Cuba really is a lovely place, a lovely place in waiting….. waiting for trade, waiting for goods in the shops, waiting for change, waiting for WiFi. Well, maybe in the hotels you can get WiFi, definitely for the tourists, but where we were, in the casa particulares (home stays) and for the locals …. nada, or almost nada. While we were there, in July, the government opened up 35 hotspots, and outside hotels were little gatherings of local young people trying to hijack the tourist WiFi. Once a week, Cuban subscribers can have someone come to their house with a hard drive full of internet goodies and for local pesos they can have a window to our world with the Paquete. Apart from that, cell phone reception is great, but WiFi costs a fortune, texts are good for tourists but for locals – far too much money, because everybody in Cuba earns less than a dollar a day.
(Also below 10 Top Tips to traveling in Cuba)
But it really is a lovely place.
There is no doubt that Cuba is a land frozen (or rather heated) in time, the cars are not a gimmick, they are the life blood of the land. They are handed down through families, held on to as heirlooms, used as taxis, as family transport and, more recently, as investment or savings. Most are reconstructed, like our 1952 Plymouth (below left) arranged for us by Vamos Cuba, an immaculate car with a Hyundai engine – diesel. Some of the cars, like the Chevrolet Bel Air, owned by one of our hosts, was original in all respects – but whether anyone will sell these cars, as the Americans hope, as many hope, is not guaranteed. They know and love their cars, they know their worth and they should not and, I hope, will not, sell them ever. The cars are the currency that will protect Cuba and its tourist industry in the future.
The cars are not the only modes of transport though, there are the scooter rickshaws and the cycle rickshaws, the newer cars, the Russian cars and then there are the horses, the horses and carts, the oxen and carts. Once out of Havana every mode of transport is employed, lorries as buses, packed with people standing, sitting on benches or on cane backed chairs. Horses take bench loads of people, or hay or pigs and dogs, or any variety of produce along the whiplash highways, mainly clear of traffic except for a few lorries, the ancient cars and the odd, wandering cow. Gauchos trot along the motorway, people walk, people wait and the buses, the buses run on time. Transport is reliable and safe, if you define safe as excellent driving without the benefit of safety belts.
There is a dilemma associated with that famous retro reputation of the timeless Cuba. There is no doubt that we visited because we wanted to go there before Starbucks and McDonalds popped up on every street corner, but then we don’t have to live there. That tiny salary that they earn, we would not want to live on it, and the shops, there is nothing in the shops. Deliveries are random, most meat is provided by the government. In many ways Cuba is run like a military bachelor’s apartment: minimalistic and disciplined. At its worst Cuba is a desperately poor country and no one living in it wants to stay that poor, would you? At its best, it is the safest poor country you are ever likely to visit, you are greeted as long lost family. Conversation is easy and although you will be looked at, it is curiosity, the musings of the fascinated who sense change. Music is the soundtrack to Cuba, Salsa, Afro-Cuban, Mariachi bands, all of the highest standard, and yes sometimes you are hustled a little for a cigar, for a taxi ride, to buy a CD, but every tip is earned and every tip means so much. A few CUCs to us is worth 24 times their own currency, it is a day’s or a week’s pay, it is shampoo, or meat, or a T-Shirt to share with a friend or fish or even water. We wandered the crumbling Havana streets one sumptuously hot day (I love the heat) looking for water, we were suffering a little post stomach difficulties and although Cuban cola or lemonade was available, there was no water, bottled water, and everybody seems to drink bottled water. Our grey weary faces caught the attention of some local Cubans and a deal was done, whereby, for a little more than the going rate and a tip for the middlemen, bottles of water were produced. We did not begrudge the CUCs, we needed the water and they were not hoarding the water, they were rationing it. Mind you, the best bid for a tip was the creativity of the maid service in our hotel, part of the Club Amigo chain, we only stayed in one hotel for three days and in that time, the ladies of the chalet, amused us greatly with their origami of the sheets.
Cuba has weather, it has fruit, it has sugar, coffee and it has rum, much rum, so much rum, you have to wonder whether the success of Fidel’s revolution is fueled by the pacifying influence of abundant rum. It has beautiful countryside, stunning beaches and colonial architecture, much of which is literally falling down. In Havana buildings collapse under the force of the wet season, facias fall on pavements, balconies wobble, floors are eaten away, mould stains the walls, no one has a peso spare to mend or renovate, although the State Capital, the big hotels, they are getting a facelift, or a structure lift. The colonial fascias remain in place while the buildings are replaced. Gradually those who have access to extra business, or to tourists, are gaining more income, but with that income comes responsibility, every house we stayed in contained others, everyone we spoke to looked after immediate family and extended family and work was shared, every little chance to earn a little extra, given out to spread the wealth.
There is coffee and cigars, sugar and rum and there is Hemingway his mojitos and his daiquiris, the right bar for the right drink, his house and his favourite fishing village (Cojimar) that inspired The Old Man and the Sea. There is history. Pirates raided Havana and each night they fire the cannon at 9pm, to remind the inhabitants that there was once a curfew, and in days gone by the population headed underground to hide from the pirates. The streets contain the entrances to the underground keeps, more potential for tourism, anyone who has ever done the Seattle underground tour will understand why.
Ultimately sunset on the malecon is still the essence of Havana, away from the crumbling buildings, across a terrifying motorway (well worth the risk to cross) the sun lays down across the Atlantic, an Atlantic that waits, like the Cubans themselves for change, whatever that may bring. In the meantime the beaches still face an empty horizon, no boats head out to sea, except a very few fishing boats. Varadero has a beautiful but empty marina and the sky above is empty of chem trails – no planes fly overhead and there is no advertising, there are no billboards except political propaganda, Fidel, Che, Chavez and sometimes Mandela dominate the roadside. There are no neons guiding you to the latest phone, car or burger.
The people though are wonderful, you are greeted as if you are long lost family. sometimes, on the street they hustle a little, but a good tip is a week’s pay to them and once they agree a deal they stick to it (mostly). The casas where we stayed were generous to a fault, we came away overfed and spoiled beyond measure. Despite the difficulties of renovation and maintenance, every place we stayed in was immaculate, almost as if they wanted to prove that they had not let themselves go since communism!
Progress is slow, Fidel still honours his revolution whilst on every street corner, on every water tank and blank wall, Che Guevara (not Fidel) gazes into the distant nirvana of a just society and Raul Castro may, or may not be, the man to institute change without change. This week John Kerry raised the US flag, there were smiles and greetings, but the trade embargo remains in place in the US, and dissidents were arrested in Cuba. Thus it is too soon to say whether Cuba will be able to leave behind its favourite American song, Hotel California, the lines of which resonate with the hopeful faces of those who still try to leave, or who remember the Havana of Batista, or who fought in Angola, or who watched as the Russians stopped trading with them after Glasnost. The Cubans hope against hope that things will get better – but they also know that as yet: You can check out any time, but you can never leave.
10 Top Tips
1. Have the Cuban breakfast they don’t have lunch.
2. The older and better the car the safer the driver.
3. There will always be a taxi.
4. There will always be a room.
5. Take loads of Imodium – the pharmacies are empty.
6. Buy water at every opportunity.
7. Get change at the bank.
8. Don’t kick at the paperwork – they get in trouble if they don’t do it.
9. Keep cash for the loo (trans. rest room).
10. Tip them, they deserve it and you will be rewarded.
For further reading, check out Nicholas Shakespeare’s article written earlier this year. Fishing for Hemingway
Pictures by Judith Gunn, Simon Gunn and Isabelle Gunn
Our trip was organised by Vamos Cuba, look no further for an excellent trip.