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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Cuba - Episode 1

It was our first view of Havana and it was just as remarkable as we’d ever thought it could be. As the bus we were on emerged from a tunnel that ended mile after mile of road flanked by trees and bushes, we were suddenly faced with a somewhat crumbling, Colonial building. Immediately we realised that this was what we’d been waiting for. All those references to Havana, cigars, 50s cars, the Malecon, Buena Vista Social Club – it was all caught up in this one image that took our breath away by its unexpected appearance. Just a few metres later and we were deposited onto the street, but not before a stilted conversation in Spanish. As usual, our attempts to extract information from someone (this time the bus driver) were met with ample reply, but one that we failed to understand, for the most part. Nevertheless, too embarrassed to waste any more of his time with further broken enquiries, we simply nodded as if we had comprehended perfectly, and jumped onto the pavement.

Immediately we were greeted by hustlers trying to sell us their wares. Although we didn’t yet know it, this would be a major part of our Cuban experience. The lines used to try and grab our attention became familiar – “Where you from? England? France?” and even the more ingenious Cubans’ repertoire of Ali G impressions soon failed to impress us. We were offered, amongst other things, cigars, taxi rides, guided tours, cigars, tables at restaurants, places to stay, cigars, and, in one case, marriage. Not only do Cubans try and sell, they even try and persuade you to buy things for them. Not from them, for them. Writing this, I realise this is typical of Cuban culture. Unembarrassed attempts at taking advantage of their foreign visitors, whom they know to be wealthier than they, are constant – but all with a wink and a smile. Cubans may be unashamedly unrelenting in their endeavour to milk you for every last penny, but they know it and they are far from threatening. Speaking of which, it seems what Cubans most covet in life is milk. Yes, milk. I realise I may have made it sound like they wanted us to just nip over to the States and buy them a car or something, but actually most of them were just after milk. We never did quite work this out.

After descending from the bus, we walked a few paces and then consulted a map. Making our way towards the ‘Plaza de San Francisco’, we squeezed through a small alleyway characterized by the smell of stale urine, something we would have to get used to. We spent the rest of the morning wandering through downtown Havana via the ‘Obispo’, the main high street of the city, full of bars, art studios and other shops. Our cameras clicked at the mere hint of anything famous. I think we all fell in love with Havana within the first few hours of being there. The combination of live music wafting through open doors from street to street, sights of gorgeous dilapidated Colonial buildings wherever you looked and plenty of places to relax over the national tipple, the ‘Mojito’, made it hard to not like the city.

There were many moments that day that felt almost too good to be true, like we were living someone else’s life. We had lunch on the terrace of the Capitolio Nacional, the intricate and beautiful building designed (unwittingly?) after the same style as the Capitol Building of Washington D.C. Once used as a political headquarters, it is now a tourist attraction. After some more sight seeing, we made our way to the Hotel Inglaterra (Hotel England), one of Havana’s most prestigious hotels, to enjoy a Mojito on the terrace. While we sat refreshing ourselves with the mixture of lime juice, mint and rum over ice, a band struck up at the end of the terrace. Being as they were in Hotel Inglaterra, they were of top quality and finally our Cuban dream was being realised – I mean, what we had pictured when we imagined coming to this country was actually happening. They even played the Chan Chan, originally made famous by Buena Vista Social Club.

Cubans live and breathe music. I think that was what made me love the country most of all. You can go nowhere without hearing a salsa beat or a guitar striking up a tune. It makes everything feel alive and vibrant, particularly in Havana, where the city never sleeps. The pavements seem to exude rhythm with every step; the doorways are merely corridors for a tune to travel through. Even in the seemingly tackiest of snack bars, there will be a band playing, making everyone tap their feet and long to get up and dance. That afternoon at Hotel Inglaterra was our first taste of a nation obsessed with music. We all sat there, barely believing we’d actually made it to Cuba, and thinking nothing could top this.

Actually, something could top it. We didn’t know how to get the same bus home so we decided to get a taxi. But not just any taxi – a 1950s taxi. So there we were, in a vintage car, listening to Stairway to Heaven come on the radio, after having spent the day in Havana. It was like being in a film. As soon as we got home, we went for a dip in the (warm, not cold) sea. It doesn’t get much better than that!

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