Outsider In Cuba: Lessons from Havana in 24h

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

I’m in the taxi from the airport. My extremely accommodating driver is my first Cuban voice into the Cuba of today and the changes the island is going through. His words are accompanied by dark, damp urban views affording me a frustratingly low-key visual entry into the country: I glimpse palm trees, squat blocks of houses, a few other cars.

He explains that now having internet access, and the opportunity of meeting more tourists and speaking with Cubans who travel, have given him a newly positive view of his country. The free education and healthcare, so frequently cited, for example. Now that private enterprise is allowed there’s also generally a lot more hope. Being enterprising seems to be in the Cuban nature. He tells me that he taught himself English from scratch, and driving tourists to and from the airport every day is how he practises. He works seven days a week and has taken just eight or nine days off this year. His English is excellent.

Reaching Old Havana, we pull up in a back street. In the drizzle and low lighting, everything is a picture in sepia until I step inside my casa. This first casa particular, akin to a bed and breakfast, is quite something: marble staircases, furniture from 19th to mid last century, highly decorative tiles all worth taking pictures of (so I do), and ceilings three times the height of an average person. This house also happens to be chock full of religious (Catholic) paraphernalia.

I don’t ask too many questions of my hosts; my Spanish is frazzled, as am I. My low key start to Cuba continues in the same vein with bed calling. The spectacular, I hope, will start tomorrow.

***

Morning one and it’s pissing it down with rain. Biblical levels of rain. Most of the streets have turned into small rivers. Spectacular scenes, yes, but not quite what I was hoping for. Committed to a walking tour of Old Havana that I am already on, we find ourselves taking shelter in a warehouse type building that happens to be hosting a jiu jitsu and taekwondo competition for children and teens. I notice that there are some blind and partially sighted participants as we watch the warm ups and tumbling exercises across the multi-coloured mats.

Waterfalls are cascading in through the windows, doorways and holes in the roof. Small lakes spread across the concrete floor threatening the activity but the Cubans are unfazed.

A judo instructor befriends me and gives me some tips on where I can find salsa clubs to go dancing. He doesn’t ask me for anything untoward in exchange but perhaps a donation towards the martial arts centre. He doesn’t insist, though, and is quite happy just to chat and then leave me be.

Sheltering in the martial arts warehouse turns out to be the best insight into Cuban life of the day, as the rest of it is spent… surrounded by tourists. The centre of Old Havana seems strangely quiet save for the sheer masses of guided walking tours. I find myself mostly observing other tourists in horrified fascination. Being part of the mass of tourist numbers doing guided tourist things was, ignorantly, and arrogantly perhaps, an experience I wasn’t expecting.

One sight I had been expecting, and am not disappointed by, are the promised classic cars – American, from the 50s and 60s, mostly Chevrolets and 80s Russian Ladas. At the airport, my taxi driver had pointed out a car that used to have the honour of being a security vehicle for Fidel Castro. Russian built, bullet-proof, apparently. Now it carts tourists around.

By the end of the day I am having my first in depth chat with a young Cuban. Denis is 28, Afro-Cuban. Very quickly going past the pleasantries, he is telling me about living conditions and his views on Cuba. With so few jobs around, he feels young Cubans have become unmotivated, and just do what they can to get a fast buck. He tells me that he is opposed to the government, describing it as a dictatorship. Despite having trained as a nurse, he no longer works in the profession and, instead, goes house to house selling bleach. He makes more money this way. It also means he’s not working for the state.

We talk about housing conditions. In fact, it was in catching me taking a picture of his house that our conversation started. I saw a photo opportunity in the dilapidation. He, along with many others crammed into the space, has to live in the dilapidation. I don’t go inside but through the glassless barred windows I can see that the state of reparation is appalling. In fact, driving back out of the city, past more and more buildings, it strikes me that never before have I been somewhere where such a great proportion of the buildings are in such dismal condition.

Eventually Denis and I come to be discussing the dream many young Cuban men have – escape from the island via a foreign woman. Marriage to a foreigner is the best passport for leaving the country to a more economically secure and democratically free life. It seems that love is an unnecessary bonus for the Cuban men who salsa their way into the beds and hearts of these women but for him, he tells me, it must be the basis of any relationship. However, when five minutes’ later he’s telling me that he may be falling in love at this very moment on the street, I decide it’s time to bring our conversation to a close.

So from love, to food, which actually is a love for me. Unfortunately, it is currently only remarkable in that I’ve eaten virtually the same bloody thing for every meal since touchdown: sandwiches. My midnight snack on arrival at the casa was a reconstituted ham toastie.  Breakfast included a roll with egg.  Lunch was a tuna sandwich.  My afternoon snack, a round hot crunchy bread with sweet tomato sauce and cheese, masquerading as a pizza but folded into a sloppy sandwich.  And dinner? Cheese and ham toastie. Lesson learnt – when you have the choice don’t go for a sandwich because there are probably many occasions when it will be the only thing available to eat!

***

Looking back, I can see that, in under 24 hours, I had stumbled across some of the main themes that were to recur throughout the trip, onto which I would build a bigger picture of Cuba today. The positive and negative aspects of the revolution in evidence: good health, socialist practices and education; disenfranchised youth, but a hope for the future; the important feature of tourists to this isolated country, offering a means of escape from poverty or a literal escape from the island. The friendliness and willingness of Cubans to talk and share, and to praise and criticise Cuba – and flirt! – in equal measure. And the former glory, the faded grandeur peeking through crumbling facades and infrastructure…

I was determined that the food situation was going to get better, though. I wasn’t eating just sandwiches for the next three weeks!

Outsider In Somerset House: Experiencing co-working at Exchange

My first day

I am already excited as I approach Somerset House.  I enter through one of the west wing doors, past a restaurant that evokes continental terrace dining with some tables set in an indoors-imitating-outdoors passage, and out again into the impressive establishment’s equally impressive courtyard.  I  make my way to Seamen’s Hall, the reception in the south wing, one of my only sure points of reference in this vast estate.

As I wait to be taken to security for my pass – my official Somerset House Exchange co-working space aka this is where I work and will now be a member of the community pass! – I scan the exhibitions currently on: these I will be able to take in on a break, or pre- or post-work.  What a privilege, I think, to be able to treat this magnificent Central London arts and cultural centre as an office.

Pass now in hand, I make my way to the uppermost floor of the House’s south wing and into one of the spaces available for co-working.  I am in a peaceful, forest green room, high-ceilinged and dotted with modern sofas, armchairs, and large wooden tables.  Immense windows flank the room up to which one a small set of steps leads and allows a privileged Thames view.  I experience a small frisson of pleasure.

Before I get down to work I need to locate some necessary facilities and, on my way along a corridor I pass several bags stuffed full of what look like cushions covered in African print fabric.  The bags are labelled for the MOBO awards – Music of Black Origin.  Already I feel I am in a place I want to be.

A Wonderland

The second time I choose to work at Somerset House, I decide against the grand courtyard approach (dancing fountains and ice rink sadly absent at this time of year) in favour of taking a route up the west wing, varying the commute to my new favourite forest green ‘office’.

I enter again from the north-west-ish corner and take a right past Spring the inviting continental-feel restaurant .  Down a long corridor I trot, lined with meeting rooms, or some such, and a second fancy restaurant, Pennethorne’s Café.  Savoury smells waft around me but this is not the moment to test out the extent of my Exchange pass benefits in the eateries of the building; I am taking this variant course to see what new I can discover.  I feel I will not be disappointed as I see a woman further ahead taking photos of a sight elusively out of my eye line.

I reach her spot to find myself facing an installation: sculpted trees from delicate wood and cardboard grow and erupt into chairs, waterwheel paddles, ships and bugs, coloured and lit up in pale aquas.  A uniformed security guard sits, incongruous, beneath the shadows cast.  A sign informs me that the installation, Ulmus Londinium, celebrates “the elm’s relationship with London’s historic built environment, crafts and biodiversity”.  The pleasing associated website reveals the significance of the elm to, and where to find them now in, London.

But I am then quite quickly distracted by an exhibition in the room opposite and I peek in to find exposed pianos, lying on their sides!  I plan to re-investigate all later when sitting in front of my laptop starts wearing thin.  My mission now, though, is to find my way in this unfolding Wonderland maze to my third floor spot with giant windows.

I try my access pass on the first set of doors I come across and – success! – I am through.  I assume I will find my way eventually by trial and error: that my my blippy pass will dictate my path and lead me to my desired destination.  This method proves workable but not entirely efficient as I climb floor after floor to only discover that I am cut off again and again by a series of stubbornly firmly shut doors.

Even so, my frustrating ascent of the grand, Napolean staircase is not without its silver lining as I am accompanied by the sounds of a beautifully-played stringed instrument.  I am enticed, like Alice after the smoke rings of the caterpillar, to the innocuous door number 61 from behind which the music emanates.

I linger awhile, enchanted by the proximity in which I am brought to a whole different world of aural beauty.  A modest laminated sign by the door reads Benjamin Hebbert. Consultant for fine violins, violas, cellos and bows.  Captivated, I imagine, behind the door, days spent floating in the lofty and ethereal sphere of exquisite instruments and sounds; above the mundane, frivolous, bottom-feeding antics of the rest of us where callings are less clear and the meaning of it all blurred, buried or lost to sights, sounds, anxieties and constraints… 

I pull myself away.  I’ve enjoyed my diversions and circuitous meander but I am, unfortunately, here to achieve some kind of job-work.

Down down down in to the labyrinthine more industrial-like bowels of the building I go.  A few turns, dead ends and accessible doors later and I’m sure I’m abso-bloody-lutely lost until I come across a lift claiming to give me access to the upper levels of the south wing.  And sure enough I have the sesame to open up the way (erm, i.e. my pass works to operate the lift) and, sure enough, I find my way again to the peaceful forest green room…

Adventures over for now, I regretfully burrow down into my hole of work, where time unfortunately means money rather than an anxious fantastical white rabbit, late for a date.

A palatable perk

Third day working at Somerset House and I am pleased as bloody punch.  Hunger having overcome me, and my normal working from home routine leaving me unaccustomed to sorting out a packed lunch, I have gathered together my things to head off with no destination in mind but an empty tummy to fill.

Should I cross over the river to grab something on Southbank?  Or wander in a little more centrally?  I only make it a few floors, however, as I’m drawn into the little cafe, Tom’s Deli, on the ground floor of Somerset House’s south wing.

I poke my head in to find an agreeable selection of salads, sarnies, cakes and biscuits.  A friendly server approaches me and it turns out that he will be dishing up my meal and, joy oh joy, he confirms when I wave my pass in front of him that I am entitled to a discount!  It doesn’t just open doors – or refuse entry – it gets me up to 20% off virtually every eatery, drinkery and, I’m hoping, shops, exhibitions and events too.

It’s only a few days in, so I’m sure the novelty will wear thin, but I’m truly enjoying my time as a member of Somerset House and all the perks that I’ll get to test out.  For a different type of co-working environment, look no further.