the last hour on the bus from Yazd was cherished by the only person of mixed race seen so far, a 7 year old boy. When we arrived in Shiraz, we took bus 79 from the Terminal to the hotel. And the people on the bus started talking to us; they wanted to know where we come from and if we like Iran. It felt very different from other towns, you can tell this town is more open-minded, metropolitan. They suggested we went to hotel Shiraz, 5 stars. Maybe when we’ll be rich. An elder man got off the bus with us, payed for our fares and walked us to the hotel, stopping every 5 minutes to ask the direction to passers-by to make sure we were on the right way. Even when we saw the first signs of the hotel, he didn’t let us alone until we found the entrance. Crazy. Never witnessed a welcome like this.

As soon as we put our bags in the room and went to the toilet, we went to see the AMRAGH-E SHAH-E CHERAGH, a shrine where two brothers of Mir Ahmad are buried (or maybe it was the Boghe-ye Sanyed Mir Mohammad… never mind the name). It was a bit complicated to wear the chador, but the ladies at the entrance were very kind. We were taken to the “international relations” office, where we were offered tea. Then we were accompanied to the two tombs. Walls and ceilings were covered with mosaics of mirrors. Separate entries for man and women, so Luca went in with his escort. Inside people were praying and crying to get rid of the pain caused by illnesses and concerns. Very touching. Other people were looking at their phone and making balls with their chewing gum. I had to leave my camera at the entrance, while Luca could take pictures with his phone. The girl that was my escort is a student at the Sociology University that once a week volunteers here. She explained that to pray you should take a small stone that you can find along the walls and put it on the floor; you should then try to touch it with your forehead, so the negative energies can exit your body and flow into the floor, while the positive ones go in. Allah has 1,000 and one name, all written in the Koran. Green is the color of Islam because Mohammed dressed in green, plus heaven will be all green, full of trees; gold is the other color of Islam, can’t remember why; blue is also its color because it links don’t know what. A lady asked my young escort if she was married; she answered that no. She wants to finish uni first, but she is often asked that question; probably they’ve got a son of marriage age and she looks like she is a very good girl.

A stroll around Yazd

A stroll around Yazd

February 16, 2015


This morning we visited the Zoroastrian temple Ateshkadeh here in Yazd, one of the most important in Iran. A part from the garden and a room with a fire continuously on since 460 AD, there’s not much to see.

On a bench of the garden we took a couple of pictures with some local ladies… or so we thought! The husband in reality was able to zoom the mobile phone camera and only captured Luca and me, leaving out the two ladies. Shame. I thought he wouldn’t mind because he was the one who asked to take pictures of the four of us. But he kept the good ones for himself.

Amir Chakmaq Square

Later we went to Amir Chakmaq Square and its complex: a mosque, the Hosseinieh (so are called the buildings that commemorate an Imam), a small swimming pool with no water and a qanat (a well of the particular Iranian water system) that is now a gym (there are also some shows with bodybuilders from time to time).

Below the Hosseinieh there are some small shops. Among them a kebab restaurant, specialized in sheep heart and liver. Here we had lunch with the above mentioned skewers and dazi (but the one we had in Kashan was much better), later on a stop at a pastry shop and then quickly to the hotel because I needed the toilet.

This morning I bought a hejab, that scarf that covers your forehead and goes below the chin, covering the ears too,because the scarf that I was using to cover my hair keeps falling down and I have to check it all the time. Because I don’t know how people could react if my scarf fell in the middle of the crowd. Probably they wouldn’t be shocked, but annoyed yes. Better not to run the risk.

Yazd Old Town

After a coffee we walked around the old town of Yazd, made of clay and straw. The base of the walls is clay bricks, that are covered with a mixture of clay and straw instead of mortar.

Walking around these little alleys is magical. They are very narrow and still you can find a car sometimes; I don’t know how they can drive here, I would rather walk all the time.

All houses are surrounded by walls about 2-3 meters high, so you walk this alleys between walls.

We visited a traditional house (pretty, but after what we saw in Kashan, we weren’t really impressed), Alexander prisons (and we drank a tea in the well where worst prisoners were kept), we got lost, we paid one euro to go up to a roof where there’s a small café and an art gallery selling two cups and a bowl, just to take two (horrible) pictures. Then a tour of the bazaar and dinner at the Hosseinieh again, with chicken and more skewers because Luca didn’t want to have dinner again at the guesthouse (here many hotels are also good restaurants with local cuisine).

Incredible little town this Yazd.

Second day in Kashan

Second day in Kashan

Exploring the beauties of Kashan, Iran

February 14, 2015


I can smell baked bread. They make this round bread about 50cm large, thin, baked in a round hoven, sometimes with fennel or sesame seeds, they buy 2 or 20 pieces, carry it around in their arms, with no waste of plastic or paper. Then they offer it to us for breakfast or dinner and we love it. For the sandwiches we have at lunch they use a bread similar to baguette, but soft and chewy.

Fin’s Garden

2h15pm We’re back to the hotel to drink a cup of tea and rest a bit. Today we had our share of walking. We went to Fin’s Garden, Bagh-e Fin, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where’s there’s a magic source of water, because they can’t tell where it comes from. Here Amir Kabir, a Prime Minister that annoyed the wrong people, was first kept prisoner and then killed, while he was bathing in the hammam.

While we were waiting for the bus to go back to town (the gardens are about half an hour by bus from the town), a shop keeper gave me a terrible perfume (here rose water is quite popular, but the one he gave me was particularly old) and in exchange he asked for a pen from Italy. It was an exchange I did happily.

Bazaar in Kashan

Back to town, an elder lady that hold my hand for quite some time wanted us to take the taxi to the bazaar; I think she was disappointed when I told her we preferred to walk; I guess she hoped to be helpful.

At the bazaar, Ali (a “guide” of the bazaar; basically he catches tourists and takes them to see his “cousins'” shops) showed us his friend’s carpets, but the friend got upset when he heard Ali was offering the carpets at 50 dollars, while their cost (for tourists) is 100. Maybe Ali knew the price is 50 for Iranians; but I don’t think so; probably his friend wanted to negotiate a bit more. Anyway, we couldn’t have bought a carpet for any price. We are at the beginning of our trip, we would have to carry the carpet in our backpack for 10 more days.

Another sandwich, this time with sausage, and later here, at our super quiet hotel, because I couldn’t walk any longer. It’s also very hot, I wasn’t expecting it. My winter coat is too heavy, but I can’t take it off because I need something to cover my behind.

Traditional houses in Kashan

5.53pm We are at Abbasi traditional restaurant in Kashan. We had a mix coffee (basically nescafé, that Luca likes a lot because it’s super sweet) and yogurt with cucumber and cumin. We ordered Massama Bademjan (aubergine) with Camel Meat and Abbasi Special Dizzi (ram, white beans, chickpea and onion). It’s probably going to be quite expensive, but it’s Valentine’s day! 😛

Abbasi is one of the traditional houses of Kashan.

Earlier we were at the Tabatabei, another house with beautiful plasters and mirrors; then at Hammam-e Sultan Mir Ahmad, a beautiful turkish bath, very well renovated, rich in majolica, one of the best of Iran; the roof has small domes partially in glass, to let only the right amount of light in. And here, the Abbasi, is a traditional house with 5-6 floors.

Almost all houses are doing some renovations. Walls are made in sand and straw and plasters are very delicate, they need costant maintenance.

Eating in Iran

With tea (called chai, like in India) or coffee they bring you spiced biscuits or dates. In Tehran I saw people taking dates from trays at the entrance of some shops; I thought they were stealing, but they were actually gifted. Where we had dinner in Tehran there were some delicious pralines, that were offered before dinner.

Tea for two in Kashan: tea, sugar and dates
Tea for two in Kashan

The Dizzi is served in a bowl narrow and tall; inside there’s a soup and the meat with chickpeas. You have to pour the soup in a dish, while meat and chickpeas are crushed inside the bowl. At the end the mixture is put in a plate and eaten with bread. Luca says he hasn’t eaten anything this good in his whole life. He was very satisfied.

We ate a lot and all delicious, all for 10 euro. It’s nothing, if you consider that in Italy you don’t buy a pizza for one person at 10 euro. But we have a 100 euro per day budget, and we have to pay attention to what we spend. Today it’s ok, it’s Valentine’s, but we can’t afford this every day.

Anyway, walking back to the guesthouse I found a banknote of the same amount of money… 10 euro, that here feel like 50!