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Some Pages from a Cuban Journal
by R L Tilley

We are in Old Havana, Havana Vieja. We walk on down to a thoroughfare called Obisco and there on the corner is a bar, El Floridita. Juan, our Cuban guide, asks us to wait outside. He goes  in, and returning, announces that it is open and that if we wish we can buy a drink, a cocktail. Entering we encounter Ernest Hemingway leaning on the bar. No, it is a sculpture. There are photographs on the wall behind him. Hemingway with Fidel in 1960, Hemingway aboard his yacht, the Pilar, and so on. We drink daiquiris and a trio of elderly musicians strike  up a song  or two. They ask my wife, Caroline  if she has a request. She  looks at me.
‘Guantanamera,’ I  say.
They play it and it feels like we are in Cuba.
‘You’ll find lots of musicians in the  city,’ Juan tells us. ‘Most of them play “Guantanamera”.’ He grins.
We enter a wonderful old square, the Plaza de la Catedral, named for a baroque cathedral, the Catedral de la Habana. It is hot now. Hot and humid. The sky is blue. The sun beats down. We go into  the cathedral for some respite. It is cool and baroque. As we emerge back into the sunlight women on the steps hold their hands out, pleading with their eyes.
As we move on to the oldest square in Havana, the  Plaza de Armas we are shadowed by street caricaturists who sketch rapid caricatures of us and attempt to sell them to us for a convertible peseta or two. Some are good. Some not so good. One of them wants to sell me a poor caricature of myself. He waves it before  me.
‘No, gracias,’ I say.
‘It’s good, good,’ he protests, smiling.

We walk along Obisco and pass the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway wrote ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ in room 511. We do not go up to the room but we look at more photographs of the great man on the wall in the lobby. One can visit room 511 and many do.

We carry on along Obisco and cross to the Parque Centrale and the Gran Teatro and the Capitolio. The Capitolio, which was built in the nineteen twenties, is a grandiose replica of the Capitol in Washington DC. Juan goes into the foyer of the Gran Teatro to see what is on the programme this week. A ballet on Friday evening. We  shall be at the Tropicana. Outside the Capitolio an old man sells me an ordinary Cuban three peseta coin with the head of Che Guevara embossed on it for one convertible peseta. Caroline  sits on the steps of the Capitolio and is waved at  and ushered away by a uniformed guard, female. The  woman walks down a few more steps where tourists squat and points and shakes her head. The tourists get up and move.

Every city has its smell. Havana smells of horse shit and cigar smoke. Walking across the road to investigate a cigar store a man with a horse and trap hails Caroline and I.
‘Take a ride around Havana,’ he shouts. ‘Very  cheap. Hemingway  goes for free,’ he adds, indicating  me.
It is the beard.
We  laugh.
We have a bus at our disposal. Air conditioned. Bus No. 134. We board it and ride along the Malecon to The Hotel Nacional. 

‘The  Malecon,‘ Juan says, ‘Where our fathers met our mothers.’
The Malecon is a 5 kilometre sea front drive and promenade.
At the Hotel Nacional American businessmen hang out, smoking Havana cigars, and pretending not to be doing business with the Cubans. We eat chicken in sauce and black beans and rice and drink Mojitos, followed by the national  beer. A  fine hotel this. The paradigm for  tourist hotels in Cuba. Once, in the pre-revolutionary days, it was frequented by Hollywood stars and politicians. It was set  up by the American Mafia long ago. There is photographic portraiture on the  walls. Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Meyer Lanski, Winston Churchill... The hotel is on a rock looking over the Malecon to the  Atlantic, where it is so polluted nobody dare swim, save the brave or foolhardy adolescents of Havana. A man walks past the window carrying a dead piglet. Later  we see him arranging it on a rotisserie barbecue. Pictures of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfugos and Fidel Castro and Celia Cruz adorn the walls. Key moments from the revolution.

We head back to the Hotel Sevilla. Caroline swims while I go to the bank, the banco, and change euros and sterling into convertible pesetas. Less trouble, this, than travellers cheques. An English woman called Coral lounges next to Caroline reading a book. Later I notice it is written by Alberto Granada. ‘On the Road with Che - The Making of a Revolutionary’ or some such. Later that evening we talk to an English couple and their son and their daughter.
‘We are Labour Party activists,’ they tell us. Fine. We are to become good friends. The Revolution is discussed.
‘I  think Che and Camilo had the best of it,’ the woman opines. ‘Fidel looks a bit fed up these days.’ The man tells us, he and his wife went for a walk and, sitting down on a bench in a square, a young Cuban joined them.
‘There is neither capitalism nor communism in Cuba,’ he told them. ‘There is only Fidelism.’
He told them he had done his military service which he did not like and that now he had no job and that if he had no job he would be arrested.

Copyright R L Tilley 2007