Notes from a Pastel City

Just back from Havana, Cuba. I had the good fortune of being sent there to teach creative writing with Skyros holidays.

Havana is a pastel city. All the colours of this once stately and vibrant city have faded away. It’s as though the city lost its colours all on the same day, the day of the revolution in 1959.  Now its colours are mild, pinks, yellows, greys, the walls of the ornate buildings are crumbling. Once this city was grander than Paris or Madrid. Its boulevards are wide, its hotels and theatres were once fit to entertain the world’s elite. Now the very poor live in these decrepit and still glamorous mansions. Dusty stray dogs snooze in their archways on the Prado. The roads are clogged with fifty year old Pontiacs, Chevrolets, Cadillacs and Russian Ladas. Many have been painted with what looks like the kind of matt paint meant for buildings. Yes, they paint their cars with paint meant for walls. And these cars are like tractors. No suspension. They are buckets on wheels. Havana’s roads are clogged with all manner of eccentric mobile. Motorcycles with sidecars, horse drawn carriages, Bici-taxis, coco-taxis.  I became a regular user of the coco-taxi (despite being warned off them). They are yellow and shaped like a coconut, a kind of whacky races type mobile, part Robin Reliant, part bumper car, driven by a plucky Cuban with a peaked helmet. (Don’t worry, you’ll be okay, I was reassured) If they whiz round the corners too fast, they can tip over. But I liked them.

            “Havana’s roads are a rolling museum,” said Rita, our tour guide. She was right. More modern Japanese cars are now part of the mix.

            Every other morning, I woke at seven am, to jog along the malecón. This is a two mile long corniche which spans the entire seafront of the city and keeps the sea water out. The Cubans call it the ‘sofa of Havana’; this is because Cubans use it to sit on. At any time of day you can see Cubans sitting on the wall of the malecón. At seven a.m. in the morning, mainly fishermen use it. Small groups stand along it with their fishing rods. Old men tie their reels to cleats in the concrete. Everyone says hello. Road sweepers, other joggers, the fishermen, everyone. Habaneras are friendly – and curious. I only saw other Westerners job. Cubans dance so much, they don’t need to jog. What did they think of me, puffing along?

            Also, I danced a lot. I brought all the wrong shoes (flip flops or wedges) , so I mostly danced barefoot. The first two mornings, after dancing all night, I woke up with charred and blackened feet. My toes were bruised and mauve from where they had been stood on by other more confident dancers. My shins were a patchwork of grey smudges, from where I had been salsa-ed into. I had to shampoo my feet twice and massage aloe vera into them to bring them back into recognisable shape. I limped about a bit. Then, I went again and tried again. To clubs called Florida, La Casa de Musica, 1830, a club on the sea front. Being Trinidadian, I though I was a pretty OK dancer. Trinidadians like to dance too. But now I realise that we Trinis are lazy dancers. We do a two-step. We chip and shuffle. We ‘wine’ our arses, sometimes standing still. At carnival and at fêtes, Trinidadians in full party swing, are a mess. Hands in the air, backsides rotating. Anyone can do this – with enough rum in them.

            But in Cuba dancing is take seriously. Each Cuban dances like a minute hurricane. It’s not as simple as a one-two-three. Many intricate twirls and double twirls, spins, and many extra steps are involved. Much, much fancy footwork, arm work. Cubans are so fast on the dance floor, they are a blur of elbows and hips.

            “In all modesty, we Cubans are excellent dancers,” said one of our most charming dance teachers, Rollie.

            Cubans eat, sleep, drink, talk and dance salsa. It is their music and it pulses from most street corners. From almost every bar and every night club. They don’t seem to want much else. Maybe a little regatón, some cha cha cha. Some rumba. They are Latinos, and they are also Africans. They dance like Gods. I soon learnt, that without quite a bit of formal training, it’s impossible to keep up with them. I was like a rag doll in most of the men’s hands. As I write, I am still nursing bruised ankle shins.

            Of course, it felt obvious that the brilliance of their dancing was some kind of grand metaphor – linked to being totally bound and chained by the state. So many of their basic freedoms are curtailed in such a quite and sinister way – that no wonder they exercise this basic freedom in such a magnificent way. Nobody will or can ban them from dancing. I spent ten days with my feelings gridlocked. I was charmed and enlivened and danced off my feet by the people and at the same time so so sad. “Cubans make the very best of a bad situation,” said my colleague John Harris, who has been out there a dozen times. Their city is falling down, they have been captured and kept hostage on their own island. They cannot compete or trade openly, cannot travel, afford many basic things, let alone form serious political opposition to Fidel. And yet they dance with great pride and spirit – a very open demonstration of the human spirit of resistance.


~ by moniqueroffey on November 27, 2009.

4 Responses to “Notes from a Pastel City”

  1. “a very open demonstration of the human spirit of resistance.”
    Reminds me of the old spirit of Carnival & Pan. Defiance (not quite sure it’s the right word) against the establishment and all they could beat to make a noise was a steel drum.

  2. yes, quite.

  3. Your method of describing all in this post is really fastidious, every one be capable
    of easily be aware of it, Thanks a lot.

  4. Hi there! This article could not be written any better! Looking through this post reminds
    me of my previous roommate! He continually kept talking about this.
    I most certainly will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a very good read.
    Thanks for sharing!

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