8 September 2013
|Military personnel on duty during the New Years Eve 54th Celebrations of the Revolution. Filed: 1 January 2013 Photo © 2013 Steve Marshall
One of the daily routines in Havana is to fire a canon to mark the revolution. Undertaken by any one member of the conscripts it is looked upon generally as something that has to happen, does happen and will always happen. Whether anyone salutes with it is another question. Some locals do visit as did Rodolfo, my linguistic genius and interpreter, who spent as much time getting into my photographs without knowing it as he did explaining to me the various elements of history and social knowledge about Havana and Cuba. With my Spanish language skills at zero save for si and gracias, Rodolfo, an English language lecturer at the university, was a godsend and my savior.
It was New Years Eve in Havana, and one of the main reasons I had come to Havana much earlier than my colleagues, so that I could witness the New Years Eve celebrations, Cuban style.
One would expect rum, cigars, salsa and women and I surely got that in spades, but save any one location being the center of attention, I must admit it was a canon that was at the heart of it all. New Years Eve in Havana is also the eve of the revolution, and it represents Cuba for all Cubans.
It was late in the afternoon as the 54th celebration of the revolution rolled forward. My linguistic genius and now friend gave me a quick history of the capital as we walked the fringe of old Cuba, a district that was the center of the walled city that was the original Havana. Here the streets are strewn with rubble on the streets outside the derelict entrances to the old terrace-styled homes. Beyond the facades you can imagine the tiled floors and walls adorned with Cuban artifacts and the engrained dirt at every doorway and entrance. Music and laughter emanated from within.
Cuba, a country rich in history lists many world figures including Columbus and Velazquez, Cespedes and Marti, and later in the 20th century the names were Guevara and Castro, the revolutionaries. New Years Eve shares the date of the revolution’s celebration so one might expect all types of celebrations and revelries in the streets of Havana.
We made our way through the streets, Rodolfo continued to talk and advise. I thought it would be some time before I could get my new traveling companion to think like a photographer and not like a professor.
The streets were alive with music, colour radiated, people were parading in fine and brightly coloured labeled t-shirts, the taxi drivers were tuned into the tourist traffic. Restaurants were flouting all manner of Christmas colour and merriment, musicians were arriving, tables laid out in sumptuous fashion waiting for the unsuspecting tourist to part with the many dollars, or Cuban CUC, for a table of fine dining and beautiful music. My companion advised me the costs were astronomical and many times above the general cost of daily fare even for these places. We pushed on and found a sandwich bar and settled in for an espresso and a salad sandwich for 7CUC. It would be my last meal for 20 hours.
At eight o’clock Rodolfo and I made our way to the Malecon to catch a taxi to the Castillo del Morro. The occasion was the firing of the canon at 21:00 to mark the countdown to the midnight celebrations. I was assured we would have a grand time as it was noted on the radio and in other press announcements that this was to also celebrate the 54th year of the revolution. As we arrived I noted the lack of people, a few taxis and the many empty shops inside the ramparts of the mote-surrounded castle.
Built in the 18th century, the castle is classic stonework and could house a thousand armed men for a year during any fight. Charles III asked that he might be given a telescope so the he could see the castle from Spain as it had cost him so much to build. It was never used in defense of the city so one might assume its presence alone had done the job. Tonight we would see some of the activity similar to that of a renaissance wartime, when canons would have been fired.
There is a museum within the buildings of the castle housing many fine examples of warfare, including a 16th century catapult, a battering ram, complete with ram’s head, and many, many cases of guns and swords and an array of helmets that looked like the souvenirs of the British 16th century. In fact they were Spanish helmets adorned with emblems and shapes typical of the period.
The most fascinating display was accorded, by me, to the gun and rifle section, in particular a cabinet of rifles the like that could never be imagined. There was something strangely unusual about the designs that became apparent when my linguist read aloud, in translation, that these guns had been manufactured by the Arabs and fashioned on the British equivalent. Somehow, because the British had embargoed the Arabs way back in the 16th century (seems nothing changes) the Arabs had influenced the design and style of their rifles and gave the appearance of metal masterpiece of art fashioned in the Arabic style of the day. The metal and timber adornments ranged from swirls and imprints that one would expect of a carpet or a fine piece of Arabic art. Here it was obvious, the rifle, too, was an extension of that art form.
The casual approach to the night made me realize there was little being celebrated. Photo © 2013 Steve Marshall
The Cuban troops, conscripts for a year, were gathered on the ramparts as we arrived in time for the 21:00 ceremony. There may have been fifty uniformed combatants but they were not that much outnumbered by the hundred or so onlookers. There was a militarily starred general off to the side, and apart from the ‘smallish’ crowd. Rodolfo and I made our way to the rampart as ‘Silencio’ rang out from the background. A drum beat, slowly, ‘Silencio’ again. As the troupe of four, under complete darkness, marched stealthily toward the rampart the leader swirled a fireball through the air around, ‘Silencio’ followed by a tribute to the people and the purposes underway were announced.
As far a pomp and ceremony go I was slightly touched and proud for the Cuba people. I had no reason to salute the revolution or any other occasion for that matter, I was proud for the people that inhabited that island, the largest in the Caribbean. It was not a feeling I had ever had in my own country, so I was surprised.
The ceremony continued and it appeared that there would be very little chance I could catch a canon ball escaping at full fire from the turret on this occasion. I settled in with two cameras, occasionally capturing the goings on around and about me. Another ceremonial troop emerged from the dark, more loud shouting into the night air and the atmosphere around me became focused on the moment. It was now only a few minutes away, New Years Eve we be just 3 hours later.
The cannon is readied for firing. Photo © 2013 Steve Marshall
My ears rang in deafness it was so terribly loud. There was no photograph! It was far beyond my expectation, just to hear that sound was the highlight and the beginning of the end of my year, and the Cuban year. The revolution celebration would be in three hours but I had decided to experience that from the mainland. I concurred with Rodolfo that we return to civilization via the tunnel in a taxi so we made our way to the pick up area. There was no taxi, no waiting crowd. After ten minutes a taxi arrived though we were advised it was not available for us. We waited some more and a ramshackle Cuban taxi arrived.
I thought of these old American cars as Cuban missiles, in that they made a lot of noise and would go on forever but they were in a general sense a bit messy. Someone slammed the door behind me and we were on our way back the mainland, around a corner and a sure as pigs fly the door unhinged itself from the latch and I was reminded of my childhood days were the very same experience had seen me slowly come away from the car hanging dearly to the door hoping that it would eventually return me to the seat about a foot from my backside. Fortunately my childhood memory has always been with me when sitting in an old car ant this time I remained firmly on the seat, the door doing its own thing for as long as centrifugal force determined. The driver stopped and slammed the door several times before it security inside the latch was confirmed. We arrived on the mainland and Rodolfo and I parted company.
The tempo had stepped up on the streets of Havana, people were dancing oin front of restaurants and bars to the sound of jazz and a few classics. Tourists and locals alike were out and about, swaggering and swigging, strolling, holding hands, kissing, laughing and generally having a good time. In characteristic style I made my way back and forth alone the edge of old Cuba were Rodolfo had suggested I not venture into so late at night. The more I wandered the closer I was drawn into the darkness of old Cuba. The party atmosphere was less intense but the number where strong and the nightlife was very active. Small bars, variously dotted along the many streets had good trade, with more people emerging from the houses and even darker alleyways. I felt slightly confident but I had my wits tuned in to all movement.
After an hour or so I headed toward The Malecon, Havana’s long stretch of foreshore opposite the nearly ruined Spanish and Baroque architecture that faced the sea. My determination was to make it to the Hotel Nacional as it served two purposes, it was my very first reference point in Havana and where I had stayed on my arrival in the city on my first night, and, I hoped to change a few Euro into CUC so I could afford a taxi to my new hotel some 8 kilometers from the beach. As I walked I noted that it was not the first time I had a lead up to a New Year celebration that was disorganized to this extent. I walked in the warm winter night air, the waves lightly falling onto the sea wall.
At the Hotel Nacional I expected a crowd but it was smaller than I had thought. This sumptuous location housed the usual Russian and German visitors, a few Chinese, one Australian that I knew of, and the Cashier at the service desk. The Cashier, my savior, asked for my room number, I pleaded that I was from far away and needed change for a taxi fare.
With my new CUC I went to the bar for a coffee. As the coffee took forever the sound of canon fire started to ring out, the 21-gun salute to celebrate the 54th year of the revolution, and a hat tip to New Years Eve, had commenced. I waited for my coffee; there was no one else at the counter, the staff hugged and hi-fived as another canon fired, and another. My coffee arrived and the last canon fired. I went out onto the lawn to sit and enjoy my coffee.
I had taken part. I was now a late witness of the revolution.