I’ve been consumed with curiosity about this island ever since I had to sit under my desk in school to protect myself from nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I grew up around Boston. If I’d known how many missiles were housed immediately around my school I would have spent the time colouring instead. We’d have been blasted in the first sortie.
As I grew older, and learned about the Cuban health care system, their healthy literacy rate and their amazingly stable economy given the embargo by the US (and the way the US told everyone that if they were nice to Cuba they couldn’t play with them). I was curious to see how the Communist nation so close to us had fared, was slightly romantic about the revolution, with its dashing figures of Che and Fidel and whoever that other guy is whose name I can never remember. It was and is the stuff of legend.
For a place slightly smaller than Pennsylvania (sneers the CIA fact book), it’s chock a bloc with history, romance, music, art, people, and, apparently, cigars.
We spent a five-day visit in Havana – old Havana – a thoroughly interesting borough that alternates in appearance with a bombed-out war zone and a decaying but still elegant deep south Spanish plantation. Totally fascinating, noisy and silent by turns, filled with people of such diverse colours and shapes you can trace the native, black and Spanish lineages through the shape of their noses.
Everyone, even the smallest child, automatically responds to the sight of we tourists with a murmuring of “cigars? you want cigars?”.
The men – handsome without exception. The women – gorgeous until about age 35, when the gruelling day-to-day life catches up with them. They must wash laundry every day – everyone is so clean and clothes hang everywhere to dry.
The streets – spotlessly clean in some places, despite feral dogs and cats everywhere. Covered with garbage where the feral people are. No windows in most buildings, but Dolce and Gabana and expensive spas have them. Banks with nothing inside, only an ATM on the outside. Shiny old 54 Fords, polished to the max, run as taxis, followed by husks of the same car with no muffler, run by locals. Shiny new Kias here and there, tripping over bicycle taxis pulling painfully through the cobblestone streets.
The hustlers say, as they smile broadly and try to get us to buy contraband cigars, “Cuba is very safe. 11 million people and half of them are police”. They lead us on, through darker and meaner streets, until common sense prevails and we say “No, Gracias”. Their faces crumble with such acute disappointment you almost want to take it back, say, of course you believe him that today is the only day that Fidel allows the people who make cigars to sell them privately at half price, only today…
I still feel the air, warm and almost like a human breath, the grit and diesel from the out of control refinery and the many many cars. I can shut my eyes and hear the noises, the endless honking of horns to say hello or get out-of-the-way or whatever, interspersed with sharp whistles and shouts and the roar of unmuffled diesel engines. In between you can hear bands playing salsa music.
The tourist industry in Cuba seems designed to make you pass your time there in a pleasant heat and rum fuelled haze, happily buying versions of art that are nowhere near as wonderful as the real artists produce in their tiny studios off of darkened streets. They sell rum and mohitos and Hemingway, send tourists around well-trodden paths, call to you with such desperation you feel positively terrible for saying no. Elderly women come up and circle you slowly, putting their hands to their mouths, begging for money. But when you tell them no, as with all of those trying to extract money from you (and why not? We have so much, they have so little), they look at you once, with eyes that show their heart is breaking, and shuffle off to the next person.
It is intoxicating, rude, charming, warm, friendly, hostile, old, ancient, proud, humble, utterly unexplainable. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling.
I’ll never go back, for so many reasons. But everyone should go, at least once. Immerse yourself in Cuba. Don’t just go to a resort – see the place itself, meet the real people.
Vive la Cuba Libre!