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27th March 2016. IN CUBA with OBAMA and the ROLLING STONES (full article)

It seemed as all the worlds eyes were on Havana this week.

Monday morning, and the previously unthinkable had turned into a hot sale for newspaper hawkers, lingering in the fringes of rumba-soaked cafes . As I sit there in my accustomed corner, a giant picture of Barrak Obama standing next to Raul Castro bids me good morning. I read the Cuban workers publication in Spanish, tucking into my ham and cheese croissant, and await my destined cafe con leche.

It’s going to be some time. The island of Cuba is the one place in the world where the baristas recognize the senselessness in rushing to make a drink that a customer will spend a long afternoon hour sipping. Instead,  they savour the process of making it almost as much as the customer. I finish my first pastry and start on the second, which is tasty but really a poor imitation of a French pan au chocolate – with only the ends dipped in chocolate. Presumably  the middle part of the chocolate filling is being used to fuel the ongoing revolution.

And ongoing it is, and today, most significantly, changing course. Less of a revolution now, and more of an evolution. I think this out loud, raising my imaginary coffee cup in salutation to all  bearded revolutionaries everywhere, biological or political. Nobody in the cafe minds, ‘los turistas son locos’. I almost finish my second pastry before the waiter lovingly places a frothy cup on the wooden tabletop.

The old town is confusing today, tourists are herded and penned like sheep at random intersections, shiny grey vehicles race around corners carrying grey-suited American VIPs to the best Cuban restaurants. Conspicuous plainclothes Cuban secret service in razor-sharp Panama hats glare at the crowds, who in turn hold their iphones over the hasty barricades. We are all hoping to catch a glimpse of the first US president to visit Cuba since Kennedy. I know, since Kennedy…I feel an anxious twisting in my guts, and really  hope that the secret service know what they are doing.

Three panicky days, and he was gone. The secret police melted away, the old streets of Habana sighed with relief, and the ridiculous version of a Panama hat worn by almost every tourist in sight became prominent again. The barricades removed, the plazas sank once more into a sultry fog of rum drinking, cigar smoking and the appreciation of one of Earth’s most powerful musical heritages.

But barely had the normal pace of life begun again, when another newspaper headline hit the streets. The longest standing rock and roll band in history, the Rolling Stones, were coming to make their own mark on history – and just be sure that they did, they were playing for free. ‘All of Cuba’ is going to be at the a Rolling Stones concert, a passionately intellectual cinematography student told me – one million people at least.
-Yikes, where are they going to play?
– In the open air, on the playing fields of the Ciudad Desportivo.
-You have to go there at midday to stand a chance of getting close to them, he leans in conspiratorially, all earnest dark eyes and scruffy goatee.
-One million people, at a free open air concert in Havana, it’s going to be mayhem, don’t go, don’t go, a grumpy Frenchman shouts at me from across the bar.

3pm, and I am wrestling with my soul. The Rolling Stones! Yes but, who wants to be alone, lost at night, stranded in a strange part of the city along with one million Cubans who also need a taxi. I take a nap, and awake feeling the wounds of 4 nights of accumulated salsa dancing washed down with inordinate amounts of rum, drunk with my lovely host family – who have started greeting me with open armed hugs and cries of ‘mi amor’ each morning . Wallowing in indecision, I stagger over to the balcony, and check my watch.

5pm and the streets are cooling mercifully, although the familiar rank smell and grime  wafts up to my delicate nose, making my whole intestines quiver. Maybe I have picked up an intestinal parasite, almost none of the bathrooms I have visited lately have had any soap available. 5pm, I’ve missed it really, it’s too late…but the Rolling Stones!

6pm, I go out for a coffee, the same waiter on the same shift giving me the same ironic grin and taking a full half hour to bring me my coffee. In that time I have drunk a fresh papaya juice, eaten a wonderfully glazed piece of chocolate cake and befriended a curvaceous Cuban girl in a zebra-striped dress. Ours is a clash of cultures. The more bold, calculated, and direct her flirtation becomes- the more shy, awkward, and self-consciously English is my retreat.  In the end I simply pay for her drink and dash out onto the languid pavement.

7pm, and I am a new man. The combined experience of eating chocolate cake while being called ‘Guapo’ by a girl with Bambi eyes, has given me a new lease of life. I saunter over to a taxi driver and begin to suggest that given the right price, I could be convinced to let him drive me to the stones concert. We haggle happily for a full five minutes and then shake on it. Suddenly I am plunging down the open boulevard in a 1950 cherry red Chevrolet, the warm air caressing the side of my face through an open window.

7:15, a barricade of policemen force a turn-about a full half mile from the event, and my stomach clenches as I am forced to bail in mid traffic, no room for a pull-over. In for a penny, in for a pound… at the worst I can just walk away.

Street hawkers line the avenue leading up to the ‘Ciudad Desportivo’ where the event will take place, selling strictly non-alcoholic beverages and what looks like pork crackling. I try to telephone my friend the cinematography student, only to be informed that the cell phone company has suspended coverage, a counter-measure against potential sabotage.

A river of Pedestrians fan out across the road into walking lanes of various velocities, not a car in sight. The good vibes are already allaying my fears. The police checks are gentle, reassuring. The grounds are open, easily accessible through gaps in the small fence. The only point of tension are the enormous lines for the metal portable toilets, and what threat does that pose to an unscrupulous male traveler? The crowd is smiling, relaxed. People sit on the grass at the edges. The stage seems colossal, dominating the grounds with a world class array of lighting effects-which the stones intend to donate to the republic.

7:45pm. No aggressive expressions in the sea of bodies, just a kind of curious delight. The sun sets a soft orange puffy glow. I feel a sudden urge for non-alcoholic drinks and pork crackling, and easily make a sojourn out to the vendors and back without the slightest difficulty. Cubans, you have to love them, the whole million who have turned up-is it a million? Hard to tell, the whole field is full edges to edges, but there are gentle pockets of clear space against the tall fences. It feels as safe as a cricket match in Surrey. I settle in for a good evening, spotting a flag of Saint George somewhere near the stage announcing an English presence.

8pm, the lights go up and the announcers voice rolls across the whistling crowds like thunder -Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones! Suddenly an impossibly young looking Mick Jagger appears, wreathed in a crimson shirt and strutting out onto the catwalk to remind us that true rockstars never die.
-Buenas noches! He howls in a terrible Spanish accent. The million Cubans roar back, love at first sight. Keith Richards flashes across the screen, grey hair swept up by a colourful headband. With a  power chord so deep and satisfying the tides must be changing direction, the show begins.

The band are in great form. Waves of skillfully crafted, blues-drenched classic rock rolls over the happy people of Cuba as Mick Jagger defies the laws of time to deliver a truly electric performance. His whole body wriggles like an eel and he manages to keep singing even while leaping into the air like a crazed salmon. Ronny Woods and the inimitable  Keith Richards display a combination of stage manship and seasoned taste, preferring minimalist anthemic vamping to outright psychedelic stroking of the frets. Holding down a stunningly large group of awe inspiring backing musicians with a perfect back beat are (drummer)

In the middle of the sway a rusty set of abandoned goalsposts serves as an odd reminder of what these playing fields were designed for. Half way through the concert a young Cuban boy draped in a huge Cuban flag scales the near post and seems to hover symbolically over the ecstatic throng.

This is too much temptation for me, and with the help of a fellow conspirator I manage to hoist myself up to join him on the flexing crossbeam. The view is unforgettable. Like brightly colored manikin dolls, the Stones prance and rage on the great stage, while the great pool of beautiful humanity dances happily below our dangling legs. Mick Jagger rips out a harmonica and attacks it like a wild beast, delivering a perfectly balanced solo that is half-delta, half-rock.

8am, next morning, I feel no regrets. We stayed till the end, including the false ending, the encore of ‘can’t always get what you want’, and the deliciously jam-filled rendering of ‘Satisfaction’ – when the whole million erupted in a display of uninhibited delight. This made walking home seem relatively okay, despite being over-charged by a bloodthirsty taxi driver who dumped me miles away from Habana Vieja along the Malecon. Even the hour-and-a-half walk home along the sea wall seemed acceptable, with the inevitable clashes with perfectly charming men and women weedling out of me all remaining cash.

8:30 am I tread sleepily out onto the busy streets, heading to the same café and wondering if I should buy a quick coffee at the broom cupboard café on the way, which is armed with a thermos full of espresso, to tide me over while I wait for the real coffee to arrive.

Perhaps a little egoistic of he Stones to choose to score their mark on this occasion, but I think we can forgive them that. Speaking of forgiveness, I see a bicycle taxi ride roll by, sporting a prominent Stars and Stripes flag. As fifty years of bitterness and resentment start to lap away with the tide, It seems as though most Cubans have already forgiven the US. Let’s face it, the Cubans have also forgiven the Spanish, the French, The English,  and depending on your point of view, their own government.

The bicycle taxi is forced to swerve around an incautious predestrian and instead of anger, spontaneous laughter spills out into the street. Yes, a forgiving people I would call them.

Only then do I remember my host sitting me down and forcing me to try his wife’s home made Cuban soup at 2am when I made it home from the concert (mi amor, mi Vida, etc she said as she plops the delicious broth in my bowl). Fingering his ever present glass of neat rum, a look of deep sincerity crosses my hosts broad close shaven face. Shirtless as always, a gold-plated necklace around his neck, he tells me the story of how he accumulated his relative wealth dancing the world over as a youth member of one of Cuba’s greatest dance companies.

-I don’t like it when people say abajo con Castro, he says.
-They have kept this island safe, thanks to them our children play together unguarded in the streets, and I can wear this gold chain anywhere.
He shakes his head, and smiles as he tells me how the Rolling Stones and all rock music were banned in Cuba for most of his memory.

Back in the present, I am looking at the similarly bright smile in the nearly struck-down predestrian’s face, and then a wonderful thing happens in my own heart. I finally forgive myself for breaking a Cuban girl’s heart two years ago in El Salvador. No wonder this is a land of poetry and music.

Now I need a coffee. I stroll in to my accustomed corner in the old elegant building and dizzy with happiness – suddenly order two crap chocolate pastries and the most ridiculous coffee on the menu- something called ‘El Especial’ with cream, cinnamon and rum in it. The same ironic waiter takes the order, and I can tell from his delighted expression he is going to spend the next 45 minutes preparing it.

I don’t mind a bit, and when the cup of pure nectar finally arrives  I raise it to him with a toast..
-.no ‘Cuba Libre’, I shake my finger at him in denial of this cliche. He raises an eyebrow…

-para el Cuba Nuevo!
This time I do get looks from the entire café.