Imagine if you had had a great time with your ideal partner, but one day decided it was time to move. No specific reason, just that life is about trying new things. So you move on - go out on a bender and wake up with someone with bad breath and dodgy teeth. All you can do is think about what you have left. The new friend may have a GSOH, like all the things you do and may even be able to suck golf balls through a hose pipe, but you can’t see past the breath and the teeth and all you can think is ‘What the fuck have I done’.
I write this in Havana, in the early days of our Cuban experience, after leaving the wonderful Colombia, and this is how we feel.
Think about Lisbon or Barcelona after Armageddon (or after having been neglected for 60 years). Think about the run-down colonial bits of Mumbai but with fewer people, or a Spanish speaking Yangon and you’ve got Havana. It is fucked. There are many, many, many, many beautiful buildings and a few are in a reasonable condition; some of the rest are literally falling down and the vast majority are in a terrible state of repair. Move one block away from the handful of blocks that make up the reasonably maintained tourist areas and you are in filthy, smelly streets, with stinking rubbish, potholes the size of small caves and bits of dead things (in a few days we have seen 2 dogs legs in the street, which beats my previous exposure by 2). It is a city with enormous potential; it’s next to the sea, has a large harbour and a stock of incredible buildings … it could be one of the finest cities in the world, but it is realising about 1% of that potential.
The well documented shortage of stuff is very much a thing and the need to be comfortable in queues is vital. There are two categories of most things; Government run stuff (the majority) that involves queues, surly staff and very little else. Then there is the ‘up and coming’ private sector, that can involve more stuff, no queues and occasionally charming staff. In Havana we discovered that few foreigners had the patience to go to the former and no local could afford the latter, so it’s very possible to feel like you are in some kind of theme park. For J and I, a big contributor to the joy of travelling is meeting and mixing with different cultures and in Havana we were largely denied the opportunity. The closest we got was a lovely, though a little drunken, couple of hours spent in a very small, very average pizza place that was next door to a very popular pizza place and was perhaps the place people went to when the latter was too busy. We drank beer and chatted to the lovely owner/manager and his dad (in Spanglish) and learned a little bit about local life for local people. The owner was a skilled lab technician in a local hospital, married to another lab technician, but, as they only earned about US$60 a month between them, they needed another source of income.
On our first night in Havana we found what looked like a reasonable restaurant. This turned out to be a truly terrible one that served spaghetti the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the dinner lady at my primary school in 1978 decided to experiment with ‘exotic’ Italian food. We also learned that when you go into a Cuban restaurant, instead of the waiter telling you what the specials are, they tell you what they don’t have. No pork, no shrimps, no corn, no wine, no local beer, only 2 cans of Sol, we haven’t had cheese for 5 days, nothing to provide a hint of flavour etc.
The challenge restaurants have is the lack of stuff in shops. There are no real shops in the way we think of them. In Colombia we complained that we could not get Thai curry paste. In Cuba it is hard to get flour, bread, cooking oil etc. A well stocked shop in the centre of the capital city may have 50 different line items. A normal shop, perhaps 20.
Earlier on our first night, we went to a place near our Casa Peculiar (they are all a bit peculiar) which had been recommended to us for dinner, but we moved on when they told us that there was a 45 minute wait for a table. 2 days later we realised that 45 minutes was entirely reasonable as people are happy to wait for 1-2 hours for exceptionally average food. Part of the problem is that Cuba has two currencies; the CUC and the CUP. Locals not involved in the tourist industry only have access to CUP and foreigners are supposed to do everything in CUC (linked to the US$ 1 – 1). To get CUC, you can go to an ATM in a major city, queue for half an hour or so in a bank or queue for even longer to use the machines in the airport that suck in your pile of Euros or $, counts them, then spits out CUC. (Having a Soviet era machine suck in a significant amount of your available cash is a leap of faith). If you go to government run restaurants that take CUC, they are very cheap by normal standards, hence the queues. I say normal, because whilst you can get more food than you eat for 6CUC in a government place but that is also pretty much a weeks wages if you are a local and rely on a government salary. The ones without the queues only take CUC and therefore are out of reach of most locals..
Eating for J is generally difficult on our trips however Cuba is a real challenge for veggies. J thought that the lack of choice may have been an opportunity to be a little more healthy…….. at least she thought that for a minute or two. “This might be good for me as all they sell are mojitos and I don’t like mojitos. Or I may need to learn to like Mojitos.” J now drinks mojitos.
We stayed in a Casa Particular in Barrio China, which is similar to any other China Town in any other city, but without Chinese people or any good restaurants. Mostly it is crumbling buildings, poorly maintained streets, bad smells and poverty. Our room was in an apartment on the 4th floor of a block of flats run by the very energetic, 4 foot something tall Yani, who rationed bras to afternoon wear only and mostly seemed to wear nighties. She cooked lovely breakfasts, had an immaculate apartment, she was very helpful and our room had hot water and aircon, so that’s all good.
We had booked Yani’s place through the Spanish school we were spending a week at and it was very handy for that at least. Our Spanish had been going down hill a bit in the past few months as we spoke in our comfort zone, and that zone got smaller and smaller, so we needed a top up. I was hoping that everything would come flooding back and we would be pretty much fluent in a week, but instead I remembered how much I didn’t know or had forgotten. I still get confused between the word for horse (caballo) and hair (cabello). I want to ride your hair….. you have something in your horse etc.
When not at school, we explored Havana. On day one we planned to do an old city tour but it was peeing down with rain and cold so postponed it and hit the nearest bar for a coffee. The bar resembled a hostess bar; dark walls, red lights, mirrors and women in tight clothing and served truly terrible coffee, so we hit the beer and the day went down hill from there really.
One of the reasons we ended up in this dodgy bar is that we had no internet, which can only be found in some large hotels and wifi hotspots in public parks. This means that you have to remind yourself of how we did things in the old days. You don’t know what the weather will be like, you don’t know where you live, you don’t know how to get from A-B or how long it takes, you don’t know which bars are good or bad and what the hell do you do if you get split up. So just like in the old days, you get lost, you arrive early or late, you get caught in the rain with no umbrella and you drink bad coffee in hostess bars.
After 24 hours I remembered that I have downloaded maps.me and the Cuba maps so some things became easier.
We also discovered that in the Parque Centro Hotel you could get an hour of internet and a beer, served in a reasonable bar by nice staff, for CUC 4. We were able to do a bit more organising and also utilise the helpful concierge to bag us 2 tickets for Swan Lake in the magnificently restored Theatro Alicia Alonso. That really was a great experience. Really. A great performance in very nice surroundings.
On a ‘Revolution Tour’ we learned nothing about the revolution but lots about what it’s like to live in Cuba and how great Fidel was; we used to have power cuts for 16 hours a day then Fidel had the idea of a distributed power network. Fidel set up shops that have the basics and ration cards to ensure everyone has the basics. It’s not a dictatorship; do you see people getting beaten in the streets? The Guide was in his late 20s and well connected. This meant he went to a good school (we had apples on some days and air-conditioning) but was just a tad brain-washed (though he was a little more open in less crowded areas where he was less likely to be overheard).
Nearly everyone in Cuba works for the government; private business is relatively new. Most hotels, cafes, shops are entirely staffed by miserable people who really do not want to help you. The question you ask will be answered, but no more; ‘Can I have a Cristal beer?’. ‘No, it’s finished’. ‘Do you have other beer?’. ‘Yes’. ‘What kind of beer do you have…..?’ etc.
The government also decides what uniforms people wear, and the Castro’s were/are leg men. In the airport you are met with a flock of young miserable young women wearing skirts that barely hide their pants and 1980’s patterned fishnet tights. We thought we had got mixed up in a surly teenage girls night out.
Our one escape from Havana was a very good massage in the very modern and slick Kempinski hotel in the main square. It was a birthday present to J that was postponed from Bogota and I wish J could have a birthday every day!
We were friggin delighted to leave Havana, half theme park for tourists, half third-world shit hole. I can’t help thinking that unless you have visited every other Latin American country (except perhaps Venezuela) at least twice, why the fuck would you bother with Cuba. I would most certainly try Colombia first.
Next stop: Cienfuegos.