Sitting in our comfy London hotel room, Cuba already feels like a strange and distant daydream. It’s hard to believe that just yesterday we were walking the beautiful, crumbling streets of Havana and riding to the airport in a rickety old car that wouldn’t have a hope of getting registered back home.
“Hakuna matata,” our guide said to us on the first evening we met her. We were seated around the reception area of a beautiful ‘hostal’ in Old Havana that had high ceilings and brightly coloured walls. Everyone donned a sweaty sheen that would become a near permanent facial feature over the next week.
“It’s not what you’re used to,” she went on.
“Sometimes things happen in Cuba, and we just need to say no worries.”
By the time we met up with the guide on our fourth day in Havana, we’d already been given a number of lessons in employing this mantra. For example:
The CADECA closed early for no reason, and we have absolutely no money for dinner, for water, or for anything. No worries.
We’re in the middle of Havana, we have no idea where we are, and we have no map, no phone reception, and no internet. Oh, and we’ve forgotten the address of our casa. No worries.
It’s midnight, the air conditioning isn’t working, and the humidity is pushing 85% in our room. No worries.
Yes! Our credit card works here! Except it just got swallowed by the ATM. No worries. (I actually didn’t freak out in this moment, as I had already learnt the ‘no worries’ lesson so well.)
Armed with our problem-free philosophy, we had an incredible time in Cuba. Despite all the discomforts that were greatly exacerbated by the oppressive heat and humidity, I woke excited each morning, ready to explore and learn and have my thinking challenged.
At the same time, and as cliched as it sounds, it felt like we could live for the day and savour each moment, largely because we were offline and completely disconnected from our normal lives. We didn’t quite realise the hold that the Internet has on us until we could only get connected for one hour over the course of eleven days. “I wonder what/why/how/who…” almost became our catch cry without Google’s constant companionship, and speculation about what people were doing at home became a point of daily conversation.
That’s not to say that you can’t get connected in Cuba. On our first evening in Havana we wandered down Calle 23, the main street of Varadero, headed towards the seafront. Along the way, we stumbled across a huge gathering of people sitting on benches, walls and the pavement, all with their smartphones out, in one of the city’s wifi-zones. As we later found out, it’s relatively expensive to buy a card to get connected for an hour (and seemingly inconvenient for those used to having free wifi almost anywhere) but it is available. A few days later, we happened to walk past the reception area of our casa where a young woman was dialling up to connect to the Internet, the familiar yet near-forgotten pattern of buzzes and beeps instantly bringing back memories of completing school projects on our first home computer back in the early days of primary school.
After our introductory briefing with our guide that night, she accompanied us to a nice restaurant for dinner. We all ordered mojitos, which would become a staple over the course of our trip, and chatted about where we were from, what we did, and what we’d been up to in Cuba before the tour started.
Our first three nights in Havana were spent at the aptly named ‘Casa Bertha’ in Varadero. It was a little bedroom in an apartment on the fourth floor of a building whose creaky front door and dimly-lit concrete stairwell gave it an air of abandonment. Bertha, the owner, was a woman in her sixties who told us that she would be there, all the time, whenever we needed her. She demonstrated how to bang on the door of her bedroom and call out to her should we need to, and said that we could return at two, three, or four in the morning and she would be there to greet us. We didn’t have a key to the apartment itself, so each night when we returned after dinner we rang Bertha’s doorbell, which was set to make a high-pitched chirping sound. She was always waiting for us, sitting in a rocking chair, watching soap operas and smoking cigarettes.
We divided our first couple of days in Havana between casual Spanish lessons and exploring the city’s three main areas on foot. For two mornings, I met with my teacher in the dining room of Bertha’s apartment, whilst Zac walked down the road to his teacher’s place (the second morning he got lost, and was knocking on random doors in his teacher’s apartment building). My favourite part of the lesson was when we paused each day to sip rich Cuban coffee and chat. We talked about all manner of things: her favourite movies, Finding Dory and Marley and Me; our love for our dogs and for ice cream; online shopping and how it makes people lazy; the nutritional nightmare that is McDonald’s; the ridiculousness of America’s presidential race; the timeless appeal of the Beatles… I was almost disappointed when we returned to labelling the furniture around the room and reciting the days of the week. It makes me smile now to think that our conversations flowed so seamlessly: a Cuban woman in her 60s and an Australian girl in her 20s, separated by two generations, geography, language and an American embargo, who so easily found so much common ground.
Each day after our Spanish lessons we walked from Vedado, the ‘new’ part of Havana, to Old Havana along the malecon or sea wall, as old Chevrolets zipped past us, some packed full of locals, others filled with tourists donning their straw holiday hats. The humidity was stifling, and we were constantly dripping with sweat, but the sea front buildings, beautiful in their decay and the sense of history that it evoked, were enough to distract us from this unpleasantness, at least most of the time.
We wandered aimlessly for hours in an attempt to take in and comprehend the scenes that surrounded us. Every now and then we would peer into shops selling odd assortments of goods, fascinated by their time-warped interiors, which seemed to look as they would have sixty years ago. They were no-nonsense places devoid of the overt commercialism we’re used to at home. We passed a butcher shop with no meat and a bakery with a few lonely loaves of bread in its display cabinet that we would recall later when our guide talked to us about Cuba’s food situation, the rationing system, and the devastating effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought about Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, the effects of which have persisted well into the 21st century.
As we explored Havana in the sprinkling rain one afternoon, we also got a taste of its earlier, more glamorous history when we stopped for daiquiris at Floridita’s where Hemingway used to hang out. The place is famed to be “la cuna del daiquiri” (the cradle of the daiquiri) as the drink was apparently invented here in the 1930s.
When we passed an open CADECA, we thought it would be best to stop and change some money, lest it inexplicably close on us again. We stood for an hour on the pavement in the blazing sun as we waited to change our Canadian Dollars into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), one of the country’s two currencies. In the end we walked away with almost double the average Cuban’s annual salary to spend on a 10 day trip, a fact that was almost inconceivable to us. We thought about this disparity every time we paid for something in CUCs, the currency used for expensive ‘luxury’ goods and services and for tourism. Our guide later explained to us that most people do extra work on the side, in addition to their day-jobs, in order to get by. A lot of people also leave their professions to work in the far more lucrative tourism industry – at various times we were guided through city streets and tobacco plantations by a teacher, a lawyer, and a mining engineer.
The day after we met with our guide and our group we left Havana for Viñales, a small town a couple of hours west. We drove through the city, through Vedado and then past the grand old buildings of Miramar, where Fidel Castro reportedly lives. Outside the city, the landscape was lush and green, and the highway was noticeably quiet, just a few carts pulled by horses and old cars chugging along.
As darkness descended upon the colourful little town we’d arrived in that afternoon, we headed out to a nearby bar to enjoy mojitos (of course) and some excellent live music. As time wore on, more and more people took to the dance floor to show off their salsa moves, which were so incredible that it was hard to believe that they were not professional dancers. Whilst this was going on, those of us too awkward and uncoordinated to participate (i.e. the Australian and British tourists) sat dumbstruck in the corner as we came to terms with the fact that we would never, not in a million years, be able to pull moves like the ones being performed right in front of us at that moment. The real shock, however, came when our bus driver, a kind and quiet man who had not said a word all day, suddenly got up and busted out some spectacular salsa moves, whirling the girls around like it was what he was born to do.
Early the next morning after having breakfast at our casa, we went for a walk out into the countryside surrounding the town to visit a tobacco plantation and to stop by the house of the happiest old man in all of Cuba, where we sipped little cups of coffee brewed from the beans from his farm.
That night, we drove to an organic farm for dinner, sitting on the porch of the farmhouse cum restaurant to watch a fiery sunset over the limestone cliffs in the distance.
Our journey over the next few days would zip us over 1000km across Cuba, to the French colonial city of Cienfuegos, known as ‘La Perla del Sur’ (The Pearl of the South), past the historic Playa Giron where the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion took place (where you can go to a museum and pay 1 CUC to watch a 1960s propaganda film denouncing the Yankee imperialists) and on to the colourful 19th century town of Trinidad.
After spending the early afternoon exploring Trinidad’s cobbled streets, we decided to return to our casa to scrub off the ten layers of sweat that had accumulated on our bodies throughout the day. We got back, put the key in the door, turned it… And nothing. The lock was jammed. We rang the doorbell once, twice, three times, and no one answered. Two workmen suddenly appeared who also seemed to be wanting to get in to the house. They too tried the lock but it wouldn’t budge. Passers-by stopped to try their luck. One woman stopped and banged loudly on one of the door’s glass panels, whilst we watched on, silently fearing that she would break it. Another man stopped and started yelling at the upstairs window, trying to get the attention of someone inside. The neighbours came out to see what was going on. The whole debacle was causing quite a scene. Eventually, the old man living next door to our casa invited us in to wait for our hostess to return. He didn’t speak English but gestured for us to sit in the rocking chairs in his front room, whilst he switched on the Olympics for us to watch on TV. We told him we were from Australia and he mimed a jumping kangaroo.
The next day, only because I hadn’t done it since I was ten and didn’t know any better, I thought it would be fun to go horse riding through the nearby Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills). What ensued, however, after we mounted our horses, was approximately five hours of near-unbearable pain as our horses trotted around the countryside with us bouncing around agonisingly in their saddles. I don’t think I will experience that level of discomfort in that area of my body again until I give birth to my first child (and hopefully that won’t result in the same amount of chafing).
Afterwards we returned to Havana via Santa Clara, where we stopped to pay our respects at the memorial to Che Guevara. Before hitting the town for one last evening of mojitos, a few of us took to some classic cars for a leisurely ride around Varadero, past Plaza de la Revolución and along the malecon.
I don’t think we’ve ever been anywhere as confusing and contradictory as Cuba. Given that the country has exploded in popularity as a travel destination in recent years, we’d seen plenty of images of Cuba prior to our arrival – the old colonial buildings of Havana, the classic American cars, old men smoking cigars on the pavement. Yet it’s always interesting to see a place for yourself, to see what may have been exaggerated or hidden from view in all the enticing images that claimed to have captured what is quintessentially Cuban in an effort to get you to book your holiday.
What we found there both met our expectations, and surprised us and opened our minds. It only takes a few hours in Havana to realise that the country is ripe for change, and that change won’t ‘ruin’ this beautiful, fascinating and vibrant place as so many foreigners fear. On the contrary, it is clear to see that change will revitalise and reinvigorate the nation in all sorts of ways. On the surface, it will allow for the much needed restoration of buildings that are literally falling apart, and the colonial buildings of Havana will be safe in and beautiful in the same way as other European cities that we know and love.
At the same time, it will allow the country and its people to push forward into the 21st century, with all the benefits that that would bring. Hopefully, it will begin to reduce the disparity between visitors to the country and the Cuban people. The Cubans that we spoke to about this expressed a fierce love for their country, but also a desire for change that will secure their family’s and their country’s futures. Having free education and free healthcare is wonderful, but so is earning a decent wage for the work that you do, and being able to find bread at the bakery and meat at the butcher, and having all of the other conveniences and pleasures of modern life that we so often take for granted.