Travel: The city of the spirits

It's a place of music, of carnival, of unleashed sexuality and big cigars. Above all, Havana is the home of Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religious cult. So what's a novelist to do but mess with the spirit world, and take the consequences...

I arrive at night in an island of languid vegetable heat, to carry out the sort of research that results in what reviewers like to call a sense of place. To soak up atmosphere, as they say. From the airport the taxi swings around the Plaza de la Revolucion, at night a dark clock-face of tower and unlit ministries, and on to the Capri, a Fifties Mafia hotel, where I am given a room resembling a murder scene. The sort of burn-scarred carpet that should be soaked in blood.

Sleepless, on California time, I wander down the seawall called the Malecon and follow an echo of music to its source, a band of dancers and musicians, men in satin culottes, women in swirling gowns, everyone black, brown, tan, double- or triple-jointed. Drums, horns, whistles. Some of the men manipulating poles with spinning tops. It is Carnival, the last night of Carnival, when devotees of different santos parade from the Malecon to reviewing stands in front of the old capitol building.

I have yet to learn what I'm looking at - all I know is that different groups are in different colours. Black and red for violent, passionate, masculine Chango, blue and white for his lover, the tranquil Yemaya, yellow and white for Oshun, goddess of honey, gold and feckless love. As Oshun's group sways up the boulevard, 20 or so dancers split and race pell-mell through the crowd. Women with dramatically painted lips and eyes. Men, in fact, in wigs and gowns, devout as any of Oshun's followers but barred from the official gaze of El Lider and his minions in the stands. The runaway dancers plunge through the dark, shouting, holding hands, announcing themselves even as they slip the policia. The crowd reels in confusion and I can think of no one but Garcia Lorca, said to have discovered his own homosexuality in Havana.

Homosexuality is not the issue, though. It is simply sexuality unleashed, Oshun's gift wrapped in dark rhythms. Waiting in the stands in his starched fatigues and thinning beard, Fidel has to hear shouts of alarm and confusion headed his way. Not that anyone breaks through his protective cordon. If the CIA couldn't reach the unelected President for Life, how could the protest of a few furious gays? Yet there is something subversive about Oshun that touches a deep, responsive chord in Havana, something that makes Fidel appear adrift in a sea of bobbing brown faces and golden skirts.

Fidel is captive to the spirits. To many Cubans, his anointment as a divine leader came during a speech to a million Cubans after his triumphal entry into Havana when two white doves alit on his shoulder. After a period of ideological cleansing, and after his Russian comrades decamped with all the finesse of a husband packing in the night, Fidel has come to rely more and more on the popular support of santeros to the point of recommending approved priests to tourists - in return for kickbacks from the santeros. It is one thing, however, to be partners with santeros and another to be in bed, so to speak, with spirits.

The parade surges towards the stands, emerging from dark to light, a visible river of shimmering gold, while a separate current of scuffles flows in the crowd and creates eddies of mobilized police and elusive figures that dart nimbly into the shadows and out again.

This is my first night in Havana. This is atmosphere. A black tidal wave rolls over me. Am I soaking it up?

A PUTATIVE reason to be in Cuba is to join Latin writers for a week of collegial socializing, which means smoking cigarettes to the point of self-fumigation, drinking endless cold Cristal beers and denouncing writers unwise enough not to be present. Not so different from the United States.

Justo drives a Moskvitch with clutch and compression problems, which means that when we go out for food and more beer we must never come to a complete stop, although with four writers inside we creep at walking pace and water pours from the radiator. Justo calls the car Galileo: "For yet it moves!" We park on the sidewalk as if that were safer than the street. I have to ask what could possibly be stolen and Justo says: "The tires. This is an island of cannibals. Remember `Alive'? The plane crash. Fidel is our pilot, but he would call a crash a `Special Period.'" Justo is proud of buying a stolen battery with a three- month guaranty.

Roberto, a distinguished poet, takes it on himself to introduce me to more Santeria. I am not interested in Santeria. I explain I want to write a book about Cuba with no Santeria at all, but he insists on setting up a ceremony because, he insists, for real Cuban atmosphere the spirits are essential. Not to worry, his girlfriend can set up the ceremony and his wife will never know.

Thus, two nights later I step into the watery light of a room ringed by candles to meet the girlfriend, a willowy mulata much younger than Roberto, and then on out to a backyard where a miniature black woman in bare feet and a white shift stirs a cauldron set on coals. Everyone calls her Abuelita. Grandmother. Abuelita's paddle circulates potatoes, bananas, a pale pig's head around the stew. She is 85, with short, cottony hair, demure but able to sip from a bottle of ron peleo, a so-called "fighting rum" steeped in turtle testes, as if it were cream sherry. Somehow we fall into a conversation of comparative religions.

"Catholics," she sighs. "They're always going to church and saying `I thought of this, I thought of that.'" Abuelita touches her forehead and heart like a penitent. Shrugs at such a pointless endeavour. "They didn't do anything." She touches her forehead, heart and crotch. Smiles in recollection. "I did all that."

The ceremony itself is a debacle. During the dancing Roberto's girlfriend becomes possessed, charges out of the house and through the coals. Roberto, when the santero can't exorcise the spirit, threatens to get his gun and blow the santero's brains out.

"Blow them out," the santero says. "It doesn't matter. These are the wrong musicians, the music they're making is from the Congo. So this is a spirit from the Congo. Your girlfriend, I think her people are from the Congo too. I don't deal with Congo spirits."

This strikes me as a feeble jurisdictional evasion but everyone engages in the fine distinctions of Santeria, Palo Monte and Abakua, the three AfroCuban religions. You can believe in any combination of these beliefs and be Catholic besides, but you can't mix up the spirits too much. What is absurd to me is real to them.

"I will blow your fucking brains out," Roberto says.

The santero only makes matters worse. "And I think it's a male spirit because she's looking pretty ugly."

Everyone does agree that, what with her tousled hair, smudges and rolling eyes, she doesn't seem herself at all. It is Abuelita who mediates, walking the girl around the yard as if leading a sleepwalker home until the spirit dismounts and disappears. In an hour the poet is laid out in bed, undone by palpitations. Nevertheless, his girlfriend, lovely once more, has returned to the dance with Abuelita. The two women might be 60 years apart in age, but in the shifting light of the candles they appear equally graceful and unburdened by guilt.

ANA IS a light, copper-haired santera, a daughter of Oshun plagued by her weakness for sons of Chango. She has married and divorced two of them. The sex was great, always is with sons of Chango, but life out of bed was impossible.

What kind of man would be good for her?

"A son of Elegua. They never grow up, they're always playing - which is why they make such good baseball players."

The best way to tell which spirit is yours, who to marry, how to conduct your life in general is by throwing the shells, which Ana keeps at her shrine, a shelf holding a gold cloth, oranges and daisies, a brass bell and crown stuffed with dollar bills, all items favoured by Oshun. There are 18 shells and the instructions they impart can be exacting.

"I have a friend," Ana says, "who was warned by the reading that she has to have two lovers at all times. It's not easy to keep two lovers. Running here and there."

What with the permutations of so many shells, each a different shape and significance, readings can be complicated. There are many subdivisions and variations of a spirit, for example, Oshun Kayode, Oshun Yuyu, Oshun Ibu and more in glorious profusion.

"Let me throw the shells for you," Ana says.

No, I decide. Life is complicated enough without learning I am a love- bound son of Oshun. "It doesn't really matter," Ana confides. "I can generally tell without the shells. There are types. Someone loud, violent, sex always on the mind, that's going to be a son of Chango."

What comes to my mind at that moment is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator I have just heard described in San Francisco before my trip. Myers-Briggs is a highly respected personality test used by America's major corporations, an in- depth questionnaire that determines whether a prospective employee is introverted (I) or extroverted (E), sensing (S) or intuitive (N), feeling (F) or thinking (T), judgmental (J) or perceptive (P). An ENTJ is described by Myer-Briggs as "one of Life's Natural Leaders - gregarious, argumentative, commanding".

Sounds like Chango to me.

And if you hired Ana as your employment consultant and dropped an offering of $10 into Oshun's brass crown you'd save yourself what, about a thousand bucks?

A HUNDRED miles west of Havana the Valle de Vinales offers red earth, triangular tobacco sheds and mogotes, eerily conical hills that rise like a Chinese landscape from the plain. This is my fifth and maybe last trip to Cuba, a farewell. The

problem, as always, is that the more I know, the more I don't know.

But I'm packing all the questions away now. I am travelling with American friends. We swim laps in the small hotel pool, keep the rum flowing, bask in the blue smoke of cigars. I am invited to give long-winded monologues on Cuban culture, crime, religion. I succeed in being long-winded without saying anything worth hearing. I can feel Cuba sliding away; it's like losing a second, sensitive, temporary skin. I am approaching normal dullness.

Tomorrow is another day. Almost the last day.

The morning promises a good day for drying tobacco, not for driving a rental van back to the capital. In minutes we are parched, exhausted from talk and smoke and sun, perhaps a tiny bit hung over. Because everyone else in our happy circle is an amateur horticulturist we had stopped at a couple of famous state-run gardens on the way from Havana. One proved to be a dusty trail along a empty waterfall. The other was decisively padlocked. A motion to return to the locked garden is unanimously voted down. This is going to be a long ride.

Before we're out of Vinales, however, we are surprised by a house gate colourfully nailed with fruit as food for birds. Our knock is answered by a short woman in a loose shirt. Barbara Caridad is 85. Her father started the garden when she was five and now she inhabits a house nestled in a private jungle of bougainvillea, ghostly white orchids, delicate ferns and wandering hens. In the crook of a tree hangs a doll.

"Santeria?" I ask.

"No." She shakes her head. "Tourists like it."

Barbara gives a personal tour, as if introducing family. Her trail leads by beds of pied coleus, under red tasselled amaranth and hibiscus, planted by her father, hand-watered since. Behind the house spreads a tropical orchard of mandarin orange, loquats, bananas, cherries, pineapple. Almond, cinnamon, vanilla, cocoa with scents so intense the head, overfilled, begins to reel. Then fields of orange amaryllis, begonia and impatiens gone wild.

At her back door a table holds fruit ready for slicing and arranged around another doll. Somehow we all are ravenous, biting into star fruit, sweet mamey, custard apple while the juice rolls down our chins so ridiculously fast we have to laugh. When Barbara opens the door to bring more fruit I see in the room's dark interior a shrine, a santo and her offerings.

I haven't seen a spirit since.

`Havana Bay', the new Arkady Renko novel by Martin Cruz Smith, will be published by Macmillan (pounds 16.99) on 22 October

Traveller's Guide

Getting there Start at Gatwick and choose between Cubana (0171-734 1165), or the Saturdays-only service on British Airways (0345 222111).

You will generally get a better deal from a specialist operator such as Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) or South American Experience (0171-976 5511). These companies can also book hotels and arrange transfers.

A $20 (pounds 12) tax is payable when leaving Cuba by air.

When to go If you are seeking sunshine, go in April or May, when the daily average is over seven hours. February and March are good months for avoiding rain. In November, autumn storms have usually subsided and the temperature drops to a comfortable average high of 27C. The tourist seasons are from December to February and July to August.

Red Tape Visitors will need to take a Tourist Card, which can be obtained from one of the agents above for pounds 15.

Money There are four currencies in Cuba: the US dollar; the "convertible peso"(1 peso = $1, interchangeable with the dollar within Cuba, but scorned elsewhere); intur tourist money (5c, 10c and 25c coins, introduced to counter the lack of small change); and the peso (which you can change at Cadecas for 21 to the dollar).

Health No vaccinations are needed, and protection against malaria is unnecessary.

Getting Around A one-way flight from Havana to Santiago costs about $80 (pounds 50). Domestic flights can be booked in advance through specialist agencies mentioned above.

Tickets for long-distance trains can be bought in hard currency from special tourists' ticket offices or by queuing with the locals and paying in pesos.

Rates for renting a car from Cuba's four hire companies are high and there are extra charges for insurance and mileage. Accommodation

Havana's hotels start at around $20 (pounds 12) single or $30 (pounds 19) double. Private residences cost around $10 (pounds 7) single or $15 (pounds 9) double.

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