WRITTEN ON 27th JANUARY – (there was no easily accessed internet in Cuba)
There was a jingle that used to play in the background of most Neighbours episodes when we were at university – usually when something jovial had happened (Harold dropping muffins, Connor not being able to read etc) that went –“ I have never been to Cuba..” with a jaunty wee trumpet number behind it. This pretty much summarised my knowledge of Cuba before coming here. G and I made the decision to go on the Saturday and were flying on the Monday, following Catriona and Ellen and abandoning Gina on a hotel-flanked side street in Cancun. It’s been a bewildering few days since then.
Cuba is communist, which is no news to anyone. But officially, so is China and so is Vietnam. Those places have McDonalds, chain stores, advertising hoardings, Coca Cola, readily available internet, supermarkets on most corners, a population with mobile phones, an abundance of modern cars and motorbikes and chain hotels. They are to communism what I am to Aberdeen FC – a proud red only because I was born there, when I’d sooner watch the English Premiership on Sky with all the adverts. Cuba is a real dyed in the wool, season ticket holding sheep-shagging Don. Fidel might as well be smoking a deep fried mars bar.
Havana hits you like an especially strong mojito. I remember watching a Pierce Brosnan James Bond flick – think it was Die Another Day unfortunately – when he goes to Havana. In it, everyone was driving giant pink cars from the movie Grease, salsa dancing in doorways and smoking cigars. Surely a giant cliché I reasoned (or a cliché guevera). Nope. The roads are like one constant Thompson Classic Car Rally (Stonehaven reference there), with sixty year old Cadillacs honking at old people on their motorbikes with sidecars. Every bar we went to (a few) had a wee salsa band accompanied with locals swinging and spinning away so proficiently, they’d walk on to the next series of Strictly no problem. They dance so well here it’s genuinely intimidating. We got ourselves a couple of salsa lessons, in a guy’s dance studio, which was actually a space cleared in his living room with a giant mirror taped to the wall. He walked us through the basic steps, the rhythm that forms the back bone to it all and a couple of token spinning moves. Cut forward to an actual salsa club where a local chap introduced me to a girl on the dance floor. I literally lasted eight seconds. One attempt at a spin was enough to convince her I was an embarrassment – a solemn stare and a swift retreat left me all alone amongst dozens of couples who’d apparently just returned from auditions for Moulin Rouge. Woeful.
Havana has three basic areas, the most interesting one being the middle section, where the buildings haven’t been gentrified. Half ruined, half glorious, they obviously don’t do a good job of housing the locals as they seem to live their lives on the streets – sharing beers, jokes and salsa moves. It was thirsty work taking it all in so we attempted to buy some water – which was akin to buying plutonium. Shops here sell three items – rum, fags and ice cream. It would be easier to source water on Venus. Finally, a shopkeeper professed to owning some small plastic vessels of this fabled hydrating liquid and after much rummaging in the back a few dusty examples were produced. We nursed that water like the SAS in El Alamein.
We’re now in Vinales, a tobacco growing area with karst peaks wedging out the fields – quite a bit like south China but with a lot more rum. A bloke took us here from Havana in his tiny red Lada, bopping to the Buena Vista Social Club on repeat for 4 hours. Another bloke took us 200 metres down a cave and into a series of pools, which was very much like the opening half of the horror movie The Descent. We attempted to get a bus to the Bay of Pigs, but this was not to be. It quickly became apparent that if a Cuban doesn’t have a rum in his or her hand and there isn’t music nearby, they become considerably Russian in demeanour. The bus station was like Ellis Island in The Godfather Part II. A morass of foreigners all signing up to things they would no doubt later regret. We broke ranks and got a taxi instead – this time a 1953 Ford something or other, driven by a guy in his seventies who took great pleasure in swerving dramatically away from lorries and informing us of our fortunate survival. The Bay of Pigs was worth the cardiac arrest though, not only did we stay in a house with a deck on to the beach, we got the chance to snorkel amongst a ship wreck from the ill fated invasion in 1961. History laid out amongst the coral, the upturned hull like a defeated turtle. The mojitos tasted especially good that night.