|1.||Havana, October 23rd 2005||See below|
|Havana, October 23rd 2005|
|Our dash across Cuba had been a fairly frantic one. For eight bus-ridden days we had been only a few hundred miles ahead of hurricane Wilma. On our travels we had braved potholes that resembled lunar craters, cars trapped in the 1950’s and a variety of police ‘checks.’ Despite this, we had somehow reached Havana; a day after Wilma had overtaken us and unleashed her fury upon Castro’s ramshackle capital. |
The inside of the bar did anything but reflect the weather outside. Situated in the sprawling remains of a Spanish-style mansion near the city centre, it was a hive of activity. I remember the strangeness of it all: half of Havana was lying in ruins and here we were, partying. Rainwater had been freshly swept from the floor of a massive adjoining atrium and salsa music was blaring out of an ancient P.A system.
It felt like people were dancing like it was the last night of their lives, as a sea of bodies congregated on this somewhat haphazard dance floor. My salsa skills were, well, rudimentary at best, so I was not long on the floor. Found myself gravitating back towards the bar, along with many of the other guys from our group.
The faded beauty of the building really struck me; the crumbling plaster and paintwork spoke of better days, yet the pulsating music suggested the time of its life. The huge vaulted ceiling was valiantly resisting the majority of the rain, and the smoking electrics somehow hadn’t started a fire. Coils of grey smoke would rise, accompanied by the occasional spark as the raindrops came into contact with the maze of wire that laced the walls. Somehow, through the heavy haze of several too many lit Montecristos I met up with my friend, Jack, and we grabbed a seat at the bar.
Immediately the young barman bounded over and addressed us in near faultless English,
“Hey you guys, what are you wanting?”
Scarcely a moment later, in a combination of spinning bottles and far too much rum, two Havana Club and Cokes were sitting in front of us on the bar.
“A taste of Cuba,” the barman proclaimed proudly. He began to ask about where we were from, what we were doing in Cuba, and what we thought of the people. This seemed all fairly standard (he didn’t seem to have a clue about where on earth ‘Scotland’ might be, but nodded along happily anyway.)
“So… you guys wanna come to a party? Bring some of the girls, yes?”
At this last suggestion I began to faintly suspect his motives for being so friendly.
“Erm… maybe another night mate?”
He seemed unfazed however and kept up the chat. So there we sat, taking somewhat tentative sips of our rather potent drinks, half listening to the barman’s rambling commentary. During this my eyes became drawn to the quantity of black smoke curling out from behind the large drinks fridge. When I pointed this out to the barman, he gave it an affectionate kick and smiled.
By this stage most of the bar’s customers had drifted back next door, unable to resist the enticing bass thud of the dancing next door. One man remained in the bar however. Having just dismissed the blonde he had been deep in conversation with, he carefully lit a cigar and took a deep draw. His age was indeterminable, with a weatherworn face and the odd speck of gray flecking his immaculate hair. His suit, and the fact he wasn’t dancing marked him out as a stranger to Havana. Despite this he lounged against the bar with an air of authority, totally at ease. Very James Bond.
I don’t really remember how we got talking, but talk we did. It transpired he was called Julien and that he spoke with a heavy, bored sounding French accent. When we asked why he was in Havana he merely replied, “I am working for the World Food Organisation and the UN.” Followed by, “We are ‘keeping an eye’ on our friend Mr. Castro, you know?”
With that cryptic response he declared that he had to go, with a handshake and a muttered “Another time, gentlemen,” he was gone.
As he strode out into the torrential rain Jack and I looked at each other disbelievingly, laughed and turned back to our drinks. The whole incident seemed just so surreal. Outside the rain increased in tempo once more. The drops were large and dense, giving the sense of a silvery gray curtain cascading over the windows. Despite the weather, the air was still heavy and the day’s clammy humidity lingered on. The calm after the storm.
Just as we were heading back towards the dance floor to meet up with the rest of our group, the lights finally gave out. A few of the girls screamed, and the darkness was complete. There was a sudden silence too; the music had died with the power.
Now the only sound reaching our now straining ears was the drumming of rain on the remaining glass of the skylight. Mere seconds had passed when the first torches emerged. One or two at first, tiny pricks of light penetrating the seemingly endless darkness. After some time everyone (except our group) seemed to be brandishing a torch of some variety. One such example even bore an uncanny resemblance to a car headlight… it seemed as if power cuts were a fact of life here, people just carried on with life.
When the lights creaked, crackled and hummed back to life it was almost a surprise. A few people cheered, and immediately the music was thumping out once more. Amidst all of this colour, vibrancy and frenetic energy I had to remind myself I was in a communist country. For all its flaws, this Caribbean brand of communism was far different to the archetypal image so stigmatised by the U.S. The people around me, while maybe not entirely happy, were friendly and determined to make the best of what they had. The sense of community that night was overpowering, and it is something I have never since experienced to that degree.
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