At breakfast I meet a couple from New York. Jean Paul, when I comment that his name sounds French, he tells me his mother was Irish and loved France, even though she’s never been there and his father was Columbian. Alicia, his companion has Cuban relatives somewhere here. Her father got away and she remembers crackling phone calls from when she was a child. Maybe she will find them, but has no idea where to start. My first chore this morning is to change money.
The hotels will do £’s but not $’s so I recon that a trip to the bank is in order and luckily they are open on Saturday mornings. Having spotted a bank on the first day, I know where to go. The security guard asks what service I require then tells me to sit while the only teller doing exchange comes free. It’s all efficient orderly and quick. Cuba is more expensive than I’d imagined and credit card opportunities are few and far between – none of the bars or restaurants have VISA facilities and surprisingly, nor does the tour office in the Hotel Inglesias where I’m booking another excursion for tomorrow.
Coming around the now familiar corner of the Opera house, I decide to see if it’s possible to look inside. It is, at a charge of 5cucs. A very sweet looking young man asks me to wait for a few moments for the next tour, but no one else arrives, so he takes me on a personal one.
One side of this ornate building built in 1830 was the Galecian Club (Spanish Colonialists) and at some stage the two were merged. It was closed for restoration from 2012 – 2016 and consequently looks pristine inside and out. I ask questions and often pre-empt my guide’s prepared narrative. He’s very sweet and loves his job – having only been doing it for six months. The auditorium seats 1600 and although the stage doesn’t look that large, the orchestra pit is gigantic. Many famous names have performed here: Anna Pavlova, Carouso; (there’s an amusing story about a shot being fired as a prank while he was performing.
Running out into the street, he was arrested as a pervert for wearing strange clothing) the Bolshoi Ballet of course has also been here. Domingo rehearsed but cancelled due to the death of Fidel the next day and most recently, Obama addressed an audience on this stage.
Art Cubano is well worth the visit. This entire 60’s building with ramp walkways which take me up to the third floor tells the story of Cuban art. Beginning from the late 1800’s this floor concentrates on pastoral/agricultural scenes. One artist (Landaluze) in particular stands out as the only one to depict the Black slave population. From the 1700’s there are low quality religious paintings and the Mezzanine houses prints and cartoons.
Down on the second floor, everything springs to life with the 60’s the time of the revolution. Even without being exactly sure of my dates, there is no doubt. The works are colourful, vibrant and angry, many depicting suffering others politically defiant. It’s interesting to see artists like Andy Warhol referenced and one female artist has painted the annunciation swapping the angel for a winged devil about to rape the virgin.
There are some very dull specimens of abstract and cubist art from the 50’s – possibly reflecting the repressive Batistsa ‘dictatorship’. Maybe the 50’s were universally dull. The 60’s continue with the surreal and in the later part of the decade we get representational and comic book. Artists experiment with vastly contrasting styles. Suffering is still depicted, but there is a new confidence now that the USSR is supporting.
During the 80’s, collage and mixed media appears. There is confusion, trying to make sense of everything. In the end there is a return to the ideas of Revolution, which according to the propaganda, is on going. Finally there is patriotic art – the last canvas, called boomerang, depicts a large number of these disguised as weapons of war. The implication is clear that whatever seeds of war you sow, they always come back at you. The USA has yet to learn this as do many other politicians around the world who don’t know their history and don’t listen to artists.
My decision to patronise the gallery café for lunch is not a good one. The Cheese and ham sandwich comes in a huge soft white bread roll. After a siesta back at my air b&b I go up to the roof to write. It’s near the beginning of the hurricane season and it rains every day at some time. Moving down to the lobby I continue for a while. As Jean Paul enters, I ask him it their air conditioning has been fixed – a battery in the remote was needed. He stops to chat and ends up telling me his life story. He begins with an apology for his President and how embarrassed he is. Hillary was also not an option for him and so, he didn’t vote. The use of a private email server was a huge issue for Americans, which I didn’t really get. I commiserate. He’s an electrician and loves his job, but is driven by his romantic passions, causing him to follow the love of his life to Los Angeles for a year, to no avail.
He talks fondly of his Irish mother and his adoptive father who brought him up. His biological father, he describes as a Latino apple-seed (one who likes to spread it about a bit) but was often in and out of gaol. He keeps returning to his mother, a defining influence in his life. She’s taught him tolerance and made it clear that whoever he brought home as a partner, they would be welcome. He describes his impossibly handsome gay friend in LA and being comfortable in the gay-frequented Mary’s Café. He’d felt huge rage when homophobic abuse was hurled at his friend by passers by. The gay friend just shrugged – he was used to it. The moment passes for me to tell him about me, but I’m sure he’s guessed. We continue to philosophise, and in the end he thanks me for the conversation.
It’s supposed to be a 6am collection from the Hotel Inglaterra, so I’ve woken at 5.15 and set out in the street lighting armed with a packets of peanuts and biscuits standing by for breakfast. The coach is late and I chat to a Mexican couple from Chicago, Jose and Rosa. He’s having trouble changing money without his passport. ‘How did you get here?’ I ask. ‘On our ID cards. I never travel with my passport and they won’t accept the photocopy,’ he says he’s brought. The last pick up point is near the harbour where a cruise liner is berthed. Three good looking women from New York get on. Two of them are Latino Spanish speakers and the other one sitting next to me is African American. They haven’t go off the cruise liner but are having a great time checking the photos on their phones – there’s not much else to do with phones here unless you buy a local sim card.
A middle aged Japanese couple are on this tour. The wife wears a diaphanous neck to ankle green and blue floral garment with long sleeves. She floats around photographing everything: The ceramics in the pavement outside the hotel; a panoramic video of the sun rise at the harbour … several times, all on her iphone. A very tall young man, who looks and sounds northern European is with a short woman of Indian origin speaking with a London Accent. She comes up to just about level to his ribs.
I’m going to see what the sunshine holiday makers do on this sand-spit of a place not much more that 1km across. It is explained that we will check into a resort hotel where food and drink (not spirits or wine) are free. It takes two hours to get here and after ‘checking in’ to this Spanish style resort (probably built by the Spanish) it is time for the breakfast buffet. We’ve all exchanged our passports for a waterproof orange wrist band and been left to amuse ourselves as best we can. The breakfast is plentiful, looks good but is low on taste. At least there is fresh fruit. I’ve got a plan in my head to investigate the swimming pool for a training swim but it turns out to be made entirely of curves and is tepid. I’m also full of breakfast and decide to walk on the beach.
This turns out to be hot exercise with my rucksack on my back. I return to the loungers and palm shades connected to our resort, have a brief swim in the slightly cool sea, then take a snooze. I’m unsure if we have to pay for the loungers as we’ve been told that everything on the beach is public. I ask the tall Scandinavian, who turns out to be Norweigian. He doesn’t know either, but they are going snorkling on a catamaran shortly. This sounds like a good idea as I don’t really want to sit here, even under palm leaves, for the rest of the morning. There are five of us on the Cat – the others are a Canadian couple. They say sorry about the attacks in Britain. I tell them that I texted my son in Manchester to check he was OK. ‘No,’ they say, ‘this was yesterday on London Bridge and Borough Market.’ They’ve seen it on the news at their hotel. I really am in a bubble here and the world has gone on being mad without me.
The news doesn’t really sink in immediately and just now travelling under sail out to join other boats on the reef, all seem right with the world as we all chat. The Norwegian works as a seaman and the London girl sells real estate in Fueguerola, Spain, where they both live. She tells me the market is busy. I ask if there has been a post Brexit drop-of of Brits buying. A bit but Europeans are also buying as Fueguerola is still cheap. The Canadians are speaking French so it’s no surprise to learn that they come from near Ottawa in Québec. When we get to the reef, there is an abundance of fish. The other boats are feeding them bread, so no wonder they flock around.
Our boat-man leads us in an exploration of the area, inviting us to dive down and look. Some have kept their life jackets on and so are stuck on the surface. The depth is only three metres, but that’s enough for me to feel it in my sinuses and it takes a few dives to get my breathing together. There are some amazing small fish near the bottom, dark blue with white stars. Others are camouflaged against the rocks. Schools of fish hover under ledges near the bottom and nervously disperse when looked at. I inspect the remains of several large anchors. The pressure has driven all the gunk out of my sinuses and the pain has gone. Now it’s time for us to feed the fishes and we’re handed stale baguettes to dangle just at the surface. The large fish scrabble to take chunks, sometimes inadvertently brushing against me. I even get my finger nibbled. The trick is to hold the bread with one hand above the water and keep your head under to see what’s happening. The smaller yellow fish underneath the aggressive ones on top are collecting up the smaller crumbs as they drift downwards. Presumably even smaller fish below benefit in some way. No wonder they all look fat. I’m sure that bread is not good for fish in the same way that it’s unhealthy for ducks, but hey, it’s better than feeding plastic into the ocean.
Returning, we have the wind behind us and make good progress. Lunch is still on buffet style as was breakfast but even less inspiring. I have another sea swim. Plan B was to swim up and down parallel to the beach, but I’ve just had lunch and it’s now too warm in the sea. I find shade under the palm leaf shelters. Later I try out the pool, but don’t have the energy to do more than a few strokes. One of the resort entertainers is rallying the guests –Butlins style – to a game of quoits. Who can get even one over the bottle? Only two make it to the final – most of the participants are Canadian. There isn’t really anywhere to change out of swimming costumes, so I improvise in the toilet. It’s time for an espresso in the main lobby of the hotel before catching the return bus back to Habana. I eat at Costas&tal on my way back to the b&b as it’s late – the waitress recognises me from a few days ago.
There’s a small table free by the window and I can see what’s happening on the street. Young men are on the look out for whatever might come their way. A beautiful young black man with diamante earrings in each ear looks at me as he passes the window. I look left at the next window along as he passes by. He glances back. Next to me a Russian family is finishing their meal. Mother and daughter both have badly bleached yellow hair while the husband talks all the time. The daughter takes little notice, consulting her Russian Spanish phrase-book. They seem to be enjoying themselves. A couple of women are pissed of that they can’t have a window seat then a party of five youngish Europeans of some sort come and two of the women are vegetarian. Their choices are limited. Couples come and go at the b&b. there’s a pattern going on with pale northern European type men with Spanish-speaking girlfriends of Latino origin.