Monday, March 31, 2008

Sketches of Cuba - Part 4

One of the undoubted highlights of our trip was the visit to Hemingway’s old home – the place where he put down the deepest roots and wrote some of his best known books including For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea and A Moveable Feast. Hemingway was devastated by the Bay of Pigs invasion because it meant that he could not return to Cuba and this beloved home. He committed suicide 3 months after the invasion.

The house is called Finca VigĂ­a (or Lookout Farm - there is a tower-like structure to the left of the main building) and is set on 15 sloping acres of mango, and avocado trees on the outskirts of Havana. The contents of the house have been preserved as if in aspic, frozen in time. We see his Cinzano bottle, his dandruff lotion, his Glen Miller record, and touchingly one of his signature eye-shields lying on a pillow. I wasn’t much impressed by the candlewick bedspreads – but maybe they were the height of fashion in the Fifties. There’s a Newsweek magazine speculating on the liklihood of a Kennedy presidency.

The rooms are dominated by the results of his big game hunting exploits – the stuffed heads of various deer, buffalo, moose and wild cat. There are also thousands of books showing the breadth of his reading.

You are only allowed look in the windows where each room has 2 or 3 staff doing some desultory dusting or occasionally giving impromptu lectures of the contents of the room they’re in.

Out back Hemingway’s boat is docked forever and there are the suspiciously well-tended gravestones of four of his dogs. A twee touch for such a butch guy.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Sketches of Cuba - Part 3

Hiring a car is not to be lightly undertaken in Cuba. The cost is prohibitive and the paperwork formidable. You get the impression that it’s not commonly done.

When you get out on the road you soon discover why. There are no road signs whatsoever so in trying to get on the road to Santa Clara (one of the biggest towns in Cuba) we got totally lost and had to take a local on board for about 15 miles to set us right. A feature of driving on the largely empty roads is the huge number of people hitching – many holding up bundles of pesos to encourge you to stop. It’s the same in Havana where every set of traffic lights has a few hitchers trying their luck.
Also, there are numerous giant potholes that would render night driving extremely hazardous. The complete absence of street lighting means that only the foolish would drive at night in any case.

Anyway off we head to Santa Clara with the Che Museum our main goal. As you enter the town the giant monument of Che dominates the skyline. There is a vast square around it where presumeably ceromonies are held to honour the great man. The museum is under the square and attached to it is the mausoleum where Che’s bones were laid when they were finally dug up from their Bolivian grave.

The museum is a moving memorial to Che’s life. We even get his Irish grandmother’s chair. There is Che as rugby player and young medical student. You see pictures of him on his motor bike and climbing mountains. And plenty of his sojourn in the Sierra Maestra as they engineered the revolution: Che extracting a tooth, Che riding a mule; Che reading Goethe in a makeshift shelter.

The mausoleum in a separate area under the giant statue. There is an eternal flame and each of the 37 rebels killed in Bolivia have a separate niche in the wall decorated with rather insipid reliefs of their heads. There is also a real flower – a small lily - adorning each niche. There is no talking or even whispering allowed while in this area – and this rule is rigorously enforced by the attendants.

Santa Clara itself has little to offer visually but come Saturday night the whole town gets out and struts its stuff in a small square near the public toilets. There is a large and enthusiastic band and everyone, old and young, gets up and dances. Great fun.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sketches of Cuba - Part 2

In the bar of the Hotel Telegrafo in old Havana we were enjoying a mojito in the late afternoon when we noticed a peculiar character at a nearby table. He was engaged in animated conversation with a handsome Spanish-looking women in her early forties. He was compeletely bald and vaguely reptilian looking – it was hard to determine his age but I reckon in his fifties. (For an idea of what he looked like do a search on “Gollum” in Google images.) But it wasn’t his grotesque appearance that caught the eye, it was his peculiarly animated manner. He was hunched forward talking to the woman in a very intense fashion, there seemed just too much intensity for such an innocuous scenario. There was also some coming and going with the bar staff and the security guys – with all of whom he seemed familiar and at ease. He was either a local or at least a regular and he spoke the local language. A little later a young girl (15 or 16?) joined the couple – she was tall slim and extremely beautiful – more Spanish than Cuban looking. She looked timorous and apart from her very manicured nails and the tatoo on her lower back seemed an innocent abroad. It was also clear that she hadn’t met the old creep before. After a little conversation between the three of them, the older woman got up and left. And Gollum then gave her his undivided attention. He ordered some food for her and as she picked at it he hunched forward talking to her intensely - all the while gripping her thigh. Her body language bespoke her unease as she tilted backwards away from him. We left them to it but speculated at what on earth was going on. Was this a flagrant example of underage prostitution in broad daylight – or was there an innocent explanation.

It seems not, for the next morning when we came down for breakfast, there was Gollum and this girl dining together. While they hardly acted like a loving couple, she went about the breakfast buffet in a blithe and unconcerned fashion. He maintained his creepy intensity of manner as he devoured his breakfast. The strange thing was not the apparent prostitution per se, but rather the flagrantly obvious way it was conducted. Prostitution is illegal in Cuba and the security forces do clamp down on it from time to time. The only explanation I could venture was that our friend Gollum was in fact a member of the security forces. And, given his command and ease in a very upmarket tourist hotel, a senior member at that.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sketches of Cuba - Part 1

My first visit to Cuba – but not my last. We only got to Havana and Santa Clara – the east of the island remains to be explored.

We stayed in the Hotel Saratoga in old Havana – a relic of colonial decency and style. It had fine big airy (and clean) rooms and a very professional and helpful staff. Its crowning glory was its rooftop pool where you gaze in wonder across the crumbling tenements and general squalor that is downtown Havana – and then turn back to your mojito and check out the action around the pool.

Across the road from this hotel is the Marti Theatre long disused but now being renovated – slowly. This theatre was named after Cuba’s greatest freedom fighter and Castro’s hero, but during the Batista era became a venue for burlesque shows and striptease. A goad no doubt to the idealistic Fidel.

The food, oh dear, oh dear. The next time I will take preemptive action by bringing my own basics. It was generally vile (yes, thank you Bom Appetit in Mirimar for that one decent meal) – especially the breakfasts. And this criticism also embraces the otherwise excellent hotels.

Also, while the hotels are the glory of old Havana, they are very expensive if you book them on the Web. Wait until you get there and then book into the Saratoga, the Sevilla, or the Telegrafo – all fine relics of colonial splendour.

Cubans curiously are not allowed into their own hotels – at least the big tourist hotels. This is a strategy that allegedly protects tourists from the rapacious prostitutes and hustlers. And the rule is zealously enforced by the ever present and ominously lurking security staff. However, the same security staff will blatantly pimp their own girls for a not very modest fee, or sell you illicit cigars if you take your oral gratification elsewhere.

The hustling generally is not too bad – I was approached in quick succession by a very well-dressed one-legged man in the Museum of the Revolution and a man with two stumps for hands in a nearby market, but they were easily repulsed. At night however things get more intense. Any night club or music venue we went to involved being mobbed by importuning women – all dressed to kill and many very beautiful. It became so tiresome on one occasion (at the famous Casa de la Musica in Havana’s Mirimar district) that we actually gave the music a miss and retired to our hotel bar. The alternative was to enter the venue festooned with women.

Any trip to Havana has to involve a walk along the Malecon – especially during the day. A favourite sport seems to involve sitting against the wall and letting the waves crash over you – dozens of youths in their swimming togs seemed to spend the afternoon doing this. Keep walking and you’ll come upon that old mob relic the Hotel Nacional. The terrace around the front of the hotel is a fine place to lounge and regain your equilibrium.

There are symptons of a lack of basics but this doesn’t seem to include food - if you consider rice and beans food. And the populace seems well fed. It does involve things like soap, toothpaste, deodorants etc. There was the well turned out security guy at the Museo de la Ciudad who spoke to me at length in excellent English about the museum and its history. As I was leaving he asked me did I have any pens. I gave him the one I had in my pocket and he went off well pleased with himself.

There is music everywhere. Not just in the hotel lobbies and the restaurants but on street corners or coming from the windows of tenements. In Santa Clara the whole town turned out for a Saturday evening concert in a square near the public toilets and teenagers and grannies danced happily side by side – but not, of course, together.

A lot of the bands passed through the various restaurants and there was the usual hustle for the CD but they were so good that you just coughed up with a will. However I did develop a violent antipathy to both Guantanamera and the plangent Besame Mucho before the holiday was over.

I was also impressed by the level of street activity. Aside from the musicians there always seemed to be a game of baseball on the go involving people of all ages. And it was hard to walk down any street without seeing someone tinkering with a car. Considering a lot of the cars in Havana were over 50 years old, there must be an untapped wealth of mechanics in the country.