Well, that was an experience. And I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone, but maybe not as long as a month, what with power cuts and water shortages, and dirty, noisy streets, and an intrusive police presence. No, pilgrims, I wasn’t in New Orleans, or even New York City; I was in Havana.
The only local athletics event that took place, apart from my daily runs along the Malecón (apologies to Sir Andrew Doyle, for not providing pictorial proof), was the Terry Fox Run For Hope. Apparently, the numbers out on the streets, across Cuba two Sundays ago, were second only to those in Canada.
There are some things the Cubans do really well, like literacy and infant mortality (much better stats than in the USA), and training medics. Boxing and baseball rank highly too. And they’ve also got some pretty good athletes.
But, for the rest, it’s hard work. Of course, nobody said it was going to be easy, but once you’ve got used to living in a First World country (which the UK just about manages to be), going down market is a trial. And I’d rented a pretty basic apartment in the old town, or Havana Vieja.
Once you get the hang of it, though, life can be pretty cheap. There are two monies, would you believe? One for tourists and for locals who want to buy luxuries, ie soap, toilet paper, cheese, beer, etc, the sort of things you and I would take for granted; then there is the local money. Both are called pesos, but the tourist one, smarter notes and coins, is called the ‘convertible peso’, roughly linked to the dollar; the local money ‘Moneda Nacional’ is 24 pesos to a convertible peso. You with me so far?
Of course, the Cubans blame Uncle Sam for the shortages, and for the most part, they’re probably right. If there is a more stupid and short-sighted piece of foreign policy anywhere in the world than the Cuban embargo, please write and point it out?
The art museums, for those who like that sort of thing are wonderful, I didn’t realise how important pictorial art was for Cubans, going back to the early 20th century, when some of the painters went, like many others to Paris and New York, to develop.
But the city itself is a museum, principally for the post-war US motor industry. There can’t be more than a few hundred 1950s cars in the USA, in museums and/or used for the movies. There are allegedly around 40,000 Buicks, Dodges, Chevvies, Plymouths – the list goes on – in working order in Cuba. And they’re everywhere, mostly used as collective taxis, which is to say, public transport is so indifferent that these motors ply certain routes in and out of the city, up to six or eight people cram in and pay 10 local pesos (50 cents in real money) each, for trips of up to 15-20mins.
The second day I was there, I’m shuddering along – shocks aren’t as good as they could be, after 60 years – in a ’47 Buick! It’s oneiric. Some are falling apart, but others are in pristine condition. Many have the original engines, but others are completely rebuilt, from cannibalising other vehicles. And you have to believe that Cubans have got to be the best car mechanics in the world. It wasn’t unusual to see a bunch of neighbours rebuilding a vehicle that had been completely stripped down, with the parts and pieces, and bumpers/fenders, bonnets, etc, stretched out on the footpath. Henry Ford would turn in his grave, not an assembly line in sight.
There are no noisy neighbours in Cuba, everybody’s noisy. But being a third-world country, it operates mostly by day, that’s to say sunrise to sunset. Things quieten down substantially after 10.30pm. But from 7am or earlier, there is a cacophony, of voices, music (played loud, always) bicycle bells, car and motorcycle horns, and hawkers shouting their wares. It’s not disturbing, because that’s the way it is. If you want quiet, go to Switzerland, where you can be fined on the spot for sounding your horn.
But the people in Cuba are incredibly courteous; the simplest example being, despite the crowded streets and pavements, with cars, motorbikes (frequently with sidecars), and bicycle taxis whizzing past, people studiously avoid bumping into others. And I’ve been to places where tourist harassment is far worse, and far nastier.
I did manage to escape from Havana for a couple or three days, with someone who will remain nameless (for reasons connected to the State Department), and go to Cienfuegos and Trinidad (a small town, not the country), and they were charming, quiet, clean, and easily accessible by the uncrowded motorway. It was a welcome respite from the Havana hubbub.
Since Fidel’s illness a couple of years ago (which didn’t stop him making a nine-hour speech recently), younger brother Raul has been presiding over some degree of individual enterprise; farmers’ markets, permission to buy and sell houses, in additional to the renting of rooms, which began with the tourist boom about 15-20 years ago. But there’s still a long way to go. As one of my contacts complained, the two worse things are the internet (only about 18% of Cubans have access, to the expensive state offices – there are no internet cafes), and no freedom to travel. “We don’t all want to escape, they should trust us,” she said.
I was in Havana almost 20 years ago, for the IAAF World Cup (someone took a great photo of Nebiolo, Samaranch and Fidel – don’t often get three dictators in the same frame), and I recall musing about the undeveloped Malecón, the sea-front road, on how wonderful it could/would look. Little if nothing has changed. The centre of Havana Vieja has changed, refurbished as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But two streets away, the buildings are crumbling, or in some cases, crumbled. And they’ll stay that way, presumably until the embargo is finally lifted.
There is much evidence of Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for years before he took up his shotgun and left abruptly. There is a Hemingway Museum, a Hemingway Marina – presumably where the Old Man took to the Sea – and the Hotel Ambos Mundos (Both Worlds) keeps his fifth-floor room as it was 60 years ago. The best joke I encountered was outside a restaurant, pleasingly just around the corner from my apartment, which advertised itself with, ‘Hemingway Never Came Here’. That was a good enough reason to frequent it, and the food was the best I tasted in a month.
Nobody in their right mind would want Havana and Cuba to go back to what they were under Batista 55 years ago – that’s to say, a whorehouse for the Miami mob – before Fidel and Che and the other handful of boys got to work in the Sierra Maestra. On the other hand, the Cubans deserve a better deal than they’re getting now.