The 1950 Cadillac has neither a meter, an interior doorhandle, nor any physical sign that I am in a taxi. The driver is sporting a self-satisfied smirk. Jet-lagged at the airport after a 12-hour flight that began at midnight, my defences are down. I experience a curious twinge of jealousy when the bus, filled with grinning, confident "all-inclusive" tourists, speeds by.

I say "curious" because I am normally a staunchly independent traveller who tends to greet any mention of a packaged holiday with hoots of derision.

The first lesson comes quickly. All accommodations on my list are full. "It's high season you know" - The modest two star hotel in Vedado, a popular tourist suburb of Havana, is a last-ditch compromise. "There will be water this evening - Oh, and they're working on the elevator." I struggle up five floors with my pack. A loud whirring from below the open window, confirms that a tanker truck is pumping water to the roof - much of Havana's plumbing has collapsed.

The first day in a new country is always unnerving. A new language. New currency. Where and what to eat? Havana streets are not brightly lit and a national shortage of paint has rendered most signs illegible. The map in my guidebook is woefully small, even with the aid of a maglite and new reading glasses. Damn the aging process!

Along the seawall - known as The Malecon - chicken legs are grilling over oil drums filled with charcoal. Smoking vats on propane burners produce mountains of French fries sold in tiny paper cornets. Crispy lumps of batter are also popular. Surely rigor mortis is holding the apple in the  mouth of a suckling pig whose body is being disseminated in thick slices to a hungry line-up.

A "cerveza" truck, the size of a deisel tanker, is supplying local brew to teetering throngs. The server pumps beer through a huge nozzle into a variety of receptacles, from bottles to jars to bowls, thrust in his direction.

Music thumps through tall banks of antique speakers. Tiny doll-like mulatto girls in crinoline dresses with a garden of bows to bind their tight curls, wiggle and shimmy in perfect time to the rhythm. Rogue waves leap over the battered seawall, temporarily dampening the ardor of clinging couples caught in the spray.

The sky comes alive with fireworks launched from a fenced-off area near the old city - Habana Vieja. "Don't you know? - It's November 17th - Havana's 485th birthday," says the American tourist with "Red Sox" boldly emblazoned on the front of his navy-blue T-shirt. "Tonight is the wrap-up of Carnival - the greatest show in Cuba."

Havana is kept safe by a strong police presence with zero tolerance for trouble. I fight my way through a dense sea of humanity to the barricade. Cuba's finest are on hand with radios and batons to keep out all but a handful of people from the fenced-off area inside.

A TV cameraman arrives and the barrier is lifted just long enough for me to sneak through. "Boleto senor - Donde es el boleto de usted?" A hand is on my shoulder demanding my ticket. "Who do I pay?" - "I am a very important journalist and must be let through immediately" I demand with a nauseous level of arrogance that always works in India. My comments are met with icy glares followed by reluctant shrugs. The grip on my shoulder is finally relaxed. I am in!

I arrived in Cuba at noon and it is now 9PM - I am hungry. People emerge from a tent carrying cardboard boxes and tall waxed brownpaper cups. For 50 cents my "takeout" contains two breaded chicken thighs, French fries and a quantity of rice - all to be washed down with a cup of local beer from another "cerveza truck".

Temporary stands line both sides of the Malecon and I settle in an empty seat to wait for the action. I am half way through my second bite when an angry, gesticulating, woman orders me to move. "Where?" I asked. She points to a set of bleachers across the road. Within minutes, history in the form of an even more resolute lady, repeats itself. Probably another "boleto" problem that I couldn't understand? This time I dig in my heels, befriend my neighbours who offer me beer and popcorn, and watch my antagonist boil with rage. I hope all this stress will be worthwhile?

A distant roar. I thought Carnival was a celebration by the people for the people, yet the stands are still only half-full? The crowds at the barrier can see nothing because they can't afford tickets. I spot a car dealership behind the tall wire fence and wonder who can afford a gleaming new Alfa Romeo. The first marching band approaches.

I am soon treated to the greatest show on earth - in my mind anyway! Scantily clad dancers with lithe sinewy bodies and perfect teeth, salsa their way past. Huge floats lit by whirring generators are hauled along by rusting tractors. Transvestites in thongs - Wide-eyed girls in little more than pasties and sashes of brilliantly coloured chiffon, shake and shimmy to the beat.

Acrobats perform somersaults. Boys are tossed into the air and caught, as skillfully as a chef flips a pancake, by muscular partners. Tumblers. Twirlers. Contortionists. Clowns on stilts. The outfits are as wild as the music.

By 12.30AM jet lag has kicked in again. For 3 hours I have been mesmerised by the most beautiful people I have ever seen - and there is no end in sight. Wow! - So this is Cuba. Now if I can just find my hotel!



Copyright © 2006 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.