La Serenissima

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A “coco taxi” in Cuba

What do you think of when you here the name Cuba??

If you are over 70, you might think of Cuban dance band music, the great casino in Havana and the glamour of 20s and 30s society from the US and Europe, whooping it up in Cuba. My parents were a great example of being totally enraptured with Cuban music and dance – which they were very good at incidentally – and I grew up to the sounds of Cuba and Latin America.

If you’re a baby boomer, you probably think of things like Che Guevara, Fidel Castro (and more recently his brother Raoul), the Cuban Revolution (July 1953), the Cuban missile crisis/Bay of Pigs/President John F Kennedy, US trade embargo on Cuba, Cuban cigars, Cuban rum, Spanish colonial architecture, crumbling but elegant art deco buildings, sugar and palm trees, poverty, huge 1950’s US cars with lots of chrome trim and fins, the song Guajira guantanamera (yo soy un hombre sincero etc), Cuban music, especially exuberant dance music like rumbas and salsas.

Whether a boomer or gen x you might recall that in the early 90’s, Gloria Estefan, who popularised salsa music in the US with her Miami Sound Machine, released her album “Mi Tierra” which celebrated Cuban music and its different styles.

From the late 90’s, you might think of the Buena Vista Social Club, the wonderful assembly of veteran musicians and singers whose cd and concerts we owe to Ry Cooder and the film that documented their journey from obscurity to stardom to Wim Wenders. Great names – Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo and assorted other gifted people –graced our screens, effortlessly and expertly.

If you’re gen y, you might think of the sparkling waters of the Caribbean and being there, relaxing, surfing … 

It’s not a bad level of impact for a small country – and I’ve only scratched the surface of the “what do you think of” question.

Well, because of my exposure to the music since age 2, I always had a soft spot for Cuba. Julian, being fluent in Spanish and having done some Latin American studies at uni, also had an interest. So, in 2000, we winged our way to Cuba, via Mexico. Because of the US embargo, you still can’t fly from the US direct to Cuba. We decided to spend Christmas there, 10 days in all. We would be based in Havana, but travel around to other nearby towns as the whim took us. Well, that was the plan at least …

We caught a plane from Los Angeles to Cancun Mexico, and then transferred to a smaller aircraft for the flight to Havana. When I say smaller, it was actually a DC9 – remember them? The bandaids and string were not visible (!) but what it lacked in modernity it made up for in air conditioning. To say that the thermostat was set to FREEZING would be an understatement.

Anyway, as we had experienced a lengthy delay in Cancun, we were a tad peckish on the DC9. As luck would have it, there was food – the best (at least at the time) sandwiches we’d had for some time – happily washed down with Cuban rum and coke. The rum you understand was a medical necessity due to sub zero temperatures … after enjoying these comestible fortifications; our eyes were drawn to a scantily clad couple in the seats opposite. The female of the pair was barely dressed at all – THE shortest shorts we’d ever seen and a tank top. Her male companion also featured a tank top, but his shorts at least had some fabric. They had enquired about blankets, but alas none were forthcoming. As we watched on, we were both struck by the size of the woman’s hands … and come to think of it, the width of her shoulders … hmm. More about them later.


So, we land at Havana airport, and then begin taxiing … past the new sparkling terminal … further away from other buildings and hangars … further into the dark. We pulled up somewhere, had to walk down the stairs to waiting buses. Well, some of you might recall that the stairs and door in a DC9 are at the back; as we were sitting further forward, the bus was full when we got to it. So, after some conferring, the staff waived on the bus and we, along with about 4 other people, climbed into our very own bus! … which proceeded to overtake the first one, racing further into the darkness. Julian and I did not say anything at the time, but comparing notes later we both had the same thought … god, we’re being kidnapped and probably going to be shot! (We learnt a few days later that Putin was in town so for security reasons, he had the new airport building to himself and we were relegated to the old terminal).
 Eventually, we stopped outside a very big tin shed with 2 wooden doors. We marched on through (preferring to get the shooting over with). Presto! 3 wooden cubicles, a cross between a confessional and a ticket booth, awaited with ex KGB types inside, stylishly illuminated by bare fluorescent bulbs. One of the men signalled to me to come forward; Julian explained from behind the yellow line that he was my husband and spoke Spanish, but was told firmly to stay put. So I stumbled through with my not so good Spanish, got immigration clearance and was waived through an old wooden door. I was spat out on the other side to the baggage collection and customs area, decorated with more bare fluorescents. Julian appeared not long after.

Well, I don’t know about you, but generally when you’re at a baggage carousel you see an assortment of cases, maybe some golf bags, the occasional child stroller … Not this one. The first thing we saw was a full sized upright stove, then a couple of air conditioners, then some bags and bicycles. While we were waiting to get our stuff, we casually turned around to see our erstwhile scantily clad amigos being escorted away by a doctor and nurse … when I say doctor and nurse, we were left in no doubt about their official roles – the doctor wore a long white lab coat with mandatory stethoscope around his neck; the nurse in crisp starched white nurse’s dress and matching hat. They were straight out of a 50’s soap opera. Sadly our amigos probably wished they were in one too – instead they were whisked through another wooden door and we never saw them again.

Our checkout through customs was uneventful (thankfully) although we did notice a long table where untoward types had their luggage searched. Their latest find were the undies of a Che Guevara look alike … always a mistake to dress up like a local cultural icon.
The evening weather was just how we’d hoped – warm, balmy air fragrant with tropical flowers. We checked in to the Hotel Nacional – a bit of an icon itself having played host to royalty, movie stars etc from the 20s to early 50s.

The next day we decided to do a city tour to get the lie of the land and then we’d tootle about ourselves going to the places that interested us most. It was a perfect day; blue sky, light breeze and we were taken by the commentary of our tour hostess. She explained the various parts of the city as we toured on foot and in a bus: old Havana, la Habana vieja, was classified in 1982 as a UNESCO World Heritage site; the Marina – where Ernest Hemmingway lived at one time, when he wasn’t at the Hotel Ambos Mundo; the colonial fort, la Fontaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana; the Plaza de la Revolution; the Plaza de Catedrale de San Cristobal de la Havana, the Malecon (the esplanade along the seafront) etc. 

She also spoke of the fact that Cuba had entered a “special period” after Russia collapsed during the late 1980s and Cuba lost 80% of its GNP overnight. Tourism was now a critical though still emerging industry which brought money (notably US dollars, the currency for all tourists) into the country.

We were quite captivated by the colonial and Baroque architecture in Habana vieja. It is truly beautiful and in some ways the buildings yet to be renovated just add to the allure.  The crispness of the kid’s school uniforms and the whiteness of their shirts is also quite startling, especially when you remember that they don’t have all the mod cons at home like we take for granted. The outward health of people under 45 and the whiteness of their teeth is also striking. It’s certainly confirmation that Cuba’s emphasis on health care and education are pretty effective. Both areas are leading in the Latin America countries and Cuba “exports” doctors to a number of neighbouring countries.

On the other hand, many doctors drive taxis because their professional wage is so low. We took a ride in a kind of rickshaw with a young Cuban man who was quite despairing and critical of how things were in Cuba. He had relatives in Miami and thought they had made the right move.

In the following days we poked around the place and went for walks around the town. One of them was to Habana Centro or central Havana, where many local people live, which has plain architecture, crumbling streets, very basic shops – some with earthen floors – with very little to sell; and where the ‘feel” is of lots of people doing their best to get by. We wondered how much longer the US would continue it’s embargo; it seemed so out of proportion when you saw the unrelieved poverty. Yet there was also a great sense of pride and drive to survive. But it looked like a struggle nevertheless.

On one of the rare fine days (more about the weather below!) we took a Coco taxi from outside our hotel, the Nacional. Basically it’s a 3 wheeled motorbike with a fibreglass shell shaped like a coconut. We drove around Havana, zipping along side streets and only inhaling a modest amount of pollution, diesel fumes and dust!! That is, enough for a small country! But it was fun!

I mention the weather. Well, apart from the first and last days, when it was fine and sunny, it rained solidly every other day! So we had to stay focused, act chipper and just carry on. That was hard some days when by 11am you were soaked to the skin! And it was pretty breezy – so much so that we were not only trying to hold up an umbrella, but we were bent in half into the wind a la Buster Keaton in his silent movie vignettes!!

There is a reason why Julian is leaning in under the umbrella and all of the nearby chairs are leaning against the tables – empty!!. Essentially, we were the only ones left in Plaza de la Catedral!! We decided to just sit it out, to the accompaniment of a Cuba Libre (rum and coke) to fortify ourselves!

When the sun was shining, it was quite lovely … 

And some of the building interior details were elegant and beautiful … 

 Next episode:

A different kind of Christmas dinner

Excursion to Vinales (west of Havana)

1 comment:

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