| length: 10 min. |
|Havana, a Diamond in the Rough!|
by Lutger Brenninkmeijer in Travel and weekendtrips , 28 September 2017
Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 10 minuten
In February this year, I went to Cuba for a sports development project. The last four days of my visit, I explored its mystical metropolis Havana: an unforgettable experience. One week prior to my departure, I got to know Cuban Manuel on Grindr, who lives in Barcelona, and had spent a few days in Amsterdam on a holiday.
He gave me Pepito’s phone number, a friend of his living in Havana. It was arranged for me to contact him for a tour of Havana, an excellent and preferred way to get to know a city. I do prefer a stay with the natives, as was the case with my other developing projects in Africa. However, in the severely state-controlled Cuba, it is forbidden to stay with Cubans, and you are obliged to stay at an approved Casa Particular, paying thirty CUC (about thirty euros) a day.
During my trip, I was quite shocked by the deplorable living conditions of the average Cuban. They lack almost everything (including toilet paper). The Cubans live in houses that do not deserve to be called so, especially in the countryside. Because of consistently great weather with twenty-five degrees throughout in the north of the country and thirty-five degrees in the south (the nights are not much colder!), a roof over their heads may not be a necessity as it is here, but still...
This temperature range gives a completely different dimension to the behavior of people, as sensuality and sexuality are ever-present. In the Western world, we may have become prudish, but over there people are quite physical.
At my arrival at Havana I was pleasantly surprised. It almost seemed as if the lighting switched on. However, Havana's lighting levels are not at our standard Western level, but are indeed in stark contrast to the rest of the country. And yes, there are also neighbourhoods you should avoid in Havana. My Casa is located in the residential and leafy neighbourhood of Vedado. This area could have been taken from a Tintin adventure, and would not be out of place in Geneva. The owner told me that this Casa was once the property of the Castro family after leaving Miami.
The City’s Old Town Habana Vieja
I was dropped off in the Centro Habana district by the landlord. Centro Habana is the old working-class district adjacent to the centre. It can be compared to the Amsterdam Pijp district, which was also built as a working-class district in the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century. But unlike the Pijp, where each and every flat is now renovated, Centro Habana is completely dilapidated and run down.
This produces idyllic street views, but sometimes gives you the impression of seeing a city in wartime, like walking around in Beirut. Fortunately, the local government does see the value of this part of the city, and has begun restoring parts of this district.
A city where time has stood still for fifty years
The Prado in between the Centro Habana and Habana Vieja is named after Marti, the national hero in the fight for independence. The Prado is a sumptuous seafront promenade that, thankfully, is currently being restored. This Prado in Parque Central is a stone’s throw from the Capitol, which is a copy of the American Capitol. It is a square with some greenery on its edges and serves as the meeting place for gay Havana. And no, there is no cottaging there. However, first contacts are easily made on one of the many benches.
On one these benches, I met twenty-one-year-old Yuelvis who grew up in the province of Santa Clara, and is currently living with his divorced mother (which is uncommon in Cuba) in one of Havana’s suburbs. He comes here regularly, and the names of the people on his Facebook page tell me that he had met gays from all over the world. He is studying to become a nurse, and visits this square after his classes (daily from eight to eleven in the morning). He warns me that the Securitad monitors the contacts between foreigners and native Cubans.
After eating together, he talks about gay life in Habana (the scene is perhaps larger than the practically dead scene in Amsterdam), later accompanying me in a Particular taxi (a VW Transporter from the 1950s) to visit my Casa. It is on his way anyway, and he is curious to see how a Casa looks on the inside, as they are restricted for Cubans. This was just a pretence, as I later found out that he was actually living on the other side the city. Afterwards, my Casa owner told me that every native Cuban visitor has to show his or her identity card upon entry. Everything is checked here, and it is possible that a Casa will refuse native Cubans. Keep that in mind.
The next day, I did not manage to contact Pepito and Yuelvis. I then decided on a meal on the roof of the Ambons Mundos hotel, Hemmingway’s favorite place (was he gay or not?) and visit the Parque Central to see if I could trace Yuelvis. Unfortunately, he was not there, but within five minutes I was chatting to Alex, a twenty-three-year-old law student at the University of Havana. As the youngest of the family, he lives with his mother in Habana Central, a stone’s throw from the square.
He spoke English surprisingly well, which he learned by speaking to tourists from all around the world visiting the square. On weekends, he regularly takes a walk with friends. He was planning to go to the bar/disco Las Vegas later that evening. That was extremely tempting, as the bar was located at only five hundred metres from my Casa. We decided to meet there.
When I walked into the Calzade the Infante around 23:30, the disco was easy to find. The street was packed with gays queueing for the Las Vegas or in the adjacent snack bar. I met Alex, and we entered the club with an American straight man we spoke to by chance. The queue was long, but Alex knew the doorman so we got priority entry. It always comes in handy to know some of the locals! The American had never been in a gay bar before and wanted to finally experience it.
Admittance was three CUC and beer in a bottle was 1.50 CUC. These are very attractive prices if you hail from the western world, but for the native Cuban it is quite a lot considering the average Cuban has to live on twenty-five CUC a month. The bar was crowded with people of all ages.
You have to be twenty-one to enter, and the age limit is strictly upheld. The visitors of the bar were quite diverse, and a surprisingly large number of people over fifty were present, looking for some “tender grass.”
There are also plenty of tables with damask (!) and bottled Havana Club (Rum), ice cream and coca cola on the table. It resembles a scene from “The Godfather.” There are waiters with whom you can place your order, even appetizers. There is a show at 01:00 that would not leave an impression in the Netherlands, but is very popular here. I was barely in, or the first Cuban approached me. Not only are they genuinely interested, but they also come straight to the point. Normally a Cuban uses woolly language, but that wasn’t the case here. Never before did so many people come up to me and ask me to go home with them.
Foreigners are walking ATM’s
If you are looking for adventure, Havana certainly is the place to be. Do keep in mind, however, that a lot of boys are looking for some extra income. It does not have to be much: the admission fee, a telephone card, a taxi home, most of the time that is enough. Their flattering words are mostly meant to get you in bed and coaxing a little money out of you. If you like this kind of game, however, the place certainly is worth a visit.
Vamos à la Playa
The next day, the sun was shining bright. It was the perfect opportunity to visit the only gay beach in Havana, Playa de Micayito. The Cubans unfortunately sent me to the beaches on the west side of the city, where most of the tourist hotels are located! When I got there, I learned that I had to go to the fishing town of Santa Maria (Playa de l’Este). Fortunately, the taxi driver I summoned, as public transport would take too much time, knew where it was and finally dropped me off at the parking lot at the foot of the only line of dunes there. I was at the intimate beach in fifty steps, where the rainbow flag fluttered as a point of recognition.
There are two small beach tents and plenty of beach chairs that are free of charge - a rarity nowadays. After enjoying the water (a very nice temperature indeed) that was just gradually getting deeper, I rested on the sand. You could walk into the ocean for approximately a hundred meters even. In less than five minutes, two guys started talking to me, and it was quite remarkable to see how quickly you can make contact. They were from the adjacent village of Guardano and offered to find me a taxi for my return trip to Havana. No sooner said than done.
I went to the Karabali bar with one of the guys from the beach on my last night there. This bar is also around the corner from my Casa. It almost seemed as if I had a foresight when booking my accommodation. Karabali is a party organised by young people who are also involved with the Amor bar. The music is a bit worldlier than in Las Vegas, where mostly Cuban music is played. But other than that, it’s frequenters are similar to those of Las Vegas.
As the temperature outside stays around twenty, twenty-five degrees, many guests stay out on the streets for a chat. It is all very relaxed, and everyone talks to everyone. In no time, you get to know most of the gay scene. It is remarkable that hardly any negative comments are made on the streets. A lot of girls love to hang out around the gay bars and are just as close with the boys as the other gays. And as a foreigner you do attract attention, as there aren’t that many tourists who know the locations of the gay bars. It is also striking how fast guys are making contact for a hot evening or extra income. With that last thing in mind, they do have a knack of spotting the tourists!
- Las Vegas, Calzada de Infanta 106 / Calle 25 – admission 3 CUC, beer 1.5 CUC, Rum 1.5 CUC
- Café Amor - Karabali, Rumpa 133 (Calle 23) – Friday-Sunday, admission 4 CUC, beer 1.5 CUC, Rum 1.5 CUC
- El Café Cantante, Paseo (Saturday only), in the Plaza de la Revolution area – admission 4 CUC, beer 2.5 CUC, Rum 2.5 CUC
- Santa Marina - Playa de Micayito. Omnibus A40 from bus station at train station Terminal Havana. Bus fare: 0.5 CUC, seventy minutes. Yellow Cab Taxi’s: 20-25 CUC single trip (negotiate price in advance!) Private cabs: 5 -7 CUC
Insight Guide has an excellent travel guide on Cuba, ISBN 9789066554481
* There are teenagers actively tempting you to engage in sex with the intention of blackmailing their victim afterwards. By law, adults are only permitted to have sex with other adults (i.e., eighteen years and older). If you come into contact with the police, it may cost you dearly, you may even have to face a (long) prison sentence.
* Mind that many Casa’s will not allow you bringing a Cuban with you. The police are omnipresent, and prefer the Cubans not to be in (too much) contact with foreigners. Keep that in mind.
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