Cuba is a place that I feel I know. It features heavily in the news, in film and in literature. Nobel-laureate Ernest Hemingway lived there on and off for thirty years; it was once the playground of America’s rich and famous; it is the home of fine cigars, mojitos, daiquiris, and salsa music.
Yet at the same time Cuba feels kind of forbidden – for sixty years under military rule and subject to a US-sponsored embargo. Cuba brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1963, and to this day remains one of the last nations on earth to stubbornly cling to Socialism, long after Mother Russia collapsed.
In short, Cuba is an enigma. And obviously therefore a place I have always wanted to visit.
Then I discovered that there are direct daily flights from Nassau to Havana, a mere 45 minutes away. Leaving only one question to be answered: when are we going?
Jose Marti International Airport looks more like a big shed by the side of a runway, where complete chaos reigns. Arrival in Cuba is a crush of bewildered looking tourists, officials in military uniform, and long lines of returning Cubans pushing trolleys overloaded with suitcases, televisions, and kitchen sinks.
Leaving the airport our first impression of Cuba is, perhaps not surprisingly, of old cars. We see a procession of vintage Fords, Chevrolets, Dodges and Plymouths: a bright canvas of dazzling colors, shiny tail fins and gleaming chrome bumpers. Owing to the embargo Cuba lost access to new automobiles half a century ago, so every vehicle on the road back then remains in service today. Although it is one thing to read about Cuba’s fleet of old cars in a guidebook, and another thing to experience it in person: a surreal feeling of being magically transported back in time, to a 1950s American road-trip.
In central Havana the streets boast magnificent old buildings, stunning examples of colonial architecture, Baroque, Neo-classical, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco, side-by-side for miles. And also the porticoes for which this city is famous – elegant arched columns that frame the covered sidewalks of almost every block.
There are people everywhere – jamming every sidewalk, crowding every street corner, wandering across every road. We see faces of all shapes and colors, a potent cocktail of all those from whom modern Cubans trace their lineage: Spanish conquistadors, White Europeans, Black slaves, Asian and Central European and Middle Eastern migrants.
Our first day in Havana is devoted to a driving tour of the city, in a cherry-red 1953 Chevrolet, no less. We navigate potholed streets, pause in front of a government building with a giant mural of Che Guevara on its side, and make obligatory stops at various sites of Cuban Socialist triumph.
Otherwise the rest of our time in Havana is spent on foot, wandering through the cobbled lanes of Habana Vieja. There are Spanish-style churches adjacent to crumbling tenement buildings, fragrant cigar shops, run-down bars filled with smoke and old men playing dominoes, tacky souvenir stores, and crowded cafes. We visit the Museum of Contemporary Cuban Art, and are chased out after 45 minutes by security guards. They are anxious to shut the place so they can enjoy their afternoon siesta.
We walk the Malecón, Havana’s five mile long seawall and esplanade. It was built over 100 years ago to protect the city from the ocean, but nowadays seems more like a massive outdoor living room where Habaneros congregate at dusk: families, kids on bikes, young lovers, grandmas with dogs on leads, men fishing, friends chattering and laughing, promenading, picnicking, drinking.
We stroll for an hour, soaking up the wonderful atmosphere, before finishing at the imposing Hotel Nacional. There we watch the brilliant sunset, daiquiris in hand. On a terrace that sits atop a disused bunker, from where once upon a time angry missiles pointed towards Miami.
But more than anything, Havana is a city that comes into its own after dark. As the sun goes down and the temperature drops the city seems to ignite into an impromptu nightly carnival. Live bands set up in almost every bar and restaurant, and on most street corners as well. The rum flows and the music plays and there are always people dancing.
A four-hour walking tour of Havana’s best cocktail bars ends on the top floor of a swish hotel, where rum is dispensed, a live salsa band plays, and a crowd dances the night away. We make a trip to the famed Club Tropicana, a relic from the 1940s where cheesy cabaret numbers are performed by scantily clad women wearing fruit baskets on their heads. As soon as the show finishes a DJ starts playing Latin pop music, rum is dispensed, a crowd dances until early in the morning.
And on our last night in Havana we buy tickets to a performance by a troupe of wizened old men from the Buena Vista Social Club. The lead singer is a portly lady in her seventies, who shakes her booty like a teenager. She literally drags me onto the dance-floor. She may be old but I soon discover she has phenomenal moves and stamina. I feel entirely inadequate trying to keep up with this shimmying septuagenarian.
It is all such fun, fun, fun, and a deliciously overwhelming assault on the senses: the bright colors of classic cars, the varied textures of magnificent buildings, the sound of music on every street. There is salsa, and there is dancing, and there is an irresistible energy to the place. It feels vibrant, and alive.
What can I say? As travel destinations go, Cuba is love at first sight.
I should stop there, and then you’d probably be rushing off to buy your tickets.
But if I did that, I’d be misleading you just a bit. Because the other thing about Cuba is that when the thin layer of tourist veneer is peeled away, what you find is a much grittier kind of place.
Our walking tour guide – an otherwise gregarious young guy – becomes circumspect and avoids direct answers when we ask questions of a political nature. On a thirty minute drive to the beach we pass through no less than five police check points. A framed photo of Castro in combat fatigues stares down at us from the wall, most places we go. It seems the Cult of Fidel is still alive and well in Cuba. There are no advertisements, but there are signs spray-painted onto walls with ideological exhortations like “Patrio o Meurta”; “Socialismo es Irrevocable” and more simply: “Revolucion!”
We see evidence of Cuba’s isolation. Our hotel is apparently unique in central Havana in having reliable internet. None of my credit cards work – unfortunately Citibank is an American bank, and so even cards issued by Citibank in London are barred. Cuban cuisine, so wonderful outside of Cuba, is a disaster inside of Cuba – they just don’t have the abundance of ingredients or the culture of eating out that we are used to. And the most common dish on every menu, a mix of white rice with black beans, is called Christianos e Morros (Christians and Moors). Obviously no-one in Cuba got the memo that this sort of description is not entirely acceptable in the modern world…..
Signs of Cuba’s extreme poverty are everywhere, too. After a while we realize that the dancing crowds are not locals, but primarily Latin American holidaymakers, whooping it up in Havana because it is so cheap. Those Cubans we do see are mainly waiters and servers. Or worse: at the Casa de la Musica salsa club the dolled-up young ladies are not there to dance, but to prostitute themselves to wealthy foreigners. Sex tourism is a big business in Cuba.
There are long queues outside of state-run stores as people wait for hours to buy bread, rice and cooking oil. Yet inside the shelves are depressingly empty. We learn that the lady who cleans our hotel room has one of the most prized jobs in Cuba, because she gets occasional cash tips. And sometimes tourists leave things like half-used bottles of shampoo behind, which she can sell on the black market.
Most of Cuba’s old cars have long since had their original engines replaced by noisy, polluting Russian ones. Some are quite literally held together with sticky-tape and wire. And those new cars that Cuba has been able to import are mainly Russian sardine cans on wheels. So the reality of Cuba’s roads is slightly less scenic than tourist brochures would portray: smoke-belching Soviet shit-boxes, side-by-side with the classic cars, although these often falling apart and trailing a cloud of noxious exhaust.
Paint flakes off every surface in Cuba. Cracks and holes riddle every wall, and a patina of grime and dirt is baked into everything. Many of Havana’s venerable old buildings are abandoned; certainly most have not been touched for more than half a century. Some are quite literally disintegrating into the street.
Basically, behind Cuba’s romantic tourist façade is a rather less-than-romantic modern-day reality: the harsh, grim place that Cubans live in. To see it you just have to put your mojito glass down for a few moments, and look around.
One place in particular summed this up especially well for me.
La Bodeguita del Medio has been a Cuban institution since 1942. It is a hole-in-the-wall bar on a small cobbled laneway, right in the center of Old Havana. Out back is a restaurant, but the main attraction is a tiny bar that faces onto the street, half of which is taken up by a long wooden countertop, rubbed smooth from decades of use. The walls are covered in faded signed photos of all the famous people who have visited through the years – Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, Pablo Neruda, Nat King Cole.
This bar is packed day and night – standing room only. After 8pm a salsa band sets up in the corner, and the whole place erupts into a festive, joyous, raucous party. Laughter and dancing that goes on until 4am, seven nights a week. All of which is thoroughly lubricated by a never-ending river of rum, soda, lime, mint and sugar.
You see, this is the place where the mojito was supposedly invented and according to Hemingway, they are the best mojitos on the planet. Two white-haired old men in neat white shirts stand behind the bar, preparing nothing besides mojitos all day, every day. Sometimes they’ll have twenty or so glasses lined in a row, mixing up their cocktails in a continuous mad frenzy.
Before I know it we have downed three each – more alcohol than I’d normally consume in a month. We are soon chatting to strangers at the bar as we watch the bartenders theatrically pour shots of Havana Club from bottles held high above their heads. I even find myself dancing, crushing more than one set of unsuspecting toes in the process.
This is Cuba as I expect it to be: uninhibited fun, happy people, salsa music, an endless party. Until I look around me.
On close inspection I see that parts of La Bodeguita are falling apart at the seams. Every third mojito glass is chipped. Exposed electrical wires hang dangerously from the ceiling. Many of the photos on the wall are in broken frames that hide unrepaired cracks in the walls. The alleyway out front floods with rancid water thanks to a sudden passing storm, and the lights occasionally flicker due to the irregular power supply.
We are surrounded by holidaymakers from places like Panama, Guatemala and Venezuela. This explains why I am the only shmuck in the place who can’t dance like a pro. Still, I find it kind of sad that in the home of Cuba’s most famous drink, apart from the bartenders and the musicians there are no Cubans.
They are instead outside, in the alleyway, hanging about in groups on street corners, queuing up outside grimy food carts, or doing not very much at all. Touts mill about trying to sell us rides in old cars, walking tours of the old town, and fake cigars. There are street vendors selling home-made ice-creams and fresh-made churros, for the equivalent of less than 3 cents a serve. Men on bicycle rickshaws are waiting to ferry us back to our hotel.
This disparity really hits me when it comes time to pay for our mojitos: six of them, at $5 each, so $30 in total. That’s a bargain, right?
Not if you are a Cuban, earning the official average salary of $20 a month. Not $20 a day or a week, but $20 a month. That is a wage of less than $1 per day, in a country that until sixty years ago was the economic powerhouse of the Caribbean.
Or put another way, our six cocktails equate to what a working Cuban might earn in a month and a half. Meaning that enjoying a mojito in the place of its invention is not merely a luxury for 99% of ordinary Cubans. Rather, it is an impossibility; a simple pleasure that is totally and utterly out of their reach.
Which is a pretty sobering thought, don’t you think?
I recently read an article from the Smithsonian about a Russian family of six, discovered in 1978 living in the remote wilderness of the Taiga. They’d had no contact with the outside world for over 42 years.
Their discovery was an anthropologist’s wet dream, an unwitting real-life experiment in “what happens to people when they are completely cut off from the rest of humanity?” Although the article strips away any sense of Robinson Crusoe romanticism, describing the family’s isolated life as one of incredible hardship, hunger and desperation:
“Dependent solely on their own resources, the [family] struggled to replace the few things they had brought into the Taiga with them. They fashioned birch-bark galoshes in place of shoes. Clothes were patched and re-patched until they fell apart, then replaced with hemp cloth grown from seed.”
This, it occurred to me, is more or less exactly what has happened to Cuba, only on a country-size scale. A whole nation has been starved of contact with the world at large. Old cars are “patched and re-patched” until the eventually fall apart, not out of nostalgia but sheer necessity. Glorious old buildings are crumbling into dust; people make a living out of whatever they can find or forage.
Although what most caught my attention in the Smithsonian article was the description of what came next:
“Perhaps the saddest aspect of the [family’s] strange story was the rapidity with which the family went into decline after they re-established contact with the outside world.”
Because amongst tourists we met in Cuba, the most common thing we heard, over and over again, was this: “we came here now because want to see Cuba before it changes”.
In late 2014 the US and Cuba announced a plan to restore full diplomatic relations. Obama and Raul Castro met and shook hands. New regulations have already eased travel restrictions and currency controls; more are on the way. After 60 years in the global wilderness, change is finally a-coming to Cuba, and when the flood-gates open the tide of American-inspired modernity will be unstoppable: internet, media, shelves filled with consumer products, new construction, new hotels, and new cars.
Sure, some vintage cars will probably be preserved for the benefit of tourists. The Tropicana nightclub and its ridiculous fruit basket headpieces will always be there. Over time I am sure that the historic center of Havana will be meticulously restored into a Disney-style attraction.
Of course you can’t blame the Cubans for wanting what the rest of us take for granted – a life of freedom and plenty. But I hope that the raw character and pulsating energy of Cuba today, born of isolation and hardship, doesn’t get lost in the process. I hope that “the new Cuba”, a presently unknown place that is yet to emerge, will be as much fun to visit.
And I hope that no matter what happens, and no matter how much Cuba may change, there will always be salsa and mojitos, and people dancing until two in the morning.
(Thanks to Kate Sims for the photos).