You would probably think it might be sufficiently unlikely that you would be sitting under the broad arcade of a Spanish Colonial Hotel in downtown Havana, Cuba, reading Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but that was what I found myself up to this morning.
I was flying to Cancun (for the climate conference) via Havana, so I thought that for once in my life I ought to look at the city (at my own expense, before you ask!).
The rooms in the Hotel Inglaterra are extraordinarily high, with much ornate tiling work. The city is full of fine Spanish colonial style buildings, plus Art Noureau and Art Deco gems.
But there the good news stops. Everything is horribly run down. The stucco is peeling. There are a few traces of colour here and there from faded distemper applied decades ago. Crumbling balconies are sporting a rich flora of drying laundry and invasive plants.
The lovely art deco windows are broken and boarded up.
Everywhere is dirt and stink (diesel and sewage) and noise. I walked two hours through the city without seeing a single café or shop I´d have wanted to go into.
There seemed to be large numbers of people idly standing in the streets with not much to do. It reminded me vaguely of Saigon in the eighties, before the boom got under way — but less fun. I’d fancied it might be bright and raffish, but it was not to be.
There was not the fear which I felt in Pyongyang, but there seemed to be as little money, and more chaos.
The Cathedral of the Virgin of Charity was nice, with a fine mock-rock walk through Nativity grotto, made quite convincingly with screwed up brown paper. The stained glass was awesome — but with a number of breakages which no attempt had been made to fix.
One relieving feature was the 50s & 60s American cars — Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Fords. It is amazing that they keep them going, and perhaps the only thing worth going to see.
I saw a faded poster of Fidel Castro with the slogan VIVA CUBA LIBRA. Good luck to the free Cubans. I suppose they’re free. Sort of. It’s just that they’re locked in poverty by a failed political system.