Saturday, 17 December 2011


We tumbled out into the sunshine of Havana Vieja, the Old Town, following the loping walk of our guide, Ainsley. It's winter and not yet 10am but the temperature is in the mid-twenties and Ainsley's shaven head is already glistening. His name of course isn't Ainsley but he's the spitting image of the 'Ready, Steady, Cook' chef. He even has the same shoulder gestures as he towers over us and laughs.
        Havana's success and riches were founded on the strength and position of its harbour in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries built on the sugar trade and slavery. As the conquistadors plundered the treasures of the Americas, Havana became a regular port of call, also attracting merchants and pirates, such as the infamous Welsh pirate, Harry Morgan. The Spanish built a protective fortress around the harbour and city that survives today.
       The nineteenth century was a period of growth when some of the most elegant and beautiful buildings in the colonial style were constructed around shady squares. At the same time crime and corruption pushed the bourgeoisie into the suburbs leaving the old town to the poor.                
        In the first half of the twentieth century Americans invested in the City, building palaces in the Art Deco style devoted to drinking, gambling and the tourist industry. Gangsters and the mob ruled the roost  until the Revolution in 1959 led by Fidel Castro & Che Guevara.  The socialist capital and the old town was cleaned up of crime and prostitution, land nationalised and the houses of the rich handed over to their servants. With an emphasis on improving conditions in the countryside for the rural poor, many fine buildings in the capital were left to crumble and residential overcrowding increased. It wasn't until the 1990s when Havana was declared a UNESCO heritage site that many architectural treasures-churches, houses, and government buildings were restored to their former status.
       Ainsley stops every few metres to greet an old friend, flirt with an older woman, stroke the head of a younger one, put his arm around the shoulder of an old man selling peanuts, and laugh at a mother-in-law joke with another guide dressed in the red T-shirt of Cubanacan-the government tourist agency they both work for. He wants us to get the feel of the 'real' Cuba. Fourteen digital and one analogue camera snap in 360 degree circles at his every stop.
        We wander up dusty narrow streets filled with wooden scaffolding and peer through double doorways into courtyards. Washing hangs from grimy balconies, small dogs lie on their backs in the sunshine, good-looking young men with their backs to the wall hang round doing nothing, and children ask for pens.
        'Come on, family!' Ainsley shouts, as we linger at a taxi rank admiring the 1950's Chevrolet Bel Air in maroon and chrome. ' I hate those American cars,' he says.'There's much more I want to show you.'


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