The quest for a man named Nel and other stories

Fascinated by Cuba’s revolutionary history, we imagined the Museo de la Revolucion would be a good place to start. The exhibitions are in the former house of the President Batista who modelled the interior off the Palace of Versailles. Bullet holes on the staircase mark the revolution of March 1957 where students attempted to overthrow the corrupt president. At the same time as they attacked the palace they attacked the radio station which we were told announced the time every minute and filled the other 58 seconds with news updates. The guy who told us this wasn’t clear if it the purpose of this conquest was a way to let the country know a revolution had taken place, or if it was because the radio station was very annoying. He implied both. Anyway, the announcement came prematurely.  It was unsuccessful, some of the revolutionaries backed out and Batista remained safely guarded on the third floor.  It wasn’t until 1959 that the revolution would out the former president. 
Apart from the buildings significance it was hard to gain any real understanding of the revolution. There seems to be no concise telling of a story of Cuba’s history. We discussed this a lot. Was this censorship, a symbol of divided opinion or simply an oversight implying that we should know more about how these hugely symbolised players, Castro and Che, fit together? There certainly is the sense of controversy but also it is maybe unimaginable that we wouldn’t know the skeleton of their story. 


We walked the Malecon sea wall from the mouth of Havana’s inlet into the city centre. It’s lived and loved by the cities people as a hang out. People seem to stroll, hang out and play music and watch the colourful traffic. In a few short minutes we had been played to, asked for a lighter, taken a photo of a Cuban couple posing and been told of where the evenings salsa party was taking place. Looking at Havana from this angle it was a mix of beautiful, derelict and Soviet. The smell of oil and fuel was prominent, not only through old exhausts but the constantly burning oil refinery which left a slick oil layer on the surface of the water. 
With lunchtime bringing more people to the streets music was erupting everywhere. We visited Hotel Ambos Mundos, where room 512 was once home to Ernest Hemingway. The dark wood interior gave a cool feel, the wraught iron lift was compared by our walking tour guide as similar to the one on the Titanic, which caused Monique to prompt me, ‘what was this buildings link to the Titanic again?’ I assured her the Titanic never visited Cuba and offered that maybe next time she should concentrate more on listening and less on kittens (just kidding!)
The afternoon walking tour took us first to two adjacent markets. The first housed the basics of rice, eggs, sugar, blocks of salt, the least refined tobacco, the most potent rum, all considered essential. Ration cards are given to everyone, a token amount of each item is allowed to each person for a symbolic amount paid in CUP. In this way communism, or socialism ensures that everyone has something. Not enough for most people to live on, beyond this people would go to the second market to purchase in CUC. Education is free, healthcare is free and medication again requires a symbolic payment in CUP so that it is accessible to everyone.  
Havana has greatly burst its original perimeters of the old city walls of its colonial era. In place they are still visible. Beyond the gates used to be trade and jobs as well as black market and vagrancy. The laws could not govern what lay beyond the walls and thus they were locked each night at 9pm. We walked outside the old historic centre and touched on some of the struggling neighbourhoods. We were shown art projects in these difficult areas, divided from the old town by a wide pedestrianised boulevard which has since been used for a Chanel catwalk show. Our guide was lovely, had a soft handshake which we commented has also been a common factor so far, and seemed to hop between his trains of thought. At one point he picked up a coke can and seemed as if he was going to make an interesting comment on the trade embargo as he pointed out it had come in from Mexico, but that thought was bluntly stopped as another took over. He later said “did you hear about the plane crash?” An internal flight had crash landed 11 minutes after take off a few days prior killing everyone on board. We had been told several times the city was in mourning with less music and celebration happening, but had yet to hear anything directly acknowledging it. “It was sad” he said. That one too appeared to be going nowhere. 
We had dinner at a dark but atmospheric restaurant serving huge portions of Spanish food for 5 dollars. It took so long to arrive that we had finished a whole jug of Sangria, but it was so huge it fed us for lunch the next day.  
In the morning we walked to the hubbub of the Obispo street and found a bank for money change. The process was very official, requiring two teller signatures in addition to our own. We then made for the markets. The Almances San Jose sat on the waterfront, a huge warehouse of stalls selling artists best paintings, tourist clothing, key chains, bags made from weave, ring pulls, leather. It was fun to peruse and apart from friendly ‘hola’s’ we felt unhassled. On our journey back from the markets we decided to employ a Tuk Tuk taxi. The bubble like shape look like vehicles from toy town. The drivers wear official yellow uniform and run on meters, so as we approached he poked his head around from his position reclined on the back seat and welcomed us in. He put on his leather helmet, something you imagine in old fashioned warfare and a passer by told us we looked ‘Bonita’ and hailed for our phone to take a picture of the three of us. We rattled along in the little yellow Tuk Tuk amused by the whole encounter. Our driver laughed too, so much he nearly forgot to collect the fare. 
We have been consistently surprised by how easy things have been made for us. The lack of Internet strengthens the network between people. We asked to extend our accommodation booking, but when Magela couldn’t accommodate us she called on her neighbour and helped us move our stuff next door. She gave us a printed sheet with addresses for Casa’s in other towns with the address to show taxis and she called us a Collectivo taxi which would arrive at 11 or 11.30 the next morning and drop us door to door in our next destination.  

Our new host spoke no English but had an impeccably clean house, furnished as if staying with a grandma who loved colour and trinkets. Our bathroom was perfectly coordinated in fuchsia. The worlds most pampered Maltese dog lived there, hair in a pony tail on its head. He was fed chicken and allowed to nap on the kitchen table, glancing at us in acknowledgement that we were welcome, but he was the boss. She fussed over us, helping us with lunch and our things all the time saying ‘Tranquilo, Tranquilo..’ and not letting us lift a finger. 

With no plans for the next few hours we headed to the iconic El Floridita bar in the centre of the hubbub. This is famous for being where Hemmingway drunk his daiquiris, famously finishing 12 (or two bottles of rum) in one sitting. The pink bar has open doors, people spelling in and out, no sense of pretension in the welcome. Music came from a lively band and people were welcomed to dance. We went to the bar and said ‘dos’ as the daiquiri part is implied, glasses lined up and constantly being filled. He handed us the drinks without asking for money and we took a seat. In the busy hubbub were still not sure if there was another system except honesty for settling the bill, nevertheless after our second round to sample the strawberry daiquiri, we paid up. There is a life size statue of Hemmingway propping up the bar, his signature marked every surface. 


Outside the bar at 2.30 we were to meet a girl we had met on our walking tour the day before, Isabella. Along with her friend, the four of us were looking to take a ride in a Chevy around the city, a unashamedly touristy must do. Her friend had a friend who knew a guy who had agreed us a price and the instructions were to show up at 412 San Ignacio street and ask for a guy named Nel. 412 was just beyond a row of bars spilling out onto the street which seem to come to an end. Confirming with the boys perched on a step smoking we rang the door bell of this tall town house, once, twice, before a man shouted down from a balcony three floors up. The Spanish exchange concluded that we were here for a man named Nel. The guy in the fuschia shirt opened the door and beckoned us in. He wasn’t Nel. Nel wasn’t there. He called Nel. Nel would be back soon, come on in. Chatting away in fast Spanish, Isabella enquired about the beautiful but derelict residence and we ended up being shown around half fitted rooms, marble staircases leading to unplastered spaces. There was a balcony in the middle of the building with the centre hollow like a donut.

Infamous Nel would be there at 5 or 5.30, it was 4pm and humid now. The friendly man in the fuchsia shirt began up another staircase and we turned to leave, but he told us to come up for a look. From the open rooftop adorned with tarps and garden furniture, there was greenery and a 360 view of the city. Urban wilderness. A conflict of tumbledown houses, grand facades and industrial inlets. It looked effortlessly hipster, everything in Havana is. What you would pay double for elsewhere in the world comes naturally to this city. It’s not recycled, it’s current. Drinks come in jars because it works. He invited us to have Mojitos and then busied himself talking to his friends. With the pack of cards we had wedged into our bag, we whiled away an hour and a half with ease. When he got the call from the man named Nel he told us of course the drinks were ‘his invite’ and to ring the doorbell whenever we passed again. A new fleeting friend in the astonishing city. Outside, a baby blue Chevy awaited. The driver, chitty chitty bang bang-esque was dressed in straw hat and long sleeved shirt and introduced himself as Francis. Of course, we never met Nel.


The afternoon tropical rains had set in. One heavy droplet is the only warning that a deluge is coming, and it stops just as suddenly. We made our way under stormy skies out of the Havana Vieja to Havana Centro. More of the most colourful and grand buildings in various state of disrepair. People busy with their daily lives. Isabella managed to translate our drivers explanation and humour very well. We drove through Revolution Square where Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were immortalised on the side of block like housing, looking inwards towards the monument where Jose Marti sat their revolutionary victories. We saw the happiest man ever as he stopped to pose in freeze frame for our photos, his grin was ear to ear. 

City met jungle and greenery exploded at the riverside where vibrant vines choked trees, Earth and every surface. He told us if we were lucky we might see Cuban men working here. When I asked why that was lucky, Isabella interjected, ‘because Cubans rarely work’ and chuckled before posing him the question. It turned out he meant religious work, the water was holy and he would tell us the details when he became a saint. He flashed a cheeky grin to the rear view mirror and continued on. We drove with the car top down once the rain had stopped, two pins releasing the leather roof back into the boot. We passed high rise soviet style apartments and onto the Malecon, the harbour side drive, the place to be seen at sunset.  

In the evening we joined a bar walking tour and all set off to an arty bar which was shortly followed by a two storey venue where they were to teach us salsa. First a young guy and girl performed a racy Cuban Salsa, to Adele, proving just how adaptable this dance is. Then they got us all involved in learning the steps. To our shoulders he commented ‘more cheeky cheeky’ demonstrating his desired shake. The next place we sat on stools on the street, the warmth of the evening encouraging the musicians who appeared every few minutes with new instruments. At their most lively they sprayed themselves and us with water.  

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