Havana – devoid of Cuban cliches

Havana was a shock. Coming from a tranquil Cotswold village it was doubly so. I was rudely awakened by a loud noise that in my jet-lagged stupor I feared to be the rumbling of revolutionary tanks once again rolling into the city. The reality was more prosaic – the noise was the thunderous roar of antiquated buses ferrying commuters to work. It was the first of many shocks but thankfully the others were less startling.

In spite of my rude awakening I loved Havana. It beguiles and intrigues like no other city, even if it is one of the most difficult places to explore without bumping into a cliché or tourist, my second shock of the morning. Whilst traipsing around the old town, I was surprised by the number of groups of tourists.

Yet it is easy to see why the tourists come – Havana has one of the coolest, most easily identifiable images of any travel destination: the iconic 1950s cars, the revolutionary bombast of its billboards and the ramshackle charm of the old town. Havana really does live up to its postcard image of rusting balustrades, crumbling colonial houses and exfoliating pastel buildings – Old Havana boasts more colonial buildingsthan any other city in the New World.

Usually groups of tourists are an anathema to me but Havana’s charms enthralled me to such an extent that I swallowed my traveller’s pride and even signed up to the mandatory stop at a cigar factory. In spite of the brusque and uninterested manner of our young Cuban guide and his American English (a betrayal that revealed that he would rather be somewhere else), I was rather impressed by the tour. Not so much for the disinterested commentary or the building – although I loved the old worn wooden stairs and banisters and the faded hand written signs showing one the way out in an emergency – but in discovering more about the cigar-making process, in particular how they are rolled. I was transported from selection of the tobacco leaves to rolling (the most skilled process in which the 260 workers had to roll 110 cigars a day) to the boxing of the cigars.

Rolling was the most interesting of the processes, the deftness and skill were impressive. Alas they were not rolled on the thighs of a Cuban mulatta but despite this loss of flavour, it was aesthetically pleasing to watch. There was a tactile and sensual pleasure to the process that led to desire. Such craving along with the ubiquitous posters and postcards of Che Guevara puffing on a huge Havana are a seductive combination. So much so that it is easy to see how even tea-total, non-smoking right-wing tourists leave clutching a bottle of Havana Club, a pack of Monte Cohibas and a Che T-shirt.

The other places I enjoyed visiting were the paladares, the uniquely Cuban, privately owned restaurants set up in the homes of ordinary families. The fact that these private enterprises are allowed to exist are symptomatic of the schizoid mix of Cuba. They are allowed yet Fidel has on numerous occasions railed against the riches they have brought for a select few. However given that the likes of Sting and Queen Sophia of Spain have eaten in them they have become a feature of Havana and too famous to close. I revelled in the quirky charm and atmosphere of La Guarida in particular. It was not just the excitement of eating forbidden fruit.

It was certainly a more pleasurable experience than the Tropicana Show. A show of elaborately colourful headdresses, gawdy costumes, booming sound, it was visual and extravagant and appealed to the lowest common denominator of the blue rinse brigade. If you are into bare buttocks then you will be in for a Brucey bonus.

Thankfully the bright glare of tackiness was dulled by the half bottle of rum included in the exorbitant ticket price. Yet despite such pain relief I couldn’t help but feel a little sad and deflated by the show. Saddened by the type of tourist that we are exporting to Cuba, embarrassed by the thought that the Cubans think we enjoy this desperate throwback to the whirl of Cuba in its hedonistic heyday and deflated because Havana is bursting with culture.

Despite its relative isolation over the past 50 years, Havana punches way above its weight in all the arts and, is one of the most important cultural centres in Latin America. If the country’s art scene is hot, its music world has been ablaze for years; there are dozens of shows of every type of music on every night in Havana. As a tourist, however, it can be hard to escape the salsa bands playing in the bars of Old Havana and the national cultural institutions that dominate the state-published listings.

Castro has done much for the country. There is a pride to Cubans that they did not have before. They have self respect. Havana is safe. Girls wait at traffic lights to catch lifts – transport is difficult buses being, at best, infrequent – an innocence in stark contrast to other cities around the world.

But such benefits have come at a cost. That cost is stagnation and poverty that has been greatly exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, who accounted for 80% of Cuba’s trade. Radical change was needed: in 1992 the US$ was legalised and foreign investment encouraged to the extent that there are now some 900 joint ventures. But such foreign investment is limited and strictly controlled thus many have to rely on money remitted from Cuban nationals, friends and family, living abroad as their main source of income.

There is not abject poverty but rather a lack of choice. Not just in terms of freedom of speech but also in the goods that we take for granted on a daily basis – there are few supermarkets and even fewer items on their bare shelves.

The average salary is US$20 a month although this is for the whole country and the figure is low due to the meagre earnings in the countryside. In Havana it is difficult to survive on under US$100 per month. It might not sound like much – it is not too much – but it is worth remembering that Cubans do receive free education and housing and pay a nominal amount for rates. The only private ownership of cars is ones that were owned pre revolution; hence the amount of old cars. There is no housing market, there is a Cuban intranet but access to the internet is restricted, rations exist – five pounds of rice, five pounds of sugar and a couple of pounds of beans being the monthly allowance (It sounds like a skewed amount of sugar but it is hugely popular amongst Cubans and can’t be all bad as the average life expectancy is over seventy-five).

Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, being about half the size of the UK, and I felt that I had to go beyond the city to look at the countryside, even if only for a day. I was struck by the emptiness. The sunbleached road was deserted apart from the occasional car and the very occasional cluster of people awaiting a lift. Such is the control that permeates throughout society that a yellow suited man or woman has to organise them and record who is going to where. Everything is controlled – taxis, which all belong to the government, have to record each fare they take.

If Havana lacked signs of the late twentieth century, the countryside was devoid of modernity. Bucolic scenes of horses and cowboy hats, oxen and carts, battered old trucks laden with sugar cane spoke of a bygone era. No machinery, no electricity pylons, nothing to betray the date.

Back in Havana I sat on the rooftop terrace of my hotel watching the sun set over the city. As I savoured the refreshing mintiness of a mojito – another Cuban cliché – I reflected that a mojito, mint coupled with sugar and rum, is a bittersweet metaphor of Cuba. Bitterness is in the control and the lack of choice the sweetness is in the culture, music and people. I had enjoyed the charms, the stereotypes, the quirks but for me the real pleasure came in understanding a little better a way of life that is so very alien to ours. And like my mojito I wanted more.