The first thing I noticed about Cuba was the smell. Cologne on the taxi drivers as we stepped out of the airport, the thick, tropical scent of rotting leaves on the footpath and fruit on the trees as we wandered out looking for a bus stop. Earthy tobacco in the street as we waited for a bus into Havana – even the cigarettes smell stronger here – and sticky rum from the hip pockets of old men on the bus.
Havana is a visual feast. As I walked the streets I imagined a Big Friendly Giant type character travelling around the world collecting buildings as souvenirs. He took commercial buildings from the boulevards in Paris and Madrid, old apartment blocks and mansions from San Francisco, a Spanish colonial fort, government buildings and hotels from the British Raj and factories and towers from the Soviet Union. He took this collection with him on his travels, clunking and scraping and mouldering in his suitcase until he stopped for a while on Cuba’s north coast. There he took them out and loosely arranged this battered collection into something resembling a city. Modern Habaneros lack the resources to maintain them properly, so the buildings continue to crumble as flowers and vines grow from decomposing tiles and cracks in facades. Some of these buildings look decidedly unsafe and occasionally collapse. One did so in Habana Vieja – the old touristy part of town – one night while we were there and killed seven people, including a three-year-old. Socialism has divided up stately apartments and mansions among multiple families, and safe streets have left the ground levels mercifully free of all the iron spikes and bars behind which the citizens of other Latin American cities cage themselves.
Lack of resources also leaves all these beautiful big rooms mostly empty, with perhaps a single counter and an old stove in a restaurant or a few bare shelves in an expansive shop. Most walls are a pastel shade of blue or green and nothing has been painted in a long time. All the furniture in the houses is old – ragged tablecloths that were once frilly, sunken couches and lots and lots of rocking chairs. It kind of feels like being at your Nan’s place. You’ll pass a shopfront and see ten women seated behind ancient sewing machines on wooden desks. You’ll buy a soft drink at a shop and hear a “ding!” from the cashier’s ancient cash register. Plastic items – ice cream buckets, plastic cups – are reused again and again and find new life as pots for plants or storage solutions.
Habaneros rise early, get whatever task (it’s usually just one) they have for the day out of the way and then disappear for the blistering midday hours. Between 10am and 3-4pm the only people you’ll see on the streets are generally tourists and the Cubans who’re trying to hustle them. Late in the afternoon rocking chairs start appearing on the footpaths and in doorways. Women congregate and call greetings to passersby. Men cluster around tables and fix stern faces on chessboards and games of dominoes. Kids play football or baseball in the street until two or three in the morning. Cubans live the majority of their lives on the streets, in full public view, and conversations regularly occur via bouts of shouting between balconies and across streets.
Bici-taxis and Mango-taxis
A train from the US that is, allegedly, 80 years old
Inside said train. The bathrooms are probably best left unmentioned.
Rob at Cienfuegos
As it turns out Cuba is a pretty interesting place to visit right now. There is finally a government in Washington who is prepared to be mature about Castro’s genuinely popular (and necessary) revolution kicking out their puppet dictator 56 years ago and fending off their subsequent attempts to overthrow him. The blockade will end. American money – investments and tourist dollars – will start pouring in. And Cuba will never be the same.
“The Cretins Corner” in the National Museum, housed in what was once Batista’s palace. From left they are Fulgencio Batista, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr. and George W. Bush.
“The economy we have right now simply doesn’t work,” said Risber, who with his wife Yuly runs the casa particular we stayed in at Playa Giron, over rum one night on his porch. “So as long as we can maintain the level of healthcare, education and security we have right now while changing our economic system, we’ll be fine.” Everyone we met seemed pretty unanimous about this. Education and healthcare have been major achievements of the revolution. Elsewhere in the Americas (including Canada and the U.S.) one’s social class is usually determined by race, with people of indigenous and African descent at the poorest end and white people of European stock clustered around the rich extreme. Not so in Cuba. People are poor, sure, but at least they’re all equally poor regardless of the colour of their skin.
At an abominable crocodile farm near Playa Larga. Unfortunately the croc did not go bezerk and bite the tourist’s arm off before turning on his keeper.
Che Guevara saw communism as a new stage in human evolution, where a “New Man” would put collective prosperity above his own individual needs. It sounds very nice. But whether humans haven’t reached that level of maturity yet or the US blockade meant Fidel and Che’s big experiment never had a chance, communism as an economic system is not working in Cuba. Despite reduced rent, utility bills, free education and healthcare and food rations, the average Cuban monthly salary of around US$20 is not enough to live on. A capitalist black market flourishes as everyone starts their own little businesses to make up the difference. Everyone has a TV aerial that picks up stations from Florida. Food, clothes, electronics – it can all be purchased on the black market. Entrepreneurial music lovers set up shop on the street with a laptop, and for a fee will fill your portable hard drive with a selection of their latest favourites.
Che’s memorial at Santa Clara, the sight of his biggest victory during the revolution against Batista. I wonder what he’d think of the way his mate Fidel has used his image for propaganda. He’s now buried here.
Just outside Santa Clara, this is the site where Che and his guerrilla brigade blew up a train full of Batista troops and effectively won the city for the revolution.
Incredibly cute goings-on in Santa Clara’s plaza.
I took a break from the Big Bicycle Trip and came to Cuba chiefly to catch up with friends – Johan from the Netherlands and Ally from Scotland – who I hadn’t seen since I finished my student exchange in Colombia a couple of years ago. We often overlooked sightseeing to spend long afternoons smoking cigars and sipping rum in squares or on porches, ably solving the world’s problems but puzzling over our own.
Rob, Ally and Johan
In Cuba you stay in people’s homes – “casas particulares” – rather than hostels. You stay in a spare bedroom – usually the nicest room in the house – and can pay extra for the family to cook meals for you. Some of our best meals were in casas as Cuban food is, well, it’s not very good. I refuse to believe they’re not good cooks – they just don’t have the best ingredients. At least one of us was unable to stray more than dashing distance from the nearest bathroom any one time.
The lack of hostels also means there isn’t much of a backpacker scene, so unless you’re travelling with someone it might actually become a little lonely. Probably because of this, we noticed loads of couples travelling in Cuba. Now, personally, I can’t really think of a worse place to take a lover and the reason is that Cubans are probably the sexiest people on the planet. Customs agents in the airport wear tiny skirts and tight blouses to hug their elegant curves, and some inspired bureaucrat has even made fishnet stockings and high heels a requirement of the uniform. In a Havana diner which I’ll call The Most Depressing Restaurant In The World the cook was a tall black man with dreamy green eyes and gently muscular arms in whose hands a wooden spoon caressed a pot of grey pasta and chicken. With all that eye candy available for young and old, man and woman, why on earth would you go with your significant other? Better to go with a few friends and soak it up properly.
So what do you do when you’ve got no money for fun and lots of time on your hands? I think most Cubans have loads of sex. The men honk horns and whistle at the ladies, who in turn flash their eyes back at them and say things like “Que mango!” (literally “What a mango!”). At a music festival we attended in Cienfuegos the young men spent all their time promenading through the crowd to make sure they were being seen. Towards the back a few sat on glistening motorcycles, shamelessly preening themselves in the mirror and striking James Dean poses. The MC got up between acts and shouted, “Hands in the air all the men out there with a car that woooooorks!” About a third of the men in attendance casually put their hands up and sought eye contact with every woman in the vicinity. The MC continued: “Now hands in the air all the women out there who want a man who has a car that woooooooooorks!” and every woman in Cienfuegos threw both hands to the night sky and shrieked.
One night we went out in Havana and found a club full of students. Johan, Freek (a second Dutchman) and I sat down for a few beers, alone at the tables as most everyone was dancing by now. Johan can cut a rug like a local and wasted no time in asking a likely-looking señorita to dance. Freek disappeared and I sat, drunk from an afternoon on the rum, watching the dancers, enjoying the music and probably swaying a little. When I turned around I found the chairs at the table behind me had filled with three young women. They were all staring and I wasn’t sure how long they’d been there. The closest struck up a conversation that I couldn’t hear very well but after about five minutes she said, “Would you like me to be your girlfriend during your holiday?” In return I would pay for our hotel rooms, meals, drinks, travel and all the other expenses. “Aren’t I pretty?” she said. I said she was but that she was also barking up the wrong tree, and off she went.
I turned to the second girl. After three or four minutes of pleasant conversation she too wondered if I would like a girlfriend during my stay in Cuba. Also, she had a sick grandmother and needed $40. “Yes, you are pretty,” I said when she asked if she wasn’t, “but I’m all good on the girlfriend front, thank-you.” So off she went. Sensing a pattern, I turned to the third girl. She had been extremely patient and I supposed she was due her turn.
The first thing she said was, “Let’s go to a hotel,” and she tried to drag me to the door by the arm. “Forty dollars for the night. Let’s go!” I had to fight for my arm back.
We spent an afternoon at Finca Vigia, where Ernest Hemingway lived from 1939 until 1960.
That’s Rob in Hemingway’s bedroom!
The view back to Havana from the tower outside the house.
“The Writing Room” at the top of the tower. Apparently he didn’t actually like to write here and I can understand it. How could you work when you’ve got a telescope and a view of a whole city to play with?
I don’t understand how he got any work done with all those dead animals staring at him.
Apparently he also used to murder dogs.
There are definitely people – generally middle-aged European men and women – who go to Cuba to take advantage of cheap sex or those holiday romance offers. They sit in touristy restaurants or hotel bars looking bored for a while, and then they leave and I don’t want to think about what happens after. I mentioned earlier that couples travelling together in Cuba baffled me, but the most distressing sub-category of travellers I saw were the mother/daughters. I can only hope the European husbands/fathers hadn’t been to Cuba themselves and would therefore be unaware of the hotbed of virile, muscular young men to which their wives are taking their very blonde, very sixteen-or-seventeen-year-old daughters.
One evening found us sitting on some steps, drinking beer and smoking cigars like regular vagrants in this plaza somewhere in Havana:
From the far left corner of the above photograph enters a couple, arm-in-arm. He’s a dark young local with a big frizzy afro, short shorts, cloth bracelets and a set of pectorals that bulge under his just-tight t-shirt. She wears her blonde hair under a fedora she’ll never wear again, a pretty girl of about seventeen. They stop by the fountain at the right of the above photo and after a few words, indulge in a long, sloppy kiss. Then, rapt in one another, they stroll back past us and disappear around the corner to our left. Five minutes later he reappears, striding straight past us and as he passes some tables from a restaurant on the square off to the right, three early-twenties tourist girls catch his eye. He stops, exchanges a few words and to our shouts of “No waaaay!” he seats himself on a couch beside his chosen target, a brunette at the edge of the group. The other two do not look impressed and even the brunette largely ignores him at first. Over the course of an hour we check on him every now and then, and find him doing well at ingratiating himself. He’s done this before.
Suddenly, Fedora Girl appears at stage left (“Get the popcorn!” cries Johan) along with an older couple that looks like Mum and Mum’s New Boyfriend. The three stroll right by us towards the restaurants and we watch Fedora Girl, marking the exact moment when she recognises Lover Boy with his latest project. Her step falters, her shoulders sag and she starts to hide behind Mum. She says something and Mum hands her a bit of money and off she trots, as fast and as dignified as she can back right past us and off to the left. There’s a tourist shop down the way with Havana Club shirts and the like and she’s looking at a shoulder bag with a Che Guevara logo. Then here comes Lover Boy, striding past us looking concerned. He touches her shoulder, she shies away, pretends to ignore him, steps into the shop and out of view. “Tell him to fuck off!” we’re almost screaming. After a moment he follows her in and then together they walk out and back towards us into the square. She has her Che bag but they’re not talking. She looks me straight in the eye as she passes, knows that we’ve seen the whole thing, and I really hope I looked sympathetic.
Meanwhile, Mum and Her New Boyfriend have been watching all this from the square, whispering and giving each other knowing looks in that supremely unhelpful way that some parents have around their kids’ new girlfriends or boyfriends. They have no idea what’s really going on. Fedora Girl breaks off and drifts behind Mum and Mum’s New Boyfriend while Lover Boy goes right back to pick up where he left off with the brunette. And we, four tipsy foreigners passing idle hours in the plaza, congratulate ourselves on having witnessed a real-life telenovela.
“Poor girl,” says Johan, ever the penny-pinching Dutchman. “She had her heart broken, she panicked, and in the heat of the moment I bet you she paid way too much for that bag.”
An art installation at the Havana fort. The streaks come from the muddy shoes of children.
Ally and Rob
Hilarious flowers in Soroa.
Rob and Johan in the National Museum. To me this looks like one of those “candid” White House photos of powerful people having Important Discussions – “Prime Minister Robert Black discusses Dutch military agression in the Caribbean with Ambassador Johan Vervoordeldonk in a courtyard at Parliament House.”
The first time we left Havana we took a taxi instead of the bus. Rob and I were lining up for bus tickets when Johan comes running into the station. “I got the taxi price down to two dollars less than the bus price. And they hate me for it.” As we wound our way through the hills above the city in a fluorescent purple Plymouth that’s only marginally younger than my Nanna, the ladies gliding along the roadside and kids scampering around their heels, the psychotic driver (when are they ever not psychotic?) started pumping this gem through a decidedly modern sound system:
I really enjoyed my time in Cuba. The limestone mountains around Viñales, the crystal clear waters and kaleidoscope of sea life in the Bay of Pigs, the amiable shabbiness of Havana, the chilled-out cities of Santa Clara and Cienfuegos, the wheezing of sixty-year-old American cars that should really be in museums, the resort-quality beaches at Varadero, colonial beauty in Trinidad and the jungle and waterfalls that surround it, it all makes for a country that pleases each and every one of the senses.
Evening in Havana from the old Spanish fort across the river
Rob contemplates the view from a mountaintop in Pinar del Rio province.
That’s a real lizard.
Now there are exceptions, but I think the reason most of us travel – be it down the coast or around the world – is to see what the world looks like from a different perspective, to learn about the different ways we all approach the basic human needs to love, be loved, eat, shit, be healthy, care for ourselves and the ones we love and be happy. However I feel that for the most part, I failed to really learn much about the Cubans. The Cuban tourism industry isn’t interested in teaching you too much about their country beyond revolutionary propaganda. They’re interested in your cash. You can only stay in certain casas, which are more expensive and strictly for foreigners. You can only ride tourist buses – which are much more expensive – for your own “safety”. You can only access hiking trails if you fork out for an expensive guided tour. Somehow this mindset has become ingrained among Cubans themselves. Every social interaction – talking to someone in a bar or on the street or in the plaza – inevitably becomes about money and can I have some?
“We’re poor here,” said one woman to whom we gave soap from our casa in Trinidad, and I don’t doubt it – although we later saw soap being sold for peanuts in the same town. People are poor in Cuba, certainly, but they aren’t at the fringes of destitution like the masses of indigenous Mayans across Mexico and Guatemala. In those countries not only does healthcare and university education cost money, there simply aren’t enough hospital beds or public university places to go around. Yet in Cuba, more than anywhere else, I couldn’t escape the feeling of being a money sponge and everyone wants a squeeze. What’s the cause of this? Inability to achieve a higher social class? Idealised images of the high life under capitalism in the USA, fueled by Florida TV stations and wealthy members of the Miami diaspora returning to flash their cash? If “ignorance is bliss” – as is often the case in impoverished Mayan communities on the mainland – does having an education mean you’re cursed to know how much better life can be? I don’t know about this one guys. I just don’t know.
One welcome exception was a man named Alessandro, who we met late one night on Havana’s Malecón. Inevitably talk turned to the Coming of the Yankees. He echoed every other Cuban’s sentiments that hopefully the economy will improve. I cautioned him about the corruption, the vice and the inequality a flood of American money will bring.
“You’re right, and I’ve thought about this,” he said. “Me and three others, we have formed a group that has pledged to immediately burn down the first McDonald’s that opens here in Havana. I know I will probably go to jail, but I don’t care.” He had a pretty good humour about the whole thing and we wished him well.
Interesting times ahead for Cuba, then. I’d recommend seeing it before Yankee cash fills it with malls and resorts, Cancun style.