Wednesday 9 September 2009

Five days in La Habana

I am leaving Mexico, at last! The plane to Havana takes off from Cancun and finally, after minor difficulties with greedy taxi drivers, I manage to get to the airport. The Cuban airlines vehicle, a Russian product, looks rather worn, and old. The seats, instead of leaning back, lean forward, and the stewardesses treat their passengers with tiny fruit drops and later with plastic cups of cola, spraying insect repellent in the meantime. After a while, the deck starts shaking and I hear a frightful crunch as the wheels are extended. Thick grey smoke emerges from underneath the backpack at my feet and spreads all over the plane. I grab my pack, afraid it will catch fire, and only after a few seconds do I realise it won't make much of a difference if I am to die soon.. A man sitting next to me makes calming hand moves, trying to convince me nothing is threatening us. I decide to believe his reassurance and after a few minutes I am standing, safe, on Cuban soil. The next two hours I spend in the airport, trying to understand the difference between CUC and MN, and get the money I need from somewhere. The cash machines won't accept Mastercards and the currency exchange offices' employees send me from one point to another, justifying themselves with a lack of equipment to accept credit cards or lunch at 7 p.m. To further increase my frustration, rain drops from the leaking roof land on my head every now and then. Fortunately, I probably don't have to worry about sleeping tonight - the employees of the travel agency I bought my flight ticket from promised to send an email to Humberto and Maria, the owners of a casa particular I am going to. Of course, I don't know whether there will be room for me in their house and I don't even know whether they got the email, but I catch a taxi and, to the sound of jazz on the radio, I am on my way to my potential home. When I reach the casa, an older, smiling man waves at me from the balcony, and an older woman informs me she had called the airport to check if my flight was okay and on time. I take a quick shower and go out to sightsee. Maria warns me to hide my camera and to not talk to anybody. I hide the camera, but I decide there is no need to be paranoid: if anyone stops me to talk, I will answer with pleasure.

The streets of Havana are dark. The only light seems to come from the windows of houses, restaurants and cars driving towards me. Young men vie for attention with the standard, "Where are you from?" and subsequent offers of "authentic Cuban cigars from their uncle who works in the factory" or assistance in finding "the best" entertainment. I recognise bicycles only by their horns honking as they approach - unlit they pose a serious risk on these dark streets. I eat dinner in a pub, listening to live music, and the only thought in my mind is: "Wow! Cuba!". A moment later, when I leave to find the famous pub La Bodequita del Medio, where Hemingway drank countless mojitos and Nat King Cole drew pictures on the walls, another young man accosts me. He tells me some story about a sick woman in hospital, points the way to La Bodequita and recommends another place. Driven by curiosity, I follow him, and after a short while, we arrive at the pub. The boy sits next to me at the table, praising the local daiquiri. I realise I am in a company of a jinetero, what Maria warned me about - a jinetero is an unemployed man, a hustler of tourists, looking for drinks or money or more. I give up on the drink and show up alone in La Bodequita - drink an expensive mojito and, as midnight inevitably approaches, I decide to head back home. On my way two more men stop me, recommending a bar where Buena Vista Social Club "supposedly" used to play. The place is incredibly smokey, there is no one at the tables, but at the bar there are a few old men enjoying cigars. I decide to have a mojito here and then I realise that not only will the barman overcharge me for my drink, but I will also have to pay for two more, for my new "friends". Disgusted by my own naivety, I say goodbye quickly and go home.

Morning greets me with breakfast a la Cuba: a plate of mixed fruit, condensated fresh juice, coffee and scrambled eggs. Full, I go out to see what Havana looks like in daylight. By the staircase, a "neighbour" accosts me. In the corner of my eye, I see Maria on the balcony making warning gestures. "Don't talk to him, he is a jinetero. He may steal your camera", her hand seems to say. I leave the stranger quickly and go towards the local Chinatown. Havana by day is striking. Beautiful for sure, some time ago, today it reminds more of an old woman, worn down by the weight of the years, too tired and too discouraged by her fate to take care of how she looks. The buildings are falling to pieces before your eyes; the laundry seems to be hung everywhere there is room for lines; waste spills out of the dumpsters, attracting flies and repelling humans with its stench. People kill time sitting idly in front of their homes, while those same buildings fall into more and more ruin. Three-wheeled bike-taxis, along with american cars from the 60s cruise the streets of Havana. Shop windows display their entire inventory; people queue for a microwaved pizza and rapidly melting ice-creams. Beer is the only thing there is no shortage of, it can even be bought from vending machines in the museums, and is cheaper than Coca-Cola. Next to this Havana, another exists, meant for tourists. Freshly painted hotels, expensive restaurants, restored Havana Vieja with its churches, museums and nightly dance shows; modes of transport for "outsiders" only; internet for the incredible price of 8 CUC per hour. The space between this Havana and the real Havana seems to belong to jineteros and prostitutes. As I sip my mojito, the only tourist eating pizza in a realtively cheap restaurant, three prostitutes and their "care-taker" take seats at the table next to mine and start boldly offering their charms to men at the other tables. In the far corner of the room, a loud argument between women erupts and degenerates into fisticuffs, with bottles raised threateningly. Tables fall over when one woman pushes the other and half the customers hurridly leave the restaurant. I, with a slice of pizza still in my mouth, don't know whether to run as well or sit still, as I haven't yet paid my bill.. Within five minutes the prompt intervention of the police returns things back to normal, but the room still seems to shake with emotion. Thirsty for some culture, I go to a random concert in the Grand Theater. I have to pay 5 CUC (CUC: convertible pesos, currency for foreigners), while the locals pay 5 MN (MN: moneda nacional, currency for Cubans). Exchange rate? About 1 CUC = 25 MN = 1 EUR. The price injustice grates and makes Havana a city comparable to Dublin, when it comes to costs. Locals pay for some products in CUC, for the others in MN. Tourists are theoretically forbidden to use MN. I cannot understand where locals get money for living; during a tour of a cigar factory I am told they earn monthly 350 MN, which is about 15 CUC. I have to pay 25 CUC just to sleep for one night in Havana.

Every day people accost me on the streets, not giving me a moment of peace from their constant interruptions. I stop smiling, I don't pay attention to that superficially kind "Hello!". I start betting with myself whether the next restaurant will overcharge me again, or whether they will stick to the prices in the menu. Entering a diner, I don't know if I will be served, as the cheap pizza, spaghetti or sandwiches are apparantly just for breakfast - only the more expensive items are available to me. My backpack is carefully checked when I try to get on a ferry to Casa Blanca - in 2003 the ferry was hijacked by Cubans who were trying to get to Florida; the hijackers were caught and sentenced to death; the execution was carried out. In the bar next to my home, one of many open 24 hours a day, I drink a beer from a barrel and a few shots of rum, paying in MN. Twice young men try to talk to me, and twice police arrest my interlocutors. I don't know whether Cubans are forbidden to talk to foreigners or whether I have just been saved from jineteros, and - honestly - I stop caring. Five days in Havana is too much, everything annoys me, I no longer see the beauty of the buildings, I stop noticing handsome boys and slim girls, strikingly good looking. I can't avoid thinking that those two young girls begging for a cola will soon become prostitutes, and those boys kicking a ball will shortly also sit in doorways and uselessly wait for their life to improve, while entertaining themselves by accosting people from "elsewhere".

I can't wait to leave Havana. I hope the rest of the country will change my opinion of Cubans and let me discover what tourists enjoy here so much. After five days in Havana I have no more stength to look for charm where, for now, I can only see resignation.

1 comment:

  1. Having been to Cuba twice, and stayed more than a month in Total in Havana, I can fully understand that you only saw resignation. There are, however, quite a bit more.

    I would recommend taking a trip to the University, where you will find plenty of extremely all-right people (However, this may be difficult unless you already have some real Cuban friends, or friends who live in Cuba).

    I didn't hear anything about MN being forbidden to use for tourists. I exchanged CUC->MN at the regular exchange stations at the regular rates. Good to use at the local (non-tourist) pubs, in addition to at the fruit market.

    When it comes to the city being faded, and having given up - I can only agree. :-/


The past!