In July 1991 I arrived at Gdynia, the Polish seaport where the cracks in communism had not long since opened up into crevasses and swallowed a 70 year old ideology. I arrived on a boat from Tilbury because I had thought it would be a really cool way to arrive in Poland. We had sailed up the River Tees for some reason on our journey and I’d witnessed the last gasps of the heavy industry that had informed Ridley Scott’s landscape in Blade Runner. Then we’d sailed over Denmark and into the Baltic finally stopping at the green and rusty docks at Gdynia where I was immediately ripped off by a cab driver who charged me five bucks to go about half a mile. The first thing that hit me was the smell of communism. I’d smelt it five years before in Budapest on a college exchange. Cooking gas and garbage. A few weeks ago I arrived in Cuba, and there that smell was again.
I spent two nights in Varadero, the place that everybody will tell you is a tourist hell hole with those all inclusive hotel complexes, but they are in fact the saving grace of a resort with 25km of pretty pristine beaches. The holiday hunters are shovelled into buses and disappear. The nutters like me get ripped off by taxi drivers and end up in casa particulars which are private homes that rent out rooms to independent travelling types. It was a 5 minute walk to the beach and the beach was all I really needed.
The first night, I sat in a gloomy open sided cafe next to a nosy bar that was incredibly low on customers. I ate a terrible pizza and drank a couple of beers while I drew a tree on the other side of the road and watched beautiful old american cars in candy colours process along the road, for the most part bereft of passengers. The next day I walked up to the bus station only to find out that there were no places on any of the Viazul buses to Havana and was accosted by a smily young man who offered me a deal to Havana for the same prices as the bus. So it was the morning after that I piled into a newish air conditioned car with two Guatemalan Americans and was chauffeured along an almost empty motorway overtaking and being overtaken by cars the size of motor homes.
Havana is beautiful. It has an unexpected Chinatown, surprising churches and a huge number of incredible cars that ferry packs of wealthy tourists around. Havana also has a bonkers spaceage (as in what people used to think it would be like in space, in the 1950s and 60s) icecream parlour that people queue for hours to get in. It’s called Coppelia after the ballet. Cubans are very cultured. I couldn’t be arsed to queue for an icecream, so I used my CUCs and bought a capitalist cone of something with a pleasant but unplaceable flavour along with a pack of cohiba fags which are the best fags I have ever smoked and continued on my way.
Havana has hills and parks and massive trees cracking up the pavement, it has a museum of ballet that set the template for all cultural visits, as in some older lady or gentleman would give me the lowdown on what ever it was I was looking at, in mellifluous caribbean spanish, I would nod and smile and they would tell me more detail and I would say thank you very much at the end; not much the wiser as I don’t speak spanish. But it was always nice to hear them. Visiting museums is easy and cheap, unless you want to take photographs. A ticket to the building might be 2 CUC, but the photo permit is 5. A CUC is a US dollar. In a country where the average earnings are 20 USD per month, this is a lot of money. From a bank account as poorly equipped as mine, this was also an issue. So I did a lot of drawing and writing.
From Havana I went to Cienfuegos, which is worth quite a bit of anybody’s time. I took a boat that appeared to have a party going on on it, out to the old fort and met an amiable horse and took some handheld pinhole shots.
I glanced through the appalling history of colonial abuse and gave some time to thinking about Fidel’s equally appalling short comings, but in the end, what with one thing and another, he was better than Margret Thatcher in my book. It helped that family who were hosting me were watching a movie called Bright Star, which is about John Keats, and my landlady expressed her approval with a big smile and a thumbs up.
People were nice to me everywhere I went in Cuba. I really needed that. My mother had recently died after a long and at times awful decline. I’d spent the previous 6 years shuttling between London where I did various jobs for incompetent employers so as I could work part time and visit her in the dead zone of the week when everybody else was chained to desks and call centres. It had been nice, until she went into a home, then it became depressing and sad. But having her finally gone just made me want her back in her chair in that horrible room in that functional place. Cuba took me away from all of that because it was like any place unbothered by rampant capitalism, just because you have a lot of money, it doesn’t always mean you are going to get your way. It’s a bit of a leveller.
Back on dry land in Cienfuegos I ate some more one dollar pizza and met a gallarious local who’d lived in, of all places, Leicester. We swapped a few stories and I drank a couple more rum and lime things until I felt I was in danger of falling off my stool and wobbled back through the poorly lit streets in time to be in bed by 10 pm.
The next day I looked around a little more before I took the bus to Trinidad, which confusingly is still in Cuba. It looks like Tiradentes which is in Brazil but it acts like some kind super roost from where tourists stumble from early morning until late night, circling around the things to see, taking pictures, eating pizza, paying through the nose for absolutely everything.
I got fed up with it pretty quick and sought out another taxi collectivo to take me back to Varadero and spent the next 4 hours chatting to Ana who is probably the smartest brazillian in the world. I spent 4 unexpected nights back at the beach eating grilled pork and rice and beans and drinking beer and mojitos in pretty much equal measure.
But everywhere I went was gas and garbage and music and it was the best therapy for a broken heart.