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
Youll 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
No, gracias, I say.
Its good, good, he protests,
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 have a bus at our disposal. Air conditioned.
Bus No. 134. We board it and ride along the
Malecon to The Hotel Nacional.
Malecon, Juan says, Where our fathers
met our mothers.
The Malecon is a 5 kilometre sea front drive and
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
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
There is neither capitalism nor communism
in Cuba, he told them. There is only
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.
R L Tilley 2007