February 21st, 2010

La Habana

God save the Queen, 'cause tourists are money

Ah, it seems that the only way to keep the prose pumping out is to write things within a day or so of seeing it. This doesn't make for considered reflection, but hastily written is better than written late and unenthusiatically. This is of course difficult when you don't want to take your computer with you because you are in a bodgy country, or are running through the jungle. Well, not actually running through the jungle, because a little voice says to me “Paul, don't run into the jungle, you rascal”. It doesn't sound like my voice, it sounds like Naomi's, and that's because it isn't my better judgment, it's Naomi standing across the clearing saying “Paul, don't run into the jungle, you rascal. You even have rascal hair today.”

So, in order to get to my rascal jungle hair, let's move closer to putting an end to my dribblings about La República de Cuba.

To refresh your memories, our tour guide was giving us a whirlwind tour of Habana Vieja, and after showing us the Doric temple thing, he pointed out a castle that contained Spanish gold lost in shipwrecks in the Caribbean Sea. The castle we had been looking for elsewhere the previous day in accordance with our guidebook, the guidebook we won't name which has more errors than an evangelical sermon on evolution. The words 'phoned it in' apply. Having located this precious gem (or metal), the guide showed us a cheap place to eat, and after a beer told us his more thoughts on Cuban life, with the central point that to understand Cuba, you must live there for at least a year.

We asked if we could call over a waiter to take a photo of the five of us, and our guide took the camera to take the photo of us with the waiter. Then, seeing how proud the waiter was to be in the photo, but actually wanting the guide in the photo, we called over a second waiter to take a photo of us, the guide and the first waiter. Check the gallery; the waiter's pride, and the guides realisation are both captured there.

With the tour over and the afternoon loose, we headed back to the Plaza de Armas, so named because when the Americans occupied Havana for a period between the revolutions, the good ol' US Army set up shop there in the former colonial Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the governor's palace. This building is now the Museum of the City, and is muy, muy interesante. It houses a throne made for the Spanish king, who never arrived before independence. When the regent finally visited in 2003 (I think), Cuban historians said "Well, we made this chair for the King of Spain, and you're the King of Spain. Would you like to use it?" but he said "No thanks, it's okay." There are wooden bricks paving the streets out the front, the shortest street in Havana, lest the Spanish vice-roy be disturbed by horse hooves on stone; it palace has a beautiful courtyard with a statue of Columbus; it has many diplomatic gifts given to Fidel he couldn't think of another home for; and amongst other odds and ends from the 500-odd years since the Spanish rocked up, the first Cuban flag, first Cuban cannon (made of leather straps, by the looks), and a painting of some Spanish figure we were told was unique, because in it he 'looks a bit Chinesey'. In Cuba it pays, we found, to pay the extra few CUC for the guides, as not only do you get the low-down (no, not the modern urban US definition), and the local ideas on racial issues (see later), you are also let into places otherwise prohibited.

Out the front of the museum, an orchestra had set up, and started to show off the talent of Cuban artists. This abundance of culture is, we are told, a consequence of contact with the Soviets and their fine schools for such.

Next, going to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza which houses the Spanish gold and silver (NOT Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta), model galleons and cross sections thereof, and the most unique tour guide ever known, who revels in his intensity and inapproapriateness. Giving the history of naval activities in the harbour, this guy speaks a hyper-speed Spanglish, from which he pauses every so often to ask you a question. You are unlikely to be able to answer, as all you heard during the last wall of sound was his sustained salvos of the F-bomb (I have never met a tour guide who swears, let alone more than me). He once asked why the Spanish built fortresses on the harbour. After three blank stares he got to the end of the line, me, and I offered feebly “The English?” and got back, in a something just short of a manic scream and with those eyes burning into my soul (one held open with a finger to indicate we should look), “Close! Other Europeans.” At a later question none of us heard, he got to the end of the line of blank stares to Naomi, who said “England?”, to which he replied “Close! Metal. Gold and Silver.” What we did learn was that a few years back, a Japanese company offered to dredge the bay to clear out that pesky sunken gold and silver. Their price? To keep what they found. Their offer was declined.

This guide's world view was exactly opposite to the hostel worker in San Fran. A Spaniard, he explained to us that when the British occupied Cuba, living standards went up dramatically. When the Spanish got it back, they dropped like a stone. He told us this was because the British and Spanish are fundamentally different: the British wanted to take over the world and remake it in their image, the Spanish just wanted to rob it. Say in your head with venom (I remember word for word): “Name one bad English speaking country! There are none. All 7 [?] are good. Name one good Spanish speaking country! There are none. What do the Spanish give to Europe today? Nothing. Is just bad luck the Spanish came here. All English countries are good. Name one good country in Africa!” I offered “South Africa?”. He said with flourish “No more!”

He took Nae's poxy hat (see photos), put it on his head, put hands together, squinted eyes, bowed, and said “Ah so”. He gave us duel interpretations of a displayed illustration: in one, a man is feeding a dog; in the second, he is grabbing a lady's arse. He snatched my camera and took photos of all manner of things. Then he snatched Chris'. He scared the crap out of us.

If Chris would kindly send me the photo of this guy, I will show the world.

And, on the topic of photos, they are being posted slowly but surely; it is very hard to make a concise selection - there was so much worth keeping a visual record of.