Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Tuesday 17th April 2007

Havana (Part one)

Casting my mind back to October and November 2005:

We followed the driver out of the chaotic arrivals hall, to the minibus outside. A surge of childish excitement grabbed me as I noticed a battered 1950s Chevrolet parked up beside it. So far, so Cuba.

Except that it was cold. And drizzly. The edge of Hurricane Wilma had brushed the western part of the island a few days before and the weather remained inclement. We drove through the darkness into Havana, and I had the strange sensation that we were entering a city underwater. I peered through the windows and caught glimpses of cars splashing by, shadowy buildings and figures under umbrellas, some of whom appeared to be carrying large decorated birthday cakes.

We turned into a small side street and found our hotel. Like many buildings, its windows were crossed with tape as a hurricane defence. In our room I fumbled with convertible pesos to tip the guy who had insisted on bringing our bags up to the room. It was to be the first of many such fumblings. Only in the States have I been more conscious of the need to tip, although in Cuba it seemed somehow more valid (although paying toilet attendants for a couple of sheets of loo paper may be an exception). We turned on the rattling fan. Then we turned it off again and headed down to the simple bar attached to the hotel. Under very high ceilings we were served mojitos from the heavy wooden bar, embellished with wrought iron. A four man band, all dressed in white, sang at us.

In Havana the mojitos are lovely. I have no taste for them in London - too much crushed ice, various types of over-fizzy and/or acidic mixer, in which a wash of detritus floats. Here, they are simplicity in a glass: sugar mixed with lime juice, a sprig of mint, soda, rum and a couple of ice cubes.

The following morning we woke to a still wet Havana. The narrow cobbled street outside reflected the sky. We stepped out of the hotel, avoiding a crocodile of school-children. Within a minute we were at the cathedral, a small pockmarked old building from whose recesses odd clumps of weeds sprout. From here we started wandering Havana's old quarter, a portrait of narrow streets, dotted with squares and filled with gently crumbling buildings. That day I grew tired of the wind and the rain, but in the days that followed, the sun emerged and the old quarter's colourful streets were illuminated. The brilliant sunshine swam over tall balconied tenements, covered in washing and bird cages. It fell on the chattering red-scarved schoolchildren, bustling Havanans, beggars and invalids, countless stray dogs, white-clad Santeros, a policeman on a street corner chewing a cigar, and everywhere, cigar hawkers and buskers ready to pursue you. Actually, pursue is the wrong word, although we were followed enthusiastically down the street by a couple of men, one with a guitar, the other with maracas. We had to submit, be serenaded and tip.

Music is everywhere. Almost every bar or restaurant we popped into in Havana had a band, who, after playing a few numbers, circulated amongst the drinkers and diners flogging CDs or simply asking for a few convertible pesos. I did get the feeling that perhaps that Ry Cooder's exercise in cinematic onanism, The Buena Vista Social Club, has affected these bands' repertoire. We kept hearing the same songs, and were often stopped in the street by hawkers promising to show us the Buena Vista Social Club, "where the Cubans go."

"Hawkers" also doesn't seem quite the right word: we were approached again and again by Havanans. Whether it was men simply murmuring "cigar" as we passed, caricaturists presenting us with a likeness they had just furtively scribbled, or people pushing tours of the city by horse drawn carriage, I was struck by the difference to the hawking that goes on in, for example, China or South East Asia. In Havana there is none of the relentless and cynical drive for the tourist dollar that occurs elsewhere. Some just approach for a chat. One day, as we were walking up to the Museum of the Revolution (where gun-toting waxworks of Fidel, Che and Camilo Cienfuegos burst through plastic bushes) a man caught up and accompanied us for a while. My heart sank in contemplation of what we were to have to politely but firmly turn down. But he just wanted to talk and, a few minutes later, waved us goodbye and headed in another direction.

Similarly, on a sunny afternoon we were sitting on the sea wall that runs along the Malecon, looking out at the Caribbean. I noticed two or three men lolling in the arcade of a broken down old house on the other side of the road, idly strumming guitars. Becoming aware of my attention, they wandered over with their instruments. After giving us the obligatory tune, I gave them the obligatory tip and changed some dollars into pesos for one of them. And then, they stuck around for while longer, just chatting.

I mentioned horse drawn carriages. We did take one, climbing on board in the lively Plaza del San Francisco, and glided down the road past the Havana Club distillery we had visited a couple of days previously and a bar next door to it, called The Two Brothers. Our guide told us it served the best mojitos in town. We went there later, and he had a point. But he knew what he was talking about. He lived over the water in the more industrial area of Havana, where he had a job as an engineer, but the one job wasn't enough to support his family and he supplemented his income carting the likes of Claire and me around. He had a healthy scepticism for the way Cuba was being run, and willingly pointed out the actual ferry that had been hijacked a couple of years previously by would-be defectors, noting with disapproval that the hijackers had been executed. We also chatted about music - he had been to see the Manics gig when they were in town. Had he enjoyed it? He hadn't heard of them beforehand, but liked them a lot. Then again, he said the same about Simply Red.

We clopped around Habana Vieja, past the train station, the old Barcardi building and the Floridita - another place where we later found ourselves drinking, alongside the lifesize statue of Hemingway, which leans against the bar. It's good to know there's at least one person waiting for a drink who won't get served before you. Perhaps the most eye-opening part of the tour was when we hopped off the carriage and were led through a local meat market, where the prices were all in regular pesos. The shed was full of punters and butchers. On the tables piles of red meat sat in the sweltering heat. Flies happily buzzed around and a couple of stray dogs sat under the tables, blissfully chewing hunks of flesh.

The stray dogs, by the way, are mostly inoffensive. They are all over Havana. On our first day we visited a series of squares in Old Havana, including Plaza Del Armas, which has a small park in the middle (complete with obligatory statue of Jose Marti), very green in the damp air. We were sheltering from the rain in the porticoed ground floor of a building, contemplating browsing the second-hand book stalls that line the square. A stray temporarily adopted us, sitting a few feet away, and then followed at a respectful distance as we nosed around the square. He soon lost interest and trotted off, as light a touch as the hawkers.

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