December 2, 1999.
We land at Jose Marti airport in La Habana on a mild and sunny day. In the course of this day we will learn a lot about the country during our hours at the airport. We learn quickly that the hot, steamy Cuba of fiction is just that: the truth is an anti-climatic surprise. We learn that Ron de Cuba is not a person but a beverage, rum to be precise. And we learn that Capitalism is rapacious, that a Capitalist will sell his mother if the price is right.
This last little lesson is learned by watching the large TV screen which is set up in the spacious area where incoming passengers are obliged to spend their first day in Cuba. We see a brilliant little cartoon in which the hero outwits all rivals, enemies and friends by his cleverness and ruthlessness. His mother congratulates her boy who rewards her by taking all her life savings then selling her to a band of passing Ishmaelites. Although the manner of presentation is lighthearted, the subject matter is food for serious thought, and soon I am wondering what price I might get for my own mother in Cuba…
Annette and I stand patiently in one of the dozen or so long lines of travellers waiting to be interviewed by IMIGRACION. Every twenty minutes or so a new visitor to Cuba is admitted into a closed booth for interview. The official is apparently a member of the military, to judge by the uniforms and the moustaches. The booth is constructed so that the interviewing officer is seated above the interviewee and largely concealed from view. I surmise that the interviewers are Army Intelligence operatives and are meant to be intimidating.
While standing in line I read the word BANOS printed above the doorways which lead respectively to the Caballeros and the Damas. In the doorways stand two pretty young women. Every dama and every caballero must pass by them to enter.
After a little while spent waiting in line, passengers become bored and begin to think that a visit to the toilets will be a welcome relief or a change of scenery. One or two venture to the Banos, others follow out of curiosity, yet others out of lavatorial solidarity. Soon a trickle becomes a movement as we are visited variously by inspiration or simple genital envy. Sooner or later many of the caballeros and every one of the damas will ask one of the young doorladies is there any toilet paper. And the young lady will sell some to her captive customer, a foreigner who pays in foreign cash. Now I begin to realise how the Cuban Revolution gets its hard currency. The longer the delay before we are interviewed by IMIGRACION the greater the cashflow. The cameras track our movements and we are only admitted once we have succumbed to this systematic brownmail.
At last I am admitted for my interview. My inquisitor is a little jockey of a guy in a uniform far too big for him which badly needs a wash. He is half my age and not fierce at all. I start to feel sorry for him, not least because he must put up with my Spanish. He decides, after a wrestling match with his computer, to let me into his country. Muchas Gracias, senor, I say, and wait to see whether mi amiga Annette will likewise be admitted. Luckily, she is, and we go off together in search of a taxi driver to rip us off.
We have been forewarned that in Cuba there are taxis and taxis, some official, some otherwise. Among the official cabs Panataxi is the name to go for. So we go for it, and find ourselves seated in a tiny little Citroen driven by a bulky lady of about my age. We give her the address of the Casa Particular (literally, “private house”) where we have a reservation. Our driver takes a look at the address and snorts: “Habana Vieja! Why do you want to go there? Centro es mejor, muchas mejor!”
Well, there are lots of reasons why we want to go to Habana Vieja – Old Havana: Annette has researched this city and determined that Habana Vieja is close to the Sinagoga, close to the places of interest to us, and furthermore we have contracted with a Mister Selim Tache of the Havana Jewish Community to stay there. He has reserved the flat for us.
But our lady driver knows better. This Boadicea brooks no dissent. She knows a very fine casa particular in Centro. She will take us there. By now we have been driving for about fifteen minutes, in who knows what direction? For my part, I have a strong prejudice in favour of the Old City – any old city – because it will be authentic, and (hopefully) charming, even if it turns out to be an authentic slum. So I tell Boadicea to drive her chariot to numero 518 Aguacate in Vieja, and bugger Centro.
While we drive, we watch the scenery. Quickly the countryside gives way to a built-up area where Comrade Stalin has designed some atrocious, soulless blocks of flats in an attempt to quell the Cuban spirit. They certainly quell mine.
We come to a large roundabout in the airport freeway where la campanera conductora (our comrade driver) points out the Institute of Sports. This ugly circular block of cement is the home of the bureaucracy that administers fun-running (and sport in general) in Cuba. One look at this deadly structure tells me that it exists to take the fun out of running, and that my dream of running in a race here will be difficult to realise.
The Cuban Consul in Sydney had advised me that I would encounter this office on my way into town from the airport. So at least I have my bearings now, but the Consul’s advice that ‘the esport in Cuba is centrally planned, senor,’ tolls a doleful sound in my imagination.
I watch our driver. She has a singular method of fuel conservation whereby we crawl up hills then cruise down with the gearbox in neutral. Although we save fuel, we do not spare the horn. The horn is sounded at every lane change, at every turning and when a Vespa or a horse and cart or a cyclist impedes our passage.
Now we are passing through an older area, with crumbling colonial dwellings and narrow little streets. If drivers were horn-happy on the freeway, they are like Joshua at Jericho here. The slower the passage the greater the hornplay, but curiously, it is a message without menace that says simply: “I’m here, citizen cyclist/sister pedestrian/ diesel-belching truck/ancient chevvy/pony cart/mother with pusher; be careful, merge right please, and I’ll pass you on your left.” In this way, a heavy truck overtakes a pedestrian at close quarters, and the walker doesn’t even turn around to assess the hazard coming from behind.
I notice that our fearsome conductora is actually a benevolent fellow-citizen on these inadequate calles, as the streets are called. This is our first experience of how poverty in Cuba creates an amity and freemasonry between the men in the street.
The roads are buckled, the footpaths broken, and all are congested with movement and with lack of movement. Broken down people, cars and bikes slow the traffic, but no-one gets heated, no-one gets hit. It all works.
Eventually our driver parks on the footpath of a little side street, honks her horn, lowers her window and bellows someone’s name. A window is opened a crack, some shouts are exchanged and our driver discovers that the person she is after is not at home. Then the centavo drops inside my head: we are not in Habana Vieja at all; this is Centro, and we are here at the casa of our driver’s particular friend. Sudden indignation gives me sudden fluency as I emphatically direct the panataxista to Aguacate, 518.
Unabashed, muttering mildly “Vieja mas mal, Centro muy bien”, she drives us to Aguacate and help us with our luggage. Will she rip us off for the detour to her friend’s place?, I wonder. No, there’s no extra charge for the extra tour. Smiling and friendly, she departs, the first of a number of benevolent bandidos we are to meet in Cuba. They try to con you, and whether they succeed or no they hold no grudge against you for their trying.
It’s like a sport: you acknowledge the effort of your opponent and you honour the contest and play in good spirit.
We knock on the door of Aguacate 518, identify ourselves to the young girl who admits us, and go inside where we meet Jesus and Maria.