‘Ha­vana shot to the top of my must-visit list after read­ing Jonathan Cane’s travel fea­ture.’


Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Chris­tine van Deemter, chief copy ed­i­tor


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


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

Stilts street


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