Cuba. Joining the Revolution
Totally awesome, surreal place. We keep going back and every time, the island gives you more.
The first time we went, I felt the most overwhelming sense of sadness, as the dilapidated buildings on the Paseo del Prado seemed to possess the air of a once elegant person who had recently fallen on hard times. This after all is the ‘ever-faithful isle’ that remained loyal to Spain -more or less- throughout the nineteenth century whilst the rest of Latin America had broken away and achieved their independence.
After a bit of arm twisting and a couple body-slams from the US, Cuba gained independence from Spain, though in a textbook case of foxes guarding chicken hutches, the US retained the right to supervise and intervene in Cuban foreign and financial affairs and shenanigans. The next few decades saw the island suffer yet more turbulence, where Batista allowed the mafia to control many industries on the island -though unfortunately not restaurants and gastronomy as it could have benefited from some Sicilian influence. Despite, or because of this, the island had the highest consumption of cars, meat, telephones in Latin America and a middle class comparable in size to the US. Castro staged his revolution in ’59 and the country had a very public break-up and divorce from the US. After that they were led by some of the most Instagramable leaders in history, usually dressed in army fatigues and smoking cigars, a look that might have improved some of the governance in the West over the last few decades, as the elusive youth vote would have been easier to capture? There are even pictures of Fidel and Che playing at the chess tournaments held on the island, with Fidel apparently beating Bobby Fischer and getting a draw with world champion Tigran Petrosian. Awesome, eat your heart out Landslide Tony.
Anyway, a trip has that Back to the Future feel about it, though the island is too hot for me to be wearing one of those sleeveless body warmers popularized by Michael J. Fox. We stayed at the National in Havana, which looked as though it hadn’t received a lick of paint since the Mob used the hotel for a junket back in ’46. The gardens were great though and we sipped Cuba Libre’s on balmy summer evenings looking out to a sea that has seen its fair share of history from Columbus to a Missile Crisis and blockade, to an exodus to the US in small rafts.
The National. Havana
A morning might start with a stroll along the Malecón, which incidentally you must come back to in the late afternoon for the sunsets. We walked all along the sea front until the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta before joining the Paseo del Prado and walking to the Capitol building. It’s a glorious hike that takes in so many beautiful buildings that sit on either side of the road that is dissected by a tree-lined pedestrian walkway punctuated by marble benches, and what appears to be the city’s entire population enjoying their remarkable capital. We stopped at a first-floor restaurant, I think it was in the building of one of those Marxist ‘Friends of such-and-such’ Institutes. What was so memorable, was firstly, the building was stunning, secondly, it had the cheapest Lobster I’ve ever eaten. The poor things were being sold for something like a dollar. They were horribly overcooked, but heck, you’re somewhere of historical significance. In fact, the food on the island has always been pretty poor, something I assume Castro was alluding to in his “History will Absolve Me” speech of 1953.
And this is the whole point of a trip to the island. It is to momentarily experience the sheer weight of living history. This is determinism in its rawest state, nothing is ex nihilo, everything is radically, palpably ‘because of’.
Take a drink in Bar Floridita where Hemingway used to get muntered. Then walk down the Obispo and stop everywhere. There are old bookshops, art galleries, a thousand bars where someone’s jamming at any hour of the day. You’ll walk past the Hotel Florida where we once stayed over Christmas and New Year. It was so charming. We went to the Plaza Viejo for dinner on New Years Eve and listened to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club, where a dozen old guys, older even than The Rolling Stones, put on a fabulous concert. There is a ritual on this evening when residents pour water from their balconies on the night’s revelers. We saw a dozen people in their beautiful dresses and tux’s, absolutely drenched, many not quite getting the joke.
New Years Eve at the Floridita
The Plaza de la Catedral is another great spot. The church is beautiful and cigar-smoking ladies in lace dresses, and heavy make-up work the tourists for photo opportunities. There’s also a restaurant on the square that served food no worse than other places in the town. One year, we actually found a really decent Italian place that was run by an Italian chef, so we ate there five nights in a row. They had a decent garden where you could fight for a table. On another walk, we heard music as we walked past a window, we looked inside the open doorway, and there were a hundred people Salsa-ing in the garden. Someone saw us and insisted we join them. Luckily Louise is a great dancer, as what I did to their beloved dance could have created a diplomatic incident.
On another trip, we and our friends hired one of those classic Fifties Oldsmobiles and had our driver crawl around the town, as he played his entire Michael Jackson playlist, the cool stuff before the molestation charges. The driver spoke about his fear as to when the US Cubans would return and maybe buy-up everything and dominate the economy, but after telling us about his two other jobs, it was obvious these energetic, vibrant and industrious people have nothing to fear. They just seem to squeeze so much more into a twenty-four-hour period than anyone else.
On yet another trip with friends, we flew down to the south of the island to enjoy some of the best beaches and waters I’ve ever seen. We took an early morning flight on some old Soviet, or maybe Wright brothers era plane, and had the most terrifying flight imaginable. Once there though, it was all forgotten as it was genuinely spectacular. We went diving, and as tourism is a relatively new phenomena, the dive equipment was excellent, the waters and corals too, though I remember a German tourist kicking off my mask as he rushed to be first to put his towel on the seabed. The hotel food was vile, though they had some decent Chilean wines which started a discourse about authoritarian regimes of the Left and those of the Right, one making excellent wines, the other making lousy food and the advantages for proselytizing. You know, just holiday banter.
Anyway, a trip, or five, will furnish you with a thousand memories, all of them remembered like a heady cocktail, this one made of salsa, cigar-smoke, Marxist-Leninist free market-ish economics, and intoxicating joie de vivre. They are the underdog I will always be rooting for.