Friday, January 13, 2012

Viva La Funky Old Revolution - Part Two

Typical street scene in Havana
Authors Note: Cuba today is a country of deep social, economic, and political contrasts. Trying to get a handle on Cuba in ten short days of travel is akin to trying to explain the Superbowl to others while viewing it live through a sheet of paper with a single pin hole in it. I am sure we missed much in Cuba on this first trip, but what we did see made us curious for more.

City Sized Descriptions
For the past couple of days I have been trying to come up with two words to encapsulate what we have been experiencing in Havana - living decay.

I understand that's an oxymoron but trust me that's Havana in a nutshell.

At first light my wife and I joined an informative three hour city tour on a Chinese made tour bus. As an ex tour guide I am usually loathe to join any kind of guided bus tour, especially if its on a Chinese Yutong bus, but if you're going to visit Havana do the city tour to get your bearings and before you even enter the country read the book The Sugar King of Havana. John Paul Rathbone authors this rich in depth historical tome that rockets the reader though 300 years of Spanish rule into the American years and seamlessly through to Castros Cuba.

Trust me you'll be happy you did.

Havana Today

The place is a wreck. 53 years of communism and embargo have left Havana a tangled disaster of falling down buildings, iconic American cars from the 1950s, horse drawn carriages with an infrastructure that makes Mogadishu look like the French Rivera.

Everything in Havana has that feeling of twice used duct tape, bits of random string, and the kind of glue that used to be made from horses hooves. You have to be a product of the American school system and over 40 to understand that last bit.

A family lives on the third floor
There's no getting around it because Havana hits you with both a left and right of urban decay the second you leave your hotel, and that's the utter charm of the place. The Living Decay of Havana as ordinary Cubans full of life, music, and busy with their lives move about in this extraordinary city sized vintage time capsule. The layers of decay are awe inspiring because you have 300 years of Spanish architecture in the mix prior to the 1930's and 40's retro look. For 300 years the Spanish, flush with millions of dollars in gold and silver from Latin American mines built a huge and architecturally stunning city unlike anything ever seen outside of Spain.

Most of these old buildings take your breath away even if there's a tree growing out of the second story balcony. Like many places in Cuba mixed in with the decay are small bright spots of revival like the Central Park Hotel restored to its former glory and open for business and a few buildings downtown declared by UNEXCO as world heritage sites. Evidence of the Cuban spirit of revival, just sprinkle investment dollars as liberally as water to an indoor plant and watch Cuba grow.

Detroit's 53 Year Old Cuban Stimulus Plan

Cubans take great pride in their ancient metal behemoths from Detroit and seeing these iconic vehicles everywhere adds to the surreal experience not just in Havana but in all of Cuba. Ordinary Cubans are fanatical about their machines. Fortunately you can take as many pictures as you want and ride in almost any car because Havanas current economy feeds hungrily on side money and tips.

The cars showcase the entire country
Most of the vehicles in Havana are now privately owned under recent relaxations by the Cuban government. Cab drivers have leeway with how much they charge to get from place to place and if you are not rolling in a mint condition 55 convertible Buick you just are not having an authentic Havana experience. Always get the convertible because closed cab cars often have exhaust systems tied directly and inexplicably into the air vents so unless you want to finish your ride light headed and slightly nauseous convertibles are the way to go.Usually you can track down a driver who speaks passable English and who will take you to a local bar that has something to do with Ernest Hemingway.

Apparently Hemingway the writer was also a prolific bar hound while in Havana and images abound of him at every drinking hole in the city. Like Che Guevara and Castro, Hemingway holds an almost mythical status in Cuba. Hemingway drank here, Hemingway ate here, Hemingway fathered six children on this couch. For world travelers like us icons sometimes get a bit tiresome, apologies to the Hemingway estate in advance but we just don't care for his current tourism status in Cuba. 

There is actually such a thing as too much Hemingway.

Cuba is still a Communist/Socialist country and one of the last on the planet, so very few people actually own anything like a business or a house, hence almost everything you see for sale goes to the government who then do something with it for the people, at least that's the idea. It makes for strange pricing in this city, at some places a dinner might run you $50 convertible pesos at others $10.00. Of course we didn't know this first hand as being Americans and not wanting to break Americas embargo or run afoul of the Trading With The Enemy Act we didn't spend any money in Cuba, a nice couple from Canada told us about their financial transactions instead.

Communist Art and Venezuelan Oil

There's a huge art market at a converted and crumbling port facility in Havana Harbor. On the other side of the harbor is a Soviet era oil refinery feeding on Venezuelan oil which makes for another in a series of strange scenes in this fantastically weird city. Inside very talented young Cuban painters and wood carvers hawk oil on canvass originals and hardwood carvings while across the bay massive refinery gas flares stab at the clear blue Caribbean sky leaving behind a dark black wavy line of spent hydro carbons.

Original signed art, and yes Hemingway drank here too!
Original art runs about $60-100 convertible pesos and are worth every penny spent according to our Canadian friends.Unlike many global travel destinations where locals flog made in China crap on street corners everything you'll find for sale in Cuba is Hecho en Cuba a refreshing change for wary travelers like us. You can also find Cuban rum and cigars at international prices but be careful of big cigar purchases in Cuba. Unless you know who you are buying from you may be getting knock off products certainly not the Cuban cigars of legend.

Horse Carriages and Cuban Politics

For 20 Convertible Pesos you can ride around the old city in a horse drawn carriage with a driver. Ours told us candidly of life under Castro and after a few stops with watery Cuba Libras (rum and coke) he told us that along with most Cubans they have had enough of the current state of affairs. He had to be careful though as we quickly discovered all of Havana is under the watchful eye of the government. Along the way he pointed out the 10 or so video cameras mounted discreetly on tumble down buildings, "we are being watched all the time" he confided in a low voice. We soon became adept at spotting cameras and took great pleasure in photographing them. With the ordinary Cubans we spoke with at length there's a real sense of guarded optimism you do not find anywhere else in Latin America. Cubans want change, they look towards the future and like so many other places I have traveled, China in the mid 1990's still reeling from its experiment with Communism and Vietnam Nam in 1998 they are dreaming of a new life.
Playing "spot the police state"

Cubans can sense the end of a terrible social experiment is near, but after 53 years and an entire generation used to just making do, most are trying to figure out what's next for their country and what an open Cuba might look like. The government is also looking towards the future and they are allowing a few small experimental businesses to open.

You see a few independent restaurants called Paladars out of houses on the street and vegetable sellers on ramshackle carts in the avenues, a slow and careful start on the road to some kind of hybrid social system. If China and Vietnam are any examples it will not take long for Cubans to realize their potential as mini business entrepreneurs and then the game will be on.

Another reason we are here, right now, at this pivotal time in Cuban history.

Next: Brother, Can You Spare Some Authentic Cuban Food?


OfficetoOcean said...

Did you know, that former British Prime Minister Brooke Watson, had his leg removed by most likely a large Bull Shark in Havana Harbour and the incident was immortalised in the famous painting by John Singleton Copley in 1778?

Contrary to harbouring ill will towards the shark, Watson credits the shark and the attack as being the single biggest motivational moment of his life and claims he achieved all he did because of it.

If you weren't already aware, there's a bit more Cuban history for you :)

Shark Diver said...

You and I have to go drinking one of these days David, methinks I would enjoy that afternoon.

OfficetoOcean said...

I would very much enjoy that mate, let's hope it's not too long til we can, coming out to film you and your sharks is still very much at the front of my mind to do asap!