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In Cuba – II

I spent my first week in Havana, the Capital. I had a hotel that looked over the Prado in the old town. The Prado was long and tree-lined and ran all the way from the high-domed and boarded-up Capitolio down to the wind-swept sea-front that stretched the breadth of town.  From my hotel window I got on all right with Havana. Id’ watch the young couples strolling the Prado and sitting along it at intervals, forever kissing and loving.  I’d watch the mimes enacted on each floor of the building opposite: the flurried preparations of supper time; the smiles and handshakes of arriving guests; the sudden flare of a domestic row; a woman cradling a baby and singing as she walked from room to room; and the man on the top floor who sat each night no his dark balcony in his string vest, smoking and watching, like me.

I’d watch below me a youth leaning against a car, petting and curling the hair of his pretty little sister tucked between his legs as he chatted on and on to a friend. I’d monitor the long, ridiculous queues for thimble-sized cups of coffee and shots of rum in the seedy tapa bar opposite. And I’d follow the movements of the street boys slinking around loose-limbed in this, their jungle, and I would feel in sympathy with the passion and languor of them all. But when I went out onto the streets, it would not be the same. I’d feel awkward and alien. I’d have the wrong change for a bus and when I asked the man sitting next to me whose change was tucked neatly into his ear if he could help, he looked at me strangely. Taxis wouldn’t stop for me. Everywhere people would be rushing and buses grinding, but I would have nowhere to go, no quiet little cafe because there didn’t seem to be any, no museums or shops as they always seemed to be closed, no restaurants as those few that there were, were too expensive. Everywhere there would be queues of people, but I would not know what they were queuing for. Nobody would speak to me except the street boys who’d stalk my every step. And so, I’d return to my hotel room, overheated and worn.

My next move was to find a good bar. In the evening I delved into the side streets of the old town. These were dark and bumpy, often little more than extended gutters in which ancient cars sat dissolving. In some areas the buildings were tall and beautiful with great, carved doors, wide sweeps of marble stairway and cobbled courtyards woven in washing lines.

Their facades were weathered and puckered like old men’s faces and often shored up by wooden supports that blocked the streets.  From them came a hum of family life. Family doors were thrown open to reveal neat little parlours where pictures of Jesus or Castro hung and television sets flickered blue.  People sat on doorsteps or leaned on the ancient cars.  In wicker chairs women knitted and old men chewed on cigars.  Now and again, as I wandered, I would hear from deep within a building, strains of music that wavered, broke into a laugh perhaps, then disappeared.  They reeked of intimacy and endurance, those streets of faded grandeur.  I passed through them like a ghost, uninvited and unobserved.

I found an appropriate bar later on in a busy street which, like most of the bars in the Old Town, was open at the front and so almost a part of the sidewalk.   I sat there drinking the Ron Collinses the barman recommended.  The barman was suave and paunchy and whisked up his cocktails with the greatest of skill, then sent them skidding down the bar without spilling a drop.

An old man stood at the bar, swaying.

“No more drinks for you”, the barman said.

“Give me a drink, coño”, the old man said.

I didn’t speak to anyone much at the bar except an expatriate Polish engineer who had had enough of Cuba. He was with his wife who was over visiting for a couple of weeks, and the two of them were getting steadily and determinedly drunk.

“Cubans!’ he exclaimed. “They’re lazy sons of bitches”.

So I went back to my hotel room and slept soundly, if not very contentedly. This went on for a few days. I’d walk the sea front and watch the scudding waves, and I’d often find myself sitting on the bench outside the old boarded-up presidential palace with the only visible tramp in town, who resided on this bench outside the palace as though he were the evicted president himself. And then one day I went to the beach.

It was Sunday, and the city seemed almost deserted. I had taken a taxi somewhere, and the driver had said: ‘Why are you not at the beach? Everybody goes to the beach on Sundays,’ and so had taken me there. All the way along the road there was a continuous file of people: whole families walking; gangs of youths doubled and trebled up on bicycles, hanging onto the backs of buses; people hitching, people running, everybody getting to the beach somehow because today was Sunday. When we arrived, already there was a solid mass of bodies on the sand. Families sat encamped around radios and babies. Football games weaved around and overran them. Men in G-strings sauntered along the surf. Young couples grappled each other playfully, and older couples walked gingerly out into the surf holding hands until they were waist-deep and then just stood there as though they were being baptised.

At the end of the day a fleet of ancient buses turned up to ferry people back to town. I had been standing there а little bemused by the pandemonium that ensued as everyone fought for bus tickets, when a young man came up and asked whether I was going to Havana. When I said that I was, he told me to give him some money and he would procure some tickets. A short time later he reappeared with a grin and two tickets in his hand and, with me in tow, then jumped a queue which must have been a half a mile long and squeezed into the back of a bus. Back in Havana we made a rendezvous for that evening. Things were looking up: I had a friend.

to be continued…

Peter Hudson

Fotos de Manuel Rosário e Minnie Freudenthal

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Peter has written four travel books set in different parts of Africa as well as a book of walking around Britain. He has also worked as a farmer, photographer and development charity director. He is currently a counsellor in schools and colleges in Mid-Wales where he has lived since 1999.


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