On The Record by Brian Wise

From Nashville To Havana

SATURDAY OCTOBER 1, 2o16

Havana, Cuba

You can read my review of the Americana gigs at ATN and, while I had enjoyed Nashville immensely, I was looking forward to another visit to Cuba – my third time here.

The highlight of Nashville had to be recording Off The Record at Southern Ground Studios and then a fantastic interview with Stax legend William Bell. I was lucky to be able to talk to Bell after he turned up a day early at the studio! (My fault entirely). He agreed to meet me on Saturday morning at his motel before he flew home to Atlanta. His show the night before at 3rd & Lindsley was superb.

Hurricane Matthew is heading across from the Caribbean and we are hoping to make it out on Sunday after an enjoyable week here.

We arrived in Cuba last Sunday, flying into Santa Clara on one of the first American Airlines flights from Miami. I had thought the plane would be full of Americans. Wrong. There were more people on the tarmac to greet us than passengers that at my count numbered about 30 and were mainly Cubans going home to visit relatives. The girl in front of us was very excited to be seeing her family for the first time in 16 years.

US citizens still have to qualify to enter Cuba under one of 12 conditions and it turns out that we did too because we were flying in from Miami. We both qualified under the ‘education’ provision. Hopefully, we will get back into the USA. We filled in two or three other forms that they did not even collect when we arrived. Santa Clara airport was like a small country airport, I guess because it is a small country town.

Santa Clara, population 200,000+, was an unexceptional town except that we found our way around easily, visited the Che Guevara monument (impressive) and discovered a really good place to eat. We were staying in the very basic and cheap Santa Clara Libre hotel but the people were friendly and helpful and it was in a great location right on the town square. Around the corner we could sit by the pool and have coffee at the much more expensive Hotel America, where the WiFi was good. I had taken some work away with me, though I had vowed never to do that again, and spent hours online at 2CUC an hour for the internet cards. (The tourist currency, Cuban Convertible or CUC is just over a Euro per peso).

Thanks to the Ecotours rep at the hotel we were able to hire a taxi driver for 50CUC to take us the 90 minutes to the World Heritage listed town of Trinidad, wait for us for three hours and then drive us back. The 98km drive was hair-raising at times, the roads often rough, with the biggest hazard the horses wandering across at random.

Trinidad is picturesque and set up for tourism, fixed in the past and looking like it must have done a couple of hundred years ago. Stroll up a laneway and you’ll find a café with a band playing and they are all good.

We visited the local version of El Floridita, the bar in Havana where Hemingway drank (though there could be a long list of places in which he imbibed). The surprise there was the fact that some of the local school girls were there enjoying a beer in uniform with friends! We visited the very expensive Iberostar Hotel and sat in the fern-decked lobby for a while. I managed to find a barber and had one of the best haircuts ever by a barber who had the hands of an artist and only charged 5CUC.

In the evening we sat glued to the TV and watched the whole of the Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It was disturbing to see a man so obviously unhinged running for the nation’s top job. I was wondering when someone would mention Trump’s continual sniffling and when they did he blamed the microphone. In the entertainment industry you would blame a certain white powder. We also watched several hours of post-mortem and by the next day had an analysis of almost every word. Can you really believe that Trump was leading in some polls?

On Wednesday (28/09) we were scheduled to take the 11.30am bus to Havana, a journey of 4 ½ hours. Run by local company Viazul, the bus turned up 90 minutes late. When I enquired of one of the officials about the arrival time he just smiled and shook his hands back and forth. Like Asia, you have to learn to relax and wait. At least the bus was air-conditioned but the seats laid back so far that the lady in front of me nearly crushed my legs.

When we eventually go to the Havana depot, some 12 kms or so out of the centre of town, we then had to contend with finding a taxi, a task that was not as easy as I thought. Teaming up with a Swedish couple we managed to do a deal and got to our hotel.

Our driver was an entertainment in himself, pointing to a poster of the Pope and telling me that the Pontiff’s visit was the reason the avenue and its buildings were clean. “They didn’t let him look inside the buildings!” he laughed, adding “We really need him to live here all the time.” Then he showed me his Samsung phone and mentioned that none of the apps worked here and that is why you never really needed to upgrade your phone in Cuba. As we passed the Capitol building he noted that they had been renovating it for ten years and that it might take another ten years. ‘That’s Cuba,” he sighed.

We arrived at the Hotel Sevilla to be told that we had to pay extra because I had only booked for one person. I wondered why it was so cheap. Still, it was one of the more reasonable good hotels and, after our budget accommodation in Nashville and super-budget hotel in Santa Clara, it was time for a treat. The Sevilla must have been grand in its heyday when singers like Sinatra sang here and all the American celebrities were hanging out at the now renovated Sloppy Joe’s bar across the road. We had time to shower, change and head off to Obispso Street where we found a café that we knew from our previous visit with a great little combo and some reasonable food.

On Thursday morning we set out early to go to the local ETECSA office (a local version of Telstra) to buy some Internet cards for 2CUC per hour each. I wanted to get enough to enable me to listen online to the Grand Final. You have to get your priorities right!

Like all other Telco offices here in Cuba there was a long line to get in. We met a lovely young Austrian couple in the line and the 45 minutes flew by quickly as we chatted. As it turns out, once we all got inside we had to ask them to buy us the cards because we did not have our passports or driving licences. We invited them for a drink to thank them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA huge walk around the old town revealed much of its former beauty. We also found the local office of the Cuba Travel Network which was so good in organising our visas and airport transfer.

The differences in Havana since our last visit four years ago are subtle but noticeable. There is definitely better wifi access, though we are told it is government controlled. I can easily access the wifi in my hotel room, whereas last time it was difficult and when I was first ere in 2007 I had to sit at a computer station in the lobby and the connection was incredibly slow. Speaking of the internet, some things in Australia have not changed in nearly ten years. It was impossible to access the Big Pond webmail site and it is no easier now! It is hopeless. Luckily, I have the email it set up on my laptop.

There are more new cars – mainly from France, Spain and Korea – and they are starting to outnumber the classic American cars. How the Cubans have managed to keep the Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets and other cars going for more than 60 years is a miracle in itself. A speaks of ingenuity that could be used elsewhere to create some interesting industries.

Then there are the buildings, which are gradually being restored so that, while some young German guys in Santa Clara told us they thought Havana was ‘dirty and trashy,’ I have noticed that there are a few modern buildings springing up (sometimes directly behind the old facades). Fro m the hotel you can see some newer apartment buildings off in the distance which look, as you might expect completely without character.

Some of the stores around town are stocking some more modern products and one of the white goods stores in Santa Clara was packed with people buying televisions, food processors and other goods. Then again, in one of the grocery stores we saw people buying stock cubes in small numbers rather than full boxes.

On Friday morning the hotel public relations lady organised a taxi for us to go out to see Ernest Hemingway’s house, Finica Vigia, near San Francisco de Paula. This cost us 50CUC because we couldn’t get on an organised tour. Last time we were here someone from the government tourist office would visit us at the hotel every few mornings and organise everything for us. Obviously, private enterprise is playing a larger role with the tour companies doing a lot more.

The house has supposedly been undergoing a restoration but you could not really tell that much had changed. It remains impressive and Hemingway is still somewhat of a local hero for his promotion of Cuba. The animal trophies might not appeal to everyone. For a time back in the 30s and 40s Hemingway must have been one of America’s most successful writers and the lifestyle here was certainly lavish. His library alone is impressive. Guests to the house included our own little Aussie battler Errol Flynn and the large pool at the back of the house apparently witnessed Ava Gardiner swimming naked. A few years after he left Cuba, Hemingway shot himself but it is difficult to imagine any such thoughts would haunt him here.

Our driver Julio took us to the seaside fishing village of Cojimar, that inspired The Old Man & The Sea. We enjoyed a drink at a café that apparently was frequented by Hemingway but perhaps it would be easier to identify the places where he did not drink!

Last night we visited the grand Hotel Nacional in Vedado and sat out on the lawns facing the Atlantic ocean and watched the traffic on the Mellecon and the ships entering the harbour. Then we visited the nearby Waoo Snack Bar, recommended to us by our son (who spent a month here last year) and enjoyed the best meal we have had on the whole trip. All for a total 24CUC including a free drink each. Fantastic. It is near the university and we got a completely different view of Havana in this bustling neighbourhood.

I awoke at 1.30am to listen to the Grand Final. I was able to use the AFL app on the iPad to listen to the ABC and had enough time on my card to listen to the second and last quarters. It sounded incredibly exciting and the wifi managed to fail just a few minutes before the final siren by which stage the result was in no doubt. You couldn’t help but barrack for the Bulldogs. I felt a little sad for Bob Murphy who wrote a great column for The Age and I imagine how hard it was for him to miss out. I thought it a grand gesture for the coach to hand Bob his medal.

This morning over breakfast we met an American engineer who was here because, as he tells it, “I wanted to see what it was like before the Americans come in and ruin it.”

“We are too polite to say that,” I responded.

“They put a McDonald’s on every corner and destroy the place,” he said and then proceeded to tell us how run down Havana was and how distressed the buildings are.

So, do we want Havana to stay as it is, a kind of Disneyland for history buffs, or are the Cubans entitled to aspire to the same sorts of things that we do, with the resultant problems? I’ll ponder that on the bus back to Santa Clara this afternoon.

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