by Rob Burns
Only 90 miles over the sea from the US but worlds away...
Zephyr; a hotel lobby like a Newtown Woolworth. Magnificently unimpressive.
An eclectic 50's leftover that says all that needs to be said about
the aspirations of pre-revolutionary Cuba. A George Raft of an hotel,
it's foundations buried deep in the pit of corrupt capitalism, it's
roof garden now casting both a literal and metaphoric shadow over
Restored in the early
90's to solicit US Dollars from any world traveller who may care to deal
in them. Seemingly nothing had changed in 40 years, other than a fax machine
in a distant corner which whirled and gurgled and alerted several costumed
women who ushered and directed with a rehearsed sense of purpose, then
wrote receipts or instructions of little importance on carbon paper pads
of little substance, perhaps to justify their employment, or maybe just
How many Cubans does it take
to send a fax, make a phone call, operate a lift, sell a souvenir, wait
at a table? Answer. All of them. The Art Deco reception must surely
have stumbled the first time around? The kitsch counter with its pretend
light fittings. The fake marble pillars next to palm trees in concrete
pots which grew out of the terrazzo floor. The high mirrored panels
behind the three receptionists serving only to reflect the dull, sand
coloured walls and the selection of framed paintings which someone,
somewhere must have though looked like art. Nothing suggested that the
word 'reality' could be found in a Cuban dictionary.
Inside Room 1503 the paradigm
continued. The recently vacuumed bed, the alarmingly damaged television
pumping out 'visiprop' promotions for an imagined good life which could
only exist in the confused brains of tourist office sooth-sayers. "...this
ideal family outing...this perfect evening for two...this glorious Caribbean
location where you can live out your fantasies beneath the stars..."
This hopelessly misguided American dream. And the guide book said. "As
the water supply may be interrupted it is advisable to fill the bath
with water when you can so as to have a constant supply".
Havana buckled and twisted
beneath storm winds. The influential 'Granma' in its editorial claimed
"it was the worst cyclone in 100 years. A years rainfall in 24 hours"
The sea filled the streets and the prestigious underpasses and turned
cellars into swimming pools. The sea battered the Melecona, lifting
chunks of sea wall and bits of promenade to deposited them deep into
the first floor rooms of nearby houses. To the east, waves smashed hundreds
of feet into the air as they met the lighthouse at Castillo Morro; and
stopped. Closer, a road tanker straddled the dual roadway at a curious,
debilitating angle and rested against what had been an ice cream parlour;
until yesterday. Above, clouds of black and grey gambled with the sky
for space and won.
Those who lived near the
waterfront bailed out their homes with makeshift buckets and shifted
concrete with bare hands. Detritus is mixed with personal belongings
and forms a sort of pulp which covers the side walks. But they had seen
it all before and survived.
In the long and narrow streets
of Old Havana, buildings reflect what was and shout what is. In dark
alleys, hybrid groups replace bits of Cadilacs for bits of Ladas in
an attempt to keep moving. By rights it should be an International Heritage
site but it isn't. What shops there are no longer trade as there is
nothing to trade in although curiously, people stand about in groups
in the hope that they might begin again. In the streets, children play
in bare feet and brightly coloured clothes and smile and wave at the
Vadado, with its fine architecture.
Dwellings for diplomats, their houses and planted gardens almost hidden
behind high metal fences. Giant Ceiba trees with their trailing branches
which turn magically to roots as they touch the ground. Banana and Orange
trees as commonplace as flat roofs and tarpaulin covered Roadsters.
Passing young women wearing embarrassed smiles, who walk hand in hand
beneath coconut trees, then ask from a safe distance, 'would the visitor
like to take their photograph?' Maramar, where a shanty town has sprung-up
between established homes and men sit in the shade and drink beer.
Cuba. An island floating
in a sea of prejudice and contradiction, both for and against. Of things
which might have been or once were and which may be again. Of perceptions
of the big bad birdie on the outside being fought off with rhetoric
from the ramparts whilst below the drawbridge is still down from when
the last load of day trippers left a few short years ago, taking their
ball and chain with them. Now the players no longer know the rules of
the game or how big the pitch is or when the final whistle will blow
or who is likely to blow it. In the meantime the home team get on with
the game without proper kit, without transport to and from the ground,
without substitutes, without the benefit of a half decent match diet
or even a game plan.
The last time they won was
in '59, so it's been a while. Now memory, and the continual re-printing
of pre-match ephemera, serves them well. And their goal scoring hero's
look very much like our own of '64, or like ours would have done if
we had drawn beards, moustache's, folds of black hair and berets onto
of their pale anglophile faces.
The away team have the advantage
in this banana shaped republic. They come and go and trade in the best
of taste. They live in cossetted hotels with air conditioning and are
delivered to the stadium in throbbing, throaty, smoked glass, logotyped,
toileted superbuses. For the away team, nothing is too much trouble.
Everything is available to replace lost kit, lost energy. Lost Empire.
So how does the home team
demonstrate this imbalance? With boos and hisses and protests against
having to play both halves uphill? No, they receive their visitors with
smiles and embraces, with openness and love of life. With poetry of
movement and a philosophic matter of factness which accepts that things
may well get worse as the match moves into extra time. And with a respect
for humanity which would, if the rules were fair, send many an away
team member heading for an early bath, along with their manager.
As for the politics of it
all. Well that's for the home team to sort out. But a review of the
rulebook by the International Ruling Body in New York is long overdue....
© ROB BURNS 2000 (writer,
runner and lecturer )
Cuba Travel - Offering Cuba group and individual tours - Hotels - Spanish
courses - Diving course - Dancing courses.
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