Beautiful building, horrific hotel.

The Internet and Wi-Fi service in Cuba is about where Australia was 25 years ago. Consequently, you don’t see people, especially young people, staring down at their mobile phones most of the time. In a way, that’s refreshing, reminding me of a simpler world and a more innocent time. Despite not being able to send anything for some days, I’ve kept writing. Sorry, but I’m about to overwhelm you.

The Bible says(Acts): “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”. That’s how you feel when you set out to visit Cuba. There are pricks everywhere but if you don’t kick against them you don’t get to see Cuba.

I refer firstly to the pricks at Miami Airport where people speak mostly in Spanish and dare you to check in for a flight to Cuba. It is compulsory to master an electronic check-in touch screen that asks a dozen questions and if you get one wrong you start again. The prize for getting through that is a charge of $30 per bag which, in our case, added up to $90 because we’d managed to fill a third suitcase with stuff we didn’t need and may not even like when we get home. There’s more. You then have to weigh your own bags and if any are over 23 kilos you get fined again. There were many scenes of pathos as couples crawled around the floor with bags open, their possessions on display, as they tried to make the heavy bag lighter and the lighter bag heavier.

Then there is the compulsory Cuban visa which you must buy from a lectern placed strategically in the slow moving queue. When you front up to it, a severe woman with pursed lips resents you disturbing her day and tuts and sighs her way through giving you four forms to fill in. The cost of a visa is $100 but if you lose one of the pieces of paper, you are fined another $100. I wonder how many people have gone bankrupt trying to check in for Cuba.

There are more pricks at the arrival end, where bored officials clearly wish you wouldn’t interrupt them as they banter between themselves. The airport is straight out of the 1950s – nostalgic to look at but chaotic in operation. For instance, there are not enough luggage trolleys, obliging me to stand in a corner by a little Alice in Wonderland magic curtain waiting for one of the pricks to push an abandoned and retrieved one through. Needless to say, there were continual battles as people fought for a trolley.

Outside, there was a long queue to change good money into bad – in the sense that Cuba’s CUC currency is not recognised outside Cuba. That done, we climbed into a beaten up taxi-van and were driven shudderingly (the driver insisted on driving slowly in top gear) into town but became lost trying to find our famous hotel. We ended up meandering up and down very skinny, very old, Spanish style streets, stopping frequently to ask the way. When we did find the Raquel Hotel I was required to help unload the cases in the rain because the rear door piston of the taxi-van had failed and I had to hold up the heavy door. The grim-faced driver then charged us for the privilege of witnessing him, a seasoned local, get lost.

All that grizzling aside, the hotel, planted on a tight little corner, turned out to be unbelievably beautiful. Outside it is very fancy Italianate complete with statues and mouldings, while inside is soaring art nouveau. I’m pretty sure it has been restored, because the paintwork, stained glass and stonework are all perfect. We fronted the reception desk and came up against the same prickery as at the airport. Can you give us a map of Old Havana please? “No.” Is there Internet available? “No. Try the hotel down the road but you’ll have to pay.” We had booked a room with a double bed and the room you’ve given us has two singles. “That’s all there is. If you don’t like it, find somewhere else to stay.” We stayed, especially because we’d prepaid.

The hotel was built in 1908 as a warehouse then later used as commercial offices, then turned into a school and more recently a hotel. Evidently it was in the middle of the now defunct Jewish quarter, which explains its display of Jewish symbols and a mezuzah on every doorway.

Hotel Toaster Review

A toaster? You’ve got to be joking.

I think the Raquel Hotel sent somebody, who didn’t know what a hotel toaster was, into town to buy a hotel toaster. What came back was a large, square, double jaffle machine. Its main function is to heat bread without turning it into toast. Its other trick is to stick the slice of warm bread to the underside of the lid, creating the illusion that the bread has disappeared. This caused great consternation among the largely French guests at breakfast oo think the bread ‘as gone! There was no toast captain on duty to berate, so they went away muttering, haughtily carrying their warm bread. The French are very serious at breakfast time.

Our four-day guide, Israel, and our driver, Edel, arrived at nine in a 1956 beautifully restored Chevrolet Bel Air. When I say restored, the sweet six-cylinder engine had been replaced by a five cylinder Mercedes clattering diesel. The suspension, brakes and steering, Israel assured us, had been updated for safety reasons. I doubt this. It felt far from safe. The ride was agricultural and the steering seemed to have a mind of its own. It was not fitted with seat belts either, not that anybody in the city can drive fast; there isn’t enough room.

Havana is a feast for those who love the grand American cars of the 1950s to 1970s. They are everywhere here, in various states of dilapidation. Many of them are convertibles. The government realises that they are a tourist drawcard and imports and sells very cheap, second hand diesel engines to keep them going. It brings back my boyhood when I see Plymouth, Dodge, Cadillac, Pontiac, Buick and De Soto filing the narrow streets

The Chevrolet looks wonderful but drives like a tractor.

Think Cuba and you think cigars. We visited a cigar factory where hundreds of cigar makers were hard at work hand rolling specially selected tobacco leaves to make the cigars. In the same building was a medical practice, no doubt specialising in lung cancer. The workers all support the product, many of them working with a cigar hanging out of their mouths. In addition to what they can smoke their way through at work they are given a daily ration of five to take home to puff in private. Our factory guide, who managed to lose half the platoon for fifteen minutes by unexpectedly going down a flight of concealed stairs, told us it takes about 20 minutes to smoke a small cigar but an hour and a half to get though a big stinker, depending on your sucking strength.

Havana relies heavily on the memory of Ernest Hemingway as a tourist attraction. Israel took us to Hemingway’s house set on four hectares of gardens and orchards in a suburb called Sanfrancisco de Paolo. The house was given to the Cuban Government by his widow and has been turned into a tranquil memorial.

His house is large without being pretentious. We could peek into Hemingway’s rooms from the outside, seeing where he sat to write in his study, or in his library (he had 3000 books) and finally up in a tower room where he apparently used a tiny typewriter. We also viewed his bathroom where he sat, but not writing, on an elaborate porcelain loo. The man lived quite an active life. He went through four wives, shot a great number of deer whose stuffed heads adorn the walls, went big game fishing and kept 58 cats. They had to be fed by the output of four cows. On his property was a tennis court and an empty swimming pool that begged a sign: ‘no bombing, no diving because no water’.

We visited another Hemingway hangout: an art deco hotel where he lived for ten years before he bought his house. I can imagine the bill when he checked out, especially when the receptionist asked him if he’d had anything from the mini-bar. Ernest liked a drink, and became an alcoholic before he blew is brains out with a revolver in 1961, at the age of 62. He went on the grog after winning the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. We also visited some bars where he famously drank his favourite cocktails, and a fishing village in Cojlmar where he kept his boat and was inspired to write The Old Man and the Sea.