I spent my first two weeks in Havana in good company: I eat breakfast next to John Lennon, in the afternoon I have coffee with Castro. John Lennon is now not the living Beatles — just his bronze statue that quietly shows off on a bench in the park near my apartment.
You still feel like there is life behind his round glasses because the expression on his face is simultaneously amusing and exciting.
His left leg was folded comfortably over the right leg. The bronze on his knee appears sandy. Women place their children on his lap.
The inscription at the base of Castro read:
“You may say only a dreamer, but not the only one.”
Castro is not Fidel, but rather Johnny Castro. He approached me one morning unsolicited and appointed him as my official guide. Not only does help me find my way through the narrow streets or negotiate with the taxis — but also gives proper fashion advice.
“You have to take off the Hawaiian shirts,” he warned from the start. “You look like a tourist.” Johnny was there the day his namesake revealed his image in his official khaki dress.
“When Fidel took off the robe, he said, ‘John Lennon was a good man.’
In the mornings, when I eat my sandwich on the bench next to John Lennon, there is a caretaker to watch what I do. His glasses were stolen twice, and the government-appointed personnel to look after him — like bodyguards.
The Cubans love the Beatles. They believe they can hear their music — the bossa nova sounds that transcended England into the sixties — in the pop group’s music.
After all, music is the heartbeat of the city. In Vedado, the neighbourhood where I live, there is always music — especially jazz. Vedado is simultaneously fire-poor and middle-class and wealthy.
Streets lined with thick green palm trees. Parts of palaces, embassies, offices and crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks. Road stalls that rub against each other as if they belong naturally.
My apartment is also luxurious by Cuban standards. There is a sitting room, a small kitchen and even a room with two giant water tanks and a cement bath for laundry.
My room-mate is a doctor. He wants to know from me how to get to South Africa. Medical care is free on the island, and a doctor usually earns less than R200 a month. He rents out his room and his car to keep the pot cooking. Like many Cubans, I realise he is looking for a way out.
The neighbourhood girls regularly knock on our door and ask if they can use the phone, ask if I can dance, whether I smoke, or available. Everyone is looking for a path to the dollar economy that tourists bring here.
But as big as it is, there is a village feel in Havana. In the morning, the rooster crows wake you up. There are few consumer goods on the market, and most natives keep vegetable gardens and poultry. You need to buy your groceries at a combination of street stalls, cafés and chain stores, as most places only contain food and washing powder. You can search for a box of porridge for days and wait for hours, tired and warm, in a queue in front of the bakery waiting for bread. Standing in rows is also part of the culture here.
I eat at the cafeterias that people run from their homes — food sold for pesos, not dollars, and it’s delicious. You can indulge in pizzas, sandwiches, ice cream and Morosy Cristianos for less than R20 a day — white rice with black beans. The cups of coffee I drink with Johnny Castro are sweet and thick, and we swallow it as we walk through the streets. On hot days, we exchange coffee for Coppelia, an ice cream parlour devoted entirely to ice cream. Cubans love ice cream. You line up for an hour waiting for a table. The ice cream is thin and tastes like medicine, but it’s a treat.
We move along the same route every day with the Malecón, a wide boulevard with a sea wall over which the waves burst. In the summer, people stand there day and night to cool off. Now and then some neumáticos climb over this very wall. They are fishermen who float down the beach and pull out seafood on old car tubes. They walk past us with the straps over their shoulders to the pump at the gas station.
We also gradually find our way through La Rampa, the club part of the city. La Rampa could just as well have been in New York — it’s big, noisy and full of prostitutes and hawkers trying to sell cigars and counterfeit gold to tourists.
Eateries are smaller, inexpensive, full of pubs and patio restaurants. Café Sofia, playing jazz in the early afternoon and stops in the early person-hours of the morning.
Ambos Mundos Hotel, the place where Ernest Hemingway allegedly drank mojitos, still stands today.
It doesn’t take long for Johnny to invite me to Alamar — a rundown neighbourhood about 15 km outside the city. “This is where one should see the rumba,” he told me reverently. He would meet me there that night. How I got there was my own business.
By law, Cubans may not own more than one car. Few taxis are on the road and not allowed to pick up tourists, because they take money out of the government’s pocket, and the “official” taxis are few.
After a somewhat hopeless attempt to walk the road, an old Russian car stopped aside me. The driver, a skinny girl, wearing shorts and a silver ring shot through the nose. It’s a common thing; my room-mate would tell me later. Most people who have cars charge tourists to supplement their income.
Yes, she knows Alamar, she says. She knows Johnny too. She’ll take me.
“You will love the rumba because you are South African. We also listen to the music of Africa. Our guitars are from Africa, our bat drums, and we sing Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s songs. The music always has more than one side — we sing about our country because there are many contrasts. “
We stop at a small barrio, next to a patriotic billboard that reads, Nuestra Decision Patria o Muerte — our country, or death.
Johnny saw us almost immediately and dragged me behind him between the houses. Children play soccer with their dogs, and women hang laundry. And in the dirty plaza, there is music playing. All the street furniture pushed aside, and the people stood in a circle around the orchestra.
The Konga player arrives with the rhythm, and the rumba dancer begins to swing his hips towards the dancer.
It’s the guaguancó — one of the three dances of the rumba. “If you want to do the ritual man-and-woman,” whispered Johnny. The lead singer begins the theme, the story that people have to play. And the whole orchestra sings the choral part, the estribillo.
The two dancers are like a rooster and a hen. He puffs out his chest, and she ignores him. They move in a circle. He signals with his hand and his foot, and she began to respond gradually as her resistance falters
That dance is in the slave barracks, Johnny explains. “That’s why it’s so hopeful. The drums are getting louder — she has a choice. Give in or walk away. But she has to choose, and we hope she gives in.
He grins. “Music always means there is still hope.”
Three weeks after he showed me the rumba, Johnny died. The old botala in which he was riding slipped off the road and hit a water truck. My flatmate, the doctor, came to tell me the sad story.
After that, the fun had gone out of Havana. Even Vedado was quiet, and I lost my mood for the place. For the first time, I realised how dirty it was, how defenceless it was. Rubbish lay everywhere. There was never enough water for everyone. The dogs were lean, and the heat was unbearable. I wanted to go home.
I had my last cup of Cuban coffee before dawn, sitting next to John Lennon on the bench. Another Johnny who was dead, I thought. The caretaker didn’t even bother me. As I walked to the station, a soft jazz song began to float through a window somewhere.
The city’s heart kept beating.
Author: Mattheus Frederik