Edit Blog Post
Published: August 21st 2008
Ah, the Malecon, the broad boulevard that runs around the waterfront. Many cities have a Malecon but my favourite is in La Habana. A favourite evening stroll, the stream of bicycles, bici-taxis, ladybird 3 wheeler cabs, roaring dinosaural old Chevies, Fords, even Caddies, omnipresent little white Ladas with oversize blue domelights of the Policia, and amongst them all, occasional, sleek new Benzes and Audies of los ricos.
In the early mornings fishermen try their luck while joggers run away.
At the Eastern end of the Malecon huge freighters slide through the narrow channel into the port. Still guarded by the massive old fortress walls of El Castillo where the ceremonial firing of the canon resounds across the city every night at 9pm.
The big seawall has withstood the day-to-day Atlantic swells and occasional hurricanes for a few hundred years. On calm Sundays family groups perch on the rocks and swim in the little shelterbays. For the last few days, in the wake of Tropical Storm Fay, big storm waves have been slamming into the wall sending giant sprays over unsuspecting walkers and even out onto the road.
On my first visit here, the tail of Hurrican Ivan lashed the coast
and huge waves broke over the wall and across the 8 laned Malecon.
SO, THE END OF THE LINE……12 MONTHS BEFORE THE MAST…WHAT BILL DID NEXT
Back to El Pacifico.
In the end I didn’t get a pic of the fabulous bollards at Rarotonga Harbour but I’m thinking of them.
Along time ago, when the kids were much younger, I started a “word-a-day” thing with them. At night, after dinner, I would introduce a new word and we would talk around it and get it into their heads. A slow way to increase their vocabularies but I thought it worthwhile nonetheless.
The first (and in fact the only) word I remember was ‘bollard’. Do you remember?
For the first time we had been held up by the weather and had to hole up in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. We had been there nearly 2 weeks! Interesting in a way as I was able to get around and talk to lots of locals and get a much better feel for the place than if we had just stopped, provisioned and left as planned.
So, a few really pleasant days in Vava’u, a little island
in the north of the kingdom of Tonga. Another of the extremely tempting places to settle down for a while. I did get down to the capital and found another paradise, unfortunately but inevitably and sadly overrun by religious nutters and the sound of local converts (why do they all fall so hard?) blaring out of loudspeaker systems.
Nearly all of the locals I questioned on the subject had similar views to mine so maybe there is hope things will change. One taxi driver told me, with obvious disgust, that one third of all the money earned in Tonga goes to the churches! And they take it away. Not that there isn’t a desperate need for some christian charity and assistance right here!
Their other problem is that the king, who seems to be pretty out of touch with his subjects, takes a lot of what’s left. It’s probably around now that he’s planning his coronation and bankrupting the country to fly in ‘dignitaries’ from around the world for his big party! Is Kevin 07 on the guest list?
Then a couple of days in Fiji in a resort for the rich and then a flight to New York.
I just couldn’t stay away from the sea and went for a little sail around New York, saw the waterfall exhibit, pretty crazy, and got picked up by a couple from the advertising business who dragged me around the city to all their favourite bars until late.
My third time in NY and by far the best, meeting lots of people, getting around, walking for miles, taking the subway to extremes. And all the fun and fireworks of the 4th of July. I found a lot of similarities with Melbourne, same sort of feel. But there were lots and lots of homeless people on the streets, lots begging, lots just lying down. At least it was summer and much better for sleeping in the parks with the squirrels.
I walked the Brooklyn bridge and the Henry Moore exhibition in the botanical gardens and all over the City.
Then a couple of weeks in Kentucky. After all these years (27 1/2 years!) of hearing about the place I finally got there. And it was fantastic, I loved it, I don’t know why anyone would want to leave…except that it’s a long way from the sea!
It’s hot, it’s sweaty humid, it’s the wet season. The old fan pushes the moist air around the room, it is slow, a fly rides on one of the fan blades.
Back to Cuba on the eve of the 55th anniversary of the first attempt to start the revolution, the assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953. A long time ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Malecon was closed to traffic as thousands of people gathered there. I went to Natacha’s casa and it was no big deal. Most of the celebrating was in Santiago….I should have gone there perhaps.
It’s clear that things are slowly improving in many small ways since brother Raoul took over from Fidel. There’s much less police pressure on the street, much more food in quality and quantity, locals can get their own cell phones, go into hotels and restaurants where they were excluded before, the busses are new and clean and there’s just a better, more optimistic feel to the whole city. And most cubanos express optimism about his leadership contrary to the views and fears you hear elsewhere. However, to most of
the cubanos I’ve spoken with, it’s too little, too late, and most of the changes are only to benefit the rich cubanos….and there are more of them and more obvious!
And there is still the fabulously dangerous crumbling building syndrome, great beams propping up front walls, balconies and parapets teetering on the brink, even falling off, huge hulking tombs of deserted buildings, you know they must be in really bad shape if there is no-one squatting there!!
I look out from the roof top of the building, where we go most evenings, among a few blackened crumbling buildings, a fantastic array of roof gardens, chicken coops, pigeon lofts, a greenhouse even, the great dome of the capitol, a couple of glimpses of the sea, tangles of electrical cables, TV antennas, pipes and washing lines, a living city.
On the street. A few people just sit with their hand out and everywhere there are sharps out looking to hustle a buck but nowhere near the numbers in NYC an interesting contrast! And here, even the lowest on the pecking order get good medical attention.
The old ‘camels’ (buses) have been replaced with shiny new buses with the wrinkled black rubber
joints between the two halves, they smooth around the city, still holding 200 or so bodies but way better than the old models.
The shops still draw big crowds, long queues of people (culos = tails) wait for hours and for what? Is it just an old habit? A huge new store has just opened on Galiano, there are security people shooing us off the sidewalk, down a side street, more security and police manage a line of 300 people who will be allowed inside at 8am. By 10 the line will extend around 2 blocks, hundreds of people, waiting for the chance to see the new store. Or snaffle some suggested bargains. We can’t be bothered but the cubanos are great at queues, everyone has learnt to wait and they still have a fabulous system for controlling queues.
For example, yesterday we went uptown, another experience in hailing a car, piling into a 52 Chevy, converted to 3 rows of seats! grumbling up the hill to 10th October Street and the only cell phone repair shop in town, maybe the country. We need to unblock my cellphone so Natacha can use her chip in it. The old Chevy
lurches to a stop, we bail out and face a ragged crowd of 50 people outside the store. As we approach Natacha calls out “ultimo” until someone acknowledges they are the last in line…..and as the next person arrives, they ask and we indicate we’re last…so all you have to do is remember the person you have to follow and it works like magic. I remember this from catching the bus in Santiago so many years ago.
In fact I keep contrasting how life was back then compared to now, so much has improved in 6 years, but as I wrote back in January it is certainly not without problems. Long queues for medical services (and cell phone repairs, it’s going to take 3 weeks to get unblocked) many services are slow and inefficient, I just can’t see how they are going to fix up the city without moving all the people out while they tear down the dangerous old crumblers and build new apartment blocks.
I read in the paper they have a teacher shortage so I’m going to a bilingual school near here to check out if I fit.
And the vitality of the people goes on
endlessly. They can endure anything. And they have the rum, the cigars, the music, the culture, the energy, the imagination…the patience…and there’s a constant underlying artistic stream, often overlooked, that perseveres with an extraordinary degree of popular support, in art, literature, music, and dance especially, this rich cultural vein flows on. I’ve been to several galleries and museums to see old and contemporary artwork and music is everywhere.
Altho’, it is surprising, in a country with such rich music heritage and current talent I’m hearing just a bit too much fcuking Regaton…omg, mostly in the cars of the doof-doof boys with the gelled up hair and tons of mock gold chains, but way too much nonetheless.
I’ve found WiFi here, possibly the only place in Cuba. At the bigtime shmiko hotel Parque Central, for $35 for 5 hours and I get to sit in aircon with the giant plasma screen TV running the 24 hour Olympic channel.
Ah, the bloody Olympics, another 4 years have gone by. There’s pretty good coverage here as Cuba has a strong delegation and it’s interesting to watch the games from some other country’s perspective. Very little coverage of the pool but lots of
baseball, boxing, track and field, judo, gymnastics etc….like everything the cubanos are in…of course….I’m getting to understand baseball at last!! And occasional glimpses of the green and gold in the background!
Did you notice the Belarus outfits? Gotta be dressed by Bunnings. And all the chicas in the gymnastics with their hair pulled back so tightly they all have chinese eyes?
Altho’ it is interesting, even after 7 months between visits I can see a lot of small changes. For instance now I can take Natacha into hotels and restaurants where previously she couldn’t go. A small change but significant. But many of the people I talk to see the changes as only for the increasing numbers of cubanos with money…..and they are certainly more numerous and obvious. But there is a lot more quality and quantity of food available in the markets and street stalls, and the variety of things to eat seems greater. Natacha’s Mum is cooking fabulous meals all day…too much…but lots of fresh pork, chicken, cow meat, even horse meat, fish, lobsters we brought back from the coast, the local little market is full of fresh fruit and veges.
Unfortunately, and I have come
to see this as fairly universal, most people believe it will take way to long for any changes of significance so they are still queuing up to get out. One of Natacha;s uncles got to Florida earlier this year, $10,000 to get a boat to mexico and then onto the US, it’s quite an organised business. But where does one get $10,000 I ask? He has sent back a video of life in the cubano barrio of Miami where he is living with another uncle.
The house looks to me like a dump, but he has the giant plasma TV, stereo, gigantic fridge, big new shiny truck, I can only surmise it is all on credit! At home his young wife has just had her 2nd baby and lives on nothing, It doesn’t look like he’s sending anything back yet, except for a pair of adidas slippers for her and tennis shoes for their 6yo. I really wouldn’t be surprised if he just disappears, as many do!
I found it all pretty surreal, his video of driving down the street and going to the store. It’s a classic slum/barrio neighbourhood, the houses are all identical pre-fab sh*t boxes, the
cars are either brand new or absolute wrecks (probably only 6 months between the 2) the dingy little corner store with all the signs in espanol. I bet I couldn’t get by there speaking only English!
Then we had the barbecue-at-home video, he appears a little boracho and it’s only 10am (but I’m hardly in a position to talk!) but this seems to be the fate of many cubanos-in-exile, certainly I hear a lot about it from people here with relatives overseas and I suggest to them that these family members overseas might be realising what I have been trying to explain….sure you can make more money, have big new cars, Tvs, fridges, appliances etc etc but there is nothing else….and family is the backbone of cubano life, much the same way it was for us 20 - 30 years ago or more. And when they get there the sense of isolation and loss is intense. Not that they could ever say so of course, all the macho bullshit and so on, but I see it and hear about it often. But it still leaves this incredible dilemma…..to go away and have everything else or stay with the fantasticly rich
social and cultural life but with no money!!
It all seemed a bit sad to me but the family were all really impressed with the uncle’s video and couldn’t see anything but metaphoric blue skies. Altho’ when I was talking to a couple of the older people they recognised the sadness in it.
I have a friend I caught up with in San Juan y Martinez in the west,where I also picked up a few more puros clandestinos (cigars) he has quit teaching. I told him I had just read in the habana paper that there was a shortage of teachers in cuba, they are even offering retired teachers a salary on top of keeping their pensions if they come back to teaching! But then he explained, for 50 hours a week of hard work, and we all know what teaching takes!, he takes home $15 a MONTH!.
So now he sells T-shirts (here, for some bizarre and inexplicable reason they are called pullovers!….and trainers/track shoes are all called tennis) Anyway, Jimmy buys 3 or 4 Ts from a friend for $2 each and sells them on the street for $3 (altho’ I suspect that when
he can, he flogs them to the touristas for $10 and good luck to him if he can)
So, here we had the onetime impoverished but dedicated teacher with barely enough $ to pay rent on one bare room, just enough to eat and nothing more! Now it’s the affluent-looking young bloke around town, good new clothes, money to buy beer and cigarettes, probably a little scooter or car next year. This is the generation of young cubanos I see a lot of. Between 20 and 30 years old, intelligent, fit and healthy, capable of a lot and really keen to get going. Unfortunately these are not the ones with the $10, 000 so they are stuck. It is awful, and awfully difficult for me, with all I have, to tell them about the downside of life in Florida….or Madrid or anywhere else, they don’t want to know. I tell them it is no paradise, there are lots of problems in these places but…….
I got a rent-a-wreck, a little, tinny Hyundai or similar and we drove around for 10 days. In Canaguey, in the East, we caught up with Natacha’s family. Only about a thousand of them…every
minute another cousin or aunt or uncle and all the friends of the family are just as much a part. They mostly lived withing a few blocks of each other so we were constantly moving from little house to house, to eat or sleep but always to talk. I’m accepted unequivocally and always made to sit in the best balancia (rocking chair) and always, visitors are offered coffee or cold water or food! It’s hard to describe the chaotic, frenetic activity of these family gatherings, just exhausting.
When we first arrived at the house of an aunt about 10 of us were crammed into the little front room to watch a video of another young cousin who had just given birth that very morning. It turned out to be an extremely graphic and comprehensive cesarean section, from first epidural to last stitch!! A veritable training film for new doctors, hardly your average family viewing. Ayayay!
Arrgghh, it’s all starting to sound like a travelogue…maybe it’s been too long between blogs….I’m flying out next Saturday for Medellin, Colombia, for a little bit, we’ll see how long.
But driving around here, what an experience! Just one quick observation. Real, true
democracy, socialism, equality, whatever…. on the narrow 2-lane roads everything is held up by the slowest vehicle. It may be a bicycle, a horsedrawn cart, bici-taxi, whatever, but there can be a chain of buses, cars, trucks, cops even, all held up by the one in front, and extraordinary patience, as always! Equally also, some pretty hairy passing manoeuvres!
Actually, you can tell quite a lot about a book by it’s cover….(especially if it has “New York Times Bestseller” written on it!)
Only in Cuba……Radio Reloj (clock radio) a station that gives ongoing commentary, news, music with a constant clicking (seconds) and the precise announcement of each 5 minutes!! Who needs a watch? Who’s got a watch? Everyone, but the accuracy is another thing! Good on Radio Reloj.
Gorgeous old tiled facades and walkways, dangerously slippery when wet, with the old logos embedded in classic designs. Industrial-strength soviet era sculptures in the numerous parks. Beautiful carved marble seats and enormous old bronze statues.
Around the neighbourhood there’s a constant buzz of activity, I’m starting to get recognised: handshakes, high-fives, embraces, all the norms of daily meetings and greetings, and always, always, the biggest smiles. From such hardships and deprivations somehow comes the ongoing friendliness and hospitality and generosity that make Cuba so special.
Early light and the coolth of morning, lots of shopkeepers out washing down the footpath in front of their store, slippery and slidey as my flip-flop-crocs are treadless after too many kms.
Well, if you got this far, well done!….Looks like I’ll be back in Oz in December for a few months and I’ll be looking for somewhere to stay. So if you’ve got any ideas please let me know! Thanks.
La Habana, Cuba, 21 Aug 2008
Tot: 0.098s; Tpl: 0.024s; cc: 25; qc: 105; dbt: 0.0224s; 1; m:saturn w:www (126.96.36.199); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.7mb