Saturday, March 17, 2007

cuba 27/02 - 14/03/2007

there must be a Latin jazz blog out there called Cubana-Be Cubana-Blog

The photographic record is somewhat incomplete. Just as it has two currencies (see below), Cuba has two currents: 110V and 220V. 110V was the most common, making recharging my batteries difficult.

La Havana's riotous decadence - it's in the occasionally suffocating exhaust-and-rotting-garbage air, the conversations amongst neighbours shouted across the street, the magnificent, crumbling buildings, the gnarled wires sprouting in all directions from exposed electricity boxes, the music pouring loudly from windows, those two men in the street, each with a live peacock under one arm, the kids playing baseball, either with a stick and plastic bottle cap, or a full-blown ball/bat/mitts game on quiet, wide transversal streets (since most windows don't have glass panes, there is little danger) - isn't found in the other cities we visited. Perhaps it is even limited only to the barrios of Centro Havana and Havana Vieja: Vedado and Buena Vista seemed more stately, quiet residential areas with detached houses.

We employed most of the means of transportation to be found: horse, bici- and coco-taxi, car, bus, truck. The cars fall into one of a few categories: pre-Revolution Americans, Cold War Ladas and post-Cold War Asians and Europeans. Whatever the car, though, we saw too many non-functioning speedometers for it to be mere coincidence. There aren't that many motorised vehicles in La Havana, but they make the exhaust fumes of a modern European vehicle seem like distilled mountain air. Be prepared to hold your breath when a truck passes you in a narrow street.

Don't ever take a Lada on a long journey, unless you want your clothes to smell of gasoline afterwards. The one we took from Viñales to Cayo Jutías had a large spiderweb of fractured glass in the windshield's lower left-hand corner, a passenger seat engaged in the process of falling through the floor, doors with "CUIDAME" ("Take care of me") written on the inside and a body that rattled like a frenzied maracas. Actually, it was only during this trip (to Cuba, not to the beach) that I realised that, if I were ever to semi-successfully dance salsa, I would have to follow the maracas rather than the off-beat-only bass to hear the basic pulse.

The Americans (Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Plymouths...) abound in La Havana, but are present throughout the country, even in rural-as-can-be Viñales. Well-known, but their cumulative effect is surprising. They set off like ships and their thick carriages make them seem like theater props. At my most disoriented, I felt like I was in Cars.

We took a truck from Trinidad to Sancti Spiritus. It was relatively luxurious: a wooden bench affixed to each side, not too crowded, shock absorbers that did their job. On the two-hour, seventy-kilometre trip, we passed through villages that were little more than a huddle of wood shacks. We probably paid 20 times more than the Cuban passengers, so we essentially financed the trip.

It's Communism 101, I guess, but actually seeing near empty shop windows was surprising. As was our difficulty in finding a toothbrush: after a couple of days, we finally bought two in the street from a handicapped guy with a sort of shelf hanging off his wheelchair. The toothbrushes barely lasted the two weeks. The shelf also contained super glue and other knick-knacks.

There seem to be two Cuban shop-organising tactics: sell a bit of everything (random bits of hardware next to jewelry, modern TVs in the front and ten kilo bags of cement in the back) or just one thing (many bakeries have only one type of bread, and it is not particularly good).

It's a quasi-prison island, of course. Even if they had enough money, they couldn't leave, exceptional situations aside. I had enough trouble leaving myself: the passport checker compared me to my photo three times (I'd aroused suspicion coming into the country because I was clean-shaven, rather than bearded as I am on the photo, so I resisted the urge to go to the barbershop - last time I did that was Turkey, 2001, it's fun) and asked me where I lived, where I learned Spanish. I had to laugh at the absurdity of the last question.

It was the culmination of the leitmotif - parece cubano - attached to me during our very first meal in a low-scale Havana eatery by a woman selling watches. Quickly realising I wasn't Cuban, she quickly scuttled off to a tableful of authentic Cubans. Actually, I'd left my watch at home, so I kind of could have used one. During the same meal, we were twice accosted by women begging for money, insistently putting their faces inches from our plates. I'd never seen anything like it, and wouldn't again, thankfully.

It was ironic/fitting that I was re-reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: I was all too visible against the my travelling partner's/partners' white background. The little extra scrutiny (in this strange, porous apartheid system, mixed Cuban/non-Cuban groups are the most suspicious, which some Cubans self-demeaningly rationalise as "protecting the tourists") gave me a small taste of the one Cubans are under.

Viñales took on a definite small-town Big Brother feel as we talked with the guide who walked us through the countryside's tobacco fields and I counted at least five Comite de Defensa de la Revolución in this one-street town.

[After Invisible Man, I read William Burroughs's Naked Lunch. No relationship, except perhaps a quote on the back cover: "The Spanish boys call me El Hombre Invisible - the Invisible Man." Could you imagine tourist-ing through Burroughs's Tanger like you could Hemingway's La Havana?]

Propaganda is everywhere, painted onto the walls, embodied in statues, blazing from posters. I had expected El Comandante to be everywhere too, in the form of statues and murals, but he wasn't, at least not to the extent I had expected. At times, I felt more oppressed by José Martí than by Fidel. El Ché, of course, and even lesser-known revolutionaries such as Camilo Cienfuegos have significant presences. That's in the street, though, maybe it's different in the school curriculum. Hugo Chavez is big too, in a less institutionalised way: he smiles and holds a bat on posters, Venezuelan and Cuban flags are paired on t-shirts and in car windows.

propganda for propaganda: "without propaganda, there are no mass movements"

a favourite, and particularly absurd, slogan: "where a communist is born, problems die"

The upshot of all this propaganda is that it leaves no space - none - for advertisements in the street. Not that there's much of any kind of market share to battle for: most comical was a Todo Por $1.00 shop in a shopping centre whose three walls were lined with identical plastic Mega brand bottles. Liquid to clean your hair and to clean your floor sat side-by-side, distinguished only by colour.

"lies can go very far, but in the end truth prevails"

As in many Third World countries, much of the information in the street is painted. This, combined with the lack of advertisments, the faded pastels and irregular, smoothed out textures of the walls, makes for an unexpectedly restful visual environment.

There are (at least) two economies: one in convertibles (CUC, pegged to the US dollar) and moneda nacional (MN, worth one twenty-fourth of a CUC). One advantage of this system (among many disadvantages) is that anything in MN is targeted at locals and therefore very, very cheap. If you like to drink guarapo (sugar cane juice, stalks fed into the press before your very eyes), buy guayava pies from a roving salesman, get fresh produce from markets or eat ham sandwiches in the street, this is the money for you. You can't do much with MN, but it does seem to stimulate a little entrepreneurial spirit: people sell pizzas from their living room or simply set out knick-knacks on a chair in front of a window.

Not all of this entrepreneurship is good: 99% of the many paintings to be bought in markets and even in some galleries are mediocre, at best. The Cuban wing of the Museo de Bellos Artes, however, contains a lot of fantastic and powerful work, which we only got to skim through part of in about ninety minutes. Most regrettably, we didn't get around to the thirties, forties and fifties, so I didn't see how the gap between the relatively staid 18th- and 19th-century work (almost nothing you wouldn't see done better in Europe) and the post-Revolution quasi-orgiastic/spiritual/social frenzy was bridged. I assume there was also a lingering subtext of censure, but couldn't really parse it, for lack of knowledge.

The high literacy rate is well-known, but less noted are the extremely short skirts girls wear as part of their school uniform, which seems to vary only in colour from one part of the country to another.

the uniforms will get less liederhosen-ish when they get older

Some music, of course, but not too much. It blasted from cars and houses and afternoon parties for teenagers, connecting everything from són to reggaetón and things outside that spectrum. Live, what we heard was more campesino, country, as we heard it in the Casas de la Trova and restaurants of Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus. Every band, no matter how modest, has a CD to sell. Are studios free of charge?

We tour the Valle de los Ingenios outside Trinidad and stop at an 200 year old countryside villa for lunch. Inevitably, a band plays for us while we eat. I sit in on marímbula (a sort of overgrown, four-pronged kalimba that replaces the double bass in certain forms of traditional music) for one song, ironic for someone who consistently gets thrown off by Cuban bass lines.

I end up following the clave, which I'm sure is wrong, but the massive mulatto I've replaced smilingly encourages me anyway. He has some of the most gentle, light-brown-almost-green eyes I've ever seen. I strike up a conversation with them afterwards. Like all true practitioners of traditional music, I guess, they embrace the limitations imposed upon them: "Our instruments don't allow us to play any other kind of music." They show me how to play the easy cha-cha rhythm on güiro (short-short-long), but I don't have time to really understand the more difficult són pattern before the departing in-a-hurry tourist bus forces us to leave.

In La Boca (a tiny beach village outside Trinidad), three young boys walked home from the beach at nightfall, shamelessly belting a love song ("estoy enamoraaaaadoooo") together, after having sent stones skipping a dozens metres at a time across the sea's surface. It was nice to have music made physical again, shared out in the open.

The last place we spent some time in was the massive beach resort city of Varadero (local population: 15,000; yearly tourist population: 18,000). It's something of a hollow that occupies a long, very thin (you can cross it on foot in roughly five minutes) strip of land. The white sand/blue sea beach is beautiful. It is also littered with jellyfish that look like transparent conch shells or empty water bottles, or both, which made walking along it very stressful, at least for me.

Just one commercial tip: cigars are vastly cheaper at Varadero airport's duty-free section than in the official shops. There's less choice, but that's unimportant to the undiscerning smoker.

Maydy and Cosme. they're great. look them up if you need a place to stay in Havana: 870 6054; San Rafael 573 altos, between Gervasio and Escobar

your narrator has no time for beach frivolities when there's Naked Lunch to be read