The old car was typical of Cuba. This time it wasn’t a half-century old Chevrolet, but a slightly younger and less glamorous Lada. Broken door handles and window-winders had been replaced by locally-made spares; the road was visible through a hole below the driver’s legs, ventilation came from a desk-top fan clamped to the dashboard. But the driver was confident of making the 100 kilometre trip. We hoped so: we were paying him the equivalent of a teacher’s monthly salary.
There were three of us crammed in the back. The third was a gangly old man, addressed by his son in the front seat as ‘Fernandez’ although we knew that was his surname. We had left his wife behind in Havana and he, like us, was travelling west to the small place in the hills where his son Diego was deputy head of a college.
Before leaving Havana we went to the local supermarket to buy food. Mrs Fernandez showed us the limited range of extras available to supplement the weekly government rations. Apart from liquor, nothing seemed much more than basic foodstuffs (mayonnaise, canned fish, olive oil) but these were luxuries. So we stocked up and added supplies of Bucanero beer.
The journey took over three hours, at first along the almost empty motorway then by rural roads in varying condition. Eventually we left the coastal strip and climbed through pine forest to the college on the hilltop, and its cooler climate.
Here around 300 people live pretty much in isolation, serving the college. Whatever their job status, they live in one of two identical blocks of post-revolutionary flats. In Britain, such ‘walk up’ flats (four floors, no lifts) would now be unlettable – at least outside London. Certainly they would be plagued by social problems. Here they are regarded as normal and house a lively community. Cramped living conditions mean little privacy, but everyone has the basics. There is no private land, but people have colonised the spaces between the blocks as allotments, and pigs, chickens and goats wander the college’s open spaces.
Diego’s flat has only two small bedrooms so ‘Fernandez’ is dispatched to a neighbour’s. He joins us for dinner. He is more subdued by age than he had been when we first met him two years before. Then we’d been surprised to learn his background. He is the only surviving brother of Joseito Fernandez, who composed the music for the famous song ‘Guantanamera’.
We had been slightly incredulous that the old man sharing the dining table had a brother whose music was world famous, so to show the truth of the story he sprang into song himself, as we finished off our rice and beans. In typical Cuban style, even for a man in his eighties, he then asked my permission to sing a love song to my wife. By the time he finished we were both convinced of the story and, of course, my wife was in tears.
Original post: Guardian Weekly