Published: March 9th 2013February 14th 2013
I went to Museo de Bellas Artes, Cuba's premier art gallery. In terms of museum content, it could be my favourite art gallery I've ever been to. I loved 90% of the paintings and sculptures which were mostly from the art deco period. My favourite painter is an art-deco artist called Tamara De Lempika, and all of the pictures displayed contained elements of her work with a Latin twist. The paintings were a mix of Cubism, art-deco, neoclassical mixed in with African abstract forms. I had never known Cuba has such a large art culture and anyone thinking art and culture are suppressed in authoritarian states would be surprised to see such a collection. In Cuba, each town has a Casa de Cultura, art centre and most of the galleries are totally free. However, although there is a great variety, as long as art is "within the revolution", its promoted, anything against it, is restricted. I learnt about the works of Victor Manuel, Wilfredo Lam, surrealist Carlos Enrique, Marcelo Pogolotti and Portocarrero. I never knew how much I'd like Cuban art but then again theirs not much of this culture that I don't like so far!
I bumped into Yosmel in town who wanted to say thanks for dinner the other night. He bought some beers in a local tienda, (shop - but literally hole in the wall) and we headed to the Malecon. We sat in the sun, drinking beers in the late afternoon and he got me speaking Spanish again. We drank, chatted and watched the waves belting the sea wall for hours, it was better than any Spanish lesson I could have had. He walked me back to my casa then I had arranged to meet a whole group of people from couchsurfing who were meeting at the cinema. The main Cuban on the couchsurfing scene is Jesus, pronounced hey-sus of course! Outside Cine Chaplin a group of arty looking students gathered. I remembered Jesus was a film maker and realised that this was an art-house cinema, however, I later learnt that most of the cinemas are closer to art-house cinemas than big Hollywood Cineplex's. Havana has over 200 cinemas and especially after the revolution, cinema followed European cinema styles rather than American influences.
We watched a film called Amor, which I missed in the UK. It's a French film and had Spanish subtitles, I understood most of it and it was good practice for my reading. The cinema itself was beautiful, anywhere you go here, is like being transported in a time machine. I enjoyed the film but two of the guys (one Slovakian and another from Belarus) didn't realise we were going to an art-house cinema and spent most of the time chatting loudly and then left, it was quite disrespectful considering Jesus, organised the night and got us in for free. After, we went to the Malecon (I'm sensing this is where I'll spend most of my time), bought beers and again chatted for hours with an array of characters; a Swiss couple who have been travelling for 14 months, a Chilean actor of holiday, the Eastern European lawyers and a gay couple from Nottingham. We chatted for hours again and watched the throng of Cubans drinking rum from the bottle, dancing and playing various instruments. For an 8km stretch of sea wall, it was actually hard to find space, even at 1am!
Although the Cuban government do a good job closing off the country to an influx of outside influences, even they could not stop the Gangam Style phenomenon. One of the highlights of the first few days was going to salsa clubs and out of nowhere, Pys is put on and the whole clubs starts dancing simultaneously to Gangam Style screaming in sync "Heyyyyyyy sexy ladies!!" And everyone knows the moves! Another odd thing that people seem to be obsessed with is the British flag. Apparently this fad has just happened over the past year. I later found out that the BBC did a news report asking normal Cubans why the British flag has become so popular. Some said the Olympics, others said because it's the same colours as the Cuban flag and some people didn't even know that it was even a flag!
The next day I tried to find some internet. All forms of communication with the outside world are expensive and restricted. The only place to get internet is in the fancy hotels and even then it's very slow. Even to top up a mobile you have to wait in a queue which sometimes takes up to half an hour! I also learnt that by Sunday, most of the hotels have run out of internet cards, which means trying to access the internet is near impossible. Again after going from one hotel to the next in an internet quest, I gave up. I decided to meet with Yosmel and check out a street called Callejon de Hemal. It's a little pedestrian street dedicated to Afro-Cuban culture and every Sunday, a live band plays. The concrete walls are covered in a mish-mash of tiles and crazy street murals, benches are made of bath tubs cut in two and surreal sculptures are dotted throughout the street. The atmosphere was raw and eclectic. However, I had already planned to go to the theatre so I ended up in rush and had to leave early.
Jopi, my dance teacher, was performing in a show in Cuba's premier theatre, Teatro America where little seems to have changed since the 1930s. Jopi invited me to watch his show so I met him at the side entrance and he took me through the backstage area and I got in for free. I felt very special. I had a great seat but wasn't expecting much from the show, other than to have experience of being in a Cuban theatre. Was I ever surprised. I spent the next two hours laughing my head off. The show was called El Colina and it was about a group of young friends living in a busy downtown area in Havana. The comedy show covered all aspects of Cuban culture and incorporated singing, dancing and acting. It was like the "RENT" of Cuba. The show cost only a few pence for Cubans (much more expensive for tourists) but later Jopi told me that even though its cheap, not many Cubans like going to the theatre because you can't get up and dance when you want to!
I left Yosmel before entering the show and told him we'd meet up in a few days. When the show finished however, I received two texts, one from Yosmel telling me that his friend had cancelled on him so he decided to see the show. The other text was from Jopi who said he was outside waiting for me. I dreaded entering the foyer and sure enough, Jopi was there to give me a big hug and a kiss, while Yosmel looked on in annoyance. By this point Yosmel was beginning to irritate me. I had not led him on whatsoever and he hadn't come on to me but he still seemed to claim me. Although Yosmel is very good looking in cool Jimi Hendrix way and a great dancer, he is definitely not my personality type. He is moody and mysterious and I can tell he is always analysing and thinking. At times he comes across as patronising and a little condescending even. He has a very deep, intriguing character, I know he is a very good man, and would make an extremely loyal friend or boyfriend and I find him very interesting, but his type of personality, I've learnt, is not for me. Jopi on the other hand is good humoured, a lot of fun, very loving and open.
After I awkwardly introduced the two, I made it perfectly clear that I wanted to spend time with Jopi. Out of politeness, I asked Yosmel if he wanted to join us expecting him to read the situation, but he gave me his typical shrug, and pulled an I-don't-care, might-as-well, nothing-else-better-to-do look. I was fuming! Now Yosmel was basically crashing my date! Although I think he wanted to make more of a point that I should be honest and say how I feel. He said that Europeans always say maybe when they really mean no and that they should just be honest. Which is true and I think he was trying to teach me a lesson which made me even more annoyed!
So there we were sat at the bar, me in the middle and Yosmel and Jopi either side. As Jopi and I were getting along like a house on fire, Yosmel sat there sipping his beer in silence and every time Jopi would try include him in the conversation (and he really was trying!) Yosmel would reply with one word answers. It was like pulling blood from a stone. A live band played salsa and Jopi and I took to the floor. Being the only couple dancing while a room of 60 people looked on while eating their dinner was quite daunting but after a couple drinks it felt like it was just Jopi and I on the dance floor. I went to the toilet and was surprised to hear an English voice complimenting me on my dress. We got chatting and we were both obviously a little tipsy. She works and Spitalfields and lives in Brixton so obviously we had a lot in common, I was so happy to meet another young English girl travelling alone, I told her I wanted to give her a hug I was so happy. She opened her arms up and we embraced like old friends and for the rest of the night we were bosom buddies! We all left together and Yosmel finally said goodbye. What an awkward situation. It wasn't like I was cheating on him but he made me feel that way. Jopi and I went back to the theatre where we tipped the night watchmen and carried on drinking. Definitely a night to remember.
On Monday I had to start my classes at the university. Stupidly, and not surprisingly, I had been out since 2am the night before and had to be up at 7am! Although the university is only about 10 minutes away, it's up a large hill and you must climb about a hundred steps to reach it the top. It was founded in the 1700s by monks and looks and feels incredibly grand. I think rivalling UCL in grandiose. After conquering the stairs, I felt so rough but as soon as I got into the classroom, I switched immediately into a familiar mode of being hungover at university and having to concentrate. It was quite a nostalgic feeling and I instantly felt better! I got chatting to a few other girls and was surprised that about 40 other foreigners had turned up to start the classes which begin every month.
After a level exam we were told that the results would be posted on a board tomorrow when the classes would commence. I was instantly relieved to know that classes would not be starting until the next day. I made friends with a girl called Katie, who was on her gap year. Although seemingly very rah, from Fulham, she was lovely and I think brave to be in Cuba on her own at 19. She is quite head strong and likes to do things on her own, her way, she reminded me of me when I was in Venezuela alone at 18. We walked into Havana Vieja and sat in Plaza Vieja chatting about everything. I felt like we were on a girly weekend away in Barcelona. We clicked instantly and I could tell she was relieved to meet a young English girl to hang out with.
I had an incredible urge for churros and hot chocolate and walked past the Museo de Chocolate where people were eating cups of thick hot chocolate with churros wrapped in paper. We realised people brought the churros off a street vender opposite the café and the staff didn't seem to mind this, so we followed. They were the best churros I've ever had! I took Katie in a shared taxi for her first time and could tell how excited she was to be sat in the back of an old car. I explained about the different taxi routes and advised her against slamming the doors. Although her dad is a cigar importer and she has visited Cuba on numerous family holidays, she has never had an experience like this before. I feel like I've taken her under my wing and passing on all the information I learned in my first week to her. I'm also giving her a lot of backpacking tips and recommendations on places to go when she travels in South America. After wandering the city I met with Jopi and we chatted and chatted and chatted away. We seem to have so much in common and have such similar personalities. We never stop smiling, laughing and joking when we are together. We sat on the malecon at sunset, grabbed some burgers and watched the world go by.
After a much needed rest and an early night, I started our lessons at the university. A board showed a list of names which were split into groups. I was placed in the intermediate group with 8 other girls, Russians, Norwegians and Hungarian and Danish girl. After an introduction from our teacher Virginia, who told us she is a typical Cubana; "me gusta ron, salsa, sexo y fiestas!" literally I like rum, salsa, sex and parties! She's a lively animated sassy, Black lady, and so far a very good teacher. We spent the whole lesson getting to know each other. We had to each sit on a chair in front of the rest of the class and answer general questions in Spanish. The lesson went by fast enough and then Katie, Anne and I ventured into town for some lunch. We had a great three course meal and started on the mojitos! I had the urge for a salsa lesson and since Yopi was away working in Veredero where his show was travelling to, I went back to the school on Obispo where I had my first lesson.
Although I don't like the main teacher who I feel wants the hour over as soon as possible, the class went well by the end. When the class was over it was already late afternoon and time for another mojito. We went to La Bodeguito del Medio. Another Ernest Hemingway was here bar which is said to be the birth place of the mojito. Tour buses from the resorts come in their droves at midday but at 5pm. We were able to grab a wooden stool at the bar. The place itself hardly has enough room to swing a cat, there was a 6 piece band playing and about 20 people crammed in. Luckily people respected the fact that a dance floor always needs to be allowed space for. I dance with an amazing salsa teacher and a handful of other people. I got chatting to the guy sat next to me who was a saxophone player from St. Kitts and plays in Ronnie Scots regularly. We had a lot to chat about in terms of music and I noticed he was smoking hand rolled cigars. I asked to try one and sat their, mojito in hand smoking a cigar in a sweaty, packed bar. In between dancing up a storm, it felt incredible.
Kevin, the sax player was obviously a cigar fiend so I introduced him to Katie and told him, Katie's dad imports cigars. He mentioned the cigar company he has a lot of friends at and mentioned that his friend Simon Chase is coming to Cuba for the cigar festival in a few weeks. Katie then divulged that she was Kate Chase, Simon's daughter! So names were flying back and forth and they turned out to know a lot of the same people in the cigar world. Although very impressive, she is keen to downplay the fact that she is his daughter as her dad seems to be some what of a celebrity in Havana. After 6 mojitos and a good several hours of dancing we headed to a nearby square to rest and have some dinner. We switched to beers and after dinner, a group of young Italian boys came over to chat us up. They bought us drinks and were very good looking, but after realising they couldn't speak English or Spanish, the conversation could literally go nowhere. My Italian is limited and learnt from Mafia films, no capish is about as far as it got so we made a quick exit and left with our beers in hand! Slightly rude but they were very arrogant! By this point we were fairly drunk from drinking since two in the afternoon. We made our way back in a taxi which seemed to be driving about 60mph down the side streets! It was actually quite scary and I think the young driver was trying to impress us.