HAVANA, Cuba -- Another memorable, fascinating and strange day in Havana is in the books. I love this place. The U.S. team arrives later this afternoon in advance of Saturday’s first-ever U.S. World Cup qualifier in Cuba, but we’ll hit you with multiple blog posts before that as the day goes on.
First off, five thoughts after our first full day in Cuba:
• The playing surface isn’t a total joke. If Landon Donovan thinks the field conditions are the worst part of playing World Cup qualifiers in Concacaf, then he shouldn’t be too upset with the state of the pitch at Estadio Pedro Marrero. When I visited the stadium to meet with Cuban players and coaches on Wednesday the field wasn’t perfect, but it was slightly better than the goat tracks you’ll see in most Caribbean countries.
The only person I felt badly for was the guy in the photo above. How would you like to mow an entire international soccer field with a tiny Soviet-era lawn mower? I hope somebody buys this guy a Bucanero (the local cerveza) at the end of the week.
• This country is deceptively expensive. Granted, the U.S. dollar is tanking nearly everywhere. But when you have no access to ATMs and can’t use your credit cards, you’d better hope that you brought enough cash. I think I’ll be O.K., but unexpected charges come from everywhere. For starters, the Cuban government takes 10% off the top every time you change U.S. dollars into Cuban convertible pesos. Then there’s the official “foreign journalist” credential that I had to buy from a government ministry for 60 pesos (around $75 if you count the 10% government skim). I’ve already changed money twice and am hopeful that I won’t have to wash dishes at a restaurant for a night to cover my check.
• The stadium lighting is ... interesting. I hope the small army that arrived from ESPN on Wednesday brought some portable lights, because I could see only two light stanchions in the entire stadium. I’m still not sure why the game is being played at 8 p.m. instead of the originally planned 3 p.m., but I’ll try and track down an explanation. Workers in the stadium were (sort of) busy setting up a plywood platform on the far-side stands that presumably will be used for television cameras. And it appears that an Internet connection is coming to Estadio Pedro Marrero (maybe): I saw some Cuban telecom trucks parked outside.
• I’m able to do actual journalism here. When we landed at the airport I wasn’t sure if I’d have a minder assigned to me for the entire time here. And while I haven’t been aware of any “unofficial” minders (yet), SI photographer Simon Bruty and I have been free to go wherever we’ve wanted to so far. The media access to the Cuban team on Wednesday was pretty good: I got to speak with young-stud forward Robert Linares one-on-one for about 15 minutes, and Cuba’s journeyman German coach, Reinhold Fanz, answered plenty of questions as well. Check back with the blog later in the day for more posts on those guys.
• Other random observations: Most of the school buses here read “Ecoliérs” and have French words all over the sides. My cab-driver Wilfred said that most of the school buses are donated by French-speaking countries. Meanwhile, most passenger buses here come from China and have Chinese script on them ... Speaking of the Chinese, they’re everywhere on this planet. There’s a thriving Chinatown here in Havana, and we get not one but three channels of CCTV (China state television) off the satellite in our hotel. (We also get CNN and ESPN—both U.S. and international—which aren’t available, of course, to the community at large in Cuba) ... It looks like this game is taking place during the window between hurricanes. Hurricane Gustav did some serious damage on the western tip of Cuba and lighter damage in Havana (workers were still removing some debris when we arrived). Hurricane Hanna veered north from here, and Hurricane Ike isn’t predicted to hit until next Tuesday or Wednesday—if it hits at all. Forecasts now have Ike heading north of Cuba as well ... The stadium for Saturday’s game is a converted old baseball stadium with a fairly nice training facility alongside that was built with the help of contributions from FIFA ... The food here continues to be excellent. On Wednesday a group of three U.S. journos (the Washington Post’s Steve Goff, the New York Times’s Josh Robinson and the New York Daily News’s Michael Lewis) joined Simon and me at La Floridana, a Cuban restaurant in a restored colonial mansion off the Calle Obispo pedestrian street. The Cuban paella was sensational—and reasonably priced, too.
Back with more from Havana later ...