Cuba is like one of those annoying friends at parties who wheels out the same laboured anecdote about how they once saw Mick Jagger on a train to impress girls, make themselves seem cool and climb social celeb-spot ladders. Yes, Cuba, we know you had a revolution, yes Cuba, it was very historically significant for the country, unifying disparate communities and cultures into one all-important national identity and sense of self and yes it was a coup for the people giving them a voice finally, but change the record please!
Cuba is amazing.
Flying into Havana, the first sense to be aroused by the heady mix of vibrancy and passion is sound. Your ears are bombarded with sound from the moment you land to the moment you leave. The low rumble of bass, the high dull clunk of cowbell, the middling shriek and yell and argument and friendly loud endless banter of Cuban voices, the noise, the aural assault. Havana’s international airport is frenetic. With three checks to go before you’re allowed to leave the airport, you line up in a variety of queues before being pushed out into the frenzy of people all screaming for your attention, for taxis, for cigars and hotels. When we find the bus we’re supposed to be on, a man approaches us purporting to be the driver, grabbing my ticket and inspecting it before handing it back and pulling my suitcase away from me, placing it in the luggage rack. He thrusts a ten pound note at me and babbles loudly and aggressively, imploring me to take the ten pounds. I stare at him dumbly. What does he want? Why didn’t I learn any Spanish? What is he saying? Is he trying to pay me? Another man approaches, wearing a shirt with the bus company’s logo.
‘Tip him,’ he says in an American slant.
‘With what? I just got here. Why does he want to give me pounds?’
‘He wants you to exchange it for local currency and include a tip.’
‘Can you ask him to stop shouting at me, he’s freaking me out.’
They talk in Spanish. The bag man grumbles and storms off. The man in the logo’d shirt shrugs and ushers me on to the bus. He starts the engine and we make the crawl into Havana’s Old Town.
Cars spectacularly dress the road up in a variety of delights and beauties. Horse and carts clip clop next to old 40s and 50s Dodges, Chevrolets and Cadillacs, all shining and gleaming with the love and attention of curators, Soviet bloc Skodas and Ladas breeze past stoically, cars we used to make fun of back home in the playgrounds of the 80s.
‘Well your mum drives a Skoda…’
‘So, your mum drives a Lada.’
The next sense to get assaulted is your sight. You are bombarded with propaganda and graffiti proclaiming abstract victories of ideas and ideals as well heroic canonisations of Che and Fidel as heroes and martyrs. My favourite graffiti is ‘Socialism or death…’ which seems a little extreme, and ‘Todo por la revolucion’ which I hilariously translate as ‘To-do for the revolution’ like it’s a list: 1) Buy khaki 2) Overthrow government 3) Buy some medical supplies. The only non pro-Cuban revolution graffiti is either about 5 men who are currently being tried in America for trying to repatriate young Elian Gonzalez back to his motherland, and anti-American posters, dressing Bush up as a cowboy, proclaiming the twin towers tragedy as a good thing and other mish-mashes about the Yankees. There is no mention of Obama. There are many churches clattered in amongst the suburban formally white decaying concrete living blocks, and we wonder what the division between church and state is in a currently Communist, formerly Catholic country.
We arrive at Hotel Sevilla, a grandiose representation of Cuba’s former glory as the decadence capital of vice it was under Batista. The soothing clink of ice and the ornate carvings and chandeliers all point to the rat pack charm that existed pre-revolution. A drink at the top of the hotel overlooking Old Town, across to the Malecon, a strip of road and path that lines the seafront where most of the Havana life decamps to in the evenings to enjoy swimming and drinking in the dying embers of the sun, confirms Havana’s former beauty, now caked in acrid black sweat and lack of upkeep. We sip our mojitos in our tower above, overlooking Havana slink into action as night falls, the bustle of cars replaced with the throb of bass.
We are greeted the next morning on our virgin walk in the new city with friendly banter. They say Cuba is relatively safe for tourists as tourism is its biggest industry that isn’t subsistence. Doesn’t stop the touts from approaching, wanting to sell cigars and rum and take you to their shops and giving my bride the attention a beautiful lady deserves. The heat is intense and rumbling early on. Now we’re in the city, the revolutionary graffiti is tempered with the more familiar art of hip hop tags, some even adorn the massive capitolo in the centre. The theatre of Havana is hosting the Royal Ballet and we stop outside the theatre to gaze in at ceiling frescos and crumbling balconies hosting vantage points over the main drag of Old Town. Heading down Obispa, we find a mixture between tourist shops selling you any drum you want, paper mache works of art and rum, as well as the ubiquitous Che t shirts, posters, fridge magnets, vacuum covers and whatever else you might need with his face on it and ration shops. Here, we run into our first problem. I pop into a supermarket to buy some water, a quick refreshment from the oppressive heat. I pay the man in local currency and he shakes his head. Through my pidgin Spanish and his pidgin English, we struggle to the truth.
A few years ago, Cuba cancelled any movement of US dollars in shops. There was a two tier currency with the national peso being used for rations and US dollars being traded for luxury items. Tourists even could pay for things in shops in dollars. To solve the problem, the government introduced the CUC, which is essentially tourist money. Tourists pay in CUCs in shops. Cubans pay in pesos. If a Cuban wants to buy a luxury item, they have to convert their pesos into CUCs. But the CUC is worth more than the peso. For example, a bottle of water may be 1 CUC but 3 pesos. We eventually get to the crux, the guy won’t accept CUCs, he points me to a shop where they do and we head over to buy water.
Walking around in circles around the Old Town, we fall upon plaza des Armes, where book stalls have set up in the shade to sell books from pre-revolution (old classics), diaries from during revolution and post revolution rhetoric and analysis. Here is where all the books that amounted to Cuba’s rich culture and artistic background pre-revolution have been saved up for. That’s not to say that there is no art now. The streets are flooded with free galleries, the graffiti is inventive and funky and there is a burgeoning music and art scene. I wonder to Katie how much of this has been due to Buena Vista Social Club and the world’s fascination with old Cuban music, something that has reinvigorated the countless musicians everywhere. The book stalls also sell tens of Spanish comics, all of which I flick through in glee, despite my lack of comprehension.
We head to the cathedral, a beautiful crumbling building dominating a large square. A band plays in a nearby restaurant, an old man in a blue linen suit and walking stick salsas by himself in the middle of the square. Our view over the rooftops from the belltower reveals that behind the facade of the blocks, there seem to be microcosms of universes all existing. It’s breathtaking. If you want to see Cuban life, all you have to do is look up. The balconies exist as their own entity. Everyone hangs out on their balconies, watching the world go by, chatting to each other across the street, interacting with the world down below by shouting and laughing, or just watching.
At the Revolution museum, we are treated to a largely in Spanish blow-by-blow reconstruction of the revolution, from the initial Yankee pigdog invasion of Cuba to heroic Fidel’s rise through the student ranks through to the revolution itself. We see photos of fallen soldiers, their personal effects, equipment used during, some still with blood spatters. We see the guns used, a fetish-like display of the violence that the revolution involved. The celebration of the country’s single greatest triumph is played out for us, the reasons for the singular national identity and pride becoming clear, regardless of the economic sanctions since that have crippled the Cuban way of life meaning large portions of the country exist in abject poverty. Outside, the tanks and missile launchers romanticise the Bay of Pigs and the destruction of US spy planes. The Granma boat, that brought Fidel back to Cuba after his exile, sits proudly behind glass. Soldiers guard the revolution.
As we leave the Revolution museum, I wonder if the Cubans are happy. I know that the older generations are so proud about the revolution and can excuse a lot of the crises that have unfolded since through a sense of ownership. But the censorship on things like mobiles and internet, on certain types of music and culture, while it is all changing it does mean that these facets of Western culture are making a steady influx into the consciousness of the youth today and will they be bothered about the revolution, something that happened 50 years ago? I wonder if this is how it was meant to happen. Obviously it isn’t. Everyone was supposed to be provided for. But times have been tough. Does the post revolution mettle of the Cuban public live on?
To be continued…