Cuba: Part Uno
If I’m being completely honest, I hadn’t been sure about this holiday. Cuba. Why Cuba? A country I only know from a handful of popular images, like that picture of Che Gevera which adorned my t-shirts in my own teen-revolution years, and a few glib cultural symbols: cigars, mojitos, rum, Ernest Hemingway, those 1950s American cars, those rank deep fried spring rolls you get in weird Middle Eastern restaurants that call themselves ‘Cuban cigars’. Cuba was a country built up from a few postcard images to me and, frankly, I thought that’s all there was too it.
But here we were, in the middle of the Old City, Vieja Habana,mouths agape, as building after building of beautiful, colourful crumbling architecture of a once-splendid city was slowly falling in front of our eyes, as people danced in the street on stilts, front doors were flung open to reveal women nursing pots of stew, grandmothers rocking on wooden chairs, children laughing and men doing something to do with repairing shoes that I didn’t quite understand. The streets were full of colour (and, incidentally, men making noises at passing women, like those you make to try to entice a cat to come near to you), and in the absence of much, I was surprised by the richness of it all; sure, the local bread shop sells such a limited selection it would make Greggs sudder, the pharmacy one type of medication, the supermarket one type of crisps (but naturally 14 different kinds of rum), but there was a hustle and bustle of daily life among the streets, which seemed to exist alongside the hoards of camera-happy tourists, neither for show nor self-effacing. The Cubans were just getting along with their lives and letting us come along for the ride. I didn’t even mind that the most colourful looking Cubans had figured out they could charge a Peso a photo – screw screwing the guidebook, maybe sometimes it’s good to fall into the tourist trap… If I was a Cuban pensioner with one long tooth (and only one long tooth), I’d hope I’d have the presence of mind to turn it from revolting dental defect to commercially viable enterprise.
Our experiences of Cuba thus far have been characterised largely by a mix of brief understanding and complete confusion. Being here is somewhat like ordering off a French menu: you think you know what you are getting, and then your dish arrives at your table and it’s a raw steak with an egg on top. (Bad experience with Steak Au Poivre, ‘nuff said). In the same vein, things aren’t what they seem in Cuba: in a country with no religion, no advertising, no permitted international travel, I imagined a world of complete subduement. Is that a word? I’m going to make that a word. I thought it would quell people in their vivacity, reduce their ambitions, and basically it would be like a BBC version of Nineteen Eighty Four, set in the Carribean. But no such thing. The people are full of life, and, what I have discovered, is that the absence of one thing always leads to the manifestion of it in another form. Take religion. With no state religion under the constraints of Communism, there seems to be a quasi-religious attitude towards figures of the Revolution. Everyone you look there are images of men that made this country what it is: portraits of Che, Fidel and Martini plaster the walls, statues of famous presidents and officials pepper the streets, placards denote where famous men worked, sites where inspiration took place. The people’s approach, neigh obsession, with the individuals who created this city is almost a religion in itself. The deification of the men is a replacement of a system of religious iconography: what is Christianity if not an obsession with the individual (think how we wear Jesus Christ around our necks, watch gaudy dancing stage versions of his life, walk the trail of his life in Jerusalem and create the mantra ‘What Would Jesus Do’). It’s the same logic that has preceded the creation of groups such as ‘Jews for Jesus’ – it’s about the ironic deification of an individual (because, of course, if Jesus is god, then such a creation is right and proper) as a cultural reference point. And so I can’t help but feel that there is a presence of a religious belief in something, if not religion itself. In a similar way, where I expected the lack of advertising to lead a different attitude to dress and appearance, perhaps even a less sexualised female dress (where the absence of Topshop’s Autumn 2012 campaign would mean that we don’t all have to wear short short shorts once-a-bloody-gain), it’s not the case. To put it frankly, the women look doubly as sexually inviting as anyone on the Kings Road past 11pm on a Wednesday night, and that we’re not expected to dress like slappers just because of adverts we see of Lily Cole in a skimpy number, but, perhaps, something much culturally deeper than we can fathom. Images of how women dress to be alluring the West have, somehow, permeated this city’s heart.
This understanding and confusion has stretched to other areas of Cuban life. The food, for one, has completely thrown us. It ranges from the bizarre menu additions, banana omelette, chicken sandwich with tomatoes and strawberry jam, to the downright gluttonous, 5-flavour ice cream sundaes with nuts, fruit syrup, Baileys, rum, meringue, cream and sponge. Again, just when you think you know something, Cuba manages to throw it laughingly in your face. Serves us right for our Western sensibilities, I say.
So that’s all for my Cuban Revelation thus far. I’m off now for a no doubt delicious dinner of chicken and rice, followed by a good dose of Che Gevera adoration and perhaps a toothless woman charging me for friendship. Vive La Bloody Revolution.