by Tom Charles
In 2005, I was haggling over payment for a job. I wanted £1500, he offered £1000, we settled on £1000 plus his air miles to go anywhere that Virgin Atlantic fly to. The choice was Lagos or Havana, so on Thursday 18th August I set sail from Gatwick airport to Cuba.
I kept a diary, but never read it back for fear that it might be cringeworthy…until now, as I type, with small modifications to protect the innocent…
Writing at about 9pm Cuban time, the taxi journey from the airport was like this: Havana looks dirty, roads in a bad state, no road markings, but it improved as we got close to the city.
The guest house I booked turned out to be a family house, very run down. But, had coffee with the family and they showed me on the map how to get around. As I write, I’m much more central, by the Havana Libre Hotel.
Stopped at a bar and met an African guy who lives in Vancouver, but once worked on a construction job on Gell Street (in Sheffield, I used to live there) and would go and watch Wednesday.
I also met Jani, who was cute with nice tetas but turned out to be a $30 prostitute. (She made a note in my diary: “todas las chicas en Cuba est putas”).
(Later) Turns out the father at the casa is an astronaut – the 2nd Cuban in space!
On way home, met a Cuban guy and bought him a beer. Strangely managed to have a conversation in Spanish without too many silences.
@ casa, talked to lad (the son) about regime.
Sitting @ café @ Museum of Revolution.
This morning had fruit for breakfast (at the house, you get breakfast as well as a room) and listened to lad talking about his hatred for the regime. When there was a knock at the door, he sprung up and checked to see if it was government officials. Renting out rooms to tourists is a job, and income is limited and monitored by the state.
Took a Lada taxi to museum, saw some footage of Che, now gonna look at Pavillon Granma – holy shrine of the revolution…Pavilion Granma was a collection of cars, tanks etc. used during the revolution. The centre piece is the boat taken by Fidel and co. from Mexico to overthrow Batista.
Walked to Central Parque and now @ bar with live music, pizza and Bucanero cerveza. Have met a few folk and got stung for two Havana libres – won’t make same mistake again. I’ve been travelling by car – people give you a lift for a US dollar – the alternative is an official cab or a camel bus, which are horribly overcrowded. The car drivers explain that it’s illegal to give a dollar lift, so they instruct me to keep quiet if they get pulled over. Every conversation with a Cuban starts with “Mucho calor,” “si, mucho calor”.
Seem to be less illegal taxis cos it’s Saturday. Last night had a few power cuts which the lad blamed on the government. He sarcastically said “this is the fault of America” when the power went. Later, they are watching TV when it is interrupted and Castro appears to make a speech – their choice is to listen or switch off (it’s on every channel) and they groan, saying the speech could go on for hours.
Got a cab to Centro and went to Capitolio – beautiful decorations inside and looks fantastic outside.
2:30 – went back to Casa for siesta. My Argentinian friend arrives with an Argentina football vest for me. We go for dinner in Vedado and then drink downtown, where someone tries and fails to snatch her handbag.
Walked to Chinatown – made ‘friends’ with 2 Cubans who took us to Buena Vista Social Club. Bought them mojitos and then they asked us to buy them milk. We didn’t. It costs $6 for a bag of powdered milk. There was quite a bit of haggling and it left a bad taste. My Argentinian friend dislikes Cubans and sees them as rip off merchants.
There was a fire on Calle Ocho, where the house is.
We decided to go to Varedero, after being persuaded by the family, but then changed our minds and took taxi to Playas del este, a beach resort for Cubans rather than tourists. Think we will stay here for 2 days, as long as it’s not a total shit tip.
Plenty of Che billboards to enjoy on the taxi ride, and one saying something like ‘Bush = genocide.cuba’, summat like that (www.bloqueo.georgebush.gencideo.cu).
Just got back from the beach, can feel the burning on my forehead and shoulders. Electricity not working. Had some chips with HP brown sauce.
My friend asked some kids to name another Latin American country – they say they only know Venezuela. Cubans don’t seem to have any problem with foreigners, which supports the impression I have that state propaganda is not based on fear and distrust. People seem to know where they are and where their country fits into the scheme of things.
Beautiful air con in the room meant a good night’s sleep after watching a documentary about the Incas and ancient Egyptians. Cuban TV seems to be 90% educational. Walked to Guanbaro, the nearest town.
Went for an early morning swim – the sea was the perfect temperature, cool enough to provide some relief from the heat.
Took a lift with the mad dog (2016 note – this must have been the person who ran the guest houses in Playas del Este, I would never use this language now) and her neighbour and her mother. It turned out to be very enjoyable. In Havana they helped us find a casa on Calle Neptuno, in the heart of central Havana so we gave them some extra cash.
When I looked at my camera in the car, the mother panicked and thought I was recording them – she thought I was a spy for the Cuban government keeping tabs on what they were saying. They don’t like the regime. But whether they like the regime or not, so far every Cuban I have spoken to seems to have a lot of wisdom – they understand what has happened to Cuba, they understand geopolitics and there is a conspicuous absence of irrational hostility.
Went for meal in Chinatown and for an ice cream. An old hag propositioned me.
Went to Hotel Nacional with two Swiss and two Canadians to see some of the Buena Vista Social Club members. Met a Manc called John who knows Mario. Small world.
Carlos (the man of my new home) makes breakfast – fruit, eggs. I walk around on my own. Saw a couple of good books by Fidel Castro:
‘History will absolve me’
‘Speeches about racism’
In the afternoon, watched the Pink Panther with Claudia, the little daughter.
Went to meet Jim Smith at 7pm (he’s come over from London to meet me), via 4 slices of peso pizza. Headed for the fortress and saw them fire the canon and then a dance with fire.
We go to Pinar Del Rio Province. On the bus we get commentary in Spanish and German of all sights along way – Havana and countryside, including the hospital where Maradona was treated.
Stopped in Pinar Del Rio Town – cigar factory / rum shop. Spot a cigar roller in the factory doing sly deals with tourists for a bit of extra cash.
Cigar tour – only good thing was some cartoons and newspaper cuttings outside, was not interested in watching people work, felt embarrassed.
PDR a small town, colonial architecture, quite a few beggars asking for soap and clothes not money. The beggars were a surprise, in Havana there is general poverty and it seems to be shared by everyone, but there doesn’t seem to be the desperate poverty and homelessness of England.
Lots and lots of posters of Fidel with Chavez, celebrating the friendship between the two countries. Cuba is sending doctors in return for oil. Apparently there was a doctor for every block in Havana, but less now cos so many have gone to Venezuela.
A lot of the houses in PDR have hung Venezuela flags on their doors.
In Vinales, seen the sights.
Back in Habana, we are greeted by a major downpour so went to a nice snooty restaurant.
There’s a big hurricane in Florida, so we’re getting some of it.
My Argentinian friend just left. Jim joins me at the Carlos place. The rain has stopped, for how long I don’t know. 1 hurricane has left and the other is just deciding what to do.
Have been out to use internet but there was no connection (maybe because of storm).
Chatted with Carlos about the Axis of Evil – he joked that Cuba might invade the USA and that Venezuela should be in the Axis now. Simply Red are in town tonight – this is a country that can’t import anything decent from the West.
Walked down to Malecon with Jim and got wet – great view of the city and great waves crashing in against the wall. Accidentally went to a bar full of prostitutes then went back to centro.
(2016 note – This was Hurricane Katrina. On this day it was in between the US and Cuba and nobody knew which way it would go. The Cubans were calm. Castro was on TV regularly giving instructions for people to board up their windows and stay inside. Then he became irritated and said ‘we say this every year, surely people know what to do.’ Us visitors are not calm, I am fearful that this hurricane will batter Havana and batter me).
In the morning I watched the Argentine football with Carlos. He told me they have highlights from a different league every Sunday but they never know which one it will be. He tells me he was a baseball player, then a teacher, but gave it up to run his flat as a guest house. He has a good knowledge of British Olympians.
Carlos seems a particularly level headed person, a happy family man. Other Cubans I have met seem less content, life is boring here, there’s a lack of stimulation, people can’t travel abroad, it isn’t easy. They’re very well educated though. The older Cubans seem happy, lots of them sit outside playing dominoes. I’ve been approached by lots of younger men, who ask where I’m from – they’re smart, they don’t say they have a sister in London, they say they have a sister in Liverpool or Manchester to be less obvious. One older man tells me he was in the navy and stopped in Liverpool once.
Went out, virtually everything closed but went to museum of colonial art.
Went to top of Hotel Sevilla for the view and Frank (2016 note – there was a cardboard cut out of Frank Sinatra). Played dominoes at casa with Carlos, Claudia and the Grandmother, who has a dance she does every time she wins. Claudia does the maths to count everybody’s scores.
Museum de la revolucion, walk along Malecon, met two Italians and got some photos of the huge image of Che on the Ministry of Economy.
Watching the sun go down at a jazz café, nice bit of a/c. Waves crashing against the Malecon. The café has no bottled water. Here, when it’s gone, it’s gone. 80s music, so we request Frank, and then a live band come on, buy their CD – all this food, drink and music for $15 between two of us. Good value because another time we requested a pizza which wasn’t on the menu and they charged $7 each – anything that isn’t on the menu incurs a hefty tariff. The menus are extremely limited – this is one of the most noticeable things; some of the shops and cafes have very little food in.
Arranged a date with some Swiss girls, had usual big breakfast the went to the casa de belles artes – some good shit in there and some women with legs. (2016 note – I don’t know).
Rain / dominoes, out with Swiss girls.
I had a dream about being chased by children with spears. My phone tells me it’s 1st September so I panic thinking I’ve missed my flight.
We go to the famous bar (La Bodeguita Del Medio) where people write on the wall. It’s pretty pointless, Jim writes something, then something else. Enjoyed the sunset on the Malecon.
An incredibly humid night, and I’m now on the plane high in the air. I have three seats to myself, there’s mild turbulence.
Things seemed to be going smoothly. Said goodbye to Claudia, Carlos, Granma and Jim and took the taxi. Taxi went two blocks and got a flat tyre. The driver was repairing the tyre so I got up to see if I could help. It was next to a bar and I was approached: “where you from?”
They drew me away from the car and the man I was speaking to suddenly ran. I looked round – there was the passenger seat but my bag was gone. I was gesturing and shouting so a crowd gathered round, including Julia, who could speak English. She fetched the police and explained that my passport, flight confirmation, money etc. had been stolen. The police wouldn’t speak to the staff at the bar, someone said “you can’t leave Cuba now”.
The police said they’d take me to the station to make a report, but they didn’t want to do anything that might help me. I have heard that it’s a mandatory 10 years for stealing from a tourist in Cuba. I got in the car, they closed the door – I’m worried, I’ve got no money and no insurance. Mainly I’m ashamed – how did I get in a position to be in Havana with no money and no insurance. Money is insurance.
Then the door opened and a man in a red vest was approaching holding my plastic folder – there were my passport and my tourist card. I kissed it, I hugged Julia, the crowd gathered again. The man took me to where he’d found my bag, my things formed a trail on the ground that led to a building. We went in and followed the trail to the top floor, but the police didn’t want to go in, so I thought OK, I can leave, they can keep my money and my camera. And I went to the airport.