Every day, there she is on the same step in Old Havana. Every day, an immaculate new outfit, a basket of fresh flowers and a Cohiba cigar the length of her hand and as thick as an anchor rope. Her skin, which is the colour of rich honey, contrasts perfectly with her bright, banana-yellow traditional bata cubana (frilled dress) and matching headscarf.
Costumbristas and cigars
I’m here in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Centro Histórico of Havana where mojito-sipping tourists throng to the beat of Afro-Cuban rhythms among the plazas, narrow alleyways and lanes first cobbled by the Spanish in the 16th century. The atmosphere is light-hearted and buoyant and every corner seems to have its own minstrel or costume character.
Cameras and colour
I’m intrigued by these bright personalities who ply their trade with tourists, posing for snaps for a few dollars a click. Smiles and poses always at the ready, they transform instantly from semi-boredom into ebullient artiste at the sight of a camera. “These are the city’s official costumbristas,” says guide Yummet Vallin, adding, “they’re here every day, rain or shine. It’s their life.” Costumbrista is a new word to add to my vocabulary: it means ‘one who adheres to local customs and manners’, particularly in former Spanish colonial countries such as Cuba.
I sneak a few candid shots of my colourful subject as she leans nonchalantly against the dark wooden doorway, one hand on her hip, the other elbow on her knee and the smokeless cigar pressed against her thick lips. Her eyes stare down the street, looking but not seeing. “Can we take a few more photos?“ I enquire of my guide. “Sure, let’s ask,” replies Yummet.
All smiles and fluttering lashes
As we approach, our costumbrista bursts into life as if a switch is flipped. All smiles and fluttering eyelashes, we get the whole treatment and her full repertoire of poses. It’s a practised routine, but one that delights the tourists nonetheless and soon she has drawn a small but appreciative audience. Our private performance complete, we give her a few pesos and she’s clearly pleased. But who is this woman and what brought her to this vocation?
Hats off to Old Havana
Her name is Migdalia Baez and I learn she is a former percussionist and has plied her new trade here on the historic Calle Obispo for more than five years, just 20 metres from Hemingway’s favourite haunt, Hotel Ambos Mundos. She earns several times her former salary in a country where even doctors earn less than US$50 (AUD$66) per month.
But even though individual entrepreneurship is now carefully encouraged in Marxist–Leninist Cuba, Migdalia pays a hefty tax to smile and pose for tourists. Around her neck is her official licence that can be inspected at any time by the municipal authorities.
Smoke and mirrors
Around the corner near La Bodeguita del Médio, the spiritual home of the mojito, we find Rafael sporting a magnificent jazz-era ensemble, complete with fedora and perfect black-and- white, wing-tipped leather oxfords. His oversized cigar looks like it would take root if you planted it. A former car mechanic, he has puffed on the dry stump for 25 years.
Many of the other ladies I recognise from travel brochures and guidebook covers. Glamourous Anita has adorned numerous items of marketing collateral over the years, including postcards and fridge magnets. Her sultry eyes and coquettish smile are a dead giveaway.
Rumba culture revs up
We jump back in our 1950s’ Chevrolet taxi for the ride to Callejón de Hamel (Hamal Alley) where Afro-Cuban rumba culture reigns. It’s an eclectic, vibrant backstreet, plastered with garish murals and vivid street art. Little bolthole bars and art studios make this one funky location that appeals to those less inclined to the mainstream historic district with its sober cathedrals, shops and museums. Here, I literally stumble on Leannia Contreras, dressed like a stunning Yoruba princess in lavish golden robes. Yoruba is a West African culture that arrived with the slave trade more than 400 years ago and is enjoying a healthy revival in the form of music and dance. Every Sunday is like Mardi Gras in Callejon de Hamel.
We sit and chat in one of the bars and Yummet tells me how the neighbourhood has evolved from a dingy ghetto for dropouts, addicts and prostitutes into an art precinct. This is thanks to the altruistic artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona who, through his work with the disaffected and disenchanted youth, attracted a growing number of tourists who have slowly built its prosperity.
This new capitalism extends to taxi drivers, restaurateurs, B&B operators and tour guides – all of whom must be licensed and pay their dues to the State. State-employed tour guides are paid as low as the average wage and must live on tips. Yummet, 39, is employed by Intrepid Travel and, when I ask how her salary compares to that of her former job as an English teacher, she just laughs and shakes her head. That is why you find professors driving taxis and lawyers like Ernesto Guevara-March running tourist businesses.
The youngest son of the legendary revolutionary hero, Che, whose iconic portrait is plastered everywhere around Cuba, was just two years old when his father was captured and summarily executed in Bolivia in 1967. Today, he and his Greek-born wife, Maria-Elena Gioka, operate La Poderosa Tours with Argentinean partners. Harley-Davidson riders come from around the world for a taste of revolutionary riding all over Cuba, visiting historic sites, scenic locations and beachfront resorts over the space of a week. Their fleet of modern Harleys are a head-turning sight amid the pre-1960s US-made Chevrolets and Dodges that still populate roads of a similar vintage.
A roller-coaster ride
I travel with Ernesto and his two-wheeled entourage to historic Trinidad de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Santa Clara riding a vintage-styled 2012 Dyna Switchback. Over cigars and too much rum we talk motorcycles, tactfully avoiding politics and his famous father.
When the US-backed Batista Government fell in 1959, Che and Fidel were the heroes. While Che made the fatal decision to spread Communism elsewhere, Fidel set up Government, ‘nationalised’ all foreign assets and went on to guide the Caribbean republic on a roller-coaster ride through numerous global political upheavals. The 1961 CIA-backed Bay of Pigs fiasco, the nail-biting missile crisis the following year and the catastrophic 1991 collapse of their benefactors in the Soviet Union; all of which tested both the Castro regime and the people to the utmost.
Revolutionary spirit reigns
Since the ailing Fidel resigned in 2008, handing over to brother, Raul, Cuba has struggled on but relaxed some of its restrictions and the population’s living standard is slowly rising, mainly through tourism. Fidel died in 2016, aged 90. In the meantime, regular Cubans battle on regardless, with that revolutionary spirit seemingly undiminished and a love of life, music and bright costumes powering their optimism. Viva la Revolución!
- United Airlines flies direct to Havana from Houston. Fly direct from Sydney, Australia, to Houston or from Melbourne (to Houston via LAX). Fly from Auckland direct to San Francisco and then to Havana. united.com
Touring in Cuba
- Peregrine Adventures’ small ship adventure cruise Cuban Panorama sails from Havana to Cienfuegos (or reverse) via Maria La Gorda and Trinidad over eight days from November through March. peregrineadventures.com
- MSC Cruises operate the 2000-passenger MSC Opera year-round from Havana cruising to neighbouring countries such as Jamaica, Mexico and the Cayman Islands. MSC Cruises: msccruises.com.au
- Intrepid Travel offer more than 1000 day tours in 170 destinations around the world, including Havana, under its brand Urban Adventures. Intrepid Travel: urbanadventures.com