The International Writers Magazine: CUBA 2014 - Little story of unfulfilled expectations and of actually great experience * (Long Read)
I've sort of stumbled into Cuba, to be honest. I didn't plan to have my vacation there, at all, from the start. If you have asked me, sometime in August or September, where do I plan to spend my, hard earned, days off work, I would probably bore you to death, by going on and on about Yucatan, beaches of Cancun or some ancient Mayan city.
I've sort of stumbled into Cuba, to be honest. I didn't plan to have my vacation there, at all, from the start. Obviously I knew about the Castro brothers, about revolution they led alongside Che, about mojito and daiquiri, about their excellent cigars, sugar and coffee, couple things about city of Havana and that their favorite sport is baseball. And couple of friends told me, with slight glint of envy in their eyes, that Cuban women are beautiful. That was all.
I was shocked and surprised by Cuba, starting from the moment I walked off a plane and walked into the unbearable, for a person from Central Europe, humidity on Havana's Jose Marti international airport. I felt like a snowman in April. And it was mid-December.
So there I was. On Cuba, finally, after 18 hours of traveling, two plane rides and one short stop in Paris. With the rest of my travel group, total of eleven persons, I was queuing in the row, waiting for the entry visa form. In one hand I was holding my, at that moment totally ridiculously looking, hooded leather jacket while, with other hand, trying to answer the questions given on that, very small, piece of yellow paper. Sweating like the piglet before Serbian Christmas, I wrote down my name, passport number, nationality, address where I will reside in Havana and so on. It all went smoothly until I came to question - date of BIRD. Trying not to look like I'm making fun of obvious spelling mistake, in front of stern looking officer, I hid my chuckle and continued to the passport checking desk. That was my clue one about Cuba - few Cubans know English. At that point, I was very grateful that my mother and grandmother watched, back in the days before present Turkish and Indian soap obsession, a lot of Latin telenovelas. So I thanked Cassandra, Rosa Salvaje and Llovisna, and all other troubled heroines, for each of eleven words in Spanish, that I could remember. Gracias!
In most countries, when you enter them via international airport, passport checks are similar. Not in Cuba. There officers, literally, control the doors to the country. Only when he or she is satisfied with the visa form, you've just filled out, and takes a photo of you with a small web camera (Logitech btw, for my computer nerd friends), a sound of the buzzer will let you know that the opaque doors are open, and that you finally may gaze into Cuba.
|When asked about how they imagine Havana, most people will first give you an image of streets filled with cars, dating from pre-revolution Cuba, mostly Chevies, Buicks and Cadillacs from 40s and 50s. And just like the popular story goes, we were picked, from the airport by such two cars - pink Pontiac 53 and yellow Chevy 57. There was also one Russian Lada, from 80s, to bring balance between East and West. When I think about it, those old cars, from pre Castro era may be a perfect metaphor for Cuba.
You see, just like Cuba was, for so long, under influence of USA and then dependent on Soviet aid, almost all those American cars nowadays have Russian engine from 70s or 80s. None of them has working speedometer, most of them don't have side view mirrors, very few have working mechanisms for lowering door windows and you'll frequently find yourself waiting for your driver to come out, walk around to your side of car and open the doors for you, from outside. Because there is no other way. I didn't care about broken speedometers because those old cars feel like tanks and are only slighter quicker than tanks. And, god damn, I was on vacation and I didn't want to worry about a single thing. Also, frankly, I liked the fact that someone would open the car doors for me, 'cause I felt like a boss on vacation. Like a boss!
That's it about old cars. Almost literally. On the voyage between airport and downtown Havana, car ride that lasts about 20 minute I was surprised by amount of brand new Hyundais, Kias, Peugeots, various, for me unknown, Chinese brands of cars. Admittedly, still 60 percent of the cars are 20, or more years old, but I bet you would be very surprised to be waiting for the green light on the Revolution square, overshadowed by giant images of Che and Camilo, while being behind latest version of Audi A4. I knew that Cuba was going through liberalization process and opening to the world, but I didn't expect proletariat to drive latest German saloons. What is Castro being driven in then?
On the other hand, I then remembered that I come from a country, with history of similar communist leader of society where everyone was supposed to be equal, yet our beloved Tito had a soft spot for special versions of Mercedes Benz - Pullman . I guess someone is always more equal than others. And deep down, that image, of unexpectedly modern cars, even managed to make me a bit happy, as a human being, because progress should be available to all of humanity. I know that I’ve dreamed of similar material stuff, back in the poor 1990s.
Still battling with overwhelming humidity that almost made me long for European winter, we drove through, more or less, standard looking suburbs and elegantly snuck into Havana. What I saw from the seat of that old Chevy gave me first impressions that were fulfilling my previous expectations. Through the veil of night, I saw a town, a one nation's Capitol that was combination of massive modern buildings, made after 1960s, sometimes adorned with revolutionary images, and much larger number of charmingly dilapidated buildings that made you not forget that this is one of the oldest, colonial towns in New World. In 2015, Havana will celebrate 500 years of history. And you can certainly see that, the good and bad sides of old age.
||Our first cab ride ended in downtown Havana, in a small street lit by couple orange street lights. I guess white lights would be too plain in this country. San Miguel 107, will be my address for the next eight days and a large room in a small apartment on the third floor will be my home. But Cuban third floor, in some old building, is not like American and European third floor. As an architect, I was impressed by almost 5 m tall ceiling in an apartment building, elegantly plastered and adorned with fan or chandelier. As an architect I was impressed, but as an overweight, out of shape office worker, I found myself quickly out of breath and leaning on the rails while ascending that, very narrow, staircase. Most old urban residential buildings, in Havana, are like that. Neoclassical, tall and narrow forms, with very narrow interiors and small atriums.
To solve the problems posed by the cramped corridors, almost every old building has a steel beam that protrudes near the top of front facade, with a hook on it, that was used to support a rope to raise or lower heavy and cumbersome things to the higher floors. Even these days, standard citizen of Havana, will get it's fruits and vegetables by lowering a bucket, from balcony, to the street seller, that drives or push large cart with various fruits. Fruits that will take me couple of days to know their name.
|What is Havana really? If you're expecting a Lonely planet type of landmark review, with list of interesting buildings, restaurants, what to see, what to do... well I will have to disappoint you. Havana is, as I said a town with almost 500 years of history, with more than 2.3 million of people, a Capitol of the country which was the battleground between East and West that almost culminated in nuclear war. To quickly summarize Havana, and to some extent entire Cuba, I could draw parallels and say it is like Barcelona, or some other major, seaside, town in south of Spain or Italy. It is vibrant, loud and colorful and still charming type of chaos, where everything moves either too slowly or too fast. It is like some exotic dish, that you're having for the first time so you can't tell the ingredients but, in the end, you like the taste.
Yes some city blocks are old and dilapidated, sometimes there are piles of piles of thrash on the sidewalks, but the worst thing I could say about Havana is that it, sometimes, looks underfunded.
I can throw names like El Capitolio, Moro fort, Obispo Street, Habana Vieja, Malecon and so on, but I will rather spend your time by talking about how personally experienced people and how I saw that town, without going into history and numbers.
||Scientists claim that, about, 80% of our awareness of the world that surrounds is based on what we see, but my opinion is that it is disservice to what we feel with other senses. Especially what we smell around us. Most of the time we take smell for granted, not thinking about what our nose tells us. We don't notice it because usually we're surrounded by same things all the time, so much that smells is just that, just what things always are like. But you know that feeling of surprise and delight when you sense freshly cut lawn, or forest in the spring or when you turn your head for a women that smells like fruit of paradise.
So whenever I travel somewhere abroad, I have the same weird little ritual. As soon as I wake up, for a first time on that particular destination, I go out on the balcony or the window, find a place to sit or stand in peace....and then do nothing. I just close my eyes, and try to feel the environment by inhaling it. I don't wanna see what I smell cause I like the freedom of discovery and association that visual ignorance affords me. Those 5 to 10 minutes of discovering the ingredients of air and what those smells remind me of, is something that I could compare to sommelier tasting a fine French wine, trying to determine the year, origin and special spices that give wine it's unique quality. Yes, it's just like smelling the bouquet of a city. Havana smells like an orchard after heavy rain, in the summer morning. Like a pear or quince washed in tropical humidity.
But enough with such esoteric claims. I will now return on something more relatable - actual people. Actual people of Havana and Cuba in general. When it comes to it's population Cuba is a melting pot of African and European nationalities. They have to the mix all added everything they could - religion, language, customs, skin color, dances, etc. Obviously, end product of such combination is hard to defying with few word and I would hesitate to even attempt that. Trying to do that, after only two and half weeks there would be very arrogant of me. Maybe, even trying to make a distinction would be a mistake and futile attempt to fit them into prepared template that we were taught by various sides, ages ago, without knowing Cubans or being on Cuba. If I cannot allow myself to say what Cubans are, I will try to say what they are not.
Popular Western image of Cuba is that it's outdated, isolated communist island state with poor, oppressed people. Maybe they are poor, and average monthly salary of 20 euros suggests that, but they don't look like that. When you step out, onto streets of Havana for the first time, you will see well fed people, dressed in clean and modern clothes. In most countries that I have visited, especially in Eastern Europe, poverty goes hand in hand with desperation, but not here. Whenever I saw someone who could be described as poor, they still seemed happy and optimistic. Again this may be superficial impression, but it looked very convincing. Most Cubans have cell phones, even latest iPhones and Android smartphones. Youth of Havana could easily be mistaken for youth of Miami, and I am sure most of them would like to actually be. Very self-confident clothes, bright polished nails, loud colors, t-shirts with western logos or messages are the norm in Havana, especially with women, though men don't lag far behind.
When it comes to oddities, only things that pop into my mind, at the moment, are very benign. For instance, men there, young and old, have the habit of growing nails on their pinkie fingers, as a sign of higher social status. Simultaneously, women there have inverted, compared to Europe and USA, relationship to skin tan. I am aware that this is common in tropical countries, but still it came as a surprise to me that ladies there prefer whiter skin and that they are trying to hide from the glow of the Sun, as much as possible. When we were catching the sunlight on Cuban beaches, we saw very few Cubans, and no girls at all, on beaches. In the end, explanation is simple. In Europe and USA you differentiate yourself with darker skin, because most of us are pale Caucasians, and on tropical Cuba, where temperatures in December are around 28 degrees Celsius and sun shines strongly, to differentiate yourself would be a lighter shade of skin.
||And since I am already discussing Cuban women, I will immediately clarify one thing - Cuban women are beautiful. To be frank, I have always had a soft spot for African women. I just like their skin tone, antelope like legs, sculpted arms and especially the curly spiral hair of women of African heritage. I can't describe how much I would like to play by combing such hair with my bare fingers. But I will also be frank to say that I still prefer, by a wide margin, women of Serbia, because of their challenging temper and nature.
After describing Cuban women and men, I have to tell something about their mutual relationships. One of the events on Cuba, that I have witnessed and that surprised me greatly, happened while I walked on Obispo Street, one of Havana’s main pedestrian lanes. In front of me, totally relaxed, walked averagely looking Cuban couple, both in their early 20s. Guy was holding smartphone in one hand, while other was positioned on his girlfriend's ass and used it to direct her movement by tapping it. Like a touchscreen. In itself that would be nothing special, common even in Europe, but what happened on top of that is something that I, as a guy in Serbia could never even think of. Another hot girl passed them, going in the opposite direction. Without even loosening the grip of his girl's ass, guy turned after the hot by passer and, loudly, said Cuban version of 'hot pussy!' ( papaya something, I think papaya Buena ). His original girl, and no he wasn't some young pimp, didn't react, at all. If I had tried to do that to in Serbia I would risk summary castration or would certainly die attempting to explain and dig myself out of such hole. One such occurrence could be discounted as an anomaly, but after seeing several reruns of such behavior, I realized that Cubans are very liberal when it comes to relationships. My belief was strengthened when I was informed that large number, if not most of marriages on Cuba, are not formal. People live together only as long as they feel so, not because they are tied by marital contract. One of the words that a tourist hears the most frequently on Cuba is tranquillo and it means "peacefully, relax". Cubans are certainly guided with that word when it comes to relationships. Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be.
It may truly be a cliché, yet it is truth nonetheless, but true nature of local people is best felt by how they dance, how they sing and what they eat. In case of Cuba it is almost a perfect reflection of their soul.
I may not like it, I may find it boring, but I cannot deny the beauty of salsa, type of dance, and music that accompanies it and that has become synonymous with Cuba. There are different version of salsa on other Caribbean islands, but Cuban is most famous, just as Cuba is most famous island of this archipelago. Superficially it is not complicated dance, with couple of moves for feet. Back, to the side, then to the front and again to the side. There are almost no rules for hands, except that you should hold your partner's hand with them. Or grasp their bodies. Tourist guides often speak fairy tales of people constantly dancing on streets of Havana, but while that is far from truth, at least in Havana, it also doesn't take much to make Cubans dance. Especially, if you have been burdened by curse of being a pretty woman. If you are one of those, you won't be standing alone for long time in any Cuban bar. And that is good for more than one reason. Heat generated by salsa dancing will be help you survive air conditioners, which are always turned on to the maximum in Cuba. So it's better to dance than stand. And who knows, maybe the night will last much longer if you start it that way. Popularity of Cuban music is nothing new, but it has been greatly increased since 90s, by the work of big band groups like Buena Vista Social Club, after opening of Cuba to Western world in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
||In any Cuban town it is very easy to find a place with live music, where you'll be swiftly amazed by singers, especially because most of them don't use any kind of speakers to amplify their voices. Chan Chan, Candela, Besame mucho are the titles of some of those now very recognizable songs, though probably none as legendary ode Comandante Che Guevara. Other famous style of Cuban music is Afro-Rumba, dizzyingly fast mix of salsa and African dances which are full of deeper meanings. Almost every move is a part of larger show, a play about man woman relations or sacred dance devoted to some god from pantheon of Santeria. It is religion that is mostly rooted in polytheistic cultures of Africans that were brought to Cuba to be slaves on sugar cane plantations.
But to claim that Cuba is just land of Salsa is to lie. It's like claiming that Britons are nothing more than fans of just Beatles or Rolling Stones. Just as people and societies, they form, evolve, so does the music. It follows the footsteps of every new generation, trying to conform to their unique tastes. Therefore it’s not a surprise that, when you ask any Cuban, below 30, what’s is his or her favorite type of music, the answer that you get is very rarely – salsa. With confused look on your face, you’ll hear that Salsa is something that is the sound of old Cuba, something that’s appealing only to their parents and grandparents, and of course, tourists. Don’t worry, no one will say that they don’t like salsa at all, but their first preference is something else. Something new, something fresh. And that something is usually reggaeton, type of music that can be, superficially, described as Latin hip-hop. In fact, that description should be reserved only for lyrics, which carry the same level of self-confidence, brazenness, show off... it is the same type of lines you can imagine some rapper, from Compton, Bronx, or any hood on the wrong side of tracks, would utter. While the lyrics could be described as a relative of hip-hop lyrics, the sounds is 100% Caribbean. Mix of Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Cuban influences result in very dynamic sound that seems perfectly suited for tropical night parties, on some Caribbean sandy beach, with a mojito in one hand and a thick cigar in other.
Beyond native, Caribbean, types of sounds, Cubans are also bombarded with, what I would almost pejoratively describe as MTV music, worldwide hits and performers, like Beyoncé, Shakira, Rihanna, etc. During my stay there, though, there was no one as famous and universally loved as Marc Anthony, with his latest hit Vivir mi Vida. Literally, you could hear that song all the time in any place in Havana and other Cuban towns. It would follow you on car radios, street bands would perform it, at least, once every hour, you could hear it from the lips of the ordinary people passing by you on the street. I had an impression that I would hear it even when opening fridge or while flushing the toilet. It sounds boring, and at times it certainly was too much, especially obnoxious because I understood only one quarter of the lyrics, but the first thing I did when I got home, in Serbia, was to find that song on the internet and play it. Once, twice, three, four....over and over again. Like my one guilty Cuban pleasure.
For Cubans breakfast is just a small snack, nothing more than a chore to be quickly dealt with before real dealings of the day start. I was treated with traditional Cuban offering. Their breakfast is combination of pair of boiled eggs, toasts to have with butter, fruit salad ( mix of papaya, guava, orange, pineapple, mango and banana ) and milk, coffee and some fruit juice or fruit flavored yogurt. In Serbia we don't call that breakfast, we call it fruit salad. Even though I liked the fruit, especially guava, and could eat as much of it, and drink whatever I wanted as much I wished, I began to long for piece of ham or bacon. But I simply could not ask for something like that. I was cruelly restricted by my upbringing and rules taught by my parents, that say that guest should never ask for more and be grateful for whatever host gives him or her. And plus, somewhere in back of my head, was notion, or prejudice, that Cubans are not very rich and that this may be much more than they usually eat. But after a couple of days, my host, thankfully, noticed how lukewarm my thanking and compliments about breakfast have become. After that day morning sun in Cuba was even warmer. Ham, cheese, omelets with, my favorite morning food on Cuba, fried bananas that Cubans eat instead of potato fries. They can be sweet or salty and are always deliciously crunchy. I am not sure whether that’s the result of different types of bananas or two ways of preparing. I just enjoyed it.
Just how good, Mother Nature has been to Cubans, you can see as soon as you sit down somewhere, to have a lunch or dinner. No, you don't have to wait, for the meal to arrive, to realize that. And laid back, 'tranquillo, tranquillo' approach of Cuban waiters will make sure that you will wait a long time, more than you need to reach conclusion that presents itself, the moment you open the menu. It will certainly sound strange for some, so please bear with me this time, but the lack of numerous varieties of dishes on restaurant menus in Cuba is nothing but a proof how good they taste. When you visit a standard restaurant in Havana, you will be presented with a choice, of no more than 6 or 7 main dishes. Lamb in wine, chicken, lobster, shrimps, fish in sweet fruits or garlic sauce and that's it. It's not like Cuban are not inventive, or lazy, they just realized that mucking up with perfect gifts of Nature is pointless. All you need, the best you will ever get is already there. So, usually, food on Cuba is treated lightly, cooked, baked or fried for not more than 15 minutes or so, just so it's not raw yet still soaked in juices and aromas given by nature. Lack of large number of different preparation styles is compensated by large variety of garnishes. Fruits, vegetables, frankly more fruit and vegetables that you can think of. Manioc, fried bananas and especially rice reduce the importance of potatoes and bread. They were there, but not in large quantity or always, so I am not sure whether that was because they truly don’t it like them much or because they were served only to appease our different tastes. In any case, I wasn’t on Cuba to eat like I would eat in Europe, where I could only eat burger in McDonalds, for the price of lobster on Cuba.
I won’t tell you that best Mojitos or Daiquiris are served on Cuba, but that’s most likely the truth. If for no other reason, then because the best rum is made on that Caribbean island. On the other side of menu, Cuba has a lot to offer even if you avoid alcohol like excellent local coffee which I drank so much that I’ve foretold and seen the future, then amazing guava juice among myriad of other. But my favorite drinks while I was there, beside Lemonade Frappe which is not that unique, was Sugar Cane Juice. Freshly squeezed out of the stem, with the just a bit of lemon juice, so it’s not too sweet (it’s sugar cane, after all), symbolized perfectly why I helplessly feel in love with what Cuba had to offer me, whether it was on a plate or in glass. As I said once before, my Cuban mistress was plain, some would say even primitive, but I still didn’t have the answers for the temptations of her unadorned natural beauty. We’re apart now, living on two different continents, with thousands of miles of Atlantic separating us, but I will always remember her. Some people have that last tango in Paris. I will always have that last plate of garlic sauce shrimps in Havana.
By now you have, certainly, realized that it was very easy, for me, to have a good day on Cuba. Interesting scenery, thought provoking people with their different customs and habits plus easily available excellent food, drink and music. Truly I had it easy when it comes to planning a nice day there. But just like every days turns into night, I must leave the light of joyful descriptions, and move into darker realms of my story. This is when things become serious and more realistic. But don't worry, boogie man is not real.
To start gradually, I’ll begin with another sobering realization that strikes any tourist, very quickly after landing in Havana. We may have different names, carry different passports, but we all have same phrases 'written’ on our foreheads, visible to every local. Tourist, rich, money, to name just a few. And as such, for tourist, nothing is for free on Cuba. Everything has a price, no matter how ridiculous object or service in question may seem. In just how, tragic or funny depending on how much money you have or your mood at the time, you can get into, I will tell you what happened to me, on my second day there.
First thing, we were guided, to see in Havana, was Hemingway’s house, about 20 minutes of driving, east of capitol. It’s a fascinating house, where he lived for about 20 years, on a property shaded with all sorts of tropical species of flora. Just as Hemingway brought various types of trees from his worldwide travels to beautify the exterior, he also decorated the interior of his villa, with hunting trophies collected on his African safari trips. Such combination of curious items, really motivates you to take, as many as possible, pictures. Near, now empty, grand swimming pool I was taking a picture of one my friends, from same travel group, when I was approached by a really nicely looking lady, in her 60s or 70s. She reminded me a bit of my grandmother and exuded trustworthiness, when she asked me would I would allow her to take a picture of two of us, with my camera. I thought why not because what’s better of picture of your friend than picture of you and your friend. Old lady took first picture, then second and when I wanted to thank her and take my camera back, she brushed me of and told us to go to another place, near the pool, for some more photos. Maybe she just knows where are the interesting spots for photos, crossed my mind. After fifth photo, I got my camera back and a bill for 8 euros. That thought didn’t cross my mind, because it was public property and the camera was mine. Not trying to make a fuss about it, and thinking that’s maybe a specific custom there, I paid and never again allowed Cuban to take a photo of me, with my camera. At least those photos weren’t bad.
Somewhere at the start of this story, I’ve probably mentioned that average Cuban salary, is about 25 euros, per month. Well I’ve wasted twice that amount just on going to toilets in Cuba. I’ve literally pissed away two months of work of average Cuban, in restaurants and bar where you’re, almost always greeted by an old cleaning lady, on your way to bathroom. Thankfully it was 1 euro, for both #1 and #2, and toilets were very clean. Couple of times I was in real pickle, when I didn’t have small change to pay for the bathroom, but after a couple of days we’ve wisely organized “toilet budget” made of small coins, to relieve our problems. To be frank, there are person who charge for using toilets in Serbia too, but only in concert halls when there’s probability of lot of drunken juveniles, or something like that. Certainly not in posh restaurants or on gas pumps.
Since we’re discussing what has to be paid when you’re in restaurant on Cuba, it’s natural to give a tip about tips. In Havana’s more upmarket places, and anywhere else similar on Cuba, tips are included in the bill and add about 10% to the amount. If you want to give something on the top, or if you are in the places where tips are not already included, it’s up to you to decide will you be generous to the waiter or not. Tips are not expected by Cubans, and they are certainly not impressed by them. It’s not that they are not grateful, far from it, but they know that you come from a place where those 50 cents, will maybe get you as far as one bubble gum on gas pump. They excellently know that amount is frankly nothing for you, and their pride won’t allow them to be ‘swept off their feet’ and to publicly express any kind of expected emotions.
As a tourist you will have to pay for everything on Cuba. ‘Nothing is for free on Cuba’ was a frequent, semi tragic, joke among my group of fellow travelers. But as a human you can get treasures for free. Over there you can’t buy generosity, you can only earn it. Don’t treat Cuban as a foreigner, visiting tourist, just be a fellow human being, and everyone will open up their hearts and crack a smile. Money will never do the trick. Gesture of friendship or just plain humanity will.
For eight days, in Havana I stayed in an apartment, about 5 minutes of walk from the center of Old Havana, hosted by a very complex older lady, by name of Elsa. At the beginning of my stay there, she was very professional, or to put it bluntly, cold. She rarely spoke to us ( me and my roommate) and rarely got out of her own bedroom, except to serve us breakfast and check our bathroom. I still don’t know why she was like that. Maybe it was because we were just one of dozens visitors she receives each year, maybe she wanted to gives us and her private space or maybe she thought her English was too poor for any meaningful conversation. So for the first couple of days we had almost whole apartment to ourselves and Elsa, who lives alone, kept her distance. But after of couple of days of me just picking up used plates, after breakfast, and returning to kitchen and other similarly small examples of being considerate, she started talking and treating us, like family. I guess, her English was truly bad and I my Spanish is even worse. Still, words are cheap and gestures are what count. And those gestures included getting offered more coffee, rum, free dinner. Even some of my poorly washed beach clothes, she found on the balcony, was washed for free. I have even got some honest comments that I am a nice looking guy, smart and well mannered, but that I should really lose about 20 kilos. I wasn’t offended by that at all, since I know about and actually use a mirror, on occasions, but what’s the point of such comment after giving me free extra meals. That was not fair.
In the country of my origin, Serbia, one of very serious customs, is to bring a present with you, whenever you’re invited to someone’s house for the first time. Present doesn’t have to be big, bottle of fine wine or rakija will do the job. So for that reason, before leaving Belgrade, I have bought a baseball glove knowing it’s Cuban national sport. But giving such thing, to a lady in her early 60s, with an only child living in USA, was not making any sense. So I had to think of something else on the spot, at least for the goodbye gift, since my plan for welcome gift fell through. Luckily I’ve noticed that my host is fond of good luck charms and other mystical symbols, like horseshoes, figurines of frogs and elephant that were supposed to bring wealth to the household. At that moment, all my preparations and reading for my failed trip to Mexico came in handy. I’ve remembered that in Mexico, originating from their Pre-Columbian heritage, the dragonfly is a sign of happiness, speed and purity. Purity because the dragonfly eats from the wind itself. Then I had made a leap of faith, hoping the belief has spread throughout Latin America, and made Elsa a small drawing of insect resting on swamp reed, just to say thanks. And it paid off. First of all, I got compliments for the drawing, more coffee and to top that in the morning there two small boxes of Cuban cigars waiting for me, for free. To fully understand the scale of her try to thank me, it is important to once again remind you that average monthly salary on Cuba is ranging from 20 to 30 euros. And I got cigars that are sold to tourist (Cuban have a discount when purchasing cigars) worth two weeks of work.
So here’s my biggest tip for anyone who wants to visit Cuba. Don’t be a tourist there, be a human and you’ll see and experience much more than any tourist could pay for.
Cuba is society in midst of dramatic change, that will probably will be good for only a portion of this nation. Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Kim family, Fidel, Che....all these figures are probably first historical persons that pop up in anyone’s mind when the subject of communism arrives. I don’t claim to know what was or is real Cuba, what was and still is like to live as Cuban under the regime that has been a constant on this island for the past 54 years. I cannot claim that knowledge because it is very hard to get Cuban to speak about politics. Maybe they are still afraid of government surveillance; maybe they don’t talk about it because it is boring to talk about something that hasn’t changed fundamentally for so long. Popular myth, for all first time tourists on Cuba, is that Cubans, when they want to talk about politics and government, use the mask of discussions about baseball. That somewhere in those exchanges about pitching balls and home runs, are coded remarks about Fidel, America, government ministers and latest policies. That could be truth, but I didn’t know Spanish good enough to overhear such talks. Explanation that I’m personally leaning to, is that the Cubans simply know, like so many disillusioned people from Eastern Europe, that you could talk as much as you like about politics, especially if you’re not too rebellious, but that won’t put food on table.
I don’t know so many things about Cuba and will never will claim the opposite. After 16 days there, I feel like I only briefly visited to a sandy beach that represents knowledge about Cuba and went home with just one sand particle stuck in my brain. Even if I had enough time to take a look at every little piece of knowledge, the overall picture of this nation would always change, just like beach is constantly reshaped by the forces of waves and winds.
The only things that I can firmly rely are the comments of people like me, foreign visitors, with whom I had a privilege to talk about their Cubans experience. I especially liked the moments when I was lucky enough to meet someone who wasn’t there for the first time. 10, 5 years ago it was totally different. That was the most frequent answer. That or, for the first timers – I came here 5 to10 years too late. That’s the speed of changes on Cuba
||Cuba was a symbol of communism for so long, and these days is frequently bundled with North Korea as only remaining, hard core, communist state, mainly because of the fact there’s were little, if at all, personal changes at the top. In North Korea, Kim family has been the focus of the power for three generations, over last 60 years. And on Cuba.... well Fidel is still alive (87 now), and still an overshadowing authority even though his brother Raul has replaced him as the president couple of years ago, ushering number of reforms.
These days Cuba is communist only in name, and you get the feeling that it was never anywhere near North Korean, personal cult, style of communism. There are surprisingly few large images depicting Fidel, Raul and Che even in Havana. You won’t see his face on every corner and certainly no malign, anti-west, messages. Yes, there are large signs, near the highway, like Patria o Muerte ( Homeland or Death ) but vast majority of them are benign messages targeted at students and workers like ‘Through hard work and unity we can achieve anything’. I don’t see why any society, Western or Eastern, would object to that. But just as color is peeling of the walls that carry such mottoes, Communism is fading on Cuba.
With reforms sped up by Raul Castro, Cuba will become capitalist state, maybe in less than a decade. Whether it will be capitalist economy with one party system, like China or Vietnam, or will go through the same process Eastern European countries went through, in the early 90s, only the future will tell. These days Cuba has much more liberal policies on public property, private enterprise, import and traveling than it had, even five years ago. As an illustration of the speed and range of changes, Cubans frequently reach for the change of stance on homosexuals. Until the end of the previous century, such people were sent to special camps in the country side, for “reeducation”, but when Raul Castro became a president, his lesbian daughter traveled to Mexico and threatened to make a scandal by asking for asylum in USA, unless policies on LBGT community are changed. And nowadays Havana can look sometime like San Francisco. That, and similar reforms allow the Cubans to buy second houses, import new car, use cell phones, start private business, take bank loans... Yet, government grip is still firm in some places, evident in severely restricted access to internet. Such control of information flow is at the same time expected in one party system, and very hilarious, especially in Havana where most people don’t even watch national TV channels since they can get the signal of all major USA TV stations that broadcast over the air.
Reforms on this, reforms on that, liberties on this, liberties on that. That all sounds nice, but you very quickly dawns on you that benefits of such reforms are reaped only by a minority of people, with gaps between them and other ever increasing. I don’t think that communism is perfect system. It relied on unrealistic notions that there can be classless society, where people would like to share so everyone is equal. It has naively closed its eyes on the horrible fact that people are nothing more than civilized animals, guided mostly by self interest and greed. Compassion, morale are not engrained in us by birth, we only learn it after and much slower than we forget it, first time we are given a chance to enhance our own existence. To hell with other people. It’s me and only me.
And that’s what I saw on Cuba, and what worries me. I am seeing all the signs that I’ve seen, in 90s, in my home country that lead to couple of families and well-connected figures getting unbelievably rich while most of ordinary people were left with next to nothing, except with futile hope and hollow story of democracy. In communism you were ruled by party and police, in democratical Serbia (and in many other post-communist countries) you’re ruled by the goodwill and mercy of your employer.
Perhaps I should not look tragically at the fact that I’ve seen my Trinidadian host employing, undeniably tragically looking, house servants to clean his second house and wash laundry. Also I should not be appalled by rise in small-street crime, the type that happened when one of my friends from the travel group had her purse snatched away on streets of Havana, 'cause that can happen, just as frequently on streets of Paris or Rome. And some other signs of society rotting away, that can be seen at so many other places around the globe. But my fairy tale image of Cuba was finally dispersed and I could not be anything else but saddened by images of teenage prostitution. It’s a taboo topic on Cuba, that no one talks about it or says that police take those girls and boys of the street or ‘that does not happen in my town’. Yet it’s undeniably frequent occurrence and as tourist, easy to access. While it’s really hard to identify prostitutes on the city streets, mostly because everyone on Cuba dresses a bit too flashy or skimpy for European standards, all you have to do is to enter one bigger night clubs. And that’s exactly what two of my, female, friends and I did one night.
Looking one evening, naively, to prevent the day’s fun from ending, we entered one of more popular Havana’s night clubs, or how they call them Casa de la Musica. At the entrance we were thoroughly searched and asked to leave cameras at the club’s wardrobe. After that procedure, we eventually went into main hall of the club, where we were surprised by the fact that no one was dancing on the dance podium, even though the music was playing. Patrons of the club were mostly foreign tourist, but vast majority of the attendees were girls, age 15 to 20, dressed like the type of woman you would pick up at night, at some highway underpass. Such girls were divided in two groups. First one is already dancing with customers( at their tables), some twice or more, their age while second one is waiting to be chosen by someone. At the moment first group of girls is done dancing and taken away from the table, somewhere to do something that certainly is not eloquent discussions on topics of Jane Austen’s novels, bunch of still zit faced hookers quickly, stampede like, approach vacated table and search the cans and glasses for any leftovers of drinks. In other words they can be fucked in club, but they cannot afford to drink there. I do not like prostitution mainly cause I fear that, knowing how cruel and messed up this world, maybe my possible daughter, one day, may end doing that, and not by her choice. I am atheist, and proud to be one, but I believe in karma and the principle of what goes around comes around. While I am not a fan of prostitution certainly, I am, a bit hypocritically, not shocked or even saddened when I see it. I’ve simply seen it too many times. But all three of us were really depressed by that scene, that scarily reminded us of cattle stampede at meat market.
For a person who grew up in Serbia, after the collapse of Yugoslavia, this is a very bad omen. Really, I wish I have visited Cuba ten years ago.
But this is not reality of some SF TV show and I cannot travel back through time. In the end I should be realistic, satisfied with what I got. I got so many times more than I even dreamed of. I’ve seen amazing cities, nature that escapes my description, felt loved by people whom I have seen for the first and most likely last time in my life. I have described only a small portion of things that amazed me about Cuba, but I am out of the words now.
I don’t think that I will visit Cuba ever again. I simply like it too much to go over there in 5, 10 years and see it too commercialized, turned into new Cancun or South Florida. Those places may be cool in their own right, but we all need and should cherish variety, something unique. And my Cuba is something truly unique. She is my kitchen lover, my endless virgin sand beach, my tanned friend from Havana, my aroma of orchard after rain, my sunset over Caribbean Sea in Trinidad... I’m loving it too much, to go there one day, and stand under the billboard with red and yellow M logo that will say - I’m loving it.
© Milos Radulovic Feb 2014
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