Crime in Havana

vivaI heard a sudden noise from the street, rather an increase in noise – there is always noise in central Havana, always. This was high pitched shouting and screaming. At first I thought it was kids in the corridor, not unknown, boisterous, echoing, but it was far too loud for that, so I moved to the balcony. Yuri had returned; she’d been out and gone straight to the other balcony. The disturbance must have begun right after she entered the building. I looked down, four floors; it was hard to figure out what was gong on; there seemed to be maybe a dozen people involved, nearly all women. There were two or three separate swirls of action, involving much shouting, angry, high-pitched and out of control, mostly female. I saw a few punches and kicks being aimed, but each swirl of action had another dozen people trying to break it up, and the whole thing was being watched by an almost instant crowd of about one hundred. Every balcony was full, traffic came to a standstill.

 

The police quickly arrived on foot and began to separate the warring parties. It was difficult though, because there were about ten women attacking two men; the men tried to take refuge in the flats or get into their white car. Every time the police moved one or two of the women, another one or two would come in from another side. And the women began screaming at the police, so more separate arguments began. The street was blocked with people by now. One of the men managed to get into the white car; a policeman stood guard at the door. A woman began screaming at him and while his attention was on her another woman opened the door and aimed a kick at the man inside. The police managed to separate the crowd from the fighting parties; one of the men was in the doorway to the flats, the other in the car. The man in the car was short and white; the one in the doorway was big, tall, probably mulatto.

 

The crowd watching swelled; it left just a small circle for the action, like a cock fight. The women were now screaming; at the police mostly, but also the men beyond. They were very, very loud, very angry, gesticulating wildly with their arms, jerky violent movements, explaining themselves to the police, but, I suspected, explaining nothing. I had seen this happen before in Bayamo one night. A friend and I had smashed up a hire car; we were in the police station to report the accident. It was quite a serious accident; my friend (he had no licence) had turned the car over, but we were more or less unscathed. A policewoman commented on this: why aren’t you more seriously hurt? José, my friend, indicated that we were wearing seat belts. She shook her head and wondered at the novelty. Anyway, suddenly about twenty women, mostly quite young, burst into the station. The noise was absolutely tremendous. Everything else had to stop. They were all shouting at once, waving their arms; it was hard to tell whom was arguing with whom, or what the problem was. Nothing else could be done while this was going on: the police woman excused herself. For about an hour they listened to various stories and (I think) pretended to take notes. The women talked (shouted) at the same time. Various officers listened to them. Slowly, very slowly, they calmed down a bit, perhaps talked among each other; it was hard to tell. Gradually everything went quiet and they were sent on their way. I don’t believe the police did anything. They just sighed with relief and went back to work.

 

This altercation reminded me of that, although three or four of the women didn’t calm down at all. The police though, calmly separated everybody and the watching crowd slipped away. Traffic started to move again. Two, then three police cars arrived. The white man stayed in the car, but the mulatto explained himself to the police. Some of the women tried to get at him, but couldn’t, so argued with the police. Eventually, the women departed. People left their balconies. The white man got out of the car. The two men left. The police stayed for about an hour, not doing anything, just talking.

 

Two hours later, three separate police on bicycles arrived; then a policeman on foot, then a motorcycle cop, then three police cars. The women then arrived; they came from another street, so I think did the men. The women had bought a bigger woman with them. She carried a can of beer and was built like a heavyweight boxer. She was shouting when she arrived and the whole time she was there. Two or three of the other women, the ones who’d been there before were also shouting. It was quite a performance but lacked the energy of the previous row. The police sort of listened, but really just ignored them. The men were nowhere to be seen. The car was still there. After fifteen minutes the women left. The heavyweight boxer kept stopping and shouting all the way up the street. She still held the can of beer, was probably drunk and perhaps trying to make up for not having been there. She had obviously been brought along as a reinforcement and was trying to make up for having nothing to do. The police ignored her.

 

The three bicycle police and the man on foot left after about thirty minutes. The three police cars, each with two police, and the motorcycle cop stayed for about another ninety minutes. They talked. One of them cleaned his car. They all had a look at the motorcycle; it was new. A trailer arrived, backed up to the white car and took it away. The police chatted briefly and left. I have no idea what it was all about. Neither did Yuri, but she lost interest after about five minutes.

 

I wondered about crime in Havana…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Santeria – part two

What do People do here?

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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.

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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.

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