An Irishman's Diary


She drew her scarlet finger nails slowly along my inner left thigh. "My dark-eyed, brown-skinned lady of the low life, I am a reporter," I attempted to say. "My vocation is to observe life's feast, not to take part in it." But my mouth was full of spaghetti, and a strand had suddenly accumulated the combined length of the Tiber, the Appian Way and the road to Morocco joined end to end.

I had been sitting at the counter of what approximated to Havana's only fast-food restaurant when she sat down beside me, all grace and elegance and about 23. By the time I reached Morocco her nails were in retreat, heading for the safer lowlands of my kneecap, where they rested casually. "I lub hangsome fat men with blue eyes," she said. This touched a nerve. "My dear satin eyes, its the sweatshirt I'm wearing," I was about to say. "Beneath it lies the svelte body of an athlete. Besides, I've just had a plate of spaghetti." But I suddenly realised I was in a country where "fat" is attractive. And that her own supermodel slimness probably had more to do with a scarcity of food than with vanity.

Photograph of child

She delved into a handbag and took out a photograph. It was of a child, a smaller, curly-haired version of herself, about 18 months old, and she began talking about her daughter in that seductive, lisping English where the "v"s become "b"s, and the "g"s are strangled. I was about to advise her that, if she was ever to be a success at her trade, she should never try to reach a man's loins via his conscience, when she reached for the sachets of sugar on a saucer beside my coffee. "For her?" she said, indicating the child. I nodded. She put them in her bag, and I didn't feel so handsome any more.

A young Canadian was sitting further along the counter. Earlier he had told me he had come to Havana from the Cayman Islands, where he had spent three months working. He was in Cuba for a few days before setting off to tour Europe. He could not take his eyes off my oak-tinted companion, which she soon noticed, and soon she was curled around him as tightly as ivy on an old ash tree.

Canada has been good to Cuba. Despite the US embargo it has continued to trade with that country and is one of the largest foreign investors there. Not without cost. Executives from Canada's Sherritt International mining company have been banned from entering the US as a result, under America's 1996 Helms-Burton Act. On our own side of the Atlantic, EU foreign ministers have shelved plans for a new trade agreement with Cuba until its dispute with Washington over Helms-Burton is settled.

Meanwhile the people of Cuba struggle to acquire the bare necessities of life, despite a decision to relax the embargo where medical supplies are concerned following the Pope's visit last January. The dollar has become king and tourism continues to increase in importance, but in its wake prostitution has also increased. It is said that approximately 30 per cent of young women in Havana between the ages of 18 and 25 are engaged in it. If true, this is hardly surprising. A prostitute can make more in a night than a teacher or government official might make in three or four months - they earn only about $7 to $8 a month. And this is a part of the world where the attitude to sex are relaxed by European standards.

There is another side to all this. Contraception is not a problem for the vast majority of Cubans, but the availability of contraceptives is. Hence the extraordinarily high abortion rate, with six abortions for every 10 live births.

Pink lady

I met the dark-eyed lady in September last year and expected never to see her again. But I did, thanks to Pope John Paul. In the same restaurant last January, I met a lady of a very different hue. She too was looking for dollars. We had met for the first time just days before at the airport in Santiago de Cuba, both returning after the Pope had said Mass there. I was covering the event for this newspaper.

She was at the check-in with a three-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, this middle-aged, frumpish woman, with pink powder on her face, pink lipstick, a pink scarf, a pink cardigan over a dress which was a lighter shade of pink, looking like a refugee from a 1950s Doris Day film but really from Toronto.

She carried more (miraculous) medals on her chest than Idi Amin, and a rosary dangled from her neck. She had plonked her statue on the check-in desk.

On impulse I asked whether Mary was paying full fare. Recognising my accent, she felt that at last she had discovered another devout Catholic like herself, and she pounced on me a giant pink St Bernard, full of warmth and welcome.

Then she dug a hand into one of her many bags and drew out a photo album to show me all the bishops, archbishops, and cardinals she had had photographed beside with the statue. Her aim, she said, was to have every major Church figure in the Americas photographed with it. The statue looked on unmoved, as the pink lady waited for the seat which "the Lord would provide" - and did, courtesy of Cubana, the national airline of that atheistic state.

Free seats

Others in the queue distanced themselves from the pink lady, including a timid Opus Dei man who passed me his card before melting away. She begged me to go to daily Mass for the souls in Purgatory and pray for the conversion of Fidel Castro, even if he was providing free seats for herself and the statue.

So I wasn't too happy when she sat down beside me in the restaurant in Havana, some days later. She had no money, of course, but the Lord would provide once again. And this time, it seems, he had chosen me to assist. (I will keep the receipt until Judgement Day.)

I absented myself as soon as decently possible and set off for the nearby international press centre to get accredition for the next papal event. It was evening; darkness had fallen and some of Havana's most beautiful young women stood along the footpath. They grabbed passing men by the arms, giggling, laughing, making gestures of intent. Among them was the dark-eyed lady, lovely as before, and probably still looking for "hangsome, blue-eyed, fat men." With dollars.