Your Man In Hanover
The mail from Cuba was reported to be so slow we didn’t send cards but brought them back. We each chose three scenes which we hope will remain forever.
Trinidad in the south of the island is a wonderful cobbled colonial town dominated by two squares,a church and town hall. Nearby is the perfect Playa Ancon a mere £4 taxi tide away. We stayed there five days. Victor the man who ran our bed and breakfast who looked like everyone’s favourite butcher and had a son working in Italy was the spirit of the new entrepreneurial Cuba .
One morning before we went to the beach we saw one of the many horse and traps-which are much of the traffic in this part of then island- come off the main drag. Down a side street and up onto a crest of a hill where it stopped to deliver its fare. It was silhouetted and behind were the mountains which are the back cloth to this sweet town. The brain clicked. A moment, a memory,something you dont see from the tour bus.
17th December our second day. It is the day of the most fervent of the African- Catholic festivals. The Procession of San Lazaro. Until a few years ago thousands would descend on Santiago de las Vegas-20 miles south of Havana where is placed the mutual shrine to the Catholic saint and the Yoruba orisha. Tradition has it that many would crawl the last ten kilometres. Other would walk barefeet. Sackcloth and purple the clothes, candles and flowers the offerings.
We took a taxi. Thousands were on the march. There was not the excitement of a football match or the heavy hope of Lourdes but they were there for a reason. Miracles past and future.Some were barefeet. Some were in purple trimmed sackcloth. Others in the all African white. But two had not forgot the old ways. Not only crawling but pulling rocks to get those extra points which the spirits in all religions seem to dish out for pain. When the pope visited the shrine a few years ago he demanded an “encounter with pain”As it happens the modern pilgrims knew they were cheating and gave generous blood money to those that crawled in the old painful way. One or two changed into their sackcloth just before the shrine-where once stood a hospital for lepers. This was like me putting on my tie just before a job interview. Many were buying statues of Jesus and his mum so they could be sanctified by this most Cuban of shrines.
We came back in a communal taxi, a Buick ’56.The driver wore a Miami Dolphins shirt.
Now Havana is part Buenos Aires,part Valparaso and part dump. Some bits of the old town have been done up brilliantly but much is decayed. The city is also crammed with some of the worst museums in the world. The history of every aspect of life is told. But some of the dullest stately homes in the UK have better artefacts. This is after all a very small peripheral country with a very short history. Castro’s revolution(one of many) maybe a big deal and a few hundred dedicated partisans bringing down Bastita is a great story-but next year we celebrate the battle of Waterloo.
But that doesnt stop some of the old colonial buildings being to die for. Not least the 18th century Museo de la Cuidad in the very grand Plaza de Armas Grand,baroque, with like many buildings a courtyard which evokes all the civilisation and history of the that decaying lizard, the Spanish Empire. Through an arch,above the tower,we see the proud star and stripes of the Cuban flag.
I would describe the non tourist Cuba which lives next to and around the gilded tourist ghetto and along the highways as having poverty without squalor. They queue for everything,their ration books in their hands. The shops are few and bare. Pitiful horse and cart vendors travel around selling vegetables milk, bread. Its like 19th century Europe. In the fields while some have tractors, machinery and modern irrigation systems others are ploughing with bullocks. But while many of the houses are little more than one room,they are houses not shanty shacks. There is little litter. There is order. Are they happy in their community of equality or just well policed?
But while we travel around in air conditioned buses and taxis you see the locals standing in some buses which are little more than cattle trucks. Everything in the local economy is heavily subsidised and our bus fare from Havana to Trinidad was more than the monthly pension of the retired teacher we met. The only private cars are for the tourists, the famous US cars of the 50s are all taxis,there are few push bikes and less motor bikes. Nevertheless there is no begging, the hussling is well mannered, and there are none of the broken and destitute, old and crippled which deform most third world cities. Ten years ago the electricity blacked outed regularly, today it doesn’t.
Obisco is one of the main shopping streets in Havana. It’s narrow way bustles and surges like Carnaby Street in the 60s. Here the queues are longest outside the phone company(very few cell phones are in existence) and the bank that changes currency. We go into a handicraft market. It sells what everyone else sells. A large coloured lady asks me if I am interested in cigars. We all know that away from the government stores that cigars are a fraction of the price. Si. Follow me. Down a side street which like many is dug up for (sometime) renovation. Around a corner, into a crumbling tenement. There we meet a tall man.Where are you from he ,as they do,mechanically asks. He unlocks a door. We enter a dark hall. Oh my God. What happens next. I am only 68, I have so many more films to see. Fight or Flight?
Its Ok , a light goes on, and the little room is in fact an Aladdin’s cave of cigars. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. All lovely. I tell them as I smoke about one every two years a box of fifty since I am not standing for office is a waste of time. I settle for four Monte Christos for £15.
Our taxi taking us to the airport for the last time is a 1957 British Ford Consul. Our man in Havana(Graham Greene 1957) as it happens drove a Hillman. As we are driving along a youth of about ten on his push bike grabs the rear fin and a free ride. The freedom, the balls, the love,the guts.
We pass a sign with the ubiquitous Che ,Socialsm o Muerte. Hasta la Victorie. Another in Spanish declares Fidels words, Without Culture there is no Victory.One more featuring the man who failed in the Congo and died alone in Bolivia. Tu Ejemplo VIVE Tus ideas Perduran. Tell that to the waiters in Varadero. Or Victor. Che may be a good poster but Cubans after 1990 lost a third of their body weight. And that was without Weightwatchers.