Enduring Havana a city of contrasts

José Martí International Airport is as antiseptic, unwelcoming and
irritating as any other in the world, but the card-filling, customs-negotiating
yawn of it all is tempered by the sheer excitement and gut-churning nervousness
of a new adventure.

We’ve opted to stay in Havana in a
casa particular, a relatively recent phenomenon where selected private house
owners are allowed to rent out a maximum of two rooms to foreigners. First stop
is a government-run restaurant where we slaveringly stuff in plates of lomo
ahumado (smoked pork loin), and the ubiquitous congrí – black beans and rice.
As we do so, a band starts up in the corner, amazing musicians in their forties
and fifties. We digest the music and digest our food. The meal costs us 20 CUC.

Cuba’s dual currency system is
based round hard currency of the Cuban Convertible Unit, with which consumer
goods can be bought in special shops, and Moneda Nacionale, in which the locals
are paid. In theory the rate of exchange is parity. In practice, it’s at least
20MN to 1CUC. Average salary, for the record, is in the region of 500MN a
month.

After a swift visit to Capitoleo –
practically a carbon copy of the one in Washington, or vice versa – we wander a
little dazed back to our Casa Particular. Fending off street hustlers, or
jinteros, – along the way. It’s unsettling.

Later, we head to the opera house
and encounter wonderful music and welcoming atmosphere. Several excellent
soloists sing heartfelt, timeless love songs and skit each other in rapid-fire
Cuban Spanish in-between. I can’t understand a word but I understand the music,
the passion, the loss, the triumph in the movements and the dynamics and the
voice.

Regenerated

The following day, we wander
through the museums, galleries and histories of the old city. In contrast to
the rubble-strewn mess of some of the surrounding area, Calle Mercarderes is
being quite beautifully regenerated, largely on the back of the tourist dollar.
The facades, the buildings, and the people are beautiful. It’s almost a
pleasure to verbally spar with the hustlers at the plaza de la cathedral; the
experience refreshes us and we end up at the local Comite de Defensa de la
Revolución, where we’re led through a very, very serious exhibition of
revolutionary art and artefacts, including one of Ché’s berets.

It has put use in a strange mood
and knocked out more of our comfort-zone hubris. The sheer amount of sensory
stimulation is bashing us from every angle. Next up it’s the chocolate museum
for artisan chocolates and comfort and then Havana Club’s excellent Museé Del
Ron.

Intimidated

Getting truly Habanero requires a
trip to the The Malecón; a sea-wall walk that takes in several miles of the Havana
coast and looks out over the choppy waters of the straits toward Florida.

According to the guidebook,the
sea-wall walk is full of couples whispering promises and lies to each other, as
well as fishermen, guys playing dominoes, the ubiquitous jinteros and plentiful
colour and energy.

Not tonight: it’s awash with
seawater jumping the walls, it’s pitch black and none of the streetlights are
on either. Hours pass in a depressed trudge till we stumble, somewhat intimidated,
into a bar and order local beer and food for 30MN.

There’s football on telly, and it
breaks the ice as we get chatting to an 82-year old guy  who remembers the Batista days. He’d visited
the UK a lifetime ago, is eloquent, funny and we buy him a beer when we leave.
He gives us a copy of Granma, the daily communist newspaper, in return.

Politics

The next day it’s the Museo de la
Revolución, There is too much complexity of politics involved to try and
unravel these artefacts and statistics to their kernel of truth: needless to
say America doesn’t come off all that well. Nestled in a corner near the
plexiglass that houses the boat Granma on which the revolutionaries landed is a
bitch that’s recently given birth to a litter of puppies who are even now,
blind-eyed, suckling their first. It’d be easy to see this as some kind of
metaphor for rebirth, but the truth is that life is not that glib.

Hungry, we change some cash into
moneda nacional and buy two pizzas, fresh passion fruit and strawberry syrup
from a kiosk in a block of flats for the equivalent of a Cayman Islands dollar.
That night, at Bar Floridita, we glug a Daquiri in the company of a Hemingway
statue at 6CUC a drink. Still, the salsa music is great and the dancers’ hips
mesmerising.

Traditional

A tour of the Partagas Fabrica de Tobacos
(cigar factory) is another eye-opener. Everything here is pretty much done in
the traditional manner – by hand. The official reader, the lectore, sits on a
plinth, tells the workers the news from Granma each morning and reads a book to
them in the afternoon. Eschewing the Yank Tanks, the famous old cars nursed
from pre-revolutionary days, we hail a cocotaxi – essentially a moped with
extra seats – and whizz out toward Vedado.

The claustrophobia of the constant
whirl of the city centre is entirely absent here, a point we ponder over a
hearty and fine meal at Café TV, in the basement of the television building.
Movie stills adorn the walls, the décor is clean, the place is packed with
young creative types and the food is brilliant for a change.

Dessert next, and we’re headed for
Coppelia Ice Cream parlour. It’s a great 1960s park with several entrances,
where the locals hang out waiting their turn to be seated near one of the four
different bars serving different flavours of ice-cream. There’s a great-looking
picture house across the road, completing the classic Habanero date.

Beautiful

Fundamentally, Habana Vieja, in
common with its inhabitants is actually quite extraordinarily beautiful and
very positive, depending where, and how, you look. It’s a matter of degree, of
expectations dashed and preconceptions challenged.

Everything is different, and
difficult here; but people are inherently flexible, too, and after a few days
here you get a glimpse – and no more – of what lies underneath. There is infinitely
more here than meets the eye. We board the plane back to Cayman not exactly
wiser, but nakedly aware of how much we have yet to learn. Living history is
tricky to rationalise.

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