Escapism

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Cuba: Mojitos and music still the heartbeat of Havana

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Havana's Capitolio was modelled on Washington DC's Capitol Building, but Cubans will proudly tell you it's taller. Photo / Jill Worrall
Havana's Capitolio was modelled on Washington DC's Capitol Building, but Cubans will proudly tell you it's taller. Photo / Jill Worrall

Jewels of moisture are sliding down the sides of my mojito glass and less elegant sweat is beading on my forehead - it's a sultry afternoon in Havana.

The setting, especially if one is unprepared for Cuba's Caribbean-style communism, is slightly discombobulating. There's lobster on the menu, white linen napkins and supercilious waiters equal to any you'll find in the capitalist west. But not even a snooty waiter can detract from the vibrancy and splendour that surrounds our group of diners.

We are sitting on the terrace of the Palacio de los Marquesas de Aguas Claras, a 17th century palace that forms one side of Plaza de la Catedral. With its ceramic wall tiles, central courtyard with a gently splashing fountain and archways framing the plaza, it's a touch of Moorish Spain... with an overlay of Cuban joie de vivre.

The palacio restaurant is known for some of the best mojitos in Cuba. A mojito is a simple combination of Cuban white rum, chopped ice, lime juice, sparkling mineral water, sugar syrup and a crushed stem of mint.

They are the perfect pick-me-up up on a tropically humid day and deceptively easy to drink but even in socialist Cuba not all mojitos are created equal.

From my seat I have a view of the entire plaza. Tourism outside Cuba's beach resorts is relatively low-key but this time of day counts as prime visitor hours so there is plenty going on.

Two Cuban ladies in multi-coloured full skirts, low-cut blouses and clutching baskets of artificial flowers and fruit are also surveying the square.

As a small group of tourists - I'm guessing off a cruise ship - pause at the entrance to the square, the ladies quickly whip out lipsticks of eye-popping brightness and apply them lavishly. Then they set off across the square towards the unsuspecting men in the group.

Two of the latter, engrossed in framing photos of the cathedral that dominates one side of the square are thus caught unawares as the two ladies throw their arms around them and plant perfect rosebud kisses on their cheeks. Of course, there's a small price to pay for such warm affection - an entrepreneurial photo-op venture in a country where private business (even in kisses) is a relatively new phenomenon.

Meanwhile one of my Kiwi ladies is being homed in upon by an elderly man who has gone for a fetching fusion of Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro - there's a profusion of beard and moustache, a giant cigar and - just to add to the iconic imagery - he's wearing a Che Guevara beret.

By now a plate of fat Caribbean shrimps has arrived in front of me and when I look up again Margaret is wearing the beret, has a cigar clamped in her mouth and Fidel-Che-Ernest's arm is draped around her shoulder while a fellow traveller obliges with a photograph.

The other two sides of the plaza are filled by two more palaces and a mansion once home to the 18th century Governor of Cuba.

Havana's architectural heritage is breathtaking - 16th century Colonial, Cuban Baroque, neo-Classical, neo Moorish, art nouveaux and art deco. While some has been painstakingly restored, much of Havana (and elsewhere on the island) is slowly crumbling.

Havana, indeed much of Cuba, has been quietly decaying ever since the United States imposed an embargo on what is now the only Communist nation in the western hemisphere, back in 1961.

It's been something of a two-edged sword - undeniably Cubans have suffered as a result of the severe restraints on imports and exports but at the same time, lack of economic growth is one reason so much of the country's architectural heritage has not been swept away.

Ironically, the embargo and the more recent "special period" - an economic crisis precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union - has also meant Cuba is more resilient in terms of self-sufficiency than many of its richer neighbours.

In a country where horse-power often means just that, its people are also much more capable of surviving in a world of soaring oil prices and reduced supplies.

In Cuba there's a soundtrack to almost everything you do. Eat lunch, sip a cocktail, or pause on a cobbled street and wait for the ripple of fingers on guitar strings, the scritch of a guiro (the Cuban version of maracas which is a gourd stroked with a stick), a resonant tap on a bongo.

From behind a rank of potted palms, or inside a doorway, will flow the music of Cuba - rumba and son, salsa and jazz, mambo and chachacha. The rhythms are compulsive, even if it's yet another version of the ubiquitous Guantanamera. Before 9/11 this song about a girl from Guantanamo was the only reason most Westerners had heard of this town in eastern Cuba.

The musicians can be 80 and bewhiskered, sexy and sinuous, sultry and serious - the common denominator is everyone has musical talent in abundance.

Dancing comes naturally to everyone - Cubans don't need to be taught how to sway their hips; they really do dance in the streets; men in shiny nylon shirts, women in lycra leopard-print leggings and skintight boob tubes; schoolgirls in miniscule kilts that would have given my old headmistress apoplexy.

After lunch we wander down a side street from the plaza to the Bodeguita del Medio, one of Nobel-prizewinning author Ernest Hemingway's favourite watering holes. Hemingway lived in Cuba for nearly 20 years, during which time he sank an impressive number of mojitos and daiquiris.

It's a tiny bar, crammed with locals and tourists, its walls smothered in photos of famous visitors including singer Nat King Cole as well as Papa Hemingway.

In the other direction is the Malecon, a seven-kilometre seaside promenade, which, depending on the mood of the Caribbean, is either lapped gently or deluged by huge plumes of seawater.

It's in a peaceful mood today however, which is just as well, as there are five of Cuba's treasured 50s American automobiles lined up by the seawall for us.

There's a Ford Fairlane, two Dodges (one a white convertible with red leather upholstery), a Chevrolet Impala and another Chevvy, this one candy pink. I find myself in the yellow Dodge.

While some of the autos now have Japanese engines, the Dodge still has its original motor, but also seems to have a hole in the exhaust. We rumble through Havana pulling away from traffic lights with a guttural roar, shattering the peace in residential streets where kids are kicking soccer balls in the middle of the road and adults gossip on their stoops.

The driver puts his foot down just behind a group of tourists in the Plaza de la Revolucion who are photographing the famous wire sculpture of revolutionary Che Guevara. They jump, satisfyingly, with fright.

Beneath Che's image is one his most famous quotes: Hasta La Victoria Siempre - keep striving for victory.

It was in this square that Fidel Castro held the first of the mass victory rallies following the success of the revolution in 1959 against the hated Batista dictatorship.

The cars take us home to another landmark, the Hotel Nacional, an Art Deco masterpiece built in 1930.

The hotel's gardens sweep down to the Malecon from a deep veranda filled with cane armchairs and sofas. There's a soft breeze blowing from the Caribbean. Waiters sail past with trays of drinks and boxes of fat, aromatic Cuban cigars and in the corner a trio of beautiful singers in short black dresses and homburgs on jaunty angles begin a bracket of salsa numbers.

Hasta La Mojito.

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