Monday, May 21, 2007

Cuba - A Journey in Time. Part 2 (Habana)

The next day, I called up Nicolas, a guy I met just before my trip. Coincidentally, he and his wife, who is Cuban, were visiting at the same time as my trip. They were busy mostly with her family, but Nicolas was happy to get away for a day and walk around Habana with me.

He is half-Hungarian and half-Russian living in the US, so we could equally easily communicate in English and Russian. Of course, Nicolas also happens to be fluent in Spanish, which is the language he speaks with his charming wife. His is atypical, yet not an uncommon story of a truly international person. To cut to the chase, his Spanish proved invaluable for us as we strolled the streets of Habana Viejo with our huge camerabags.

There are a few things that make Habana different from any other city. First, the abundance of police. There is a cop almost on every street corner in Centro and Habana Vieja. In my opinion, it is a good thing, especially compared to other Cuban cities. This is a jinetero/a territory – jinetero being a male hustler trying to sell you cigars, dinners or rooms for rent, and jinetera – a female kind, trying to sell you… well, you get the picture.

Some places are still quite infested with them. Malecon is one, perhaps due to its openness and ease of detection of police of any kind. As soon as it is “all clear” and you are a guy, watch out for the pretty girls talking to you. I was sitting with my mojito, at a café no less, when 2 girls at different times sat next to me and blatantly asked me to buy them a drink and talk to them. They spoke OK English. I had little interest at those particular moments, but it was some time before I was able to get rid of them. With Nicolas, it was a little easier as he was not as clueless as I was.

Secondly, there are very few street eateries or food vendors. This is a socialist country, where free market is still in a rudimental stage. Everything is owned by the state which has no interest in feeding tourists on every block. As a result, you can spend quite some times looking for your rice and beans and pork or chicken (and that’s about all there is to eat in Cuba). Of course, there are restaurants and even areas where they do sell ham sandwiches off street stands, but they are far and few in between.

Before I went to Cuba, I had been told about the Chinatown in Habana. Well, there is indeed a faux Chinatown with the obligatory arch and even a couple of signs in Chinese. However, just like everybody else, the few Chinese that lived in Cuba have long blended in the whole mix. There are no Chinese as such in Chinatown, but a couple of chefs I saw in restaurants there, did bear vague traces of Asian appearance. In the entire stay in Cuba, I met only 2 Spanish-speaking Chinese which I presume were locals, although they could as well have been tourists from Venezuela or Nicaragua.

I also quickly realized I could not take Internet access for granted in Cuba. Unlike most third-world where internet cafes are cheap and plentiful, Cuba is very restrictive about it still. Virtually nobody has it privately, and the only access to World Wide Web is through state-run telephone offices, where you have to buy a card for 6 convertible pesos (about $7), which gives you one hour of painstakingly slow internet connection.

In the evening, Nicolas took me to the small town where his wife was from. It’s called Bauta, and is only about half an hour south-west of Habana. By the time we got there by taxi, it was already dark, but the party was just beginning.

Although it seemed like a poor town to me, Nicolas told me it was about average. Indeed, his wife’s mother’s house was small but made of concrete, with a tiny living room with a TV, a kitchen and a bedroom. A small but cozy place. Among the array of Nicolas’s relatives-in-law, there was an 80-year old grandpa, whom everybody called Pipo. He was very friendly, constantly smiling with a toothless mouth, until he finally dozed off in front on the TV which was showing an endless baseball game.

The entire family seemed happy to have a guest in the house, especially Enrique, mom’s boyfriend, a 50-something Jamaican who has been living in Cuba since a child. He was as jovial and outspoken as any Belarusian soul of a drinking party. Nicolas and I (who by definition were the people with the money) bought a few bottles of Habana Libre rum, which went down nice and smooth. Enrique was constantly making jokes and assumed complete control over the small jukebox – the only source of music at the party. Cuba, he said, was famous for three things: ron (rum), tabaco and café con leche – at which point he pointed at an arm of one of the girls at the house, implying her skin. Again, he would roar with laughter. Nobody spoke a work of English except Nicolas and to a much lesser degree, his wife, so communication was at the very least interesting.

As the salsa was getting more and more vertiginous and rum kept flowing, my head was literally spinning by the end. I wanted to have a not-too-late start the next day, and made my excuses. The taxi took me back to Central Habana before I was able to fall asleep in the back seat.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Cuba - A Journey in Time. Part 1 (Habana)

For me, Cuba began on the early morning Mexico City – Habana flight with Cuban national and only airline, Cubana. From the curt stewardesses without a trace of smile on their faces to bland yet tiny breakfast meal to grotesquely cheerful video clip about Cuba’s sightseeing on the TV-screens in flight, I knew right away that this was more than a 2 hour flight and a thousand miles distance. It was a journey in time.

I had nothing booked for Cuba, mostly from impossibility to make any bookings in Cuba from the States, and also because I don’t really like making advance reservations. The two Aussies in front of me in immigration queue didn’t book, either, and were promptly sent back to the conveniently located tourism booth to book their hotel. When my turn came, I just flashed my Belarusian passport, which didn’t even need a visa for Cuba, and put down a name of the first hotel I found in my Lonely Planet on the form. The immigration lady waved me through.

I already knew before my trip that it was a bad idea to bring US dollars into Cuba because of the draconian 20% commission they charge to change them, so back at SFO, I bought some Canadian dollars that yield a more palatable but still exuberant 10%. I got some Pesos Convertibles, went through the Cuban customs and was out in the wilderness of Cuba together with my huge backpack.

It proved easy enough to find accommodation. The first person at the airport information booth turned out to know somebody who knew somebody who had a casa particular (room for rent) in the Habana Centro, so I was given an address and was told they would expect me. Later I found out that there was hardly a Cuban that DID NOT know someone with a casa particular – something that proved to be handy on more than one occasion during my trip.

As with every country, the taxi ride from the airport into town is always memorable – it is the first glimpse you get to take beyond the duty-free glamour of the international airport. Funny how even the poorest countries maintain that same bling and glitter about their port of entry, yet only a kilometer away, you start to see the real deal and real life. Cuba’s exception was perhaps in that even its airport was actually not all that flashy at all. Immediately as we left the airport, I was seeing the cars and trucks from my youth which I have not seen in 20 years, and posters in an unfamiliar language yet with familiar exclamation points and leaders with raised fists, something I was so used to in my childhood. The time journey has begun.

My casa particular turned out to be surprisingly well located, right in the middle of Habana Centro, on the corner of pedestrian Amistad and San Rafael. The hostess, old Cuban grandma, was all sweetness and hospitability – all without a word in English. I quickly realized that my lack of Spanish was going to be a huge issue and that my phrasebook was going to be only marginally useful.

After a nap, I stepped outside and took a walk around the neighbourhood, with my camera on my wrist. That first step outside always seems like the biggest adventure – you actually leave the comfort zone of your hotel and venture into the real, strange world, where everybody knows you are not from around here and you have no idea what to expect. The streets were full of people – children playing ball, women with shopping bags and men smoking cigars in the doorways. There was almost no distinction between the sidewalks and streets themselves – everybody was an equal participant in the cacophony of the Habana traffic.

I quickly realized what a photographic paradise I was in. There was no trace of hostility towards me as a tourist, and I could safely snap away at children and passers-by. Some even smiled, and nobody seemed after me or my money, unlike in so many countries in the world. People were almost proud to be photographed, and didn’t seem to mind at all, even if I got a little too close.

But people, no matter how picturesque, were not the only interesting subject for photography and just general admiration. Habana is a city frozen in time. Its buildings are scruffy and dilapidated, but charming in their slow decay. What used to be, no doubt, imposing and flashy facades, are far more shabby and rugged now, yet more accessible and inviting. I like to compare Habana with an old, exquisite wine, with dust on bottles and a faded-out label. One more year, and it will turn into vinegar, but drink it now, and you’ll be left with nothing but an empty bottle.

Habana’s cars are the same. Ancient Buicks and Fords limp around the streets at snail pace, but most are just parked indefinitely on the sides of streets, with missing wheels, doors or sometimes the whole interiors. Cubans, unable to buy new cars due to American embargo and lack of funds, lovingly and ingeniously maintain these old codgers, but there is only so much that can be done 45 years after the last of them made their way to the island.

I was walking my way north up the grid of streets, and finally the shadows of streets and narrow alleys were behind me – I was on Malecon, Habana’s famous promenade. Here, cars drive non-stop for miles along what used to be Habana’s most prestigious row of houses, and once you made it across and turned your back on the city, there was nothing between Cuba and Florida except you and Caribbean waves, lashing violently at the speckled stones below.

The sun was setting, and all I needed was to absorb and ponder on my first day’s impressions at a glass of mojito in a nearby café.