I did not know what to expect from Cuba, which was the main reason I wanted to go. Of course, there are the fine handmade cigars, old bars and classic cars that people always want to know about, but I’d heard there was so much more to the country.
A less educated tourist just heads to Varadero on the northern coast and parties on the Caribbean with like-minded tourists. But that is not the ‘real’ Cuba. As the Cubans themselves will tell you; “don’t go to Varadero, there are no Cubans there.”
The ‘real’ Cuba is in the old-style cities scattered throughout this small but significant island. Meeting the people, smoking their cigars, walking their pebbled streets, drinking in their bars, eating their food and being driven in their cars is all a part of the ‘real’Cuba.
My first Cuban friend was George, a friendly university student with basically no expectations of succeeding in his chosen field of engineering as Cuba is not overly interested in rebuilding, restructuring or refurbishing. In fact, most university students are the same. Excluding lawyers and those in the medical profession, there are not many jobs worth studying for.
George dropped me off at my private room in Havana and on the way gave me a list of ‘what-to-do’ and ‘what-not-to-do’ in his city. The list of ‘what-not-to-do’ far outweighed its counterpart.
The city that time forgot
It’s true what they say about Havana, it is like going back in time to a city that never went through the popular-culture-altering era of the 60’s and 70’s. Yet, its people could easily cope and thrive if it were allowed to live in the present. It is highly recommended to visit this city now, because what it is today is all about to change (when Fidel Castro passes on and the Americans lift their embargo).
One phrase I suspect has never been uttered in Havana is, “we better call the repair-man”. Everything is broken, and nothing gets fixed. The city is an unsafe rundown mess with few doors in doorways, exposed wires hanging everywhere and stairwells only half completed. And this was in the Presidential Palace!
The rubble of a housing commission building that collapsed during a hurricane, killing two people and wounding several more is still evident despite the hurricane arriving years ago. That’s the nature of Havana.
However, the streets are constantly full of people — they might be trying to sell things, sell themselves, playing baseball, talking about baseball or even selling you baseballs. They are smart, friendly and intuitive, but you cannot help but suspect this is because they’re trying to figure out another way to sell you things.
Mi Cuban amigos
Juan Carlos, 38, another friendly Cuban, lived with his mum and dad, two sisters and his daughter in a place which two people would struggle to cope with, even in a notoriousLondon share house. Juan Carlos was an English professor, teaching the children ofCuba the language of the world – vital education for citizens of such a small country.
He got paid $10 per month, which is the standard payment for 80% of the jobs in Cuba. It’s not a lot and at times the poverty is shocking, with cockroaches more like a household pet in Havana than a normal cat or dog.
While you do get very well fed in the private houses of the Cuban capital, the house I was staying in was getting a bit weird. Santiago, my ‘housemate’, was always trying to sell me things. If he had a daughter, she would have been the next item on sale. It was time to leave.
Honky tonk in Vinales
I took a bus ride to pretty Vinales, a town just outside where the Russians positioned the nuclear bomb that instigated the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is now the most laid back town inCuba. If you are travelling to somewhere which should take 45 minutes, it will take about 2 ½ hours in Vinales.
Horns also mean different things here too. In the busier cities back home and overseas, a horn is usually an aggravated insult. In Vinales, a horn means, “Good afternoon sir. I hope you, your wife, your children and your goat are well. Now, I hope you don’t mind, but I do need to overtake you now. I fully respect your 1957 Sigma, and the 43 people travelling within it, but I’m in a devil of a rush and need to get a move on.” Or maybe it is just the friendliness of the people that makes you assume that is what they are saying with every honk.
In Vinales, I stayed with a family on their little farm with pigs, chickens and roosters as my roommates. They cooked me huge meals with heaps of meat. But I was a little sobered by the fact that everyday there was one animal less in the backyard.
Moving on from Vinales, the next stop was Trinidad, a beautiful little town on the Caribbean. Here it is possible to snorkel around the reef of Playa Ancon and at times, I literally had the beach to myself and was able to smoke a Romeo y Julieta hand-rolled cigar with my toes canoodling in the Caribbean.
From Trinidad I ventured toSanta Clara, the town Che Guevara made famous by defeating an enormously equipped army with just a few supplies and a few soldiers. Seeing this site is a must for any visit to Cuba, but aside from that there is little to see in Santa Clara. It is interesting to hear Cubans speak about Guevara, and if you get friendly enough with the locals, you realise they do not really like him or consider him the hero that many do in the west. Cubans are not terribly fond of their way of life and Che Guevara was one who helped create it. However, they do believe he was sent to a die-or-die war in Bolivia in 1967 by Fidel Castro, so he is not the greater evil according to Cubans.
To me, it seems the Che Guevara mystique is really just devised for the tourism dollar, a sort of capitalist venture from a communist government. He died at a good time when the revolution was well accepted, life was good in Cuba and he was still a hero. To Cubans, he was a good doctor and a great soldier but times have changed and the saga continues.
A Cuban future without communism?
It’s difficult what to make of Cuba and the social structure there, but it is certainly fascinating. It is such a different way of living; on one hand it is good that the government provides everything for its citizens, but unfortunately they have little say in the way their life is.
In addition, they have no say in how they are depicted by other nations. In Havana, there are still cannons pointed at Miami. Such an iconic image says to a nation of over 300 million people, that they despise them, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Cubans as a whole are probably the only people left who will openly admit they like Americans. But Americans are not permitted to go to Cuba, so there is this huge false fence that separates the two populations.
Some of the communist laws must also make the people feel insignificant. For example, you get a greater jail sentence for killing a cow than you do if you killed a person. It is a silly conundrum based on the notion that livestock are Fidel’s children.
I will have very fond memories of Cuba, and especially of the Cubans. They are great people who are instantly likeable, intelligent, involved, intrigued and intuitive. They do not stop and say ‘hi’ to everyone they know, they stop and say ‘hi’ to everyone they see. I will remember their positive outlook on their situation – healthcare is free under communist rule, and they all swear by their doctors and dentistry, yet many Cubans have bad gall bladders and gold teeth. Cubans have their rum, their cigars and their contagious music, but not much else. Yet, they are still happy.
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