Published: January 24th 2011January 24th 2011
Cuba surprises, on occasions frustrates, and sometimes just completely takes your breath away.
After Vinales, we spent a week in the beautiful colonial city of Trinidad located on Cuba’s southern Caribbean coast. It is stunning – cobblestone streets, both restored and crumbling stone houses, and of course a beautiful stretch of Caribbean beach. It was once a wealthy Spanish town built on slavery and the sugar industry. It also has the apparently normal history for towns of this region of being plundered repeatedly by English pirates; some like Francis Drake were later ‘rewarded’ by the English with knighthoods.
We managed to rent a whole house to ourselves – mainly to have some personal space which is not really something you have when staying in a normal casa particular (you are in the middle of a Cuban family). Our landlord was a guy with the nick name “Pollo” (chicken). He and is wife were lovely but took it upon themselves to be our personal protectors, guides, cooks, tour organisers, and being a small town we felt wherever we went the “big chicken” was there to look over us.
Despite feeling a little suffocated by this we did enjoy our
time in Trinidad. We all brushed up our Spanish with some lessons with a wonderful teacher called Barbara who was both patient and insightful about life in Cuba and abroad. The local art scene was vibrant, the beach white, the water clear, and the beach soccer (with a group of Argentinean students) challenging.
From Trinidad it is a couple of hours to the centre of the island to the town of Santa Clara, which although Cuba’s second largest city is very unlike Havana. It lacks the fine buildings and tourist flair but it was great to be in a town that was more authentic. Here the food was even more basic than elsewhere and we lined up with locals to get pizza. Suz and Jenny found a local dance hall where they joined aging Cuban couples in an afternoon of salsaing – a real hoot.
Santa Clara is best known as the location of a famous battle in Fidel’s overthrow of Batista in 1958. Che Guevarra led an action which destroyed a Government troop train and stopped the train’s cargo of government soldiers and armouries reaching Havana. This was the turning point of the revolution and Che became
the town’s adopted son.
From here we returned to Havana where we had a night out at a Spanish restaurant with a brilliant flamenco performance (and I never thought that I’d find flamenco an interesting dance style). At the same restaurant there was a roaming magician who looked uncannily like Andrew’s dad. He gave us a personal show for about 40 minutes and the slides of hands at such close range where mind-blogging!
One other cool find in Havana was a periscope – yes a periscope – up on the roof of one of the tallest buildings. Based on Da Vinci’s simple design the periscope provided a real-time, 360 degree view of Havana with the ability to zoom in and out.
It was hard to get under the skin of the real Cuba and what we learnt just made it seem more complicated. Tourism is well managed and controlled and the imperative for us to operate in tourist pesos (called convertibles which are worth 25 times as much as the local peso) sets us apart from the locals and makes them very keen to get hold of our convertibles. We left with more questions than answers about
how the society, politics and economy work. Cuba seems to interpret communism more purely than Vietnam and China, following Marx’s Manifesto to the letter. But Marx never seemed to say what came after revolution or how long it would take to get there – and most people in Cuba have been born under the 53 years of revolution. Where to next?
Change is clearly needed as the economy is buckling, Cuba can’t meet its need for food, and people don’t have access to modern appliances and information technology. Social indicators are good, for instance, health statistics are among the highest in the world (although the impact of smoking is a worry). And while education is universal, if the local newspaper is anything to go by, people are fed propaganda and not given access to critical and alternate world views. Back home we will no doubt watch with fascination as Raul Castro brings some change and eventually when the aging Castro brothers hand over power to a new generation.