Wednesday 18 January 2012

Hot salsa

There aren’t many dance floors in the world that Dan and I won’t be in the middle of.  But at Havana’s Casa de la Musica on a Friday night, we were wedged to our seats, chucking back mojitos in a frantic bid to find the courage to step onto it.

It was like no dance floor I’ve ever seen – at only 7pm the place was heaving with Habaneros, rhythm coursing through their bodies as they moved with unparalled style. The men, dressed down in t-shirts and jeans or up in fedoras and snakeskin shoes, spun, ducked and dipped as much as their partners.  The women, in short shorts or heels and dresses, followed effortlessly.  It wasn’t just that the dancers were awesome – but the fact that they were all dancing salsa, and we didn’t know a single step.

We went with a crew from our language school. Most of the students were also learning salsa, but I had foolishly decided Spanish lessons would be enough.  We watched as the dance instructors, who went along too, launched into one incredible line dance after another….

Dan, who is an awesome dancer, looked gutted. “We’ve missed a trick here,” he said. “We thought the key to Cuban culture was the language, and it’s not, it’s dance and music. That’s how they express themselves.”

He’s right. There is music everywhere.  As one guide book says “any Cuban who says they can’t dance, is lying – or they don’t have enough Cuban blood in them.” We’ve seen teenage boys carrying footballs launch into salsa steps as a band struck up on the terrace of a hotel. A frail old woman joined them. The ladies on the tills in the ill-stocked supermarket sit and sing loudly to the radio. I glimpse a dozen middle-aged women crammed into a tiny living room dancing around the TV. Bici-taxis and old American cars are proudly kitted out with stereos. At a local jazz bar the young band plays with the skills of musicians twice their age.

The patio at the local brewery one Sunday afternoon was typical – as soon as a salsa band struck up people leapt to their feet. Here’s our friend Javier after a few too many pints….

Every town has a “Casa de la Musica”, or “Casa de La Trova”, where black and white photos of Cuban greats who have played there line the wooden walls. In tiny Baracoa, the dancing spilled out onto the street. In Trinidad a wide set of stone steps descending to an outdoor dance floor were packed every night. Some of the best music we’ve heard was in Santiago de Cuba, where the sound is influenced by Caribbean and African beats. In a little town hall, we watched this band in action –

Check out the bass guitarist’s speaker…..

And I’ll never forget this man, who sung like a storyteller….

Cuban music is as infectious as his smile, and we couldn’t spend a month there without joining in. And so Dan I started salsa lessons in Havana (the dancing kind, not the cooking… my lovely Dad did ask…) Everyone at our school got their own dance teacher – Dan’s was a tiny little thing called Jasmine, and mine a cuddly young man called Lazaro, who sung his heart out to every song we danced to. We picked up the basic steps quickly – but the problem for us was that our instructors didn’t speak English, and our Spanish is so crap we never knew which move was coming next. Still, it was awesome fun – especially for me. I only had to follow Lazaro, whereas Dan had to learn how to lead, which takes much longer.

Our first outing with our newly acquired salsa steps was to Jardin de 1830, a garden outside an old colonial house beside the sea. The tiny outdoor dance floor was full of a bunch of elderly couples pulling incredible salsa moves. My favourite woman was about 80 - dressed in what looked like her nightie, she kept pushing her partner away so she could high kick her way back to him. It was a tad intimidating, especially when the young blood arrived, the speed of the music increased, and the dark corners we’d hoped to practise in didn’t exist.

We knocked back a few mojitos and with the encouragement of Eva, an Irish friend and salsa legend who gives the locals a run for their money, tried a few steps. It didn’t go that well. Dan asked why I could do certain moves with Lazaro, and not with him. “Because you’re not a professional dancer,” I snapped back. We’ve got a way to go – but we love it, and we both agree we want to be back in Cuba when we’re 60 joining the oldies on that dance floor, so we’ll keep practising. (Here's Dan strutting his stuff at New Year...) 

Havana from my balcony

Some cities seduce you from the outset. Havana wasn’t one of them. Which was unfortunate, because it was to be our home for two weeks, while we studied Spanish at a language school.  In our new neighbourhood, Habana Centro, there was no sign of the beautiful colonial mansions, lively salsa bands, and waiters serving mojitos in bars once frequented by Hemingway that is the stuff of tourist brochures.  Instead we found ourselves dodging dog shit in dimly lit streets where once grand homes were now badly decaying. 


But I began to see a different side. Centro pulsed with life 24 hours a day – locals clustered around domino tables on street corners as players slapped tiles down triumphantly, vendors loudly hawked their wares, neighbours yelled the latest gossip across balconies, people danced in their living rooms. This was the real, unsanitised Havana – noisy, chaotic, and constantly entertaining. There was no better place to watch it all unfold than with a Cuba Libre on the balcony of our casa particular.

I watched two girls in tiny denim shorts and tight singlet tops strut past on their way out salsa dancing. A weary vegetable seller pushed a low wooden cart, crying “Ajillos, naranjas, malanga”, as if he never wanted to see another orange in his life.  An elderly woman in a revealing white nightie, her hair in rollers, stood on the balcony next door and called her grandson - who was nowhere to be seen - for dinner. 

The noise was constant.  It seemed doorbells were only there for decoration – locals would just stand on the street and yell for people until they got a response. Usually the woman inside wouldn’t emerge, but a rope with a door key on the end, or a bucket of food attached would be lowered down from above. There was a real sense of community.

It gave a good insight into how hard daily life is for many Cubans. Below us, people queued for bread at the bakery, ration books in hand as if in wartime.  It’s been that way since the early ‘90’s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union meant Cuba lost its trading partners, and a “Special Period” of near starvation for many people began. Today, rice, sugar, oil, beans, bread and salt are still sold on government rations. The monthly allowance lasts most families 8-10 days.

Havana’s housing crisis was obvious. The apartment opposite had been split in four, vertically and horizontally. An old man appeared to be floating through the glass window at the top of the high front door – but was merely standing on the extra floor which had been added.  People came and went constantly - a young couple with a baby, a teenager on roller blades, an old man and a dog – often headed for the Malecon, the nearby seaside boulevard, to escape the cramped conditions.  

Their infrastructure may be in decay, but Cubans are house proud, and inside most homes were spotless. Every morning across Centro women brusquely brushed the marble floors of their crumbling homes with gallons of water that poured into the street. 

There were many kinds of transport, none of them modern. 3-wheeled bici-taxis cruised up and down the street, some fitted with stereos blaring Eurotrash techno. Opposite us, a grease-covered man, his stomach escaping from brown overalls, had given up on trying to repair his brown Ford set on blocks. And in a Flintstones-esque moment, half a dozen whooping kids peddled a small jeep made from the frame of a bici-taxi. 

The tourist brochure Havana did exist, in restored Habana Vieja, but it didn’t feel real. There, Caribbean women in bright headgear turned themselves into caricatures with enormous cigars drooping from their lips, charging for photos. Persistent touts tried to force you into their restaurant. Tour groups thronged the cobbled plazas, snapping photos like their lives depended on them. 

Centro came without the infrastructure or amenities, but it also came without the hassle – and in time we were treated like part of the neighbourhood, greeted by vegetable sellers reclining on our doorstep or bici-taxi drivers who knew we walked everywhere. 

We were staying in a casa particular run by Julio, a paediatrician, and his wife Elsa. It must be the only country in the world where a Professor of Paediatrics had to open his home to tourists to stay afloat. (As a doctor Julio earns roughly the same wage as anyone else in Cuba – about US$25 a month.) They have 2 casas, and we stayed at the home of Elsa’s parents: an oasis of high ceilings and garden patios, its walls covered in Cuban art. Gruff old granddad often joined us on the balcony, and we’d watch the world go by in comfortable silence.

Julio says he wouldn’t live anywhere else.  “It’s a poor area, it’s not very well conserved, it’s messy… but I like it,” he told me. “Some days I feel like I’m living in a reality show. Neighbours are always stopping to gossip. Just today someone told me how a husband of someone they know has run off with another woman. It’s full of life. You never get bored.”

Friday 13 January 2012

First stop - Vinales, Cuba

A shiny black 1953 Chevrolet is waiting for us outside Havana’s Jose Marti airport. It’s like stepping into one of the photographs of Cuba I’ve pored over for years. The only obvious addition in its 58-year-history is a Ferrari steering wheel, courtesy of its much younger driver Joaquin. Otherwise, the interior is a mere shell, the paint peeling from its doors, its wide leather seats well worn by time. Awesome. 

This is stop one on our 5-month journey home. (We have a month in Cuba, including 2 weeks learning Spanish in Havana, with a detour to the Cayman Islands for Christmas, then on to Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru.) Dan and I land in Havana after a bunch of horribly hard goodbyes in London, our raging hangovers only slightly dulled after the 10-hour flight.

We head straight to Vinales, a beautiful tobacco growing region 3 hours south of Havana, to chill out.  The Chev seemed like a great way to get there when I booked it. It wheezes to life and we rumble off enveloped in petrol fumes. When the first pot hole of many sends us flying into the air and back down into ancient springs whose suspension left them long ago, Dan’s soon asking why the hell we didn’t got with a more modern taxi.  All part of the experience, honey! 

We eventually rattle into town in darkness. There are no hostels in Cuba – your options are hotels or casa particulares - essentially a homestay with a family. We’re not sure what to expect from our casa, but we get an amazing welcome from the lovely Lumino – a tiny sprightly woman of about 70 who offers us dinner in enthusiastic Spanish - we can only grasp that she promises to make us fluent in two days. Our room is standard for Cuban casas:  basic, with a double bed, a single bed (good for fights) and an ensuite bathroom – though Dan soon electrocutes himself trying to change the temperature in the dodgy shower. Oh, and compulsory rooster outside the window.

Vinales is an instantly likeable country town: a dozen or so streets thronged with single-storey wooden Playschool houses, each one with two rocking chairs on the porch. Locals sit and sway as old American cars cruise past in various states of repair:  Plymouths, Buicks, Chevrolets, Cadillacs, all dating from before the 1959 Revolution. My favourites are the old Soviet motorbikes with side cars, called Urals, made more lethal with the engine of a small car.

It is postcard stuff - horses and carts are driven by weathered men with sombreros on their heads and cigars in their mouths, heading for the tobacco fields nearby. People use their porches to hawk their wares: a shelf of shoes, sugarcane juice, or “Peso pizzas” (about 30p) cooked in a makeshift oven in front of you.

The landscape is incredible. Jagged limestone mounds – called magotes – rise like giant haystacks from flat fields.  Our trekking guide Douglas (he says his Dad named him after Michael) tells us very poetically about a Cuban painter called Domingo Ramos who had 67 different shades of green in his palette to paint this landscape. When he took his work to an international exposition people thought his work was based on a Caribbean fantasy, rather than a real place.

We trek through burnt orange fields rich with iron to a tobacco farmer, who explains the process of making a cigar. 95% of his leaves are taken by the government. The rest he is free to make his own cigars with – he spices them with honey, cinnamon, and rum. I manage to smoke a mild one without choking. The farmer’s stronger version never leaves his mouth, even when he climbs an orange tree to get us some fruit. (We buy 10 – and later find out the rest are fairly average!)

In the evenings we sit with CUC$1.65 mojitos (about £1) and watch the world go by as a great salsa band plays. From the next table I learn about the Cuban stare: men very obviously look woman up and down – foreign or local. Dan says it’s just because I’m hot – until I discover I have mint in my teeth.  But they’re friendly - our second mojito runs out and they procure a bottle of rum from under their table and top up our glasses.

But our stay in Vinales was really made by Lumino: she invested a lot of time patiently teaching us the words for all amazing food she cooked (the lobster was a highlight), and was a brilliant introduction to how warm this country can be. One day my trekking shoes, which I’d left inside the gate, went missing. I panicked, assuming they’d been stolen – until Lumino appeared from the roof terrace with them, gleaming clean. She’d scrubbed the red clay off them to within an inch of their lives. New words for the day: los zapatos – shoes, suicio – dirty, and limpio – clean!