Did you know that Sloppy Joe’s were invented in Havana?
Yes, those good ol’ Sloppy Joe sandwiches were invented in Havana. Remember that ground beef/tomato sauce mixture you slopped on buns? Then you devoured it in minutes thinking it was the best thing you ever had?
Sloppy Joes were the brainstorm of a local Havana restaurant (Paladar) owned by a guy named – you got it – Joe. It happened in the 1920’s during prohibition when mobsters and gangsters began to flock to Havana for its availability of alcohol and gambling. Joe wanted to cater to this new clientele so he put together a sandwich he thought they would like. Sure enough, it was a huge success. You can still eat one at Sloppy Joe’s restaurant near Parque Central in Havana Vieja (Old Havana).
Later, a copycat Sloppy Joe’s was opened in Florida, and then the Sloppy Joe fad spread across North America.
Old Buildings in Havana
Many of the abandoned building along the malecon in Havana were quite elegant casinos, lounges, and hotels. They were built by those mobsters from the U.S., then later just abandoned after prohibition ended in 1933.
Some of the old buildings are being restored while others sit empty.
What is fascinating about Cuba is that new or restored structures stand strong beside seriously crumbling buildings.
Even more fascinating is that people sometimes still live in the dilapidated buildings like this one that was right across from our Casa Particular.
If you would like to meet local people and get help and inside advice about Cuba, we highly recommend you stay in Casa Particulars. These are much like Bed and Breakfast places in other parts of the world, offering a bed and bath or suite in a Cuban home. If you wish, they will make you breakfast and/or dinner for 5 and 10 CUCs (U.S. dollars) respectively. Homemade food in Cuba is simple, but delicious.
Tip: you don’t need to book Casa Particulars more than a day or two in advance except for more touristy areas like Veradero, Playa de Este and Vinales.
Yakelin and Tonet
We cannot even have a thought about Cuba without thinking fondly of Yakelin and Tonet. They are the couple who ran Casa Muralla, our Casa Particular in Havana. Casa Muralla is located at 412 Villegas, between Muralla and Teniente Rey. Yakelin and Tonet were the sweetest couple and they went out of their way many many times to make our stay as good as possible.
We felt like part of the family as soon as we arrived. We were welcomed back like old friends with excitement and big hugs each time we returned from another part of Cuba. Indeed, we said to each other that it felt like going home each time we came back to Havana and Casa Muralla.
Yakelin and Tonet rent the home, and Yakelin is paid 1 CUC ($1 U.S.) to clean and host guests in the home of the owner, Cari, plus Cari pays half the electricity and gas when there are guests. Yakelin also cleans Cari’s home, free.
She made us hearty breakfasts with eggs anyway we asked for them, strong coffee, hot milk, dry toast, fruits (pineapple, watermelon, guava) and fresh fruit juice. She offered some extra grilled ham and cheese sandwiches one day, some amazing chicken soup another day, and on our second-last day in Cuba, a dinner with T’s favourite rice and beans along with pork, salad and olives. We paid 40 CUC per night plus breakfast 5 CUC.
Cool placemats, right?
Another day, I brought her some fresh flowers from the park and a liter of fresh milk. We sat down to chat, and she made me something I had never had before – coffee in hot milk. Milk Coffee. Excellent.
Casa Muralla has beautiful tiled floors and 12′ high ceilings. The furniture is basic, and the beds, as in most casa particulars, are usually a 4 inch mattress over a solid frame. Every Casa Particular we stayed in was spotlessly clean! It was not just the floors, but the walls, the ledges, the windows, the bathroom, the kitchen and the entrances were all shiny clean.
Yakelin is one of the most cheerful and positive people you could ever meet. Even though they haven’t got a lot of money, and rent their home, she once told me that she has everything she needs in life (she knows the secret to happiness). She spoke good English, and Tonet is trying to learn English.
We became close friends with Yakelin and Tonet; they are such good kind people.
Transportation in Havana
Our Casa Particular host, Tonet, drives taxi for the owner of the taxi vehicle. He works very hard often not getting in till 4 am in the morning, and he was always available to drive us wherever we needed to go. If he wasn’t available, he would arrange another taxi for us.
Taxi’s in Havana, and all of Cuba, are not cheap. $30CUC to travel about 20-25 minutes in the city.
There are Coco Taxis too – little bubble-covered bicycle taxis.
But most local people ride bicycles, because that is what they can afford.
Love the way this guy left his bicycle on the malecon. One thing everyone should do in Havana is take a walk on the malecon in the early evening when locals are playing instruments, singing, walking and talking.
Milk in Cuba
It was here in Havana that we found out about the problem with milk in Cuba.
First, Yakelin told us that they can only get powdered milk and that it is very expensive.
Later, T was accosted by a Mother begging him to go in to the state store and buy her some milk for her ninos. At first he thought she was just begging, but then she told him that fresh milk can only be bought by foreigners. He obliged, going in and purchasing the milk.
We finally realized that, for whatever reason, the people are only allowed to buy powdered milk, even for babies. Finding this really strange, we surmised that the dairy cattle in Cuba must have difficulty surviving on the dry grass in the desert-like land in many parts of Cuba.
This article explains what happened to a once healthy dairy industry in Cuba when the state stopped supplying balanced sodder or soy feed. The article also describes White Udder, a cow who won the Guinness world record in 1981 for producing 29 gallons of milk in one day. Cuba’s Dairy Industry Struggling.
Staying at Casa Muralla, we were less than a block from Plaza del Cristo (Parque Cristo), and it gave us a generous glimpse into the lives of the people of Havana.
One day, T mentioned to Yakelin that there were a lot of pretty girls in Parque Cristo. Immediately, her eyes opened wide in alarm, and she shook her finger at T, marching right up to him,
“No, No, No. You do not talk to the girls in the park. They just want your money. They are prostitutes. No, No, No. I told Tonet he cannot go to the parque. You must be careful of these girls.”
We chuckled and appreciated her warning. T had already mentioned that he had received some big smiles from a few Cuban women, and not just in the park.
One day, T went for a walk to the central part of Old Havana. He said he was accosted 3 times to buy cigars, 5 times to go into restaurants, 20 times by local Cubans with hard luck stories asking for money, and 1 hooker.
The truth is that, in Cuba, almost everyone sells something or has a side job – just to survive. The average wage in Cuba is $25 dollars a month! Who can blame the people for trying to earn a few extra pesos any way they can.