Ain't Going to Goa
Casa de ceilidh
"You are the whitest fucking person I have ever seen in my life."
I was standing in the back bedroom of our guests home. Their eldest son, a twenty-year-old bass player was examining my, admittedly very pale, hand with total amazement. He was taking such an interest in it I thought I was never going to get it back again.
"And you are the blackest fucking person I have ever seen in my life," I replied.
When my friend Hugh translated this into Spanish everybody fell about laughing and it became yet another excuse for all of us to have another shot of home-made rum. The stuff burned my throat and made my eyes water as I tried to force it down. At $1 a bottle it wasnt exactly a quality product but it seemed a good way to cement international race relations.
The room we were in was tiny. A double bed and a huge wardrobe took up most of the space. I managed to retrieve my white hand and find a space on the bed next to the grandmother of the family. She sat there, a smile on her face, wearing a platinum blonde wig and gold cocktail dress. Every so often she would grab the closest man for a rib-crushing hug. Still sleepy from jet lag I found myself nodding off against her shoulder. The heat and humidity in the room was indescribable. Sweat rolled down my face, my tee-shirt stuck to my back. I felt I was suffocating.
It was my first evening in Havana and wed been invited to Casa de Ya-Ya, a weekly get-together of Cubans which takes place in the tiny first floor flat of a huge 19th century tenement building in Havana Vieja (or Old Havana). Despite the strange surroundings the event reminded me of the ceilidhs my family and their relatives used to have when I was young. Friends and neighbours would come around to sing songs, recite poetry and get smashed on whiskey and bottles of Guinness. The difference here was the Afro-Caribbean son music that was being played was of far higher quality than the drunken Irish traditional squawk once produced by my relatives.
The whole flat was crowded with people who jostled for space with strange santería voodoo dolls which stood all around. There was even one constructed from a shop window dummy that I kept mistaking for a real person. The dolls are representations of Nigerian gods and goddesses and seemed to be based on Catholic saints. These too reminded me of home equivalents of the statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Sacred Heart of Jesus that litter every living room in Ireland. Centre stage here in the flat though was a beautiful, almost religiously iconic, painting of Che Guevara. A smaller photograph of Fidel sat on a shelf nearby. Looking at them I realised for the first time that, shit, I really was in Havana.
"We have a lot in common with the Irish." A young Cuban woman, so white I had at first assumed she must be another tourist, sat down beside Hugh and I. Cuban TV had recently shown a short season of Irish films, including Michael Collins, Hear My Song and The Commitments and it seemed that most Cubans based their ideas of Ireland with reference to these films. Quite often over the next couple of weeks when we explained to people that we were Irish they would go: "Ah!! The Blacks of Europe!" and then clap our backs in solidarity. Ive got to be the whitest black man in history.
"You Irish are a proud nation. You fight for your freedom. Ireland is just like Cuba. I respect you very much."
For a few seconds I debated with myself whether I should try to explain the intricacies of the Irish Troubles to her but then I thought, why shatter the respect of a beautiful exotic woman who Ive only just met? Keeping silent I got a hug and kiss for my brave efforts to throw of the yoke of British imperialism.
We were climbing over a memorial to American sailors blown up on the USS Maine during the Spanish American War. It was about 3am and I had suddenly fallen in love with Havana. All along the seawall of the Malecón Cuban couples and groups of friends sat drinking rum, listening to salsa and watching the world go by. We were stopped constantly by people trying to sell us cigars, marijuana or just wanting to talk with tourists still quite a rare breed in this city. A group of gay men started hissing at me and I wondered yet again if my new cropped haircut was just a wee bit too much the wrong side of camp. "Come and talk!" they called.
Five years ago and a gay man would have been sent to a rehabilitation centre somewhere in central Cuba. Now, after a lot of public debate about homosexuality, its suddenly acceptable almost chic - to be queer in Havana.
During my whole time there Im constantly amazed at how amicable Cubans are about almost everything. To take one obvious example, Im sure there is racism in Cuba but as an example of relative racial harmony I cant imagine there are many other places like it in the world. Coming from Ireland where black people are very, very rare its overwhelming to see such a rich mixture of black, mulatto, Chinese and white people living life cheek by jowl. Belfast will seem so boring after this.
When I was telling this to a friend later she said, "Well, surely they dont like Americans." But thats not even true either. Despite the USs attempts (now to be lifted) to stop its citizens from travelling there American tourists do make their way to Cuba and are welcomed with open arms. Just dont try telling Cubans how to run their own country or youll be looking down the wrong end of an AK-47.
Tired of walking we get a lift home from a drunken Lada driver who swerves backwards and forwards along Avenida 5 until we reach the Miramar district where Hugh lives. Miramar is all Spanish villas, banyan trees and foreign embassies. We get out in front of the new Republic of Congos embassy (which looks deserted despite all the lights being on and the all the windows opened wide) and try to find Hughs apartment block. Mosquitoes are darting about my knees There has been a power cut and the streets are in darkness. A policeman playing with his Russian 9mm pistol gives us a wary look. Hugh says "Buenos" and the cop smiles.
We eventually find the right address on the corner of Calle 21b but not before I almost break my neck. At every street corner in Miramar there is a three metre deep storm drain. Almost all are missing their concrete covers and are instant death traps. Walking in the dark its easy to do oneself a serious injury.
Loo with a view
We get dressed up for a meal in the new restaurant on the top floor of Edificio Focsa. The Focsa is a thirty storey apartment block built in the 1930s and its safe to say that it has probably seen better days. It immediately reminded me of Divis Flats in west Belfast. Its a dark, sweaty place and most of the apartments are now vacant. Lengths of steel cable hang from crumbling concrete. Every apartment is missing its air-conditioning unit. The empty slots look like gaps in a rotting smile. About seventy hardy souls continue to live there (including at one stage my friend Hugh and his girlfriend Selma who did battle there with infestations of cockroaches and mosquitoes for a whole year (see Gotter #10 - pdf file)).
Anywhere else and the Focsa would be a haven for crime and drugs - but not in Havana. Here every neighbourhood has a branch of the CDR, the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution. The CDR is part DIY secret police, part neighbourhood watch, part community group but mostly just local busy-bodies. You usually see committee meeting taking place on the steps of an apartment block around 7pm during the week. The CDR keep an eye on absolutely everything. But like a lot of things in Cuba its a much less disturbing concept in practice than it is in theory. Needless to say if you were to get up to any monkey business in the Focsa you would get a visit from the ladies of the CDR.
Despite the Focsas obvious state of distress the Cuban government decided to put a fancy French restaurant on the top floor which you can ascend to using an elevator at the rear of the building (you enter through a plush foyer thus avoid all the nastiness at the front). When you emerge into the restaurant you suddenly understand why its here. The Focsa is the tallest building in Havana Vedado and the view of city at night is spectacular.
We can see all the way to the Plaza de la Revolución in the south with its impressive José Martí memorial. To our right is the Riveria and Capri hotels former hang-outs for Al Capone and his cohorts. To the left and far below is the beautiful Hotel Nacional German tourists can be seen bopping at its poolside disco. Right below us is Avenida 23 known to the locals as La Rampa centre of Havanas nightlife. From this perspective its easy to miss the ruined ramshackled buildings that make up most of the city.
For the first time in Cuba I feel underdressed. Im in a dirty tee-shirt, sneakers and jeans which normally is de rigeur for most places in Havana but Im surprised to find people in dinner jackets and shirts and ties. The waiters dont seem to mind though and show us to a table. We fight over bread rolls and devour them with gusto. For the past week weve survived on rolls bought with pesos from the local bodega. I only realised after a few days that the crunchy, interestingly textured black things in the bodega rolls were cockroach legs. Im relieved to find that the Focsas rolls do not have this source of added roughage.
The rolls remind me of a trip Hugh and I made to the bodega the previous evening. We met two women on the way there and talked to them for half an hour before eventually making our way into the city in search of our rolls. They wanted us to take them to the disco in the Riveria that night but we said no. We needed food. An hour later on our way back to the flat I heard someone screaming Marco!, Marco! and I turned around to find these two beautiful women chasing us down the street. I could feel my ego exploring new heights. I had turned down a night out with a Naomi Campbell lookalike for the sake of some cockroach-infested breadrolls and here she was chasing me - she wouldnt take no for an answer!
When they caught up with us they explained that they were desperate to go to the toilet and wanted to use the one in our flat. As they said this they both groaned and crouched on the ground grabbing their groins to demonstrate their predicament. Their acting was first class. It seemed like their bladders were about to explode.
"Wed better let them come with us," I said to Hugh but he wouldnt hear of it.
"This is just a trick, Mark. Theyll come back to the flat, drink all our rum, spend the next six hours dancing and then demand to sleep with us."
I thought this over for about half a second. "And theres a problem with this?"
Hugh shrugged. "Well, you have to question their motives, dont you?"
"We do?" I said, trying not to sound too exasperated.
After prolonged debate we half-heartedly told the women that they would have to pee behind the hedge and we would keep watch. At first they werent very pleased but laughed as we averted our gaze. "You Irish are strange!" Damn right, I though, as they danced off into the night.
"Were doing this for Fidel," Hugh explained to me. Our mood on the way home was subdued. "What would he think if he knew we had exploited those poor women?" Later as I chewed on my cockroach leg I wondered what Fidel Castro had ever done for me. I seemed to have replaced my Catholic Guilt Complex about sex for some kind of Fidelista version.
The meal at the Focsa, cooked by a real French chef was exquisite. I had onion soup for starters followed by fresh lobster the first time Ive ever had (or could afford) langusta. With ice cream to follow and an almond liqueur to finish the whole thing came to a laughable $20. (The liqueur was por la casa or on the house.) As I paid up I reflected that an ordinary Cuban, if he or she is lucky, might get a salary of $20 a month and would be horrified that someone could spend such an amount on one meal.
I couldnt help feeling guilty about the whole thing but then I told myself that what I was doing was simply transferring money which I had earned back in the UK (while working for the British government) straight into the coffers of the Cuban government and, whats more, I was getting some good food at the same time. Eating lobster for the revolution! What a working class hero! Raul Castro would be proud of me.
Before leaving the Focsa I visited the bathroom and was rather impressed to find the toilet bowl was right next to a huge window overlooking the Malecón. The window ran from floor to ceiling and as I sat having a crap I could see people out on the streets, sitting in their apartments, swinging at the disco in the Hotel Nacional. Its the most public bowel-movement Ive ever had in my life and quite a satisfying piece of exhibitionism it was too.
On the Ramp
We come down to earth very quickly. Emerging from the air-conditioned pleasantry of the Focsa restaurant we stumble out onto La Rampa Havanas hippest street. Its the early hours of the morning but the tropical heat is unrelenting. The place is crowded with people. Broken (and live!) electricity cables are everywhere; huge potholes threaten your every step and street lighting is non-existent. The air is filled with cigar smoke, the smell of rum and sea spray coming up the Ramp from the Caribbean. We dodge between Pontiacs, Buicks, and 1970s Ladas. A huge Metro Camel roars past us crowded with people on their way home. The Camels are an ultimate symbol of Cuban adaptability Russian tank carriers, obsolete since the end of the cold war, now fashioned into frighteningly huge buses to help deal with Havanas demand for public transport.
I get grabbed by beautiful jiniteras every few yards along the street. Their conversations are good-natured and they are amazed at the whiteness of our skins. Cuban women have a disconcerting habit of not looking at you when they speak. They stand, hand on hip, with a couldnt-give-a-fuck expression on their face gazing intently into the distance. But when you try to leave you then get full in-the-face eye contact. "So why are you going away? You dont like me? Por que?"
Reluctantly I drag myself away, otherwise I suppose, Fidel would be pissed off.
As it is Hugh and the others are themselves getting a bit pissed off. "Why is it they always want to talk to you, Mark? Whats the secret?"
"Maybe youre gay?" suggests the woman whos still pulling at me. "Si? You prefer men?"
Jesus, not the haircut again! I think. "¡No habla Español!" I tell her. "Lo siento. ¡No entiendo!"
She makes some sign language which quickly assures me that conversation was not going to be much of an issue in our relationship. She then says something which Hugh translates.
"She wants me to tell you that the best way to learn Spanish is in bed."
But we walk on.
Coming from the icy desexualised wastes of Northern Ireland, Cuba is a bit of an eye-opener. Sex seems to be the national pastime which I suppose is not surprising because its the one thing thats not rationed (along with condoms). You have to be careful not to look too closely behind any hedge or in a doorway at night in Havana because theres always people at it no matter where you go.
A lot of Cuban women see tourists as a potential way of escaping the poverty of their country and as a tourist youre always getting the attention of jiniteras who may or may not be prostitutes the terms are not completely synonymous in Cuba (jinitera means jockey). One person said to me when talking about this: "Diana Spencer was a jinitera but she wasnt a prostitute. You understand? She wanted to be queen so she slept with Charles to get it. Whats wrong with that?"
Later in the week were drinking ice cold Cristal beer on the Malecón when a stream of wedding cars zoom past. Beautiful young brides sitting on the backs of open top 1940s Chevrolets hugging and kissing their middle-aged German and Canadian husbands. As they pass ordinary Cubans around us laugh uproariously and applaud. Two policemen standing beside us are shaking with laughter and waving at the brides. There is some kind of respect for these womens determination to change their lives. I dont now whether to laugh or be upset.
On the steps of the famous Havana Libre hotel we meet a friend of Hughs a girl who has recently been diagnosed as being in the first stages of full-blown AIDS. She greets us all cheerfully and proceeds to tell us how she caught the virus from her Cuban boyfriend. She is careful to explain she didnt catch the virus from a tourist.
"Those Chinese condoms are rubbish. Always use two," she advises us.
Cuba has some of the most advanced AIDS research hospitals in the world but has no money to pay for the kind of drug regime that might help this girl. "Anyway," she says, "the Americans wont allow the proper medicines through." Shes wearing a tee-shirt of Fidel embracing Pope John Paul II and is laughing loudly as we walk off home.
At the beach
Playa del Este is about ten miles from central Havana. Seven miles of unbroken beaches that run from the eastern tip of the city which are as popular amongst Cubans as they are for foreign tourists. Four of us set off early in the day equipped with factor 20 sun lotion and sensible hats. We flag down a Lada in the street and the driver tells us hell take us to the beach for $10. We drive into the tunnel which runs under Havanas harbour and emerge in the eastern suburbs. Here the Spanish villas are replaced by ugly, dilapidated eastern European tower blocks. Hugh tells us that his boss, one of the top translators on the island, lives here. Im constantly surprised that there is no middle class in Cuba. No matter what their occupation everyone has the same basic standard of living. No Ikea for thousands of miles...
The Lada takes a back road to avoid police checkpoints. Theoretically its illegal for ordinary drivers to take fare-paying passengers and our driver is being cautious, although from what Ive seen of the Cuban police they seem relatively casual. Fidel decided long ago that it was better to police Havana with guajiras or peasants recruited from Granma and Guantanamo provinces in the distant east. Hard-working men who would be impressed with a cool uniform, night stick and gun and who would be less open to corruption. The policy seems to have worked quite well.
Our driver, despite his illicit taxi driving activities, is a strong Fidel supporter and fought to repel the Bay of Pigs invasion. Hes upset at the move to capitalism which Fidel has begrudgingly instigated and which, although is slowly unfreezing the Cuban economy, is already creating a nation of Haves and Have-nots. Theres a feeling that Fidel has let loose something that not even he will be able to control.
Most Cubans we met seemed in two minds about the benefits of democracy. They look to Miami in the north and see the affluence (although black Cubans look to the north and see nothing but the racism). But they can also look west to central America and east to Haiti and south to Colombia and wonder which country Cuba is going to resemble in twenty years time. They know it is unlikely to become a small version of the USA.
Earlier that day we spoke to a friend who had just returned from Guatemala City where he stayed for a weekend to renew his Cuban visa.
"I was never so glad to get back to Havana," he tells us. "Leave your hotel after dark and you will be killed. Its almost a certainty."
He tells us, and his horrified Cuban friends, of children living in the streets addicted to glue. Of policemen who drive around in unmarked cars killing the kids to keep the streets clean.
"These kids live in waste ground with the dogs and rats. Theyd kill you for your watch. Theyd kill you for your hat, for fuck sake! Jesus, itd make you love Fidel Castro."
The beach is a Caribbean paradise. A son band plays under the palms. Beautiful women sit reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The water is such a perfect blue colour that any Irishman who has ever tried to swim in the north Atlantic would weep over the injustice of it all. We grab a spot, pop open our cans of beer and I feel as if Ive just be injected with valium. I never want to go home ever again.
Were soon pestered by jiniteras but its more relaxed here on the beach more like the women are just there to take the piss out of us. People just want to laze about and watch the sea. The girls come and go. James buys everyone bottles of Coke. Lying in the sea I think to myself that this must be heaven.
At sundown we drag ourselves away from the water. We are amongst the last stragglers on the beach and are joined by the son band who start playing Guantanamera. We all dance around in the sand - the women showing us how to salsa. Our group has expanded to ten people, all of whom want to go partying. Im embarrassed to find Ive been grabbed by a girl and her mother who want me to go to Havana Centra to make me dinner.
A huge row erupts with various taxi drivers who sense that theres a lot of money to be made from these ten people. We are tugged from Lada to Lada before eventually someone in a huge Buick offers to take everyone home in his car. We pile in with room to spare and set off towards the sunset listening to Mexican salsa. I have never been more happy in my life.
On the final evening at José Martí airport Im trying to think of the one occasion which summed up my trip to Cuba. Perhaps it was the moment when I was walking with James along Avenida Neptuno in Havana Vieja and we were surrounded by people on bicycles, on foot and in cars and suddenly somebody started shouting my name from a third storey window. I looked up and saw a young man who I dont think Id ever met before in my life waving at me. I waved back and he grinned. A moment later he was gone. Who was he? God only knows but somehow, in a city which has two and a half million inhabitants, it didnt seem strange to bump into a friend in Havana. Despite being the most alien environment Ive ever been in Ive felt more relaxed there than I have been in most parts of my home city.
It may be just the ramblings of a naïve drunken tourist but I really did feel that visiting Cuba helped remind me that, despite all its inadequacies and its sheer unworkableness, there are some things of value in a socialist system - some kind of feeling of community and social cohesion - that I certainly dont find in south Belfast (or, for that matter, south London). I suspect western capitalist democracies have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Whether its worth losing it for the sake of a chance to purchase your own BMW Z3 is open to question.
One Saturday night we went to the disco at the Teatro Karl Marx. The place was jammed with Cubans, there was no air-conditioning, the sound system was so loud it was physically painful and there was almost no lighting. We went there with an ex-Liverpool docker called Billy. An unrepentant Stalinist hed retired to Havana and now coaches Havana FC. It cost us the equivalent of 5 pence to get into the disco and within seconds we were po-going about to Chumbawamba.
So there we were: four Irish people, an English Stalinist and two hundred Cubans jumping up and down and singing as if our lives depended on it: "I get knocked down. But I get up again. Youre never gonna keep me down. I get knocked down. But I get up again. Youre never gonna keep me down."
Im sure Fidel and Raul would have been proud of us that night.
Back to Reality(?)
Thirty-six hours later and I was in Leeds for Corflu UK. I was disorientated, I had stomach cramps (and possibly stomach parasites) and I couldnt answer any of the questions in the quiz. I spent the evening drinking my duty-free Havana Club rum and wondering just how quickly I could save enough money to get back to Cuba. After all I never did get around to visiting any museums.
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