Havana 1999

Trip Start Dec 11, 1999
Trip End Dec 19, 1999

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Havana, Cuba

11/12/99 - 19/12/99


A marvellous week in one of the world's great cities. The combination of vibrant people, rich culture - especially the music, beautifully decadent architecture and Castro's communism - is surely unique in the world.

Here, in no particular order, is my list of marvels:

        Beautiful old buildings: tall, hugely spacious, ornate, crumbling; wrought iron balconies; fanlights over the doorways; reminiscent of Italy (same faded glory) and Zanzibar Stone Town (but more baroque).

        Old American cars: like the buildings, magnificently scarred and dented; anachronisms redolent of a lush past.   

        Che Guevara: his image everywhere - on postcards, on hoardings; more photogenic, more iconic than Castro.

        Queues outside shops: ration books in hand, Cubanos waiting in line for their meagre entitlements of sugar, butter etc.

        Bici-taxis: reminiscent of the Far East; room for two on the back seat; splendid way to view Havana.

        Policemen: on every street corner, taking their jobs very seriously (are they bribable?); ubiquitous yet low-profile.

        Women: many look Venezuelan - same dusky skin; many look pure black African; many in vertically striped skin-tight leggings (like the girl who attempted to give me a late-night blow-job on a park bench in front of the Museo de la Revolucion) - garish and vulgar but all the rage in Havana; several women with hairy navels - openly displaying the line of hair descending from their belly-buttons; one woman with a bushy tuft above her breasts.     

        Music: the band in Café O'Reilly playing passionately to a tiny audience (great flautist, Chan Chan the best tune), treating me royally; Cesar Lopez's combo in La Zorra y El Cuervo (playing Giant Steps, like the other - very young - band I saw there).     

        Mojito: the unique rum cocktail of Cuba (white rum, yerba buena, lemon, lemonade) ; very moreish.

        Cigars: all-pervasive; Che Guevara smokes them in black and white photos; old ladies chew them as they stroll; vendors tout them in the streets; I paid $35 for a box of 25 that would, so the seller assured me, have cost $80 in the shops.

        Elian: the boy "stolen" by the Yanquis; dominating the TV and newspapers; his photo on houses, on cars, on shop windows.

        Sumptuous hotels: wedding-cake architecture, especially the Inglaterra, the Florida.   

        Hemingway associations: his apartment in the Hotel Ambos Mundos; the Hemingway Marina with photos of him and Castro in 1960; his bars - La Floridita and La Bodeguita - now tourist haunts best avoided; books about him in every bookstore; the "daiquiri de EH" I ordered in the Florida Hotel - more of a postre than a drink.

        Giant Camello buses: biggest buses I've ever seen, in effect three buses welded together; with camel logo on back.

        Tank & missiles next to Museo de la Revolucion: pathetic reminder of the glory days of Soviet/Cuban military might.

        Rincon de los Cretinos: on the ground floor of the Museo de la Revolucion; where Batista, Ronald Reagan and George Bush are hilariously lampooned for, respectively, "making" "strengthening" and "consolidating" the Cuban revolution.   

        Drab cinemas: showing obscure Spanish, French movies.

        People accosting me in the street: asking me the time, as a prelude to conversation ; asking me where I'm from ("Vivo en Venezuela." "Que piensa de Chavez?" "Es el nuevo Fidel - tengo mucho miedo…"); begging for money ("It's my birthday today - can you give me a dollar?" - I heard this four times!); offering sex for $20 (hard-faced black prostitute near La Floridita, without any preamble, made me this offer and, when I refused, asked me for a Coca-Cola; surely the wrong order, I thought!); touting cigars; selling paper cones of mani.

        Capablanca Chess Club: a disappointment: I'd expected a state-of-the-art chess club, not a dilapidated room. Still, it was some sort of a thrill to eventually find the place and see the Capablanca plaque outside and photograph Cecilia beside it. Chess is supposed to be big in Cuba, but I saw no sign of it outside this club.

ˇ        Arianet: when I saw her sailing by - walking fast and weightlessly in her light dress, wearing a cute little bear rucksack - I was entranced and could not help but pursue her; bringing her back to Edgar's apartment that first afternoon was a deliciously suspenseful experience; from the waist down, she had the most exquisite body; I'll never forget her elaborate sewing on (it took 4 hours) of the long black wig; I taught her the word "pussy"; she gave me her cold.          

ˇ        Cecilia: Sheldon's "cute girl" - a travesty of a description; down-to-earth, natural, intelligent, music-loving (1. Salsa 2. Jazz 3. Hip-hop), altogether very attractive; we spent 13 hours together on my last day - from 1 pm in O'Reilly's until 2 am in La Zorra y El Cuervo. (In between: buying the papel machado souvenir in the open-air market; finding the Capablanca Club; eating in the Havana Libre Hotel; enjoying the band at O'Reilly's; braving the icy a-c in the Jazz Café). A breath of fresh air after artificial, vain, moody, shallow, clothes-mad Arianet.  
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