by Lang Phipps
To a man, every Cuban I meet dislikes Fidel (the guy on Calle Obispo who
recognized Yves and I from the beach asked, "Do you have a bomb?" when I
told him I might be meeting El Jefe), but they all love their country.
Just about everything mechanical is stuck in the 50's. Big smog-spewing U.S. autos from the mafia days, ramshackle, rattletrap juggernauts with names like Bel Air, Roadmaster, and Zephyr, dominate the potholed roads. Soviet Ladas scatter in their wakes.
Like the old American cars lurching over the streets of Havana, the system works despite all odds. As Yves said, "there must be some very good mechanics in Cuba."
Several times we saw a car with a broken axle, abandoned in the middle of the road a few yards up from a monstrous pothole.
A martial band is playing in front of the Granma memorial in the revolutionary square across from the hotel at 10 a.m. No-one stops to listen; the band provides a sort of party Muzak that the people tune out. Behind them, encased in glass, is the actual boat, a wooden cabin cruiser called the Granma, that Castro took from Mexico at the start of the revolution in 1956. The name, incidentally, refers to a coastal region in Cuba, not to anyone's aging female relative.
So much is crumbling here. Whoever has the paint and concrete concession is going to make a killing after Fidel falls.
I look at the sea wall on the Malecon and think of the far older one at Naples harbor in Italy. Why is the Malecon sea wall disintegrating? One theory is that salt water was used in the original concrete mix used in much of Havana's construction, and the salt is slowly corroding the structures from within.
Everywhere women are waving down rides. It is preposterous to see, because so many of them are breathtakingly beautiful and extravagantly dressed. We had heard Fidel had clamped down on prostitution, but the ban is enforced only in the tourist hotels. If you try to bring a young woman up to your hotel room, she will be stopped by hotel security, and if you get past them, the elevator operator will have her removed from the premises. So the trade is on the roadways, at all hours of night and day.
In Cuba, you are required to pick up hitchhikers, in the socialist spirit of sharing the wealth. If you are fortunate enough to have a car or a bicycle, you had better share it with a comrade, or risk a fine. It is not unusual to see three people creaking along the roadside astride a single bicycle. All the motorcyles have sidecars, always occupied.
The people are more jolly and friendly than the southern Italians. Two young musicians in an old Buick gave me a ride across town one night, and within ten minutes they had invited me to hang out with them at the beach the next day.
Ernesto our wily driver, has come up with nicknames for us. Yves he calls "Il Padrone", or the Godfather, because of Yves' munificent bulk and his ready wad of dollars. Me he calls "Lo gringo locissimo", or the craziest gringo, for what reason I can't imagine.