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A Brief Look at Havana, 25 February 1998
Our first whole day in Cuba, this follows on from To Cuba. We take both an official and an unofficial look at Havana, we see a bar that Ernest Hemingway was once said to frequent, we meet some of our fellow travellers, and, touch and go though it turned out to be, we suffered the tat of the Tropicana for a whole few hours.
We got up quite early, for our bus tour of Havana.
Cuba seems to be selling itself to tourists as a reincarnation of the past, the glorious past of film stars and gangsters. Not too much mention of the past forty years except that Alfredo, our guide, is proud that there is one doctor to every 380 inhabitants. He also refers to Fidel’s seven-hour speeches, with more than a hint of irony in his voice.
The bus stops and we get out to be offered a photo taken by a man with a Kodak camera dating from 1900, he tells us, which is probably right.
Surprising things pass in the streets, like an old Paris Saviem bus, with the open-platform back, which were ubiquitous in Paris at one time, and are in Havana still painted in the green and white Paris livery. Subsequent research indicates that production of the Renault Saviem SC10 (for that is what they were) ended in 1981.
Also vehicles called camels, which are a bit like airport runway transfer buses, high at each end and with a sag in the middle, towed by a separate tractor unit. In Havana many of these are painted bright pink. There’s a picture and another.
Back to the bus for a drive round town, then a walk to the top of a fort where we can get a drink if we want. We do. $1.50 a beer this time, and we talk to one of our fellow travellers who wants to tell us all about being a midwife in Cambridge and doesn’t ask anything about us.
Then a walk through the town with our guide to see the free market stalls. Lots of books, some look like they might have been on the shelves of someone pre-revolution, but all in Spanish which means we don’t know what is useful, but nice old bindings, plus lots by Che Guevara all looking a bit faded and dog-eared. Cafés with the four-piece band which we will come to grow tired of. Seems a safe enough city to wander round; will do that this afternoon.
But first it’s back to the bus to visit one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bars. Through the tunnel under the harbour, built by the French in Batista’s time, early 19050’s, and past the tower blocks where the workers of Havana live, made from prefabricated blocks, each worker was given time off to build the place we are told, then when they’d built it they could live in it.
Some of the workers’ houses are the athletes’ village from the pan-American games in 1991. The stadium is still there, empty and crumbling. Presumably Fidel put all his energies into it in 1991, then went onto something else and since then no one has been responsible. That’s the trouble with a centrally-controlled state perhaps.
Down a side road to the famous bar, where we are to get a daiquiri (a cocktail of rum, lime juice and sugar), or is it a mojito (which is the same but with sparkling water and mint)? Anyway, we skip the bar and walk down to the sea where we eat our sandwich which we have obtained by wrapping bits of self-service breakfast in a serviette in line with recommendations, as we are told that lunch will be hard to come by.
We watch the local dogs cross the dusty square, which contains a kind of bandstand, some metal chairs, and a bust of Hemingway. One or two other tourists who are not gripped by a daiquiri wander by. Men in a café play dominoes or something similar and a woman brushes out her porch. All very sleepy. Could be Mexico. The people, though, are very mixed ranging from black to white and back again.
Back in the bus and back to our hotel where at last we have some free time. Out on our own. Scary or no?
No, it transpires. Very safe-feeling. We walk round the outside of the museum which houses the boat Castro landed on Cuba in – the famous Granma – named after a province of Cuba, plus some aeroplanes and tanks. We can’t see what the significance of these is without entering the museum and we don’t have time to do that today.
Round the busy streets. The people are poor, but no one is starving from what we can see. Some of the shops are reasonably well-stocked – the dollar shops – some are like old-fashioned haberdasheries with a motley collection of items, sparsely stocked, and some of the food shops are like those you see in Russia, a hole in the wall and either a scrum of a queue or closed. We learn later that most foods in Cuba are rationed. You use your ration card, presumably at the hole-in-the-wall shops, and prices are government fixed. Clothes we don&rquo;t know about, they all look second-hand in the non-dollar shops.
There are cafés and they look pretty OK. Every one has music, usually live with a four-piece of bass, two guitars and a maraca player.
Some people say hello, but for the most part they are not hassley and are very smiley.
We walk through the shopping streets and find the railway station where a man is letting people through an opening in the railings. He wants to know what we want. Nothing, just looking. He won’t let us get away with that and says we can come inside and look around (probably that’s what he’s saying – in Spanish). Still not good enough for us to be on our way. Who is your favourite team?, he asks us in English. Who you know?, we ask. Manchester United, Yeahh. Newcastle, Yeahh. Arsenal, Yeahh. To a backdrop of a poster telling us what socialism is, ending with some good stuff about there being racial equality with socialism in the Cuban People’s Republic. All very disconcerting, the Soviet Union in the Caribbean fronted by a man wanting to talk about Newcastle United.
We walk back to the hotel. Into the bar where we meet the first of our fellow travellers that we talk to in any depth. The retired bishop of Lusaka and then Fulham and his friends, a retired senior official in the Commonwealth Development Corporation and his wife. Very pally over some beers. Then off for a shower as we must eat early tonight, for we are going to the Tropicana.
The Tropicana is an optional tour, sold to us by our guide. We had to pay him and we didn’t have the cash, or felt we didn’t, so asked if we could pay with a credit card. Perhaaps, he said, go and see that lady over there. She booked us in and took our credit card, but we had a suspicion that she had booked us into a different seat from our group. There was some discussion in Spanish between her and our guide and there was clearly some non-clarity about it. Anyway, we are going to the Tropicana.
We had our dinner; self-service of pork rolled and fried in breadcrumbs, squid in tomato sauce, or chicken, plus rice or spaghetti cooked with cloves of garlic. Rather ordinary. Self-service seems to be the thing in Cuba. This is one of Havana’s best hotels.
Out to get the bus that will take us to the Tropicana. Show the lady our ticket. No, you need to get a different bus, it is a different tour company. I thought so, and there won’t be a different bus because the woman booking our tickets had ‘forgotten’ to book us transport, she’d said that at the time and said, don’t worry, just pay the tour guide this evening.
We’d already warned our group of possible problems and they kindly protested. All right, said the lady, you get on the bus and I will help you.
So feeling like the poor relations we got on the bus. Still we did not know whether we could sit with our friends in the Tropicana, we were guessing probably not. Was this a mistake? It was beginning to feel like one.
The bus stopped at other hotels to pick people up, then off we went to the Tropicana.
All off the bus, queue behind the bus lady at the check-in desk. She points to us and a man comes over and takes our ticket, then he comes back with a number scrawled on the back and says: you can go in, sir. No, we’re waiting for our friends. We go in with our friends. An usher takes our ticket (we should have hidden it) and tries to show us to our seat, but we won’t go. We can be very parochial, us Brits, when it comes to who we sit with.
With some negotiation, helped by the guide in the yellow jacket, who said she would help us, all the Brits get on one table, along with a couple of smoking Spaniards whose heart probably dropped, with us, the poor relations tagging along behind, getting the frontmost seats to block everyone else’s view of the proceedings. Bloody credit cards. And we never did pay for the transport.
The show started with some skimpily-clad girls with chandeliers on their heads and went downhill from there. The lights went down and the young girls who had shaved pubic hairs – must have we all agreed as their narrow costume could never have kept a hair tucked inside – walk out among the audience and at a signal, whaaa, all the chandeliers on their heads lit up. Don’t know where they were managing to keep the batteries.
Brash, loud – too loud really – one dance of chaps in patent leather shoes and girls with only a string covering their bottom followed another. And we were to suffer this until 2am, or so we’d been told.
There we sat, ten people on a long table, five each side of the table, in the open air under the trees, listening to and watching this tat. On the plastic chairs, along a table at right-angles to the stage, we are in the frontmost position and the rest of the party have to look at our backs. That’s what comes of being a poor relation.
Loud music, lots of spectacle, chaps and girls with paper flowers on their wrists, or piled upon their heads, and on their cloaks. A set of steps rose behind the stage and there were platforms where the chaps and girls could stand and dance and sing and be a spectacle.
A little man brought us a rum and coke in a plastic cup, then a plate of cheese and meats that neither of us felt like eating. The drink tasted of disinfectant so we barely touched that either. Altogether it was pretty ghastly.
There was just one act that I would say was an exception. An older, African-looking man in a white suit who stood on a platform to the side, moving to the rhythm, um bamba whey, etc, with a story acted out on stage by dancers, culminating in a girl diving from a high platform to be caught by four chaps standing below. Wouldn’t want to be there on the day that one goes wrong.
Good musicians. Brilliant pianist doing an excellent jazz backing to Besame Mucho as well as to rhythmic and repetitive African-style pieces. The whole thing with strong African influence, three African drummers in red tinsel trousers sat in front of the band. Everywhere in Cuba there is music.
At 11.30, just when we were wondering how we could cope with two-and-a-half hours more of this and a party of Japanese had trooped out, the plan seemed to be that the dancers came down into the audience to get the punters to dance, or more precisely, each of the fifteen-year-old scantily-dressed girls picked on a fat old man to dance with them. Penny was laughing her head off as it was me at the front of our bench and she said she could feel the look of horror on my face, oh! how funny! But possibly the girls could read their audience quite well, so none approached me.
Then the guide came to tell us it was over. It did not seem to be over for many of the audience, who were sitting around looking for all the world like they were eagerly awaiting the second half, but it was all over for us coach parties.
One of our group said that was good, wasn’t it, and I said I thought it was tat. Gradually, this then because the accepted view, though how much this was follow-my-leader (in this case the leader, unusually, being me) we don’t know. Maybe I had said something that otherwise would have remained unspoken.
The story continues with To Cienfuegos.


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