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Place: Havana Cuba

A Taste of Havana   by Simon Hillier


Decaying paint-peeled buildings skirt the mayhem of the city's once grand avenues and plazas, all the way into Centro Habana. Tiny Russian Ladas scamper past enormous American Fords, Chevy's and Cadillac's of the 1950's. Dueling horns blast as cabbies weave their latest shipment of gringos between rickety bicycles, plodding horses, tottering carts, and steaming food stalls. Amongst it all, the eclectic Havanians, hustle, bustle, linger and loiter through another day of post-Revolution life.

Sweeping around a corner, you'll see rusty farmers aboard their hobbling donkeys amble past elderly rocking chair gossips, fanning themselves under oppressive midday heat. Sassy young chicas in electric spandex body stockings and micro mini's strut with mock contempt past the leering gaze of brooding hombres prowling the street corners. School kids laugh, play, flirt, and tease, comically mimicking them all. Spaniard melts into African - a beautiful mélange of exotic milk and dark chocolate in all shapes and shades.

Nowhere to be seen are billboards plastered with Western celebrities flashing over-bleached smiles and the latest soft drink flavor. Instead, are the watchful eyes of Ex "El Commandante" Fidel, and comrade "Che" Guevara - whose face you might remember from the t-shirts of Western celebrities with over-bleached smiles. On highways and streets, huge posters, murals, and well placed "graffiti" shouts out reminders to Viva la Revolution.

Tourism in Cuba isn't overwhelming by any means, but it is growing. Mainly in the sizable shape of sun starved Europeans and Canadians on their hibernation escape package holidays. During the northern winter months, these curious looking creatures migrate across the vast plazas in the late hours of the morning, before grazing in expensive restaurants, lapping up ten dollar cocktails at Hemingway watering holes, waddling through absurdly priced souvenir shops, and finally disappearing into a dense jungle of waiting coaches.

To avoid being crushed (or eaten) by the herd, it's advisable to start your sightseeing early. Wander through "must do" attractions such as the Cigar Factory and Museum, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armes and Plaza San Francisco, and mandatory museums on the tourist trail before midday. A quaint and reasonably priced palate reward isn't hard to find. Just stand outside the nearest overpriced souvenir shop and walk at least three blocks in any direction.

The only way to lap up the true character of Havana is to wander along the less traveled paths. You could spend an afternoon tucked in an outdoor bar/music shop sampling CD's, tapes and cold cervesa's (beers) with local afficianados keen to voice their opinion on Cuba's best music styles. Or zigzag through the maze of colorful wilting streets and lanes, playing, posing and brokenly conversing with the friendly and curious. Then wander along the sparkling oceanfront Malacon, past the brooding hombres who had managed to charm one the strutting chicas into a kiss, safely hidden from the steely gaze of her father.

Cuba is the safest country in Latin America. As one local joked, "There are 11 million people in Cuba, and 7 million of them are police". There are a noticeable number of police and soldiers on the streets, however, it's the eyes and ears of the Revolution that most fear. However, anywhere in the world you find "rich" westerners, there are always a number of those entertaining but troublesome professionals, the hustler.

Being hustled in Cuba is opening your box of "genuine" Coheba cigars to find they weren't actually rolled on the thighs of a country virgin, but in the greasy, sweaty palms of some city mechanic. It's being guided to "a bar featured in Buena Vista Social Club" for heavily commissioned drinks, before noticing on your way home that every bar in Havana looks like the ones in the Buena Vista Social Club. . It's amusing, irritating, usually harmless, so don't let the thought of being hussled prevent you from meeting the warm, passionate and proud Havanians.

Music is the blood of Cuba, so make the most of the opportunity where it presents itself. Slip into the restaurants and bars surrounding Obispo and listen to jazz and rhumba bands play the Cuban classics.

A smorgasbord of fantastic after dark entertainment awaits in Havana. Folk and traditional music venues, such as Casa de la Trova, offer the audience a real "son" style performance amid the intimate courtyard stage of a dilapidated Vedado building.

In the newer tourist center you can sink into a leather barstool at a piano bar with a drink and listen to some of Cuba's finest musicians and singers before the call of the nightclubs, cabarets, and discos beckon.

It is forbidden for a tourist to leave Havana without experiencing a night of Salon Rojo Cabaret, once a haven for the 1950's mob. For $10, a dinner-suited waiter will bring endless quantities of rum punch and beer to your front row table, whilst you lap up the eye-catching entertainment both onstage and offstage. Marriages, hardships and inhibitions are all left at the Salon cloakroom ,as exotic young women seductively slip onto the arms of Western businessmen, Cuban couples and friends lose themselves in music and laughter, and young backpackers fall in lust with pretty much anyone who is willing to give them a sideways glance.

The dark rich red curtains, plush carpet and dim lighting play the perfect backdrop to this decadance and the cabaret show itself is a retro delight. Big band music gets the shapely exotic dancers in sequenced g-strings shaking like rattle snakes, whilst enthusiastic crooners in matching sequenced vests and excrutiatingly tight vinyl pants work up the crowd. Once the show is over, the crowd piles on stage and breaking into salsa frenzy.

There are two things you want to pack with you on a trip to Cuba. A good understanding of Cuban Spanish and a hot set of dancing feet. Having arrived with neither, we opted for the crash course instead - the Salon Rijo all-inclusive drinks pass.

About the Author

Simon Hillier is a freelance writer based in Sydney Australia. His company Get There Writing Services provide copywriting, travel writing and feature articles, scripts and ebooks. For more information visit www.getthere.com.au