Droit de Seigneur Dawdling At Length


Droit de Seigneur

Dawdling At Length

Pie Fights over the Lost Highway

Do governments know how to cook an egg or flush a toilet?

Havana, Cuba
18th May, 2001

I have come to the end of my Spanish course in the University of Havana. I really enjoyed those two weeks, and can't believe how much we covered. I went in knowing only the present tense, existing only from moment to moment. Now I have both a past and a future, and can walk among the people of Cuba as a three-dimensional being.

The class has also provided an opportunity to meet decent, ordinary Habaneros who aren't trying to use me for dollars in some way. This can be a difficult and frustrating problem for the foreign tourist here. Every morning as I gaze out over the city from the private home where my landlady cooks breakfast (you guessed it, a choiced between fried and scrambled eggs), I see the ordinary Cuban people greeting each other, talking, laughing. There is a community spirit throughout this land that I have never seen anywhere before. I have never seen even a hint of violence, despite the poverty. (Although, I have to say, selfishly, that I am glad that there are police everywhere, probably just to protect the likes of me. There seem to be advantages to a police state after all, at least to visitors from cash-rich democracies.)

And yet... I never seem to meet a good Cuban. The hustlers in the street who try to sell cigars, taxis, or themselves, aren't so bad when you get used to them, and after all they are just providing a service and trying to work in a way. But every so often, I am sitting in a bar, or just walking on an ordinary suburban street, when I find myself talking to someone. An everday situation anywhere else, we talk in Spanish about the weather, or my country, or Cuba. I relax and think "At last! A normal coversation with an ordinary Cuban!" Then after ten or fifteen minutes my new friend turns to me and asks me to buy them something for just a couple of dollars. So I'm a mark after all. This situation is always disappointing. It tempts me to distrust everyone I meet.

Trravelling alone, I am vulnerable a lot of the time, so must remain on guard. But sometimes I have to relax, and enjoy myself. In Havana, I'm under seige all the time, and it becomes harder to relax all the time. Last Friday I was eating my little pizza in a bar when a couple of chaps came in, started talking to me amicably for a couple of minutes (so that the barmen would think they were my friends) before making rude advances. What was to do? An English couple were sitting in a corner. I had to excuse myself from my new friends, go over to the couple and ask to sit with them till the coast was clear. The couple, on their honeymoon, were very good about it, but...

Hell with it.

The Marxist Theory of Toilet Cleaning

The government runs most things in Cuba. Hotels, scuba diving, travel agents, restaurants. This means that all these things are broad, faceless, and have a faintly metallic taste, like an old office filing system. Some would find this situation difficult. I, however, welcome the opportunity to extend my knowledge of the principles of administration. I have learned this about governments: their knowledge of cooking extends to boiled rice and fried eggs; they have no fear of cockroaches; and they never flush the toilet.

The image of Che Guevara watches over us wherever we go, his soulful eyes raised to a lofty goal as if he died trying to remember where he left the car keys. All the shops are loaded with multi-colored designer Che-wear. You can buy prints of the great man wearing his beret atilt, looking rugged, leading waves of peasants in wide-brimmed campesino hats. "No, no", you can almost hear his ghost cry, "I meant a fashion revolution...".

Vinales Undercover

We hired a car for the weekend to go to Vinales, a village deep in the pin-cushion mountains west of Havana. It was quiet and very relaxing. Almost noone tried to sell us anything. However it was a close thing getting there at all. We had hired a car plus petrol, but when we got it, we saw that the tank was half empty. When we went back to complain, the hire attendant gave a governmental shrug. "I said there would be petrol in the tank", she said, "I didn't say how much..."

The mountains around Vinales rose in sudden cliffs of riddled limestone high above the plain, cascading down in tropical vines and banyans. We went for a hike along a rough path. Foolish. In Cuba everything in illegal unless there's a bit of government around to make it acceptable. The park guards turned us out eventually, for reasons of national security. Perhaps we might have glimpsed a secret scrambled egg synthesizing plant.

Autopista Splurge

Cuba is the only Caribbean country with a motorway, the eight-lane Autopista. This may be the only eight-lane motorway in the world with almost no traffic whatsoever. Only us, and some trucks, each with the population of a suburb packed into it. And farmers by the roadside. The farmers stand like solemn sentinels along the verge, holding up their wares. Two apples. A pineapple. A strangely shaped rock. Most often they hold aloft great squares of yellow or brown that look remarkably like giant cheesecakes. It is as if the peasants were arising yet again to drive off the imperialist car drivers by means of the custard pie fight.

I dare say we deserve a good pasting. A doctor in my class from LA went to visit the hospitals here. He was impressed not only by the professionalism of the doctors here, but also by their humility. They didn't lord it above the other categories of care workers as he admitted he would do at home, but simply got on with the job. And well they might. His equivalent here earns about $25 dollars a month.

He took his opposite number, a female pediatric surgeon, out to dinner, a dinner that would probably have cost her that month's salary. He noticed lots of 'knowing' glances directed her way. He suddenly realised that people saw a rich middle-aged foreign male and an attractive young Cuban woman and assumed the worst. He felt embarrassed for her sake, but she cautioned him not to. "Let them think what they want. Whatever happens out on the street, I remain clean on the inside."



The All-Seeing Che


Hiking near Vinales


Sugar Loaf Hills, Vinales


Cuba Route


Hat & Spoon



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The Facts

Where I stayed
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How I got around:
Car rental from the Hotel Havana Libre: make sure they give you enough petrol.
Viazul Tourist Busses: comfortable and easy, though you have to pay tourist prices.