This is the real experience, my friend,” said Robert, lighting up a harsh Cohiba cigarette as I looked around. We were in a hole-in-the-wall bar around the corner from Plaza Hotel and Robert, who worked as a doorman there, had appointed himself my guide for the morning. It had been years since I’d had a drink before noon, but two mojitos sat on a rickety table in front of us. As soon as I started to stir the sugar at the bottom of the tall glass, Robert got down to business. “I have a cousin who works in a cigar factory,” he said. “I won’t lie to you. If I can get you to buy through him, I’ll be able to buy more food for my wife and baby.” And more mojitos, I told myself.
We finally decided on a price of 80 CUC—the Cuban Convertible Peso that only foreigners can use and which amounts to around Rs4,000 now—for a box of Montecristo No. 4s, the cigar made famous by a certain Ernesto Che Guevara Serna. I told Robert—“Like De Niro, eh?” he said, flexing his biceps and settling into a Raging Bull pose—that Che was one of the reasons I was in Havana. Not only did I share my birthday with him, but I was also the nephew of a doctor devoted to the socialist cause. There’s no one I admire more than Che.
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“You must go to Santa Clara then,” he said. “See the memorial.” And in Havana? He smiled. Che, and José Martí, a hero from an earlier age, are all-pervasive, ghosts that have sustained a revolution through a missile crisis, an economic embargo and abysmal standards of living. Robert would not talk ill of the revolution, but he also wanted all those things—a sharp linen jacket, pointy shoes and a nice watch— that it was unable to give him.
We talked of baseball (bei’bol), Cuba’s biggest sporting passion, and I told him that my room at the Plaza was just down the corridor from Suite 216, where Babe Ruth had stayed 90 years earlier. He talked of watching Omar Linares and Orestes Kindelán as a teenager, and of the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando (El Duque), who defected to the US and Major League baseball in the 1990s. There was no anger in his voice as he talked about them, but neither was there the pride so transparent in his mention of boxing legends Teófilo Stevenson and Félix Savón. “Do you know what Stevenson said when they offered him money to fight Ali?” he asked, eyes shining. I did, but I let him say it anyway: “What’s one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”
Cuban colours: Sunset comes to the Malecon promenade. Photo: Dileep Premachandran
This love of a quintessentially American sport is one of the many contradictions that you find on the island. Just as it’s difficult to reconcile the idealistic and funny young Che of The Motorcycle Diaries with the compañero who ruthlessly purged Cuba of the regime’s enemies, so it’s hard to reconcile the anti-Yanqui rhetoric—George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan share the Wall of Cretins with Fulgencio Batista in the Museum of the Revolution—with the baseball-and-Hemingway obsession.
After I left Robert nursing one last mojito for the road, I walked down Obispo and towards the Inglaterra Hotel. The Capitol was just down the road, and it seemed a good place to start exploring the city. Parque Central was behind me, with the first of many dozen Martí statues that I would see. More than one young woman came and asked for “milk for the baby” as I wandered around, and by the time I walked back towards my hotel for lunch, there was a serpentine queue in front of the local Cambio, the ubiquitous exchange bureaus always busy with tourists changing foreign currency for CUCs, and Cubans changing CUCs—earned as tips or payment from tourists—for national pesos.
Lunch at the Café de Paris—most cities I’ve been to, including my hometown of Calicut (now Kozhikode), seem to have at least one bar or restaurant named after the French capital—was grilled lobster, prawns, congri (rice with black-eyed peas) and beans. The offer of the day meant that I got a mojito as well, and all for the princely sum of 10 CUC.
The Wall of Cretins at the Museum of the Revolution. Photo: Dileep Premachandran
By late afternoon, I had shifted to the Ambos Mundos, the old colonial structure that was Ernest Hemingway’s home in Havana for much of the 1930s. Room 511 was a small shrine to the man, complete with a typewriter and other memorabilia. Later, I found out that Osmany, one of the night-time security guards, was from Cojimar. One of his neighbours as a young boy was Gregorio Fuentes, on whom Hemingway based the character of Santiago (in The Old Man and the Sea). “He was a very old man,” said Osmany with a laugh. Fuentes died at the age of 104, having outlived Hemingway by more than 40 years.
Later that evening, I went across to the Dominica where Jimmy y sus Raices (Jimmy and His Roots) were playing. The young may be captive to the Reggaeton sound and the Miami look—white vests, lots of gold jewellery and gelled hair—but for those into their fourth decade, bands such as Jimmy’s offered a chance to listen to the sounds that Wim Wenders immortalized in Buena Vista Social Club: vocal harmonies, the cello, the drums.
The next afternoon, I wandered into another club and found Amaranto Fernandez, who actually played the Buena Vista soundtrack, sitting behind the keyboards.
Before Amaranto, though, there had been another date to keep. El Che was always there in the background, but the main inspiration for my trip had been a book I’d read in my early 20s, Pico Iyer’s Cuba and the Night. It was that which introduced me to Martí the poet, and the immortal line that the book took its title from: “Two fatherlands have I, Cuba and the night.”
The house where Martí was born is just a couple of kilometres out of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and, in one of those delicious ironies that life throws one’s way, I was peddled there in a cycle-taxi by a José. This one was no poet, but he loved the ladies as much as the old freedom fighter had. En route to the Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square), we passed a house where a young girl was hanging up washing on a line. Steering past a dilapidated Pontiac with one hand, José blew kisses with the other. After we’d climbed up a small incline, he turned back and grinned at me. She makes me “el loco” (mad), he said, a sentiment that Martí would certainly have endorsed. After all, he did write: El corazon es un loco (The heart is a madman).
I was pretty much the only one at the huge Martí monument in the square, and with the sun beating down, you had to squint to see the massive Che mural-in-metal across the frontage of the communications ministry. José and I peddled on, through derelict streets and past the main mercado (market). With each passing furlong, I felt more and more like a voyeur, clicking away at people who seemed in a permanent state of anticipation, without quite knowing what they were waiting for.
A boy playing with a sheet. Photo: Dileep Premachandran
Martí’s birthplace reminded me of old houses in Kerala, with red-tiled floors and wooden beams on the ceiling. Aside from a plethora of photographs and original copies of some of his work, there was lovely antique furniture and great views through the windows. And though I got drenched on my way out, lunch at Don Lorenzo’s made it well worth the ride. Once the sun came out again, I headed to Rafael’s gym to watch the Olympic medallists of the future. Boys just a little bigger than my six-year-old nephew were doing push-ups, one of them wearing what must have been his elder sister’s worn-out shoes. In the half an hour that I was there, I counted 200 push-ups, enough to make you think back to the meal you’d just had and then take a rueful look at the midriff.
That night, there were two jineteras at the hotel bar. Loosely translated, jinetera means jockey and, in a land where prostitution is supposed to have ended with Batista’s rule, these girls offer companionship to lonely tourists in exchange for a trip to Varadero, some shopping, a nice meal, or just some CUC to buy “milk for the baby”. What they don’t do is hassle you. “My girlfriend arrives tomorrow night” was met with a cheery smile, and I spent the next 2 hours drinking mojitos and Havana Club 7 Años with them and the night porter. On my way up to the room, the lift operator, Stalin—whose daughter was named Indira—told me how lovely Cuban girls were. I didn’t disagree.
The next day, I saw many more, walking down the Malecon, the main promenade. A statue of Tagore marked the end of the estuary and the beginning of the sea, and you could see old men fishing, friends sharing a bottle of rum, girls in the arms of their novios (sweethearts), and the usual complement trying to sell you cigars. The sky was breathtakingly beautiful, but the policemen on duty didn’t look amused when I stopped to take a picture of a broken down car—American, 1950s vintage—in front of a ramshackle building. I walked away quickly, fearing that they wouldn’t understand an explanation about decay amid the beauty.
The taxi I took back to the hotel had two flags on the dashboard, the Cuban one intertwined with that of Venezuela. Hugo Chavez, another one with the cojones to take on the Yanqui, is the new Che, the most potent symbol of Latin America’s resistance to imperialism. Even television has the Venezuelan touch, with a lot of the programming originating from there. In addition to the overwrought domestic dramas similar to those back home, there are also commercials for Maxibreast.com on CNN Español. What chance does socialism have against the breast-augmentation industry?
Stiltwalkers. Photo: Dileep Premachandran
Havana, with so much geared towards tourism, can sometimes overwhelm you, and it was almost a relief when we left for Trinidad in the south. We passed the beautiful town of Cienfuegos (built by the French, and not the Spanish) on the way, but Trinidad was stepping out of a time machine into another century. The central square was about the size of the quadrangle in most Indian apartments, and each building you looked at appeared to have been witness to many centuries of history. Some of the houses that used to be owned by sugar barons had been converted into museums, and if you rode out into the country on horseback, you passed many of the abandoned plantations and homesteads. Our ride wasn’t a memorable experience for two British Asians who attempted it in shorts, especially as both the guides were young boys who took sadistic pleasure in shouting caballo (horse) to make them go faster. With the foliage thick and the thorns plentiful, my respect for the heroes of the Sierra Maestra only grew.
A day later, I did make it to Santa Clara, and the mausoleum. Apart from the fact that the plaque that bore his name jutted out a little from the granite wall, there was nothing to distinguish Che’s remains from those of the 37 others that died with him in the Bolivian jungle. There was also a solitary star, projected on to the wall behind the plaque. The flame burned on, and as I looked into it, I remembered the scarily lifelike figures of Che and Camilo Cienfuegos emerging out of the brush in the Museum of the Revolution. One, global revolutionary icon and perceptive writer; the other a country bumpkin with a coarse sense of humour. Inseparable in the Sierra Maestra, they are also inextricably linked in death. In a land where time often seemed to stand still, Che, Camilo (and Martí, always Martí) were everywhere. On coins, revolutionary posters, in public squares, propaganda leaflets, and people’s hearts.
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