Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trouble in Havana

Havana is frozen in the fifties, but it has not been spared time's ravages. Walking the derelict streets surrounding Habana Vieja—Old Havana—is startling. It seems as if an earthquake exacted a tithe on the buildings, and those left standing were scoured back to bare concrete by a typhoon then repopulated and draped with laundry. But inside the boundaries of these streets is a large and slow-growing bloom of colour and render—buildings housing countless museums and bars and restaurants connected by cobblestone streets plied by countless more tourists. Habana Vieja has been under meticulous renovation for decades, since the Cuban government realised there was tourist money to be made in a country sealed off from time.

There are some areas of Havana you should avoid. Kayo and I pressed the bruised edges of Old Havana. We weren't so much looking for trouble as wanting to liberate ourselves from the safe insulation of the tourist zone so we could see the real Cuba.

We walked the sea-walled Malecón at night, when the Habanistas loll on the seawall and socialise. From Habana Vieja we headed in the direction of Vedado, and as we approached the intermediate suburb of Centro, we were approached by a pimp. "Hey, you want a chica? Black chicas? Mulatto? What you want?" By now we were already used to this, and shook him off with a no and a steady pace.

The prostitution is immediately apparent to two white men roaming the streets. It is rampant. If we are not being solicited with a "¿quisieres la compañía?" by a pretty young thing, it's the more down-to-businesslike "you want the fooky-fook?" by something less pretty. It's illegal, but it's everywhere and widely tolerated, usually by police who have chicas of their own. It's mainly sex tourism. A white man in his sixties with a pretty young Latina on his arm is not such an uncommon sight.

As we strayed deeper into Centro, another pimp didn't appreciate being disregarded and shouted after us: "Va fanculo!" (which is Italian, but universal) and other obscenities. As the streets grew darker in mood, we decided to abandon this line of attack and tried Centro from another angle a dozen blocks south. Beyond the bar made famous by Ernest Hemingway (one of them, anyway), El Floridita, there is a broad boulevard called Prado. Now, Floridita is very touristy, and the street it sits on is well-lit, well-trod and well-kept. There is a buzz of people and police are regular. But on the other side of Prado, things instantly take on a different tone: dim, sparse, and sketchy. People loitered in dark doorways and those wandering the streets seemed to converge on us, like bedbugs migrating towards a sleeping host. It didn't take long before we were asked if we were here for the fooky-fook, as if it was some seasonal Asian festival.

There's little threat of violence, though. People don't want trouble. This they've learned. As has been noted by the outside world, and as was candidly confirmed for us by one local, people do disappear from the streets. Cuba can be a dangerous place, but not for the tourists.

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