I thought I might take a nap before setting off for the Rolling Stones free concert here in Havana, quite reasonable after a long walk to the nearest Internet hotspot so I could text the folks back home. It seemed however that the upstairs neighbors had chosen today to nail down their new carpet. Then there was the energetic game of dominos, involving some twenty gamers at the end of the block which appeared to threaten violence judging by the shouting. Add to that the quartet on the top floor practicing an unknown, modern classical piece complete with organ accompaniment, plus the exchange outside my door between my Airbnb host, Perfecto (yes , really) and the tax collector. Yes well, no nap today. Instead I took a stroll across the street and purchased a bottle of Havana Club rum to replenish the family booze cabinet, two dollars and fifty cents, $2.50!
Havana, Cuba, where the old is struggling to catch up to the new. You have maybe seen photos of the cars. It is somewhat like stepping back in time carwise. There is a preponderance of ‘55 Chevys, the most popular here, because after the 1955 model Chevrolet stopped making reliable cars and engines. Earlier today I stopped to admire a brilliant example, beautifully maintained and shining when the owner came running out of his house, flung open the hood (bonnet) so that I could admire the original engine, all six cylinders. I took photos as he preened. Preened of course in Spanish which is hardly my strong point, nevertheless, there is no language barrier amongst automobile aficionados.
I arrived a couple of days ago after a very rapid planning stage and sorry to say I was not as well prepared as I should have been. The first manifestation of this was that I didn’t have any Euros. Euros? Yes, I should have brought Euros because that currency provides the best exchange rate. Not US Dollars, which are subject to a twenty percent penalty tax and all I could come up with were Mexican Pesos. Not as bad as Dollars and not as good as British Pounds. The challenge was to actually make the exchange there at the airport because you cannot purchase them from abroad. The line at the bank at arrivals, with two tellers, was vast, our plane load from Cancun and a jumbo from Paris all expecting to gain our CUC (Convertible Cuban Peso), pronounced kook, and race into town for our first rum. We became impatient and heeding the advice proffered went upstairs to Departures where there was a much shorter line. An hour later upon reaching the front we were informed that we could only change one hundred CUKs because this bank was for departing passengers changing money back from Cuban to whatever. ‘We can solve this, we will go to a big hotel”” said the friendly Emilito, sent to pick me up, and off we headed into town in a Lada.
Arriving at the extremely grand Hotel National we were greeted warmly but advised that the inhouse bank was closed, it was 9.30pm and we had landed at 4.30. Was it time for a sense of humor failure? No, no. Lets have a drink I offered and we passed through a magnificent door and found ourselves in what appeared to be a park, columns, fountains, a band playing, men smoking cigars and enjoying their brandies.
Ha ha, said I, this is Cuba, well a side of it anyway. The hotel had been taken over almost completely by the Stones and their crew and as well as the brandy drinking, besuited locals there were some very interesting looking characters who looked as if they had just stepped out from London’s fashionable scene. But of course they had. I had a little reminisce to myself!! A couple of drinks later it really didn’t seem to matter that we hardly had any money and that the problem would go away in the clear light of the following day.
I eventually reached my Airbnb at 11.00pm where everyone was up and about waiting for me. I was plied with various strong rum drinks, asked my opinion of Cuba which launched a two hour political discussion and I stumbled to bed eventually where I slept the sleep of the gods.
The concert was due to start at 8.30 and getting to the venue would be no problem, jump in a taxi, it was the getting home that concerned me. Walking is still not my strong point and the thought of walking three miles among half a million others filled me with some dismay. I had help. Nat’s (older son) law professor is Cuban and was staying on the island, he came and picked me up and we drove to the venue together. On the way he showed me where to go after the concert to grab a taxi home. The field was big, very big and from our initial vantage point the stage seemed quite small in the distance. Thinking we might find souvenir shirts, hats, pins etc we headed toward some tent like booths which, it turned out, only sold food and drink. Nope, there was no merch’, none at all, this is presumably because the cost of a $20.00, or (20 CUCs) Tshirt is far beyond the means of the average Cuban.
The Cuban people do not use CUCs, they use local Pesos, there are 23 local Pesos to the CUC and the average Doctor’s monthly salary is 50 CUCs or 1,150 local Pesos. A $20 Rolling Stones shirt would therefore be nearly half the monthly salary of a Doctor. No shirts!
We wandered about soaking up the atmosphere with four hours to go before the scheduled start, noting among other things that there were only four loos, bathrooms, toilets, whatever, and each at this early stage had massive lines. Flavio suggested that they were put up over the street drains, one over each drain on the adjacent street. They were really only three foot by three foot tin shacks. Its different in Havana. We met people, spontaneously, took endless photos of the stage that at close range was really very large, chatted, Flavio, as a law Professor is very well informed, didn’t drink beer, the cops were searching bags and basically did what everyone else was doing, waiting for the Rolling Stones to appear. As it got darker I began to feel a bit trapped, the crowd was growing and growing so I bailed out of the standing room only area to the less congested sitting area further back. Flavio had a friend with him so I didn’t feel like I was abandoning him. More waiting until dead on 8.30 out they came. One more Rolling Stones concert and you know, they haven’t changed over the years. They still put on an incredible show, the sound was exceptional, clear without being brutally loud, the screens were perfect, huge so everyone could see. There had been some discussion as to whether the youth of Cuba were actually familiar with the songs and it appeared that they were, joining in with the choruses, applauding the more well known hits and generally having the greatest time. Ten songs into the set with more and more people pouring in I decided that enough was enough and left. A long walk because all the surrounding streets were closed but eventually came to a busy street and was picked up by a Coco taxi, a conveyance that reminded me of a tuk tuk, it looks like three quarters of a hollowed out coconut connected to a motor bike. There may be a photo.
That was it, back to my Airbnb which actually in Cuba is known as a Casa Particular for more rum drinks with the family and then to sleep. I had done it, but I have to acknowledge the help I got (thanks Nat). All the way from my sleepy beach in Yelapa, two nights in Mexico City, two nights in Tulum and then Havana. As some have remarked it was a great start to my birthday weekend.