Easing one eye open, a crack in the curtains gave me the good news that the rain had stopped and the sun was shining! My fears were over. Ernie was right! Shower, dress and down to breakfast. Excellent serve-yourself-buffet but somewhat surly waiters who rather slowly and begrudgingly ambled over to clear the plates or sloppily and reluctantly pour you a cup of coffee with the general attitude of wanting to be somewhere else. Still, as expected, seeing as its production is one of Cuba’s main industries, it was good coffee. Time to meet Sonia, the agency’s rep. in the hotel lobby.
Lovely woman. Chicly and expensively dressed she looked as though she owned the place.
I’d booked a sight-seeing trip of old Havana so got my ticket (15 CUC) and at 9.30am bang on time a friendly and efficient looking and sounding tour guide came up to me, introduced himself as Josh and said the coach was waiting outside. Josh turned out to be the most professional and knowledgeable guide you’d ever hope to meet. There was NOTHING he didn’t know about Cuba or the city. A continuous commentary, hardly stopping to take breath throughout the 4 hour tour. An unbelievable mine of very interesting and well delivered information that kept you riveted to what he was saying the whole time. Posh, air conditioned, tinted-windowed, 14 seater bus. Various stops to get out for 20 minute mini-tours and visits to historical places.
Josh gave us so many facts on the country’s chequered and troubled history, with all its different, invasions, occupations and revolutions plus thorough details on everything to do with the many abandoned or run-down buildings, rum, coffee and cigar production and everything else you could possibly want to know. I’m not going into it all now – mainly because after a heavy lunch, a couple of Daiquirie Frappes and the happy rhythmic sound of the band, I’m finding it hard to recall most of it. (only a temporary situation I’m sure).
After lunch, in the pleasant afternoon sunshine, I ventured again down the thronging OBISPO street; hundreds of tourists, as well as seemingly almost as many shop keepers, bar and restaurant touts all vying for your attention – and money; also, sadly, quite a few genuine beggars, unlike some of those you get in UK cities who stop texting or playing games on their mobiles and grab a taxi when they’ve had enough of sitting on the pavement, these poor individuals in downtown Havana tug at your heartstrings, and your arms, and whilst you feel you want to scatter coins like a Monarch venturing out amongst his subjects into the real world on a national holiday, you can’t give dosh to them all. A legless man and a wizened old woman about 3 foot tall benefited from my largess but in the end I had to pretend I hadn’t seen the others and walked straight past them or when pressed, made tapping gestures on my pockets and displayed my open hands in mock despair, along with an appropriate, down-turned mouth in a “sorry-I-have-no-change-much- as-I-would-like-to-give-you-some” expression. But other than that there’s a happy vibe pulsing through the street and with the music coming from so many watering holes, the atmosphere is, well, just happy.
Intending to do as much as I could to pack this blog with anything vaguely interesting , (well, admittedly to also enjoy myself as much as possible), for my evening’s entertainment I’d bought a ticket to go to a large restaurant where some of the remaining, now very elderly members of the famous Buena Vista Social Club band join a similar group in a music and dance show.
Getting there I made the fundamental mistake of asking someone for directions. The guy was a restaurant tout so I suppose I thought that he’d have to stay there doing his job and simply say in Spanish or very possibly broken English’ something like – “yes mate you go straight down there, hang a left and it’s on your right – can’t miss it” But unfortunately that was not the case. He grabbed my arm and started marching me down the road, saying (of course!) “where you from?” smiling broadly, telling me his name, asking what mine was, saying “how long you here?” and “you my fren – you want cigar”? as he shoved one about 8 inches long into my shirt breast pocket. “****in ‘ell” I thought – “shall I be friendly, shall I tell him to er…’go away’, or just run?” I chose the former option, probably wisely, and once outside the place and in answer to his inevitable request “you give me present?” I smiled benignly, pressed a 2 CUC coin into his proffered hand, waved and went inside.
Packed out. Happy atmosphere. Very cool, slim, black guy with snake hips weaved and grooved with his pretty partner as the band and various singers played on. Good to watch some of the girls in the audience whom the cool guy selected to dance with really enjoy themselves, some of them taking to the Salsa with a natural born rhythm; But heigh-ho, to be honest, unless you were with a drink-fueled group it’s not really for the likes of me. I’m not one who relishes being dragged into almost compulsory collective hand-clapping, well, when I’m by myself anyway, and it’s basically the same music you can get for free almost anywhere else; also you can only have so many Mojitos before you fall over, and anyway I have to watch my sugar intake. (later in the trip I had them without sugar!). So after about 90 minutes I eased myself off the bar stool and slipped quietly out into the night.
“Hey Amigo, you want taxi?” “NO! for ****s sake!” “Hey mister you give me money?” Oh Gawd here we go again – “no, sorry, no change – I just gave it all to the woman with the supposedly starving baby”; You feel like putting up a sign saying: “Look, once and for all, much as I would love to help, I don’t want a taxi and I’m not a walking charity OK!??” But once again, you can’t blame them; they’ve been such a persecuted, bullied and used nation for so long that no one, it seems, has any real money. But since the Revolution, it is, thankfully, gradually recovering and the future is a lot brighter with a strong and determined Government who aren’t going to make the same trusting mistakes as their predecessors. So that’s all good.
Nearing the safe haven of my hotel some gent, partly hidden in the darkness under a tree, for some reason best known to himself says ‘Deutsch?’ ‘Nein’ I replied as I strode purposefully on; “fair enough” he must have thought.