9 May - Havana Aperitif

Escapade of Rame
Richard & Julie Farrington
Wed 30 May 2018 03:25

23:05.3N 082:30.1W

The morning after our arrival at Marina Hemingway, a car picked us up and whisked us off to breakfast with the Pakistani Ambassador to Cuba, His Excellency Mr Kamran Shafi and his wife Rafia.  I first met ‘Micky’ several years ago when I had the privilege of working for the International Security and Assistance Force as their Liaison Officer to the Pakistan military in Islamabad.  At the time, Micky was a respected journalist who had worked for Benazir Bhutto in London, where he rented a house from my cousin Wendy.  Wendy had put us in touch because she thought we might get on and because his views on Afghanistan and the Musharraf regime were worth hearing.  She was right on both counts: like many of his countrymen, he has led a pretty interesting life as the politics there ebb and flow; right now he’s helping to foster the relationship between Pakistan and Cuba which was so productive when the massive earthquake hit northern Kashmir in 2006.



1 – Hobnobbing with the Diplomatic Corps – our friends Micky and Rafia


So it was a chance to catch up on good times, eat a fine Pakistani breakfast of eggs, sourdough bread and a curry served by slightly bemused Cuban house staff (who all had good engineering and medical degrees but can earn far more money doing more menial jobs in the international community).  The house belongs to the Cuban government, but was originally built by a rich Cuban businessman who fled the country to the US when Castro swept to power.  It reminded us of a Cesar Manrique house in Lanzarote, filled with Micky and Rafia’s impeccable taste in art and furniture.


Typical street in Old Havana, with the Capitol building in the background.  Recognise anyone?


They took firm charge of us.  A room was allocated and the lovely Umberto took us into town and dropped us on the Paseo Marti, near the Capitol building. We found ourselves right outside the Gran Teatro de Alicia Alonso, their equivalent of the Royal Opera House and saw that there was a dance show on at the weekend.  Cuban dance is huge and highly respected – and tickets are impossibly inexpensive.  I’m not a great fan of the genre, but even I could see that this was an opportunity not to be missed!  One of the great surprises about Cuba – and there are many – is the importance attached to the Arts in all their forms.  Everywhere it seemed, there were galleries showing local artists’ work, musicians playing, music and dance schools.  The place is a chaotic mix of colonial splendour, gentle decay, vibrant energy, rich colours and cheerful, helpful, smiling people. 


Cuban taxis: Classic American, classic Soviet or modern Chinese?



Private enterprise is popping up everywhere, but so far they have kept the glitzy chain stores away (no doubt they are nervous of upsetting The Donald).  The result: innovation, Cuban style.  The cafes are varied, borrowing from their rich heritage and ideas (and money) from their diaspora spread far and wide.  Almost everything is a surprise and very little disappoints – at least in the bits we saw.  From the car, it was clear that there were big areas of Havana in desperate need of restoration, but where work was in progress, it was being done with taste, imagination and skill.  The football ground on the seafront bore some resemblance to the wrecked stadium in French St Martin with distinctly Soviet overtones; some of the colonial frontages are crumbling before the restorers can get to them, whilst others have been tastefully modernised and harbour a nest of small businesses.  Behind the elegant facades, the private courtyards reminded us of Seville or Marrakech.  We spent hours wandering through the backstreets of Old Havana, soaking up the atmosphere.  We browsed in the art shops and sat in the bar of the Telegraph Hotel on the edge of the Parque Central, enjoyed a cold beer and listened to some cool Cuban jazz from a trio who came from Holguin, the province where we had first come ashore in Cuba the week before.



Two left feet…


That evening, we followed in the footsteps of Barack Obama and ate at the Restaurant San Cristobal in central Havana with Micky and Rafia.  An institution, it’s almost a museum as well as being a top class restaurant serving glorious food at very affordable prices.  We were really well looked after, even by the standards of the diplomatic and high-end tourist clientele who fight for a table every night. It reminded us of Rules in London, or a place I used to frequent in Fulham called The Gasworks.  Anyone remember that?  I think Gabbertas had something to do with it!




Rain and a spurious camera setting can’t quell the vibrance of Old Havana