Travel Special: March - Havana

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The Independent Travel

It is somewhere close to the middle of the night when I notice that one of our party is missing. I'll be honest, I've had a few, but then we all have; Havana is that kind of place. There were four of us when we arrived at the city's plush Parque Nacional Hotel several hours earlier for the aftershow shindig of a visiting English pop star, and now there are only three. And because the one that has gone missing is young, attractive and female, us remaining men - under the antiquated illusion that she requires our protection - have suddenly switched to "alert mode". We plonk our unfinished mojitos on to the bar top, check the toilets and the surrounding lobby, then head for the exit, the police guards stationed at the door watching us go with detached interest. As we cross the road into the square that forms the centre of Habana Vieja, people emerge from the shadows and trees. It is 3am, still warm and still muggy.

"Hello my fren'," says a man suddenly in my face. His eyes are wide, his teeth gold. "You wan' cocaine, or maybe sexy-sexy?" He thrusts the woman whose hand he is holding towards me, in offer. "She good, you know?"

I tell him no, thank you, another time maybe, but he isn't easily shaken off. Gold teeth sparkling in the moonlight, he now invites me to a bar where we can indulge in all manner of alliterations: sexy-sexy, charlie-charlie and fun-fun-fun. Despite his persistence that, in the circumstances, is highly irritating, he somehow doesn't emit the air of menace his counterparts in London, New York or Johannesburg would. If anything, pimp credentials notwithstanding, he seems rather pleasant. The reason for this, he endeavours to explain, is that Havana is, "happy-happy. I help you find your fren'. But don't worry, Havana safe place, OK?"

And you know what? He's right. If you ever have to find yourself drunk and suddenly panicked when a friend goes missing - a friend who later turns up, perfectly secure, in her hotel bed, "because I was tired, innit?" - you could do a lot worse than Havana.

One of the last remaining Communist empires in the world, Cuba makes for an unusually fascinating holiday destination, with Havana its glittering, if downtrodden, jewel. This bustling capital of 2 million (which, bizarrely, is twinned with Glasgow) teems with life and liveliness. Salsa music pours, as cliché and convention dictates, from every window, and the architecture - a combination of art deco, Spanish villas and Italian-style mansions - is stunning, all the more so because, due to the ravages of time and no money for repair, these once magnificent buildings are now crumbling and on the very precipice of collapse. Hemingway loved the place so much they've set up bars throughout the city in his honour, and if you visit during the summer months, you'll feel moved to frequent every last one of them, if only to escape the searing, unrelenting heat.

The tourist trail here is a rather modest one, and centres around the old town (Habana Vieja), which has everything your average coach party could want - cobblestones, cheap lunch menus, local art. But Havana really comes alive in its labyrinthine, open-sewered backstreets, where poverty rubs up against the laconic cool of the Caribbean to bewitching effect. Loose-limbed locals congregate at every street corner to dance, to play dominoes, to smoke cigars. Frankly, there seems little else to do, as the paucity of shops here, for those of us unaccustomed to the realities of Communism, is shocking. Aside from the occasional chintzy fashion boutique (which you will need to queue in front of for several hours before gaining access), there is nothing to buy outside of one of the city's famous ice-creams or a rapidly browning banana.

But that doesn't mean your money will stretch very far, as Havana thrums with expert hustlers keen to relieve you of your cash by offering their services as tour guide, drinking buddy, or even temporary sex slave.

During our visit, we acquired the services of a local scout, a sly old goat called Victor with more than a touch of the Al Pacinos about him, who chauffeured us in one of the city's trademark rattling Buicks. Whether we wanted it or not, he took us to see the Plaza De La Revolucion, the Museo Hemingway and the Tropicana Nightclub, not simply because they were worth seeing but because he was being paid by the hour. For lunch, he insisted we visit one of the city's countless paladares - small, privately run restaurants in the living rooms of family houses. Here, we ate a plate of chicken and rice for three times the price it cost us in a fancy hotel the previous evening, and the food was awful. But then Cuba has never been noted for its cuisine. According to locals, the three greatest successes of the revolution were health, education and sport. The three greatest failures were breakfast, lunch and dinner. Little wonder, then, so many visitors are so reliant upon the local tipple, the mojito. After a couple of those fiery babies, anything becomes palatable.

It is our last night in Cuba, and we are strolling along the Malecon, Havana's main thoroughfare which runs right up against the perennially bad-tempered ocean. A Saturday night, the locals have gathered, as they always do, along its 8km sea wall, chatting, drinking and, in some cases, petting heavily. At one point, my photographer friend sits down to fiddle with his zoom lens while the rest of us walk on. When he catches up a short while later, his face is ashen. It seems a family of four had joined him on the bench and, after a minute's chat, the mother had offered him her 18-year-old daughter's hand in marriage. He could take her to London, she told him. Hell, he could take the whole family, yes?

My friend is understandably unnerved by this, distraught at the desperation in their eyes. To the casual visitor, Havana seems sleepily content with its lot, but scratch the surface, and the suggestion that Communism isn't working perhaps quite as Castro had envisaged becomes evident.

"But the daughter," he says to us, almost wistfully, "she was very beautiful ..."

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