Category Archives: Havana

Walking tour: Havana’s best ‘piropo’ spots

Piropo: Untranslatable word. Term used fondly to describe the whistles, hisses, kissing noises and comments any woman should expect as she steps out onto the streets of Cuba’s capital. Commonly mistranslated as ‘chat-up lines’, since the last thing solicited is a chat. It’s more a game of action and reaction, subject and object, predator and prey. For aficionados of everyday sexism, this is a must. Here follows a guide for the best places to experience this intriguing phenomenon first-hand.

Throw yourself right in the deep end if you really enjoy being hassled and head straight to the wonderful maze that is Habana Vieja. Getting lost in these streets should provide a comprehensive introduction to the practice of piropos, especially if you only have a few days in Havana. Listen out for the distinctive ‘Psssst!’ or occasionally ‘Hey lady!’ and try not to recoil visibly at the kisses and winks. Examples of personal comments heard include ‘chica linda’, ‘bonita’, ‘muy sexy’; but there is a wide range of derivatives. You’ll never be bored.

If you’re with a man, forget the whole tour. As someone else’s property you’re officially off the market and no longer fair game for piropos, and so you may run the risk of being well and truly left alone. If you’re lucky, somebody might jovially offer your companion to swap you for his girl, and you can all have a good laugh. But this is the extent of it, so try to stick with women to guarantee that the comments are completely unrelenting.

And as we all know from playground bullying, you will always get the most attention when on your own. This is the best way to really get a feel for it. You’ll probably be offered a lot of sex and, if you’re lucky, maybe a few relationships. ‘¿Te falta un novio?’ (Do you need a boyfriend/ are you missing a boyfriend?) As a woman without a man beside her, a part of you is missing – so apparently it’s a free for all.

Next stop is Centro; the busy roads of the centre. Walk past large groups of men for the best results, although comments from people on their own are pretty common as well. Interestingly, they often come just after you’ve passed, so be patient. This way, since you can’t return the gaze directly, it becomes much easier not to treat you as a real human being – any form of social interaction is cut off.

Venture out to the leafy boulevards of Vedado only if you have ample time in the city. There is a danger of having real conversations with people on these streets, so exercise caution at all times. Still, you’re never far away from a degrading remark or sexual proposition.

If you still don’t feel quite like a sexual object, end your trip on the Malecón. Simply sit down and people will come to you. Read a book, enjoy a conversation – look as preoccupied or uninterested as possible. Be sure to tell people to leave you alone several times, because no seems to mean try harder in the world of street harassment. In the more secluded parts, very occasionally, men masturbate as women walk past. But this is slightly off the beaten track.

None of this is to suggest that women do not face this kind of treatment everywhere. Street harassment is a worldwide problem that may be worse and is certainly more threatening in other cities. The term machismo is perhaps misleading as a culturally specific term that confines inequality to the region of Latin America.

Relatively speaking, Cuba is a very good place to be a woman. Statistics place the country highly in world rankings of gender equality. 50 percent of students in higher education, 60 percent of doctors and 48 percent of high government are women. Childcare is free, as is birth control assistance. Men and women are guaranteed the same salaries. It all looks great on paper, hence why a stroll in Havana can be quite a sobering experience. Equality is quite an empty term if you are reduced to a sexual object the second you venture out into public space.

Havana is one of the most culturally rich and exciting places I have ever been. This makes the constant reminder that, as a woman, you are somehow less entitled to actively enjoy it, a real shame.

Fátima, o el Parque de la Fraternidad

Fátima o el Parque de la Fraternidad guarantees a complete upheaval of any prejudices foreigners may have about the freedom of the arts in an authoritarian state.

A few nights ago, a couple of fellow travellers and I attended the national premiere of Fátima in Havana’s main cinema. Going to see a film in a foreign country is always a fun experience, whatever is on offer – so stumbling upon this event felt like quite a coup. Directed by Jorge Perugorría and produced by the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography), the film was first exhibited at the Festival de Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano last year, but this was its first showing in cinema.

A little intimidated by the glamour of all the spectators (I almost got turned away in shorts), we were soon reassured by the familial warmth of the event. The vibe was of excitement and achievement rather than elitist snobbery, as would no doubt have been the case the other side of the Atlantic. Before the showing, the cast were invited up one by one onstage and each presented with a kiss and a single rose. Emotional speeches followed as everyone, down to the last technician, was remembered and urged to come up and join them – we were a little worried at one point that soon the whole audience would be onstage with just a few bewildered tourists to applaud…

Based on a short story by Miguel Barnet, the film traces the story of the charming and kind-hearted Manolito. It eschews chronology in favour of constantly flashing back and forth, from the protagonist’s youthful homosexual affairs in the provinces and conflicts with his stepfather, to his migration to the capital, where the tranquil Parque de la Fraternidad becomes the illicit meeting point for all sorts of ‘buscadores de experiencia’.

The story doesn’t really kick off until he meets Andrés, a suave, unscrupulous lover who comes to dominate his head and heart. The relationship hits the rocks when Andrés persuades Manolito to prostitute himself as a transvestite to earn extra money – and so the persona of Fátima is born, after a deity Manolito envisioned as a child. Andrés eventually leaves him for the possibility of a better-heeled life in Miami, and we first meet the protagonist in the aftermath; dressed to kill in a blond wig and heavy makeup, mascara smudged in tearful resentment, shouting accusations at the camera.

Their relationship is mapped through initial scenes of honeymoon bliss, most memorably the first liaison in Manolito’s bedroom, where their passion is forever delayed by a hilarious dance just shy of a strip tease. Exaggeration is the name of the game here; the filming reflects the lovers’ heady emotion, and the scene ends in a brilliant freeze shot of the two dancing together like good friends.

Romance gives way to raunchy comedy as Manolito becomes diva of the cabaret, regularly pimped out by his boyfriend to clients who stop by the park to pick him up in dark American cars. This funny but unforgiving portrait of sex tourism and Havana’s racy underworld may be a surprise to those unfamiliar with Cuban cinema, given the regime’s repression of homosexuality. Since the ICAIC’s golden age of the 1960s, directors like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío have tested the censorship and questioned the system without overtly criticising it. Fátima enters the country’s celebrated canon of LGBT cinema that includes the Oscar-nominated classic Fresa y Chocolate (1994), which tells of the relationship between a homosexual and a macho Communist militant. These films challenge the viewer’s expectations – they both shock and amuse – although some viewers may regard the humour of Fátima as slightly less than politically correct. I wondered, as the audience erupted into fits of laughter for the umpteenth time, whether every punch line was based on the protagonist’s status as a gay prostitute, or just most of them.

That said, the depiction of a society entrenched in homophobic prejudice is realistic and poignant. One violent scene where Manolito is tricked into following a would-be lover into a secluded backyard, only to be beaten up, is particularly harrowing. Another all too accurate theme tackled is the economic crisis of Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, as we are shown a thriving black market and the struggles of individuals who are forced into the sex trade to earn their keep. Manolito’s freedom to send his mother presents and eat well in a time of strict rationing (the film constantly zooms in on meat being chopped up and fried) comes at a high price. Most moving is the nocturnal scene where Andrés leaves Havana for Miami in a packed motorboat – as thousands did, and still do – leaving his lover heartbroken and alone on the Malecón.

Probably in defiance of US Hollywood blockbusters, Cuban film has instead imported many traditions of European art-house cinema. Fátima is no exception, paying homage to Pedro Almodóvar in its irreverent humour, innuendo and delightful celebration of kitsch in all its forms. Ernan López Nussa’s lovely, if slightly schmaltzy soundtrack has strong hints of pianist Yann Tiersen, renowned for films such as Goodbye Lenin and Amélie, whose wayward, loveable characters would no doubt find a kindred spirit in Manolito.

Whether or not Fátima has reached or will reach international audiences, it certainly deserves acclaim. The film treads an excellent balance between scandalous humour and real issues very close to its home. While the plot and characters are maybe a little over the top for some viewers, the film avoids cliché, and the series of improbable events rarely descends into farce.

Exploring Santería in Havana

Facts and figures don’t seem to apply to Cuba. All that is paraded in both the national and international press needs to be taken with a massive pinch of salt – news and comment can be grossly misleading, as if there is ever a correct way to be led when it comes to ‘understanding’ a country. With Che Guevara’s diary nestled under one arm, most travellers seem to rock up brimming with confidence, churning out their knowledge about the Revolution and the lives of numerous Castros, only to head off a few weeks later dazed and confused. Cuban culture is as shadowy as the most labyrinthine streets of La Habana Vieja, today more than ever.

One of its most fascinating aspects is the cult of Santería, although any foreigner would have to dig hard even to scratch its surface. Nominally, 85% of the population are Roman Catholic, but in reality a large proportion are followers of this mysterious syncretic religion. When millions of slaves were brutally imported from Africa during the colonial era, many from modern-day Nigeria, they brought with them their Yoruba beliefs and rituals, which they were forced to mask with a veneer of Catholicism. Santería is the hybrid product of this oppression. Hence the name, which means ‘Way of the Saints’, as every deity (orisha) has its overt Catholic avatar.

Although it may not be the first thing visitors to Cuba notice, the religion is crucial to much of the nation’s treasured heritage: art, music, everyday life. Every Cuban, believer or non-believer, will be well-acquainted with the faith. Deities and symbols of Santería figure across the arts, from Wifredo Lam’s surrealist, sugar-filled paintings to Alejo Carpentier’s famous novels of lo real maravilloso (magical realism). And Havana trembles with the drums of rumba, born of the sacred rituals where orishas would be invoked by ceremonies of los tambores.

Yet the culture isn’t confined to the arts. Santería dolls swing above the dashboard of almost every old American car, protecting it against the lethal Havana traffic. Many homes hold small shrines to personal orishas. Most obviously, newly initiated priests (santeros, or babalawos) are seen dressed distinctively all in white.

The Museo de los Orishas, run by Cuba’s Yoruba association, is a large, spacious haven of peace overlooking the chaos of the Capitolio. At 5CUC, guide included, the museum is de rigueur for anyone wishing to learn more about Santería and the many orishas worshipped.

Upstairs, a vast hallway is divided by totems painted like trees. It is both a spiritual and educative space where you can wander at ease between the dozens of wooden sculptures. The whole pantheon is massive, with up to 400 orishas, but only a dozen or so figures of everyday worship are represented here. Oludomare, the one supreme God and creator of the universe, has no image – only two large, bright white sheets of satin cascade down from up high, as if to crown an invisible ruler.

The orishas he communicates through stand proud, offerings left at their feet, lit up majestically against a painted backdrop of their home – woodland, waterfall or ocean. We start with Elegúa, orisha of roads and crossroads, and protector of travellers. (His Catholic avatar is San Antonio de Padua.) Then there is the matronly Naná Buruki, grandmother of the forest, who sits beneath a tree with a child in her arms.

Yemayá interests me most. Formidable against the crashing waves of the sea that she rules, she can be beneficent or cruel. Protector of maternity and children, parents have left dolls and children’s toys in the basket below her feet in return for the welfare of their families. Her Catholic counterpart is the Virgin of Regla. Thousands make the pilgrimage to Regla every September on her feast day, paying tribute to Yemayá via the image of the black Madonna at the altar of the church – Roman Catholic in name only.

Femininity has often been associated in art and religion with water and the sea, while masculine symbols and deities tend to remain on solid land. Yemayá’s role exemplifies this. Other female deities of Santería also represent bodies of water; Ochón rules the fresh waters and fertility, her sculpture resembling a mermaid in a fishtail dress. There is also Olokún, who owns the depths of the ocean. However, when I ask about this, my guide is eager to point out that gender in the Santería pantheon is fluid and unstable – many orishas shift from man to woman at midnight. Olokún is sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes fish. Others have no sex at all.

Santería was inaccurately named from the start, saints being but disguises for the Yoruba orishas. This seems to epitomise the mystery of this religion for outsiders. But before delving into the provincial churches and communities – where the real practice takes place, far from any Christian altar – this museum is a great place to start.

The Hershey Electric Railway

The method of transport everybody tells you not to bother with in Cuba is the train. Slow, hugely unreliable and subject to schedules changing at the last minute, the national rail service Union de Ferricarriles de Cuba is not recommended for those with limited time or patience.

But in the case of the old Hershey Electric Railway, the journey is a beauty not to be missed. It takes four uncomfortable hours (experienced locals bring cushions) to complete the 90km journey from Havana to Matanzas, but the experience is worth every minute.

image

The train was built in 1922 by the US chocolate mogul Milton Hershey, to connect his remote sugar mill to the two cities. The factory was nationalised during the Revolution and renamed to commemorate the rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos, but the train continued chugging along, still known informally by its former name.

We caught the 12.21 from Casablanca (a short ferry ride from Habana Vieja) and sat down to a no-frills carriage filled with Cuban families, for whom our adventure was the run-of-the-mill slog home from the capital. The train stopped and started numerous times to allow for latecomers before we eventually set off, rumbling along the tracks in no hurry and pausing at a very tiny rail-side village for passengers to hop on and off.

Sometimes the ride was leisurely and peaceful, but more often we gripped out seats nervously as the carriage swung precariously from side to side. The roar of the engine precluded all attempts at conversation, and all we could do was gaze out at the surroundings.

Certainly nothing to complain about. The journey begins in the suburbs of Havana, literally passing through people’s backs yards and starkly displaying the ‘real’ Cuba – a life of hard agricultural work, but at a slower pace than in the exhilarating capital. Cattle and goats graze in the fields, and banana and sugar cane plantations abound. Occasionally a tractor makes its rounds, but more often a horse and cart.

image

Lush green countryside is scattered with sky-high tropical palms, and the rolling hills seem like they go on forever, despite the knowledge that a few miles north is the Atlantic, and – not much further – Florida, worlds away from this rural part of the Caribbean. Come 3pm (true to form in hurricane season), the sky darkens and the palm branches blow threateningly in the wind.

The train at last grinds to a halt a few hundred yards before the platform, and we all jump off onto the rubble-strewn tracks to walk to the station. The sky opened as we arrived in Matanzas, and stayed that way for most of our time there. But it was the journey that was the real gem.

image

First impressions

On my first day in Havana, I woke up late (jaded from jet lag and Cuban rum, always much less sweet the next morning) to see US Secretary of State John Kerry delivering his speech at the newly operational embassy. So I sprinted – or walked, as hastily as any foreigner could in the scorching midday heat – down to the Malecón. I was just in time to hear the end of the US anthem and see the flag flying high at the top of the mast-pole. An expected step after the opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington last month, but nonetheless a patent symbol of peace and immense possibility for the future of Cuban citizens for whom hostilities with their northern neighbour has taken a huge toll. Hundreds of people were gathered outside the building, cheering and clapping, Cubans and Americans alike.

IMG_1228-0

So a wonderful time to be in Cuba, to say the least. The thaw in relations with the US and the knowledge that the crippling embargo is one step closer to being lifted adds hope and excitement to a city that already astonishes with its resilience and constant movement. Havana is big – much bigger than I had imagined – but nothing is diluted. Buses, motorbikes, bicycles and the archetypal American cars blaze down the Malecón in a continuous stream of every colour imaginable. To the left, hundreds of narrow entrances to the maze of streets that make up the city centre. To the right, quiet; silhouettes of couples sitting and boys fishing at the seafront. It’s a city of juxtapositions that still seem perfectly in tune.

IMG_1221

Inside the labyrinth, the energy of children playing football in every street is offset by their parents reclining on chairs on the pavement, as languid as the cigar smoke you breathe in everywhere. It’s like a novel of magical realism where time fast-forwards then stands still before you turn the page. It might be cliché, except that it’s too confusing.

IMG_1346

However, as a traveller, you can’t just leave your wits behind and enter the euphoria. Cuba has a strained relationship with tourism. It’s perfectly safe, but many try every scam to lighten your wallet. In a country where wages are shockingly low, it is perhaps inevitable that the tourist tax is sky-high and you can expect to be charged for everything as much as locals can get away with. Tourists take different transport and even use a different currency (pesos convertibles rather than the national peso). When you are reminded at every turn that you are an outsider, the divide seems pretty unbridgeable.

These were my first, and most likely very shallow and inaccurate impressions. I think that for the first few days, you can really only enjoy yourself, reserve judgement and get thoroughly lost in the amazing, perplexing streets of the city.

Cuba: a living car museum?

Every year, tourists flock to Cuba to see the thousands of ‘Yank Tanks’ still on the roads today

Walk the streets of Havana and you are bound to see dozens of the classic American cars that gloss the cover of almost every tourist guide. “Come to Cuba,” they urge, “trundle along the Malecón, sip mojitos in the back of a 1954 Chevrolet, gaze out at a tropical island frozen in space and time…” Nicknamed yank tanks or máquinas, there are thought to be 60,000 of these vehicles still in operation in Cuba; over a third of the total number of cars on the road. Little wonder that sightseers from all over the world are enchanted by this 50s ‘time-warp’… and yet the true significance of this culture is often blotted out.

A 1951 Chevy on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

A 1951 Chevrolet on Playa Ancón. Photograph: Dmitri Alexander

In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the US trade embargo against Cuba was formally extended to include all imports, reinforced by statute after statute over the years. This policy has made it almost impossible for Cubans to obtain replacement parts for run-down vehicles, and it is thanks to the ingenuity of mechanics that the cars have been kept going for so long. Some are held together with wire, tape, any household product available, many refitted with Soviet diesel engines; a much cheaper and more efficient option. The cars that really are done for are seldom cast into the dustbin; instead ‘parted out’, keeping others on the road while creating extra income for their owners. The resourcefulness of the system is staggering.

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

Traffic in Havana. Photograph: Democratic Underground 2014

These botched-up automobiles seem to represent the twin pillars of innovation and hardship that have marked the post-revolutionary period in Cuba. The impressive make-do-and-mend culture they demonstrate is not self-consciously kitsch or exhibitionist, as is often suggested, but rather enforced by harsh economic policy and crippling international sanctions.

But change is in the air. After decades of hostility, the past year has seen a decisive thaw in relations between Cuba and the US. Last Wednesday, President Obama announced the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations, stating that secretary of state John Kerry would travel to the country later this summer to reopen the US embassy. Although the embargo remains in force, held fast – for now – by the iron fist of Congress, this new entente is an indisputably welcome milestone for both nations.

What will this mean for the battered vehicles that paint Cuba’s coastline so brightly? Some commentators have predicted a swarm of US dealers scooping them up for private collections, although many are sceptical about how much interest they will really gather abroad. In January, Cuban president Raúl Castro relaxed the country’s trade restrictions on imports, but the very high prices of foreign cars mean these are still out of reach for the vast majority. The most likely, immediate outcome is simply that it will become much easier for mechanics to get their hands on the right parts for a lot less money – and however visible the impact, this is hardly something for nostalgic tourists to bemoan.

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 film Soy Cuba

1958 Cadillac in Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film ‘Soy Cuba’

The cars of Cuba stand for a great deal more than brightly coloured muses to be papped by spellbound travellers. It is dangerous to romanticise any country so much to claim that entering its borders seems like stepping back into the fifties, especially considering the memory of pre-revolutionary Havana. The so-called ‘Yank Tanks’ are a far cry from the vehicles they once were, imported from the US decades ago. They do not represent a time lag, but mobility and progression. Let’s bear this mind now that Cuba and the US may be – possibly for the first time – communicating on equal terms.