10 January 2005
After popping my cherry in spectacular form in New York City for Christmas, I knew I couldn’t return to the chilly unforgivingly grey skies of a London winter in January. So, bidding farewell to the very friendly trim soy latte-skulling muscle boys at the Big Cup coffee house on 8th Avenue in Chelsea, I flew to Toronto and met up with the fabulous Ms Laura Long, my sometime theatrical muse and long-time fashion consultant. True to form, she met me at the airport check-in desk wearing a brown velour Carmella Soprano tracksuit, an unlit cigarette and huge Jackie O sunglasses, which didn’t come off for the entire trip.
Together, wheelie bags and Spanish phrasebooks in tow, we boarded a tiny toy plane with all the other white trash couples for a 7-day Tacky Tourist Beach Holiday Extravaganza in sunny sultry Cuba. We landed in the resort of Varadero in the north-west of the island for four days in the biggest, ugliest prison compound of a holiday camp I’ve ever seen. We were immediately tagged with florescent green wrist bands for easy identification, and we didn’t leave the premises for four days. As we subsequently learned, Varadero has nothing to do with the rest of Cuba. The beach was gorgeous and picture perfect – blue skies, deliciously warm aquamarine seas, white sands, and but for the fat Canadian biker couples sagging over the sides of their deck chairs or slapping their children in the all-you-can-eat buffet, all was well.
As one of the more politically right-on guide books expounded righteously, Varadero is touted by the Cuban government as a tourist haven, and everything there is contrived to give as (unrealistically) cheery an impression of Cuba as possible. Stores are stocked with better food than you’ll find in the rest of the country, and local Cubans who aren’t employees of the resorts are prevented from coming near the hotels, and face fines or imprisonment if they attempt to fraternise with tourists. But, as Laura pointed out, they DO bring you pina coladas to your poolside chair.
Our first day wasn’t as gloriously Hi-De-Hi as we’d hoped. We were put in a sunless ground floor room with a lumber yard outside. (We discovered this at 5am the next morning when someone attempted to come into our rooms and take apart our furniture, then spent the next five hours throwing metal chairs around in the room next door.) As it transpired, I think we were both grateful for Laura’s assertiveness in the face of bad service. Unencumbered by her lack of Spanish vocabulary and my meek Catholic insistence that we just accept the pain, sleep with earplugs and hide baseball bats under our beds, she fought for a better room and, dammit, we got one. We found a moustachioed porter to drag our bags from one end of the resort to another, and moved into a nice sunny 3rd floor room where the chambermaids fashioned our towels into the shape of swans.
Still, amusingly folded linen didn’t quite compensate the deeply-embedded passive aggression of the (chronically underpaid) staff. When we attempted to take our lunch out to the pool, Laura was chased by a small monobrowed waitress with either a slight limp or a mismatched Cuban heel. “Lay-Dee! Lay-Dee! You no take fork outside, Lay-Dee!” Laura dealt with it like the trouper she was, and threw up her hands, screamed “Get this bitch out of my face!” marched outside, ordered a drink from the waiter in his little wheelie-bin bar and took up residence by the pool.
Every day, we looked through the various brochures for cave visits, ocean catamaran cruises and deep sea diving, then quietly burned them on our balcony and staggered back to the bar. Some of the more enthusiastic staff members attempted to get us to do pool aerobics and salsa classes, but we decided to make like the rest of the beached whales in the resort and try and move as little as possible. By day five, we’d worked out how to hide our forks under our plates, I’d managed to work my skin colour from royal ivory up to pale beige, and we even stopped in on a frightening evening cabaret performance of Riverdance, Cuban Style. As we watched a dozen swivel-hipped Cuban teens tap solemnly to Michael Flatley’s hideous Irish-Eurotrash techno crap, dutifully resisting the temptation to move their arms or hips, we both agreed, “This is wrong!” The next day, we left for Havana, and then the adventure began.
As soon as we hit the road in our (rather dodgy smelling) bus, we began to breathe life again. In the mid afternoon, teams of itinerant workers and trussed-up teenagers were hitching a ride into Havana city. We stopped off at a lookout over the Matanzas Valley for our first full-sized pina colada not served in a little plastic glass. “Aaaah – real pineapple juice!” Laura sighed as she lit up a cigarette and I started making eyes at the cute boys manning the postcard stands.
There are few sights as extraordinary as coming up from the darkness of the highway tunnel and up onto the Malecon, Havana’s meandering seafront boulevard, at sunset. Surely one of the most intoxicating cities in the world, Havana hums with the sexy, languorous sun-and-rum soaked rhythms of Cuba ‘son’, tango, salsa and rumba made famous by Buena Vista Social Club, and its streets are part movie set, and part nostalgic memorial to its cosmopolitan and bloody past.
Since the Americans sold Cuba to the Spanish in 1763 in exchange for Florida, they’ve been kicking themselves, and trying desperately to rekindle the love affair. Even JFK expressed some regret about slapping down the trade embargo with Cuba in 1962 after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, as it put an end to his supplies of his beloved puros (cigars). The continuing influence of Uncle Sam in Cuba is still hotly contested. Shortly before our arrival, the Cuban government announced that it would no longer accept or trade in American dollars, and apart from the odd bit of underhand currency exchanging at the airport, the greenback was poison. Instead, tourists use Canadian dollars, the Euro, or los pesos turista (tourist dollars), which can be re-converted when you leave. Huge placards with slogans like “Socialism Is Good” and “Resist The Imperialist Invaders” are dotted around the city, and – most powerfully – two billboards with photos of the Guantanamo Bay torture victims with the word “Fascistas” and the Nazi swastika emblazoned in red print, and of course, images of Che Guevara everywhere.
The legacy of 40 years of economic isolation is pretty clear – buildings are dilapidated, food is expensive and in scarce supply, and with the average Havanan earning only US$15 a month, beggars and hawkers are everywhere – anything from mothers asking you to buy milk for their children, to ancient crones smoking dildo-sized cigars who pose for tourist photos for loose change. Most depressingly, there was the wrinkled little old man in Plaza de la Cathedral who put a flower in Laura’s hair, then told us “It’s my birthday” and held his hand out for a coin. You sensed that every day was probably his birthday, at least when there were tourists around, but we gave him some money anyway.
Of course, for two monied Western tourists with a thing for Latino boys, the ruined buildings, vintage cars and vaguely edgy Third-World vibe of Havana was a wet dream on wheels. Austere Spanish Gothic cathedrals and time-worn cobblestoned squares face off against glamorous Art Deco hotels and the Capitolio (a replica of the American capitol in Washington D.C., built when Cuba was in the thrall of America in the 1930s), and optimistically ugly Socialist-era tower blocks, with 1950s Chevrolets and Buicks competing with rickshaw drivers and the odd donkey in the streets.
Despite the strains of anti-Americanism, the city’s magic extends from the palpable sense of nostalgia for the hey-days of the 1930s, when movie starlets, big band crooners, gangsters, gamblers and American novelists with masculinity hang-ups partied here in droves. And party, they did – the photo gallery of guests in the foyer of Hotel Seville read like a calling card of 20th century pop culture – Gloria Swanson, Ava Gardner, Truman Capote, Al Capone, Josephine Baker, Graham Greene, Frank Sinatra, and, of course, Earnest Hemingway (whose favourite bar, Floriditos, has become a shrine, complete with bronze statue of Papa himself propped up at the bar, and his trademark double unsweetened daiquiri made by bored-looking barmen in red tuxedos.)
Back at the Hotel Seville, we stumbled on the rooftop bar, mysteriously abandoned, with panoramic views of the city (on a clear day, you can see the class struggle forever). The chandelier-strewn ballroom was looking a little worse for wear from what had obviously been a wild banquet the night before. That was, in a nutshell, our definitive experience of Cuba – the feeling of having arrived slightly too late and missing the big party, but the tantalising aroma of decadence (and cigar smoke) still lingering on.
Our nostalgia for Havana’s glorious past was felt most keenly in the Museo de la Revolucion, a fabulously elaborate white stone palace with sweeping staircases, ceiling frescoes and chandeliers everywhere that was once the Presidential residence. Earnestly reconceived as a memorial to Fidel’s glorious Socialist revolution, there’s some imaginative redecoration, including a few Socialist flags inserted rather anachronistically in the middle of an 18th century religious fresco. Despite the many bilingual signs telling you “This room was the site of the Imperialist government’s pompous banquets”, bourgeois fag that I am, I couldn’t help but be sucked in by the glamour. Che’s beret (well, one of them) is on display with his rifle in a glass case, and a life-size waxwork figure of Che lurking in some plastic undergrowth is touched by locals as reverentially as I once used to kiss the feet of the plaster crucified Jesus during Easter celebrations.
On the Prado, the main drag of Habana Viejo (Old Havana), we strolled down the pedestrianised centre boulevard browsing through canvases of local painters, while Bryl-Cremed boys in polo shirts cruised past in their Buicks, then knocked back a mojito in the courtyard of the Hotel Ingleterre. Through it all, the locals were friendly and flirtatious, though very hustlerish – but as Laura and I agreed, with clear blue skies, fabulous architecture, balmy mid 20s temperatures even in winter, rum on tap, musicians playing on every corner and women spontaneously bursting into wild dancing in the streets, we agreed to embrace our inner hookers and embrace whatever came our way.
We struck gold at a little roadside bar on Calle Rafael, just off the Prado, where Laura attracted the attentions of a Cuba jazz musician called Juan Carlos and his naughty looking friend Jorge. While Juan Carlos gave Laura a free lesson on how to use her freshly purchased wooden drumming sticks, Jorge asked me if Laura was my woman, as if not, he’d like to do a little private drumming practise with her later. I thought briefly about selling Laura to Jorge for another round of mojitos, but changed my mind when we both got invited to Juan Carlos’s jam session that afternoon. “It’s 4 o’clock, Cuban time”, Juan Carlos assured us, and so we climbed into a rickshaw and went across town to the Angel restaurant in Plaza Viejo, then spent the afternoon staggering around the backstreets of Habana Centro, slightly drunk, taking photos of washing lines, and having our Spanish corrected by laughing security guards when we tried to ask for directions.
By six o’clock, the Cuban time still hadn’t kicked in (but the mojitos for lunch sure had), and the jazz musicians were nowhere to be found. After a drunken late afternoon browse through the bookstores around into the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in the Plaza del Armas, where I managed to pay more for a photocopied three-peso bill with Che Guevara’s signature than it was ever worth as hard currency, and a sunset stroll down the Malecon, we headed for dinner at El Aljibe, a fabulous French inspired restaurant in an old Spanish villa – wonderful food, appropriately flirty service, and an impromptu orgy breaking out in the kitchen.
Hungry for a little more action, we sneaked into a midnight cabaret show at the Hotel Nationale – where Sinatra once crooned and where dancer Josephine Baker was notoriously refused a room because she was black. Sadly, the dancing girls in g-strings twirling their nipple tassels weren’t on that night, and we got a really bad Cuban Tony Bennett-esque lounge singer instead. Try as one may, there’s just no way anyone can sing “Feliz Navidat” and not sound like an imbecile. But frankly, after three daiquiris, neither of us gave a damn. We were in Cuba, we had our own teeth, our dancing shoes on, and the night was ours.
“Put your arm around me so it looks like we’re together!” Laura hissed as a particularly cute waiter came by.
“Why?” I asked. “Don’t you want to look, well… available?”
“Yeah, but then he’ll see that I’m with you and try harder! Remember Jorge from this afternoon? Stop fidgeting and looking around nervously. Look like you own the goddam bar.”
“But I don’t even drink that much, and I don’t want to get kicked out of the Hotel Nationale, and…”
“Shut up, he’s coming. “Aaah, cam-a-RER-o, per favore… What’s the Spanish for “another round?”
“I’m not sure, but I do know how to say, “I’m in Room 6115.”
“I don’t think he heard you. He was too busy staring at your cleavage. And honey, since you’ve got the twins on display, don’t you think you should name them?”
“Do you think that waiter would write his name on my breasts if I asked him nicely?”
And so the evening progressed.
Our final morning was spent wandering in and out of 19th century apothecaries looking for illegal prescription medicine, buying cigars we knew neither of us would ever smoke, searching unsuccessfully for kitchen tiles for Laura’s new kitchen, buying insanely cheap art from the street artists along the Prado, and having a long debate about taking photos of the dildo-cigar women. Little did we know that a month later, the Cuban government banned smoking in public – and with that, another little chink of Havana’s hedonistic glamour fell away.
We were whisked out of the city, appropriately enough, in a Mercedes, after a tense couple of hours following the spectacular non-arrival of our tour bus, during which Laura resorted to singing Blossom Dearie’s “Peel Me A Grape” and some sexy gangsta bitch music to get me to calm down. As we sank into the leather upholstery and thanked God for air-conditioning and no flatulent tourists, then watched Havana speed by at sunset – the kids sitting on the breakwater around the Malecon, the rust-coloured Chevvies, the itinerant workers hitching a ride out of the city, the evening hum of the crickets and amid the baleful hungry glances from the roadside, the occasional toothy smile.
It’s bourgeois pretentiousness to hope that Cuba will remain dilapidated and caught in the past just so our tourist photos will look prettier. As I walked around the streets, I remembered Renaldo Arenas, the brave, angry, brilliant writer of “Before Night Falls” – a gay man who was persecuted and imprisoned under Castro’s regime, and who found solace, like many gay men, in exile from his homeland. We in the West have romanticised the Cuban Revolution and turned Che into a poster boy for individual freedom. The reality of the revolution, and Castro’s totalitarianism that’s followed is food shortages, sexual intolerance and young people leaving the country in droves to find a better life.
Cuba remains fascinating because it is torn between two impulses – the residual belief, however misguided, that the ideals fought here during the Revolution are still worth clinging to, overlaid but the quiet held breath expectancy that regime change is inevitable and the forces of the West – foreign investment, deregulation, a Starbucks on every corner – is only a footstep away. As we drove away, I was unsure whether to roll down the windows and yoller “Viva la revolucion!”, cry for a culture that is soon to be obliterated, or thank God that finally help was on its way. I still haven’t decided.