I stayed at the Coral Coast Hotel (which refreshingly doesnt have a website yet, but you can google it!) in Dahab, and flew with Easy Jet.
I had often thought of visiting Havana and it had come a close second in an erstwhile destination deliberation process with a good friend a few years ago (having been pipped at the post by India). When an email dropped into my inbox informing me of a ten day writing course with Steven Berkoff that happened to slot nicely into a period of leave I stopped being indecisive about where to go for my next adventure and booked flights.
Not always gregarious and normally one to shun those dreaded group activities, being herded around and going about my day in close confines with people who are not of my choosing, this wasnt the kind of thing I would normally go for (at least not while on holiday). Furthermore I had never previously felt the need to be assisted by a writing course but was curious to meet the maestro in such a ravishing setting. So I signed up for the curriculum at the iconic Habana Libre hotel (single occupancy fully paid up of course) and arranged my solitary countryside adventure to Valle de Vinales around it.
On the night I was to ‘join’ el groupo I waited around in the gleaming and capacious marbled lobby, half heartedly jollied along by a pina colada. The air conditioned space was fine, I love the seductive anonymity of hotel lobbies but I wasnt really looking forward to meeting ‘them’, the others, at all. I was actually to make a few good new friends out of it all as is often the case but at that moment I was waiting reluctantly to be associated with the rest of the herd.
I hung around in the designated area of the lobby pointed out to me by the receptionist, until what appeared initially to be a wishy washy group of mainly women began assembling in the lobby and I was offered a wishy washy undrinkable mojito in a plastic cup. I hovered around behind the unpunctual crew, eager just to obtain some basic details without having to linger too much and then to go off for dinner. The ensemble were somewhat delayed as they had had to wait in the airport for someone who didnt turn up. This whole group dynamic of waiting around for people is particularly tedious, especially if they dont turn up. Maybe this particular anonymous would be writer didnt even want to enter the country when in full possession of the news I was about to receive.
I already had a particular first night close by restaurant earmarked for dinner (Trattoria Maraka’s on Calle 0 between Calles 23 and 25, just around the block) having no interest or patience for bonding and dining and the ‘oh where shall we goes?’ just yet. A reluctant loiterer in the background, ready to slope off any moment, I was asked if I was who I was and handed a schedule for salsa dancing which I didnt question as my patience had reached its limits, there are only so many irrelevant questions addressed to the whole group one can endure. Its extremely tedious when some people think it’s necessary for a whole group of strangers to listen to the ponderous answers of a non native to “Is it safe?, ‘can you drink the water?’ and ‘how can my husband contact me?.
Waiting for the lift, a small mousey man asked me ‘are you one of mine?’, this instantly rankled but not wanting to get off on a bad foot I stopped myself from demanding ‘one of your what?’ and replied in an sniffy manner that I was here for the writing course and that I had been given a schedule for salsa dancing. The small Antipodean’s rather disconcerting reply was ‘Its probably about the same but we dont know what time George wants to start’ to which I replied ‘who’s George?’
‘I thought the tutor was Steven Berkoff’’
‘ Ah.. you didnt you get the email… he was unable to come’
‘No I was in Vinales for a few days and havent checked my email…’
Three days before the start date of the course wouldnt really have been a great time to reschedule in any case. This really wasnt what I had wanted to hear.
George, George, George. George started the first session in his suite, he kept referring to his room with an adjoining room as his suite as if he hadnt been out much before. Im pretty sure he hadnt been out much before. He was wearing some sort of a kimono and kept telling us all about his recent milestone birthday and his engagement. He started his first tutorial (numbers already depleted by several members who had defected join a concurrent salsa course) by asking us to add another descriptive word to out given names. He kicked the whole thing off with Gorgeous George. This kind of thing is what makes group ‘activities’ detestable. So we had Sassy Sue and Mellifluous Mel and Kindly Kate and Amazing Ailon and all sorts of silly rubbish which would have been unbefitting of the august Mr Berkoff. We were prompted to write and perform a bit and some of it was great fun. The emphasis was on the acting out of what we had written, George being a stage actor and a thespian. I’d never heard of George. More people were to defect to salsa.
George had an obsession with Edgar Allan Poe and in particular with his narrative poem the Raven. During one hilarious reading of which a cleaner burst into to room with a hoover just as him was shrieking, ravenesesque ‘Nevermore’!
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,’
George often had visitors at his chamber door and held court out of hours. He was insecure and in need of reassurance often repeating tiresome personal details that were of no interest and made one long to be out of his suite and by the pool. He built up a small fan base of which he slept with at least one, upsetting others in this pack of women (more men it seemed prefered to salsa). He had exclusive dinners to which not all of the group were invited. It was obviously an all expenses paid trip but it transpired he was losing out because he was an out of work actor on the dole and couldnt claim benefits for a week.
Havana was wonderful in spite of the absence of the big draw, our original intended mentor. The disgruntled ones along with all the others were offered a free weekend of coaching with Steven Berkoff (who had had contractual obligations) on The Isle of White and the best fun ones went along and it served as a marvellous reunion. Hours were spent in elegant high ceilinged rooms and ye olde pubs with the mesmerising and formidable thespian and captivating raconteur.
A lot of people bypass the hustle and bustle and exhaust fumes of Havana and head straight for the beach resorts. One afternoon, those of us not staying on for a beach holiday at the end headed out to one to see what all the fuss was about, this was the Caribbean after all. A thirty minute taxi ride took us to the one of the Playas del Este and the beautiful golden sands and azure waters of Megano. It was stunning, uncrowded and unspoiled but with bamboo sun shades and little beach huts selling delicious cocktails and snacks.
In stark contrast to Cuba’s beautiful neoclassical and Spanish colonial Havana facades the Eastern bloc blocks in Laz Terrazas stand like giant lego pieces on the green hillsides. Las Terrazas, an eco village built in the 60s is fifty miles out of Havana. This bucolic idyll is well worth a visit for the tranquility of the beautiful river and its setting in the heart of a 25,000 hectare UNESCO biosphere reserve in the Sierra del Rosario, (incongruous Soviet era prefabricated concrete buildings aside).
If you go there on the wonderful and very economical government tour (bookable at hotels and Cubanacan offices) a lunch and music will be provided at a beautiful spot by the river. Those in the know (our little bus picked up Cuban people at various places in Havana) had brought along their costumes and swam here for a while until the heavens opened. I found a thatched roofed picnic table with wooden benches in a tranquil spot along the river and laid down and watched the rain.
If you are in a group and can hire a vehicle then you can plan your own schedule, dont miss the beautiful spots by the river but then later on (and we didnt have time) you can eat at Las Terrazas’ vegetarian restaurant El Romero (Terraza 170, Edificio 5). The menu looked amazing.
When Vladimir Putin visited Cuba in 2000 he and Fidel Castro bemoaned the increasing United States world domination. Castro told him ‘Who knows better than the country situated only 90 miles from the biggest superpower of the world?’ Vladimir Putin, without mentioning the United States, agreed that such ‘unipolarity’ allows one country to ‘monopolize international relationships and to dominate them.” He said the last time this occurred, ‘we all know how it ended,’ apparently a reference to Nazi Germany and World War II.
After my solitary and wonderful sojourn in Vinales I joined a group in Havana. The group did have a purpose but more about that later. Having joined the group I felt obliged to do a few communal things with the people in it and some of them, both the people and the things were very nice! However, the problem with doing anything with the group (at least initially before we stopped doing things that were laid on), was that it inevitably involved being crammed into and carted around in the worst kind of rickety charabanc imaginable. On top of this we always stood for an age outside our wonderful hotel waiting for the jalopy to turn up.
On one occasion, once signed up to go to the canon firing ceremony at the Parque Historico Militar Morro-Cabana we nearly missed the canon firing. Rita, our local guide, arranged by the holiday company Skyros, had been stuck in traffic across town and we waited and waited and when we got there there was just time to get in place for the historical costumed ceremonial firing after which we didnt get to visit the museum because it immediately closed, they charged 25CUC (about £15 or $25) for the debacle.
My advice would be to take a four peso taxi from Vedado or Habana Vieja or make an afternoon of it and take a long walk along the famous Malecon. You may have to cross the road sometimes to avoid the waves that crash onto the pavement but you can see the stunning but crumbling architecture along this iconic sea road and recall scenes from the film Our Man in Havana. Fidel allowed the 1959 to be filmed in Cuba but complained that the brutality of Batista’s regime was not accurately depicted. Greene commented ‘Alas, the book did me little good with the new rulers in Havana. In poking fun at the British Secret Service, I had minimized the terror of Batista’s rule. I had not wanted too black a background for a light-hearted comedy, but those who suffered during the years of dictatorship could hardly be expected to appreciate that my real subject was the absurdity of the British agent and not the justice of a revolution.’
His hilarious book does touch on in parts the brutality of Batista’s regime more that the film (a cigarette case made of human skin, class distinctions in torture :- ‘there are those who expect to be toruted and those who dont, one never tortures without mutual agreement’. For the brutatity of Castro’s regime read Reinaldo Arenas’ ‘Before Night Falls’.
We bought tickets to the ballet at Gran Teatro de la Habana, and worrying whether the the ancient van would get us there on time was not the only bad start. Half of the people went in and to the other half of which I was one, Rita said ‘we have a problem’. The problem was that they didnt have our tickets at the desk, someone suggested we simply go the following night. This possible solution was not addressed. After we were lead into a rubbish strewn side street were we caught the attention of one of the (few) town crazies it became apparent that the plan was to have one of the make up artists meet us at the stage door and usher us through narrow corridors full of tutu and tight-clad performers while Rita hissed ‘quickly!, quickly!’. I dont think it would be terribly cynical of me to assume that half of the (30 CUC or $30)tickets were not bought.
The ballet was exquisite and I recognised some of the elegant and beautiful dancers I had seen walking around the old town (and in the audience the girl I wrote about in ‘Treat Me Like a Princess).
Alicia Alonso Cuba’s Prima ballerina assoluta said “The Cuban style comes from deep within the Cuban spirit, from our joys and from our sadness,’‘ Alonso says. “Some people are turned inward. The Cubans are always out, sensual. The Cuban ballet style comes from me, from my way of projecting my whole being. ‘What looks natural on the Soviets,’ she says, ‘would have looked mimetic, like a mannerism on us. We had a hard time explaining that to our Soviet friends.’ Many Cuban danseurs and danseuses, just like their Russian counterparts have defected whilst on tour.
The big white hunter and Nobel prize winner Ernest Hemingway is up there along with Fidel and Ernesto on Havana’s A list of tourist attractions. Hordes of visitors flock to his house in the suburbs more than fifty years after his death by his own hand in 1961. In fine weather they can see his typewriter where he always stood to write, his drinks cabinet, his bed and his trophies. Bequeathed by him to be used as an a educational centre it was reopened as a museum in 2007 when it became apparent that nothing would be preserved unless it was protected. On fine days visitors can peer in through windows that are closed during inclement weather. It’s sprawling but not flamboyant and a sanctuary for the descendants of his many beloved cats and dogs for which there is a touching cemetery.
Back in town, above the door of the Bodeguita del Medio, hangs a stained sign which reads ‘My mojito in La Bodeguita. My daiquiri in El Floridita. Ernest Hemingway’ and the tourists congregate to drink the overpriced drinks. The food is standard fare but the vegetarians among us had fried bananas along with the black beans and rice and the walls are lined with interesting photographs and the atmosphere is lively.
‘Let’s get two side salads between three of us and share’.. those dreaded words. I have a little joke, a quip, not funny at all really but a little tool to deflect debate and conversations about extremism over pleasant holiday dinners with carnivores. Here it goes again, I always say to people that’s ‘okay as long as you dont use your meaty forks. If we do that lets get some more forks.’ Of course I’d just much rather get my own side salad and not share it and that’s usually what happens after I mention the meaty forks. I dont eat meat and I dont want to eat tiny pieces of meat left over from people scoffing parts of dead cow or dead fish. And in Cuba, dont even think about what’s going on in the kitchen.
The group I joined in Havana noted an absence of hangovers in spite of all the late night partying and we put it down to the organic rum.
‘It sounds absurd, of course. But the headwaiter at the Hotel Nacional said you gave his dog poisoned whisky. Why should you give a dog whisky at all? I don’t understand. Nor does he. He thinks perhaps because it was a German dog. You don’t say anything, Mr Wormold.’ From Graham Greene’s ‘Our Man in Havana’