Cuba: Part 1

Cuba: Part 1

As I rolled down Havana’s Prado avenue for the first time in a 1948 Ford Mercury, I felt as though I were reliving the scene from Back to the Future where Marty first stumbles around Hill Valley’s clock square in 1955. All I needed was Mr Sandman by the Three Tenors playing and things would have been spot on. Instead, there was a predictable stream of salsa music emanating from the crackly radio, and the air smelled of tobacco, guava and motor oil – which actually smelled pretty nice. Today, the fleets of pre-1960 imports and decaying art noveau facades are the iconic face of Cuba. It’s all very fantastical at first. You could even half expect to see Mickey Mouse sitting on the back of one of the 1000’s of open air Pontiacs, waving to people, as if it were the midday parade in Nostolgiatown, Disneyland. But that’s just the first impression – an unplanned, entrancing side effect of the events that unraveled nearly 60 years ago, causing the country to become stuck in a time warp. And obviously, the side effects of these events go far beyond just first appearances.

In January 1959, Fidel Castro, Che Guerva, Camillo and their band of revolutionaries stormed Havana, marking an end to the 3-year civil war and the start of the regime that continues to this day. The old U.S. backed dictator, General Batista, had thrown in the towel and been bundled off to the Dominican Republic. Castro’s rule has been criticized ever since – as all totalitarian ones are. But as far as despots are measured, history has seen far worse, among them Batista himself. He was however America’s despot, built in the mold of Papa ‘Doc’ of Haiti and Hussein of Iraq, who ruthlessly represented American interests and monopolies. And that was what mattered – not the destitute, slave like conditions that most Cubans had been enduring for the past fifty years. The country had become a tinderbox for revolution.

Admirably, the Castro regime began ringing in all the changes they’d promised, including free housing, healthcare and education for everyone. They also took over the international (mostly American) industries in the country, to be nationalized for the good of Cuba itself.  Naturally, the U.S. responded. In 1960 the CIA orchestrated the famous ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion in an attempt to topple the regime. But it was botched to an embarrassing degree, as were the alleged 600 attempts on Castro’s life that followed. The U.S. had one big parting shot though, imposing a trade embargo against Cuba that still has no signs of lifting. Relations hardly improved when the Soviet Union briefly installed missiles silos on the island, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1962.  Three decades later, the fall of the Soviet Union led Cuba into further austerity and isolation as their biggest (and almost only) trading partner disappeared over night.

Quarantined from the world with almost no free enterprise allowed, it’s no surprise that Cuba is in a freeze frame from half a century ago. Naturally this presents more than a few issues to travellers, unless of course you’re instantly been chaperoned to one of the all-inclusive super resorts, which may as well be bio-domes on Mars.

The regular hotels are expensive, marginally renovated relics from pre-revolutionary Cuba’s time as an international fun house. While hostels are non existent, there is an in between option – Casa Paticulars – which are essentially bed and breakfast type homestays – but are a phenomena unto themselves in Cuba. They came into being at the end of the 90’s as the regime conceded a small margin of free enterprise to everyday Cubans – allowing them to open up their homes to tourists and the chance to earn Cubano Convertible (CUC), the superior of the two Cuban currencies and the one normally reserved for elites and tourists. The other currency, the moneda nacional, is what the government pays people in, keeping most of society locked into the drudgery of communist routine. It’s good for little more than gasoline and rice.

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I sent a booking request for a Casa Particular in Havana a few days prior in Bogota, but was naïve not to do it sooner. Internet access in Cuba is scarce, tightly regulated, expensive and all round terrible, so it could take days or even a week for a Casa Owner to receive the request. When I touched down in Havana, I still hadn’t received a response – so just optimistically showed up to the address hoping for the best – which thankfully it did. I might have called ahead, but figuring out the bizarre and constantly changing Cuban phone code system is a code cracking game in itself. But before I arrived at my home stay I had the drama of simply trying to acquire currency.

With most countries it’s as easy as a withdrawal from the airport ATM. But something so simple elsewhere is never going to be that way in Cuba. There is one ATM in the airport arrivals and it doesn’t accept MasterCard, nor do any of the few others in the country (American Express – fucking forget it). Therefore my taxi had to detour at a couple of banks en route to the city (the first one was suffering an area power outage). Banks in Cuba, just like Havana airport, and every other public building in Cuba for that matter– are as bare and depressing as Agent Smith’s interrogation room.  Once at a teller, your identification is checked three times by different staff and you’re made to sign ten pieces of paper, with the repeat accuracy of your signature scrutinized each time, alas you have to repeat the whole thing.

In spite of their dilapidated exterior appearances, all the homestays I stayed in surpassed my expectations. I was always provided with a spotlessly clean room and bathroom that had a part colonial, part ‘weekend at your grandparents’ feel to them. The hosts were always bustling middle-aged mothers, who would dot on me as if I were one of their own and help as much possible (in Spanish). For a few extra CUC a day (i.e. few dollars) you could also get an enormous breakfast spread of omelets, fruit, toast, deli meats, coffee and juice. I quickly learned to cash in on this meal as much as possible since all other food in Cuba is punishingly bland. Do you like beans and rice? You won’t after Cuba. There are a few nicer restaurants in touristy areas, but even here the food falls well short of anything good by international standards. La California in Havana did offer some hope though.

Along with the simple pleasures of walking around Havana’s old town and the seaside drive best known as the Malecon, there are a couple of interesting museums. The must see one is the Revolutionary Museum, which gives a good, though completely bias overview of the events that saw Castro’s regime rise to power. Havana’s nightlife, which was legendary in the 20’s – 50’s, still has some cool things going in terms of live band music and salsa clubs – but as a lone traveller I spent an inordinate amount of time brushing off unwanted company. While the regime has ensured Cuba is almost entirely free of violence, there are legions of jinteros (hustlers) trying to fleece anyone they can, and regrettably they also speak the best English in the entire country. It’s also very easy to meet girls, though by girls I unfortunately mean hookers. And they all want the CUC.

On my first evening stroll along the Malecon, It took me barely 5 minutes till a jintero figured me for a pigeon. The obvious reaction was to ignore him but I was curious to see his game, and that of a few others who tried their luck. The routine was always the same. Ah, you’re from New Zealand/Iceland/Lichtenstein/North Dakota – oh I have friend from there. Oh your name is Mike/Sforfensk/Hans/Cletus – my sons/friends/fathers name is this as well! After some additional buttering up, they’d try and upsell knock off cigars, impromptu personal tours, prostitute out their sister, or, in a strangely recurring theme – mention they needed ‘milk for baby’. For which they demanded CUC3-10 – a price and ploy so utterly preposterous I wondered why so many of them were using it, and further more, who was believing it.

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After a few days in Havana, I took a bus 3 hours west to Vinales, a quiet country town famous for its tobacco. On the road, the effects of the regime and embargo really shine. Vehicle ownership is at less than 4% and the barebones highways connecting towns and cities are almost always deserted. Vinales is beautiful though, on account of its lush greenness and Mogotes, limestone obelisk formations. It actually reminded me of a grounded version of Vietnam’s Haolong bay.

My first day there was pretty nice. I toured around Tobacco country on a horse, went swimming in a lake with some Dutch tourists, drank a lot of mohitos, and learned how to make cigars on a farm. I found this pretty interesting. Essentially all Cigars are the same, a simple combination of three differently aged and dried tobacco leaves, rolled and cut in a variety of styles. Cohibas, (Castro’s favourite), are made almost entirely from the more mature leaves and as such are very strong – and a very poor choice for beginners. In Havana, I’d leisurely puffed away on one for an hour, gone to stand up, then promptly fell sideways, to spend the next few hours in a state of slightly delirious nausea. Monte Christo’s (Che’s choice) on the other hand are composed mostly of younger leaves and I found these to be far more palatable. With a lot of instruction, I rolled up a dozen half decent Monte Christos to take away with me.

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A day and night in Vinales would have been perfect before moving on to somewhere else, but I foolishly didn’t plan my onward bus early enough so ended up getting marooned there for an additional 2 nights. As a 6,000 person town in rural Cuba, there was absolutely nothing else to do. So I spent most of my time on the porch of the casa, drinking Rum, smoking cigars, and practicing my Spanish with the 80 year old father of the owner who was usually out there on a rocking chair, doing exactly the same thing as me. It wasn’t enthralling, but it was authentic, particularly in contrast to my next stop, an all-inclusive super resort in Cayo Santa Maria.

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