Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Rocking in San Augustin



Here I am sitting in an old rocking chair, on a balcony in San Agustin, - a suburb of Havana which is hardly mentioned in the tourist guides. Birds chirping all around, old cars chugging along. I can smell Sunday lunches being prepared in near-by apartments. Sometimes mingling with the odour of exhaust fumes.

Its about 2:00 in the afternoon, and lunch is cooking in a pressure cooker. It’s a cut-up chicken which had been marinating in vinegar, onions and garlic with some sliced potatoes . No scotch bonnet in sight. Cuban-Americans crave this vinegar as apparently they can’t get anything like it in Miami. It doesn’t seem all that special to me, but then again maybe we too have fantastic vinegar. The rice cooker has about finished its job, and there will hopefully be black beans to go with that, for a dish called Moors and Christians – the white rice representing the Christians and the black beans the Moorish invaders.

The street is quite busy – with just about every form of automobile passing by. Here comes a Lada taxi. Now a motorbike – male rider carrying a rather large woman stuffed in a canary coloured jumpsuit. Now one with a sidecar – yes they still exist.

Dominoes are being played in the distance – you can hear them banging on the table and occasionally being shuffled, but without the boastful voices that you might hear in Jamaica. Perhaps the players need greater concentration as they play with a double-nine as opposed to our meagre double-six.

There goes a bus, quite full, and blaring salsa music – “Baby, te quiro, baby te quiero o o “ as it lets off about six passengers. Now an army jeep. And now a beautiful old American car from the 1950s – a powder blue Pontiac with a white roof and trim. These museum pieces serve mainly as taxis – its only $1 peso CUC to Havana Vieja in one of these – but up to $20 CUC if you take a tourist taxi. No bicitaxis (rickshaws to us) have passed yet. They are being outlawed in Calcutta, but they abound in Havana – and London’s Soho for that matter.

There’s not much in the immediate area, but nearby is a little park, which you get to by walking to the end of the street and crossing the main road. A vacant piece of land has been used as a makeshift garbage dump, familiar to Jamaican eyes. A little shop near the park sells Cuban fast food – not patties, but pizzas and ham sandwiches and the like.

Walk down the street and you’ll find a little shop selling basics – well, I know they sell sodas, not sure what else. You’ll also find a cambio – a little shed behind security fencing, with two attendants and a security guard. These cambios are everywhere and are open long hours, making it really easy for me, tourists and Cubans to exchange their FX into convertible pesos ( CUCs). Credit cards are hardly accepted however, and I can’t seem to get anything out of the ATMs. If you get stuck though, the bank at the Hotel National will give you cash on your non-American credit card, at a charge of 11%. So if you are thinking of visiting, take along as much cash as you are likely to need – and unless you want to be taxed 20%, make sure its not American dollars.

Whether you need to get cash or not, the Hotel Nacional is well worth a visit, and is ranked as one of the best hotels in Cuba. But as I sit here watching the Cuban world go by, and hunger for that lunch, I think that maybe I am getting a better taste for the real Cuba than I ever could in one of the five star hotels in Havana proper.

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