“I thought this was a road,” I said to my Cuban companion as we were standing alongside one of the main streets in Havana, silent as a cemetery. “So where are all the cars?” In the half hour we’d been standing on the kerb, an elderly 1950’s Chevrolet was the only car that had chugged down the street. There were a lot of 1950’s American cars in Cuba in 1993, relics from before the revolution when Cuba and the United States became bitter ex-lovers and cut off trade. I believed I had seen a donkey, moseying down the street, but food was very scarce, I could have been hallucinating.
“Well,” said my Cuban companion, a nuclear scientist who was working as a toilet cleaner in my hotel to pay his way. “We are in “El periodo especial,” the special period, we haven’t got any petrol now.” “El periodo especial” was the wonderful euphemism coined by the Cuban government to describe the almost total collapse of their economy after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Generously subsidised Soviet oil was suddenly withdrawn, leaving the entire Cuban economy stranded on the side of the road. Even public transport was patchy, in fact the only way to get around was to hitch a lift from the occasional car passing by. This was impossible for me as, though in fact half Jamaican, I looked so Cuban that I had to practically sell my British passport to get into the tourist shops. Thus I would wave my arms, fruitlessly trying to hitch a lift, completely ignored by the drivers who assumed I was a local with no dollars only the worthless Cuban currency.
I was in hot demand at the hotel though. Foreign men kept knocking on my door, hysterical at being groped every time they left the hotel, begging me to pretend to be their “girlfriend.” I’m an incredibly good fake girlfriend, in fact even won and award, and was providing a body guard service, for an exceptionally reasonable price. Every time a foreign looking man left the hotel, hordes of Cuban senoritas would latch onto their arms. It seemed a large proportion of women under 35 had resorted to turning tricks. And the prices they asked for were heart breaking – they would have sex with a man for a tube of toothpaste or a small bar of soap. There were male prostitutes as well, jineteros, gorgeous young men with gym sculpted bodies and classic faces. But none of them approached me as they thought I was Cuban and penniless as well.
Before I came to Cuba, at the age of almost twenty four, something dramatic had changed in my life. I had lost my virginity to Jesus, which almost didn’t count. Jesus was, in fact, a non-English speaking Spaniard who was incredibly square and from whom I had to conceal my acid-taking dope smoking past. Alas, after so much anticipation, it was a bit of a let down. I wasn’t in love and didn’t fancy him that much. It was just something I had to get rid of, like a sheep-encrusted jumper a clueless relative had given me at Christmas time. So I was in a relationship, of sorts. But while in Cuba do as the Cubans, who were merrily banging everything in sight, so I also hooked up with the nuclear scientist. I do have a phobia about toilets so I did make him wash his hands.
Every street cleaner, waiter and cabbie in Cuba seemed to be a doctor, research scientist or an engineer. The population had degrees coming out of their arses and there weren’t enough jobs to go round. For those who did get a professional job, five dollars a month was simply not enough to go round. A year later the nuclear scientist phoned me from Miami saying he’d escaped on a raft.
Before I arrived, I’d been confused by reading in the guidebooks on Cuba, “Go to Cuba if you want to lose weight.” As someone who’d had a lifelong eating disorder this seemed absolutely great. Cuba would not only be an interesting professional trip, launching my career as a reporter, but a reasonably priced health spa as well. But after I’d been there for a few days I realised this was because the portions in the hotels were so small that I was dreaming of bangers and mash. There were no stalls selling food on the street as government still thought private enterprise was akin to paedophilia.
Walking round lost on one of Havana’s old streets, ignored by all the passing cars, I bumped into an elderly Cuban lady on the street and asked her the way. She said she just needed to pop up to her apartment to turn off the gas and would take me there. The apartment was stupendous, absolutely massive with elaborate mosaic floors and cornices. I told her an apartment like that in London would cost a million pounds. Havana is full of such architectural gems, all crumbling away, it would be one of the most beautiful cities in the world if someone spent 100 billion dollars refurbishing it. I was amazed by the apartment and wondered around gawping in delight. I was hungry at the hotel, I moaned plaintively, and wondered if I could stay. On my trainee BBC salary, the hotel seemed extremely expensive at 15 dollars at day. She offered me a room and two meals for 8 dollars a day. This had the slight disadvantage that electricity was only available between 4 and 5 am, and a bath, apart from a bucket, was completely impossible. But it had one major advantage – food. The lady was diabetic so got an extra ration from the government so the food was plentiful and absolutely yum. It was only when I was foraging for food in the day, limited to the hotels, that I starved.
Complaining about how little food there was, was a major preoccupation of Cubans at that time. I had arrived, fired up with socialist zeal, fervently pro-Castro and the Cuban experiment. This was somewhat dented by the story I was told by a Cuban I interviewed that the government had tried to save the Cuban economy, by cutting down a load of sugar cane and planting lettuces instead. The lettuces were a perfect cash crop, apart from the inconvenient fact that they’d all died in the heat. Fear of the government was also palpable, whenever I interviewed anyone they would never mention Fidel Castro by name, instead making the sign of a beard.
I was launching my reporting career with a story about the resurgence of voodoo in Cuba and the success of the Aids “hospitals.” Despite multiple incursions into conflicts in Africa where AIDS was rife, Cuba had one of the lowest rates of infection in the Caribbean. This was because the government forcibly tested anyone over 15 and those who had HIV were locked up in prison hospitals. The patients were allowed to go out as long as were “responsible” enough. If they weren’t they were kept inside, a permanent section from the age of 15. I bumped into a big wig on the Cuban aids programme, at the international press centre. He said I was young and pretty and would cheer the patients up so took me to a hospital in the countryside. The facilities were good, Cuba had probably the best heath system in the developing world and exported more doctors than sugarcane. But people wouldn’t be so keen on the NHS if they weren’t allowed out of hospitals once they’d gone in.
As part of my research into Santeria or voodoo, which had exploded in Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union, I went to a Santeria ceremony. It was a practical religion, whose objectives were filling your kitchen rather than spiritual highs. Devotees would pray for a new washing machine, a banana peeler or a fridge. The comic element of Latin American Catholicism is present in Santeria in the matching up of unlikely Santeria gods with Catholic saints. Thus I was told that Chango, the Yoruba god of fire lighting and war, was “the same as” the Catholic Santa Barbara, who was beheaded by her father and whose historical existence is unclear. I went to the voodoo ceremony at the ile or house of a priest. It was absolutely wild. People were being possessed by the spirits of chickens, zebras and pigs, men by women, dancing around pretending to put their suspender belts on. Men were spinning around like tornadoes, eyes rolling and practically frothing at the mouth. A chicken had been sacrificed, its blood all over the altar. I’m sure I saw it move after it died. It was a perfect storm of activity and I was experiencing it without my rain hat on. I almost joined Santeria myself but initiates have to do what the priests tell them. I thought they might tell me I couldn’t run the story so I declined.
I arrived at the airport in Havana not wanting to leave at all. Luckily when I asked for the flight for London I was told it had left the day before. Yet another of my journalistic mishaps not checking the date for the flight. But instead of giving me a hard time, with Latin tolerance, they said anyone could get the dates mixed up and put me on the next flight completely free. Despite the fact that all the Cubans were constantly complaining about their lives, I loved Cuba and didn’t want to leave. I had finally found a place where everyone stopped asking me, “where are you from?”
Next week: Q: – how do you avoid being shot by the police in Jamaica? A: – be white, middle class or duck…