I see a young man who looks so much like Damen I take a second look. He has long hair tied back. “Chee, Damen, Tara and maybe Simone could pass for Cuban or Spanish,” I say to Lauren. “And me too?” she asks. “Nah you look Chinese every which way I look at you.” I laugh. Everywhere there is music. “You should have given us a second language instead of music lessons” Ren says. I remind her I didn’t have a second language myself. We laugh about the different instruments they played. “Did Tara play the violin long?” she’s asks. “Well yes. Since she was two.” “Two! Ren is incredulous. Two years old?” “Yeah, but she started on a wooden violin with a chop stick as her bow. That way if she dropped it it didn’t matter. She got her real violin at about three. I was so scared she’d bash one of the others with it I was always hovering over her.” Ren laughs as Tara is known for her fiery temper. “The wooden one would have hurt the other kid but I didn’t want the real one broken either. Then I ran the real one over.” “Whaaaat! YOU ran it over!” “Yeah. I stuck it behind the car ready to put in the boot, put baby Chee in his car seat. Damen and Tara in theirs and then jumped in the car only to hear a loud crunch as I backed out. I was so gutted. We went to our music lesson anyway and then next day to see the insurance guy who laughed and said no problem, but could I bring it in as they might be able to salvage it to resell. I was a little embarrassed as I handed him a bunch of mangled bits of wood and strings.”
Today is our last full day and we decide to head off in different directions and meet back for a night city ride in an old convertible. Ren phones Andres and Rosita and invites them along as it’s the same price whether it’s one of us or five. Andres is so excited. They have lived here all their lives and he says he has never done this.
We are in the city centre of old Havana. Gilbert and I take a lovely long tiki tour just wandering around the streets and enjoy walking. We love seeing the families. Nanas on the footpath watching children, smile and return our greeting. Children kicking a ball against a boarded up wall. Mums calling the kids in off the street. There is a huge amount of construction of hotels here and it looks like it goes on 24 hours. There are a lot of crumbling buildings and quite a few in phases of restoration. Most of it by far is in a bad way.
We are told things are much better now as for a while there was little power, food or any resources to repair. It’s like they stopped everything in the late 50’s and are in a bit of a time warp. The old cars look so cool especially lined up waiting for the tourist rides but it’s how they get around too so they are everywhere. Many however are rusted out heaps that are barely going and are just nursed along. We are just a short distance from home when Gilbert senses something push against his back. He turns but theres a lot of people around. I had walked behind him all the way but moved in front just five minutes before. I check his new backpack and sure enough his wallet has gone. He’s been pick pocketed. Bloody annoying as he has to cancel all his cards but we weren’t pushed over or hurt and we must just keep on. Andrés upset and annoyed that this has happened, but we say let’s not spoil our last night.
We head up for our ride in an old convertible and while I was hoping we could jump in the back of a Fairlane in memory of Dads car, it turns out most of the cars have been tucked up for the night. Andrés organises a chev and us three girls jump in the back and him and Gilbert with the driver in the front. He has to get out and fix the lights about three times and it’s puffing fumes so bad I’m wishing I had a mask. Andrés undeterred gives us a quick history lesson on Cuba from the front seat. He’s the ultimate tour guide with little extras like “he’s a cool kind of guy, like me really” as he purses his lips, closes his eyes and runs his hand through his hair. He has us in hysterics but he is also earnest and wants us to give us as much information as possible.
“They all want a piece of us, and why not, Cuba is a beautiful place, he continues. “In 16th century the French pirates attack Havana and burn it to the ground and the Spanish respond by building a huge network of forts. He points out the remainder of some of this walling. Britain has a go at taking over too but don’t last long. There is ongoing unrest as Spain rules with an iron fist. The first war of independence is around the late 1800’s and Andrés shows us the statue of Antonio Maceo who was nicknamed the ‘Bronze Titan’ as he leads the charge and sustains many life threatening injuries but still he fights on”, he mimics sword fighting in the air for effect. Andrés shows us how this statue has his horse reared up on hind legs. “This means he died in battle, whereas another guy has his horse down on all fours, which means he died of old age, as opposed to in battle.” The many battles leave Cuba in a mess with hundreds of thousands dead and America decides to send a battleship into Havana, but the ship is blown up. Spanish denied any involvement while America blamed them and declares war and so begins a four year occupation resulting in war where Spain are finally sent packing in 1898. America promises the Cubans independence but nobody’s happy.
A coup in 1933 deposed the then dictator for Batista and Fidel Castro is now on the scene and vying for power but the elections are cancelled so Batista remains in power. Che Guevara supports Castro and in 1959 Castro leads the new government. He promptly takes control of the Americans assets, so America cancels all its sugar quota. Take that.
Castro rings up Soviet Union and sells the sugar to them so America declares a full trade embargo. Andres points out a structure that used to have a huge Eagle a top it that the Americans built but the Cuban people took the Eagle down. We look up and it does look like something’s missing. “It was a beautiful eagle actually he tells us, but it is what it represents that is the problem”, he explains. Soviet Union becomes good friends with Cuba subsidising much of the reforms and sets up nuclear missiles in the harbour which scares the hell out of everyone. We drive past the missile base but it’s getting dark and we struggle to see much. “These very ugly buildings were built by the Russians, he looks over with disgust. They are the ugliest buildings I have ever seen. They should pull them down. The Russians only want to house as many people as possible with no thought to beauty.” He shakes his head. When the Soviet Union fell over, the subsidies disappeared, the economy collapsed and Cuba had what Castro described as the ‘special period’. Andres and Rosita are too young to remember this actual time but tell us, “it was soooo bad. No power, little food, nothing to buy and everybody was skiiiiny, Rosita emphasises. You couldn’t buy anything or fix anything. It was really bad.”
The social reforms later saw that everybody got a home, the basics, education and healthcare. People are now able to create their own income whereas everybody used to work for the govt before. Things have got easier but it’s still tough. Rosita, a trained teacher earned the equivalent of around $10 a month. It was almost impossible to live on this. She has given this up to teach English privately. Andres studied engineering but can make more money as a salsa dance teacher. “We must never forget that we need each other, Rosita tells us. We must always ask our neighbours for sugar and never be completely independent.” We are amazed at their knowledge of not only their countries history, but also the dates and names. I think if I took someone around Auckland I would struggle to tell them anything I am embarrassed to say.
We decide we want to shout these kids dinner so I head down to the ATM. It’s the one I seem to be able to use my debit card at where others have failed but the bloody machine takes my card. I stare at it in disbelief. Gilbert bangs it and try’s all sorts. Last night. The kids look at us in disbelief but Andres quickly regains composure. “We will get it tomorrow. You are not to worry, he says. I will meet you and we will go together. It will be no problem. This sort of thing happens all the time here. What will you wear? He asks seriously. I will wear black.”
Luckily Ren has a card that gets us some cash and I’m struggling to control my annoyance. The heat and this happening has really pissed me off. Do you feel violated? Ren asks me. No Ren. I’m pissed off. Plain and simple. We go get burgers and a drink and the young ones want to go dancing so they drop us at home so Ren can have the key and I once again remind her, “six am and I call the cops, remember.” She laughs and skips down the stairs as the music awaits them.
Everyone expects us to smoke or at the very least buy a Cuban cigar or ten. Not being a smoker I have no intention of doing either and I’ll tell you why. When I was probably about ten or maybe twelve Lindy pulled out two cigarettes from her pocket and matches. She had nicked them from somewhere and decided we should light them and smoke them here, at the bus stop, before school…I know! Kids!
She lights one and hands it to me. I know how to hold one in my first two fingers and I take a tentative puff. Tipping my head back, pursing my lips as I blow it away with all my cares of the world. It feels kinda cool. Like I’ve suddenly become an all knowing, but still stupid adult. All the movie stars do this and they are super cool and earn hundreds of dollars. We didn’t think in terms of billions then. “You need to draw it right in, the older school girl advises us. Right down into your tummy”. So I do. A big deep draw that takes the burn right down to the pit of my stomach but somewhere in my lungs there was an unexpected reaction. My whole body began to revolt, to force the smoke out and to cough so bad it almost made me throw up breakfast. I coughed till my eyes nearly fell out and my nose was streaming. The other girls banged me on the back furiously and I thought I might not get a breath in. I felt like I might suffocate. Like my brain was going to explode. Tears in my eyes I handed the evil thing to someone else and never again even thought about smoking. So the thought of smoking a Cuban cigar on the beach? Yeah….Not gunna happen.