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.