Our Man in Havana
Riddle’s intrepid traveller enjoys the people watching and an altogether slower pace of life in the Cuban capital
Article by Oscar Udeshi
Between visiting Cuba and this article being published, an era has already ended. The United States is relaxing restrictions towards the country, and it is only a matter of time before the floodgates are opened and it will be overrun by American tourists. If you want to see in its current glory, go now.
Being slightly apprehensive, having heard quite a few horror stories (prison food is better, you will be swindled, you will be followed…), my experience couldn’t have been more different. The food is actually quite good and highly inventive – as long as you know where to go. Every meal we had, bar one, was recommended by the Hotel Saratoga concierge, the highest ranking non-Cuban habanos sommelier (yes there are cigar sommeliers and a formal exam exists), and a network of fellow cigar smokers. If you like adventure, drink, appreciate high-grade stogies, have a creative palate, like Cuban music and have previously visited and enjoyed third world countries, you will have a blast. Teetotal, cleanliness obsessed, non-smoking vegans – sorry, go to an ashram in the States.
Everything there happens in Cuban time which, if one expects anything resembling efficiency, can be extremely frustrating. The smart response is just to light up another cigar (you can smoke everywhere – including lifts, restaurants, taxis and toilets) and have another mojito, which will cost a quid or less, and everything will fall into place after the second or third.
People complain about slow mobile download speeds in Europe. In Cuba, don’t just dial it back one notch – go almost to the beginning. Yes, there is cellular service, but a phone call involves ten attempts to get a connection, a text message takes a day to send, and 3G is a dream as distant as England winning the World Cup.
The upside of all this is that one has to switch off, both literally and figuratively speaking. After two days, it felt like we were gone for two weeks. And so what, if you’re on vacation? This also gives you a chance to appreciate the scenery and take in the glaring juxtapositions on display – think rusted out Chevies from the 50s belching out black smoke with no windows, door handles or upholstery, held together with chicken wire and duct tape, waiting at traffic lights next to factory-fresh Mercedes; or the overly restored hotel with central climate control, ESPN, wi-fi (of sorts) and a selection of French cognacs next to a building that would be condemned anywhere else in the world, with broken wooden shutters, no windows and flickering naked light bulbs connected with a tangle of wires resembling a drunken spider’s web.
Visiting the old town feels like stepping back in to another century: here, a man carrying Sunday lunch – a live squawking chicken with its legs tied together held upside down – down the main tourist route amongst the pastel painted colonial era buildings with Buena Vista Social Club blaring from every available speaker, amongst outdoor cafes on the tree covered plazas, is the norm.
When it comes to nightlife, no evening was complete for us without a mojito and a cigar on the terrace of the grand dame of Havana – the Nacional Hotel, which has seen better days but has an allure that somehow resembles that of Honor Blackman (of Pussy Galore fame). The service moves at a snail’s pace, but there is enough people-watching to fill any gaps. On the second night, we felt like locals having bribed the waiters the night before. We forgot where we were for a minute, and London seemed like a distant planet.
Sala Rojo, opposite the Nacional, was in a different solar system altogether. We paid a relatively steep entry fee and were seated at a long table. A dour uniformed waitress came and took our order, and before one could count to three we were surrounded by, well… shall we say a few pretty young things. If anyone believes the spirit of free market economics can be suppressed, this would be THE counterexample.
Peeping through the official tourist board approved veneer, one can see the poverty and the failure of communism. Open sewer pipes, streets so badly damaged they resemble miniature grand canyons, buildings collapsing or without roofs due to decades of neglect, empty shelves in public stores which stock one type of toothpaste that probably also doubles up as laundry detergent. And cement. It made my austere London student hall look like the Ritz in comparison. It makes one appreciate what one has.
The people appear to have resigned themselves that this is their lot in life, but they wear a big smile and seem infinitely happier than the grey faces one encounters on the morning commute at home. Hopefully they will have even more to smile about in the future
Bienvenidos a Cuba! Go see it before it disappears.