Considering going to Cuba?

Cuba is a communist island just ninety miles off Key West, in Florida. The United States imposed an embargo against Cuba in the 1960s following the missile crisis and because of this and the future actions of American administrations it’s bereft of modern interference. A timewarp it’s stuck in the 1950s, unchanging, dilapidated yet magnificent, a rich dichotomy of many cultures, which will remain the case, it’s predicted for the foreseeable future because President Trump has reversed the progress talks on ending the embargo that Obama initiated. Now is, therefore, a perfect time to visit this fascinating Caribbean island. Two tips to kick this blog off: Cuba operates a closed currency. You can only change your money while you’re there. There are two currencies: one for the locals (CUPS) and one for tourists (CUCS). Be careful in street markets because you might end up being given the local currency. Take sterling or Euros. Change money as you go because you can’t take it home with you. Don’t take American dollars, because you’ll pay a high exchange rate. Learn a bit of Spanish or take a Spanish speaking person with you. Outside Havana English isn’t widely spoken.

I’m mesmerized by the scene as we emerge from Havana airport, still laughing with my group about the airport security staff dressed in short skirts, stilettoes and fishnets. I fumble for my camera, dropping the arm of the blind person I’m supposed to be guiding through the busy concourse, wanting to capture it all in one hit. Palm trees line the road, rustling in the pleasant March warmth. Bougainvillea trails down walls and a rainbow of 1950s American cars sexily glides along, the drivers in panama hats, their arms hanging out. I feel as if I’m in a movie set, maybe ‘Mississippi Burning’ or ‘Selma’. ‘Joanna,’ our Geordie Traveleyes tour guide shrieks, ‘Don’t abandon your VIP (visually impaired person) in the middle of the road.’ Whoops, I needed to focus on the task in hand. I rapidly become known as the David Bailey of the group.

I’d like to be able to sum up what Cuba is like, but that’s hard because it’s a mixture of lots of things and different experiences I’ve had. My first impression was colonial India but it’s also fifties America meets nineteen seventies Spain. Some of the hotels have that 1970s Costa Brava feel to them and lights might go out or the water runs cold, but generally not in good hotels. Cuba has flecks of Istanbul running through the decor and mosaic tiles and notes of war torn Syria, in that some areas of the city are completely dilapidated. Wherever you walk in Havana you hear the deadened roar of the old cars, like kids’ bright coloured sweeties in such wonderful and varied tones of green, blue, yellow, pink, all gleaming and in pristine condition and set against pastel buildings glinting in the sun. Out of Havana we saw more beaten up wrecks and old Russian Ladas.

The aroma of tobacco mingles with rum wafting through the air, music on every corner, an old lady in a scarf smoking a huge cigar dancing in the street. Old men shaking maracas, young guys strumming guitars and there are other spontaneous performances. Cobbled streets. Chaos. Stray dogs wherever you look, some with government labels on them instructing the public to treat them well. Washing hanging from balconies, knotted cables twisting around the exterior of buildings, piles of rubble as big as a bonfire occasionally blocking a pathway or road. Graffiti like you see in Belfast with a war theme; a boy with a gun, a face in a gas mask. Forlorn looking children sitting on doorsteps, people begging, puppies in cages on the back of bicycles, street traders selling garlic down one street and mango along another.

Our 28 year old local tour guide told us, ‘I will give you the truth, even though I work for the government. Our salaries are low. Most of us earn the same salary. This is my country and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but I’d like to have better opportunities, the type of opportunities you all have.’ He went on to tell us that Cubans inherit their homes and cars from the previous generation as well as domestic appliances like washing machines. They have to make do and mend and look after what they own. If their house is too small it’s too bad. The people who own cars have to look after them because the cost of replacing them is astronomical. An Audi elsewhere would cost $30,000 but here it costs $90,000. The old American cars are worth a great deal and the reason they are still here is because the Americans when they left Cuba left them behind. These cars were tested in Cuba, the theory being that if they worked in this climate they would work anywhere.

I ask the guide a bold question knowing he couldn’t answer. ‘Is there dissent bubbling under the surface? What if students rise to form a movement to overthrow the system?’ ‘There is no movement,’ he tells me. ‘On the whole we are happy. We have free education, free health care, but yes I’d like more but dissent will never happen because the secret police are everywhere, watching us. You do not know if one of your family is a member of the underground police. We must be careful. I cannot continue this conversation.’ He laughs. ‘You British people ask too many questions.’ Wandering down a street in Varadero I get talking to a local woman and ask her if she’s happy with the government. Yes, I know, dumb question but I had to ask. She pulls up her shirt and shows me an unsightly raised scar running down her chest, like a piece of red liquorice. ‘I had a tumour cut out. I’m lucky to be alive. We have free medical care and it’s one of the best in the world. Life isn’t perfect, it never will be.’

Out in the countryside things are more backward and unchanged than Havana. The odd beaten up 1950s car putts along and then the road will be empty until a horse and cart, carrying hay or agricultural workers comes along. There are guava, mango and orange trees. Turkey vultures fly overhead, a mountain range rises in the distance. There are run down tower blocks, with more washing hanging from balconies and shanty towns with single-storey homes that look like garages, easily destroyed in a hurricane. Boys without shoes mess about in the red mud, men work with scythes in the fields and occasionally there are stalls by the roadside selling coconuts or other fruit.

If you want a beach holiday don’t go to Cuba unless you find a good deal, because there are plenty of nice beaches in Europe for a snip of the price. You don’t need to travel far to find a beach in winter. Although that said the water, in March was beautifully warm and the sand was white and soft. Go to Cuba because you want to see the culture and for a glimpse into the workings of one of the only remaining communist countries.

Cuba with Traveleyes

when I booked to go to Cuba with Traveleyes, the world’s first air tour operator specializing in serving blind as well as sighted travellers I received many remarks of pity such as ‘Bless you, what a charitable thing to do,’ ‘you’re good,’ ‘that sounds like a lot of hard work,’ ‘why would a blind person go on holiday?’

Around half the group were sighted and the other half were blind. Each day a different sighted traveller was paired with a different blind traveller. The sighted travellers described what they saw around them, guided them wherever we went and took them to things they could touch, feel and smell. We helped them select food from buffets and showed them around their hotel rooms, helping them to use the safe in the room and making sure they had packed everything at the end of a hotel stay.

The holiday blew my mind away. The very last thing these people needed was pity. Pity directed at them by people who seem to believe they are somehow ‘trapped’ inside a body, that they suffer, or that their life is so hard that they cannot possibly enjoy life like the rest of us and have the same goals and aspirations to travel and see the world. The more I thought about my friends’ comments the more irritated I became. I had no idea how much a blind person could enjoy life and just how independent they are until I spent time in their company. It was a rich, poignant and deeply humbling experience and that’s before I even begin to tell you about Cuba. I took two visually impaired people into the town one day. They could only see light and dark. At the end of the day they said ‘Joanna, you’re more blind than we are.’ I had no idea which bus we needed to get back to the hotel, but they knew the colour of the bus because they’d asked the driver. They also knew that we’d missed our stop because they had an inner sense that we’d travelled too far. But it was about other things too. They were more sensitive to their surroundings, listened and used their senses whereas I take things for granted and think I understand situations but actually some of the time I miss what’s really going on.

The visually impaired people on the trip had a range of different eye conditions and heartbreaking stories of denial as their sight declined, not wanting to go out with friends and making excuses not to join in. Tragically many had lost their sight during their teen years when they started to be interested in the opposite sex. ‘I’d only tell the girl after the third or fourth date and only if I was keen,’ one man told me. ‘I took a girl to the cinema but lost her during the interval when we got up for ice creams. It was too dark and I couldn’t find her so I sat alone for the rest of the film and never saw her again.’

Some could only see light and dark while a few had some peripheral or tunnel vision. One man told me that his parents and teachers didn’t pick up his declining eyesight when he was a child. ‘It was the seventies. Things were different back then and as for my parents they were always out of it, not interested and drunk on Bacardi. Ironic really,’ he added, ‘that I’m going to visit the place where rum is made.’

Several people had a rare genetic condition called RP ( Retinitis Pigmentosa) and this ran in their families. And another person was born prematurely, at around twenty-four weeks without any sight all. We were with a different visually impaired person each day and I’d always ask, ‘How do you cope with life?’ Several had guide dogs and one man joked that his dog was a ‘bate magnet,’ and he’d made many friends and acquaintances out with the dog. They had assistance in getting them to work via taxi or public transport. One man interestingly told me that his house was filled with colour. It was important to him to fill his life with colour. He hated the idea of beige walls and beige carpets and replaced them with bright walls, bright paintings and red and white striped carpet and bright coloured cars. Even though he couldn’t see colour he needed to know it was there. Another man told me ‘I don’t give it much thought, I just get on with life but being blind has its advantages. It saves on the electricity bill. I only have the lights on once a week when my chiropodist visits.’

The thing that these people all had in common was an incredible drive and determination to live life to the full. ‘I’ve had a great life’ was a statement I heard many times from each of them. Between them they had achieved more than any of my sighted friends. They had PHDs, they ran successful businesses and had gained awards for their outstanding success – and one man, in his seventies with other health conditions on top of his visual impairment was still running his business as well as doing lots of travelling. They had taught, they could speak several languages and they had been skiing, paragliding, cycling, swimming with the dolphins and they had travelled the world over. Nothing deterred them, they were courageous and didn’t let their disability affect their enjoyment of life and if they did feel vulnerable and apprehensive this didn’t come across. Positivity and a zest for life shone through and by the end of the holiday their energy and excitement had certainly rubbed off onto us sighted ones.

There were so many funny things that happened on the trip, too many for a short blog but enough material to fill a Bernard Manning comedy night. On arrival at our hotel a group of us waited on a settee for the tour guide to register us in. There was a TV screen on the wall and the channel suddenly changed to a lesbian sex scene. The sighted people were horrified and gasped but the blind people sat in a row totally oblivious!

Smoking may be going out of fashion but in Havana they love their cigars and the bigger the better. One afternoon two blind men were in the bar trying to light cigars. I’ve no idea where their guides were but they couldn’t see to light their cigars and the cigars were black market and didn’t light very easily. A series of hand gestures and frantic waving eventually got the attention of the waiters. Later and drunk on rum, they made their way to the lift to return to their rooms but getting into the lift they couldn’t see the numbers. They pressed all the buttons, went to each floor, in the hope that somebody would get in to help them.

Some of the humour surrounded the white cane and the blind people referred to them as ‘the staff,’ ‘Harry Potter’s Quidditch’ (I’ve not learned to fly on it yet, one commented) and talked about the ‘power of the stick.’ The lift doors were closing and one man put his stick in the gap, ‘Moses commands these doors to open,’ he barked ‘and the lady’s legs.’ Out on the street I was always focused on looking for good photographs and there were several occasions when I wasn’t concentrating on guiding my blind traveller. ‘Joanna just leaves me and goes off,’ one man said and another said ‘it’s like being with bloody David Bailey,’ ‘but I know she’ll come back eventually.’ On one occasion I was busy looking up at the buildings and didn’t notice that my blind man had his stick wedged between a lady’s legs. And then there were many restaurant incidents of blind people sitting at the wrong tables and eating the wrong peoples’ food.

Of course I wouldn’t be performing my role as a guide if I didn’t describe everything I saw. ‘There’s a woman with huge knockers over there’ I said to the blind men or ‘just for your information the woman in front is wearing tight white trousers and thongs.’ My comments were always appreciated!

Several of the visually impaired travellers were regulars with Traveleyes. ‘What do you get out of these holidays?’ I asked each of them. ‘I’m in the moment, I’m living,’ one told me and ‘it takes me away from routine, the drudgery of everyday life. I can feel the sun on my back, the sound of different music, the routines are different and I meet interesting people.’ ‘Traveleyes is a great team. The people on these trips are non-judgmental and I get to go to places I wouldn’t otherwise be able to go to.’

They were the same reasons why we all go on holiday, but the unique Traveleyes experience makes dreams come true. For me I loved going with a big group of people, getting to know a different person each day and hearing about their life and I enjoyed the group banter and fun. When we visited museums it was helpful being with another person. I would describe what I was looking at and read out information and the other person would tell me what they knew and add to my knowledge.

Here is a link to Traveleyes:
A blog specifically about Cuba will follow!