Saturday, March 24, 2012
The world is coming to Cuba....
Couldn't resist adding some more images to go with the column on Cuba that appears in Asian Age today.
I guess no explanations are needed. The pictures speak for themselves. In case you are wondering who that cutie is, I found him on a side street and he had great attitude. As for the cops, trust me they weren't delighted posing with roses on duty. But I convinced them they looked adorable.... which they do!
I'm off to Muscat this evening. More from there when I get back next week....
The world is coming to Cuba….!
“ I live in Cuba. I’ll die in Cuba.I don’t know what freedom means…” Alexander, the burly tourist guide in Old Havana, sounded really angry as he sipped a Mojito( a delicious cocktail that was born in Cuba along with the Pina Colada, Cuba Libre and Daiquiri) inside one of Hemingway’s favourite bars near the port. The only time he had been ‘allowed’ to leave the country was during his military service (compulsory). As a crack Marine officer, he was privileged enough to visit a few countries in South America. And now, like many of his disgruntled countrymen, he is waiting for Fidel Castro to die. Sounds terrible. But it’s true. Though Cubans aren’t sure what will happen to them after Fidel joins the maker, they are willing to take their chances. For a country of just 12 million, which relies heavily on tourism to fuel its economy, Cuba is stuck in a scary time warp. It appears wretchedly backward to outsiders, and people like Alexander, who have managed to get out and see what’s happening in the rest of the world, are getting increasingly impatient. But even an angry Alexander concedes not everything is awful about Cuba, and points to high literacy levels ( education is free) and excellent health care ( free, as well). Equally, teenage prostitution is rampant and a national concern. He hopes his three young children will grow up in a better, more prosperous Cuba.There are thousands of vulture-adventurers across the world waiting breathlessly for Cuba to open up. While there have no official sightings of the ailing and frail 86 year old Castro in recent times, his eyes and ears are everywhere. Old fashioned spying is still big business in Cuba, and those who want to look at investment opportunities in the future, are aware they are being followed and their conversations recorded by spooks who look and behave like small time villains from vintage Hollywood spy thrillers. The Cold War is still on in Cuba. And that’s the way the State prefers it.
Rumours and stories about Castro do the rounds all the time. Castro ‘scoops’ ( “He knew about the plot to kill John F. Kennedy”) make international headlines even today. Surprisingly, I didn’t spot a single statue of the leader anywhere, though there is one of Mahatma Gandhi in the centre a beautiful park surrounded by ancient Banyan trees. The average Cuban is well aware of Castro’s close links to India. As an official pointed out, “ Fidel had embraced Indira Gandhi at an international event and referred to her as his sister in the presence of world leaders.” Mother Teresa has her statue near the quay and is a revered figure in the largely Catholic country. But there are very few Indians in Cuba, which is odd, given that it is a pretty laid back life one can enjoy. Blessed with a salubrious climate, Cuba is an attractive destination with pristine,picturesque beaches and good hotels in Havana. Then there’s the Cuban Rum, of course. And the world’s best cigars. It is during the last week of February that Havana comes alive with the Habanos Festival (in its 14th year ), during which cigar aficionados and distributors from across the world descend on Havana for seven days and nights of celebration. If there’s one thing Cuba is justifiably proud of, it’s the reputation of its hand rolled cigars ( 200 years of tradition), which dominate the international market and are the ultimate status symbols for cigar lovers everywhere. Super brands like Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta , Montecristo launch new products at this prestigious trade fair that attracts global celebrities, some of whom participate in the nail biting humidor auction on the final day of the festival.Enthusiasts from faraway China are the new entrants on the block. The Russians beat them by a few years.
“Are there rich people in Cuba?” someone asked rather ingenuously. Yes, there are rich people in Cuba. But one doesn’t see them except at high profile occasions like the Habanos Festival, when they emerge from their sprawling villas in the tony Miramar district, to hobnob with jet setters who have flown for over twenty hours ( Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand) to party with like minded cigar fanatics willing to puff away 5000 rupees per cigar, without blinking. At the magnificent Hotel Nacional ( built in 1950), one feels like a mysterious character out of a period film.At the sprawling Verandah Bar , which is open 24x7, there are wheeler dealers and smooth operators from all over, dressed in mandatory linen suits and rakish Panama hats, cutting sharp deals with Cuban babus. Opportunities galore are attracting speculators and land sharks who are anticipating a gold rush once Fidel hands over power or passes away, whichever is sooner. Already, real estate developers are eyeing prime properties and figuring out ways to invest in Cuba, smartly bypassing the present, crippling bureaucratic paper work, much like India’s. We have been a bit too lethargic and sleepy to bother with Cuba. Which is a pity, given the historic ties we share. While America is still a bad word , CNN and Walt Disney channels are available in five star hotels, but strictly no McDonald’s so far. In fact, such is the paranoia about all things American, that any credit card transaction routed through the U.S. is refused!And , of course, you cannot get greenbacks exchanged for local currency anywhere.“All this will change,” assures a long time resident, a colourful Indian , who has been living in Cuba for 17 years. For one, the dilapidated , brightly painted cars from the ‘50’s which have been converted into taxis, may be replaced by modern machines like the few sturdy Mercs which drive well heeled tourists around. Already, there is enormous interest from German nostalgia freaks determined to acquire the funky, finned Impalas and other vintage beauties from another era.
This is the very era that charms those who keep coming back to Cuba.The Japanese are recent converts. But it is the Chinese who will eventually dominate Cuba. And it won’t be just the cigars they are after!