Havana, Cuba has always been at the top of my travel bucket-list since its various feature on numerous travel magazines as the top travel destination. Photos from the travel magazines portray Cuba as a vibrant city, decorated with bright and colourful Mustangs, and its colonial charm fed my insatiable wanderlust even more.
*Cues Girl Code 101: You cannot unsee what you have seen.* After being hit by a U.S embargo in 1960, locals have lovingly maintained a plethora of classic American car models. I was so intrigued by how a city can freeze in time in the 60s given its close proximity to the States. Back then, it could only be seen as faraway dream as I has never travelled beyond Europe and having semi-aviophobia, the journey seemed to me an arduous one. An opportunity finally wriggled its way towards me- a was the golden chance allowing me to take a solo side trip to Havana.
Although I am a frequent traveller, I still had the jitters before touching down, letting many thoughts cross my mind after remembering that internet connectivity is limited within Cuba; you could only use the internet by the hourly charge at hotels and public parks. Well, more reasons for a digital detox. I had booked my Airbnb and jokingly told my friend, who happens to work for Airbnb, “If I don’t reply you by this date, freeze their Airbnb account as hosts and file a missing person report for me.” Alas, that was just my cheeky way of asking her to keep a lookout for me. While I don’t rock any precious stones on these fat fingers of mine, nor do I deem myself as an important asset to the country, security is still a concern and it should always be the main priority. It is important to inform your family and close friends of your whereabouts overseas, especially when you are travelling alone. That being said, Singaporeans can e-register their travel itineraries with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (https://eregister.mfa.gov.sg/eregisterportal/common/preLoginEregisterView.action) to keep yourself updated on travel advisories.
I was greeted at the arrival hall with a pleasant surprise by female immigration officers donned in tight uniforms and really short khaki shirts.
Woah this must be a paradise for men, I thought to myself. My Airbnb host, Felipe, picked me up and just 10 minutes into the car ride, I was already immersed into the Cuban culture - catcalling. I was torn between worrying about road safety and joining in for some fun, as his eyes were fixated on a voluptuous middle aged lady on the roadside and wolf whistling. I shouted alongside him; “Bella, bella!” (I had learnt this off the streets when I was being catcalled). You know what they say: When in Cuba, do as the Cubans do. Felipe then introduced me to the history of Havana with his proficient English about how it is split into Old Havana (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Centro Havana with Paseo del Prado, a tiled street lined with trees and benches, dividing the two. The half hour ride into the city centre felt familiar to me as the sights and sounds replicates a road trip into the kampongs in our neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia with its tropical greenery and random huts. We pulled over Felipe’s brother’s mechanic workshop along the way and he shared with me how his brother married a Cuban born Chinese , a second generation immigrant as her father moved to Cuba to build the railway in the early days. It’s amazing how similar the migration stories of our Chinese forefathers are despite the geographical differences. There’s even a Chinatown right smack in the middle of Old Havana!
As we drove into the city centre, the whole vibe it gave me was exactly as depicted in the first scene of Fast and Furious 8, seemingly unaffected by Hurricane Irma which hit Cuba just 2 months prior. A backpacker I met in Chile not long ago had assured me that the beauty of Havana remained intact when she visited Havana a month after Hurricane Irma wiped out the city’s electricity and caused flash floods. Sure enough, her words remained true.
Setting off from my Airbnb to explore the Old Havana, I went straight to the highly raved local restaurant Los Nardos for lunch as recommended by Felipe and various travel blogs. I was well prepared for the navigation around Old Havana using my handy dandy Maps.me offline maps updated with locations of restaurants and I am sure travellers around the world swear by this life-saving app! Upon arrival, I was ushered by smartly dressed waiters into a sophisticated dining hall with high ceiling and decorated with a mural of Old Havana, very much like a Parisian restaurant. I felt like a fish out of water in this intimate and romantic dining setting but hunger soon replaced this silly thought of mine as I indulged in a baked fish fillet dish with an unexpected side of rice which I didn’t order. Clearly, I hadn’t done my food research well enough to know that rice was a staple in Cuban cuisine. Their rice resembles our version of Briyani with longer grains. Now that I know, a typical Cuban dish consists of rice and potatoes with sides of salads and meat and not forgetting the famous Cuban sandwiches. I was even pampered with a stalk of rose after my meal, which sent a wave of tingling sensation to my solidified heart as this marked the first of many experiences with Havana’s hospitality.
I then took a stroll along Obispo Street, which was swarmed with tourists and local vendors. Several local men came up to me with the dreaded greetings of “Ni Hao! Konnichiwa!” or “Oh you are so beautiful my lady,” while I put on my defensive resting bitch face (I put the blame on food coma) to divert attention from myself. My friends were appalled when I narrated these experiences to them, but I assured them that they were harmless and stem from the local’s curiosity, being unexposed to seeing solo Asian girls strolling on their streets.
The street then led to the famed 8km Malecón seawall which overlooks the magnificent Morro Castle. It was like living in a postcard, with the sea breeze gently sweeping against my face, it felt so surreal. What do I do as a solo traveller at the top picturesque landmark in the world, you may ask? Instead of taking photos every inch I move, I much rather live in the moment where no one else can feel or think the same way as you do. In this moment, the thoughts and emotions that run through me belong to me and only me. This, is just the politically correct answer. What I really do is people witching © - a fictional term I coined in 2013, which is a marriage of people watching and bitching. Guaranteed fun for ages 18 and up! I could spend hours basking in the sun anywhere just to people watch, listen to their intimate conversations and making up fictional backstories of their lives.
My thoughts were interrupted by a beautiful Japanese model who was with a small crew for a photoshoot along the Malecón. I then paid it forward by giving her my stalk of rose, rather than have it sitting awkwardly in my plastic bag of leftover food. Without wanting to look like a giggly school girl handing a stalk of rose to a crush on Valentine’s day, I approached her coolly saying “Hey, you can have this.” She was hesitant to accept it initially as she must have thought I was a local with my new tan ,trying to ask for tips for the rose. I nudged it towards her and broke into my basic Japanese “Kirei desu (pretty)” and walked off to my bench. She nodded and thanked me before strutting her stuff with her new prop. Even one of her male companion had fun with it with the classic biting-a-rose-and-tango shot.