One of the highlights of visiting Havana is to witness the firing of the nightly canon. Originally it was used as a nine o’clock signal that the town gates would close in one hour – in case you were getting lucky in an out-of-town haystack with a milkmaid and didn’t want to be locked out of the city. This ceremony is full of pomp, with soldiers dressed up in olde garb marching stiffly to a kettledrum beat as they head for the ancient canon and go through a routine of barking orders and pounding gunpowder into the breach. Then, at exactly nine o’clock the canon is fired to the enjoyment of a big crowd. You get an excellent bang for your eight bucks.
Interesting and humorous as the canon ceremony was, I was brought down to earth by the realisation of how close the world came to catastrophe during the Cuban blockade of 1962. On a headland, not far from the nine o’clock canon, a decommissioned Soviet missile stood pointed at America. While Kennedy and Khrushchev argued over the Bay of Pigs, the Soviets had moved 36 of these missiles into Cuba, each with a one megaton warhead (that’s 77 times more powerful than the bomb that fell on Hiroshima) and capable of travelling over 1000 kilometres to its target. Just one of these missiles could have wiped out New York. Apparently, there were only minutes to go before firing when the leaders agreed on a deal. The current situation with North Korea has the early signs of something similar.
There is a clear delineation between old Havana and new Havana. Old is where the Italianate and art deco Spanish buildings, erected between 1900 and about 1960 stand in narrow streets and are being strictly preserved. That goes for magnificent public buildings and churches. ‘New’ allows for modern high rise buildings. For tourist and aesthetic reasons, never the twain shall meet.
There are two things you don’t do in Cuba. One is blow you nose in public. It is about as acceptable as urinating on a heritage building. If you want to blow you nose you have to sneak into a secluded place and honk quietly. The other is not to utter the English word for a certain fruit. If you went to a produce market and commented on the female stall holder’s nice papaya, you would be talking slang about her vagina.
Although Havana has a magnificent central railway building (in restoration) and several long platforms, there are very few passenger trains running. The reason is that the system has become so obsolete and decayed that it will be cheaper to start all over again – which the government plans to do. A trip between major cities can take days because of stops at various towns while carriages and engines are reorganised. Another problem is that the line it is only single, meaning that you can only run one train in one direction. Trips between major cities favour car, bus or horse. In our case our journey will be by diesel Chevrolet with a clapped out suspension
We visited the oldest synagogue in Havana, built in 1924 for a then thriving Jewish population. It was well fortified with wrought iron and barbed wire but the minders let us in without checking too stringently. We entered a dim office/classroom and asked to see the Rabbi. I expected him to be small, fussy and sad, but he turned out to be just the opposite. I shook hands with the biggest Rabbi I’ve ever seen. He must have been at least six foot six, with a rampant beard and plenty of ballast around the middle. A black hat would have brought him into contact with the low ceiling of the shule. He was also the most humorous Rabbi I’ve ever met. He laughingly explained that his congregation was nearly all in the senior ranks and, as such, was literally dying out. Most of the members were poor and attended services for the food that was handed out. These services were timed to fit in with the two other synagogues in Havana so that the faithful could do the rounds and pick up spiritual and physical sustenance from all of them. He was a native Cuban, had a Spanish accent but had been trained in Israel. He told us that his synagogue’s membership was now so small that he had to do everything, which included running the services, being the cantor, doing circumcisions, ritual slaughtering, overseeing kosher food preparation, preparing the dead for burial and conducting wedding and burial ceremonies – more the latter than the former. He certainly deserved the donation we placed in his tzedakah box. We returned three days later with some bathroom products and antibiotics we’d brought for hotel staff to express our appreciation and gratitude, but because we didn’t feel either, the Rabbi got the lot for his flock of improvised oldies.
I now understand why so many people in Cuban service industries are generally discourteous and disinterested. It is because the Cuban communist government controls virtually all employment. It also either fully or partly owns all real estate and businesses, as well as public services like hospitals and schools. Its massive employment service allocates all the jobs. The employer pays the government a substantial monthly rate for employees and, in turn, the government pays the employees – after deducting about 90 percent for its own coffers. The result is that there is no incentive for good service, or a downside for bad service. Israel told us that a doctor, for instance, after training for seven years to be a GP, earns about $350 a month. The government pays for his or her training overseas and, in return, demands two years’ service at this lousy monthly rate. After that, the doctor is a free agent – and probably leaves Cuba for better payment opportunities overseas.
We had dreamed of siting in the big Havana square, with live Latin music playing while we ate a meal, drank rum and smoked cigars. This we did on our third night here. Even though the meal was typically tasteless, the world looked decidedly better by the time we were done. We woke the next morning with headaches and mouths like the bottom of a bird cage, but for that night, life could not have been sweeter.