Friday, 30 January 2015

I went to Cuba five and a half years ago.

In August, 2009, me and Suzy moved to Grand Cayman, BVI, Caribbean. There are several return flights to Cuba a week and it takes just over an hour to get there. So we decided to give it a go, before I began work in a local paper in Cayman.

Because I hadn't been writing a great deal in the first couple of months in Cayman, quite a lot of words came out about Cuba. Here they are.


Sunday, 18th October, 2009
We awake, excited and still not believing that we’re getting away. We pack – a large bag each; Suzy’s rucksack is full, my big bag nearly so. It’s the usual daywear of shorts, T-shirts and swimming gear in case we get out of Havana. I add a few things like parecetamol, decent bog roll and oat-bars just in case, plus some old magazines for possible boredom.
The taxi comes; it costs CI14 – more than we anticipated, but then again it is Sunday – and we’re at the airport. We try and check in.
Problem no. 1: I’ve left the CI100 at home that I’d had in my wallet for several weeks. This means we can’t buy the necessary tourist card for Cuba which is CI20 – US$25 – each and I have to hammer it out on the credit card in the airport. I hadn’t brought my debit cards cause they don’t work over there.
The tourist card is a kind of visa that means we can stay over there for three months. We’re stressed about the money and it all feels odd cause we’re leaving the island. Still, we negotiate check-in and security well enough… til we get a row from emigration because we’ve lost the exit cards we were given back in August when we got here. We had thought that those cards were temporary residency permits that were obsolete as soon as we got our work permit stamps in our passports – but, no, you need to leave them every time you leave the island, and pick them up when you get back. A little pointless given a passport is scanned for the same reasons, no?
In duty free we talk to the girls behind the counter about moving to UK and job opportunities in London. They’re Malaysian and we tell them it’s expensive, but there probably is some work there if you don’t mind the expense and the rain.
We scrape together enough cash to buy a bottle of 5 Year Old Rum, origin of Nicaragua, just for ourselves at our hotel. We also see some compardres who are off to Tampa. We chat about what might be in store for us and them. Neither of us really has any idea. Off they trot, and we have a coffee with the very last of our CI cash and prepare to get on a plane for the first time since the epic journey to get out here.
When we lift off, it’s exhilarating, maybe frightening to an extent, but mostly exciting. The one-hour journey is punctuated by a glass of complimentary rum punch and some crossword-ruining. We’ve left our guidebook in the hold luggage.
It looks very different from beachy, tiny, hazy, sunny Cayman.
There are fields, trees, hills; there is rain. The skies are greyer and noticeably less humid.
It looks, to all intents and purposes, like the UK.
Like home.

We smile at each other.
José Martí International Airport is named after the freedom-fighter, poet, author and independence hero of Cuba. His influence is everywhere and he is of course everybody’s hero, including Fidel. Art, writing, freedom: three tenets of the Cuban psyche, we’re told.
The airport is the same as countless others across the world, aside from the fact that now all the staff are wearing anti-swine flu masks which is a little disconcerting. We decide not to take any pictures as we fill in the declarations of health before customs takes us to in little red booths, scrutinises our tourist cards and our trying-to-be-nonchalant faces, snaps the same on distinctly up-to-the-minute tiny webcam, and waves us through.
Welcome to Cuba, she says to me, and I smile again.
Luggage regained, we head toward the taxi rank, mindful that we have been warned about rogue drivers. “Make sure it’s a Cubataxi,” they said, “Some unlicensed drivers have been known to take you to their friends’ non-legal accommodation instead of your own casa particular. It's dangerous. ”Which we don't want; there are limits.
There’s an official who waves us forward and speaks into his walkie-talkie.
Primero para Habana, he says.
No reply.
Primero, he repeats.
Silence.
Shrugging, he puts his fingers in his mouth and whistles. The first taxi in line comes to greet us, equally shrugging.
No functionar, says the driver about his walkie-talkie.
We get in; it’s a pretty much brand new car that is a bit like a Peugeot and the journey to town is chatty and friendly. Suzy’s Spanish is great, mine is rubbish but I have a go – and our first sight of Habana’s outskirts sends thrills shaking inside us all. There’s the sports complex; there’s Plaza de la Revolución, here’s downtown Habana. We’re delighted to see cars, people, buildings, bustle. Grand Cayman is all about the beaches and the quiet, the modern and the slick. We want something a bit more scruffy, a bit more down to earth, a bit more real.
Fuck, do we get that.
We reach the casa particular – a recent phenomenon where selected householders have been allowed to run what amounts to a private B&B limited to two rooms per house. They’re cheaper than hotels, more likely to know the locality inside out, and certainly all about getting stuck right into Habana how it is. Ours is two blocks down from the Capitoleo, an edifice that is almost identical to the Capital building in Washington, DC.



We stop at a government-run restaurant and slaveringly stuff in plates of lomo ahumado (smoked pork loin) (and congrí – black beans and rice. As we do so, a band starts up in the corner. A real band! Live music! Real, talented, amazing musicians in their forties and fifties! It is fantastic; we haven’t seen any proper music like that in two months. We digest it, digest our food, and I nearly buy a CD through sheer gratitude. The meal costs us 20 CUC.
(Dual currency explained:
http://www.wsicubaproject.org/CubaDualCurrencySystem08.cfm
http://www.cubanet.org/CNews/y08/en08/24a1eng.html)
We tip the band CUC1, not knowing what else to do, and wander to Capitoleo’s beautiful interior in something of a daze, fending off jinteros left, right and centre who – on seeing our faces – know we’re tourists.
Where are you from?, says one guy
Inglaterra, says Suzy
No, soy de gales, I chip in, pleased to get to practice my miniscule vocabulary.
He doesn’t get where that is so we try and explain but eventually, impatiently, he asks in Spanish what we’re looking for, whether we want cigars, and if we need a taxi. We decline, he follows us down the road a little bit but we walk away and move on as a brash succession of other jinteros try and catch our eye. It is horrible, and the two blocks’ walk is dirty. Like, really dirty. Like rubbish-strewn streets, rubbled, potholed, puddled roads, bits of stone and concrete dirty. We look up at buildings that look as if they’re going to fall down if we blow at them.
(This place is broken, man, we think at each other. But we don't let the thought out, not quite yet.)
See, the Capitoleo is full of tourists like us, which is really comforting, so we take some pictures and head toward the Grand Opera House next door. Some people are waiting outside so we ask why and they tell us it’s a performance tonight; tickets available in an hour. We don’t want to wait so we head back to the casa and shower, having bought a bottle of Rum & Cream on the way for CUC3. The casa is basic, but pretty cool – definitely somewhere that we’d never have seen had we gone down the hotel route.
We make it out for the performance, which costs CUC5 each and MN5 for the locals. Several excellent soloists sing heartfelt, timeless love songs and skit each other in rapid-fire Cuban Spanish inbetween. The head diva,  a blonde Jo Brand, is absolutely compelling and sounds and looks wonderful. She's had a life, of that there can be no doubt. We're privileged to be here hearing about it; I can't understand a word but I understand the music, the passion, the loss, the triumph in the movements and the dynamics and the voice. Cause, truly, some things are universal, beyond countries, beyond politics. The timelessness brings tears welling to my eyes and I want to sing and cry and grin all at the same time. Being British, of course, I sit there trying to stop it all coming.
At the big finale anyway and as I kind of knew she might, the diva grabs me and makes me get up and boogie with her. I bust a few moves, and am without a doubt the worst dancer in Cuba, where the men are born with snake-hips and the women born with sin in theirs. Mine are full of Welsh porridge. But it’s fun; we all smile and the concert ends.


Suzy and me round the night off with a couple of mojitos in the nice bar of Hotel International.


As we sit at a table that’s decorated with a penis-armed painting he streets are raw and shout to us; it’s like nothing else we’ve ever seen. But the slight sense of unease is pushed down again under our collective will and realisation that travel is always disconcerting and the first night even more so. Specially after two months in silent-night, offys-close-at-seven Cayman.
When we get back to the casa – through very, very dark streets and football crowds of jintero harangue – our housemate, Willi, greets us. He’s in his sixties and is in Habana for cigars and rum and a few stories of his time running restaurants and hanging out with Tom Jones. He is fabulous company, fun and charming, and makes a cracking Cuba Libre. We leave Willi to the end of his cigar and retire at around midnight to get a bit of kip and plan the next day, intrepid explorers in a strange but strangely familiar land.
It’s good to be off-island, definitely.
We're just feeling the pace a bit in the big city.
We almost believe it.
And we sleep.
***
Monday, 19th October 2009
We both feel it; a slight unease, a dislocation, the kind of itchy-bellied gulpiness that comes in that split second after waking in a new place. We open our eyes to the surroundings of our perfectly-adequate ensuite room in the casa, and vow to get stuck into Habana properly.


It is always the same: the first day is a haze, a blur of new sensations, smells and sounds and we did exceptionally well to cram in as much as we did last night. Today, we say, we’re gonna head out for breakfast, watch the world go by and start to see parts of the city that are marked in our borrowed guidebook as must-visits. Neither of us like being pegged as tourists but it’s what we are, and as we pick our way through potholes and ill-smelling puddles we fend off a couple of half-hearted jinteros. We’re happy and joking together, a little nervously, but it’s good to hear the laughing children in the nearby schools and the streets, though crumbled, are certainly full of life.




Habana Vieja as it really is

One of many magnificent aspects of the Old City is the preponderance of museums, art galleries and historical stop-offs. We’re heading vaguely toward a famous café when we’re drawn by a fantastic old pharmacy, which is half still-used and half a museum. It’s the first of many wonderful discoveries behind dangerously-delinquent looking classical facades of this part of town – it’s free, but for a CUC1 donation, and we suddenly feel like we’re properly in a new place. And not for the first time, Suzy gets asked from which part of Spain she hails; when she says she’s English the look on the face of the lady asking is of shock. A look that will become familiar in many conversations over the next few days. Me, I stick with the odd que bonito and hasta luego. This place is very difficult without any Spanish at all and I realise how little a GCSE actually helps you speak. But it’s something, a tiny candlelight in a cathedral of linguistic darkness.


We reach Plaza Vieja, which is starting to teem with tourists and is being given a major upgrade, like a fair amount of this part of town. It looks betterin the pictures than at first hand; the photos aren’t eloquent enough, and nor are these words, to describe the sensation that somehow the fairly-recent tourist industry has come at a time when the brilliance of the architecture most needed it. Without the cash coming in from the hotels, none of the restoration would be possible; given the state of some of these surrounding streets who knows what would have become of this UNESCO Heritage site? There are dichotomies all over the place here and it’s only Day Two.



Calle Mercaderes is possibly the best example of regeneration. Here, the plasterwork is perfect, the paint no longer peeling, and the windows polished and bright. There are cafes, murals, street performers and hundreds of turistas wandering about gormlessly following their tour guides. We’re gormlessly wandering about following our book. This street is a cleaned-up version of Habana Vieja; had we a posh hotel elsewhere and visited for a day, this is what we would have seen. We ponder this latest bit of near-insight in a beautiful place: Café de las Infusiones, a government-run place with a rather extensive coffee menu, a sadly-unattended (electronic) piano in the corner and a mural on the wall. This is a place of writers, music, and pricey ham n cheese tostadas. Not for the first time, as we sit there we wonder if we are actually in Europe somewhere. We watch the world wander by, and life is serene.
Until an old woman comes to our table, asks us for a boligrafo (biro). We lend her one. She puts it in her bag and pisses off. We shout after her, but she is gone and even the waitress raises her eyebrows and shrugs. What can you do? She’s not all there, we reckon, and slurp our dregs, pay and leave.
The old woman’s standing in the doorway; we get our pen back. If only she’d asked for it – to keep – in the first place, she could have had it. But we’re pen-less and need to write things down so we (i.e. Suzy) politely request the return. It’s an odd moment. Having read about the place beforehand a little I’m feeling a little uncomfortable about everything to do with money, wealth, whatever. I don’t quite know what I’m supposed to be doing here. I think about the nonsense and decadence of some of the things I’ve done in the past and I feel guilty. You might call it a catholic guilt except the original sin is being born under a capitalist system no matter whether the Tories, Labour or whoever were actually in charge.

When I was a kid, in the punk band, we - I - would write songs about being Victims of consumerism and happily chunk along in gigs handing out copies of Counter Information and sitting up late with mates in their houses smoking whatever and talking in woolly terms about the intrinsic inequalities engendered by the system and how worth based on wealth was no worth at all; how on paper, in words, anarchy was the only real intellectual answer, the only way that life could ever be fair. From each, we’d say, according to their ability, to each… don’t bogart that joint man, now what was I talking about again?

The plaza de la cathedral is fine, and quiet, and we keep getting asked to buy things, to come on tours, to have our picture taken with some beautiful women in full salsa dress (I’m obviously up for that but somehow it doesn’t happen). And the cathedral is calm, and quiet, and – like a cathedral, really. Where religion fits into Cuba – and where it sits, more pertinently, with Castro’s regime - is an interesting question best answered by people way cleverer than me:
The plaza refreshes us – a little – so we look to grab some more culture (there ain’t a shortage of that here; ay, you can hear it round every corner. A snatch of son here, a clatter of heels there, an exhortation to enter a gallery to the left and a museum to the right.) Interesting, then, that we end up at the local Comite de Defensa de la Revolución HQ and museum.



They’re having an exhibition there and so in we go and, hawked over by an incredibly serious woman in her forties, we gaze respectfully on revolutionary posters, a hat Ché once wore, a mural which I get my picture taken in front of (wearing my BCFC hat, of course) and are led upstairs for more revolutionary art, political slogan-posters and a couple more rooms of exhibits.




It is intense stuff: we barely breathe, deep in the heart of Castroism, wandering round the conference room where committees still meet to discuss hyper-local issues, and all the while we’re trying to look appreciative, interested, relaxed.Nobody else comes into the museum whilst we’re there and as we leave the place the three women working there ask us, very seriously, if we enjoyed it.
Si, I say, seriously, muy interesante

And a little blown sideward, we wander off toward a square with a second-hand bookshop (expensive) and a small book market. We’re too serious to engage with it and though I half-arsedly look over a Jose Martí collection, I don’t buy anything. It’s at this point that we’re grabbed by a smiling, persistent geezer who insists on singing Guantanamera at/with us. After he finishes, we fill his percussion instrument with as many coins as we have on us. It’s about CUC1.

But we’re in a skewiff mood; the Comite de la Defensa building has knocked out more of our comfort-zone hubris. Probably a good thing, but it’s not helped the mood lighten up any and the sheer amount of sensory stimulation is bashing us from every angle. A procession walks past. Women on stilts, clowns; it’s street theatre but passes before we get a chance to really catch our breath. What is this place? And everywhere the dilapidation is shocking to us. There is nothing to prepare us for this; certainly a two-month preamble in – let’s face it – sleepy Cayman has only heightened our own sense of dislocation. We’re bothered and walk, silently, nearly-scowling, toward the Chocolate Museum.

After a short queue – during which several people nip in ahead of us, perplexingly – we get a table and order thick, delicious, expensive cups of gloopy Aztec chocolate and a few chocolates artesanas.



This is a beautiful building, too; a mix of art nouveau and classic hardwood. We could be anywhere, as long as it’s 1896 and we’ve cash in our pockets. Which it isn’t, but which we kind of have. It’s all relative; we’re back to being holidaymakers again, though, which is why we’re here. And it’s not even lunchtime.
In Cuba, and particularly in Habana, there’s one thing that is essential and that’s to get bang into the rum. As we both like a drop (me, a little more, I guess) we take our leave of the choccy haven and plan our route toward Havana Club museum. On the way I get a haircut from a brilliant bloke whose salon is full of gigglers, gays and the first guy to have been granted an art exhibition in the first year of the revolution by Castro himself. He looks like Dave Lee Travis. The artist, not Fidel. The haircut costs CUC3 – it’s also fantastic so I give him a five note and say keep the change, as I would at home, and because translated through three different timezones it still works out as just about £3 even with the tip.
(Later Suzy changes CUC20 into MN and comes out of the bank wide-eyed and clutching a roll of notes with the girth of John Holmes himself; the rate of exchange is MN29:CUC1.)


The Museé Del Ron is everything a tourist could want: multilingual guides, plenty of information on how the barrels are made, imported, kept, the rum cut from sugar cane as it has been for hundreds of years in Cuba, initially by slave labour. That latter fact was not glossed over by the guide here; an honesty you may not get elsewhere. There are pictures of the slaves being hammered into harder work and it’s an accepted part of the history. Whereas elsewhere, like, let’s say, USA, or UK, you’d get a shake of the head and a sad footnote to a tour like this, here in Havana Club it’s naked and honest. We walk through rooms made up with pictures of rum tasters checking the ageing is working, gasp admiringly at a scale model of the rum factory (complete with a working toy train set), and end up fifteen minutes later at a bar where we get a free tot of the seven-year-old stuff. Suzy and me hang around there and the barman, though taciturn, pours us out another shot when the others have gone. It is good to be tourists again; this is way better than the cluttered streets where you ain’t likely to get robbed (there are intensely stringent laws that punish theft in ways we don’t even care to imagine) but you are constantly avoiding the eyes of someone who’s gonna try and engage you in a conversation about… about anything that might lead on to the exchange of a couple of CUC for a cigar, a tip-off, whatever. And the beauty of the place – which is undoubted, at timeless times – is diminished by the din.
Nuff to ponder on there whilst we chomp on gambas, listen to another fabulously-talented bar band, and stare at the paused image of Shakira’s crotch on the telly behind the Havana Club bar.



And though a cockroach wanders past our dinner, we’re back in the game again; we walk back to the casa, satiated, sleepy and ready for siesta. Willi’s there, this time with his friend, a Canadian dude who was once married to a Cuban. He gives us advice on a Chinese restaurant to check out where the portions are huge and cheap. Willi shakes his head; he’d had a row with the management who were accusing him of inappropriate cigar smoking. Willi got quite upset with them and tells us he said he didn’t want to eat there anyway, with all the cockroaches running up and down the walls.  A fine image on which to sleep.

We wake a couple of hours later, bleary and a little stupid-headed. Willi and his mate are gone into town somewhere and I decide that we’ve had enough excitement so an evening stroll down the Malecón would be the thing to do. The Malecón is a sea-wall walk that takes in several miles of the Habana coast and looks out over the choppy waters of the straits of Habana (or Florida, depending where your map is from). These straits are notorious for escapees to the Florida Keys, and staring out at them as the choppy swell roars over the sea wall and slimes passers-by it’s a moment to wonder as to motivations. There are things in this world that are difficult to grasp. For someone from the UK, it’s hard to imagine wanting to – having to – escape to a different kind of freedom. Cuba is complex; I feel underprepared and undereducated moment by moment.
By the fading light, though, it’s nice enough and we stroll on the broken pavement occasionally stopping to wonder what the fishing’s like, and to imagine what it’s like to be here, to live here, and to be young and courting: the Malecón, according to the guidebook, is full of couples whispering promises and lies to each other, as well as fishermen, guys playing dominoes, the ubiquitous jinteros and is awash with colour and energy.
Not tonight: it’s awash with seawater jumping the walls and now it’s pitch black and none of the streetlights are on either. This, allied to our wandering aimlessly with no real goal in sight, doesn’t help the mood.

Neither does the constant reminder of architectural disorder across the road. These beautiful buildings are dying,.dead, demolishing themselves. In the gloom it’s depressing and dreary. The cars zoom past us, the sea rears up toward our heads, we slip and slide on the cracked sidewalks and it’s… not that much fun. We’re about to give up and grab a taxi but none come and finally after an hour of increasingly sober, introspective trudge, we fall across the road into a restaurant where the waiter speaks excellent English, ignores my terrible Spanish and knows all about footy. The mojito is wonderful here and revives us. Grateful, I give him my Bangor City supporters’ club badge.
Bueno he smiles soy socio
Si I grin
The international language of football wins through again.

I have it in my head that we absolutely must go to a paladar this second and so the waiter points the way toward one that we can’t see but he insists is there. He offers to accompany us but we politely decline and plod up the road. We find it after a little asking about, or arsing about, and the 12-seater home restaurant looks decent but the prices are higher than we’d like and we embarrassingly extricate ourselves from there, feeling terrible but also over-budget for the day already. Habana is surprisingly pricey, particularly with rum tours and tourist stuff chucked in there. So we wander back in the very vague direction of our digs, turning down four, five offers of restaurants in about two streets, and getting ever-more hungry til we reach a kiosk that turns out to be a bar, and in we plonk ourselves.
There’s five people in here, on battered stools, getting served local beer for a couple of pesos a throw; as we walk in there’s an animated conversation between a regular and the barmaid about the cost of two beers and a cigar. The guy is adamant he has enough, the mathematics make sense, he says. It’s a circular argument and in the end the barmaid shrugs, and gives him the beers. He doesn’t have any more money anyway.

Meantimes, we’ve ordered some food – billed as 'Gordon Blue' chicken – fried, with ham in the middle. It’s greasy and fairly hideous and about halfway through I’m full but I feel like I ought to finish it anyway so I do, and my stomach gurgles and I force a couple of beers down cause by this time a bloke of the age of 82 has come in and we’re chatting, half in Spanish and a little in English. He’s drinking water, had been to the UK a lifetime ago and is eloquent, funny and we buy him a beer when we leave. He gives us a copy of Granma in return. It’s the communist daily paper named after the boat that brought the boys to the Bay to batter Batista. We finish up, handshakes all round, and pay. It costs MN30 or thereabouts – about CUC1. We’d paid CUC12 for a couple of coffees and some bread at lunchtime. Ay, this is a land of oddity.
We walk back; it takes an hour during which I think/wonder/wish I’d pressed a MN20 note into the old guy’s hand or whether he’d have been affronted by it. I still don’t know the answer; I only wish I’d thought of it at the time. It’s too late now to do anything but have more pangs of that strange vague guilt that’s been dogging me all day.
Unformed are these naggings, certainly not questions as yet: I’m exhausted, somewhat confused and utterly unable to begin to process all the things that’ve happened today; all the things we’ve been confronted with; all the things with which, I guess, we’ve confronted ourselves.

****
Tuesday, 20th October, 2009
We sleep in, exhausted by the immensity of the wanderings of last night. It wasn’t that we were looking to expend all our energy in one day, more that after two months of very laid-back and largely uneventful relaxation in Cayman we were desperate to experience a much more frantic, lively environment. Our urgency in seeking out things to do, people to bounce off, architecture to gawp at was rooted both in Cayman’s modernity and previous European trips we’d enjoyed. But Habana isn’t quite Europe, even if it looks very Spanish from a distance and with narrowed eyes. As we found out, in spades, yesterday.

We awake, limbs and minds knackered – last night had some amazing points and meeting up with the real Habana and Habaneros in the local bar was an eye-opener and a half. There’s no cash about, but nobody there was hustling anyone else in contrast to the bustle of the streets and the conversations at the bar were ones that were at that moment identical throughout the world. From Bangor to Barbados, Reykjavik to Riadh, people were swigging mint tea / mojito / Viking beer / coffee and chatting about sport, girls, music, life. It was very special because it was so very ordinary – perhaps, in a sense, when we travel that’s what we’re ultimately searching for: confirmation that there are many, many more similarities between people than there are differences. That culturally, physically, geographically, architecturally, things can be dangerous, terrifying, exciting, exotic, beautiful, splendid, strange; that experiences confront, confuse, conspire, collude, trip-up, trip-out, flash by and flash fierce. But when you get one-on-one, in the right light, in the decent dank, in the noble nothingness of chit-chat, there is always common ground: a common experience. That people treat you as they would anyone else, and generally in these situations that means with a decency, welcome and good humour that instantly lasers away idiotic politics, social systems and two fucking fingers right up to all the bullshit and shadiness of the power-brokers and the war-mongers and all those selfish, dead-souled profiteers who seek to put themselves above and beyond normal understanding or hope.

Brotherhood, understanding, hope, sharing: these things are in the bible, and in the manifestos of many left-leaning factions. But most importantly, in the hearts and minds of the lads and lasses at the bar, the boys at the footy, the guy passing a hip-flask down the line in the middle of a freezing open-air gig. It’s the default human position but it’s easy to forget. And it’s easy to be blasé about; we’ve all read 1984. We all know how that turns out. But it doesn’t stop it being an immutable truth: people are generally cool. No more, no less. Get on with it. Don’t be a tit. Help where and when you can, and with good grace. Don’t preach about it. Blah, blah, blah. Ay, were it only that simple.

Waking up with a blasting hangover borne on the dubious wings of horrible 5-year-old Nicaraguan rum doesn’t help the mood, and neither does the impending release of Chicken Gordon Blue – what’s in a name after all? Cordon Bleu, Gordon Blue, whatever it’s billed as, when you’ve got a stupid little cosseted middle-class stomach it still can’t cope properly. So there we are and out it comes.

****
We’re taking it easy today so ‘all’ we do is head to the Museo de la Revolucion.


We’re reminded of the fact that this is real-life history we’re talking about here, and the three-floor exhibition is informative and gives the official tale of events from the days of Martí through to now. Being a museum of the revolution gives us that angle on events. History’s written by whoever wants to write it.

There is too much complexity to try and unravel these artefacts and statistics to their kernel of truth: needless to say America doesn’t come off all that well. And nor do they deserve to. The regimes of the yankis have irrefutably and consistently sought to undermine, to cause chaos, to demoralise and to murder – not just here, but worldwide – and it’s based on the differences between people. What you can’t understand, you must destroy, shout a succession of CIA actions: but they haven’t destroyed. Against all the odds, Cuba is still here and so are the Castro brothers. What is most intriguing is what’s going to come next. In five years, ten years, twenty: the Cuban economy is growing. Venezuela, Bolivia in South America share a trade agreement, having rejected the US free trade; Spain is a massive and interested investor, observer and historical partner; the biggest-growing economy in the world - China - is becoming an important part of the mix. Things are intriguingly poised for the country, but in the present day until the economy can sustain a single currency unit or at least restore a tenfold value to the MN people still have to parley and trade por la izquierda here to boost the measly rations and it still can take a doctor two days to buy a toothbrush. The tourists have already had an impact. They – we – swan in, all CUCs and neo-liberal bollocks - 2 million visitors a year, 2 billion CUC; how the country deals with it is important. We want to see Cuba how we would like it to be but we see it how it is. For the time being. The future is far from clear, but hopefully it’s a better one. The tenacity and highly-educated intelligence of the Cuban population will not have it any other way. There will be music, art, education and love, always, here. Blockades, or no.

Wandering amongst the home-made tanks and single-engine planes is grandiose enough for now but nestled in a corner near the plexiglass that houses the boat Granma on which the revolutionaries landed is a bitch recently given birth to a litter of puppies who are even now, blind-eyed, suckling their first. Nobody pays any mind; stray mutts are a common sight on the streets of Habana at the best of times. It’d be easy to see this as some kind of metaphor for rebirth, but it ain’t: it’s just a female dog, with a load of new dogs licking its tits.

We look for the museum of music, but it’s closed for refurbishments (presumably – there’s no signs and we find a grand-looking, boarded-up building where it should be on the map) and we stop for a horrendous papaya smoothie at a café where we fend off an excellent band who’re standing a little too close to help conversation. Said smoothie is at best an acquired taste so we grab a cola from a nearby kiosk and take a seat to prepare our next move. It’s got hot now; I aim to sip at my can to find a large wasp staring back at me.Irritated, I launch the can in a nearby bin and to the sound of a horse and cart and giggling Canadian tourists riding in it we wander back through Cathedral square toward the city centre again. First, we look for the casa de la musica – a building of some repute in the middle of Havana’s shopping streets. The roads here are in a particularly bad state and the jinteros are particularly pushy; we note that a performance is due in two hours and try and find Willi’s mate’s Chinese restaurant.


Unsuccessfully. The city today is noisy, the classic cars are particularly smoke-belchy and the hunger is making us short with each other. Eventually we allieviate it by spending stupidly small amounts of cash on pizza from a local seller whose kiosk is in the forecourt-hall of a block of flats. It comes to something like MN20 for two slices, a drink of fresh passion fruit and a blast of orange squash. That’s around 80p. The peso pizza is great; fresh, crisp onions and doughy enough to satisfy. We wash it down further with crushed ice and glutinous, sweet strawberry syrup from a cart by the side of the road. Cost: 2 pesos a cup.


Post-siesta we’re in Bar Floridita, an extremely clean and swish bar where Hemingway used to drink.





Here’s me with the dodgy statue of him that leans on the bar. I don’t know why I’m not smiling either. Maybe because a drink is CUC6 which by anyone’s standards is a shitload. The bar claims to be the home of the Daiquiri, so we have one and start to relax. Such is the tourist trap of this place that you are served Coca Cola here, not the local equivalent (which is sweeter and actually feels less like being assaulted internally by sherbet bandits). The Floridita band is great, the girls’ hips swing mesmerizingly in time with the salsa, and life is good.


Two doors down, there’s a bar where the drinks are a third of the price, the food is as reasonable as bar burger n chips gets here, and yet another band taps into the fine and discerningly-raw rhythms of the Cuban capital. People dance, smile, chat, drink. It’s a brilliant place. We get back to the casa late, pissed and damned happy. There are many, many sides to Habana - having come through some serious moments it feels like we’ve just found one of the most enjoyable ones so far and are starting to get to grips with this unbelievable place where contrast is king.

****
Wednesday, 21st October, 2009
We’re woken at 8am by the sounds of the kid of the parent of the mate or sister of the chaps running the casa particular. With the Nicaraguan rum sloshing about in the battered bellies and bruised synapses engendered by the end of another long day yesterday it’s not our favourite way to start the day off. Still, the brilliant evening has put us in a better mood and with a swift (and massive) plate of toast in the patisserie next door to Hotel Inglaterra we’re off and running. The patisserie is fantastic; hand-made pastries, croissants, all that guff – the coffee is cracking although the butter tastes a little unwise (add salt is my advice). We sit and watch Habana rushing by.
The vintage cars are possibly the best-documented city feature in guidebooks and on websites.





Suffice it to say that these big, old American beasts are quite beautiful to look at and are now an established and constantly-exploited feature of the tourist landscape. There are around 60,000 of these pre-revolutionary cars belching their way around town; the one-time rides of the Giancanas and the yanki gamblers, the casino crowds and the moneybags exploiters of the fifties. The remarkable thing is of course how long these vehicles are still running at all, in the fiftieth year of the revolution. And of course the truth is often a little more prosaic: often the shells of these Yank Tanks have been fitted out with new motors from entirely different cars, ensuring a continuation of aesthetic and ingenuity of mechanical engineering that’s close to an art in itself. Surely, also, the fact of these cars’ continued existence points to something about our own throwaway culture, where inbuilt obsolescence and perceived out-of-dateness ensures the economic wheels keep turning. You don’t actually need to get another car, but if you think you need / want one then a new one will turn up. A laptop, two years old, is now ancient. A PSOne is goddamn caveman stuff. Mending things is not ‘cost effective’ because mass production has driven down the prices of new, completed commodities so for as to lower expectations of quality along with it. You get what you pay for, and then you pay for it again in eighteen months’ time when the processor, the big end, the remote control fucks up. Resources aren’t unlimited on this planet but we rush around using them up as fast as possible, cramming them into our gullets like a fat kid at a buffet. Vulgar, yes, easy option, yes. And I sit and watch these beautiful cars go past and realise, again, that I’m feeling guilty, again, because I’m the same. Fuck. Need? Want? Two different words. In our world used interchangably all too often.
We wander past Capitoleo, flick a few jinteros aside with a sigh and find Willi’s favourite Habana establishment: the Partagas Fabrica de Tobacos.



It was established in 1845 and the building is quite beautiful. We pay CUC10 each for a tour, following in the footsteps of Trevor MacDonald, who’d been here a month or so ago. We hadn’t watched the documentary before we came out here, which probably helped us looking suitably wide-eyed around with our excellent guide who talks us through the various stages of selecting leaves, processing them and finally the hand-rolling of the cigars that are the envy of the world. Everything here is pretty much done in the traditional manner: by hand. There are people whose jobs it is to sort through hundreds of leaves for eight hours, day in and day out, others who sit in a large room colour-coding the dried leaves into unimaginably-tiny differences of hue; there’s a hand-rolling school (where students are paid to learn the art, and not everyone makes it through. Quality control is stringent here). Finally, the rolling floor, full of concentrating Cubanos and Cubanas (60% of the workers are women) busying themselves creating, one by one, perfect cigars. José is an embodiment of the opportunities this skill can provide; he’s just spent three months in London as a master roller, teaching the Brits how to do it. This exporting of talent is common for the best of the best and the cigar factory. José grins when one of our group asks him if he’s happy to be back in Cuba. “Of course,” he beams. Brightly. Of course he does.

“That guy over there,” says our guide, “Is the reader. It’s his job each morning to stand by his desk on that stage and read the paper whilst the guys work. After lunch, he reads for forty-five minutes from a book.” Out loud, obviously. The rest of the time he buzzes around chatting and joking with people and a radio blaring sexy salsa adds to the buzz of the workplace. Ya know, it doesn’t seem a bad place to be. Hard work. But skilled, and honest, and well-organised. This place has many internal opportunities to rise from rough roller to the guys whose job it is to measure and weigh the cigars for tightness, smoothness and smokability. It looks the cushiest job of all; they’re mostly sat around chatting about baseball whilst they do their duty. “They’re supposed to check each one,” smiles the guide. Maybe they do. We can’t take any pictures but the atmosphere is genuinely productive and the vibes are good. We’re intruders, really, in this workplace, but we’re not made unwelcome. Cuban cigars are the best in the world, they say, and just before JFK signed the embargo document in 1961 he made sure that 1000 of his favourites were imported for his own personal use. What a twat.

Over a Cohiba in the shop/bar afterwards I feel all manly and skillz cos I have like this big tube in my mouth that I am sucking on. We chat to a guy who’s also from Cayman; he’s here running around the nightlife with his guide, who’s quiet, intelligent and recently in receipt of a Spanish passport granted by that country to Cubans who could prove a grandparent was a Spanish national fleeing Franco or during the civil war.
He works as a guide, earns CUCs and heads off to see the world; but he always comes back to his home. Why would he want to leave permanently? He works here, he says, and he can work abroad if he likes. No problem. Cuban passports are a little more problematical.

It’s a beautiful day so we stroll back to our digs and siesta, waking only to neck more rum and chomp on some highly-flavoured but quite horrendously-textured Pelly Crisps, more of which can be found here: http://crispsofthecaribbean.wordpress.com

The evening is spent in the posh bar of a posh hotel drinking mojitos, half-lazily planning to run around all night, half-lazily planning to head to Casa de Musica for the 11pm concert and spending far too much on ridiculous papas bravas that, whilst delicious, suck out all the rustic glory of the actual dish itself in favour of some stupid modernist art.





We are, after all, tourists: the profits from this Habanuex hotel are going to the refurbishment of the surrounding streets anyway. It’s an easy, lazy, decadent justification for self-indulgence. But soon the mojitos take hold, the bar is relaxed and quiet and we could, once more, be back in Europe. I wonder to myself if that’s really what we wanted to do all along. There’s not much that can prepare you for Habana and certainly its massive similarities in architecture and language to Spain only serve to highlight the massive differences in attitude, politics, pace and approach. We’ve forgotten, I think, that we’re in the Caribbean at all: things are different here to Europe anyway and why should Cuba be any different? We ponder these not-too-bright thoughts on our not-too-bright wander back to sleep, having forgotten again to get our music mojo risin’. Ay, well, there’s always tomorrow for all that.

****
Thursday, 21st October 2009
It starts, again, in the patisserie, next to a hotel where we’d checked our actual return flights on incredibly slow internet access. Another contrast to our cosseted, online-hefty lives here: for 6CUC an hour it’s about the speed of 56k dialup, unreliable and often down for days on end. The woman in charge of the six computers just shrugs and says ‘mañana’ in these situations, cause there’s not much to be done. We are, of course, on holiday, and it’s kind of freedom to be not online constantly. Weird, too, like not drinking water all day or somesuch. Actually more like not drinking any alcohol for a month. Not gonna harm but it’s gonna be missed. Actually it’s not like that either cause what not being online at all has done has added a sense of isolation from the rest of the world, from Facebook and Twitter and Google and The Citizens’ Choice. It leaves me feeling a bit rudderless and aware of the net’s power.

Aside from the costs there are numerous reasons why Cuba’s internet access is lagging behind countries less than an hour’s travel away. The US won’t allow Cuba to tap into the high-speed underwater cables near its coast, so every signal has to bounce off a satellite. An inefficient and slow process. Apart from that, there are more worrying things at work, too. There are restrictions on accounts; restrictions on access; the governing power has woken up to the fact that several bloggers are getting round the notoriously strict press controls and gaining followings in an unprecedented way. The net is not tameable and it is hopefully a losing battle. The net is the revolution of free speech that is otherwise unlikely and horrible here. I am, by trade, a journalist. And to do that job, you need to be able to use all of your words. And people need to be able to read them.
Two overviews of Cuba’s press:
In the face of this information I immediately take a picture of my feet, unable to square this latest revelation in my dunderWelsh head.





And so, we go and look round the shops near Chinatown, getting hassled in the nicest possible manner on the way by a cheery, charismatic big guy who supports Liverpool and fires names of players at us. It’s groovy til he leads us toward a café – we tell him we’ve just had a coffee, he keeps at us, we say no thanks, he shrugs and wanders off again, having spotted more tourists to chat to. His job, it strikes me, is not really any different to anyone in hospitality, restaurant, entertainment business. Pressing flyers into hands, or Gordon Ramsay taking restaurant staff on the streets to hand out samples: it’s all a means to an end and we’re all just after making a living. The hustlers here are just a bit less refined sometimes than the insidiousness of the advertising, media pressure, propaganda we live by every day at home. It ain’t that different, not really. ‘No thanks’ is still accepted, eventually.
Down this part of town are some of the most gorgeous, crumbling buildings in the city.



There’s life, people, loads of building work going on, people checking out clothes on the stalls and in the windows, peso cafes next to tourist-trap CUC boutiques selling everything from CDs and postcards to fridge magnets and beach towels. There are locals, and tourists, and jinteros and people going about their daily business without being too arsed about any of us. It’s a buzz from all angles. Suzy spies some jelly shoes and approaches the girl on the street selling them. It takes ages to get noticed but when she does we get invited to follow the woman to the shop which is ‘just down the street’. After ten yards we wonder where we’re going and kinda turn off in a weird haze of paranoia. The invective follows us awhile before the insults blow away on the wind again and we wander into a succession of department stores; each seems to have the same pair of trainers for sale. They ain’t bad, either, and I need some, so we ask if there’s size nine available.
Solo ocho
Solo ocho
No. Ocho
Ocho
It soon becomes a mantra.

Some of the less well-appointed shops have a jumble sale musty smell. Ostensibly we’re looking for gifts; wandering around aimlessly isn’t my favourite pastime anyway but Habana’s stores are another contrast to the slickness and horrendous consumerist nightmare/paradises of the UK. It is inevitably depressing. Suzy goes to check out a promising-looking clothes shop, I stand outside wondering whether I would rather grab a ham butty, pizza or a decent-looking hot dog from the peso stalls opposite, or whether a swift meal in the MN Bodega would be advisable, and I catch the eye of a guy in his twenties who soon approaches whilst I inwardly sigh again and try and be friendly as possible. We speak in bad Spanish, him offering me advice on not changing money on the streets, asking where I’m from, whether I like Cuba so far, and we share a joke about oh ho ho my wife’s in the shop so I stayed out here, women eh, same everywhere. It isn’t funny. But it takes a good five minutes before he asks if I want cigars cause his brother works in the factory. I say, no, I stopped smoking two years ago but thank you, and we shake hands and off he goes.

Amidst the short-stocked shelves and gloomy grime, there are gems. Like the craft market we stumble upon, which is a slightly-touristy mishmash of second-hand bookstalls, plastic tat, cheap jewellery and wonderful hand-made wooden and knitted , stuff. The shoes here are lovely, too: leather everywhere. It’s a welcome diversion and we buy stunning home-made meringues from an old woman to help us along the way. The building it’s housed in is an old department store that was once a multi-level and 1950s space-age shoppers’ delight. Nowadays the escalators are closed off, and most levels are used for housing. Like a lot of this part of town it’s a reminder of how things were, how they are, and how the world outside has changed in the interim. It doesn’t say who was right. That one’s a little more complex.
Exhausted, we grab a MN2 ice cream and sit down by Capitoleo to take stock. It’s a lovely day; we don’t get hassled at all as we take it all in and watch the horse-and-cart rides clop by, tourists beaming and wide-eyed therein. The guy whose brother works in the cigar factory makes a cameo, mate in tow. I nod to him, they walk past, slowing to say something I completely miss. Blank, I stare back and smile and they wander off. Suzy tells me he was asking us to follow them.
Instead, we get a taxi to Vedado, due east of Habana Vieja. We’re dropped off on the Malecón, which in this light and this sunshine looks totally different to the ghostly, repressive darkness of our first experience. And we happily note the Hotel Nacional perched high above the streets. Immediately it is evident that this part of town is completely different to the packed, wrecked cobbles of the old town.




The streets are wide, leafy, beautiful, the atmosphere buzzy and younger, the vibe welcoming and kinda student/bohemian. There are young couples everywhere, the buildings seem better-kept and suddenly we’re in the Havana that the guidebooks and the reports and the reviews say is so compelling and fun.


The claustrophobia of the constant whirl of the city centre is entirely absent here, a point we ponder over a hearty and fine meal at Café TV, in the basement of the television building. Movie stills adorn the walls, the décor is clean, the place is packed with young creative types and the food is brilliant and affordable (something like CUC4 or 5 for a two-course lunch plus drinks each). We feel at home here; there’s nothing but younger people hanging out, chatting, eating and talking about work, television, sex and art. This Café is a gem; by night a hub of music and creativity, too, by all accounts. We are happy.
Happier still when – having checked out the shopping complex that surrounds the café – we find ourselves doing something truly reserved for young Habaneros. Queuing to get into Coppelia Ice Cream parlour. It’s a great 1960s park with several entrances, where the locals hang out waiting their turn to be seated near one of the four different bars serving different flavours of ice-cream.

The smart money circles the park checking out the notice boards for what’s on offer. The smart tourist stands in line and waits their turn; it is possible to walk straight up to the CUC bar and get the ices in. But it costs astronomically as much to do so. So get in line, with the other excited kids, and wait your turn… it’s worth it.
Half an hour later, we’re joyously snarfing down berry and malted ices for all we’re worth. A bowl each, and we’re full The couple we share our table with get three bowls each. It is delicious, and costs in the region of 20p for the two of us. Absolutely outstanding.






There’s a great-looking picture house across the road. A film and an ice-cream afterwards is the classic date for the kids who live round here. They have impeccable taste. This is massively high-standard stuff so far, and since we got out of the taxi we’ve been transported into a different world entirely.



A short wander about to let everything digest and it’s clear that what we should have done all along is find a hotel out here. The bars, coffee shops, restaurants, paladars are friendlier, better-looking, cleaner than the cramped surrounds of Habana Vieja. Apparently, some of the casas particulares here are absolutely ace, too. And in contrast to the desperate state of some of the old town’s buildings, here there is work going on all over the place to keep things up and running. Not that it needs it, not so much: things here are way sturdier and better-kept. So it’s obvious, really, where we went wrong in the first place. Location. Had we stayed here, in Vedado, we could have gone into the old town for a day and come back to recharge. We wanted it to be ‘authentic’ but when it came down to it where we were at was just far too much to take in; far too real for us.



We buy some Havana Club and Malaysian crisps from a local offy, grab a photo-opportunity in the plaza on the Malecón and head back on a Coco Taxi – another Habana piece of uniquness. They’re basically Vespa scooters mixed with bicitaxis, and they’re bloody ace. Grand Cayman would benefit from a fleet of these babies buzzing around between the raised-chassis wankery of the bigger SUVs. And despite the diesel fumes from some of the unreconstructed Yank Tanks, we get back home safe enough.
No time for a siesta, if we want to get our music in, so we have a swift shot of Nicaraguan rum and an even briefer wash…
…too much at once. I am desperate to get stuck in to the casa de la musica but my brain and body demand some quiet time away from the constant rush of the city. A part of me is screaming to get out and do as much as possible right now right now pack in the experiences cram it in you need to do this immediately all at once when will you ever get the chance again, another part is full of guilt that I need an hour off. I’m whirling with the different pressures I am putting myself under. If I could stop the clock for a couple of hours a siesta would sort it all out, but we’re short of hours. Something has to give. Sensibly, we delay ourselves to calm down and take it all in. It takes me an hour of stupid crosswords and sitting still to get my head back together enough to want to fire out again. The casa de la musica has shows at 5pm and 11pm; now it’s 7.30 so we decide to take it a bit easier, give ourselves a moment and take in the later show. We feel back in control; it’s been easier to accept we’re tourists after Vedado.

Later we find a bar, grab some CUC1 mojitos (this place is three doors down from La Floridita, where drinks are six times the price) and chill out. The evening blooms via a meal in Hotel Plaza that’s decent, more drinks, and a new bar. We get chatting to a Korfball-playing Dutch guy called Johan who’s here alone, very drunk and spent his two days here so far walking around the city – like, walking ten miles a day. He’s good company, and we talk about everything under the sun before he heads off for his midnight appointment in another part of town. For our part we’ve missed the music – again – and we round the night off by taking the barman’s offer of cheap eats up, getting a delicious lobster tail and a couple of mojitos for something like CUC7.

We get back to the casa late; Thursday night in Habana has only just started for some but it’s 2am now and any more would be…
…well, next time, eh? Habana Party City is a whole other kettle of fish. If the Americans ever lift all restrictions on travel it’s gonna turn into stag night hell in an eyeblink. Everything’s set up for it.

****
Friday, 22nd October 2009
It’s 10am, and we’re nearly packed-up and excited, in truth, to be on our way. One final walk around Habana Vieja, in our more positive mood, reveals churches, art galleries, loads of workmen rebuilding interiors and fixing houses, and a guy in his window dancing the Macarena. Suzy joins in from the street and we all smile. Here's a picture not related to that incident.





The more we see, the better it looks. Yeah, the streets are a nightmare and yeah, the constant bind of fending off jinteros gets grindingly horrible – but it isn’t as simple as that. Habana Vieja is actually quite extraordinarily beautiful and a lot, lot more positive than we have encountered at times. It’s a matter of degree, of expectations dashed and preconceptions challenged. Cuba, Habana, the whole caboodle, is a hugely difficult matter because everything seems so different in the way it works. But people are inherently flexible, too, and after a few days here you get a glimpse – and no more – of what lies underneath. There is infinitely more here than meets the eye. It’s tricky to come to terms with it because suddenly everything you thought you were and everything you thought you believed in is challenged. That, ultimately, is healthy and one hell of an experience, too.

I grab a quick guarapo from a street stall. It’s a pure sugar cane drink and an acquired taste, but it’s also refreshing and I feel good about it.



Suddenly it’s midday, we’re back at the casa. In a final fit of middle-class guilt I leave a couple of books and footy mags, some soap, bog roll and toothpaste behind. I have never felt so fucking patronising in my life. But I don't need those things; I've read the books and the rest is cheap enough to buy in Cayman. Here in Habana the fact that there's street sellers with two, three tubes of toothpaste for sale for hard currency only tells a different story. But I feel guilty about leaving it, guilty about having access to it. What a good little Westerner I am. And I was trying so very hard not to be, too. How upsetting.
Back in the real world we pay, and nobody really says goodbye – as we heft the luggage downstairs we spy the familiar form of Jorge and his taxi, returning to take us back to José Martí.
After negotiating customs and check-in (always somehow a worrying moment, like walking past rozzers when you’re pissed) and some more dodgy crisps, we’re back on the plane to Cayman. The stewardess sashays past, offering us rum punch.
Forty-five minutes later we’re getting views of Seven Mile Beach as we approach the island.



The sun is shining here; we can see both sides of the island and we’re not even that high up. It’s small, familiar and we smile at each other at the fact that we’re coming back.
Back home.
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Tuesday, 20thOctober, 2009
We sleep in, exhausted by the immensity of the wanderings of last night. It wasn’t that we were looking to expend all our energy in one day, more that after two months of very laid-back and largely uneventful relaxation in Cayman we were desperate to experience a much more frantic, lively environment. Our urgency in seeking out things to do, people to bounce off, architecture to gawp at was rooted both in Cayman’s modernity and previous European trips we’d enjoyed. But Habana isn’t quite Europe, even if it looks very Spanish from a distance and with narrowed eyes. As we found out, in spades, yesterday.
We awake, limbs and minds knackered – last night had some amazing points and meeting up with the real Habana and Habaneros in the local bar was an eye-opener and a half. There’s no cash about, but nobody there was hustling anyone else in contrast to the bustle of the streets and the conversations at the bar were ones that were at that moment identical throughout the world. From Bangor to Barbados, Reykjavik to Riadh, people were swigging mint tea / mojito / Viking beer / coffee and chatting about sport, girls, music, life. It was very special because it was so very ordinary – perhaps, in a sense, when we travel that’s what we’re ultimately searching for: confirmation that there are many, many more similarities between people than there are differences. That culturally, physically, geographically, architecturally, things can be dangerous, terrifying, exciting, exotic, beautiful, splendid, strange; that experiences confront, confuse, conspire, collude, trip-up, trip-out, flash by and flash fierce. But when you get one-on-one, in the right light, in the decent dank, in the noble nothingness of chit-chat, there is always common ground: a common experience. That people treat you as they would anyone else, and generally in these situations that means with a decency, welcome and good humour that instantly lasers away idiotic politics, social systems and two fucking fingers right up to all the bullshit and shadiness of the power-brokers and the war-mongers and all those selfish, dead-souled profiteers who seek to put themselves above and beyond normal understanding or hope.
And this, this is why someone like Lennon said Power To The People. Why Lennon is now a hero of the revolution as well as worldwide. Why Lennon, the wife-beating philanderer, drug-fiend, sarcastic scrapper and brilliant buffoon, is still talked about. Because people like that speak for more than their own sheen and shit songs; were it not them it would be any one of us. Itcouldbe any one of us.
Brotherhood, understanding, hope, sharing: these things are in the bible, and in the manifestos of many left-leaning factions. But most importantly, in the hearts and minds of the lads and lasses at the bar, the boys at the footy, the guy passing a hip-flask down the line in the middle of a freezing open-air gig. It’s the default human position but it’s easy to forget. And it’s easy to be blasé about; we’ve all read1984. We all know how that turns out. But it doesn’t stop it being an immutable truth:people are generally cool. No more, no less. Get on with it.Don’t be a tit. Help where and when you can, and with good grace. Don’t preach about it. Blah, blah, blah. Ay, were it only that simple.
Waking up with a blasting hangover borne on the dubious wings of horrible 5-year-old Nicaraguan rum doesn’t help the mood, and neither does the impending release of Chicken Gordon Blue – what’s in a name after all? Cordon Bleu, Gordon Blue, whatever it’s billed as, when you’ve got a stupid little cosseted middle-class stomach it still can’t cope properly. So there we are and out it comes.
We’re taking it easy today so ‘all’ we do is head to the Museo de la Revolucion. We’re reminded of the fact that this is real-life history we’re talking about here, and the three-floor exhibition is informative and gives the official tale of events from the days of Martí through to now. Being a museum of the revolution gives us that angle on events. History’s written by whoever wants to write it. There is too much complexity to try and unravel these artefacts and statistics to their kernel of truth: needless to say America doesn’t come off all that well. And nor do they deserve to. The regimes of theyankishave irrefutably and consistently sought to undermine, to cause chaos, to demoralise and to murder – not just here, but worldwide – and it’s based on the differences between people. What you can’t understand, you must destroy, shout a succession of CIA actions: but they haven’t destroyed. Against all the odds, Cuba is still here and so are the Castro brothers. What is most intriguing is what’s going to come next. In five years, ten years, twenty: the Cuban economy is growing with its South American footholds. Chavez gives credit, Cuba send eye doctors. Sight is saved, kids are given a chance, but people still have to parley and tradepor la izquierdahere to boost the measly rations. The tourists have already had an impact. They – we – swan in, all CUCs and neo-liberal bollocks; how the country deals with it is important. We want to see Cuba how we would like it to be but we see it how it is. For the time being. The future is far from clear, but hopefully it’s a better one. The tenacity and highly-educated intelligence of the Cuban population will not have it any other way. There will be music, art, education and love, always, here. Blockades, or no.
Wandering amongst the home-made tanks and single-engine planes is grandiose enough for now but nestled in a corner near the plexiglass that houses the boatGranmaon which the revolutionaries landed is a bitch recently given birth to a litter of puppies who are even now, blind-eyed, suckling their first. Nobody pays any mind; stray mutts are a common sight on the streets of Habana at the best of times. It’d be easy to see this as some kind of metaphor for rebirth, but it ain’t: it’s just a female dog, with a load of new dogs licking its tits.
We look for the museum of music, but it’s closed for refurbishments (presumably – there’s no signs and we find a grand-looking, boarded-up building where it should be on the map) and we stop for a horrendous papaya smoothie at a café where we fend off an excellent band who’re standing a little too close to help conversation. Said smoothie is at best an acquired taste so we grab a cola from a nearby kiosk and take a seat to prepare our next move. It’s got hot now; I aim to sip at my can to find a large wasp staring back at me. Irritated, I launch the can in a nearby bin and to the sound of a horse and cart and giggling Canadian tourists riding in it we wander back through Cathedral square toward the city centre again. First, we look for the casa de la musica – a building of some repute in the middle of Havana’s shopping streets. The roads here are in a particularly bad state and the jinteros are particularly pushy; we note that a performance is due in two hours and try and find Willi’s mate’s Chinese restaurant. Unsuccessfully. The city today is noisy, the classic cars are particularly smoke-belchy and the hunger is making us short with each other. Eventually we allieviate it by spending stupidly small amounts of cash on pizza from a local seller whose kiosk is in the forecourt-hall of a block of flats. It comes to something like MN20 for two slices, a drink of fresh passion fruit and a blast of orange squash. That’s around 80p. The peso pizza is great; fresh, crisp onions and doughy enough to satisfy. We wash it down further with crushed ice and glutinous, sweet strawberry syrup from a cart by the side of the road. Cost: 2 pesos a cup.
Post-siesta we’re in Bar Floridita, an extremely clean and swish bar where Hemingway used to drink. Here’s me with the dodgy statue of him that leans on the bar. I don’t know why I’m not smiling either. Maybe because a drink is CUC6 which by anyone’s standards is a shitload. The bar claims to be the home of the Daiquiri, so we have one and start to relax. Such is the tourist trap of this place that you are served Coca Cola here, not the local equivalent (which is sweeter and actually feels less like being assaulted internally by sherbet bandits). The Floridita band is great, the girls’ hips swing mesmerizingly in time with the salsa, and life is good. Two doors down, there’s a bar where the drinks are a third of the price, the food is as reasonable as bar burger n chips gets here, and yet another band taps into the fine and discerningly-raw rhythms of the Cuban capital. People dance, smile, chat, drink. It’s a brilliant place. We get back to the casa late, pissed and damned happy. There are many, many sides to Habana and we’ve just found one of the most enjoyable ones so far.