Our Woman in Havana
The elegantly faded Cuban capital is on the cusp of a defining moment
By Nadine O’Regan Apr 10, 2016
It’s a cloudless day in Havana. The sun beats down. People mill about the place, laughing and chatting. Nearby, a group of entertainers teeter past on stilts, wearing belly-tops and singing, while their accomplice holds out a pouch for tourists’ contributions. Gaiety is in the air. We’re meandering through the sloping streets, when I’m stopped by my guide and prevented from walking on the pavement. “In Havana, people avoid footpaths,” Lillian says. She points up to a balcony over which a line of washing sways. “The balconies are old and dangerous. They may collapse.” As she speaks, I can’t help but think of the Berkeley tragedy, and shudder.
The Cuban capital is a city of colour, vibrancy, warmth and hustle – but also one that feels like the clock stopped decades ago, leaving its inhabitants to live on, but with little in the way of technology, architectural upgrading or safety mechanisms to protect and enhance their lives.
Walking around it is an experience that’s bewildering, discomfiting and fascinating. Short of a Marty McFly-style DeLorean ride, a trip to Cuba may be the closest thing to time travel you’ll ever experience. Fly into Havana and you will find a riot of colourful houses and hotels in the grandly colonial, Moorish and baroque styles, but also full with a lingering air of squalor. The paint on the buildings is frequently chipped and peeling, and there’s a sense that things are slowly coming apart at the seams.
It’s incredibly difficult to get new materials into the country. At the airport, I get a tough introduction to Cuba as we wait for hours while the baggage carousel unleashes flatscreen TVs, bicycles, computers and everything that every relative has begged their cousins living abroad to bring them.
In the city, kids play football on once-grand pitches that have lost half of their grass to seed.
As my guide Lillian and I chat, we narrowly avoid getting a bucket of dirty washing water hurled onto our heads from a nearby window. The whirl and colour of local life is ever palpable. A few brands are here – Adidas and Benetton among them – but they sell solely to rich tourists.
Change is afoot. Since 1965, the country has been governed by the Communist Party. But in recent years, with Fidel Castro taking a back seat to his brother, president Raúl Castro, restrictions have begun to be lifted.
Although Fidel continues to live quietly in an unknown area just outside Havana, and his influence is felt everywhere, it’s Raúl – who, locals note, is not the charismatic speech-maker his brother was – who is gradually effecting change. For many, there is a feeling that a way of life is about to end.
US president Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba on March 21 marked the first time a US head of state had set foot in the land since 1928. Four days later, the Rolling Stones performed to a crowd of 1.2 million people here, saying they were happy to play in a country that had once banned them. US cruise ships will begin docking in Havana next month for the first time in five decades.
If, as Obama said in his speech, “the future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people”, then that future is currently being decided. “Everyone is rushing to see Cuba now before it changes,” says another of my guides, the briskly efficient Sergio. (A tour guide is advisable; expect to pay about €100 a day for the privilege.) “There has been change in the past couple of years, but it hasn’t filtered down the ordinary person yet,” he adds, with a touch of bitterness, as we fly through the streets in his tiny blue car. “A whole country was changed for one man’s vision.”
Right now, Cuba remains a country of extremes. Proud locals make much of the fact that their health service and education system is extraordinarily good. But their doctors and teachers often moonlight as tour guides or taxi drivers because they need the money. Everyone in Havana hustles for cash.
From a culinary perspective, Havana is a place with no familiar landmarks: no Starbucks, no McDonald’s, no Eddie Rockets. If you want to buy food here as a local, you go along to a state-designated grocer, where a basic foodstuff like flour is weighed out for you on an old-fashioned set of scales.
There are restaurants and bars in the capital, but little in the way of what we might think of as corner shops. In preparation for my three-day visit, I stocked up on food as though I was going camping: I brought nuts, crisps and cereal bars, and was glad of all of them. (Be careful of the ice and fresh fruit; you need a strong stomach for Havana.)
What can seem alienating can also be joyous, however. A car fanatic could spend weeks in Havana just admiring the ancient automobile spectacles motoring thrillingly past them, with their drivers coming off like Toad of Toad Hall, sweeping his scarf over his neck and donning driving goggles.
I take a trip in a purple Buick 55 convertible and, even though the leather seat burns my thighs to a crisp in the hot glare of the sun, it’s still a perfect ride, a thrilling experience I won’t forget in a hurry.
As we drive along the Malecón, the seafront promenade that stretches for eight kilometres along the northern coast of Havana, we hear a noise: one of our hubcaps has fallen off the car. Unruffled, our driver retrieves it and we continue on our glamorous way, to the tree-lined Fifth Avenue, which was created in imitation of New York’s finest, and where Cuba’s wealthiest once lived, but which is now inhabited mainly by embassies.
Although that lifestyle may be gone, certain customs have remained. Ernest Hemingway – who famously loved Cuba and lived in Havana – is something of a hero to the city, and his image is everywhere. Kick back with a mojito or a margarita in La Bodeguita, one of the many watering-holes frequented by the writer, and soak up the feeling of faded glamour and vivacity.
It’s also an enjoyable experience to try cigar-rolling: at the hotel Conde Villanueva, I proved rubbish at rolling the perfect Cuban cigar, but it was fun to watch the house’s master roller at work, and sip on a glass of Cuban rum. Sun-loving locals also often like to take the bus (tourists rarely use buses) to the pretty beaches, which are a half-hour’s taxi-ride from Havana.
Throughout my time in Havana, it was never possible to do something I’d take for granted in Dublin: check my internet on my phone to see how the rest of the world was getting on. And Cubans don’t know much about the outside world. Tourists can get internet in the fancier hotel lobbies for eight Cuban convertible peso (CUC) an hour, the equivalent of €1, but the rest of the country barely has access.
My taxi driver waxes lyrical about Air Supply, U2 and Bon Jovi, but is blank-faced when Spotify is mentioned; and my tour guide misidentifies John Lennon in one of the placards we find in Book Square, a lovely space where wares are sold to the chirruping of birds and the smells of bougainvillea.
There’s a palpable sense of frustration from my young guide Lillian, who loves Havana but would like more opportunities. “All my friends want to leave,” she says. As she sees it, the younger generation are deeply frustrated, the middle generation are divided, and the old generation, her grandparents, are fiercely loyal to Fidel and his vision.
Although Havana is not dangerous as such, a certain amount of street harassment is inevitable if you’re pale-skinned, blonde-haired, obviously a tourist and travelling alone, as I was. “Chance never sleeps,” warns my taxi driver (also a lawyer) on the 30-minute drive from the airport to Havana. On my second day, I hide my jewellery in my bag, wary of the attention it attracts.
But there’s much beauty to make up for the downside. We visit the Hotel Nacional, where pictures of bands including Fleetwood Mac adorn the walls of the grand old bar and where, I’m told, the US Mafia used to gather until Castro sent them packing.
There’s an informal, even slightly chaotic quality to Havana that is fascinating. Everyone sings in the city: at times you feel like you’re in a musical, where, at any moment, the waiter might take flight into song.
Where I stayed, in the Mercure Sevilla hotel, the bedrooms were clustered within earshot of the lobby area, and exceptionally gifted musicians would gather daily to perform everything from Eric Clapton’s Tears In Heaven to old Jamaican folk songs like Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).
“Cubans are like the Irish,” Sergio tells me. “We have a similar history and we like to relax.” You can easily get that feeling about Havana. Once you get over the sense of difference, and become used to the hustle and bustle, there’s an atmosphere of vivacity and warmth that is compelling. Havana can be a discomfiting and tricky experience as a holiday, but it’s also one of the most memorable culture-shocks you’ll ever embrace. For the curious, it’s a wonderful place to visit.
Nadine O’Regan stayed at the Mercure Sevilla hotel in Havana and took part in a private Havana tour, which was organised with thanks to Sunway Holidays. The company offers package holidays to Cuba: see sunway.ie.
Where to stay: Havana accommodation is more basic than the four-star ratings attached to many of the hotels would have you believe. Where it says four-star, expect to get something closer to two-star. I stayed in the Mercure Sevilla hotel in Havana, which was faded but comfortable and served an excellent buffet breakfast. The live music in the hotel was also a delight – singers performed every day in the hotel’s grand lobby area.
How to travel: whether travelling alone or in a group, it’s important in Havana to get a local tour guide. This is not a city easy to navigate by yourself. I booked one tour guide privately and, courtesy of Sunway Holidays, which offer package holidays to Cuba (see sunway.ie), also booked another full-day experience through Havana Tours.
When to go: as soon as possible, before Cuba changes and becomes more modernised.
Top tip: bring dollars if you have them. They are accepted in many places, alongside the local CUC currency.
Useful websites: cubatravel.tur.cu/en is well worth checking out before you travel.