‘Havana shot to the top of my must-visit list after reading Jonathan Cane’s travel feature.’
MOVING TO ITS OWN RHYTHM
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT
Afro-Cuban music on Callejon de Hamel; a portrait of Che Guevara; locals eating lunch and playing checkers; a local woman smoking a cigar; vintage cars and faded facades on the streets of Centro
OPPOSITE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT
Shopping for fresh fruit; Beyoncé and Jay-Z celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary in Havana in April 2013
As boisterous as its colourful history, Cuba captures the essence of a postrevolutionary society For Cubans, WHERE THERE IS RUM, there is music
I HAVE BEEN THINKING about becoming a communist lately, and there’s no more alluring and challenging place to contemplate this than in the faded beauty of Havana. The real problem about converting to communism, for me, would be the food. Communists, you see, have tended to make distinguished architects, creative interior but when it comes to cuisine, heirloom tomatoes, ideologically, must give way to rice and bread. What I crave for dinner is subordinated to everyone actually
having dinner. The remnants of the Cold War and the repercussions it had for Cuban-US relations still smoulder. While recent legislation has made US travel to Cuba possible fortunate South Africans, entry is easy and painless. We are simply required to buy a tourist card, which is easily arranged by a travel agent or purchased at the airport.
on the ground is the complete absence of advertising, branding, logos or aesthetic clutter. It’s an almost from the buffed-up Pontiacs, Studebakers, Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets and Lada Nivas, that you are somewhere altogether different; somewhere you have never been before. You are entering a world after the revolution, an island in the sea of capitalism.
The oblique rules that govern currency and ownership were invented to protect Cuban society from two parallel currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP), which is worth pretty much nothing and used by locals; and the Cuban convertible peso ( CUC) for foreigners ( and a small group of upwardly mobile Cuban elites), which is pegged to the US dollar at US$1 to CUC1 (there are apparently plans afoot to unify the two currencies). Sounds simple enough. Except if you actually exchange US dollars you have to remember that there is a special 10% tax and a 3% exchange fee. You can’t pre-purchase Cuban currency outside the country, or take it off the island. Visa credit cards are recommended, although apparently MasterCard sometimes work too – mine did not, and I brought dollars. Contact your bank to check if your cards will work and take extra euros just in case.
The apartment I stayed in was an ancient second old doctor and his journalist wife. I reserved the room in their home through the casa particular system, created in 1997 by the government so that families could earn extra money by renting to foreigners.
Casa particulars are the preferred alternative to touristy hotels and insulated resorts. It is, however, a terribly unwieldy system, akin to an internet 0.5 version of Airbnb.com, with unfortunate and very unrepresentative photos. No realtime web availability means you need to request a room by email and then engage in a volley of mails with The Administrator, who ostensibly ends up deciding where you will stay. The Administrator picked the Centro neighbourhood for me, which I was very glad about. It is, I think, just as beautiful as La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which is a short walk away, but with less of a camera-carrying tourist crowd. The facades in Centro display the scars of centuries of sun and wind and use. The city appears deeply loved.
I drank Cuba libres ( rum, cola and lime) with Dr Ernesto in his drawing room, sitting on stiff wooden chairs (the cola is from Mexico, not the US). He has
It may be hard work to get a good meal in the city but IT’S CERTAINLY NOT DIFFICULT TO GET A DRINK
internet, though it is only a dial-up connection. Dr Ernesto was seconded to South Africa by the Cuban government in 1994 and so we had lots to talk about. I wanted to understand from him what life as a socialist was like. Dr Ernesto is a general surgeon and like the multitude of other world-class Cuban health workers, he earns about US$60 to $70 a month (about R700). It’s enough to live on because healthcare, schooling and (most) food in casa particular room rents for R350. The tension between these two systems is not easily reconciled. Not everyone is happy, he told me, but no one is unhappy.
And what about the food? Dr Ernesto suggested I check out China Town, just near Centro. Thank goodness for the Chinese, I thought. It’s the best place to get pizzas, he said. A few blocks up our street is Restaurant La Guarida, maybe Havana’s most famous Fresa y Chocolate ( Strawberry & Chocolate). It may be hard work to get get a drink. Ernest Hemingway was probably Cuba’s most famous drinker and his favourite bars in Old Havana were La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio – both still serving mojitos. Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway stayed for nearly a decade in the 1930s, is still open and makes for a nostalgic alternative to the casa particular system.
For Cubans, where there is rum, there is music. Even the most uninitiated, most tone deaf (like resist. Musicologists have explained that Cuban music resulted from a process called ‘transculturation’ – primarily the exchange between African slaves and Spaniards. It involves the traditions of African percussion instruments, polyrhythmic percussion, Spanish string instruments and the traditions of European musical notation and composition all coming together to create a new sound. I don’t have access to sophisticated musicological terminology, but I know it’s sexy and sad and sweaty, and it makes you smile.
centuries and Cuba itself has managed to attain almost mythological status. A character like world-famous revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara – whose face is spray-painted across Cuba, banks and is emblazoned on the sides of buildings – is also seen on T-shirts in the US and posters hanging in bedrooms in Johannesburg.
Imagine the street scene in Havana: a tiny chihuahua sits in a doorway watching old men playing dominoes in the street; a Chevy rounds the corner; sunset on the Malecón waterfront. The trouble with this image is not that it isn’t true – it’s that when a country gets cast in a patina of sentimental yellow light, with old cars ending up as photo-ops, we miss the revolutionary challenge a society like Cuba’s poses. A city full of old cars is, by necessity, a city full of stores a profound critique of our disposable lives.
The clichés obscure another thing, too: it’s tough not having new cars or access to the internet, especially for the younger generation with a 100% literacy rate, a stagnant economy and a R700 pay cheque to look forward to. Cuba is more than beautiful, but it can also be more a lesson than a vacation.
Spotted in Havana: Beyonce and Jay-Z
FROM TOP Dancers from the Havana Spanish Ballet; card reading
during Sunday afternoon rumba at Callejon de Hamel; the library of a casa filled with books about medicine and revolution
TOP A local street scene; stilts street
dancers in Old Havana