Archive | January, 2011

The Drag Show

28 Jan

Since they were fully booked we had to move out of Jose and Denis’ apartment after two nights in Havana and into a neighbour’s casa two stories below. On our third evening in town we were invited back upstairs to enjoy a ‘surprise’ that Jose had organised for us. Beyond Cuban rum, which was always plentiful at their place, none of us were sure what to expect.

When we arrived at the apartment we were introduced to Jose’s friend Leo, an attractive young black man who wore a diamond stud in one ear. Leo disappeared into the kitchen when the rum started flowing and the volume of the salsa music was turned up a few notches.

Soon Jose took to the centre of the lounge room, and grasping a tall glass as if it were a microphone announced in an impressive display of showmanship that we were about to meet one of Havana’s finest Cabaret performers. A round of applause please!

From behind the curtain appeared Leo, spectacularly transformed into Esperanza. Wearing a beautiful wig, an evening gown, sparkling jewelery and high heels Esperanza proceeded to dance and mimed a number of Whitney Houston-esq diva ballads. We were privileged to witness at least three costume changes throughout the show.

Of course Alex and Michael received special attention from Esperanza. Both did their best to dance with her when invited on to the impromptu stage which Jose and Denis both thought was hilarious. At one point Jose leaned towards me and asked if I thought Michael knew that under all the big hair and sparkles was a man. I was very sure that Michael was aware that he was taking part in a drag show, but I told Jose that I wasn’t sure as to not destroy his fun.

In the final act Esperanza sang a song whose bold lyrics told the audience something like ‘this is me, here I am, tough if you don’t like it’. As the tune progressed Esperanza slowly started to hemorage her costume. We watched as the heels, then her dress, and finally her wig were passionately thrown to the floor. Next Esperanza started to take off her padded hips and stockings. For a few moments I thought she was about to go the full monty. But the finale ended with an underwear-clad Leo throwing a glass of rum at our little audience. Encore!

Well I never expected that my experiences in Cuba would include a private performance of a very professional drag show in a casa particular, though I am greatful that it did. I was reminded this night just how important it is to leave space in your itinerary for surprises when traveling, as often the most precious experiences you’ll enjoy far away from home are those that are unplanned.

After the show we were asked to hand over a couple of CUCs as a tip, which we happily gave to Leo. Alex and I also presented as a gift the pink wig that I wore during Carnival in Cartagena, Colombia. Leo was appreciative and gave me an earing in return, and asked me to please post him any other wigs, dresses or size thirteen heels that I may come across in my travels.

We spent the rest of the evening continuing to learn how to salsa and to move to regaton, which is very popular in Cuba. Isobelle and I finally mastered some salsa turns that night, but our partners still struggled with the basic ‘one-two-three-and’ steps. That any young healthy man could not pick up this move was beyond Jose’s comprehension.

All of us had a lot of fun teaching Alex an Michael how to move their hips. They finally got it (sort of) when Leo told them that they should move as though they were making love. Perhaps this is the language that all men understand even if Latin blood doesn’t pump though their veins?

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Welcome to Havana

26 Jan
From Havana, Cuba

4 January 2010

Our Aeromexico flight touched down at Havana’s International Airport Jose Marti on a sunny winter’s afternoon in Cuba’s capital city.

I was impressed that after we climbed off the plane we only had to wait for a few minutes in a line two-people deep to be stamped into the country by customs officials.

As we could only approach the row of customs desks one at a time, I passed into Cuba ahead of my friends. As my tourist visa was being stamped and I was welcomed into the country I was required to answer a couple of standard immigration questions such as ‘What is the purpose of your visit to Cuba?’ (tourism) and ‘Do you have travel insurance?’ (of course).

Meanwhile Alex, Isobelle and Michael were approached by another customs agent who subjected them to a whole lot more questions about their recent travels and occupations in Australia. I think it was because our party was planning to travel independently in Cuba as opposed to as part of an organised tour group, and because Michael was outed as a journalist and I as a public servant employee that more than an hour of questioning and luggage-examination proceeded.

Being interrogated by immigration agents is never a completely stress-free experience. I was particularly worried when Alex was led away from our party for questioning. I was concerned that he was going to be subjected to a full-cavity search. Luckily for Alex, he wasn’t.

The customs officials were never aggressive in their questioning of us, but they were certainly thorough and there were moments when I thought I would be back at the Hotel Juarez in Mexico City that night.

Each of us were required to elaborate on the nature of our employment. The Customs officials asked me about the nature of the research that I carry out for the Australian Government. They were particularly interested of course in Michael’s work at the ABC. ‘What kind of news do you cover?’, ‘Who is your employer?’, and ‘Are you sure that you won’t be working in Cuba?’…

We also had to identify all the electronics and ‘technology’ that we were carrying. Between us this totaled 4 cameras, 2 ipods, 2 laptops, and 10 blank CDs. The customs agents were particularly interested in the later, which Isobelle carried to back up the many photos she was planning to capture during her holiday. Blank CDs, very suspicious…

The only other country to give me such a hard time getting through customs was China, whose Officials made me tear apart my Lonely Planet upon entering the country. Alex, on the other hand, has been subjected to ‘random’ interviews on numerous occasions in the past year. I suppose that’s what you get for being a Mustafa almost 10 years on from 9/11/01.

I was mildly amused that the customs agents also paid particular attention to Isobelle and Michael’s recent visit to the US, as though their presence there attested to some kind of untoward political activity. Well, I assume that US Homeland Security will give Isobelle and Michael a hard time if they find out that had been to Cuba before returning to North America on their way home to Australia. So maybe some reciprocal harassment of tourists is justified on these grounds. I suppose that the Cuban Government has reasonable cause to suspect infiltration of CIA sponsored spies working to destroy Cuban socialism. Though I am not sure how effective four young and mostly blond Australians (of whom three don’t speak spanish) would be at undermining the one party state.

Another peculiar aspect of Cuban customs were the sexy uniforms donned by its female staff. Like many of her colleagues, the women who escorted me back and forth between the x-ray machines and corner where I was questioned was clad in a short-sleeved khaki blouse and a matching super-short khaki skirt, very high heels, and some fantastically inappropriate fishnet stockings. Classy!

Alex had in fact suggested that we carry extra pairs of stockings with us into Cuba to use as gifts / bribes if necessary as did the US soldiers when they visited Australia during the Second World War. At the time I ridiculed him saying something like “as if anyone wants to wear stockings in such a tropical climate!” Well, whose laughing now?

After clearing customs we headed straight to the Arrivals Hall ATM and we were pleased to confirm that our visa cards functioned without problems. We only had 100 Euros cash on us combined, so we would have been up shit creek without a paddle if our cards and Cuba’s ATMs decided not to cooperate.

Perhaps because we were tired and still a little highly-strung from the interrogation we’d experienced, Isobelle momentarily forgot her bankcard in the ATM, and it was sucked into the machine. Thanks to good fortune and my language skills, we were able to retrieve it upon presentation of Isobelle’s passport.

Finallly outside of the airport we found a taxi that would take us into the centre of Habana for the set cost of $25 CUC. Although the airport is only 25km or so out of the CBD, we passed through quite a rural area (I’m talking sugar cane crops and horse-drawn carts) for some time before entering the city centre.

By 5.00pm we had finally arrived at our casa particular located in a tall art-deco style apartment building in the centre of Havana. The big windows in the living room and bedrooms afforded a view of the Mallecon and the blue Caribbean sea beyond.

We were warmly welcomed by our host Jose and his son Denis, who was more or less our age. Recognising that we were hungry, our hosts offered us bowls of spagettii for dinner which we accepted. The meal was very simple but satisfied our rumbling bellies. We hadn’t eaten anything since the sweet bread we shared for breakfast in Mexico, and AeroMexico had only given us a snack of peanuts on the plane.

After dinner we we for a walk with our hosts along Havana’s Malecon, or ocean-wall. By this time the sun had set. Denis told us that he had to visit the pharmacy to buy some ‘medicine’, and upon his return he surprised us with a bottle of rum which we sipped as we strolled by the sea. Denis also bought us each a small supply of peanuts to enjoy. As these salty snacks are known in Cuba as ‘mani’ and not the cacuhuates they are called in Mexico, I would have had no idea what the women were selling tightly wrapped up in a paper cone unless our new friend had given us this gift.

Soon we found ourselves in the centre of old Habana. It was still warm so we pulled up a chair at an outdoor Brewery bar/ restaurant set up in and old colonial square. Beers on tap were only $2.00 CUC each. We got to know our hosts a little better as a live band played Cuban salsa music a la La Buena Vista Social Club. Isobelle and I were invited to dance with Jose and Denis, who informed us hat we were shit (literally – meirda!) and that we were in great need of lessons. Well, we had warned them!

After our beer and first miserable attempt at salsa dancing we wandered back to our apartment. Our group was buggered and being so we went to bed and straight to sleep, cooled by the sea breeze and calmed by the knowledge we had finally made it to Cuba while Fidel and Raul were still alive.

A pilgrimage to Cuba

26 Jan

After celebrating Christmas and welcoming in the New Year together in Mexico City, Alex and I along with our good friends from Sydney Isobelle and Michael, set off to Cuba.

Like the hordes of holiday-makers who travel to this Caribbean island every year aboard grand cruise liners or as part of large tour groups, we intended to enjoy Cuba’s white sandy beaches, handsome urban architecture, great music scene, wonderful museums and fine culinary offerings. But we also wanted to gain a real sense of the strengths and weakness of Cuban socialism. We reasoned that whatever these may be, they would be best understood by a visit to the country.

For us, as for many lefties, Cuba has always held a particular fascination. Cuba has a rich history; it was one of the last sugar colonies to abolish slavery and one of the last Spanish possessions to achieve independence from the peninsular. When Cuba finally kicked out the Spanish at the end of the Nineteenth Century, gun-toting North Americans arrived to run the island, installing a military dictatorship loyal to their interest before pulling out of the country. After centuries of oppression the Cuban people shocked the world in 1959 when the socialist revolution succeeded and a socialist government was established with Fidel Castro as head of state.

Today Cuba boasts a robust public health and education system that puts many ‘rich’ countries to shame. Cuba has achieved adult literacy levels that are amongst the highest not just in in the Americas but in the world, and infant mortality rates that are lower than those recorded by the USA. For these and other admirable feats we have long held Cuba and Cuban socialism in high regard.

Yet as outsiders were were also aware that despite its great achievements, the ‘Cuban model’ of socialism is marred with many problems. Cubans are not necessarily free to leave their country. Although we lacked a comprehensive understanding of how the Cuban National Government is organised, we appreciated that democracy in Cuba is limited to elections within the Communist Party structure and that Cuba’s current President Raul Castro was not popularly elected to his position as Head of State.

We were also conscious that access to the Internet in Cuba is severely restricted if not by the Government’s decision to censor web sites deemed offensive or a threat to public security or political stability (a la the Great Firewall of China), then by prohibitively high costs of use and the requirement that citizens be registered with universities or other designated institutions to access the world wide web.

We went to Cuba with open eyes, ears and minds, and the next few posts are a record of what we found.