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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Six Degrees of Separation...

 ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ Applies to Countries as Well ...

(A travel piece I wrote for Quill magazine, a publication of MPH Group Publishing, way back in 2010)
WHEN I FIRST HEARD that we were going to be posted to Cuba, the thought occurred to me “Surely there is nothing to connect Malaysia to this faraway Caribbean island ...” But I found out that the hypothesis of ‘six degrees of separation’ applies to countries as well as people. The first connection—we were informed at a diplomatic dinner party that one of the best-known Spanish songs among Malaysians originated in Cuba: Guantanamera (‘lady from Guantanamo’). Significantly, the lyric to the song is based on a poem by José Martí, the Cuban poet and national hero who fought against the Spanish for the country’s independence.

Pix 1: Peacocks strut in the inner courtyard of the Havana City Museum, located at the Plaza de Armas. The statue in the background is that of Christopher Columbus, who is credited with discovering Cuba.
Even more surprising came the revelation that many Cubans of the older generation have heard of Malaysia before, thanks to a book called Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia. Not surprisingly, the mention of this book produced enthusiastic nods from the Cubans and mystified expressions from the Malaysians ... could it be about a tiger from Sandakan? (Sandakan is a town in Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo)
After a bit of Internet research, I discovered that Sandokan was written by an Italian writer named Emilio Salgari in the late 19th century. The book was translated into Spanish as Sandokan, La Tigre della Malesia and is about the adventures of a heroic pirate chief called Sandokan! The book was a childhood

favourite of Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (who was actually born in Argentina) and became popular in Cuba as well. Apparently Guevara suffered from asthma as a child and was quite a bookworm! Never having read it, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Sandokan with regard to Malaysia but it seems that Salgari was well-read and well-informed about the East as he committed ritual suicide in the manner of the Japanese ... but I digress.

Pix2: Panoramic view of Havana
To return to Havana ... if you are expecting lush tropical vegetation, white sandy beaches and Caribbean-style shantytown right out of Pirates of the Caribbean, you will not be disappointed. But Havana offers so much more—La Habana Vieja, an architectural treasure which truly deserves to be called a World Heritage site; the world famous cigars of La Casa Del Habano; the vintage American cars still cruising its streets, the talented artists and performers of the city; not to mention Ernest Hemingway! The suburbs are reminiscent of Kuala Lumpur 40 years ago, except that the houses in Havana are grander and more elegant. For a Malaysian, used to seeing ‘cloned’ terrace houses everywhere, it was refreshing to note that each house no matter how big or small was individually designed!

Pix 3: The Malaysia Residence in Siboney, Havana is typical of the stately old houses here. The major residential areas of Havana are: Miramar, Siboney and Cubanacan.
In fact, the phrase ‘faded glory’ comes to mind as one walks down the tree-lined avenue of the Paseo del Prado in Central Havana. As for Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) it is like stepping into the past. Old Havana is the core of the original city and it is for the most part intact, albeit in need of restoration and is one of the best examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the Americas. Central Havana and its outlying residential areas display more heterogeneous architectural styles: Colonial, Baroque, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modern.

Pix4: Pedestrian walkway along the Paseo del Prado, Central Habana
To find out more about Old Havana and its past, we decided to invite along a Cuban friend, Sra Miriam Rosabal, as a guide on a tour of the old city. Two other Malaysian ladies residing in Havana—Mrs Siti Sadiah Ahmad Zaidi and Mrs Patricia Chan—made up the small group. Sra Rosabal is a profesora in her early sixties and a bit of a history buff; like many bright Cubans of her generation, she studied in Moscow, speaks Russian and has many fond memories of that city. Nowadays, young Cubans are more likely to go to Beijing to further their studies.
Dr Leal Spangler - foreigners call him Dr Spangler, which is actually his mother's
maiden name. Cubans call him Dr Leal (his father's surname)

It was a lovely day- brilliant blue sky with a bracing wind blowing- and the four of us had a pleasant time exploring the many criss-crossing narrow streets (calles) of old Havana with quaint names such as Calle Mercaderes (Merchants Street). We walked between rows of tall old colonial townhouses, and noticed that in spite of being linked, each townhouse is unique. Some are falling apart and have been boarded-up but one could tell from the ornate wrought iron grills on balconies and bay windows and the massive 12-foot tall carved wooden doors that some were once great houses.

Pix6: Patricia Chan walking along Calle Brasil, Old Havana
Cuba was discovered by the great exlorer Christopher Columbus in 1492, who claimed it for Spain. However, the Conquistador of Cuba was Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, who founded the first Spanish settlement at Baracoa, a town close to Havana, in 1511. Although the island’s lack of mineral resources (i.e. gold and silver) made it uninteresting to Spain initially, its strategic geographical location gave it much importance later. Havana itself was founded by Panfilo de Narvaes in 1519; the original name of the city was San Cristobal de le Habana. The city celebrated her 490th anniversary on 16 November 2009, a milestone in a long and colourful history. According to Sra Rosabal, on every Anniversary of the city followers of the Santaria faith light candles around an ancient Cieba tree, planted just beside a monument called El Templete, at the stroke of midnight.

Pix 7. The Cieba tree and El Templete, located at the Plaza de Armas, commemorate the founding of Havana in 1519.

The name Habana is said to be derived from Habaguanex, the local chief of a Native American tribe. Legend also has it that he had a beautiful daughter called Habana. In any case, one of the icons of the city is a sculpture of a beautiful Native American maiden. But that is legend; the reality was, when the Spanish conquistadors landed on the island, two worlds collided and one was annihilated. The native Siboney and Taino tribes who used to inhabit the island were enslaved and forced to look for gold! Most were wiped out by a war of attrition with the Spanish settlers and the diseases they brought with them.

Pix 8: The ‘Noble Native’ at Parque de la India. India here actually refers to Native Americans, not India.
Due to its strategic location, sheltered natural harbour and the fact that the island is close to the Gulf Stream, Havana Bay became the meeting point for Spanish galleons crossing the Atlantic. (Galleons are large ships with sails used mainly between the 15th and 17th centuries for fighting and for transporting goods.) Merchant Ships carrying gold, silver, tropical woods, alpaca wool, gemstones and other riches from the New World would assemble at Havana harbour, before making the journey to Spain accompanied by the Spanish Armada. Havana became the principal port of Spain’s New World colonies and a royal decree in 1634 gave Havana the impressive titles of Key to the New World and Rampart of the West Indies! The earlier reference to ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ is not spurious—English, French and Dutch sea marauders (i.e. pirates, corsairs and buccaneers) attacked the city in the 16th century.

Pix 9: Vintage car on the Malecon; in the background is Havana harbour
This led to massive fortifications to protect the harbour and the city. As the only entrance to the harbour is through a narrow inlet from Havana Bay, two fortresses were erected in the 16th century to protect the entrance—El Morro Castle guards the western flank while La Punta Castle guarded the eastern flank. According to Sra Rosabal, “A long chain stretching across the inlet, from one castle to the other, was raised at sunset every day to prevent pirate ships from entering the harbour after dark and lowered at sunrise the next day!”

Pix 10: El Morro Castle seen from across the Malecon sea wall. El Morro is the oldest colonial fortress in the Americas.
A third fortress,  La Real Fuerza Castle, located at the historic Plaza de Armas, guarded the city. La Real Fuerza Castle is now the Maritime Museum and is well worth a visit—from above the castle walls, the four-leaf clover design typical of Spanish fortresses in the New World can be clearly seen. A model of the Santisima Trinidad, the most powerful battleship of the 18th century is also housed in this museum. It should be mentioned that the original Santisima Trinidad was constructed in Havana harbour itself and that the ship went down in the famous Battle of Trafalgar in 1805!
A fourth fortress, the San Carlos de la Cabana, was constructed in the 18th century. This massive fortress, the largest in the Americas, was constructed not to keep out mere pirates but the British Navy itself. Cuba fell to the British in 1762; eleven months later, Britain returned Cuba to Spain in exchange for Florida. (British occupation is the third connection we have with Cuba.)
Upon regaining Cuba, the construction of La Cabana was initiated to make sure Havana never fell into enemy hands again. Despite its enormous cost, the fortress never engaged in any major battle. San Carlos de la Cabana is now a museum and a popular destination for tourists who visit to watch a re-enactment of the past: the firing of the cannons at nine o’clock every night by young Habaneros (natives of Havana are called Habaneros/Habaneras) in period costumes, signalling that the city is closing its walls!

Pix 12: The massive ramparts of San Carlos de la Cabana
All this information should convey the message that Havana was a very important and very well-fortified city, but it was also an elegant and cultured city. By the mid-18th century it was the third largest city in the Americas—behind Lima, Peru (seat of the old Inca Empire) and Mexico City (seat of the old Aztec Empire), but ahead of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. By the 19th century, Havana would be known as the ‘Paris of the Antilles’.

Pix 13: The lobby of the National Hotel
Havana’s strategic location also made it part of a dark chapter in the history of the New World—the transatlantic slave trade. It was the British who introduced slave labour to Cuba in 1762. In less than a year, the British transformed the island’s economy and society by opening trade with Britain’s Caribbean and American colonies and introducing slave labour; slaves from West Africa were transported to the island to work in the sugar plantations.  Havana became an important part of the Slave Route—ships carrying slaves from West Africa would stop at the harbour for supplies. Some would be sold in Havana itself. According to Sra Rosabal, “Slaves were downloaded from ships in the harbour and brought to the plaza of the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis, paraded on a platform and sold to the highest bidder!”

Pix 14: Woman in traditional dress walking across the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis
In the past, the economy of the island depended on slave labour not just for the sugarcane, coffee and tobacco plantations but also for the construction of the city itself. Most of the slaves were from the Yoruba nation and brought their cultural practices with them, which combined with Catholicism eventually evolved into Santaria. African heritage is pervasive throughout the Caribbean and it is believed that up to 50 per cent of Cubans are followers of this faith.
Today, the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis has been converted to a museum and concert hall for classical musicians and singers. Music enthusiasts say that the acoustics in the Basilica are so good that singers and musicians performing there do not need microphones. Further down the road from the Basilica is the Antigua Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula—another popular venue for musicians. Talented musical groups such as Ars Longa, an acappella group specializing in Medieval music; and Santa Cecilia, an all-female wind ensemble perform at both venues regularly. The San Francisco de Paula church also boasts magnificent stained glass windows.

Pix 15: Santa Cecilia performing at the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis
When slavery was abolished in 1886, the role of the African slaves was taken over by the Chinese coolies. The upheavals in the Middle Kingdom towards the end of the Qing Dynasty forced many Chinese to look for a better way of life overseas—they were looking for ‘tai ping’ but ended up almost enslaved with very harsh living and working conditions. These indentured labourers were mainly Cantonese speaking and the first shipment of 209 coolies arrived in 1847. Most of the coolies were put to work in sugarcane plantations, however in Havana itself they were forced to work in the construction of the railways, together with Irish and Mexican workers. Conditions were so harsh that it was estimated that each kilometer of railway line came at a toll of 16 lives! Although the consequences were dire for some, by the dawn of the 20th century, Havana had one of the oldest and largest Barrio Chino (Chinatown) in the Americas with 60,000 inhabitants. (I definitely see a fourth connection here!)

Pix 16: The pai fang at Calle Dragones marks the entrance to Barrio Chino
Eventually, most of the Chinese became integrated into the fabric of the country and a few achieved prominence—among them, the late Wilfredo Lam who is counted among the foremost of Cuban painters. The Centro Wilfredo Lam is located at a corner of Plaza de la Catedral and there is a Casa de Artes y Tradiciones China (House of Chinese Arts and Traditions) in Havana. However, many Chinese Cubans left the country for the United States during the revolution of 1959. At present, the Chinese Community Centre is located at the former Casino Chung Wah at Calle Amistad, Centro Habana. A member of the clan association said that the number of Chinese still living in Havana now totalled only 200.
In an exception to the rule, the Chinese restaurants in the Barrio Chino are allowed to operate as private enterprises; however, visitors tend to comment that the food offered is Cuban and not Chinese! However, intrepid Malaysians living here have managed to find one restaurant in Barrio Chino offering real Chinese food—Tien Tan. (Chinese food is the fifth connection.)
Cuba’s long association with Spain ended with the sinking (more accurately blowing up) of US battleship Maine in Havana Harbour in 1898. This led to the Spanish-American War, which signalled the end of Spanish colonisation in the New World, and Cuba became independent in 1902. The period 1902 to 1959 became known as the Republican state and saw a boom in construction – a prominent architect stated that 80% of the buildings in Central Havana and the outlying metropolitan areas were constructed during this period. However, the boom attracted the attention of the Mafia and Havana became a ‘casino in the 1950’s’ according to the same source.
“Cubans call the administration in the years 1902 to 1959 as the ‘pseudo-republic’ as the country was still under US influence,” according to Sra Rosabal. Apart from the Capitolio, American influence is seen in the names of certain streets, which reminded me of New York. There is a Parque Central (Central Park) in Central Havana; Miramar which is the ‘embassy enclave’ is on 5th Avenue while Siboney is on 7th Avenue. However, skyscrapers are absent – no building is supposed to be taller than the Jose Marti Memorial.
Pix 18: The Capitolio in Central Havana is a replica of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
After the revolution of 1959, the city halted its growth and (with a few exceptions) seems to have frozen in time. However, the last few years has seen extensive restoration to the most historic landmarks and buildings of Old Havana and Central Havana. A Malaysian visitor who was here eight years ago said that she saw a great deal of improvements, especially in Old Havana. I’ve noticed a remarkable amount of restoration work being done in the short time of two years too.

Pix 18: Horse drawn carriage on the street of Old Havana.
Much of the credit for this accomplishment goes to Dr Eusebio Leal Spengler, Havana city’s official historian. He is credited with the idea of turning Old Havana into a living museum, where people can live and carry out a trade while at the same time preserving the old buildings by turning some of them into specialty shops, restaurants and hotels. The money derived from tourism is re-invested into restoring the rest of the old city, which is very extensive.

Pix 18: Jardin Diana de Gales (Diana of Wales) is a part of the Havana City Historian’s Office
A great example of this project is the Hostel Los Frailes on Calle Brasil, a former hostel/tavern for poor pilgrims run by monks, which has been turned into a boutique hotel with a medieval monastery look. Other interesting places with quaint names include the Chinese-styled Torre de Marfil (Tower of Ivory), Casa de Asia and Casa de Arabe. And the Museo de Chocolate serves the best milk chocolate ‘smoothie’ I’ve ever tried!

Pix 19: The entrance to Hostel Los Frailes
Another amazing example is the Museo de le Farmacia. This establishment started as an apothecary called La Reunion Farmacia in 1853. By the turn of the century, it was the most prestigious and elegant pharmacy in Havana with formulas obtained from England, France and the United States. By 1912, it was the second most important pharmacy in the world, covering 13,000 square metres! The pharmacy was nationalised in 1959 and was adversely affected by the economic blockade on Cuba; it was turned into a museum and restoration work was completed in 2004. Part of the Museo de le Farmacia also serves as a regular pharmacy today.

Pix 20: A salon in the La Reunion Farmacia, Calle Brasil, Old Havana.
I’ll end with the most famous writer associated with Cuba—Ernest Hemingway. He lived in Havana for the last 22 years of his life and wrote the Nobel Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea here. According to Sra Rosabal, “This novel is based on the lives of the fishermen he observed in Cojimar, a fishing village a few miles north of Havana. His favourite place at Cojimar was a restaurant called La Terraza.” Hemingway actually lived in the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana for seven years (1932-1939). The famous Room 511 in the hotel, which appeared rather small and spartan to me, has been converted to a museum and preserved for posterity. After his marriage to Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway moved to a house called Finca La Vigia, located in a village a few miles outside of Havana. (Although Gellhorn is best known for being Hemingway’s third wife, she was also one of the foremost war correspondents of the 20th Century). The farmhouse is now the Museo Hemingway. This is the sixth connection as Sra Rosabal spent a month helping to catalogue the items in this house and I read The Old Man and the Sea as a teen!
Hemingway also stayed at the Ambos Mundos Hotel for many years.