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Under the Havana Moon


Every few years, I fall in love with a city. Last time it was New Orleans. It wasn't love at first sight, though. I had to go back a second time to be sure. Despite Katrina's lingering devastation, it was an amazing place. The time before, it was Paris--all that splendour. So it makes sense that a cross between the two would do it for me.
Havana did.
The city's contradictions defy you at every turn: vibrant and laid-back, squalid and beautiful, rundown yet visually awesome, poor but very, very safe. Fascinating, is how I describe it.
It helps to have some Spanish at your command, as well as a reliable companion. I had both. At the airport, I met an Australian surfer. I'll call him Charlie Dingo. Charlie has a nose for adventure. He's what's known in the vernacular as a "chick magnet." Despite our disparate backgrounds, we clicked. It was like having an instant friend, only with no history. Thanks to Charlie, I met some very fun Cubans. Thanks to me, Charlie knew what they were saying. Together, it guaranteed a great time.
I like my hotels clean, spacious and quiet. El Paseo Habana in Vedado offers that and more. It's a 15-minute walk from La Rampa, a lively cultural area, and a leisurely hour from Habana Vieja, the city's main tourist destination. If you're looking for a beach, however, don't stay there. It's considerably farther from Playas del Este.
Unlike me, Charlie is not a hotel guy. He wanted una experiencia verdad--the real thing. So we set out to find him a casa particular, the new capitalist trend for Cuban families with a spare room to rent. Basically, they're government sanctioned B&Bs.
In my experience, Cubans are not naturally friendly and out-going. They're reserved, like Canadians. It's only as we went from casa to casa that we got to meet some locals. An offer of coffee here, an invitation for rum later on--and suddenly you have a social life in Havana. It can be very rewarding.
Walking is the best way to see the city. There's also a good $5 double-decker bus tour, but it's pretty fast and you won't catch much of the English commentary--grammatically correct, but spoken at breakneck speed. Just enjoy the sights then go back later and visit whatever looked interesting.
Mastering the currency might prove difficult. It bewildered me. First, there's the CUP, or moneda nacional. It's the only legitimate currency. No one wants it. The alternative is the convertible peso, or CUC. If someone seems to be asking for "cook", that's what they're talking about. It's also called "divisa", which makes it really confusing. That and the fact that the two currencies are vastly different in value.
Visitors make the mistake of thinking there are two price listings for everything and that locals pay less. Not true. If the price is listed in CUP, anyone can pay in CUP or CUC. If you pay in CUC, however, you're paying more. When the price is in CUC, there's no choice: everyone must pay in CUC. But does it really matter whether you're paying thirty cents or a dollar-twenty for a beer? Charlie might disagree, but then Australians drink a lot of beer.
As racist as it sounds, many Cubans will try to cheat you. It's a national pastime and done without malice. Ask the price first and always count your change. I've even been short-changed in the CADECAs, or Casas de Cambio, while exchanging money. On the other hand, you can always bargain for things. Charlie was better at it than me, so I let him do the "no entiendo" thing and waited to see how far he got before I entered the game to nail the price.
One of the things that may surprise you is how literate Cubans are. On Calle Obispo, Old Havana's famed market street, I came across five bookstores, as well as a gigantic used-book stall. At first I put it down to a lack of cable TV, but after visiting several Cuban homes I realized this wasn't the case. What they don't have is Internet. WiFi is all but non-existent, so everyone reads. If you're desperate, some hotels offer on-line access for up to $10 CUC per hour. It's slow, so don't expect to spend all your time checking Facebook.
Nightlife can vary. During the week, clubs tend to close around midnight, though you can always find something happening on the street, legal or otherwise. (Charlie was always good for that.) The police tend to harass the locals rather than the tourists when anything untoward happens, but keep your wits about you.
There are plenty of nightclubs. Some are fancier than others. Nearly everyone gets dressed up, however, and Cubans really know how to dance. As for music, you'd be just as entertained by stopping to listen to a free concert (you'll hear them, especially on weekends) as you would by paying to go to a jazz club. The free concerts are very impressive. In another country, some of these people would be top dollar talent.
There is almost no visible LGBT culture, and Cubans are both sexist and macho in their manner and speech. On the other hand, once you get to know them, they will happily trot out their cell phones and show you pictures of their friends and ask you to guess which of the beautiful girls are real and which not. Again, it can be confusing.
There's one big LGBT party every weekend, but it moves around to avoid being busted. Both film director Pedro Almadovar and designer Jean Paul Gaultier have been netted in raids at gay gatherings. (Presumably, they survived.) You might meet someone on the Playas del Este to tell you where to find these events, or sometimes at Cine Yara on La Rampa. I'm not a beach person so I didn't venture that far. Besides, I didn't go to Havana to spend all my time doing what I do at home.
In fact, my primary reason for going was to check out the possibility of setting one of my Bradford Fairfax comic mysteries there. Luck, and Charlie Dingo, were with me. I had some of the best adventures I've had in a long time, and most of it quickly spun itself into a plot long before I boarded my plane home. So if you're a fan, keep your eyes open for Fairfax International: Havana Club in the future. Once I get around to writing it, of course.
Hasta la vista, baby!

1 comment:

Rhapsody B. said...

Blessings....
Fascinating.....I believe this complexity you speak of dwell in all cultures. The ambiquity is part of the ambiance.

Thanks for sharing...
stay blessed.
Rhapsody

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