A match made in Havana

The Guardian, February 10 2001

Sometime long after midnight – after the food had run out, but while the wine and the rum were still bubbling over the bar, probably around the time that the salsa band finally took off into orbit and the whole room went with it in one collective dance of perspiration – just around then, I fell in love.

I would have fallen for her in any place at any time, but this night was special in several ways. This was not just New Year’s Eve, it was Millennium Eve. While the rest of the world had ejaculated prematurely with its millennial celebration 12 months earlier, Cuba had held on in a symbol of its proud isolation, and waited until the arithmetically correct deadline, December 31 2000, before letting rip in its own peculiar way.

Futhermore, this was Havana where, on any evening, it is alarmingly easy to feel romantic. Cubans may be poor but they are not desperate; they look happy, they act happy, and that’s catching. They have also created the most sexually liberated culture I have ever come across. It’s warm – they have a climate from Heaven all round the year. And it’s beautiful (something that the Cubans often fail to convey about their island): this is a country the size of England with a population only as big as that of London, surrounded by long, clean beaches with nothing but palm trees and hammocks for company and, although the old colonial buildings in the towns are faded and crumbling, they are still rich in peculiarity.

This particular building, where I first met her, was steeped in faded grandeur. It felt almost like a trespass to go in through the heavy wooden door from the street, into the deep, dark hallway (dark because it was night, and there seemed to be no electricity on the ground floor) and to gaze up at the remnants of old wealth, the tall stone pillars and the ornate carvings just visible around the ceiling; then up the dusty, narrow staircase, ducking down through several tiny doorways; up past the dim yellow light of cramped apartments, where Cuban families sat with their TVs; across a roof space, to the upper floor, through a heavy double door, into a place like magic. Here, there were three or four interconnecting rooms with dark wooden tables, all lit by dozens of wax-encrusted candles, the walls covered with paintings and old photographs and an antique wooden clock and theatrical masks, and all the air was filled with the sound of gentle music. Of course, it was romantic.

They call this place La Guarida. The Cuban intelligentsia know it well, if only because Tomas Gutierrez Alea, the most creative of Cuban film directors, shot scenes for his Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) here in 1993. Tourists know it hardly at all – unless they observe the first rule of travel in Cuba, which is to ignore or ceremonially burn their guidebooks on the basis that no book can possibly keep track of a society which runs on improvisation, and learn, instead, to trust real live locals to show them the way.

And that’s another part of the romance of the place – the improvisation, well, the chaos. By the time, the sun finally rose and rescued Havana from riot, I had found love in La Guarida but I had lost my jacket, my passport, my brother, two English friends and four Swedes, all of whom had disappeared into the night. You have to go with the flow. Time-servers and knee-benders should stay away.

People go to Cuba and fall in love with it (or, indeed, with each other ) because it’s a palace of self-indulgence, because it’s constantly fascinating – and because they are not afraid to go with the flow. The trains run, but often they are late. There is almost always water in the taps; there is only rarely a plug in the sink. There are tarmac roads the length and breadth of the island; not only are they littered with pot holes, but Cuban drivers like to swerve around them, delaying the swerve until the last conceivable moment – which is exciting, if you happen to be overtaking them.

You have never been to a place of so many riddles and paradoxes – there is considerable personal poverty and yet there is a striking absence of crime; this is a one-party state and yet voter turn-out is three times as high as, for example, the US; it is a society born in violence but with one of the most pacific populations in the world; a country which has been corrupted, exploited, invaded and sabotaged by the United States but which chooses the US dollar as its currency.

Indeed, the whole business of the relationship with the US is one mighty paradox. Here is the Land of the Free supposedly protesting Cuban infringement of human rights, such as the right to travel, by infringing the human rights of its own citizens to visit or trade with the island. Here is the most powerful capitalist nation in history refusing to supply goods and services to a society whose primary reason for existence is to avoid capitalism in the first place.

Millennium night at La Guarida was full of its own riddles. The owner, Enrique, stepped into the candlelight to explain that this was not a meal. This was an artistic experiment – an attempt to recreate a scene from Fresa y Chocolate in which the two central characters eat a five-course feast (itself based on a meal described by the great Cuban poet Lezama Lima in his 1966 novel, Paradiso), the outcome of which is supposed to be that all who eat it become great thinkers and writers.

It took three hours and some of it was truly strange – fried banana soup with popcorn croutons; seafood souffle; asparagus and beetroot; turkey and yucca and plantain and rice; coconut icecream in half a pineapple. And, all the time, the wine kept coming, and then the rum and, at some point on the way through, the gentle classical music gave way to live salsa, and then it was midnight and, outside in the streets, there was the sound of a mighty splashing as all the Cubans threw open their windows and washed away the bad spirits of the old year by chucking buckets of water into the air, and then we pushed back the tables, and the salsa band went wild and the singer was like a monkey somehow – muscular and primitive and sexual in every tiny movement – and the music was loud and frantic and it was one of those times when everyone in the room is all part of the same dance and it got hotter and faster and wetter and wilder and, for a split second, the crowd of dancers parted and there she was, and I reached out for her and… who wouldn’t have fallen in love?

She should not even have been there. She was American, and, under the terms of the US Trading with the Enemy Act, American citizens can be fined up to $250,000 and jailed for up to ten years for spending a single dollar in Castro’s country. She had come in under the wire, through Mexico. Somehow, that made her even more romantic. By the time I realised I had lost my passport, we were a perfect couple – she in trouble with the US, me with Cuba (I’d lost my visa as well as the passport). A match made in Havana. Go with the flow.

Sometime close to dawn, we drifted back to my hotel. More riddles. If she had been Cuban, they would not have let her in: a society which fought a two-year guerrilla war for the right to its national self-esteem now bans its own people from numerous tourist facilities and areas. In fact, the tourism produces some of the most difficult paradoxes.

There is the prostitution. You will see decent, intelligent tourists, who would normally abjure prostitution as exploitation, wrestling with their consciences because the Cuban approach to the sale of sex is so unlike anything they have come across before. And they are right. It is somewhat different. Each man (and woman – it’s a trade for both sexes) has to decide how they deal with it. But bear in mind two things: if Cubans are caught selling sex, they will be in trouble; and a lot of the prostitutes are under 18, the Cuban age of consent, and the tourist who is caught there will be in trouble too – lots of it.

But the bigger paradox is the most familiar one in world tourism: that travellers visit places because they are different and then their presence starts to erode the very difference which attracted them. For example, people go to Havana for the salsa bands. And yet the horrible truth is that some of the bands in central Havana are now starting to play things like Paul McCartney’s Yesterday and a version of Frank Sinatra’s My Way and some muzak version of that Paul Simon song about how he’d rather be a tortoise than a snail. It is musical diarrhoea – and they are doing it to please us.

Even worse, if you ask Cubans where to go for salsa, there are some (the ones who have most contact with tourists, like hotel staff and taxi drivers) who will direct you to posh hotels where they stage nauseating ‘international spectacular’ floor shows – lots of women with high-cut outfits and pink feathers in their hair, lurching around like stoned swans and grinning like skulls, while sour-faced middle-aged couples sit obediently behind their tables, waiting to applaud on cue. Go there to bomb them, but never to have fun.

Real Cuba is still there. Only a few years ago, Cuban culture was uncompromised by tourism, but nowadays you may have to push a little to find it. Don’t trust the guidebooks – they are instantly out of date, plus it looks as though they recycle each other’s inaccuracies. One good example: there is an extraordinary alley in central Havana which has been taken over by a brilliant artist, Salvador Gonzales. He has painted the whole place with wonderful murals and strange epigrams, based on the old religions which were imported to Cuba by slaves from West Africa. He has a gallery there and, once a week (currently on Sundays, but it could change) Cuban musicians meet there to boogie. Salvador is usually there, and he likes to talk (and to sell paintings). It’s worth going, but my guidebook a) failed to put the street on any of its maps, b) got the name of the street wrong, c) indicated the general location of the street and got that wrong, too. (See panel for the best directions you’ll get).

It’s hard to know if La Guarida’s experimental feast succeeded in making me a thinker or a writer. Going up in the lift at my hotel, we met an Englishman. When he heard that I worked for the Guardian, he wanted to shake my hand. I wanted to tell him my name, but for the moment, I couldn’t remember it. Never mind. Sometime the next day, my brother returned with my jacket and my passport and his own strange tale of adventure; and one of the Swedes I had lost, who works in the music industry, went back to La Guarida and gave the salsa band a recording contract. Go with the flow. That’s Cuba. That’s romance.

Some tips….

Drinking

There is Cuban beer (Cristal), which is nothing special; and Cuban rum, usually in cocktails – mojito (rum with sugar, limejuice and mint), Cuba Libre (with cola – very good for upset stomachs), Daquiri (with sugar, limejuice, maraschino liqueur, shaved ice). Which are the way to go.

In old Havana, head for two parallel streets, Obispo and O’Reilly, and, amongst a dozen good bars, look for Lluvia de Oro, Cafe Paris and O’Reilly’s. All have live bands – the one at Cafe Paris is currently the best.

One more street across, in Empedraco, is La Bodeguita del Medio, which is expensive but surprisingly unspoiled considering it is the place where Hemingway drank his daily dozen mojitos and is, therefore, on every single tour route.

There are more bars on Av de Belgica, on the western edge of old Havana – Monserrate, Castillo de Farnes, but they rarely have live music and attract sex tourists.

For quiet contemplation, go the Inglaterra Hotel in Parque Centrale and watch the chaos on the streets from the refuge of the terrace. If you sit at the southern end, you will get your drink much quicker. Live music – some prissy, some outstanding (such as the Maraguibon band).

In Trinidad, south east of Havana, Casa de la Musica, sells excellent mojitos and sometimes hosts equally good bands. Not to be confused with Casa de la Trova, around the corner, where the barman moves with such speed and grace as to be a star in himself, but his mojitos are bland and the place gets very crowded with tourists.

Dancing

You can dance salsa in the bars. There are also discos with mostly Western music. They tend to be a taxi ride away from the old Havana, and most of them are awash with young Cubans looking for excitement and also for dollars. None of them gets going until after ten at night.

The disco at the Commodoro Hotel is currently the biggest and busiest – a replica of a disco anywhere in Europe. Johnnie’s at Ave Primera and Calle Zero, also known as Bar Uno, is awash with Cuban women looking to seduce tourists; it also has the toilets from Hell. Cafe Cantante, beneath the Teatro Nacional on Plaza de la Revolucion, has gone downhill in the last couple of years. Casa de la Trova on San Lazaro, which used to be a safe bet for salsa, seems to be closed.

If you insist on seeing floor shows, designed entirely for tourists, they are in most of the posh hotels, particularly the Riviera and the Melia Cohiba. Outside the hotels, the most expensive is the Tropicana ($60!); the cheapest is the Cabaret Nacional next to the Inglaterra Hotel.

Eating

Cuba is not famous for good food. The best fun is to explore the paladares, private houses licensed to sell meals. For a dollar, any hustler on the street will take you to one. You don’t have to stay – some are great, some are best forgotten.

The greatest and most magical is La Guarida (see story), so magical that it is tempting to protect it by withholding its address…. It is at Calle Concordia 418. You can phone for a reservation on 637351.

One of the worst is at Compostela 157 in old Havana – less atmosphere than the moon and very plain food. Slightly worse is Ferros Forno on Neptuno, just behind the Inglaterra. You’ll see the prostitutes at the door – ideal if you’d like to contract gastro-enteritis and a Sexually Transmitted Disease in one single visit.

One of the best is Aries near the university at Ave 27 de Noviembre 27, no 456. Los Amigos, Ave M and Calle 19, is quick, clean, reliable. Escorpion, down the road at Ave M and Calle 17, is also quick and clean and worth visiting if only for the soap opera sounds of the Cuban family just upstairs.

Sleeping

The cheapest and most interesting option is to use a casa particular, a private house licensed to rent out rooms. Look for signs and for a blue triangle on the door, or follow the hustlers. There are masses. Expect to pay no more than $25 a night. Check that the hot and cold water are working. If you use an unlicensed place and anything is stolen, you may have trouble getting a police report for your insurance claim.

There are comfortable hotels in old Havana, but a lot of rooms suffer from 24-hour street noise. The Inglaterra is the most characterful, but it is badly run and suffers from lots of internal noise along its marble corridors as well as the street sounds. The Plaza has quiet rooms on an inner courtyard, but the rest are noisy; nice breakfast on the roof. The Parque Centrale Golden Tulip is obnoxiously posh. The Sevilla has the best swimming pool (if you look like you own it, you can walk in and use it even if you are not staying there). The Cientifica is cheap and characterful but pretty dowdy.

In other parts of Havana, there are more modern hotels which make up in peace what they lack in character. The Habana Libre, for example, is a good retreat if you are ill or too hungover to handle anything else.

Special places to go

Museo de la Revolucion, a couple of blocks north from Parque Centrale. Collection of artefacts and records of more than a century of Cuban nationalist struggle. Some of it rather odd (Fidel’s old laundry bag, for example). Some of it genuinely moving (the suffering of union leaders, the notice for almost every one of whom ends with the word ‘assassinado’; the sheer bravery of the fighters led by Che Guevara and Camil Cienfuegos.)

Museo Jose Marti. Inside the Marti monument on Plaza de la Revolucion. The dedicated life and early death of the father of Cuban nationalism. Almost entirely in Spanish, very clearly laid out.

Callejon de Hamel. The elaborately painted alleyway home of the renowned Cuban artist, Salvador Gonzales, where he still works and sells his paintings. Excellent place for genuine Cuban music, currently on Sundays. From Calzada de Infanta, walk down San Lazaro towards the sea; turn right on Arambura; Hamel is the explosion of colour on your right.

The open market on Marencon on the way to Miramar (ask a taxi driver) – paintings, hand- made jewellery, wooden carvings – worth visiting in a city where souvenirs are hard to buy.

Trips within reasonable distance of Havana. Idyllic beach and cheap hotel at Maria La Gorda on the western tip of the island. The Bay of Pigs, south east of Havana, where you can get a casa particular on the beach at Playa Larga, within three paces of the sea (Try Fidel Fuentes, tel 059 7233, or just ask any local). Trinidad, old colonial town with cobbled streets and lovely houses and a tendency to be overwhelmed by tourists – some stunning casa particulars in the old houses around Plaza Mayor.