How I lost my camera in Havana

Simon Lee keeps his memories of Havana safe


Fidel was there to greet me when I landed at José Martí airport humming Yo soy un hombre sincero. He was everywhere at once, declaiming from the TV screens. I listened respectfully for a five, understanding nothing but enjoying El Jefe’s rhetoric. Then, saluting like a Sierra Maestra veteran, I mamboed through Immigration, jumped in a taxi and headed for Havana, city of my dreams.

I’d been on the way to Havana for 30 years, ever since Che upstaged Jimi Hendrix in the hierarchy of superheroes in the swinging, shagadelic, revolutionary Sixties. Viva El Che! And there he was, beret and beard, la revolución incarnate, gazing from posters high above the dark streets of the outer barrios. In some places he faced off with the Pope.

Now that’s what I call a real welcome. I hadn’t been in Cuba an hour and I’d already seen Fidel, Che and even El Papá. As the taxi glided among the shadows of encrusted colonial mansions, floated through the Plaza de la Revolución and down La Rampa towards the Atlantic-blasted Malecón, I had to pinch myself. No, this wasn’t a Tomás Alea movie. This was Habana verdadera, Habana libre. I’d actually made it and I had my camera along with me to capture it all.

In a fit of extravagance, I checked into the Hotel Inglaterra, whose regal 19th-century atmosphere was anything but revolutionary. Next door was the Gran Teatro, its cupolas bursting exuberantly from their rococo cleavage.

Far too excited to sleep, I headed out into my first Havana night. Plunging into Calle Obispo past La Floridita where Hemingway invented the Daquiri, I picked up the strains of son music floating down the ill-lit street. La Lluvia de Oro was packed with habaneros and tourists hanging on every note of the all-female Grupo Café. Morenas and mulatas pulled willing dance partners from their seats to execute intricate steps through the swirl of cigar smoke. Inspired, I leapt to my feet, camera flashing. By early morning with a couple of mojitos under my belt, I was in a cavernous studio off the Prado, singing with Grupo Café on a recording of the classic calypso Rum and Coca Cola. Ay compay! I had the Havana fever.

A few hours and cups of thick sweet black Cuban coffee later, I hailed a gentle blue ancient De Soto taxi and we went sailing along the Malecón, where breakers smashed into the seawall and spray arced high over the road, rebounding off the peeling facades of deserted mansions. My camera clicked deliriously all the way.

On we drove through Vedado, the central business district, across the Almendares River, past the Necropolis Colón where Spanish administrators and Cuban dons slept side by side in the eternal solitude of their marble mausolea.

Havana is gloriously vast, and by the time the De Soto had chugged through Miramar to my lodging in Playa, even the camera was drowsy. My host Raúl directed me to my bed, but it seemed mere seconds before he was knocking at the door to invite me to sample Havana Club rum and smoke lethal unfiltered H. Upman cigarettes with his doctor buddies.

Then they launched me in the direction of a rumba session at the Writers and Artists Union. The courtyard writhed with student couples, rumbaing acrobatically to the sinuous Afro rhythms of the drums and choral chants. My camera was busy again, and even had stamina for an all-night performance at the Salsa Palace, which we left when the rest of Havana was eating breakfast.

Besides dreams and pictures, I had assignments in Havana. The most important was music, so I was delighted when a veteran journalist offered to introduce me to his friend, Cuba’s leading musicologist. We went looking for him at the UNEAC, where the rumba had played. The courtyard was now filled with poets and singers, actors, painters, writers and, of course, Helio, the musicologist. His English was a big improvement on my Spanish, and he gave me a crash course in Cuban music. Rapidly our table expanded as he called friends over: a leading percussionist, a bolero singer, the poet Ambia, a celebrated actor.

An impromptu fiesta ignited and I was able to catch some of it with the camera. When UNEAC closed, the party continued across Havana until the money gave out about 3 a.m.

Rummaging through my backpack in the morning, I couldn’t find the camera. Devastated, I ransacked my room. Nada. It had really gone, claimed by the revolution or the Havana night.

The night before I left, Raúl presented me with a pen and a journal “from your Cuban family.” As we sat toasting with old Havana Club, the lost camera finally dropped out of mind. “No problem,” I said. “It just means I have to come back to La Habana.”