Mean street

It's a pungent mix of car fumes, pigs and human waste festering under a Caribbean sun - it's the Cuban capital's Street of Health. Simon Calder is our man in Havana
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The Independent Travel
A camel has just sliced noisily across Calle Salud. You cannot fail to see, hear and smell it; if you were to hurry, you could touch it, but then you would also get a lungful of noxious emissions that would leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Welcome to the road that jangles all your senses: the Street of Health.

Calle Salud is just an ordinary thoroughfare in the middle of Havana. And that is what makes it extraordinary. During its mile-long straggle through the Cuban capital, life on the street in this most eccentric of cities will amaze you.

That camel, for instance: I swear it was carrying at least 200 people. It is a mechanical beast, one of Havana's solutions to Cuba's problem - suddenly finding that all your family and friends have walked out, emptying the larder and taking their cash as they slammed the ideological door. With no more cheap Hungarian buses and giveaway Soviet oil, the Caribbean's largest city was in danger of grinding to a halt. To maximise the precious resources that remain, a trailer like a railway carriage with a hump at each end is hooked on to a tractor unit. In case you still can't see the resemblance to a ship of the desert, a picture of a dromedary is painted on the side.

Whether or not you plan to arrive by said camel, you will need to know where Calle Salud is. Just locate the Capitolio, a throwback to the days when Havana merely mimicked Washington DC. An only slightly scaled-down version of the Capitol building, it is the most visible structure in Havana. The Senate and House of Representatives are no longer required, so it echoes to the footsteps of tourists rather than to rhetoric.

Behind this illusion of democracy lies the real Havana. As spruce marble ends, quiet derelictionbegins. You smell the street well before you see or hear it. To put it kindly, the Street of Health is organic - a particularly pungent example of a tropical location where birth, death and everything in between emits its own smell. The olfactory cocktail remains barely on the safe side of toxic.

The recipe is complex. Take the odour from 350 consignments of household waste, one for each of the dwellings along Calle Salud. The good news is that Cubans energetically recycle everything they can; the bad news is that what remains becomes less savoury with every hour spent festering in the Caribbean sun. Add a contribution from the pigs that anyone with a backyard will rear, and a scattering of waste from the mules that haul any goods for which speed is not of the essence. Inhale a blast of the rough and ill-named Popular cigarettes, the only brand in town. Smother all of this with the fumes from the cheap and nasty fuel that is imperfectly combusted by Havana's vehicles. Three certainties here: whether it is the aforesaid camel, or an ancient American saloon way past its crush- by date, it will be held together with string and revolutionary fervour; it will usually carry three times the theoretical maximum number of passengers, and it will belch thick, black clouds of poison into the warm, sweet Havana air.

Innovation in urban transport is a skill that Cubans have developed since the economic carpet was pulled from beneath them. When the USSR fell apart, the apparatus for supporting the only Communist state in the West vanished and with it the illusion of self-reliance. For the second time since the 1959 revolution, Cuba fell victim to a superpower.

The first event was the embargo that President Kennedy imposed after Fidel Castro nationalised American enterprises. Nine US leaders later, the increasingly vicious legislation against trading with the enemy looks like belligerent bullying run wild. Arguably, it has helped Castro retain power: having a neighbouring Goliath trying everything to destroy your country does wonders for a nation's sense of unity.

The economic blockade means you will rarely hear an American accent on Calle Salud, since its owner faces a $50,000 fine for daring to spend holiday cash in Cuba. But that is about the only noise that is absent from the full orchestra that seems to be in constant crescendo on the street. The lower frequencies reverberate from raucous old Kamaz lorries. Countless sets of loudspeakers, all assembled ineffectually in Minsk at least a decade ago, only just fail to blanket everything with distorted samba. At the top end of the scale, shrieks of gossiping women compete with squealing piglets to see who can hit the highest note. And then you hear a tssst-tssst-tssst that sounds like a cymbal but turns out to be of human origin.

The hissing won't go away if you ignore it. Instead, it will approach. And if you still don't respond, you will find out just how tactile Cubans can be. Should you have an aversion to a stranger clasping your arm or slapping your back, perhaps you ought to holiday in Norway instead.

Tourists get touched frequently in Havana. Usually a cheery caress can be ascribed to the innate friendliness that most Cubans display to visitors, perhaps accompanied by a tease about your pale, frail skin. But sometimes you will feel a hand on your arm simply because you are a walking gold- mine.

The contact is rarely criminal in intent; Havana has its share of pickpockets, but happily most of them are hilariously inept. Instead, the instigator will be unveiling a strategy designed to procure anything from "one dollar, mister" to safe passage out of this benighted country by virtue of marrying a foreigner. Or he or she could be offering alcohol, tobacco or sex. Every male seems to have a brother working in the Havana Club distillery or H Uppmann cigar factory, and thus can offer cut-price rum or cigars. Some females are streetwalking proof that the revolution's aim of eliminating prostitution has failed.

Your instant (and probably highly temporary) friends will not be so single- minded in their pursuit of dollars that they lose their sense of humour. Turning the conversation around, perhaps by demanding a dollar from them, should defuse any ill will and allow you to continue along Calle Salud - perhaps splashing some cash as you go.

Taste is an individual sensation, but Communism did its best to collectivise food and drink through strict state control of cafes and restaurants. Gradually, as the post-Soviet economy plumbed new depths, catering establishments that had never been especially well-stocked became parodies of hospitality - with nothing at all to eat or drink.

Gradually the philosophy of Marx and Engels gave way to that of Marks & Spencer, and the brakes came off free enterprise. Now you can eat and drink your way along Calle Salud. People have turned their front porches into cafes, and you trip over a dozen of them during your walk. Sweet, strong and tepid coffee served by the eggcupful costs a penny. A beaker of batido (fruit, ice and sugar put through a blender) is threepence, but is unavailable during the sporadic power cuts that afflict all Havana except for the flashier hotels. Fifteen pence buys an approximation of a pizza, a disc of warmish dough sparsely populated with dabs of melted cheese. The offerings may not be entirely to your taste, but the amazing thing is that they exist at all.

Your eyes, at least, will feast on the street and its people. The name itself resonates with virtue and good intent, as do neighbouring streets such as Loyalty and Perseverance. Yet the Street of Health is strictly no-frills, more Old Kent Road than Mayfair or Park Lane. As Havana spread west from the original walled city, the flatland was carved into a messy grid pattern.

The oldest surviving buildings on the slightly crumpled Calle Salud date back three centuries, still bearing the weight of huge doors and shutters devised by some ancient Andalusian architect. The predominant style, though, is mid-19th-century neo-Classical pretentious, with absurdly disproportionate Corinthian columns heralding diminutive bungalows. The remaining gaps have been filled with designs direct from a Hollywood drawing board; twirls and thrusts of concrete present a series of mock- Egyptian and kitsch Chinese motifs, decked out with preposterous turrets.

My favourite house is middle-aged and half-way along. The shutters have been flung open to reveal the modest contents of an average Havana home. The centre-piece of this tableau is the occupant himself, planted in a rocking-chair with the daily newspaper. While the reader digests the latest statistics for tractor production, the grass grows over his head. With the benefit of equal dollops of rain and sun, his roof has sprouted a rampant lawn, a study of glorious disrepair.

He doesn't seem to care. Occasionally he screws up his leathery face still tighter to peer over the paper at the people outside. The stimulus of the street is compelling. Cubans come in any colour you like so long as it's not white. After half a millennium of genetic jumbling, about the only ethnic group not represented in the Calle Salud gene pool are the unfortunate aboriginal Indians, wiped out by disease and maltreatment soon after the Spanish arrived.

Africans, Europeans and Asians range through the spectrum from deepest black to cafe con leche, while the faces of the thousand or so residents speak of ancestry in Guinea or Guyana, Castille or China. Watching this proud parade against a background of fading pastel yellow and tones of tired terracotta, you feel intensely human. Your senses have been pummelled: a massage for the soul. Like the street, you are weary but in the soundest of health. And, with luck, you will have achieved a sixth sense: a sense of wonder.

Revolutionary tendencies

Red routes: Simon Calder paid pounds 415 for a week in Havana with Voyages Jules Verne (0171-616 1000). This includes charter flights from Gatwick to Varadero, airport taxes, the two-hour bus transfer to Havana and seven nights' accommodation at the Hotel Sevilla. Availability at this price is limited, and the present series of holidays is soon to end. An alternative is to take the twice-weekly scheduled flight on Cubana, sold for around pounds 420 return through specialist agents such as Journey Latin America (0181- 742 3108), Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711) and South American Experience (0171-976 5511). These companies can also arrange accommodation in Havana for prices starting at around pounds 30 per night.

Red tape: the fee for a tourist card is pounds 15-pounds 20. This can be issued routinely by tour operators and travel agents, so long as you don't write "journalist" as your occupation.

Well read: Lonely Planet has just brought out Cuba: a Travel Survival Kit by David Stanley (pounds 9.99). The third edition of Travellers Survival Kit: Cuba was published last March by Vacation Work, price pounds 9.99; Simon Calder wrote this book with Emily Hatchwell.