Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Thursday 17th May 2007

Havana (Part two)

Calle Opispo is the bustling, cluttered main street of old Havana. It's lined with shops, paladares, banks, and hotels, including Ambos Mundos. In the hotel, you pass through the marbled lobby, take a ride in the antique cage lift, and head down an anonymous corridor, before arriving at the room where Hemingway lived in the late 1920s and early '30s, writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Back on ground level, Obispo will also take you past Farmacia Taquechel, an ancient apothecary, where ceramic jars line the dark wooden shelves that stretch to the ceiling and a human skeleton stares out of a glass fronted cabinet.

Other such relics of pre-Castro Cuba are to be found all over the city, but mainly as crumbling artifacts, such as in Vedado, which in Batista's time, and before, was an affluent suburb, to which the huge art-deco and neo-classical villas that sit beside the neighbourhood's streets bear witness. But now, the brickwork is falling away and the walls' bright colours are faded. All the same, our stroll down the tree-lined avenues and around the green spaces was an elegant antidote to the frantic thoroughfares of the old quarter. One such green space is John Lennon park, a patchy area of grass, where a statue of The Mouthy One relaxes on a bench. On examination, I realised that the holes just in front of his ears suggested that there once had been a pair of glasses attached to his face. Before I could mention this to Claire, an old man was at our side, brandishing a round pair of glasses, and CDs for sale, including an album of Beatles tracks, covered by Cuban artists. I bought a copy, and gave him an extra tip. In response he secured the spectacles. Then, after we had taken a couple of photos, thanked him and wandered away, he retreated with the glasses to his own bench, ready for the next tourists in search of Lennon.

Back on Opispo, the end of the street is overshadowed by the dome of the Capitol. We headed up towards it, and there the city opens up, the claustrophobic walls of Old Havana falling away to reveal large and ornate public buildings, with small landscaped parks set amongst wide roads carrying the requisite old American cars, huge truck like buses known as Camiles, and the distinctive yellow Coco-cabs, three wheeled egg-shaped taxis. On the far side, beyond the capital, a Chinese gate looms over the road, marking Chinatown. Nearby is one of the city's cigar factories. We trailed through it on a tour, and I was disappointed to find the rows of workers expertly rolling leaves not to the sound of a man reading the newspaper through a microphone, but to a blaring radio. The guide said we weren't allowed to take photos, but if the flash was off and if we did it subtly he promised to look away.

We took a cab west, up to the dusty Plaza del Revolucion. One side of its large empty expanse is dominated by the towering Jose Marti memorial, around the top of which birds constantly wheel. On the wall of one of the government buildings on the other side, Che Guevara looks out, a blackened steel freize of the famous Korda photo. Today, the space in between resembled a spacious but unused inner city car park. On busier days it trembles under the weight of marching feet and rumbling tanks and echoes with the sound of Fidel's five hour speeches.

Just further up the road, we found the vast Necropolis, where thousands of white stone tombs and memorials jostle for space. We spent a couple of hours exploring the place, finding flower covered graves of supposed miracle workers, wondering at the elaborate family vaults which I imagine provided better living quarters than offered in the city, and being asked the time by groundsmen. We were constantly being asked the time. I decided that this may have been either because many people didn't have watches, or they just wanted to practice their English. The Necropolis was still very much in use, and while we were there at least three hearses dropped off their contents. A typical funeral procession consisted of the hearse, followed by a motorbike and sidecar, then an open backed truck with a dozen mourners in the back, and finally a spluttering Lada, again packed with people.

We spent about 5 days in Havana. As a city so full of colour, noise and friendliness, but also carrying the weight of its recent history and the endless propaganda of both sides, it is of course, ultimately perplexing. Especially, when the music does stop. We looked up from yet another mojito to find the band had discarded their instruments and were eagerly crowding around the windows. We joined them to watch a couple of policemen laying into a skinny rickshaw driver. One worked his stomach, while the other caught the man's bare heels with his boot, toppling the unfortunate onto his back.

106 - posted at 16:43:16


I know it's another sign of what a bad state their economy is in, but couldn't i help being impressed by the industrious lengths everyone went to to perform small tip-worthy favours for you. 'Keeper of John Lennon statue's spectacle frames' is a fairly inventive piece of job creation...

1: Claire - 12:39:37 on Saturday 26th May 2007 (permalink)

Oi! Blog summat!

2: Dave - 15:31:09 on Monday 30th July 2007 (permalink)

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