The following is an account of an independent journey through Cuba in August 1998. The dispatches were written as group e-mails for friends, family, and students; some edits and additions were made subsequently, but I have not altered the basic tone or epistolary format. Certain names and identifying details have been changed to protect those who shared their lives and views so openly with me. Acknowledgment should be made of two books, Susan Eckstein's Back from the Future: Cuba under Castro and David Stanley's Cuba Travel Survival Kit, published by Lonely Planet (hereafter, LP). Both proved indispensable sources of statistics and background information. Unless otherwise indicated, all dollar figures given are in U.S. currency.
It began with a glitch-ridden day of travel, after an uncomfortable night and early morning passed in the Guadalajara airport ... where I arrived only after a half-hour lugging of my bags to the old bus station downtown. The driver took things at a brisk pace throughout, screamed into the airport, around the ring road in front of the terminal, out the other side, back down the highway ... "Hey!" I charged up to the front, but the driver was so in the zone that it took him another half-kilometre or so to actually pull over, explaining that he only stopped if someone wanted to board or get off. I hauled my bags out and back up the road to the terminal building under the watchful, slightly mocking gazes of the Mexican passengers.
Guadalajara Airport itself rated about three out of ten on my scale of international airports, as a place to crash. (The more restful kind of "crash," I hasten to add.) It had chairs, and the authorities didn't turf me out at some ungodly hour of the night, or otherwise harass me. I docked it a notch, though, for the mosquitoes, who feasted on the tender flesh of my hands whenever I could manage to put myself to sleep - sprawled over two chairs and my luggage.
At around 4 a.m. I moved through to the departure lounge. This feint didn't shake the mosquitoes, who circled overhead like buzzards. The flight, I was told, was delayed 25 minutes. "But please don't worry. That will still give you half an hour to make your connection in Mexico City." I began to feel vague presentiments of doom, but managed to suppress them all the way to La Capital. We landed at Mexico City Airport at 6:30 a.m., with plenty of time to catch my Havana flight. We coasted comfortably towards the terminal building. And then we stopped. For five minutes. Getting edgy. The announcement: "We're waiting for our bay to be prepared. We anticipate another eight or ten minutes." Add five for Latin time, and I was in big trouble.
I stressed this out until finally, at around seven, we docked at the terminal building. I charged down the hallway in the classic T.V.-commercial fashion ... only to discover the flight had left right on schedule. They'd known there were four of us on the Guadalajara flight with Havana connections; but they'd felt it was better to send the other travelers on their way on time. I leave you to judge the decision. Many hours later, it came to possess a certain utilitarian logic - especially when you considered that our bags would have had to be unloaded and reloaded. But I wasn't in the mood to do much more than huff and protest.
The solution found was a Mexicana flight to Cancún leaving two hours later, with a quick connection on to Havana, arriving about three hours later than originally planned. As compensation, I stole another hour's sleep in the waiting lounge. And as it transpired, I finally got a glimpse of the Yucatán peninsula, which surprised me with its densely-forested terrain even after reading descriptions of the landscape in The Caste War of Yucatan, about the Mayan uprisings there in the mid-nineteenth-century.(1)
After an hour or so in the Las Vegas-y Cancún airport, surrounded by North American beach bums in various stages of undress and inebriation, I caught the Aerocaribe flight to Havana. Astonishingly, this took only 45 minutes - we were barely out over open sea before we were flying over the west coast of Cuba. Somehow the geographical proximity hadn't registered when I scanned the maps.
From here on the logistics began to go much more smoothly. I made it through Cuban customs with only a few friendly questions. The Cubatur bus outside had expected me on the earlier flight, which caused some brief discussion; but then we were buzzing off down the highway to Havana. I tried to drink in the roadside scenery with my eyes. Our route took us through the heart of Miramar, the ritzy outlying district that's home to most of the foreign embassies and diplomatic residences in Havana, many of them housed in spectacular 19th and early 20th-century mansions. It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon. The Caribbean was visible as a bold stripe on the horizon, and I saw the first few Cuban flags fluttering red, white and blue in the breeze.(2)
By the time the Cubatur van pulled up at the Hotel Capri, I was the only person left aboard. A few other passengers had disembarked at the anonymous-looking hotel strip much further from the centre of the action. I'd taken some care, though, to book a hotel on the eastern edge of Vedado, bordering Central Havana, with the famous Old City (Habana Vieja) ten minutes' or so brisk walk away.
After a blessed shower, shave, and change of apparel, I transported myself by elevator to the 17th floor of the Hotel Capri. The Capri before the 1959 revolution was the preferred hangout of mafiosi bosses like "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky.(3) Its lookout point, adjacent to the rooftop pool, offered a spectacular view: the whole sweep of Havana and its seashore, west towards the Playa and Mariano districts, east towards the Old City and the massive fortresses at the entrance to the harbour.
I was running on about three hours' sleep, but after the delays of the day I was anxious to hit the streets. I headed out into the blast-furnace heat of late afternoon. The basic geography of Havana I had in mind from the couple of days I spent here in 1993 (based at the beach resorts of Playas del Este, a few kilometres east of the city). But my recollection was comfortably hazy. I wandered almost arbitrarily along La Rampa (23rd street) and into the heart of Vedado. I was beginning my explorations as the working day ended and the social hours began. There were people queuing to fill plastic bottles from a large tanker - I thought at first potable water, but learned later that a kind of refresco, or soft drink, was being sold for one Cuban peso per 1.5-litre bottle. That's about five cents in U.S.-dollar terms - but not an insignificant amount for the majority of the population that has only pesos, as I'll discuss shortly.
Couples and singles were strolling in the parks and lounging on street-corners. I spotted a number of well-endowed women with halter tops rendered distractingly translucent by sweat. There was a lot of recorded music blasting, interspersed with snatches of live performance from the occasional rehearsal-session or small-scale concert. Kids played soccer and baseball with whatever implements were at hand. The vitality of the street-life, even without the normal commercial-and-neon dimension that figured elsewhere in the Third World, was overwhelming. It was also enormously energizing.
There was food to be considered. I'd expected this to be a serious hassle in Cuba. I'd ordered the breakfast plan at the Hotel Capri, nothing more. That sent me to the street food being sold for moneda nacional - the national currency, the peso. Okay, take a deep breath.
There are three kinds of currency circulating in Cuba these days. The moneda nacional is the one people are officially paid with. The U.S. dollar, possession and circulation of which was finally legalized in September 1993, is the most highly-prized currency. Its partner is the convertible peso, tied to the U.S. dollar and interchangeable with it.
The dollar and peso economies are two different worlds. Granted, the moneda nacional has recovered against the U.S. dollar since the terrible days of the early 1990s, when the exchange rate reached 120 to 1, so that ordinary Cubans were making about $2 a month in hard-currency terms. Today the rate is about 20 to the dollar (around where Canadian currency stands these days, from what I've been hearing!). The change has underpinned a degree of economic recovery, though it is still tentative and of recent vintage.
To the extent that the traveler is able to operate in the peso economy, which is not very far, Cuba is a cheap country. At a certain point, though, the state demands payment in U.S. dollars. The commercial landscape at street-level is thus an intricate network of signs and codes telling the consumer what is available and which currency will access it. When I finally took a break from my street-roaming and paused for sustenance, it was at a little street-stall selling ham sandwiches and a kind of pale, fruity-tasting refresco. Problem was, I had a fair number of U.S. dollars, but none of the moneda nacional - and this was a peso stall. It wasn't a predicament many Cubans would have sympathized with, but it was a hitch nonetheless. Fortunately, a young guy who'd stopped by for a bite was happy enough to change a couple of dollars with me - two, literally. Now I had forty Cuban pesos to my name. That was enough for a hefty and sufficiently-edible sandwich, which cost me a dollar - a good deal for me, but a fair chunk of a monthly income for anyone paid in pesos.
Much revived, I wandered into the heart of Central Havana. There I found myself outside a corner bar - just a stand-up counter, with a guy behind it selling rum by the glass. I mean the glass - four or five ounces each. I'd understood that many bars were built at the intersection point of the dollar and peso economies: Cubans paid in pesos, and foreigners the dollar equivalent at a one-to-one exchange rate. Thus, when I asked the barman how much a glass cost, I was expecting an answer in U.S. currency. "Five," he said. "Dollars??" It seemed a little steep, although they were big glasses ... "Pesos," he responded promptly. That suddenly made things a whole lot more practicable.
And so it was that I came to prop up a corner of the bar, and found myself in conversation with Andrés. He was a serving military officer, 52 years of age, who looked a lot like Harry Belafonte. He said he'd heard it before.
Andrés had two companions who were fairly well stuck into the rum already, and a lot harder to understand when they spoke. He himself held his liquor well, articulating his thoughts about as carefully and clearly as this second-language Spanish-speaker, running on insufficient sleep, could have hoped for. He had nice things to say about Canada, which has a reputation in Cuba as one of two countries (the other is Mexico) that refused to join the U.S. campaign of isolation and embargo against the island, choosing instead to maintain normal and even warm relations with Cuba.
Andrés told me too about his life in the military. It earned him, he said, 218 pesos a month - around $10. But he liked the country and the revolution; the problems were not the government's fault. He invited me to visit his house - I will try to stop by there tonight (two days later), if I can get my move from the Hotel Capri into private housing sorted out in time.
With a couple of rums in my belly I wandered the streets until the Cubans went to bed, which was at a civilized hour - 10:30 or 11:00. Heading back to the hotel, I found myself taking a short-cut through a small park not far from the imposing gates of the University of Havana. There, I bumped into three young people splayed across a bench. They were Oscar, Francesca and - Eva. That led to an inevitable onslaught of Adam-and-Eve jokes, but when the merriment had run its course, we settled into conversation. Francesca, a very young Naomi Campbell lookalike, was pursuing a modeling career; she already cultivated the supermodel's frail demeanour. Eva, intelligent, was studying film; Oscar, a young Black guy, clearly lived to party, and seemed to have every intention of doing so tonight. I didn't have the energy. But we agreed to meet the following day at the monument commemorating the U.S.S. Maine - on the Malecón, the seaside promenade that winds along the periphery of the Old City, Central Havana, and Vedado.(4)
Finally it was back to the splendour of the Hotel Capri. Well, let's not get carried away. The carpeting had seen better days. The taps squeaked when you turned them, and the furnishings were worn. But I had air-con and a killer 12th-floor view over the city. The TV received CNN and a special closed-circuit channel run by the Cuban government for foreigners only. Transported to my little hermetic tourist's world, I lay back on clean sheets, listened to the air-conditioner hum (too audibly), and lost consciousness for a while.
I figure if you're going to sit in the lap of luxury for three or four days, you might as well take time to appreciate it; also, the trek the previous evening had given me a couple of whacking great blood blisters that I wanted to be kind to. And so I tumbled out of bed and down to fill up on the hotel's buffet breakfast, which, it must be said, was pretty bad - sometimes instructively so.
The fruit trays were laden with two different kinds of grapefruit, along with mango and watermelon. Relatively few people tucked into the grapefruit (don't look at me - I was right in there). They stocked up instead on watermelon and mango. But that didn't affect the pace at which the different items were restocked. This stayed uniform, with the result that the mango-and-watermelon crowd seemed eternally to be out of luck. Apart from the aforementioned fruit, the buffet choice was: roasted carrots (huh?), diced potatoes - but just diced, not fried or hash-browned or anything intricate like that; boiled eggs; croissants like hockey pucks; and omelettes churned out to order by an overworked chef, for which the available ingredients were: ham and cheese. Sometimes there wasn't any cheese. It was also interesting to note that you could sit yourself down at a table littered with the refuse of former diners, and quite placidly eat your entire meal without anybody bothering to clear away the detritus.
Digging into this odd and mostly unappetizing cuisine was about as exploratory as I got for a while. I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon napping, watching CNN, and enjoying the 12th-floor view. Around 3 p.m. I got my act together sufficiently to shower and head out into the streets, pulsing with afternoon heat. I wandered down through the Old City, which I will never get enough of. "The largest Spanish colonial complex in the Americas," LP calls it. The closest thing I've seen to it is the Old City of Cartagena in Colombia, which is more shiningly restored, but barely a neighbourhood compared with Havana's run-down but much more extensive offerings.
Then it was back to the Maine monument to meet Oscar, my friend from the previous night. We headed immediately to the Old City. Oscar said he wanted to show me "the nicest paintings in Cuba."
Along the Callejón Hamel
They were part of what I was told is the second-largest piece of street art in the world: an entire alley, including buildings, in the Callejón Hamel, a nondescript lane in Central Havana covered with a long multimedia creation by an artist named Salvador - who just happens to have his studio in the Callejón. Salvador's work explores the influence of African culture on Cuban society and especially the syncretic religion of Santería, which derives from the roots many Cubans have in the Yoriba and Ibo nations of West Africa. It would be pointless to describe the art in much greater detail, but it was spectacular. I was glad to shake Salvador's hand and promise to return to take photos.
The Artist Presently Known As Salvador
Oscar led me over to the market, where I bought us a couple of huge, unbelievable mangoes - 12 pesos for both, a little over fifty cents. Oscar showed me how to peel the mango with my teeth and then snuffle down in the fleshy fruit, emerging with the entire lower half of my face (and unfortunately a fair area of my T-shirt) smeared with juice.
We'd been leaving a trail of mango skin along the streets, and when I'd had about enough, I looked for a place to toss the remainder. Oscar was apparently looking for a place, too; at least, he cradled what was left of his mango ruminatively in his hand. And he kept it there. Good thing I didn't toss the rest of that fruit. This was by no means an everyday treat in today's Cuba, and Oscar was taking the remainder home, to share with his family and girlfriend.
At Oscar's place in Central Havana, in the tiny loft he'd adorned with spacey graphics and lots of Rastafarian iconography, I met his companion, Yasmin, and her friend Joanka (pronounced Ho-AHN-ka). Examples, here, of the exotic names that abound in Cuba. The country's "proletarian internationalism" - its military involvements in Angola and Ethiopia, the work-and-study exchanges with the former Soviet bloc, and the sending of tens of thousands of teachers and health-care workers overseas - have led to quite a stew of nomenclature. My first night in town I'd been introduced to a Luanda, which is both the capital of Angola and a very nice name for a woman. Yasmin's name was bestowed on her by parents who had studied in Czechoslovakia, where they met a lot of Arab students. Joanka, like the Katyusca I met in passing yesterday and the Alexander whom you'll meet shortly, seemed a throwback to the days of warm Russian-Cuban relations.
Stripped to the waist in the suffocating heat, I sat in that loft for the next five hours or so. This was about the toughest test my Spanish had ever faced, especially since Joanka, a fine-featured young black woman from the east of Cuba, spoke the near-patois of the region around Santiago de Cuba, giving me fits of incomprehension throughout. Yasmin, bless her heart, understood my predicament well, and constantly urged Joanka to slow down and speak more clearly. This did no good whatsoever, although over time I began to adjust to Joanka's rhythm a little better.
Yasmin, for her part, spoke with wonderful clarity and impressive intellectual force. Without any urging, she launched into a protracted critique of the Cuban system - her voice rising loud enough, in the closely congested streets of Central Havana, to be audible outside or in neighbouring houses. Joanka echoed her criticisms at almost every turn, and added a few of her own. Both the women were musicians - percussionists - and they joined in decrying the stifling political and cultural atmosphere they were forced to put up with. Cuba, said Yasmin, is encountering a basic contradiction: capitalistic elements have been grafted onto a state-socialist system, but with no clear indication from the government exactly which of the two directions the country is headed in. The profusion of currencies, and payment in pesos when people were charged for many items in dollars, well symbolized the quandary. Castro, Yasmin said - calling him El Señor, a standard code-word - seemed to have run out of ideas. She described the absurdity of turning every state radio and TV channel over to five-hour speeches from Castro, so that his words became well-nigh inescapable. Then she jokingly pointed out the copy of Marx's Das Kapital that she'd been made to read at university. About 150 pages were missing from the back - ripped away, she said, to use as toilet paper.
When my laughter ebbed, Yasmin suddenly - again with no urging - launched into a paean to Fidel. He was the guardian of Cuba's independence, she said: a world-class leader who had given Cuba disproportionate visibility internationally; an enormously popular symbol among the poor of Latin America and the Caribbean. Castro, as we spoke, was winding up a three-country tour of Caribbean states, concluding with Grenada - which the U.S. invaded in 1983, allegedly to stave off Cuban intervention. The Cubans living there (including the dozens killed during the invasion) were construction workers, building an international runway supervised by a British consortium. The fact that Grenadians held no grudge towards Cuba was evident from the popular welcome Castro had received, comparable in its warmth to the fiesta-like treatment he'd gotten earlier in Jamaica.
Both Yasmin and Joanka, then, found things to like in Castro's leadership and the political system more generally. They spoke favourably of a number of senior ministers (all of whom have a lot more visibility and durability than their Canadian counterparts). Ricardo Alarcón, Castro's most likely successor, came in for a good deal of praise: a capable, moderate, innovative person, said Yasmin.(5) But the frustration and sometimes humiliation of living outside the dollar economy, while Cubans with relatives who'd abandoned the revolution for the U.S. lived like kings, was their biggest source of hardship. "It just pushes you to prostitute yourself," said Yasmin. Indeed: if you don't work directly in the tourist economy, what other way is there to get dollars? This is one reason the institution of the casa particular (private home) is so important - it gives Cubans the right to rent out rooms in their dwellings to travelers who can't pay luxury-hotel rates. The state's ambivalent attitude towards the institution, and the heavy tax load imposed on renters, is a source of irritation for many ordinary citizens.
The conversation stretched until 10:30 at night. By then I could hardly get any more Spanish syllables out of my mouth, and we broke off. Joanka walked me most of the way home: her house lay not far from the Capri. We both felt a little uncomfortable with the knowing glances we received in the street. A foreign visitor strolling with a young, elegantly-proportioned black woman meant only one thing to most Havana residents. Prostitution was, if anything, more pervasive and above-ground than the last time I was here, in 1993. At a guess, anywhere up to 50 percent of the tourists in Cuba were there for the cheap sex.
For independent travelers on a limited budget, the casa particular is about the only option in Cuba. The standards and facilities vary widely, from what I've been told. Mine is near the basic end of the spectrum. It is located in Central Havana, close to the heart of the Old City. Almost automatically, this means it is in a run-down building. This one, though, feels fairly safe structurally - as long as you don't live on the second floor (a different residence), where the rotted railing looks as though it wouldn't support the weight of a toddler.
I, fortunately, am on the ground floor - in the care of a delightful woman named Felicia. As I talked to Felicia, and with the dizzying profusion of relatives, friends, and customers who stopped by, I learned more about her set-up.
Felicia responded to the economic crisis of the early '90s by opening a paladar - a private restaurant - in her living room. Twice she operated it; twice she was closed down by the authorities, who are jealous of the official monopoly they enjoy in the culinary field as well as hotel accommodation. And running a restaurant is a bitch in Cuba. You have to have solid sources of supply beyond the state channels, which are undependable; you have to work very hard; and there's the risk of a crackdown by the authorities. Running a casa particular doesn't remove this risk, but the work is easier - all you have to do, usually, is turf one of your family members out of their bed whenever a foreigner needs a room, plant them elsewhere in the house or with friends, and rake in a massive amount of money by Cuban standards. I'm paying US $12 a night to Felicia, which is better than I expected to do here, but still a month-and-a-half's income for the average Cuban. The price would likely have been higher if Felicia had chosen to register her place with the authorities and pay tax on her income. To do so, though, would risk ruin. The government took a particularly dim view of casas particulares in tourist areas, where the state hotels were concentrated. So you could easily end up paying hundreds of dollars in monthly taxes in Central Havana, whether you rented out the room or not. I didn't feel a lot of guilt about helping Felicia evade the taxes. The government had charged me $25 just to enter Cuba, and would hit me up for another $20 when I left. It was also determined to charge me in dollars for train-fares that Cubans could pay in pesos - at a one-to-one exchange rate. I figured I would be pouring enough greenbacks into the state's coffers during the trip to take refuge in the underground economy now and then.
For my daily $12 ($4 of which, I discover later, goes to Oscar as a commission for leading me to the room), I got a comfortable bed with clean sheets, a good fan, a separate bathroom, and a sitting-and-kitchen area which I don't use. My chambers had two separate entrances, both locked. Well, I suppose they should have been locked, according to the most elementary traveler's precautions. But frankly, after the first few hours, I didn't bother. If you knew Cuba, and the house Felicia kept, this might make more sense. Crime and theft are far from unknown in Havana: I have been repeatedly cautioned (and have repeatedly ignored cautions) to wear my shoulder-bag with the strap across my chest, to guard against bicycle-riding thieves who stage snatch-and-grabs in the street. (Necessity in the face of austerity, perhaps. Elsewhere in Latin America, the thieves would be on motorbikes.) Bag-snatchers aside, there is no doubt Cuba is an extraordinarily safe society in terms of physical security. And the home seems almost sacrosanct: I've not heard a report of a Cuban who'd experienced a break-and-enter, though it can happen. This is one reason, I've decided, why the street-life in Havana remains so vibrant. The membrane separating domestic from public realms is porous. As for the interior space, I decided to take Felicia at her word that I had nothing to fear from her family, friends, or visitors. She seemed to have things well in hand.
Another thing she often had in hand was a customer's hair. That was the official function of her establishment - a beauty-salon. Stepping out into the common area usually meant encountering a neighbourhood local seated in a wooden chair, getting a cut or a perm. (They head over to the common sink to rinse off; there was one fifties-style hair-dryer away in the corner). While Felicia was busy clipping and styling, the black-and-white TV blared the afternoon telenovela (soap opera) to a handful of glazed or galvanized viewers.
The late afternoon and early evenings at Felicia's were spent around a common table, together with Marcos, a Spanish guy who'd been staying on-and-off with Felicia for four years now. Yes - four years. To hear him tell it (in a fine Castilian accent), he'd worked various jobs in Spain, from fishing to mountain-rescue, then finally opened a supermarket and become independently wealthy - wealthy enough, he said, to retire and live off the proceeds, at the young age of 35. He headed down to the foreign division of one of the big state banks every week or two, swiped his credit-card through, collected his money, and headed back to pass another day (or rather another night) in Havana. Since the authorities required him to leave the country every two months to renew his visa, he had to rouse himself on occasion. Otherwise, his ardent and explicitly-stated determination in life was to do as little as possible. He had been back here for about five weeks, and still hadn't gotten around to calling his mother, as he'd been meaning to do from the first days he arrived. "There's just no time, my friend."
With his years of experience in Havana, Marcos was an excellent source of information, and a good guy to knock back a few beers with. His rhythm, though, was built around all-night sessions in the local clubs and restaurants - and, above all, on the Malecón. There, around four or four-thirty in the afternoon, he more or less began his day, exchanging glances and words with strolling Cuban women. "I am crazy for the women here," he said. It tended to keep him out until about eight o'clock in the morning - the Malecón hummed until five or six - and he warned me that he would not let me leave until I'd seen the sun coming up behind the Castillo del Morro, the famous fortress at the mouth of Havana harbour. I told him I would probably get up early rather than stay up late - among other things, I have a lifelong aversion to discothèques. But it sounded like a fine idea.
Brazilian guitarist, Havana
The last lineup of the evening featured a group that had already entertained us with some stinging acoustic blues, joined by everyone who felt like getting up on stage. The show-closer was a powerhouse version of Cuba's most famous song, "Guantanamera." Again, this had the potential for kitsch; but it was sung as a slow blues, which allowed all the majesty of the lyrics to emerge:
Yo soy un hombre sincero
de donde crece la palma,
y antes de morirme quiero echar
mis versos del alma.
Con los pobres de la tierra quiero yo
mi suerte echar,
y el arroyo de la sierra me complace
mas que el mar.
I'm a sincere manThe lyrics are taken from a poem, "Versos Sencillos," written in 1891 by Cuba's greatest nationalist figure, Jose Martí, killed in battle against Spanish colonial forces four years later. (Cuba was a Spanish colony for much longer than most other Latin American countries - until 1898.) Martí's words, carefully sung, imbued the well-known chorus that followed with a special note of celebration and liberation. As sung by a dozen or so full-throated individuals on stage and most of the audience as well, it was an unforgettable moment.
from the land of the palm tree,
and before I die I wish to sing
these heart-felt verses.
With the poor of the land I want
to share a fate,
and the mountain stream pleases me
more than the sea.
The unifying fount of this diverse music, it seemed to me, was West Africa. Bossa nova, blues, son (Cuban country music), salsa - they were all traceable to the slave ships that dragged Africa to America hundreds of years ago (until 1865 in Cuba). Cuba keeps its African connection alive mainly through its music, as well as through the beliefs pervading santería religion. The Spanish influence lay in melding guitar and melody with the percussive heart of West African sounds. Now the Cuban synthesis itself commands a worldwide influence - not least in West Africa.
All-woman percussion band
Thursday night, too, found me briefly at a pop concert. I didn't spend long enough to get the full flavour - I was desperately tired - but again I witnessed the sheer joy that burst forth when nearly anyone played, sang, or just listened to music in this country. Song is literally a life-force in Cuba, in a way that no western culture can duplicate. Even the moments when music stepped forward to lead western culture - say, in the 1960s - tended to have a generational character, and to highlight divisions and rifts at the same time as they broke down certain social barriers. In Cuba, by contrast, the tradition is universal and cross-generational. Beyond keeping just about every musician in the country on its payroll, the state seems to have little interest in restricting the diversity of Cuban sounds. Rock and roll, and other "decadent" western imports, are more tightly controlled. But much as I might criticize such cultural constraints in Cuba, I had to admit you could go a long way musically without ever leaving the island. Even the politicized music recorded in the 1970s and '80s - by Silvio Rodríguez and many others - stood out, partly because the state held musicians on a rather looser rein than many other artists and intellectuals.
The greyness afflicting other parts of Cuban culture, though, was hard to avoid. The mass media, in particular, were already seeming terribly dreary. Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party (and the only national daily newspaper), was now running eight pages a day instead of the four it was limited to at the height of the período especial ("Special Period") in 1992-93. Granma would probably tell you if the outside world suddenly exploded. Otherwise, though, there wasn't much international news, except to the extent that Fidel was hitting the road.
As for television, I'd been hearing it more than watching it, given my bedroom's proximity to Felicia's noisy set. I didn't actually plant myself in front of it until last night, when I managed to drop by the house of Andrés and his partner, Carmen. Do you remember Andrés, the military officer from that neighbourhood bar on my first night in Havana? He lived, I learned, at street-level on Avenida Sol in the Old City, close to the imposing Capitolio building. When I arrived, the TV was blaring a Colombian soap opera, Las Aguas Mansas, dubbed into Spanish. Such programming is massively popular in Cuba (as all over Latin America), and Andrés seemed as rapt a viewer as any. I asked him whether he was a fan, and this dedicated military man smiled a broad smile and responded, "Well, there's not a hell of a lot else to watch." Surely, I asked, sometimes they showed movies? Andrés brightened quickly. True, he said. In fact, one of the two TV channels in the country would shortly be broadcasting the first of a series of old Tarzan flicks.
It was a great pleasure to meet Carmen: a large, extremely buoyant woman topped with an impressive tower of silver-grey hair. As it transpired, I was the first foreigner she and Andrés had ever welcomed in their home. She commemorated the event by offering me a couple of glasses of chilled, delicious mango shake, which I drank gratefully in the still-brutal evening heat. Two fans were going: one a tiny, dusty antique, lacking even a screen; the other a modern, free-standing model of the kind I had in Felicia's room. Such items were available in Cuba, Carmen told me, but only in dollars. Eighteen of them for the fan - and Carmen's patient, protracted explanation of how she'd collected those eighteen dollars over many months offered another object lesson in the economic difficulties that ordinary Cubans face. Fortunately, Carmen was able to count on a few generous friends at her place of work who pooled some money as a present. A Cuban friend visiting from the States kicked in the rest, and Carmen got her fan.
Carmen and Andrés
Like the other Cubans I'd consulted on the subject, Carmen claimed things had improved measurably in the last few years. Prices were ridiculously high for, say, Cuban-made shampoo - ten pesos for a small bottle, about a twentieth of her monthly income (she taught young children with special needs). But at least there were bottles of shampoo to buy - and soap, to supplement the absurd little bar that Cubans received as their monthly individual allotment. (It lasted her, said Carmen, about three days.)
Still, it was a far cry from the halcyon days of the 1980s. Back then, Cuba still received its six or seven billion dollars a year in subsidies from the Soviet Union. "You could buy an entire fat chicken for ten pesos," Carmen remembered. "Now it costs you perhaps five or six U.S. dollars - a hundred pesos." She found herself spending nearly the same amount - half her salary - on cooking oil to supplement the meagre state ration. "And today they didn't have any in the shops." Many basic foods and commodities that she would not have thought twice about purchasing ten years ago now had to be laboriously saved up for, or were available irregularly and/or only with dollars, or had simply disappeared from her diet and lifestyle. "We used to be able to go to a restaurant every now and then!"
Carmen remembered fondly the trips she'd taken to the Soviet Union as part of a Cuban delegation. She'd even been to Moscow in winter, she said. Their hosts had outfitted them with "boots up above your knees" to wade through the snow; but the blanket greyness of the sky, the absence of the twinkling Caribbean vistas, made her feel depressed. (As an aside, the fact that many of the flights between Cuba and Eastern Europe refuelled in Gander, Newfoundland means that a surprising number of Cubans have actually set foot in Canada - even if only in Gander's transit lounge. Carmen described the shiny decor and duty-free shops with evident nostalgia.)
Where visits abroad and vacations at home were once the norm, Carmen now found her world had shrunk to her house and her place of work; she ran nonstop from morning until midnight to meet her varied responsibilities. From none-too-subtle signals, I sensed that Andrés, though a sweet guy - they had been together for 31 years - was not exactly keeping up his end of the domestic chores. Perhaps his visits to the neighbourhood rum-stand, though fortuitous for me, seemed a waste of precious pesos in Carmen's view. Nonetheless, she loved her work - providing services for learning-disabled students who wouldn't have stood a chance in most other countries of Latin America. With the resources she'd managed to scrape together, she had appointed her home with care and taste; she sold party decorations out the front window to bring in a little extra income. Andrés had contributed repairs and refurbishments that kept the old house more than livable.
Both Carmen and Andrés proclaimed their support for the revolution - not stridently, but in the course of conversation, as it were. "Other people around here - well, you'll have to ask them," said Carmen, not seeming troubled that others might not share her views. I left the two of them, feeling much revived, around 10:30 p.m. The TV had had a kind of brownout - overheating, it seems, so that the image was only dimly visible on the screen. A common problem with these old Russian models.
The answer is, not very bloody far. According to Alexander, the libreta consisted of:
6 pounds of rice monthly (all allotments are monthly unless otherwise
6 pounds of white sugar
6 pounds of raw sugar
2 pounds of chicharros (yellow beans), when available
Half a pound of salt
Half a pound of cooking oil
1 (small - hotel-style) bar of soap
1 small bun daily
2 small bags of coffee every fifteen days
6 eggs every fifteen days
A quarter-pound of chicken every three months
Half a pound of some miscellaneous commodity every three months (e.g., pasta, soya, an extra ration of chicken), depending on availability.
There you have it. Cuba has sugar like Canada has snow, so there's plenty included. As for the other goods, estimates varied as to how far into the month the libreta could be stretched. Alexander said he could make it two weeks. Carmen found it lasted her about half as long. Either way, when it ran out, and to supplement its meagre offerings, you were stuck with purchases in the market. There, a single small onion would cost you two pesos - around one percent of your monthly income; a clove of garlic the same. A one-pound bag of rice cost five pesos; a small bag of pork - about the only meat dependably available - 20 pesos. The quantity of goods distributed through the libreta system has withered in the last few years, with the state increasingly charging (though not paying wages) at market rates. All the prices quoted are at the state-run markets. Prices in the farmer's markets, or on the black market, are considerably higher, and usually dollarized. But these may be the only channels available for goods which, like lobster or cigars, are destined for export or the tourist sector, and are therefore virtually absent from the official economy. Milk is reserved for children under seven years of age, and nursing mothers. Others can buy it only from those selling their allotment, or factory workers dealing on the side.
These are throng-filled days in Havana. The city is heading into the final week of its Carnaval - originally the holiday that celebrated the bringing-in of the harvest. In the years of cruel austerity in the early 1990s, Carnaval, both in Havana and in Santiago de Cuba (where it is allegedly more wild), was canceled by the state. Things are still threadbare. Rather than an array of floats, for example, the parade on Saturday night had one big one, with a band on board (this being Cuba, it was a huge and rocking one). It made pit-stops every fifty yards or so, blasting at the crowds in the bleachers and lining the railings. For this and the other festivities, the Malecón on Saturday drew perhaps forty or fifty thousand people along its length. The police presence was heavy, and this in part might have accounted for an atmosphere that was more milling than celebration.
There were slim pickings, on such occasions, for the average Cuban. He or she could buy a local brew in a cardboard container at roadside, or one of the ubiquitous funnels of peanuts sold by street-vendors. There might be an ice cream if you lined up a few minutes - eat it fast before it drips all over your shoes. If you wanted a seat on the grandstands along the parade, you had to pay - I didn't bother to find out how much. Most people sprawled out on the Malecón and on public squares and statues, doing more or less as they would have done on non-Carnaval days, only in greater numbers.
Along the Malecón
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The Malecón itself - by which I mean the buildings ranged along the waterfront - was an impressive sight. Earlier I mentioned the dereliction of most of the dwellings in the older part of town. Perhaps surprisingly, it is nowhere more evident than in the grand mansions lining one of the really choice strips of riviera in the western hemisphere. The state of these is frankly shocking. I was warned to walk well away from the overhangs; a young girl had reportedly been killed by falling masonry. Hundreds of edifices collapse each year throughout Havana, and it is striking to see the densely-packed buildings of the Malecón Tradicional abutting onto lots filled with rubble. How much sounder could the buildings attached be? But they were still standing, and still well-populated.
There are several things to be said in defense of Cuban government policy here. First, the reason Havana shows such signs of neglect is because the Castro regime went against the Third World trend of concentrating resources in the cities, the primate city in particular. Instead, investment in the countryside greatly increased the social infrastructure there. Together with state controls over internal movement, peasants were kept from flooding into Havana by the millions and overwhelming it, the way that dozens of urban centres in Latin America and around the world have been overwhelmed.
Second, the state did make a meaningful effort to evaluate the soundness of these old buildings and to take appropriate counter-measures. Take Alexander, for example - the provider of the libreta statistics. He used to live right next door to Oscar (there is a hole in Oscar's wall that actually looks down on the gutted interior of the building next door). Sometime in the last couple of years, the house was declared uninhabitable. The state, though, found Alexander and his father alternative housing - in a modern apartment block at Alamar, across the bay and close to the beach. Alexander considered it a real improvement: safer, less congested, and much better for picking up girls. (We were at the height of the Cuban holiday season, and in the afternoon the streets of Havana were full of young men and women returning from a day at the fine municipal beaches. They wandered in their still-damp bathing suits, with the sleepy look of the sun-stunned.)
Kids on the Malecón
Lastly, one could note that at least the inhabitants of these once-glorious buildings along the Malecón were ordinary people rather than millionaire exploiters. There is nothing to separate the inhabitants of one of the Malecón's mansions from any other residents of Havana - except perhaps that they are slightly poorer. When the poor live in the houses of the rich, even if those dwellings have run thoroughly to seed, you know a true social revolution has taken place.
The long strolls through the city have their plot twists. Yesterday afternoon I returned from a long and sun-soaked concert in the Callejón de Hamel, where Salvador's striking street-murals were found. The sound system collapsed in a hail of feedback about half an hour into the set, but the final band of the day, at least, was able to rise to the occasion. It was the mostly-female percussion group pictured earlier in these dispatches, and it chanted and drummed with such mesmerizing intensity that microphones were superfluous.
Cubans enjoying the music in the Callejón
I headed back to the casa particular; and only a block or so from the gate, in broad daylight, a local lad nearly made away with my shoulder-bag. The attempted snatch-and-grab was done on foot, rather than on a bicycle, which may have been to my advantage. I had a reasonably secure hold, and the bag was too well-constructed to be separated from the strap. Good thing, too. In the bag was my camera, with nearly a full roll of photos, and also my Lonely Planet guide.
After a couple of seconds of this Canada-versus-Cuba matchup in the Ill-Will Games, my assailant gave up. He released the bag, and took off at a brisk pace down the street, while I tried to remember the Spanish for "coward" to yell after him. I walked the extra block to the casa, heart pumping faster but not racing, shaking my head. I felt glad I'd won the round, and vowed to wear that damn strap across my chest in the future, even if it did heighten the discomfort of a soggy T-shirt. There was no trauma to speak of, obviously. You know from an earlier entry that I was aware of the bag-snatching danger. Anything without a weapon involved barely rates as an assault, in my view; and assaults with weapons are unknown in Cuba. But I was glad to keep the bag and its contents: thanks, Miriam, for buying me such a tough little item for my travels.
The lineup of Cuban street food can be categorized as follows: 1) Pork sandwiches of the decent type I scoffed on my first night in town; quite rare, and very expensive in peso terms. 2) Pork sandwiches of a cheaper, cruder, and altogether more gruesome variety, some of which are merely white bread and gristle - you never know until you bite. 3) White bread with butter. 4) Peanuts in paper funnels. 5) "Pizza." This is made from baking-pan sized loaves of "bread" delivered by the truckload, then sprinkled with a cheeselike substance (occasionally - very occasionally - with flecks of onion or ham). This is then baked until thoroughly permeated by grease, something which could be said for the street food as a whole. One day I will write a (short) cookbook of such cuisine, called Fried Crap of Cuba. 6) Refrescos (soft-drinks), of two or three basic types and limitless in-house variations; some as refreshing as their name, some like grim medicine. 7) Cheap industrial rum (not that I'm complaining about the cheap part). 8) Coffee in strong, black shots like espresso, or café con leche. Both are sweet and quite palatable; but while they may sustain the traveler's spirit, they have no nutritive content whatsoever. This is only slightly less than the other foodstuffs possess.
The list basically exhausts the culinary options at street-level in Havana. A question immediately arises: why does a state-socialist regime that runs just about every street-stall in the country allow such rubbish to be served to the masses? The authorities might protest that it was simply the Cuban taste to dig into such bland and greasy fare. As for me, whatever enthusiasm I felt for the pre-fab pizza and mulched-pork sandwiches has dissipated. I am turning into a gastronomic guerrilla, striking whenever the opportunity permits - which is rarely. To this point, my only really decent meal in Cuba has come at a paladar (private restaurant) to which I, a Spanish woman named Alicia, and her Cuban friend Margareta were led by the trusty Oscar, in the wake of that concert in the callejón. The paladares have sprung up like mushrooms since state regulation of private enterprise was eased in 1992-93. They tend to offer better food and service than the state-run restaurants (which at my price level usually serve either fried chicken or pork, both dreadful, and french fries like woodchips). We paid US $7, plus beer, for solid and tasty fare that was more than we could eat. I've decided I will either have to seek out these places more determinedly in the future, or make all-inclusive arrangements at casas particulares. For the time being, it's depressing always to have a rumbling in your stomach and nothing within half an hour's walk that really satisfies it - nothing I've yet found, anyway.
I'm sprawled out on my narrow but tolerably comfortable bed in the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, writing these words on my Samsung portable after a few hours of sightseeing in my first Cuban city outside Havana. The hotel room wasn't something I'd anticipated. But when you don't roll into town until 4 a.m. ...
The train to Santa Clara was scheduled for 3:30 in the afternoon. I got there early to be on the safe side. I needn't have bothered. It wasn't until six or so that the train for Santiago de Cuba, which stopped in Santa Clara, finally pulled into the station. It was the first train I'd actually seen moving in the four hours or so that I'd been lounging. The wait, though, gave me a chance to strike up a conversation with three friendly Dutch guys - Paul, Pieter, and Ton. They were headed to Santa Clara as well, and we continued our chat on the train. The loading was orderly, the carriage air-conditioned and fairly comfortable, with an eclectic mix of backpackers and Cubans.
As it transpired, we all had plenty of time to bond. Rumours swirled of a derailment somewhere along the line, necessitating a detour. Sure enough, round about midnight - already past our scheduled arrival time in Santa Clara - Paul checked his map and confirmed the situation: we were near Matanzas, a third or so of the way to Santa Clara. Well, it was a chance to catch a few hours' shut-eye, and to have a sweet, faintly erotic dream about Alona, the exuberant Israeli woman I'd just met, curled up at that moment on the seat beside me.
When we trundled into Santa Clara at four in the morning, the Dutch and Canadian contingent - all four of us - determined to benefit from the new economies of scale. We could actually split double-rooms in a "peso hotel" on the central square. By "peso hotel," I refer to another hybrid Cuban institution. Peso hotels serve mainly Cubans, though by the looks of things the better-heeled. They pay pesos; foreigners - stop me if you've heard this one before - pay the same in dollars. What's more, there is no guarantee that a given peso hotel will put you up. The first two we tried in the bleary pre-dawn hours in Santa Clara told us they were "full." It was almost certainly a nice way of saying, "We don't take gringos."
Once we'd reconciled ourselves to the Santa Clara Libre, the only hotel that would have us, we had to sprawl in the lobby until seven, when the check-in opened for the new day of registration. Perhaps there will come a day when the $13.50 I would have had to pay for the extra night's rent, in order to get to the room and to sleep right away, wouldn't seem worth crashing out for. But by luck, the Santa Clara Libre had a decent lobby, including a couple of overstuffed chairs. At 7 a.m. we were ushered to our rooms, which were small, cramped, and bearable - even if the toilet didn't flush (a bucket was provided), there was only cold water (from the hot tap), and the water could be - and was - turned off for up to twenty hours at a stretch.
What the Santa Clara Libre has in spades is recent history. The guidebook informs me that the chipping and scarring on the façade of the hotel was the result of bullet and artillery fire during the decisive final battle of the Cuban Revolution, fought in these streets between 12 December 1958 and 1 January 1959. In what was certainly his finest moment as a military commander, Che Guevara led a column of hundreds of rebels across half of Cuba, from east to west - from their original redoubt in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, to the range of the Sierra del Escambray, which begins a few kilometers south of Santa Clara. From those peaks, the rebels launched their assault. Over the course of two weeks, they reduced the operating range of the Cuban military to the very center of the city. Attempting to break the siege, the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, dispatched an armoured train filled with over 400 soldiers and heavy weaponry to the city. An 18-person rebel strike force derailed the train with a bulldozer - now mounted on a pedestal just down the road and over a bridge from the central square. Alongside is the wreckage of the train itself, which has been turned into a revolutionary memorial and museum. After an hour-and-a-half's fighting, Batista's troops gave up: there wasn't necessarily a lot of reason for those conscripts to be too enthusiastic about the engagement in the first place.
The Hotel Santa Clara Libre
The Battle of Santa Clara was the straw that broke Batista's back. It essentially ended with the seizure of the armoured train on 29 December 1958; by 1 January the dictator was heading out of the country to a comfortable exile in Franco's Spain. That same day, the last of his forces surrendered in the Gran Hotel. Well, it turned out the damage to the exterior of the building I was staying in was more than the result of random shooting in the square. The Gran Hotel was renamed the Santa Clara Libre after the revolution - so I had the unexpected pleasure of spending a couple of nights in something of a historical landmark.
Che, as commander of the battle that finally brought the revolution to power, is most closely identified with Santa Clara. In 1997, when his remains were dug up from the lonely Bolivian landscape in which he'd died thirty years earlier, they were brought back with great ceremony to Santa Clara, and reinterred in a huge memorial on the outskirts of town. They are housed in a crypt, blessedly cool in the August heat; there is an eternal flame. Buried alongside Che are most of the guerrillas who died beside him in the Bolivian altiplano - the squalid end of a failed campaign to spread the revolution beyond Cuba.
Che had travelled the length and breadth of Latin America before taking up arms alongside Fidel Castro in 1956. Of all the countries he'd seen en route, Bolivia seemed to him the most desperately poor and ready to explode in revolution. Bad guess. There'd already been a revolution in Bolivia in the 1950's. One of those half-revolutions, more like it; but enough to entrench a notion that change was possible within the system. The enormous difficulty of overcoming this skepticism, and the cultural gulf between his tiny rebel force and the Aymara Indians of the highlands, Che described with candour in the Bolivian Diary published after his death. There was also the United States to be reckoned with - well on its way to losing its first war at the time, and terrified of Che's promised "one, two, many Vietnams." The U.S. flew in the Green Berets to guide the Bolivian search forces, and added their unmatched surveillance capabilities to the quest. It was enough to bottle Che up, capture him, and execute him and his comrades in the presence of the U.S. advisors. But over thirty years later, a fiasco like the Bolivian campaign tends to recede into the background. It is as an icon that Che lives today - and nowhere more than in Santa Clara, where every third resident seemed to be wearing a T-shirt adorned with his brooding features.
The cynic might argue that from Fidel Castro's perspective, Che could be safely lionized because he was safely dead. The two had had their disagreements - resulting in Che's abandoning his ministerial post in the revolutionary government and taking once again, this time disastrously, to the field. Castro has exhibited moments of paranoia and/or calculated brutality towards revolutionaries whom he views as rivals - as with the execution of General Arnoldo Ochoa in 1989. So it is not impossible that the relations between Fidel and Che are closer in death than they would have been in life.
This, though, would reckon without the genuine bond established between the men who carried Cuba to the brink of revolution and beyond: to the radical re-creation of Cuban society that took place in the first half of the 1960s. In his farewell letter in 1966, Che wrote that if he, an Argentine, died under foreign skies, it would be with the thought of the Cuban people in his mind, "and above all you" - that is, Fidel. Che now incarnates the heroic phase of the Cuban revolution, which Castro has exploited to buttress his rule ever since. Forty years on, the story of the Cuban Revolution has become less heroic. Or has it? It still seems bizarre - delightful, somehow - that this impudent Third World revolutionary experiment could survive only a few miles from the Florida Keys. That Castro himself could have listened to the proclamations of his impending downfall issued by one U.S. president after another ... and another ... and another. (Eight in all, and counting.) It seems preposterous that any country could have survived a 70-percent fall in production (1989-1994) without the regime being violently overthrown. In Cuba, would-be emigrants crowded into dilapidated boats and onto wooden rafts, and braved the shark-infested route to Florida. But there were no riots in the streets, at a time when state-socialist regimes worldwide were falling like ninepins.
Regime repression explains this only partly. An equally powerful factor, manipulated and still in some sense incarnated by Castro and his regime, is nationalism. I have been hearing a great deal over previous days - in Havana, on the train to Santa Clara, and now in the streets of the city - about life in Cuba. Much of it has been scathingly critical. But I have also encountered a quiet, impressive pride in being Cuban - not the trigger-happy, chip-on-the-shoulder, poverty-induced psychosis of certain other Caribbean islands (Jamaica and Haiti come to mind). Some of it may just be that indefinable "national spirit," but a great deal, it seems to me, has to do with what's happened in Cuba since 1959.
The most eloquent testimony on this count was Oscar's, delivered the night before I left Havana. "Do you know what separates this country from many others?" he asked rhetorically. "Education. When you are educated you can take your destiny in your own hands." Both he and Alexander were fairly sanguine about Cuba's near-term prospects. This was a strong people, said Oscar. It had endured a lot. The "Special Period" of the early '90s was brutal, but there'd been some improvements since. Slight, but measurable. "You see it yourself, my friend. People are surviving."
Direnia, Yaima, Migdalia:
Train to Santa Clara
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On the train to Santa Clara I met Migdalia: a forceful working-class woman, mid-thirties at a guess, who toiled in the tobacco fields of Havana province. She described enthusiastically and in detail the variety of tasks she performed - inspecting the leaves for insects or fungus, harvesting them, hanging them to dry in the shed, and so on. She talked about the house she held title to. She'd bought it for 1,200 pesos - a year's wages. You'd have to be pretty far up the economic scale before you could make a proportionate purchase in Canada. (And you'd be paying more than seventy dollars for a house.) Meanwhile, Migdalia's utterly radiant kid, Yaima, was joining an equally irresistible playfriend, Direnia, in clambering all over the smattering of foreigners in the railway car. Both Yaima and Direnia already spoke a clear, educated-sounding Spanish; neither of them wanted more from us than good-humoured attention; and every time they smiled, their white, white teeth beamed like beacons. They were the children of the "Special Period," as their mother was a daughter of the revolution's heroic years. But Castro had vowed not to close a single hospital or daycare center during the years of austerity, and to keep the milk coming. Even during the gruesome economic crisis of the early '90s, evidence indicated the promise had been kept.
Santa Clara sunset
The city of Santa Clara, too, somewhat altered the picture of Cuba I'd been building up in Havana - and for the better. It was a tidy and surprisingly prosperous-looking town, unpretentious, with a few beautifully-restored old buildings to go with the well-built modern structures. I couldn't say for certain that this reflected a starving of Havana's resources to the benefit of provincial centres like Santa Clara. Quite possibly, the challenge of maintaining the densely-packed structures of Habana Vieja and Centro Habana was simply far beyond what city planners and municipal service-providers faced in Santa Clara. But walking the clean-swept streets of this city, peeking inside its public and private buildings, I was impressed. My Dutch friends and I also grew convinced that there was more in the shops (for dollars, of course) than in downtown Havana - and no apparent shortage of customers. A good example was cheese, next to impossible to find in Havana except as a light daubing on the "pizzas." In Santa Clara, the street-stalls seemed to be full of cheese bocaditos (the greasy little sandwiches which, in the capital, are usually filled with mulched pork and gristle). And there were the first strolling vendors any of us had seen - only a couple of them, but selling bananas and string beans, and calling out their wares lustily as they went.
• My next-to-last day in Havana, once again on a quixotic quest through enervating heat for some kind of breakfast, stopping at a stand serving a bearable watermelon concoction, knocking back glass after glass, and listening to the system be mocked and reviled by the two powerful middle-aged women who ran the stand ... Once again, the almost exclusive focus of their criticisms was the humiliations involved in trying to make a living. One pulled out a box of receipts and other state documentation that tabulated every inventory element in their tiny production operation. "If we don't keep every last one of these and have them ready when the inspector comes round, it's a fifteen hundred pesos fine!" (On one occasion Felicia, my landlady, shooed me to the rear of the house when an inspector came by to check up on the hair-salon she ran up front. She wasn't panicked about my presence, but an inspector who noticed foreigners hanging around the place might have reported it to another inspector. If she was rumbled, she too faced a whopping fine.)
• The train to Santa Clara, the same one that Yaima and Direnia lit up with their beaming presence: Miguel, a fast-talking, genial young Cuban man, the type who in Miami would be an up-and-coming Cuban-American executive, running down in merciless detail the economic contradictions you're getting tired of hearing about - imagine what they're like to live. The slog of daily existence, the challenge of stretching the libreta past a few days ... and the closing of many of the entrepreneurial routes by which people could improve things by their own devices.
• Painfully, here in Santa Clara, an elderly gentleman named Martín, who'd lived some years in the States and wanted to practise his rusty English, maybe hustle a dollar or two. He was a pensioner from the military living - ostensibly - on a hundred pesos a month. "Five dollars," he said darkly. "Many nights I have bad dreams, thinking how I will be able to find something for breakfast the next day." Probably, as in Russia and many other countries that have experienced sharp economic upheavals in recent years, it is the pensioners who have suffered the worst during Cuba's special period - seen their expectations of a secure retirement rudely dashed. The pretty central square of Santa Clara, Parque Vidal, has a number of beggars (though I suspect not homeless ones): usually either very young or very old. Our breakfasts in Santa Clara, bread and cheese and Maple Leaf Chicken Bologna, have been eaten on a bench in the park. The old guys were fairly genteel and apologetic about it, but they still asked straight out for money for something to eat. It was enough to make you feel a little exhibitionist, munching on the classic backpacker's breakfast, "hobo food" in the west, as one of our number put it. A sweet younger woman, Yoleidy, has been in the park with her young daughter over the last couple of days, and we've chatted. She issued a hushed "Qué rico!" (How wonderful!) when we peeled back the wrapper on our Maple Leaf mystery meat. Yoleidy wasn't obviously malnourished, but when we left her a little of our bread, she set into it immediately and with gusto. If nobody in Cuba is starving, hunger - perhaps especially in the cities - is a constant presence. Many people subsist on liquids and a bun during the daytime, pooling their resources for an evening meal with some substance. Statistics from April 1993 showed Cubans consuming 2000 calories a day on average, "a decrease of some 30 percent from 1989 and below the minimal essential level specified in the mid-1950s. And [caloric intake] dropped just when routine living required more calories: when islanders had to take up bicycle riding as their principal means of transport."(6)
Paul, Felix, Pieter, Ton - Santa Clara
Backpacking travelers also have experience in pooling resources. Just as rooming with Paul gave me a chance to stay at the Santa Clara Libre, so he and his two companions opened up new vistas when it came to getting around. Felix, a lithe, guerrillero-looking young Frenchman we'd met on the train, joined us today to rent a vehicle for the afternoon. And what a vehicle! A Willys army jeep, refurbished to the max, with a new engine and a host of odd little touches cribbed from here and there. Its proud owner was Adolfo Rodríguez. Adolfo had driven a bus before the "Special Period" hit in 1989. A good life, as he remembered it. He'd made around 300 pesos a month, back when pesos meant something. "I didn't own a car. Didn't need to. Public transport was great. There'd be a bus every two or three minutes to where you wanted to go." When the economy collapsed, he started looking around for other means of survival. A car, he decided, was "indispensable." With the help of a brother living in New York, he took over the Willys from his father. The restoration work was done with parts imported by his brother on yearly visits; pillaged from the old Soviet and East German vehicles that are still mainstays of the Cuban transport system; and occasionally purchased for dollars at Cuban automotive stores.
Traveling solo, this sort of luxury would have been beyond my means. With the group, it became possible. I also had the benefit of the experiences and insights of my Dutch friends, who had visited Piñar del Rio, an attractive-sounding region in western Cuba that I would not make it to on this trip. If there's an offsetting disadvantage to my new arrangement, it came with traveling in a pack. I stood out anyway here, with my height, my comparative paleness, and my windswept shock of hair. But it could feel more awkward still walking down the street five abreast. Showdown at the O.K. Corral ...
There was a bit of a Wild West - or at least a Mexican - feel to our afternoon destination. Adolfo ferried us northeast to Remedios, a town of twenty thousand or so about fifty kilometres from Santa Clara. The ride, hunkered down in the back of the Willys, took us through the first Cuban countryside I'd really seen up close. It was green and verdant, seemingly well-developed, with concrete water towers dotting the landscape, sprinkler and irrigation systems in abundance, and an obvious delivery of state services: electricity, schooling, medical facilities. I found myself wondering whether Cuba might not provide a rare example of a country where the rural folk had weathered economic crisis better than their compatriots in the city. (There are indications that many city-dwellers volunteered for rural labour during the "Special Period" because food supplies were more varied and dependable in the countryside.)
Remedios itself was a somewhat ramshackle colonial town, full of low 18th and 19th century structures, some much older - the town was founded in 1524. For a century-and-a-half it had been the largest town in the area, but many colonists abandoned it in the face of repeated pirate attacks. (Settlers escaping Remedios founded Santa Clara.) In the late 17th century a fire further reduced its vitality and influence. Like many such backwaters, though, there was plenty of faded beauty about the place. We strolled some distance out into the countryside. There we were invited to tour a large concrete building that was much quieter than it would have been at other times of the year. It was a school for handicapped kids, and the smattering of caretakers hanging about were pleased to show us the near-deserted facilities. They were immaculately tidy and thoroughly impressive. "I tell you in all truth," said Felix to me in the cafeteria, "there are many schools in France that are worse than this." This was a school for handicapped children, please remember - not rich ones - and it was located well away from the centre of power, on the outskirts of a small provincial town.
At some point in our wanderings it struck us just how close we were to the north coast. Those pirate attacks, after all - the Atlantic Ocean was less than ten kilometres away! It was immediately decided that we should head to the beach. A price was negotiated with Adolfo back in the central square. After a round of chilled Mayabe beer on the plaza's edge, we took to the road again, to the coastal town of Caibarien. There, with a heavy thunderstorm out to sea turning the sky to ink, we strolled along a beach entirely for locals, enjoying one of the few recreations that Cubans, at least those within striking distance of the Atlantic or Caribbean, could still indulge in.
Just visible on the horizon was the extraordinary engineering project under at Caibarien: a 48-kilometre causeway across the Bahia Buena Vista, linked together by "45 bridges that allow an exchange of tidal waters" (LP). The project was aimed at opening up the offshore island of Cayo Santa Maria for high-priced tourism. Nonetheless, it was an example of the large-scale endeavours that Cubans can still put their minds and resources to. It was built between 1989 and 1996 - that is, in the midst of the worst economic dislocation Cuba had known in the twentieth century.
The man who addicted me to cigars
On our side of the bay, we watched Cubans frolicking delightedly in the murky, seaweed-laden surf. An old man wandered along with a horse-drawn carriage. He sold us a fat cigar from a bundle - two pesos, or ten cents. It tasted sweeter and better than the $15 Cohiba a friend had given me to sample in Mexico. He sang us a song and posed for a photo before wandering off with his steed.
After a while the rain reached us, lightly, and we turned back to Santa Clara. Adolfo told us his story along the way, and delivered his thoughts on life in Cuba. It was still hard as hell, he said - you had to work from six in the morning to ten at night to get by - but things were "más o menos." More or less survivable. Government policy was constrained by the American blockade and the collapse of Soviet aid, Adolfo said. On its own terms, government policy had "good points and bad points." The best of the system was plain in the "beautiful" statistics on health and education. And the worst? I asked. It was the way the regime bottled you up inside your house and inside your head, if you wanted to give real vent to your creative energies. If that ever changed, Adolfo said - if people were given greater room to breathe, politically and entrepreneurially - the crisis would be surmounted. He, like Oscar, stressed that Cubans were "un pueblo luchando" - a people well-used to struggle. The most popular slogan I've seen on walls and sidings is "Un Paso Más" - One Step More. I'm sure it resonates with most Cubans, though not always in the way the regime intends.
We rolled over the low foothills of the Sierra and into the Valley of San Luís. The traditional life's blood of this region opened up to us: dozens of sugar-cane fields, the detritus of stalks strewn carelessly over the surface of the road. Occasional plumes of black smoke rose from the modern mills in the valley. Around a last bend, and we were in Trinidad.
That changed in the early 19th century, when hundreds of French sugar-planters and their families were evicted from Haiti by the slave rebellion there - the only successful one ever mounted in the Americas. They converged on Trinidad, and the town and surrounding area became the centre of the modern Cuban sugar industry. The mills of that era were generally reduced to rubble in the fighting that raged during Cuba's wars of independence from Spain in the latter half of the nineteenth century. But though the industry for the most part relocated elsewhere, sugar remained important to the economy of the valley and surrounding region.
In Trinidad itself, the sugar boom financed the spate of construction which turned the city into the UNESCO world heritage site that it is today. The cobblestoned streets, lined with 19th-century manor houses and low-slung suburban dwellings, occupied a manageable area, but sprawled with a charming aimlessness. At the town's edge they dissipated into paths that let one stroll on into the lush countryside.
Reconstruction work was proceeding apace in Trinidad, but most of the façades were pleasantly weathered and faded, and tufts of grass grew thick between the cobblestones on the edge of town. The fresh piles of horseshit that had constantly to be dodged were a reminder that the countryside began only metres away.
It was a definite step up from my rustic digs at Felicia's place in Havana - and legal to boot. Norma and Umberto were playing things strictly by the book. Several books, actually - the ones in which they carefully recorded our names and passport numbers, along with every meal we ate and beer we drank in their household. These would be carefully inspected for tax purposes, and in that department the Peñas - like all legal operators - were taking on a heavy burden indeed. They paid $200 a month for the license to operate as a casa particular, and another $60 for the license to serve food. Both had to be paid whether anyone was actually staying there or not. When there was someone in the house, the money could add up fast - but it couldn't be immediately spent. It had to be saved to cover the taxes in leaner months - the September-to-November lull. Only when that was over could the remaining hard currency be safely dispensed with.
To me, the policy seemed unfair, potentially ruinous. But Norma and Umberto (in partnership with Landis) had apparently decided it offered the best route to material stability. They'd rented the house from Umberto's aunt; the family picked up and moved down the block to Norma's mother's place when foreigners wanted the rooms. They were part of the new generation of above-ground family entrepreneurs - and damned nice folks to boot.
Of course, I might have been extra-favourably disposed to them, because they also filled the yawning gap in my stomach. For three dollars, we voyagers got a fine, fruit-filled breakfast built around a tasty ham-and-cheese omelet. Dinner was six dollars: our choice of pork, chicken or fish, with vegetables that seemed exotic after a couple of weeks in Cuba - cucumbers with carrot shavings; green beans. For dessert there was a spongy Cuban cheese, slightly gritty, and a little slab of guayaba jelly.
For the family themselves, this meant a lot of work: a couple of hours before every dinner, not counting the shopping. They ate separately from us, and in much more modest quantities. But for their labours, they lived relatively comfortably, in a country where that could rarely be said.
Earlier today, Umberto helped me run my clothes through the family's Soviet-made washing machine. It was a real robotic-looking device; the drainpipe for the water had no cap, and we had to improvise. At this point the bottle of Liquid Paper I had brought with me on the trip finally came in handy - if only to bung up the pipe. Then, loaded with my laundry, the machine refused to work. ("So many clothes for one trip!" Norma marveled, the first time in my life I've felt like Imelda Marcos.) I halved the load, and it picked up the pace. As I drained the soapy water after the wash, Selina, the family's housemaid, began to wring the clothes for hanging on the line. "Whoa!" yelped the traveler. "Rinse cycle!" The practice, it transpired, was unknown to her, and probably to most Cubans with washing machines. I insisted on the rinse, however, figuring that I now had an explanation for the mysterious prickly heat that had been vexing my back for the previous few days. Felicia had kindly washed my clothes for me in a virtually identical machine in Havana, and hung them up for me - still impregnated with laundry soap, I'm quite certain.
For the access to the washing machine, I decided to compensate Norma and the spritely 12-year-old daughter, Lilian, with a bar of laundry soap I'd brought from Mexico, along with a couple of bars of Camay soap reeking of perfume. (Memo to anyone contemplating a trip to this land: bring things! Soap goes over very well - this afternoon I was approached by a young boy begging for it. I also have several boxes of Aspirin reserved for Carmen in Havana. Analgesics are very hard to find in the state-run dispensaries. They're just the thing for a woman who has to take care of a lot of kids with headaches - and maybe has a few of her own as a result.)
To stay at the house of Norma and Umberto was to appreciate once again the astonishing closeness - in both emotional and geographical terms - of many Cuban families. At any one time in the house there would be not only the two parents and their offspring, but also another Norma - the grandmother, a vigorous elderly woman who seemed every bit a match for Orlando. He was the wiry and gruff-spoken grandfather who also milled around a lot. Selina, who cleaned house, was a cousin. All tsk-tsk'ed when I describe my own family - scattered around the world, with parents 400 km away.
Up on the roof one evening, with Lilian cuddled at his side, Umberto described his philosophy of life. "I'm not really political. There are good things and bad things in Cuba. I just want to be able to provide for my family and give them a good foundation in life." The roof we were sitting on would serve as the foundation for a planned second storey and two extra rentable rooms. With both Norma and Umberto also holding down day-jobs, the challenge seemed daunting: I knew the amount of work that went into feeding half the number of travelers they were now hoping to attract. But there was always her mother to assist, Norma told me; and if worse came to worst, she could look for hired help.
My second day in town, crashed out with a book after failing to keep up with the Dutch in the sweltering heat, Umberto came home with an invitation: "Let's go to the beach!" He and I sped twenty kilometres or so out of town to the west, to a river marking the border with Cienfuegos Province. Where the river met the sea, there was the type of beach that was leagues removed from the endless white sand of the tourist resorts. It was a little sandbar underneath a highway overpass - although, Cuban traffic being as light as it is, there was no constant roar to spoil the scene. On one side of the sandbar was the broad blue Caribbean, and on the other a stretch of still pool, fronded by forest. The river flowed past a campesino's thatched-roof property that clung to the banks.
At the beach with Norma and Umberto
On the sandbar itself was assembled a large proportion of the Peña clan of Trinidad. They included Orlando's brother, who'd already partaken liberally of rum, and kept urging me to take photos. Umberto had dropped the group off earlier in the day. Now we were here to take them home - but first to linger. For a couple of hours, as the sun headed towards the rugged nearby hills of the Sierra, I was welcomed into the clan. When they heard I would be celebrating my 35th birthday on the flight back to Mexico, far from home and family, they displayed shock. We must hold a party before my departure! I immediately regretted letting them in on the news, since such an event could only cut into scarce family income. Umberto, though, was insistent. "We'll get a fish, and a cake with 35 candles!" Mortified, I managed to negotiate them down to a meat dinner, with me springing for the beer, and no cake - or so they promised. We drove happily back through the pink haze of sunset. Six of us in the little car: husband and wife, daughter, grandad, his drunken brother - whom little Lilian was doing a soldierly job of propping up in the back seat - and the solitary gringo, suddenly not feeling so far from home after all.
View from the slavetower, Manaca Iznaga
[Link to full-size image]
Reading, later that day, a chapter by Kevin Yelvington on "Patterns of Ethnicity, Class, and Nationalism" in Latin America, I was surprised to learn that the Caribbean had received about 40 percent of the "more than 10 million Africans [who] reached the New World." (Ten million more, Yelvington reminds us, did not survive the passage.) Another 40 percent went to Brazil. The United States, where a civil war was fought in part over the issue, and where the legacy of slavery looms so large today, received barely 4 percent of the slaves transported to the Americas.(7)
As we strolled down the lanes, dotted with goats and pigs, and into the cane-fields beyond, I found myself wondering how many of the residents of the valley could trace a direct descent from the slaves who had been worked to death in these fields. Given the geographical stability of many Cuban families - at least those members who remained in the country - it would not be unusual if the young Black boys who led Paul away to chase butterflies were leading him down paths their ancestors had trodden in chains.(8)
The Escambray had proved an ideal base for Che Guevara's guerrilla bands: the attack on Santa Clara was launched from here, after the "long march" overland from the rebels' original base in the Sierra Maestra of eastern Cuba. After the revolution, though, these mountains had also harboured hundreds of counter-revolutionary rebels - "bandits" is the accepted term in Cuba. The CIA-supported bands were gradually hunted down; by 1965 they had ceased to operate. But a number of Trinidadians died in hot pursuit, or otherwise. A museum in town commemorated them, along with other residents who died in the fight to overthrow Batista. (I learned I was living with one of the casualties of the banditry. Orlando, the patriarch of the Peña clan, hiked up his pants leg to show me where two or three bullets had ripped through the fleshy part of his calf. He was injured in a surprise attack by the contras, as he called them, in 1962, on the road just outside Trinidad.)
We chose the more arduous of the two hikes available to us, and headed down, down, down the hillside. The foliage occasionally parted to reveal breathtaking vistas of mountain and valley. At a salto (ravine) called Caburní, we found a waterfall gushing over the lip of a high precipice, spilling a couple of hundreds of metres through scattered pools and boulders to a lagoon far below. The water in these pools was clear and chilly from the mountains. We gratefully stripped down, dived in, and basked. I hadn't seen much hot water in Cuba, but neither had I found much truly cold water - at the height of the tropical summer, what came out of the taps and spigots was tepid at best. This was a pure treat.
We washed the mud and sweat of the hike off us and frolicked on the rocks. Then we turned around and faced the hard part - climbing back up the hillside. Near the top, drooping with fatigue, an afternoon shower caught us, the raindrops glittering when residual rays of sun shone through the clouds. We waited it out on a farmer's veranda, and then trooped the final few hundred metres to the parking lot and waiting sedan. Our driver, on the steep descent, used the engine only sparingly, preferring to coast. Apparently brake replacements in Cuba were cheaper than gasoline. I hoped brake replacements were cheaper than gasoline.
I spent the last few minutes chatting with the Dutch. Their driver had turned up slightly early. We suggested he return in a quarter of an hour. After half an hour, we began scanning the horizon for him. After an hour, irritation was palpable. After an hour-and-a-half, there was nothing to do but trudge back to the intermunicipal bus station, where I negotiated another ride for them. I half-expected the original driver to be waiting when we returned to the Peña residence. But he wasn't, and he didn't show anytime in the hour or two I spent there after the Dutch had chugged off into the distance. Go figure.
With the Dutch gone I was back on my own, for the first time since the train station in Havana. Umberto offered me the use of his bicycle gratis. After a day spent finding my own bearings in the cobblestoned network of Trinidad, I headed out to the two beaches, Boca and Ancón, near town. The bicycle had only one brake that partly worked. That was manageable. But it also had no padding on the seat. After a while, this proved a terrible aggravation to my bony trasero (rump). I ended up alternating between riding half side-saddle, and hopping off to push the bike along the road, through marshy, bird-filled countryside.
At Ancón I found the only really classic Cuban beach I would see on the trip: four kilometres of curving white sand, and at the end of it the hulking three-star Hotel Ancón. There was surprisingly little development along the remainder of the stretch. The package tourists thronging the central square of Trinidad came on daytrips from Varadero and other resorts. A good eighty percent of Ancón was occupied by Cubans, along with a smattering of foreigners who'd hired their own transport. If Ancón and the Playas del Este near Havana (where I'd stayed in 1993) were any indication, at least those beaches that Cubans traditionally used were not being closed off to them when tourist development began.
It was a hard pedal home, into the wind most of the way. When I reached the outskirts of Trinidad I stopped at a roadside stall selling guarapo - sugar-cane juice prepared before my eyes, by a young man whose task in life it was to feed the cane into a grinder and collect the foaming, bilious-looking output in a bucket. It wasn't as cloying a drink as you might expect, and after the exertions of the day it was just the ticket. A tall, consummately refreshing glass cost 80 centavos - less than a nickel.
[Link to full-size image]
At the central plaza in Trinidad, I spied a picturesque old man on a donkey, and thought of taking a snap. The man came closer, and I saw the donkey had a sign looped around its ears, in English: "For hire. Photos 50 cents."
It was that kind of place, and would only become more so, as hundreds of thousands of package tourists were shuttled into the city centre for their quick glimpse of the cathedral, the plaza, and the surrounding streets. At peak hours the tourists were already the main attraction. They drew troupes of young boys and older hustlers to their midst, and their free-spending ways had given rise to a street full of the most execrable souvenir stands I have ever seen.
The developing character of Trinidad gave me pause when I thought of making a more serious investment in the town. It was a possibility that had occurred to me in the months before the journey. If at some point in the near future my earning-power took a sharp turn upwards, as seemed not inconceivable, why not use some of it to build and operate the guest-house to end all guest-houses? Well, hardly - but I'd long had a fantasy of creating the sort of backpacker's environment I'd like to stumble across in my travels. There would be a "Burton Room" for book-reading and swapping, a little restaurant serving simple vegetarian dishes (a first in Cuba?), and a bar with a deep and very cold refrigerator stocked with every worthwhile variety of Cuban beer, bottled only. Profit was a secondary consideration in all this, and cozy community relations a must.
Trinidad had appealed to me, in the abstract, for the way it combined
urban antiquity with a proximity to beaches and rugged mountains. The countryside
had more than met expectations: the hideaway beaches that only Cubans went
to; the thickly-forested mountains of the Sierra del Escambray; the valleys
still woven with sugar-cane and dotted with mills. I feared for the town
itself, wondering whether it would be too small to withstand the deluge
that would descend upon it in coming years. But its charms were ample when
the package-tourists had gone for the day. And by night Trinidad was haunting.
Strolling its dimly-lit streets to the outskirts, only a couple of hundred
metres from the main plaza, you really could imagine the scene a hundred
and fifty years ago; the cliché of the "living museum" itself took
Created by Adam Jones, 1998. Photographs copyright 1998.
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is credited and notified.
Last updated: 10 October 2000.
2. The colours aren't a coincidence, by the way. The flag was designed in the 1850's by Narciso Lopez, "a former Spanish general who favored annexation to the US as a means of preserving slavery." He staged a couple of abortive invasions of Cuba, including Americans in his forces, and the flag is his "enduring legacy ... Its single white star (like that of slaveholding Texas) appears on a red Masonic triangle against horizontal white and blue stripes, ironic symbols of the U.S. annexation effort." (LP)
3. If you look closely in The Godfather, Part II - the scenes set in Havana at the moment of Batista's collapse - you can see Al Pacino stroll into the lobby of a Hotel Capri.
4. The monument, a couple of blocks from my hotel, commemorates the U.S. soldiers who died in 1898 when a battleship blew up in Havana Harbour. That kicked off the so-called "Spanish-American War," really more of an intervention by the Americans to suppress the Cuban independence movement, which had all but defeated the Spanish by that point. The pro-American wording on the monument is still there, but on the other side the Cubans have added an inscription stating that the victims were "sacrificed" by imperialism - hinting at a fairly common conspiracy theory, that the Maine was deliberately blown up by the U.S. to provide a pretext for intervention.
5. For a profile of Alarcón, see Walter Russell Mead, "Castro's Successor?," The New Yorker, 26 January 1998.
6. Susan Eva Eckstein, Back from the Future: Cuba Under Castro (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 135.
7. Kevin A. Yelvington, "Patterns of Ethnicity, Class, and Nationalism," in Richard S. Hillman, ed., Understanding Contemporary Latin America (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1997), p. 216.
8. David Stanley notes that the Cuban conga line, which "invariably feature[s]" in the dance shows presented to tourists, "originated as a dance for African slaves, who could only take short steps due to the shackles on their feet." (LP)