If there's one book that best describes the decadence and depravity of pre-revolutionary Cuba, it's Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana. The hilarious story of Wormold, the vacuum-cleaner salesman-turned-double agent, is set amid Greene's favourite watering holes under the drunken influence of daiquiri cocktails.
Nearly 40 years after the revolution, I set out with a friend to track down the bars that inspired Greene and to savour Cuba's famous rum-based drink. Today, though, there is little mention of Greene in revolutionary Cuba. There's a tourist trail dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, and several bars cash in on his name, but to discover Greene's Havana you have to look for it yourself.
Armed with a copy of Greene's book, we set out on our own pub crawl. We started where the novel begins in El Prado, one of Old Havana's main thoroughfares and home to the Wonder Bar where Wormold drank his morning daiquiri with his friend Dr Hasselbacher.
The negro was blind in one eye and one leg was shorter than the other ... he walked at the edge of the pavement, beyond the yellow and pink pillars of a colonnade, in the hot January sun, and he counted every step as he went. As he passed the Wonder Bar, going up Virtudes, he had reached 1,369.
It was also January when we walked along El Prado. Layers of pastel-coloured paint on the once elegant three-storey colonnaded buildings have peeled away, and the stonework is slowly being eaten away by humidity. Dirty skinny children ran towards us, demanding chewing gum and bon bons. Young men loitered in the central Spanish-style square hawking black-market cigars.
Before the revolution, El Prado was filled with bars and shops. But as we walked up and down twice in search of the Wonder Bar, we realised there wasn't a bar to be had. The houses all seemed to be divided into flats. We interrupted two old women talking under the colonnades and they pointed to a dirty pink building with a brown wrought-iron gate.
The occupant, a stocky middle-aged Hispanic woman called Maria, invited us inside. The swing doors have been replaced by a metal door which opened directly into Maria's small sitting room. Today all that remains of the bar is a badly peeling mural depicting traditional Spanish dancers. Crumbling whitewash revealed layers of red, green and yellow paint from bygone eras. The floor was stone and the furniture cheap and shabby. But it was brightly decorated with dolls and garish vases filled with dusty plastic flowers.
"Sit down," said Maria, pointing to a green plastic settee. She introduced us to Federico, her husband, who sat down at a large table covered with a checked cloth. So much for daiquiris, there was only the Cuban beer we'd been carrying in our bag.
Maria and Federico had lived in the Wonder Bar for nearly 30 years. "It was closed after the revolution when the owner left for the USA," said Maria. "Nine years later, while I was working for a taxi company, I met the owner and he told me the place was empty and asked if I wanted to move in. Where we lived was very crowded so I took up his offer. It was very eerie, as it had been closed for so long. There was a picture of Nat King Cole on the wall which was so vivid he looked real. It scared me to death, so I took it down. I still sometimes feel chilled - it's as if it's haunted by pre-revolutionary ghosts. There were many people who had a violent end here." (Wormold's friend Dr Hasselbacher was murdered here.)
As a young woman Maria often walked past the Wonder Bar. "I never went inside, but I walked past often enough and it was full of people. I remember their elegant shoes. But it was also quite rowdy. Fights would break out in the street outside - probably people had too much to drink."
The flat had no plumbing and the gramophone had long since ceased to work, but Maria and Federico agreed the revolution had been good to them. "I never went to school as a kid," said Federico. "My children have been educated and I have had four heart operations - which would have been impossible before Castro."
As a child Federico had accompanied his taxi driver father as he drove people to casinos, sex clubs and bars. Sitting in the front of his father's Buick, he'd observed the decadent and heady lifestyles of the Batista era and also the extreme poverty.
Using the English he'd picked up from his father's customers, Federico offered to take us on a tour of Greene's Havana. The Havana Club, the home of Cuban rum of the same name, was where Wormold played chess and drank with the Vedado police chief Captain Segura.
The three-storey building still had an air of grandeur. Inside, the large entrance hall was furnished with old leather armchairs. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling. But we couldn't even buy a glass of rum, let alone a daiquiri. Not only was the bar not in use, it looked as if it hadn't been touched since the revolution. The oak bar was thick with dust. An old cash till lay on its side, the money drawer spilled open. Half-empty bottles of Havana Club were still in the cupboards. Sketches of old Cuba and the Havana Club logo advertising "the genuine rum from Cuba" adorned the yellow wall tiles. A glass ceiling lamp lay smashed on the floor.
With not so much as a whiff of a daiquiri we continued on to Calle Agramonte and Calle Anima in search of Sloppy Joe's. It was here in the lavatories that Wormold was recruited as a secret agent.
"Take a pew, old man," the stranger said, "while I turn on the tap." But when water ran he made no attempt to wash. "Looks more natural if someone barges in. And of course it confuses a mike" ... He thrust Wormold into the compartment ... Wormold sat down ... When he was seated his legs still showed under the half-door. A handle turned. Feet crossed the tiled floor towards the pissoir ... What enormous bladders Cubans had, and how clean Hawthorne's hands must be getting ...
These days Cuban bladders must be greatly reduced. Only a mosaic on the pavement under the colonnade identified it as Sloppy Joe's. The rusty shutters were drawn over the arched windows. I borrowed a chair from a shoeshine man sitting under the pale pink colonnades so I could be high enough to peer through a hole in the shutters. In the darkness, I could just make out the debris-covered bar.
"Before the revolution it was packed with tourists and famous people like Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich and Hemingway," said Federico. "You could squeeze 35 stools along the huge bar and the daiquiris were the best in Cuba."
Once hired as an agent, Wormold can't find any information to send back. So in order to legitimise his job, he pretends to recruit sub-agents, often taking the names from real people, and sends fake stories back to MI6. His bosses are so impressed that they send out a female assistant called Beatrice to help him. Then a man whose name was used for a sub- agent is killed in mysterious circumstances. Unaware that the sub-agents are fictional, Beatrice fears the other agents are also in danger.
One of the fictional sub-agents is a nude dancer called Teresa who works at the infamous Shanghai Club - Havana's notorious sex club. Beatrice urges Wormold to go to the club to warn Teresa that she is in danger. They find a girl called Teresa, but of course it is simply coincidental, and she's not a spy.
A note ... [on the stage] forbade the audience to molest the dancers.
"Which one is Teresa?" Beatrice asked. "'I think it must be the fat one in the mask," Wormold said at random. She was just leaving the stage with a heave of her great naked buttocks.
Wormold and Beatrice enter the dressing room - a medieval inferno full of smoke and naked women - in search of a Teresa. "Obviously Teresa is not here," said Wormold with relief. But a girl appears, saying "soy Teresa". Wormold then tells Beatrice, who doesn't speak Spanish, that this girl is Teresa's sister and that he can give her a message.
In search of the Shanghai, we travelled by taxi - a blue-green 1950s Chevrolet - along the pot-holed street of Virtudes into the old Chinatown district, where Federico had regularly been driven by his father. "Before the revolution there were lots and lots of bars and clubs here. The streets were bustling with people ... there were prostitutes everywhere. Drunks lay at the side of the road where they had collapsed."
Today, all that exists of the Shanghai is a square of rough grass surrounded by buildings on two sides. The streets, once lined with prostitutes, are quietly residential. Children play ball games on the grass and men and women stand and chat.
"An innocent end to such a grubby place," said Federico. Like all the sex clubs, the Shanghai was closed down after the revolution.
"It was left empty and neglected for so long it fell into disrepair and eventually had to be knocked down."
As a child, he remembered customers queuing for tickets in the street because the foyer was used as a pornographic book shop.
An old Hispanic wiped the taxi's windscreen in the hope of earning a peso. He remembered the Shanghai: "I used to sell packs of 'girlie' postcards to customers queuing outside."
We continued on our tour, travelling along the Malecon, the magnificent sweeping curve of seafront. During rough weather, the waves come crashing over the sea wall on to the road. It was along the Malecon that Wormold and Beatrice drove Teresa. The wind rocked the car, and the spray broke across the traffic lanes and misted the seaward window.
It was also here that Federico, still a fervent revolutionist, welcomed in Castro in 1959: "The peasants flocked in from the country to welcome Castro when he arrived from the mountains. There was so much excitement. Everyone was cheering."
We proceeded on foot down the narrow Calle Obispo, Wormold's well-trodden route to the Wonder Bar. Once the main business district, many of the buildings are now homes. Doors open to reveal crumbling plaster with old electricity metres dangling yards of cables into the street. Splendid vintage cars, some without tyres, rest on pavements. Skinny dogs scavenge among the litter. Women shop at the new dollar shops.
We crossed into Calle Lamparilla in search of Wormold's vacuum-cleaner shop - but there was no such shop. "People don't use vacuum cleaners - there aren't any carpets," said Federico.
The Tropicana, perhaps one of the most spectacular nightclubs in the world, is one of the few place that is little changed since Greene's day.
It was to the Tropicana that Wormold brought his daughter Milly to celebrate her 17th birthday. Stage and dance-floor were open to the sky. Chorus girls paraded 20 feet up among the great palm trees, while pink and mauve searchlights swept the floor.
The mulettas were still beautiful and the cabaret magical. And at last there were daiquiris ... nothing like the sugary fruit drink cocktails served in Britain, but delicious, tangy alcoholic frappes. These days the show is out of the range of ordinary Cubans, the cheapest tickets being pounds 10. Cubans can go as guests of tourists and so Federico was allowed to accompany us. It was his first time there and he was thrilled. When the bikini-clad dancers appeared with chandeliers on their heads connected by electric wires, he was amazed that so much electricity could be wasted.
We wended our way back through the dark narrow cobbled streets of Old Havana in search of more daiquiris and ended up at the rooftop bar of the 19th-century Inglaterra Hotel overlooking the luminated domes of the Gran Teatro and Capitolio. The Inglaterra was where Beatrice stayed, and was one of Greene's favourite hotels. The warm bar was filled with Western pop music and the noisy chatter of male tourists accompanied by one, or even two, scantily clad prostitutes.
Down below in the cobbled square taxi drivers sat waiting in Oldsmobiles, Buicks and even Russian Ladas. Prostitutes in Lycra leggings and miniskirts hung around waiting to catch the eye of foreigners going to the hotel.
"What is happening to our country? We're becoming a nation of prostitutes," sighed Federico sadly.
Many of the bars and clubs immortalised in Our Man may no longer be operating but, after nearly 40 years, Greene's world appears to be coming full circle as the hard-pressed Cuban economy desperately promotes itself to tourists.
And it may not be long before gambling returns, along with Sloppy Joe's and the Wonder Bar. !
Flights from London to Havana are operated once a week by the Cuban national airline, CUBANA. Outbound flights depart on Thursdays, return flights leave Cuba on Wednesdays, arriving in London the following day. Return prices start from around pounds 350 and are available from many of the operators specialising in Cuba. Try South American Experience (0171 976 5511), Journey Latin America (0181 747 8315), Progressive Tours (0171 262 1676) and Kinetics Travel Services (0171 352 4984), all of which offer both flight-only bookings and inclusive tours. Alternatively, flights on scheduled airlines are available via various European cities. The Spanish carrier Iberia (0171 830 0011) operates connecting flights to Havana, via Madrid, from London, Birmingham and Manchester, prices start at around pounds 600.
Progressive Tours offer various Cuba packages including its Study Tour, an all inclusive 14-day trip for around pounds 800 which includes four days in Havana. As well as extensive sight-seeing this tour promises the opportunity to meet Cubans, with visits to schools, universities and a collective farm. For a complete list of companies operating to Cuba and any other information on the country call the Cuba Tourist Board on 0171 379 1706.
British passport holders require a Tourist Card or visa to visit Cuba for more than 72 hours. Tourist Cards can be arranged by tour operators or obtained direct from the Cuban Consulate (0171 240 2488, 15 Grape Street, London WC2H 8DR), they cost pounds 12 in person or pounds 15 by post. A valid 10-year passport and return ticket to Cuba are necessary before a card will be issued. Tourist Cards permit one entry and are valid for 30 days. Once in Cuba they can be extended by one month at a time for up to six months.
Travellers Survival Kit Cuba by Simon Calder and Emily Hatchwell (Vacation Work, pounds 9.95).
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies