Published: April 4th 2008January 26th 2008
Cuba is almost too much to take in - food for the senses! For starters, the streets are lined with crumbling, colourful buildings and elderly Cuban men and women really do smoke cigars in windows and doorways. Add to that, curvaceous women in headscarves and hair in rollers strolling down the street, whilst men wash or repair shiny vintage cars. It´s like one big fiesta - music plays, people call out to friends, children play in the streets, people look out their windows, watching the world go by. Like Carrie Bradshaw wandering the streets of Paris (but somewhat less stylish), I find myself strolling Habana´s colourful backstreets talking to the locals, laughing at the wolfwhistles (the men here are harmless, but relentless) and snapping pictures.
Research for my spontaneous week in Cuba begins at Cancun Airport. Specifically as I board the plane. It turns out there´s lots I didn´t know about Cuba. That,
- US foreign policy restricts its citizens from visiting Cuba, and has done for four decades. The embargo (see www.cubacentral.com) disallows US citizens from spending money in Cuba and imposes fines of up to $50,000 for breaches.
- the most common accommodation in Cuba for tourists is
with ´casa particulars´- a bed and breakfast type arrangement, where you stay in peoples homes.
- due to the communist regime - basic items like aspirin, milk, butter, chocolate, sunscreen, medical supplies are very hard to come by.
- ration books are given out at the beginning of each year including basic allowances on staples like rice, sugar, beans, coffee, toilet paper (one roll per day!) and soap.
- in Cuba it´s illegal to change jobs, houses, purchase cars, get internet access or travel overseas without permission from the government.
- since 2004 no US dollars are accepted in Cuba - there´s two currency´s operating simultaneously here - Cuban Convertibles and Cuban Pesos.
- literacy is incredibly high, at 97% and the medical system is exceptional with a 1:170 doctor to patient ratio.
Word on the street is that Castro won´t be around much longer - not because of the elections which are currently underway where Raul Castro is elected as the new President - but because at 81, he´s allegedly dying from pancreatic cancer. I'm heading to Cuba to see what Cuba's like under Fidel ... before things change.
Cubana is undisputedly the dodgiest airline in the
world, with the worst safety record. They also have the cheapest deal! The plane is like a chicken bus and passengers jam bags overflowing with DVD players, toiletries and other luxury goods into the overhead lockers. Cubana's air safety instructions are less comprehensive than Ikea's - comprising a few rough looking sketches, smudged on an A5 card. We take off with plenty of rattling and bumping, as dvd players fall out of overhead lockers and slide down the aisle. For the duration of the frightening take off I regret my decision not to use the loo at the airport and fear there might not be a toilet on board. As soon as the seatbelt sign is off, I bolt to the back of the plane - where the air hostess - strategically bursting out of her tight uniform - opens the toilet which resembles a solitary confinement cell for really short people. Success! Until I discover that the light is not working. The cheery airhostess then calls the FLIGHT DECK and asks the pilot to turn on the light in the rear toilet! Its really no surprise when the passengers applaud upon landing in Havana!
Baggage collection takes literally
The ultimate dance-off
La Casa de la Musica, Habana
hours, with Cuban locals having stocked up on hard-to-find goods on a Mexican shopping spree. Eventually, after four tyres come out on the luggage carousel, the backpacks start appearing. Luckily this baggage delay gives me time to make some friends at the airport, and I end up sharing a cab into Habana with Andy and Kaz - two Aussies from St Kilda and Martin, an Englishman. Fortunately, the neighbourhood ´Casa Particular´ network is strong, and within minutes of arriving in Kaz and Andy´s street in Habana Centro - I´m bundled into Margot´s casa like a long lost daughter. There´s lots of fussing, hugging, kissing and not a word of English is spoken - lots of charades ensue and I feel like I could stay forever! The Cuban people are generous and personable by nature, friendships run deep and are relied upon for securing necessary goods and favours. The neighbourhood around my street, Consulado, is no exception and is very close knit. The same families have lived in these apartments for years - so I get to know the various neighbourhood characters who greet me like a friend, with a barrage of questions and compliments every time I see them! Margot´s
Home Sweet Home, Habana
me with Margot Pedreira & her hubby
tiny husband is a cracker - he´s the one who shows me the door to sneak in if I come in late, and sure enough my first morning after a big night out he makes it known he heard me come in - winking as he holds up four fingers! There´s also Enrique - who has started up a little restaurant in his casa downstairs, who speaks English and cooks up a wicked breakfast. Then there´s Martha, whose casa I move to, when Margot needs to honour a pre-existing booking. Some of the time, these casas seem to be a case of ´nanna sleeps on the couch´ when there´s guests. However, the Cuban government have strict laws and a fees involved for operating a casa, so interactions are also very professional and involve registering guests passport numbers in official looking logs.
Our first night in Habana - Kaz, Andy and I discover Cafe 12 and perhaps the most contentious waiter in the entire country - a kind of Cuban ´Manuel´(think Faulty Towers)! This bloke drives a lavender coloured vintage car and he proudly (and formally) announces - ´I am at your service, whenever you see my car, you know
I am here for you!´. After a few days we´re regulars, enjoying the balmy nights sitting outdoors by the waterfront, soaking up the atmosphere, with a buccaneero (the local brew), cuba libra (rum, coke & a slice of lime), mohjito or cigar in hand. That very first night we meet two young American guys who have entered Cuba via Mexico - two of many Americans illegally in Cuba that I meet on this visit. It´s great to see Americans bucking the system to see for themselves what this great country is about. The five of us end up partying it up at Casa de la Musica, a Habana institution and the scene of a fabulous ´dirty dancing-esque´ dance-off. No I was not involved!!
The city of Habana - the Caribbean´s largest city - was constantly alive with people, performances and music, both day and night. Whether it be schoolchildren performing or marching, or buskers or bands striking up ´Buena Vista Social Club´ style in cafes and restaurants. A true contradiction to my expectations of communist living. Sure, constant reminders of the communist regime were present in the form of non-existent shop signage, empty shelves and propaganda billboards everywhere. However,
there was no sign of the doom and gloom of Russia. Perhaps one of the few similarities was that the local women - from nurses to schoolgirls - did sport the same dangerously short skirts regardless of body shape - but they did it with a smile! It seems that even without a short skirt, the men here are relentless flirts. One day I walked past a school group (primary school age)and whilst directing his class across a piazza, the twenty-something teacher managed to sidle over and whisper in my ear ... "hola beautiful chica". Hilarious!
Habana Vieja - also known as old Habana - a UNESCO world heritage area is a brilliant place for people watching and music. It features a bunch of plazas - like Plaza de Armas with its book bazaar, Plaza del la Catedral - with its restaurants and Plaza Vieja with its own homebrew. The cobbled streets are filled with people enjoying the atmosphere. Tourist attractions are also plentiful in Habana. The Museo de la Revolution - a history of the revolution and shrine to Che Guevara - was interesting, as much for its Che-Castro propaganda, as for it´s displays of various weapons used
to kill the regimes enemies and the blood soaked clothing they were wearing when shot. The Gran Teatro de la Habana is simply spectacular - its the oldest operating theatre in the Western Hemisphere and also houses a ballet school - where rooms of young dancers did bar-work (the ballet kind!) and damaged their toes. The arts are heavily subsidised in Cuba and it costs locals less than $1 USD to see the countries leading ballet company perform the Nutcracker ... or $5 USD to see U2 in concert! My personal favourite attraction was the ´Real Fabrica´ cigar factory. It´s a thankless job to work at the factory - all the cigars are hand rolled, to work here you must complete nine months of arduous training and work 12 hour days. It´s also one of the few workplaces I´ve ever seen people sitting around smoking the goods - there´s an allocation of 3 cigars per day, per worker. Demand for cigars is currently on the up, with China and India big time cigar smokers. The word on the street is that when America´s embargo is lifted, America will use up 60% of Cuba´s cigar supply with their 40 years of
pent up demand and cigar prices will skyrocket. Yamil, the good-looking and entrepreneurial tour guide, finished his tour with a business card for the blokes (to buy, cheap and genuine cigars, but not from the gift shop ... nudge, nudge, wink, wink) and some of us girls ("I´ll take you to the best hotel in Habana for a drink" ... nudge, nudge, wink, wink)!!!
After farewelling Kaz and Andy, I catch the bus to Trinidad with some Canadian-Dutch - Sandra and Jim- I met over breakfast at Enrique´s ´restaurant´. Everyone raves about Trinidad - its small-town atmosphere, quaint little homes, cobblestone streets, horse and carts ... not to mention its proximity to Playa Ancon - a sparkling Caribbean beach. Isabella is the name of the Casa owner I´ve been referred to in Trinidad - her home has a magnificent indoor courtyard, rooftop garden and antique furniture. Unfortunately, my first night in Trinidad, I´m billeted out to another neighbourhood casa, due to overbooking. It´s a nice house, but the husband strikes me as a bit of a sleazy character - calling me 'bonita' all the time and invading my space. My first day in Trinidad, I hit the markets, check
out the architecture and just whilst I´m fending off a beggar, I hear an Aussie accent. It´s Australia day eve, so I´m tuned in! It turns out to be Jeremy an Aussie guy I met on the plane to Habana and his mates Lisa and Paul. We make plans for some Australia Day Eve festivities and I bring along Gwen (a girl we met on the bus) and Sandra and Jim for dancing and beer at Trinidad´s Casa de la Musica. I arrive back at my casa at some ungodly hour and find the sleazy husband waiting up for me. I practically run to my room and find the key sticks. Before I know it, sleazy husband is invading my space and once the door is open, I fling myself in the room, lock the door and put my backpack up against it. Early the next morning I am out of there! Safe in Isabella´s lovely casa.
One of Trinidad's highlights is its proximity to Playa Ancon - a spectacular Caribbean beach. A group of us head there for the day, swimming in the crystal clear water, working on our tans and admiring the scenery - which includes a
very buff group of locals - (perhaps a football team?) working out for several hours beside us. In any other country, this place would be teeming with rich, ageing Americans Cancun-style - but this place is refreshingly quiet - with perhaps only 2 or 3 hotels in the vicinity, and mostly backpackers and locals on the beach. Another day Gwen and I go on a horse riding adventure into
the ´Valle de los Ingenios´. The horses are sadly undernourished, the saddle hardly sufficient (I'm saddle sore for days), but we see swooping vultures, farm animals and some amazing scenery. From cactus, to river beds, to lush rainforest and finally arrive at our destination - the waterfall and swimming hole. More than ready for a swim after several hours in the hot sun, we find we're not alone - there's a few amorous local couples swimming and swigging rum, it's not long before one couple stumbles into the bushes and everyone politely pretends they don't know what's going on!
My time in Trinidad coincides with the local ´Semana de la Cultura Trinitana´ (Trinidad Culture Week). Locals with plastic cups spilling with beer party it up in the streets and local
bands play western music. The highlight for me is my visit to Disco Ayala, also known as ´the Cave´. A real life cave, turned disco at night. With vague instructions that the club is up the hill and down the road, Sandra, Jim and I embark on an ´Amazing Race´ style adventure to the disco. After walking for close to half an hour, down dark dirt roads and up hills, locals look at our clothing and point us in the right direction we find the disco. A pumping disco with mirror balls, DJ and packed with locals and tourists.
Back to Habana on my last day in Cuba, I find myself walking past an abandoned building in Vieja and hear some fantastic afro-cuban music coming from inside. I peer in the doorway to see what's going on and the locals invite me in. Before I know it, I find myself participating in a spontaneous dance session. Partying it up in daylight in tshirt and shorts! To top off my Cuban visit, I meet up with Camilla and Steve, some other Aussies I've met for a final night in Habana with my mate ´Miguel´at Cafe 12. Miguel clips and lights
Nightclub in a cave, Trinidad
our Cuban cigars and we settle in for a few Cuba Libras. What a fabulous country - Viva Cuba Libre!
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