Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cuba - the end of an era

Come last September, Christina and I were choosing where in the Central America/Caribbean region we should visit during the dreariest part of the famously dreary British year. Fascinating places were suggested such as Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala, but one factor in particular dragged us to Cuba - the imminently finite nature of Commandante Fidel Castro.

It may sound morbid, but the lure was undoubted. Here is a truly unique country on the verge of huge potential change. The first communist country in the Western Hemisphere, famous for the long-running struggle with its aggressive northern neighbor, would, so developed political consensus would have us believe, change irrevocably on the passing of this character of great fame and infamy (depending on your perspective).

That is only part of the story. A place that is renowned for salsa, son, cigar, mojito, passion and tropical beaches does tempt one some and here is a brief account of 11 fascinating and wonderful days.

The Cuban experience began before we even arrived. Flying Cubana de Aviacon, the national carrier is quite an experience in itself. Strangely shaped incredibly slow planes (probably soviet), with little entertainment beyond the hilarious air steward selling cigars and rum to crowds with skill and aplomb. Then a long sticky wait at Holguin memorable if only for the sign that greeted us:

A stark reminder that we were entering a place of history in the making.

The first night we truly treated ourselves. In general, tourists stay in two types of places in Cuba. As we did, a highly recommended option is the casa particularis - literally staying in people's homes. A great way to meet the people and spread much needed currency to the local vicinity (although the Government taxes such payment heavily). The other is in hotels. These themselves come in two main categories. There are the cheap places for locals and the foreigner’s hotels. The latter can be from luxury to tacky minge, but are overbearingly cultureless from a proportionate perspective.
That first night we stayed in a rare third option. A hotel brimming with interest and culture. A 17th century villa in Havana Vieja (the old town), renovated wonderfully. A solid stone villa, with 5m high ceilings, mahogany flooring and a tropical garden in the central two-tier courtyard, complete with resident peacock. Simply marvelous. A big thumbs up for UNESCO - they financed the refurbishment with the agreement that all profits from the renovated building going to renovate a new building and so on and so forth. Ingenious as long as corruption keeps its sticky little hands off it and here it is doing wonders.
A sizeable section of the old town is now shown off as in its past glory, but there are countless streets let alone buildings that require the same treatment.

Havana is a strange charming mix. From the magnificent 16th and 17th century plazas of the old town, through row on row of once glorious housing in Centro Havana, now barely fit for human habitation but brimming with character (old cars, cigars, music bursting from every corner - the works), curving north through the grand buildings of Cuba pre-war glory days that reminded me of Buenos Aires, to the more modern and slightly rugged Verdano, the part of town I saw fascinated me. To the north and curling round the east of this area, from the grand mafia era hotels to the heavily fortified harbour (fortified against the British, but too little avail as we took the defences from behind in the summer of 1762 and after 11 months swapped the city for Florida!!), rolls the Malecon. The see wall, with promenade and crumbling art deco backing.

I loved the place with all its edge and vibrancy.

The people interested me. Once you get past the tourist area and leave the majority of jintero/as behind (basically people who want to get money off tourists by various methods from selling cigars to prostitution), the people were simply not bothered by us. In so many places people, seeing you are a tourist, jump up and sell or at stare as you wonder past. Here, nearly everyone got on with their own thing, whether it be pelotta (baseball) in the street or tinkering with the 1950's Buick's - strange that American capitalist goods should be so inseparable from the world's image of Cuba. Apart from one incident when a guy became aggressive and swore when I made it clear that I was not going to play which ever money-extracting game he was attempting, I found the people charming, unobtrusive but undoubtedly full of passion.
After some long walks (before and after the hordes of tourists buses), lobster, mojitos and cigars as the light faded and the music played in the Plaza de la Catedral, we slept well and jumped on the circa 5 hour bus to Vinales - a place that has grabbed a part of me.


Settled somewhere in the middle of Pinar del Rio province in Eastern Cuba is this little gem. A small town of one story terracotta tiled houses nestled in a valley of remarkable beauty. Bursting out from the lush tobacco countryside, limestone stacks of white and green. Gentle wildlife through out, deep caves beneath. A wonderful place.

The journey from Havana gave us our first glimpse of inland Cuba. A flat-farmed land crossed by the soviet road on which we rolled, with turn-offs going nowhere – the money ran out. Then a detour into the hills past an idyllic eco-community surrounded by thick vegetation that was refreshing after the flat. Down into Pinar del Rio, small towns, a touch of rolling hills and notably greener.

Eventually we descended into the valley of our destination. The winding roads had taken a bit out of Chris’s stomach, but we both appreciated simply wonderful views as we wound down the road. Each corner and break in foliage bringing enhanced views of the white and green clad hills, verdant surroundings and the town itself. A landscape unfolding.
My lasting image of this special place will be of balance. A very rare thing in much of the world. A place of outstanding beauty, yes, but vitally warm people who allow travelers and tourists alike to integrate. It benefits all. In a way it reminds me of Salento in the heart of Colombia, or perhaps Luang Prabang in this regard, but like these places it is unique.

A few days wondering around, in between and even through the trademark stacks. Breathing in the clean air touched with the warm red soil and drying tobacco. Subtle wildlife all around. Many birds, pigs strolling wild. Local farmers on horseback or tending their tobacco crop while chomping on a cigar. Dropping by wooden-shelters for a glass of warm sugar-cane juice and a shot of eye-cringing fermented product.
Smokin' his very own produce

For large parts it was just Chris and I. Bliss. Wandering with a vague sense of direction and the sole concern being return navigation by nightfall.
For a day, a seriously chilled and charming guy called Axel was our guide. Trained as a teacher and clearly a bright and educated guy (name a country… any country… and the capital will be forthcoming from his memory). He took us across cane-fields, into caves and on a fascinating journey through how we each view each other’s situation. This has replaced teaching for him, as his ambitions require more than 9 bucks a month. A Finnish girlfriend has enhanced dreams of travel that quite frankly make me feel embarrassed (a monumental task to get the cash, let alone the visa). His taste in hard Norwegian metal and tails of how “freakies” like him were discriminated against and even killed were fascinating. Stories of the “special period” Cuba faced during his childhood disturbing.
What I so like about Axel is how critical minded he is. We could challenge each other’s opinions to definite mutual benefit. In a just a few days and few beers we made a real good friend. What touched me most was when he tried to refuse the money for being a guide on the first day. The guy even gave me a couple of novels he knew I would like (worth quite a bit round here). I never thought a Cuban would give me Alan Donald’s autobiography – a surprisingly good read.

Beyond meeting more interesting people on nights out, the other side of our time in Vinales that requires attention were our hosts.

Jumping off a bus in tourist towns in developing countries you are as a general rule welcomed by a furor of people with signs shouting and pushing for your custom. Refreshingly, here there were the people, some bustle, but no hustle. A particular Cuban efficiency was clearly working – 2 people held up signs for James and Christina, though to our knowledge we had only mentioned to one person in Havana where we were heading. We walked off with a kind-looking lady called Neyda and could not possibly regret it. Staying in her house for four nights, complete with its veranda, net curtains, mini-farm and little shrine under the sink, was a delight. People who talk about food being poor in Cuba clearly did not stay in a casa particularis like this (or in fact any of the others we stayed in). The food she rumpled up was tasty and the company of herself and her father in particular bursting with warmth and welcome.
Despite the rubbish bins over the road, one of my favourite places in the world will forever be their veranda at dusk. Rocking back and forth on the rocking chair (an item that Communism has provided on mass), local cigar in hand and at mouth - little regalito’s from the grandfather of the house, Alberto. Sharing basic Spanish conversations with this man in my bad Spanish as we chuffed away on the local delicacy as the light faded. Staring over at Christina as we read our books, subsequent positive interruption from Pepe, a dog I wished to take home, and eventually the call to another meal that would beat us, to the delight of Neyda.

It was fascinating to be shown round their back garden. A veritable farmyard of pigs, chickens and puppies. A vital store where government rations are restrictive.

We both felt just so welcome and touched by this family and I believe they enjoyed our company too. This was tourism as its best - mutually beneficial and bringing people together. Such amazing generosity.

Cayo Levisa
To satisfy our winter thirst for sun, we spent a day on Cayo Levisa. A short bus ride and boat chug north of Vinales, this is a proper little paradise. A little island situated just off the hilly north coast. To its back, lush mangrove swamp, reaching across the island to the pristine white sand beach facing out to the mass of the Caribbean. A one restaurant, 10-shack type of place. Not quite the dollar a night Thailand type (there were a few high end “out there” travel types paying ten times the price), but you get the idea. Other than a nice snorkel and some sol worship, we spent our day wandering along the beautiful beach. We found starfish, hermit crabs and watched the twittering movements of what looked like sandpipers. A romantic place that deserved more time.

Back to a city, and a world heritage listed one at that. Most of a day’s journey back across and down the bottom of Cuba. Again, the majority of the terrain was largely flat, unexciting farmland or brush. I don’t know why, but this surprised me. Again, the road was half-finished. Through some intriguing towns, Cienfuegos in particular, and back to the coast. After some rugged and pretty scenery we entered Trinidad as the sun was losing its heat.
After the laid-back countryside, immediately this place put me on alert. Perhaps it was because I was with Christina. Perhaps it was solely a reaction to how comfortable we had been in Vinales. Or perhaps the situation was in fact more threatening. I feel a mixture of the above (with a large part being the latter). From a place that openly welcomed tourists, the looks from people around us told me that we were not quite so welcome. Those legions of package tourists shipped in on their shiny buses leave me with a feeling of vomit, so imagine how it makes locals feel. Walking dollar signs. I hate to sound like a travel fascist and I openly admit that many people on such things are far more aware of the local situation than I am, but those of that minority I have met, or indeed saw on this trip, seemed embarrassed by their circumstances. Not surprising when surrounded by plump Europeans flashing their money and rich cameras about and speaking loudly of these poor miserable locals.
Who says Cuban food is bad?
This feeling was heightened on a ramble up to the hill overlooking the town and sea beyond. A sunset point strewn with people selling brick-brack and tourists looking bothered. In fact the people we met at the top were pretty cool and, once the sun had disappeared, we wandered back to our casa particularis to lobster for 5 bucks.

The town itself is beautiful. Build with riches from the mills in the hinterland. Streets on streets of one story white crumbling houses with their tiled roves. Little corner bars with men sipping coffee and smoking cigars, dividing avenues named after revolution heroes. Towards the center the houses grow in height and grandeur. Many a mansion.

A more than interesting local shrine

On entering some of these places I was struck by the opulence of their ageing interior. For some reason I just love their courtyards. Interesting churches, where iguana lurk and old monasteries now filled with remains of U2 spy planes. Views from the bell tower blew me away. Red roofs falling into courtyards full of washing and kids. The roads roll out to hills to the side and behind and, in front, down to the warm sea as the sun sinks yet again. Time running fast, but this country swallows you quick.
Our time in Trinidad was capped by a simply unique (for me) and great night out. On a grand set of stairs that rise beside and beyond the main church, musicians play for locals and foreigners alike. Such a divergence from the shiny bus strewn day. Here it was great to see everyone clearly enjoying themselves together. Yes, in some ways this may well be put on for tourists in that there are smatterings of English etc, but I am sure this went on way before the tourist industry sky-rocketed and will continue in some aspect if it ever goes. The people just ooze life-enthusing music out their pores and sol and salsa to it like no one else. It is simply a privilege to join in.

As the night went on, the band stopped to rapturous applause and those on the more young side wandered up through the dark to a club. Through a small entrance in the side of the hill, down through a winding passage to the chasomous heart of the cave. A disco deep in the hollows of the limestone hill above and upon which the city is built. So much fun….and a bit too much rum.

Valle de los Ingenios

Christina on a horse is a wonderful sight – the combination of nerves and excitement. That is the way we traveled over the hill from Trinidad, down and across the Valle de los Ingenios and back again. A great little trip. The landscape changed from cactus to thick scrub to open fields. From the top the view was spectacular. A valley of mighty palms and little shacks stretches to further hills. The remains of the old mills that made this place so profitable. Coffee with some locals, sugar cane and then up into the far hills to find a waterfall complete with fish, a rare rodent and Aussies.

The Ancon Peninsular

Before heading back north we had a few days to spend by the beach. Taking some advice from fellow travelers we based ourselves in the little village of La Boca. A place of not much more than a little scrabbly beach, a couple of guesthouses and a mojito shack. In some ways the highlight of the trip. Our host in the little casa was so kind, his cooking so good and his dog so god-darn ugly. The beach allowed some good scrap footie with the kids (why am I always the one to bleed – just like Christina) and the shack a nice place to sit and watch the sun go down with a questionable mojito. I love the place.
Just a short 8km cycle down the peninsular you find Playa Ancon. A place I just do not get. A pretty nice beach backed by ugly 70’s buildings. In front of these buildings lay what looked like baking slugs. Sun worshipping fat Europeans wobbling back inside for their all-inclusive burgers. Guards giving us a “what the hell ya doing here” look. When you have such charm so close why be here? I can just about understand the pristine perfect resorts (though the fact that locals are banned from being guests at a number of these more than riles in itself), but this was not even nice. Just nasty.

Thankfully the locals were allowed to use the far end of the beach, where we could relax with a can of Crystal and sooth our annoyance at the seeming invertebrates.

Back to the Capital

With some sadness, back to Havana we went. Trips to cigar and rum factories (and the purchase of related items on masse) and long walks along the sea wall and through the old and mid-towns.

A trip to the Museo de la Revolucion was more than worthy of note. Full of room after room of newspaper cutting and memorabilia of this or that key figure in the revolution. The place was interesting as much for its lean on events as on the artifacts themselves. There are some great adapted vehicles (such as the tractor tank), but the highlight has to be the cartoons of Bush, Reagan and the like - sharp satire.
This leads me to one further little rant. The US. I am not a natural US hater. I respect the country, love New York and consider a number of its citizens as my friends. I do though think that its treatment of this little nation just 90 miles from Florida is a disgrace – a tarnish on its honour. Fine, the politics of the late 50’s and 60’s are complicated, so some of the US’s past treatment could be excused in the mist of different times – a debatable point in itself – but why it continues to embargo and squeeze this beautiful country I can not understand. Castro’s regime does have some major human rights issues and its people are restless and are restricted from what their talents and passion deserve. It is also true that the regime itself is a large cause of this restriction, but so is the US. The US never gave Cuba a chance. After the death of the Soviet Union it could not possibly be seen as a threat, yet George “W” in his seemingly bottomless pit of idiocy and cynicism actually tightened restrictions on the country. Far from convincing Cuba’s people that this is a product of Castro’s “evil”, from the little I saw it holds them together. People are frustrated by the regime but proud of what they have done. They are proud of their independence and not prepared for the US or others to walk over them as they have tried on various occasions over the past couple of centuries.

Just a week after we left, Castro stepped down. Times need to, will and are changing and Cuba will never be the same. Having had the privilege of a small incite into the people that inhabit this island I am worried. So much good can come from change, but I cannot help but fear that what makes Cuba so special could be lost. Alongside literacy and life expectancy that match the US, there is relative equality (admittedly in poverty), little crime and most importantly an exuberance of life from the people. If it explodes open to Western capital much of this may be ripped apart. I hope such a comment is an injustice - the people have stood up to hardships and challenges that I cannot imagine and are proud of who and what they are. I hope this stands them in good stead as inequality and greed increasingly bite - foe that have changed many a man and society.

A Final Scene

Sitting in a grand old plaza in the heart of Havana. The warm Caribbean air is distorted by local rhythms enveloping from all directions. Old men dance in the street. Perfect company, Mojito at hand and Cohiba in the teeth. Lobster pizza on its way…
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