Caribbean | Cuba
September 15, 2008
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Havana - Weekend Report

The Caribbean's golden city bides its time.

Centro Habana
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Waiting for Americans

The coastguard scans the horizon a final time. Peeling his eyes from the navy-issue binoculars, he addresses me: “When they come we will be ready. We are waiting for the Americans, always.”

Along the back wall of the lookout are over a hundred wooden pigeon-holes, each holding the flag of a different country. Striding to one of the cubbies, the officer pulls out a neatly-folded stars-and-stripes; his face cracks a grin. “Sailors like Havana. We make good times for them – even the Yanquis. When Bush tells his ships they can come, welcome! We will raise our flag.”

For information on organising your own long weekend break in Havana click here.

Sweet and sour

The casual reference to the US president takes me by surprise. Since my arrival in Havana 36 hours earlier the only previous appearance he’d made had been as a grotesquely-distorted caricature facing the Museum of the Revolution’s urinals. But then I’m already getting used to the gulf between the personal warmth of the Cubans and the crude Cold War crassness of anything remotely official. (Hasn’t anyone told them it’s all over?) Just minutes ago, when the coastguard had beckoned at me from his port-watch crow’s nest on top of El Morro fortress, I’d been certain I’d transgressed some security restriction, by taking photographs of the harbour perhaps. But, no, he’d just wanted to chat and practise his English.

The radio squawks into life. A huge Venezuelan oil tanker is nosing into the narrow harbour entrance and the pilot is requesting clearance to proceed. I murmur my farewells and make to leave. But before picking up the radio transmitter to respond, the officer insists first on phoning for a taxi to take me back to central Havana; courtesies are important and a quarter of a million tonnes of crude can be left bobbing in the swell.

Habana Vieja

Half an hour later the taxi still hasn’t shown, so I walk to the fishing village of Casablanca and catch the foot ferry. Disembarking, I cross the waterfront highway and dive into the narrow streets of Habana Vieja. Old stone and history close around me as I disappear into Havana’s original settlement. Here, on the fringes, the colonial palacios and 19th century tenements have yet to be restored and the streets tidied. The alleyways are narrow and in the shadows a tropical mildew smell hangs heavy in the cool stillness. Two blocks in, the narrow footway is barred by a Coca-Cola vending machine, tethered by its power cord to a grocery store. Supplied from Mexico to avoid the US embargo, the cabinet’s plastic newness contrasts with the homespun wood of the shop sign. Life is lived up on the balconies where there’s light and air. Without elevators it’s a big deal to come down from the upper floors and several times I see residents lowering baskets to street level. Small-time hawkers exchange the money within for a loaf or bag of washing powder to be hauled back up into the heights.

Abruptly I cross renovation’s front line and reach the tourist zone. Its limestone façades have been shot-blasted and the paint on the ironwork looks fresh. Buildings are grander and more imposing, streets broader and scrupulously clean. Upturned canon at street junctions lend the quarter a raffish piratical air reinforced by the banana trees glimpsed in courtyards. Foreigners predominate now - the most visible locals are tourism’s hangers-on: old men with scruffy Castro beards and even older women in polka-dot petticoats chomping on outsize cigars; both drift listlessly waiting to catch a camera-toting tourist’s paying eye.

Here and there pockets of old Havana cling on. One block from the cathedral, children’s voices flow from the windows of a primary school; a few steps further I come across a holdout peso café, drab and harshly-lit compared to the mahogany-furnished opulence of those that now take the convertible tourist currency. The lack of makeover is possibly due to the malodorous provisions market directly opposite. Such state-run places are where ordinary Cubans buy food with their ration cards; but judging by the stench and the flies, you’d be seriously unwise to eat any of the scraggy meat on offer however many coupons you’d hoarded.

Landmarks and lunching

By lunch I’ve reached the Saratoga Hotel on Habana Vieja’s far side. From the rooftop there’s a panorama across the city. Rising above the clutter, certain landmarks stand out - each taller and grander than the last. Behind me, proud upon its high rocky bluff, is El Morro, the fortress from where I set out. Constructed in the 16th century, it oversaw 300 years of Spanish hegemony until Madrid lost out to the US after the brief Spanish-American War. Directly in front of me is its replacement as a seat of power: the Capitolio Nacional ex-parliament building. Finished in 1929, its graceful dome and classical columns perfectly mirror the Capitol Building in Washington DC. The Capitolio’s time in the sun lasted a mere 20 years - until Fidel and his colleagues paid a call. Naturally, come the revolution, Castro’s Moscow-backed Communists had to go one better, and in the distance I spot the slim phallic shaft of the Marti Memorial, Cuba’s tallest structure and proof that bigger isn’t always better. As to the future, my best guess is I’m standing on it. Funded by an international group of private investors, the Saratoga opened in 2005 as Havana’s most luxurious hotel. No room here for Soviet kitsch or neo-colonial pomp. Instead there’s a rooftop pool, chic alfresco bistro and the remains of my lobster Caesar. All they’re waiting for now are America’s vacationers.

Life may be gilded in the Saratoga’s oasis of hedonism, but Havana’s soul is on the street. Taking the elevator, I select ground level and real life. Within a few paces I pass a long line queuing for drinking water, yards further on I give way to a huge articulated truck belching black diesel smoke. Behind the cab, a low-slung steel cylinder is crammed with passengers. Nicknamed the ‘camel’ after its distinctive double-humped shape, it’s one of the vast and brutal lorry-buses introduced to combat the chronic fuel shortages that plague Havana’s public transport.

Centro to the Malecon

Meandering through the side-streets of Centro, I eventually emerge onto the ocean-front Malecon and the freshness of an Atlantic breeze. Hugging the shore for several kilometres, the Malecon is Havana’s most bewitching boulevard. From a distance, its front-line buildings shimmer as they shadow the coast’s lazy curves. Close-up, they’re salt-rotted, with stained concrete and flaking stucco; a few have collapsed altogether giving the line a gap-toothed smile. But for Habaneros this has always been the place to stroll and sit, to meet after work, maybe even to catch some fish to add to the night’s rice and bean supper. With free ocean-powered air-conditioning, and the prospect of yet another spectacular sunset, the wide pavement is beginning to fill with people. Down on the coral rag below, the last of the kids are hauling themselves out of the surf-washed swimming holes. Above them, groups of friends are staking claims to vacant stretches of sea-wall.

Turning left, I mix with the crowd and walk westward. I don’t have any particular destination in mind, and eventually I stop and grab a section of wall for myself. Opposite, there’s a modern cafeteria-style restaurant with glass doors wedged open to the street. The cavernous interior is strictly functional, with harsh strip-lighting, plain white walls and trestle tables set against one wall; as I watch, waiters clear away the last of the chairs. Two men emerge out of an alley pushing a handcart. With elaborate ceremony, they lift out a large iced cake. The sun is suddenly setting in a blaze of ruby and for a moment I turn to the fiery sea. By the time I turn back, some musicians have shambled up, bringing with them a cumbersome sound-system. With bursts of feedback and static, they go through a few rudimentary sound-checks, then break for beers. A few people are hanging around waiting, but nothing much else happens.

Cousins in America

After a while I wander over to a tall black guy in trainers and ask him what’s going on. "Quince," comes the answer - the continent-wide Latin American coming-of-age party held when a girl turns 15. And then I hear it: with a honking and a blaring of air-horns a convoy of 1950s convertibles is making its way along the seafront. In the largest of the fin-tailed monsters sits a young girl, her curly black hair almost lost amongst yards of white flounce. She’s enjoying herself hugely; female attendants – her girlfriends – are fussing over her costume and shouting and laughing. They point and wave and come to a halt across from me. A crowd surges from the fleet of cars and the party starts. The music gets pumping and immediately everyone’s out on the floor. It’s son, it’s salsa, it’s cha-cha-cha. The oldies take a break, the musicians a breather, and someone brings out a boom-box; now it’s Reggaeton and the kids let rip. Beer flows, rum too; the tables are loaded with food: mainly baked stuff - fat, flour and starch; but chicken, fish and fruit as well. I’m impressed - the girl’s family are burning through a lot of rainy-day money tonight.

Taking a breather, a couple of the kids come by to grab some cool air. Spotting me, they laugh, but start chatting anyway. The girl’s family is lucky; relatives in Miami send them money. (They tell me this has got harder since President Bush changed the law - but there are still ways, apparently.) Everyone knows the party has cost a thousand dollars - more than the average Cuban earns in a year. But the family in Florida has done well and they’re footing the bill; and when things change, the Americans will come back and their Cuban cousins will be rich: jobs, presents, money for cars.

I ask when that will be. “Who knows? We wait, but perhaps not so long now.”

Watching the gathering reminds me I'm alone. Calling a cab, I decide to return to Centro. “A car in10 minutes”, or so I’m told: 10 minutes go by, then 30. Everyone in Cuba is waiting for Americans – everyone except me that is. I would be happy with a simple Cuban taxi. But with my luck today, I wouldn’t put money on which will come first.

John Oldale.

For information on organising your own long weekend break in Havana click here.

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