Santeria – part three

 

I don’t really understand santeria. I have experienced it possibly four times; I go with the flow and do what I’m told but I don’t understand. I have discovered though, that very few people do. Joel James Figarola asks:

‘Is there in Cuban culture, specifically in popular tradition, any sort of practice which, consciously or not, is meant to diminish the fear of death? If it were so, does such practice imply that sort of feeble religiosity or limited capacity for abstract thinking which some authors have attributed to the Cuban individual?’

I think I know what he means by ‘the limited capacity for abstract thinking’; the Cubans that I know live very much in the present moment; history, which is yesterday, or one hour ago, is just forgotten, and one moves on with whomever happens to be around at that time. The only permanence seems to be family, perhaps some friends, but friends are quickly forgotten when they disappear (which is very common here), but they are remembered if and when they reappear. Figarola continues:

‘…that thick syncretic interweave which the ordinary Cuban individual is. The magical-religious systems created among us, are an attempt to achieve conciliation and serenity, to subdue chaos by integrating death as a domestic, everyday presence.’

Figarola believes that aspects of santeria

‘…are most probably acting as channels between transcendental aboriginal conceptions and those derived in the past century, from African populations brought into the Island as slave force, or from Antillean immigrant labourers…both black and white, in various ways and from different places, bring to the Island a traumatic experience interwoven with broken memories, projects and nostalgia: a broken inner world to be inserted in a new world in a perennial state of rupture.’

‘Transcendental aboriginal conceptions’ – I have often wondered about this. The native Indian population was quickly wiped out by the Spanish. Apparently the Indians were incredibly innocent, naive (and small); they did not know how to fight and apparently were extinguished quickly and completely. I would like to discover more about them but that will have to wait for another time. Were they all wiped out; every single one of them? I suppose if some survived, there is very little or no influence from them now. Then came the slaves, from all parts of Africa, and with them came their beliefs and stories and rituals. Cuba has also (apart from the last fifty years) been in a constant state of revolution:

‘…in a perennial state of rupture’;

this, in very simple terms, must be the basis for santeria – Where are we from? What are our stories? Who are we?

redcar-001

Santeria makes Cubans unique:

‘… a spiritual environment where life is lived as if one would die the following day – which is to say as if one would never die -, where the dead are not expelled from the everyday world of the living nor ostracised from the family.’

Most black people here are descended from slaves and many, many in-betweens too.

‘Slavery is collective death. The newly arrived African slave loses his own environment, his emotional references, his memory; on the other hand, the criollo slave, born without an environment of his own, surrounded by emotional references inimical to him, inherits no memory at all.’

‘…the barracks, the whip, and the stocks, in the sense of cultural projection; and the wealth resulting from such efforts is contained in the foundations of each one of our major magical-religious systems.’

‘A certain detachment prevails in the social mind, disrupting the citizen’s accommodation in the general body and generating a diffuse yet exact there is no place for me sort of feeling.’

‘In the last fifty years the Island has been immersed in the urgent task of drawing new circumstantial limits; hence, death has recovered the sympathetic and fertile connotations it possessed when the nation was born in la manigua (the wilderness). Death in revolutionary Cuba is not an act of solitude but a unanimous communion of hopes; and in face of the usual enemies and occasional hardships, the words of the Gospel come to us: “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?”’

‘Even if much has been written on the subject, I do not think that we Cubans have yet been able to fully comprehend the extent to which slavery and the plantation system conditioned social behaviour and values, either in material or spiritual matters, either in immediate or prospective terms.’

I was quite relieved to read the above. My first experience of santeria, several years ago, involved, basically: ‘nobody really understands it’. I believe that is still the case. Santeria involves countless rituals. They are not made up; every one is recorded from previous experience, written down and referred to. Also involved is percussion, lots of it and for very long periods, chanting, singing and dancing. It always involves at least two people and the subject (usually many more than two, sometimes as many as will fit into a space). I will explain no more.

For what it is worth, I believe that santeria is a response to chaos, the chaos of many centuries of Cuban life, followed by the revolution, hope, brief comparative prosperity, hardship again and now perhaps hope – although none of that is acknowledged – Cubans live for the moment, don’t worry about much else and express themselves through santeria.

DSC00553

Cuban magical religious systems cannot be analysed as independent structures; not one of them, despite their isolation or liturgical complexity, exists without a functional reference to the others.

Rómulo Lachañtarés believes that santeria is a system of local cults. In relation to santeria there are five fundamental reglas (cults). If we were to go any deeper inside any of them, we would run, like it or not, into the others. Each system, thus, inhabits its own recognisable space, while it steps into the territories of the others.

The orisha cult or Regla de Ocha is expressed in a total subduing of the dead in favour of the orishas (Yoruban deities).

Other systems include Oggunismo, Espirito de Cordón, Regla Muetera and Regla de Palo Monte. We are concerned here only with Regla de Ocha or santeria: Yoruban origin.

1 – Ridden by orishas: The repertory of gestures is quite conventional. Theatricality and stereotypes are the obvious frame for a wavering personality.

2 – Ridden by anonymous or unknown muertos:  Possession is weak and superficial. There is no prearranges code for gesture except for closed eyes. No sounds are produced and no attempt is made to establish communication.

3 – Ridden by orishas as mortal spirits: Strong, violent states offering no possible communication. The orisha rides following the mortal, earthly avatar he enjoyed before death and ulterior deification. Possession acquires a tragic mood, as if the orisha was intuitively and wildly searching for whatever has been lost. This is specially so in the case of warrior gods.

None of the above sufficiently explains any of my experiences. This was just the best, short explanation I could find. Joel James Figarola believes that:

‘trance or possession is a quality, talent or capability of human psychic nature, regulated by cultural determinations which are closer to ethnic – not to mistake for racial – heritage rather than to immediate social or educational circumstances. Trance and possession are thus part of the reservoir of human potentialities, and much as, for example, feelings and emotions, they are tones of the mnemonic range of the species. Mystic crises of communication involving forces believed to be transcendental are part of the foundations of every religion and are easily traceable throughout the planet. Both the Old and the New Testament, to name but two instances, contain clear references to this matter.’

Although he believes that ‘fraudulent imitation is far from rare’, he finds that the most convincing example of possession is the third in santeria: orishas in their avatar as dead individuals:

‘in santeria they attempt to achieve a fair enough communion with the orishas’.

I found the examples of possession fairly convincing.

DSC00554Santeria – part one

Santeria – part two

Advertisements

Santeria – part two

In Yuri’s eight day absence, her mother will come to the flat and cook for me. Tomorrow I go the santeria myself. At the flat I make do against the heat (33˚), which is not too bad; there is a mostly constant breeze and it rains on many days, mostly the evening. I can look after myself but Yuri has taken care of everything; my Spanish is awful, I can’t protest, so I’m happy to let things be as they are. I am considered useless and happy to be so.

 

Tomorrow at ten in the morning Yuri’s mother and sister will call for me.

 

They came at ten on the dot and we walked the half-mile or so to the place of santeria. Yuri had been there for two days. Her head had been shaved and she wore a white dress. The room was full of every type of paraphernalia to do with santeria: fruit, herbs, crusts of bread, myriad objects, tassels and objects of clothing. She sat in one corner of the room on a mat, above her a triangular canopy of yellow. We were soon joined by about eight other people, some to do with Yuri, others about their own business. For an hour they just talked and laughed. Three of the women were the same as we had seen the week before, but in a different place. This was the real thing.

DSC00553

After about an hour and a half I was taken aside. My hair was washed with something strange, doused with coconut juice and dried slightly, while the woman chanted in Yoruba. Then I was taken to a separate room where desiccated coconut was placed on my feet, knees hands, chest, neck and finally the top of my head, all the while as chanting took place. Then the largest pile of coconut (on my head) was covered with a cap, and left.

 

The santeria man has a nice house, a very wide screen TV and several women working for him. He’s very sociable and everybody likes him.

 

I went to see Yuri on Sunday, still dressed in white although there are yellow dresses she changes into at other times. She is tired. She sits on a mat in the corner of the room. She must sleep there too. I drank a coffee and talked for a while, but soon exhausted my limited Spanish and what I had been doing (very little) and left after about an hour. I hated the time Yuri was away. Although my Spanish is extremely limited and her English almost non-existent, we seem to communicate well. Much of the time she isn’t here, but I know she will be back and that makes all the difference. The eight days she was away, apart from writing and the occasional film, I did not know what to do. I have been to Havana so many times that walking held little attraction, and it is over 30˚. A woman comes to clean every few days, Yuri’s mother and sister come to cook, but I find I’m rarely hungry. I go and collect cash when I need it. I went to watch the beginning of the English football season on Sunday, but it appears that ESPN have lost the English games to BT, so I just waited until I knew the score and left.

 

After eight days, Yuri returned. Her head has been shaved. She wears a quite substantial pair of drawers, tights, socks, a white dress and a white head dress. She must wear this stuff every time she goes out, and she must go out and walk around every day. She must not have the sun on her, so she carries a white umbrella. In the house she can wear a white shift and remove the tights but everything else remains. She must eat while sitting on a mat and somebody else must wash her empty plate. She must wear this stuff and behave like this for three months, all the time remaining in Havana. After three months she can return to Bahia Honda, but must continue to wear the outfit for a year.

133

I had noticed people wearing all white, but it was not until Yuri had her treatment that I realised why. Walking around Havana, one day you might see two or three people all in white, their hair at various stages of growth; on another day you might see ten or more. This is not scientific, but of the people I saw, perhaps 30% or 40% were white. Whatever Yuri had done, it is very popular (for those who can afford it). I have been to perhaps four places that practice santeria. There are many, many other places and hundreds of shops supplying trinkets and many secret places providing animals for sacrifice. I would imagine that Cubans do get conned, but not often; tourists are fair game and I would expect the gullible to be fleeced. This eight day treatment is the first time I’ve spent any substantial amount on santeria – and it does involve a lot of expense.

 

The first Friday after Yuri had completed she returned for a final ritual on her Padrino’s birthday. Free food, loads of it was available for everybody. Some people were drinking, but not many. Yuri’s ritual lasted an hour or two, involved lots of percussion and people dancing and chanting around her. Two or three others had similar rituals; one black man seemed to be possessed and was taken into another room, where he continued to speak in a voice of possession for a couple of hours. The Padrino listened to every word. If there is anything suspect about santeria, it is still very, very hard work.

 

I’m not disillusioned with santeria; I’m just a bit bored with it all. Not understanding the language doesn’t help. But this is something that means a great deal to Yuri and I’m happy to provide it. In future though, I won’t have much to do with it. It can be fun, it can be a spectacle – but I’ve just about seen enough….

 

 

The third and final installment of my Santeria experience will be posted on Monday.

 Santeria – part one

Santeria – part one

On arrival in Cuba, Yuri, my woman, asked if I remembered that I would consider paying quite a lot of money for a massive santeria campaign for her, involving over one week’s intensive treatment: clothes, occupation and all the paraphernalia that went with it. I remembered the email conversation of six months before but there had been no discussion since, and I had forgotten about it. Yuri hadn’t. I quickly calculated the reliability of the request, the chances of her staying faithful to me and agreed to finance the santeria. It would mean less money to spend on whatever, but I hadn’t intended much in the way of entertainment anyway.

DSC00196

The santeria involved two afternoon preparatory sessions. I was persuaded to attend the first one. I was not a stranger to santeria, having undergone sessions in 2001, 2009 and 2012. I was not a believer – well, certainly a sceptic – but as my experience grew I realised just how firmly entrenched the religion was in Cuban culture. My 2001 experience, though extensive, paled in comparison to late experiences. In 2009 I encountered, more closely, the thoroughness of operations, undergoing a two hour session involving the sacrifice of a young goat, a chicken and a goose. Although the sacrifices took up only a small part of the operation, most of which involved two santeria practitioners repeating from the book of Yoruba, a series of litanies. I had no idea what was being said; I was ordered to bow, touch, speak, perform strange rituals, and touch objects, symbols, dust, powders and liquids. I kissed the severed neck of the young goat. At the end I was told that I was capricious and would need to be careful of my health. I didn’t need santeria to tell me that. Yuri could have told them that. But one of the practitioners told me several times that I was crazy, which may or may not be true, and also I didn’t understand ninety per cent of what they told me. My Spanish is very, very basic. Yuri speaks little English. Despite both of us taking lessons in each other’s language we have so far failed to learn much beyond the absolute basics, although we communicate between each other pretty well, mainly using my rudimentary Spanish.

DSC00553

The next occasion entailed santeria for Yuri. We visited a spacious and airy building where a man began preparations for her ritual. He was impressed by my book on Cuba, Caliente; at least he appeared to be. He was accompanied by at least two women who seemed to be there permanently. While we were there he was visited by several other people; there seemed to be a constant flow of people, mainly white Cuban, during the time I was there. Some spoke English, some did not; the age and occupation varied but I was left with the impression that santeria was not a minority interest, but that practically all Cubans followed it to some extent.

123We took two bicycle taxis, first to a nondescript building where a few people waited outside. The man knocked several times and we waited several minutes before someone opened the double-doors. A very sleepy, attractive young woman opened the doors, very reluctantly allowed us access. The interior was completely dark with three walls lined with cages. The cages contained goats, chickens, cockerels, geese, and other varieties of bird. For reasons of which I know not, perhaps price, we didn’t stay long, and rejected what was on offer. Off in the two bicycle taxis again, for about a mile where Yuri, the main man and an assistant, much older, found another place. I was told to wait in the taxi. After about thirty minutes they arrived back with two chickens and a goose. A motor taxi was hailed, the animals, tied by the feet were thrust into the boot and we set off elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be about fifteen miles away, on a beach, although not facing the sea. A small lake adjoining the beach was chosen and preparations made. One of the chickens immediately escaped. I thought this funny, but just watched with amusement as they tried to catch it. They didn’t. I was secretly pleased. I have no particular fondness for chickens but I was happy to see it make its burst for freedom. Perhaps it’s still there or thereabouts. I hope so. No such luck for the remaining chicken and goose, both had their heads removed, the blood sprayed over Yuri’s legs among the usual chants and exhortations. The ceremony lasted about thirty minutes. I have no idea what it was about or what it was supposed to achieve.

We later stopped at one of the several little shops or holes in the wall (one at least on every street) to renew my bracelet, a yellow and green beaded effort that I had been wearing for three years, to protect me from I know not what.  The shop contained every trinket imaginable. We also visited, by taking the harbour ferry to its other side, the Catholic Church where Yuri lit candles for my book and briefly prayed at the altar. The santeria religion is a mixture of the Catholic faith and the beliefs that countless slaves bought with them from Africa. As far as I can tell the religion is perhaps twenty percent Catholicism and eighty per cent an unfathomable mixture of African beliefs, but be sure, it is widespread and inseparable from the rest of Cuban culture.

121

Fast forward to today and the preparation for Yuri’s week long santeria initiation. I hadn’t intended to go, not knowing what to expect. First we visited the top flat of an overweight young woman, her Madrina. I was given coffee and there was much talk about what was to come. After about thirty minutes we moved to another top floor flat, the stairs to which would have been condemned anywhere else, wooden and rickety and only vaguely attached to whatever they were supposed to be attached to. The last leg of the journey upwards involved a spiral staircase covering three floors. We finally settled into a small room where the young woman and one female, very attractive assistant, prepared for whatever was to come. Although the size of the room made it impossible, I sat as far away from the action as I could. The two women were later joined by two others – so four practitioners and one subject, with me sitting in the corner with my book and cigarettes trying to pretend that nothing was happening.

What followed was three to four hours of intense chanting and activity. The overweight woman seemed to go into a trance of some sort for at least two hours. Whether she became people from the past (the dead), one person or several people, I don’t know. I was trying to avoid involvement. The other three women and Yuri followed many of the chants and vague suggestions. They all knew exactly what was going on and how to respond. The overweight woman inhabited other personalities. She shouted, screamed, had minor fits and seemed very much to be genuine. If it was at all fraudulent then it was exhaustingly so. She involved me a couple of times but I tried to remain invisible and take no part at all.

Three days later at twelve o’clock, Yuri left. Eight days were to follow of intensive treatment. She left on Tuesday. I was to join, reluctantly, on Thursday. Alone in the flat was both pleasant and unpleasant. I missed Yuri but I also enjoy being alone. Every provision had been made. I had food to last. Yuri’s mother, who had come from Bahia Honda to assist with the santeria, would come in every day and cook.

083

Santeria – part two

Being Gay in Cuba

When I first came to Cuba, Gayness wasn’t discussed. It was disapproved of and people rarely talked about it. Yamilia whispered to me in 2001 that Raul (Castro) was gay; José asked me if I could find him a book on gayness, but beyond that it was never mentioned, acknowledged – it just didn’t exist (openly). Prostitution existed, but to me it was never that open or that common. Sure there are women who will sell themselves, some, a few, to anybody, while others are more fussy, more opportunist. The rest of the world makes a big deal about Cubans selling sex, but in reality, I would bet that any English, European, American town or city – worldwide probably – has more prostitutes per square mile than Cuba. Cuban attitudes to sex are different too. It is not very important; it is fun but they do not mistake it for love or take it too seriously. They take it seriously while they’re doing it, but it’s just a bodily function, quickly forgotten.

009

I noticed things were changing in 2006. Mine and Yuri’s room had been double booked, so we were temporarily sent to another house. It was run by three gay men and populated mostly with gay travellers. The main man of the house spoke English and for the few days that we were there he spoke to us frequently. He was jovial and friendly, but afterwards Yuri always gave me a look, a isn’t he strange look; she wasn’t comfortable with it. If we stopped in the street to talk to someone (always male), she would afterwards say

‘he’s gay’

and give me that look.

 

It’s different now. Gays are everywhere.  And Yuri never mentions anyone’s gayness. It’s so common she has just accepted it. About gay prostitution I’m not sure. Yuri did set up a meeting with a gay friend but it fell through. I know they congregate around the Capitol building (which is being restored) and in Vedado. Beyond that I know little about it. Actually, I take little interest. To me it’s just a sexual preference. If that’s the way you are – fair enough – do what you like. I don’t agree with Gay Pride marches or advertising yourself too much, but I dare say that will settle down.

 

If you’re not gay, then there is little to notice. You may notice an apparently obvious gay person wandering around, but that’s about it. As far as I can see, whatever gay community there is, keeps itself to itself. If I hadn’t been told about the gay culture, I would certainly barely notice it. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it is more overt and I just don’t see it, but I don’t think so. In ten years Cuba has gone from not even acknowledging gayness, in fact persecuting open gayness, to accepting it quite openly. Not bad going.

023

A Cuban memory trick

 

Some of the older people do have memories, for big events. Those old enough remember the revolution or, much later,  the Russians leaving, but everyday life, everyday people, they are past or gone, unless they stick around or return. Tony remembers, he clearly remembers me, but he could not remember Yamilia, José or Paul. He says I am family, that I can stay in his house anytime, but I don’t think he remembers why; I don’t think he remembers any of the stuff we got up to all those years before, he just knows there was something, that I keep coming back, that there is something there.

DSC00568

Lucia (my nurse) didn’t remember when I went to see her. She remembered me, the face, but when I mentioned Yamilia, to whom she was close, there was a complete blank. No memory of her. No memory of the flat, of the eighteen or so months we were intermittently together, of José or anybody else. I wish I spoke Spanish. I have tried. I have a good memory; I remember loads of words and their meaning, I can make myself understood, but I can never get the hang of putting all the words together. I don’t understand how they link. I’m hopeless; being able to learn a language is a gift – I don’t have it.

 

If I could speak Spanish (I will continue to try), I could talk to people, learn more about what happens here. I’ve learned a lot because I am curious; I know a great deal about Cuba, but I want to know more, before it disappears. I think it will disappear, not as quickly as many people think, but it will go, and here will be the same as everywhere else.

 

Yuri remembers our meeting and many of the events since. But we have stayed in constant touch; I have been part of her life for seven years. If I had disappeared after meeting her in 2006, I don’t think she would remember me. At the Ambos Mundos, where I used to stay before I met Yuri, the staff there remember me from 1998, my first visit, but in between I’m sure they don’t remember me at all. Perhaps that is typical, to a certain extent I think it is; my memory is very good, perhaps I assume that everybody has the same faculty.

 

There is something unique about Cuban memory. Joel James Figarola believes that Cubans live in ‘a spiritual environment where life is lived as if one would die the following day – which is to say as if one would never die’. I think this explains Cuban life quite well; they live very much in the moment – what has just passed has gone, the future does not matter, all that matters is now – this moment.

 

It is a good way to live. It requires that everyone else lives that way too, but it is a good way to be. Stuff still gets done, in a way that is sometimes mystifying. For ages nothing seems to happen, then suddenly there is a new building or a new cafe or restaurant. The pace of life is slow, but that is partly the weather – who wants to hurry in 30˚ of heat? Bureaucracy can be painfully slow, but that can happen anywhere. It is a hangover from the Soviet influence. I think it will change, slowly, but things will always take longer here.

 

Whatever the answers are, life in Cuba is unique. It has its faults (as does everywhere), but there is nothing like here, the way it is now. I love it. I leave the final words with Andrei Codrescu (not a fan of modern Cuba):

‘The best quality of an observer is empathy, which has to come with your worldview. No amount of immersion or adventure can take the place of empathy. If you look with love, you get back love. Ditto anger, indignation, or indifference. The Cubans are full of warmth, a vast reservoir of affection.’

082

This is progress?

 

The buildings here are much the same as they were when the revolution occurred. They have been extended upwards and backwards, but the main structures are the same as they were then. Many are in disrepair. Three, four or five stories have been added to most of the buildings. Most have gas and electric systems that would be illegal in most other countries: wires and tubes protruding everywhere. Even on Obispo, the most touristy of streets, there is nothing new. Away from Old and Central Havana there are fairly new flats, but it is hard to find any progress.

viva

The building opposite us is empty. Some of its balconies are shored up. It must have been some kind of government building, whatever, definitely not inhabited. Perhaps one hundred years old, on a list somewhere for renovation. I have only seen what there is between Jose Marti Airport and central and old Havana. But I have not noticed any change; there are many derelict factories, many more signs of dilapidation than progress. Occasionally there is a newish building with a newish business, but it all seems a bit depressing. Perhaps progress is being made, but in a depressed world economy and a collapsing Cuban economy, it is hard to find it. Apart from tourism, I’m not sure that the Cubans have much going for them.

 

I don’t really know anything beyond Old, Central, Bahia Honda, Villa Pan Americana or Guanabacoa, I don’t know much about Cuba. I lived in Villa Pan Americana for a year; I lived in Guanabacoa for six months; I stayed in Bahia Honda on several occasions, Lugareno too; I stayed in various places in Havana many, many times. I noticed much about those places, felt at home in them, was part of them. But I still feel that I don’t know much about Cuba. I know a lot more than most foreigners, but still not much.

 

I’ve seen how the very poorest live and the rich too. Some clearly stayed rich after the revolution – I don’t know how. Some get money sent to them from the United States, many don’t. This trip I had been unsure until the last minute whether I wanted to come or not; I have been bored by my last few visits. But then I had a different outlook; I was mainly clubbing and drinking and getting up at midday. Now, I have adjusted to the pace of life here; I’m looking at it from a different point of view. I like it. It needs money. Not a great deal, but more than I have, so far.

 

According to Graham Greene,

‘The Spanish, the French and the Portuguese built cities where they settled, but the English just allowed cities to grow.’

I hadn’t thought about that before, but it is true. This is a Spanish city that has had a Cuban makeover, but very little has been added; most of what has been added is for the benefit of tourists, not Cubans. I think plans are afoot to improve the Cubans lot, but they will be slow and very gradual. Much will depend on the success of quasi-socialist governments in South America. Can they hold out against US influence or will they find a way to succeed? If they do succeed, even partially, then Cuba will have friends and allies. If the embargo were to end (without the US taking over), that would help tremendously too.

 

I don’t think Cuba will change quite as quickly as some people suppose. There are plans in place for gradual change, but what influence will the new entrepreneurship have on the people? Will the taste of money change everything? Or will they continue with a vaguely socialist outlook? Whatever happens, I hope that change doesn’t come too quickly, that Cubans somehow find a way to retain their uniqueness. It really is unique here; it would be awful if Cuba were just to become like everywhere else.

What do People do here?

malecon

I didn’t really ask myself in the past – what do people do here? I still don’t know but I have much more idea. What almost everybody does is something. Starting at around five in the morning, a constant stream of people pass beneath my balcony; just one street of millions in the city. Among the first to arrive are the taxis, not taxis in the imagined sense, but ordinary low level private cars. They use the seventy yards or so just before the corner as a queuing spot for customers, perhaps eight or so taxis at any one time, constantly changing as customers take the first in the queue, all day, six or seven days a week. Although this happened before; there were always willing drivers to take people on whatever journey they wished, this is more official. I don’t know how much they charge because we only take bicycle taxis, of which there seem to be many more than were here a few years ago.

taxi

Whatever they charge, they are just part of the burgeoning private enterprise; along with the taxis are soft drink sellers, fruit sellers, cloth sellers, trinket sellers – anything sellers. All this activity takes place non-stop, every day, along with what must be the normal day-to-day activity of everyone else.  The daily pushing of carts, trolleys, the carrying of goods, those who work and those who don’t – a constant stream of people – in one street, my street, one of many, many thousands.

 

There are more people begging on the streets, more selling Granma, the daily paper here, more persistently, more of a nuisance and mostly completely tolerated by hotel staff and anyone else involved. Perhaps that is the result of a more tolerant attitude to free enterprise. While they were once stopped or discouraged by police, they are now more ubiquitous. Nothing like as bad as in almost any other country, but certainly more here, more real and more confident.

 

The Capitol is closed for renovation, as is a very big shopping centre close by and many public buildings. No matter what else is happening here the country is gearing up for more tourism. The shopping centre contained six or seven floors above it, also closed and empty. What happened to the people who were in those rooms? I don’t know. Were they moved elsewhere? Will they be able to return? I don’t know.

 

It is hard to tell what is going on here. Most people take no interest, too busy in surviving, getting by. There are more paladares, more taxis, more stalls selling bits and pieces. I asked Yuri if life was easier now or more difficult than, say, 2006. She says things are easier. What of the buildings? Coming in from the airport there seems to be no difference in anything: people still stand by the road waiting for lifts or rare buses; people still seem to struggle with their daily lives. Our lift from the airport stopped along the way to carry out some private business or other. Old and central Havana, where I spend very much most of my time, is different. More people have more, though not so that most people would notice.

 

With the world economy in a complete mess, demonstrations and revolts occurring everywhere: Egypt, Spain, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Greece… what are the Cubans doing? Yuri has not the slightest interest. At the moment I don’t know anyone that has, although if I make contact with more English speakers or find an interpreter then I’m sure there will be a different story. At the moment I don’t care. I am curious though. I know only what I see. Some of that I may interpret correctly, much I’m sure that I don’t.

 

The police have new cars. There are new buses although they are as full as ever and the queues remain long. There are designer stores, many more now than before, and not just for tourists. This is one of the big contradictions here: How can ordinary Cubans, on a wage of ten dollars a month, afford the prices, which are much the same as any other store worldwide. But many Cubans do afford the prices, perhaps with money from the United States or perhaps through employment in the more profitable parts of the tourist industry or perhaps through the new entrepreneurship, although I very much doubt it.

 

Everywhere you go is fantastically clean in Cuba. A woman comes every other day to clean our apartment. If it were left to me I would probably give it a very quick once over, maybe once a week. Just tidy the bathroom and the kitchen and a quick sweep elsewhere. She takes between two and three hours every time. Everything is spotless. You do come across the odd mosca (fly) and very occasionally a mosquito; otherwise I have never seen an insect in any Cuban house.

 

It is not just the cleaning lady who is so conscious of cleanliness. We have her because I rent a room, otherwise the lady of the house would clean everything every day. Many years ago, when I was with Yamilia, although she was basically lazy, she would always clean the house first thing. It is the same wherever I’ve stayed in Cuba – I’ve never seen a dirty house.

 

It seems to be part of the Cuban DNA. The floor is always covered with water and mopped – all rooms have tile floors. Of course there are many dilapidated buildings which, until they get attention, are left to rot, but any inhabited house, no matter how humble will be clean.

 

Certainly things have changed since I first came here. Cubans can now stay in their own hotels (if they can afford it), visit their own beaches. Accommodation is much easier to find. All sorts of jobs (about 180) have been added to an entrepreneurial list. In other ways it’s not so good. The bars on Obispo used to stay open all night, now they shut at twelve (so as not to disturb tourists in the few hotels nearby) – why come to Havana if you’re bothered by noise? Now, I don’t mind the changes, but a quiet Obispo does not seem right. Even though I rarely drink, I would like the choice; there are always other places, but it’s not quite the same.

 

Just now I don’t know. I know a lot and I will learn more, but after fifteen years there’s still loads I don’t know. Yuri knows everything, absolutely everything. I’ll have another go at Spanish (they talk so fast here), but I’ll try.

chriscuba-001