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.