I felt an uncharacteristic sense of unease as I left Geneva on the morning flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle in advance of crossing the Atlantic for the second time in two days. For the most part I had enjoyed the previous two weeks on the Caribbean island of Grenada, watching six matches of the Super Eights stage of the 2007 Cricket World Cup with friends from my former cricket team in Sydney. But Grenada, on a par with the oft criticised level of organisation of the tournament across the West Indies in general, hadn’t seemed ready for the sudden influx and exodus of visitors, and it had been difficult for me to get a flight off the tiny island nation soon after the scheduled matches had been completed. As it turned out the cheapest and most efficient way for me to get from Grenada to Havana was to stay a couple of extra days and then fly via the big European hubs of Frankfurt and Paris. Though it seemed crazy, this was very beneficial as I got a night back at my place in Geneva and had the chance to spend a little bit of time with my fiancée, who I had missed very much while I was gone. So while before this point I had been incredibly excited about continuing onto the second chapter of my Caribbean adventure with mates it was fun and easy to travel with to visit Cuba, a country I knew almost nothing about, now that the time was nigh I was noticeably downcast.
On landing in Paris I switched my mobile phone back on and immediately received a text message. Assuming it was from Katie and that it would cheer me up a little, I eagerly went to access it while walking along the terminal concourse. It turned out to be from my Dad, telling me that he hoped he had caught me before I was uncontactable as my Grandad had just passed away suddenly. Just after I had last seen my grandfather at Christmas he had been diagnosed with cancer that had already spread to multiple places, but everyone was expecting him to live until at least the second half of the year. While that may have gone some way to explain my mood, I still wasn’t really prepared for his sudden passing and felt a little numb with shock whilst making my way between terminals and through security for the Air France flight to Havana.
While airborne over the Atlantic I felt torn. This was my only foreseeable chance to visit Cuba in its present situation while Fidel Castro was still (presumably) alive, where the aura of the 1950’s Communist revolution was still present, and while the embargo with the US was still in effect. But I also wanted to be at home with my family. And then, for the first time in my life, I felt confused as to where ‘home’ really was. It used to be a no-brainer. Home was Tasmania, where I spent the first twenty three years of my life, where my parents had spent their entire lives so far and where my Grandad had just died, almost seventy years after migrating there with his parents from England. But now I noticed a newer, supplementary instinct too. In two and a half months I would be married, and ‘home’ would be wherever Katie and I were together as our own family. That, for the time being at least, was Geneva, the only city we had collectively known since we had got together.
My brooding spirits were lifted somewhat on landing in Havana as the adventure of entering a new country for the first time began.
There's no time to lose, I don't care what they say.
There's no time to lose, we could have a holiday.
But there's no time for hesitation, there's no time, no time for waiting.
Sister Havana by Urge Overkill.
On filing though into the closed-off immigration booths and handing over the loose slip of paper containing my tourist visa (no stamps in my passport, and after departure no remaining official evidence with me that I ever set foot in the country), I heard a buzzer sound and a loud click as the solid wooden door of the booth unlocked and I was able to push it open and walk through to the baggage carousels, before the door closed itself and locked again before the next person behind me was cleared.
Next I headed to the foreign exchange desk. I had deliberately brought Euro in cash rather than Swiss Francs as I thought this would be easier to change into Convertible Pesos, the newer and stronger of the two Cuban currencies and mostly reserved for tourists, and I assume the introduction of which was an attempt to keep US currency out of circulation. Not only did bringing Euro turn out to be unnecessary, but I missed out on using the extraordinary exchange rates throughout Cuba in my favour. For each Euro I changed I got 1.2 Convertible Pesos, but for each Swiss Franc I could have obtained around 1.35. Considering that in Switzerland the exchange rate was about 1.6 Swiss Francs to each Euro, I did a little arithmetic and was left with the crazy realisation that had I brought Swiss Francs, changed it all into Convertible Pesos and then changed the Convertible Pesos back into Euro, I could have returned to Europe with around 1.8 times more money than I’d brought to Cuba. With a sizeable enough sum, I could have travelled and made a risk free profit. Even as I write this it still seems too inconceivable to be true.
I hopped into the back of a fairly modern cab and, while I noticed the no smoking signs on the back window, the driver casually puffed away on a cigarette as we rumbled out along wide and straight avenues in the warm light of late afternoon. The roads were clogged with old American and only slightly more modern Eastern and Western European cars and trucks. I spotted my first few camellos, long truck-trailers shaped with a camel hump that operated throughout Havana as public buses.
Propaganda posters were placed at regular intervals exalting Fidel Castro, the Communist revolution and Cuba’s close relationship with Venezuela, with taglines like ‘¡Vamos Bien!’ (‘Going Well!’). Groups of people congregated around make-shift bus-stops and outside small takeaway bars with barred windows, and the concrete paving and buildings themselves were cracked significantly. In every area of public space boys of all ages were playing street games of baseball, some with real bats, balls and gloves and others with whatever objects they could scrounge – sometimes sticks for bats and plastic bottle caps for balls. The nearer we got to Habana Vieja, Old Havana, the more the streets narrowed and the once-grand buildings became more densely packed and decrepit. In its Spanish colonial heyday Havana was most definitely a fashionable and regal city, but now every single street and building exuded an air of long since faded glory.
Rather than stay in hotels, Ben, Derek, Tony and I were all keen to stay in casa particulares, cheap guest rooms in private homes and apartments of regular Cuban families. Before the trip Ben had tried to book a few casas online according to the rough itinerary we had created for ourselves, and had built up a connection with Leo and Carol, the people behind the website’s co-operative of casas. Instead of Ben booking everything in advance, they had organised a casa for us in Havana just to begin with. After we had all arrived in the country, Leo called our casa each day to make sure we were satisfied and, once we had decided on our next destination, told us the address of the next one he had organised on our behalf. It seemed a little like we were putting our accommodation choices in the hands of the mafia, but the casas Leo organised for us were always very good and he looked after us well.
The taxi dropped me off outside a doorway in the heart of Old Havana in a pothole-ridden narrow alley surrounded by crumbling buildings. After ringing the bell and climbing up three flights of stairs I entered the long outdoor terrace of our first casa, flanked by doorways to the guest bedrooms. The quality of the interior of this place belied its surroundings, and it seemed pretty safe to assume that the family that lived here were better off than most of their neighbours.
Here I was re-united with my three mates, and we exchanged tales of what we had got up to since they had left Grenada three days earlier. Their flights had been not much less time consuming than mine. Managing to leave Grenada a day and a half before me, they had to fly an almost corkscrew route via Puerto Rico, Miami and then Mexico City (with Derek having another leg to Dallas in between), and they had already had the best part of two full days to explore Havana. Their observations thus far and enthusiasm about what they had seen helped put me back in a positive frame of mind as we sat on the terrace eating an ample dinner of roast chicken, boiled potatoes, plantains, rice and black beans. This was pretty typical of what each of our casas served up for us for dinner each night, and we were a little surprised there was no hint of Mexican or Caribbean style spiciness to any of the dishes. Nevertheless, simple but hearty and tasty staples like this are easily my favourite style of food.
After dinner we headed towards the nearby Central railway station to get a taxi. Walking through the alleyways people were crowding outside around small TV sets chanting, singing and dancing with true Latin American passion as they watched their local baseball team Industriales take on Santiago de Cuba in a playoff game. Around the station there were a few vintage cabs waiting, but as soon each driver worked out we were foreigners they became completely disinterested. Finally we found a more modern taxi, as it turned out one of the few licensed by the government to transport non-Cubans, to take us westwards to the more modern district of Vedado.
Right by the towering Habana Libre hotel was the apartment where Kath, a former work colleague of Ben’s in Sydney, was staying with her local boyfriend Eddie. They had already shown my other three companions a good night out the previous night, and tonight Eddie, like the rest of Havana, was glued to the TV. Though I was fast getting tired, I found the baseball coverage fascinating. The stadium, the lighting and the telecast were all of a style decades old, and it was one of the first of many things over the next ten days that gave me the feel of being frozen in time somewhere at, or not long after, the revolution of the late 1950’s.
Industriales lost the game (and the series), but that didn’t dampen the spirits of the residents of Old Havana. They remained out in the streets until the early hours of the morning, shouting, banging all kinds of kitchen and household items together and generally causing a huge celebratory din. Whether it was their noise that stopped me falling asleep right away or the rather odd looking figurines giving me attitude from across the bedroom I don’t exactly know.
We started the day at a car rental office in the grand Hotel Sevilla on the Prado, one of Havana’s most graceful boulevards, to get our wheels. I couldn’t help but have visions of us cruising around the country in a sleek 1950’s Chevrolet convertible, with sunglasses on, the wind through our hair and generally just looking too cool for school.
Alas, we got exactly what the paperwork had previously informed us we would: A not-so-sleek 1990’s Hyundai Accent. But to the locals we may not have looked quite as sensible and domestic in our car as we thought. The previous night Eddie had seemed very impressed when we told him what we were getting, telling us Accents were generally the cars of choice for higher ranking government officials.
As it was my credit card on file I was slightly concerned about the chances of getting wrongly charged for damage after returning the car (especially as we had just been charged, unfairly we thought, for supposed new marks on the sides of the already well scratched van we hired in Grenada), and so I watched the car hire employee closely as he sought to mark down the countless blemishes on the Hyundai’s bodywork. He wasn’t overly precise, and when he had finished without marking any of the scratches on the roof or undercarriage, I started to point them out. The man waved dismissively, telling me that he wouldn’t be looking at the car anywhere near that closely on its return. I wasn’t quite so sure, but to give him his dues we most definitely succeeded in adding a couple of extra dents to the car’s undercarriage on the country’s absolutely terrible roads and my credit card remained charge-free.
Derek and I had opted to share the driving, but as I was the only one with experience in a left hand drive, I got first dibs on taking us through the surprisingly orderly Havana traffic. From the Prado I took us out onto probably Havana’s most famous thoroughfare of all, the Malecón, following the seafront westwards to the road’s end before eventually turning inland into a well maintained district of foreign embassies.
We were looking for one of Cuba’s few motorways, but with little to no signage were relying exclusively on the hire car company’s provided map and a good deal of dead reckoning to determine our position. We found the autopista after crossing an overpass on top of it, and then made a U turn to have another go. There were no signs, lane markings or roadside fencing, and from the look of the other vehicles it seemed like we could get onto the autopista by using any of the on/off ramps we liked, regardless of the direction we were travelling in. Spoilt for choice but somewhat confused, we were soon on the divided carriageway heading west, sharing it with only a few other hire cars (relatively modern like ours and with distinctive red ‘turista’ number plates), trucks, slow motorbikes and the occasional horse and buggy.
What there were plenty of on the almost empty autopista were people, waiting by the roadside to hitch a ride in the back of an empty truck. Most were in groups resting in the shade of the concrete overpasses, generally with a man in army greens present to (I assume) ensure those waiting got a lift in order with their place in the queue. For some distance either side of the overpasses there were a few others spaced here and there, perhaps taking a chance at being able to beat the line. It seemed an inefficient and frustrating way to get around, whimsically planning an expected time of arrival at a chosen destination no more precisely than “whenever I get there”, and this was a first real inkling to us that either the country lacks much transport infrastructure, or that the populace is generally too poor to afford it, or both.
Eventually we turned off the autopista onto a two lane road bounded by rural wooden shacks with thatched roofs, and at once the condition of the road worsened. First it was the frequent potholes up to half the size of the car, making it necessary to drop down to first gear at times, and sometimes the bitumen just disappeared completely, revealing a surface of ungraded gravel. As we climbed into the hills and the road became twistier the visibility worsened too, as we got stuck behind an old truck crammed with hitch-hikers that regularly spewed out clouds of blue fumes.
In the mid-afternoon we arrived in the small town of Viñales and cruised along its lengthy single main street in search of the casa Leo had organised. There was a small snag as it was already full, but one of the teenage girls in the family got in the car with us four foreign men, without a hint of hesitation, and directed us to the apartment building of some relatives a few blocks off the main street. It was a rudimentary three storey block of small, two bedroom apartments, each opening out onto a common front yard that was home to dogs, pigs and numerous free range hens and their chicks. Derek and I had a room in a flat on the first floor, and Ben and Tony were in the flat directly above. Inside, all the rooms were incredibly basic, but were spotlessly clean and had enough little decorative touches to show their occupants’ obvious pride in their abode. But we could never work out exactly who lived with whom, as the residents all drifted in and out of each other’s flats as if they were communal.
The rest of the afternoon was spent sightseeing around the mogotoes, distinctive densely vegetated limestone mountains surrounding the town. This was very much a rural area, as we passed old farmers in battered cowboy hats toiling in fields of rich, red soil planted with crops of tobacco and sugar cane, using bullocks to help them in their manual labour.
Our first stop was at a giant mural of pre-historical animals that had been painted on the exposed rock face of one of these mountains that, without trying to be too dismissive, won’t go down in my book as a Cuban must-see.
Back in Viñales we casually meandered along the main street on foot, and for the first time I was really able to take in the style of the vintage cars that the population still have to rely on. I admired the wide collection of old Chevys, Plymouths, Dodges and Buicks, some rust buckets clearly not in current working order but most still running with much care, and came across a few American makes of that era I’d never before seen, Zephyrs and De Sotos among them.
Though Viñales seemed to be a popular stop-off with tourists and there was no shortage of casas in which to accommodate them, finding a restaurant turned out to be decidedly tricky. We ate a nice meal at quite possibly the town’s only one (before learning it was generally customary to eat at the casa), before calling it an early night.
Ben came down and roused Derek and I out of bed sometime after 9:30am. After more than twelve hours sleep I should have felt refreshed and ready to go, but I felt absolutely terrible.
We went a little north out of town to the Cueva del Indio, a cave and underground river. Unlike most other visitors, the other three had exchanged a bit of money into national pesos, the local traditional currency, before my arrival. At twenty five pesos for each convertible peso it gave us a huge stack of notes with which to eat lunch at dirt cheap street-side places shoulder to shoulder with the locals, and also enabled us to leave tips without having to ask for or hoard small change. The price to park the car at the cave’s empty car park was one convertible peso, and Tony reached into his bundle of national pesos to pay an equivalent amount. Mistakenly remembering the exchange rate as fifty to one, he handed fifty national pesos plus an extra ten as a tip to the attendant as we parked. The man looked at Tony first with disbelief, and then as if he was about to make romantic explosions all over him. As we walked away from the car towards the cave the man started after us calling out “No, senor...”, and once Tony realised his mistake but said it was OK anyway, the man was amazingly grateful. I was stunned, firstly that an extra thirty-five or so national pesos could make so much difference to the attendant, and secondly that he was honest enough to try and give it back. But it transpired that he was pretty typical of most of the people we came across, especially outside the major tourist areas. Other than a few touts in Trinidad and quite a few more constantly trying to make some easy money in Havana, the rest of the Cubans we came across were incredibly sincere and it seemed unthinkable to them that four non-Spanish speaking tourists could be used to their advantage. That was very refreshing.
Around Viñales at least, the preferred method of extracting maximised foreign income was solely through authorised government channels. For five convertible pesos each we were led through a well-lit narrow cave for a couple of minutes on foot before climbing into a small motor boat for a further five to ten minutes. As we puttered up and back down the underground river the guide quickly pointed a torch at rock formations that looked like animals (not many of which I could see the resemblance) before docking outside the cave adjacent to a succession of souvenir stands we had to run the gamut of before returning to the car park.
On returning to Viñales lunch was at a very basic local stand-up café. From what we could tell the menu consisted almost entirely of pieces of grilled red meat wrapped in small bread rolls, but they were delicious and for a short time at least managed to make me feel a little better. I was also struck by the precision of the weights (to a single gram) given to each item listed on the menu written up behind the counter, yet another reminder of the general regulated orderliness of life in this country.
After lunch we headed a little south to try to walk through farmland and up to the bases of some of the mogotes. We weren’t overly successful in getting to the mountains but did at least get more appreciation for the rural way of life in these parts. A couple of farmers sat inside their basic tobacco drying stores to escape some of the midday heat, while in a nearby paddock a couple of others were unhurriedly trying to get a bull to sire a cow.
At this point I was knocked out by my fatigue and just could not go on, so I got the others to drop me off back at the casa. While they headed back out to a nice hotel to relax by the pool, I just wanted to get some more sleep to combat my head and body aches. Explaining this to my host was no mean feat – I was barely able to communicate straight in English, let alone Spanish. All I was capable of was pointing at my head and saying ‘mal’ in the hope that the Spanish word for ‘sick’ was the same or similar to French. She looked at me as if I was some kind of weirdo, then waved her index finger around her ear and responded “¿loco?”
To this day she may well still think she let some mentally deranged foreigner (whose name was so peculiar she couldn’t pronounce it) stay for two nights in her own flat, the poor old dear.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon I was barely cognisant of the torrential downpour going on outside (ironic given the lack of running water in the bathroom at the same time), and the squealing of a pig somewhere close by (not unlike the discontent expressed by Derek each and every morning – the only person in the world worse than me when it comes to getting up). I surfaced briefly for dinner, huge portions of pork, rice and beans, and ate as much as I could. But while sitting at the table with the lights in the apartment continually flickering on and off I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty that our hosts had possibly prepared a better meal for us than they were going to eat themselves, before I immediately returned to bed and soundly slept through the night.
I had finally managed to shake off my exhaustion and contentedly tucked into the standard breakfast of fried eggs, slices of tropical fruit and juice. Derek and I paid our host the ten convertible pesos per person per night and added a few national pesos on top, much to her unrestrained gratitude – her ‘loco’ guest hadn’t gone berserk and killed her whole family, and he and his other companion, also with an unpronounceable name, tipped nicely to boot.
Though it was still relatively early in the morning when we left, there was a definite kick to the sun and the day promised to be a scorcher. Back in the car we re-traced our way back towards Pinar del Rio and through a series of educated guesses managed to get around the town and back onto the autopista towards Havana.
Over the previous couple of weeks we had oft reflected on the good, the bad and the ugly TV we had seen in Grenada during our stay, and it was a natural source of analysis during our hours in the car. From the local Grenadian programming like the SGU Knowledge Bowl competition for high school students (a collective favourite) to the many cable channels beamed in from the US, in particular the ultra-conservative shrillness of Fox News (a collective object of disdain, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the terrible massacre at Virginia Tech). But one that was more fondly looked upon by us was The Golden Girls, the late 1980’s sitcom about old women seeing out their days in Miami, which brought to mind memories of its daytime screenings during our school holidays. In its honour we decided to brand our Cuba trip after it – Miami was just across the water from here after all. It seemed even more fitting when we learned the US government reputedly spends millions of dollars a year beaming TV shows like this into Cuba as a propaganda tool, while the Cuban government supposedly spends a similar amount to scramble them.
It was pretty easy to find our alter-egos in the Golden Girls’ four major characters too. Dorothy, the most sensible one, was a natural fit for Tony. Her mother Sophia, the often cranky old biddy with the unrealistic mop of hair and wise-cracking habit, was Derek all over. Rose, the simple one from Minnesota, was most definitely me, the simple one from Tasmania. Which left Ben as Blanche, the tarty one. But he didn’t seem to mind.
Somewhere around the western outskirts of Havana the autopista just disappeared. One minute we were happily cruising along at 100km/h singing the Golden Girls theme tune and the next I had to slow to a complete stop as both sides of the sealed divided carriageway abruptly came to a halt – no warning signs, no witches hats and no gradual tapering off of either side of the autopista. We weren’t the only tourists caught by surprise as we ended up circling around in urban wasteland not far behind another tourist car whose occupants looked as similarly bewildered as we did.
After going back and getting off at the last exit we could only hope we had got onto a ring road of sorts around the south of the city. Later when we crossed over another major unsignposted autopista and took a gamble that it was the principal artery heading south-east, we back-tracked so as to enter on it. All our hopes were fulfilled when we soon saw a sign marking the distance to each of the major centres spaced along the whole breadth of the island between Havana and Santiago.
With the navigational challenges conquered it was all plain sailing along the motorway direct to Santa Clara as we passed through flatter and less fertile country, with occasional vendors standing in the median of the road selling bananas and onions. Then we heard a rather loud thump at the front of the car as we crossed a well hidden railway line without warning. This Cuban driving caper was unlike anything I’d done before, it was more than enough to keep me on my toes.
In the mid-afternoon we arrived in the centre of Santa Clara and without too much trouble found Casa Florida, Leo’s recommendation. He told us this was going to be the best accommodation of our stay, but even then our expectations were well and truly surpassed. Angel, our host, had a beautiful home crammed with period furniture built around a lovely garden courtyard.
He was also the only person we stayed with who spoke any English, and so we were able to learn a lot more about life for casa operators. Angel had been an industrial engineer but gave that vocation up as he could make more money with his casa but, though he had five bedrooms to let out, he could only afford to pay the hefty monthly license fees to the government for two rooms, as anything less than 100% occupancy every night would see him lose money. It seemed by shunning state-run hotels we were perhaps not leaving quite as much of our money directly with civilian Cubans as we had thought. As a British couple already had one of the rooms here, Derek and I took the second and the other three rooms remained empty as Ben and Tony slept at another casa around the corner.
While Angel headed out to buy lobster for our dinner, we set off to explore the town centre.
The nearby central square of Parque Leoncio Vidal had an important provincial feel to it, and was busy with locals relaxing in the late afternoon sun. Tony learnt some cigar smoking tips from an old pro on one of the benches, while I was ambushed by a drunk who unsuccessfully encouraged me to slag off one of his friends (and if Spanish is similar to French at all in this regard then I understood ‘whore’ to be what he attempted to get me to say).
At one end of the square a theatre company was putting on an open-air performance for the kids, and a little goat-drawn cart circled around giving some other younger ones a ride. I can only guess that all horses, ponies and other more serious beasts of burden cannot be spared from more important duties.
Like Havana, Santa Clara had a large Coppelia ice cream parlour. Also like Havana, it had a dishearteningly permanent queue to get in that wound around its entire exterior. Scrapping that idea we went to the other end of the square and grabbed an outside table at a bar and sat down for a mojito or, more my preference, a Cuba Libre (rum and cola). On looking at the drinks menu I was for the first time able to answer a question long asked by advertisements for Bacardi rum.
“Who is Ron Bacardi?” the posters would enquire.
“The bloke who founded the Bacardi distillery I guess”, I had always thought rather absent-mindedly. Only now I realised the question was nonsense because ron is just the Spanish word for rum, but in any case the marketers for Bacardi have done their job as this consumer still remembers the slogan, possibly long after that particular campaign ended.
They’re not the only ones who have gone to great lengths in the name of marketing. The approach taken by the New South Wales Ministry of Transport in 2005 to improve “on-time” services for the congested Sydney CityRail train network may have been to ignore spending money on enhanced infrastructure, rolling stock and staff and simply relax the very definition of “on-time” so it could include more trains that were previously classified as “late”, but as far as their branding penetration goes they’re extremely effective. While sitting with our drinks people watching we all noticed a slightly shabby older man weaving along the filled benches of the square selling lollies or nuts wrapped in plain white paper cones. He didn’t seem to be doing any business – but perhaps his primary vocation is as a walking billboard, as a CityRail logo was clearly prominent on the front of his cap whenever he cast a glance in the general direction of three long-time Sydney commuters and one former one.
We walked back towards Angel’s casa and could smell our dinner while still out in the street. One whole lobster for each of us (which including the British couple made six) was cooking on the grill, which when complimented with prawns, rice, salad and bread, all washed down with a bottle of Spanish rosé, made for one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.
After dinner we headed back out to the bar tables on the edge of the square to rest our straining bellies. A while after we got there four old men who had been sitting inside came out; one with a guitar, one with a double bass, one with maracas and the fourth, the lead vocalist, with a set of claves. Playing an upbeat mix of tunes with great enthusiasm they had our firm attention, and the New South Wales Government will be very glad to know they again got their money’s worth as a head with a CityRail cap soon bobbed up directly behind them. The music and the atmosphere were so good that Ben and Derek each bought one of the band’s CDs then and there, and my advice is to keep a look out for TDK Silver 700MB in the shops – I think they’re going to be huge.
After an Italian style breakfast of biscuits and pastries we settled up with Angel, and added the extra couple of convertible pesos for the young girl next door who had sat outside on the doorstep the previous night to watch our car and give us the house keys on our return from the square. The others also took the opportunity to buy a couple of boxes of cigars from one of Angel’s connections for a significantly better price than could be found elsewhere.
Internet access had seemed incredibly difficult to come by so far and so our first stop of the morning was at a state telecommunications company office with a couple of computer terminals we had spied while exploring Santa Clara the previous afternoon. Since leaving Grenada on the eve of the Semi-Finals of the Cricket World Cup we had been completely unaware of the results for both them and the Final, and someone was able to verify that there had been no surprises – Australia had far too easily triumphed for the third straight World Cup.
I was trying to put my fifteen minutes access to slightly more pressing use. Though my Swiss mobile phone had a signal with a local network most of the time, and despite sending numerous text messages home, I had still not heard a thing from my parents about my Grandad’s funeral. I was hoping they had e-mailed me, but unfortunately the internet connection was so slow that I didn’t even manage to get into my web mail inbox before my time cut out, and I left the shop feeling distressed that I still didn’t know what was happening at home. Cuba’s relatively poor connectivity to the outside world had been one of the drawcards that had originally lured us, but it was now immensely frustrating to have ended up travelling here during one of the rare times I actually needed to be closely in touch with my family.
'Che Day' was how we spent the remainder of our time in Santa Clara. First stop was the Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara museum and mausoleum. Like everything else of civil importance in the country, its exterior was laid out on a grand scale but the grounds were not well kept and the building looked like it hadn’t seen a smidgen of maintenance work since its construction in 1988. Inside, Che’s life story was narrated in glowing terms alongside random artefacts like boots, weapons and pens with close, some or little to no connection with the man. Of most interest to me were the photographs, many more than the one immortalized by Alberto Korda in 1960, and I must say that he looked more mafia gangster than guerrilla when snapped clean shaven, hair slicked back and dressed in a dark suit during his stint as governor of the Central Bank of Cuba not long after the revolution.
After this we crossed town to the Tren Blindado Monument, a small park with a mounted bulldozer, used by guerrillas under Che’s command in late December 1958 to damage a rail line, as well as the train carriages carrying government troops and arms that were subsequently de-railed. This event, and the conquering of Santa Clara by Che the day before, was the final death knell for the heavily US influenced dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
According to our rudimentary national map the first leg of the quickest route to Trinidad was to take the only road directly south from Santa Clara to the principal autopista. We managed to locate what we thought may have been it, and it was no surprise that its condition soon deteriorated. The going was incredibly slow as any evidence of bitumen disappeared and houses became few and far between. I had real doubts we were heading for the motorway, but the other three were more confident and talked me out of cutting our losses and turning back, though the time slipped beyond 3pm and the fuel gauge dipped below half-full. Three times we stopped at remote farm-houses and the occupants responded to Ben and Derek’s enquiries by confidently pointing in the same direction we were travelling. I was still doubtful we would reach anywhere distinguishable by nightfall, not least because the road was still becoming more furrowed and almost impassable for our two-wheel drive car. I was especially unsure of the situation when the people at the last house directed us to turn into what was nothing more than a narrow and rough gravel track.
The words “if we ever find the autopista I’m going to get out and kiss it” had barely passed from my lips when through the low scrub we saw a truck pass across from our left to our right. And then a second. Where the track bisected the edge of sealed road I got out of the car and made good my words. Never has bitumen scorched by all-day sun felt so sweet.
When we crossed another unmarked railway crossing some 30km later we realised we had then been going along the autopista in the wrong direction, but after turning around and eventually finding both the signposted turn-off to Trinidad and a petrol station, our way was certain. Another tourist car joining us from off the autopista didn’t seem so sure, as we regularly passed it on the side of the road between small villages (all with obligatory dusty baseball diamonds), before it would reappear in my rear-view mirror and overtake at break-neck speed, only to be stopped by the side of the road again soon after. Just before the comparatively well maintained road climbed into the mountains (where we came around numerous bends to the sight of loose horses and straying piglets roaming in the middle of the road), they indicated to us something about their fuel tank before they sped off into the sunset and we never saw them again.
From the top of the Sierra del Escambray mountain range we caught sight of the country’s southern coastline and then descended downwards into Trinidad not long before dark. The names of the streets in the one-way grid system were not signposted quite as clearly as those in Santa Clara and it took some time to find our next casa, not before we had come across a congregation of touts banging on our windows and roof to get us to follow them to a casa of their own choosing.
After a refreshing shower (my first hot one of the trip thus far) in a casa of a similarly comfortable standard to our first one in Havana and tucking into a substantial dinner of pork and home-sliced fried potato chips, I was able to go to sleep safe in the knowledge that I was not quite so lost with arrangements at home. We had established that my text messages were getting to Australia fine, but the replies from home were not coming back. But, I was able to send texts to and receive them from Katie, so my family were able to send messages to her in Switzerland and she would in turn forward them onto me.
The greater part of the day was well spent exploring the centre of Trinidad, UNESCO listed for its pastel coloured colonial houses.
Wherever we walked along the cobbled streets I enjoyed snatching glimpses through long barred windows or open doorways into the dark and cool interiors of family lounge rooms, sparsely stocked shops, small industrial workshops and schools. While the town was not short of tourists, I was left with the appreciation that Trinidad is still very much a living and functioning place inhabited by regular Cubans doing regular things, and thankfully popular tourism hasn’t yet transformed this into an artificial resort strip of hotels, souvenir stands, boutiques and nightclubs.
On that note, Tony and I had been insistent our itinerary avoid the most developed beach resort areas popular with tourists, especially Varadero. Nice beaches are, after all, something we can do without leaving Australia, let alone Sydney. We had also spent a fair bit of beach time in Grenada (there wasn’t that much to do there on non-match days) but, nevertheless, Ben still felt the strong lure of the sea. Late in the day we made the short drive to the coast near Playa Ancón to relax on a rocky beach and in the warm, choppy waters of the Caribbean, basking in the last of the April sun.
See Castro in the alley way talking about missile love,
Talking about JFK and the day he shook him up.
Take me to the April sun in Cuba,
Take me where the April sun’s going to treat me so right.
April Sun in Cuba by Dragon.
For purely comparative reasons we ate dinner at a state-run restaurant back in central Trinidad (conclusion: the offerings were tastier and more plentiful in the casas), and then returned to the busy steps behind Plaza Mayor to sit outside and catch some live music over a rum or two. Though over half of the crowd here were undoubtedly tourists, there were still enough men with 50’s style slicked flat-tops and women wearing fishnet stockings to give the evening some semblance of authenticity, though I felt it was still somewhat more of an orchestrated performance for tourists than the local, no-frills show we were lucky enough to witness in Santa Clara.
May Day: The day synonymous for commemoration of the labour and trade union movements. And in Cuba it goes further, giving the people a public holiday to demonstrate their patriotism and the power of the revolution in their country.
We were up fairly early and as soon as we were out the front door we were amongst the stream of pedestrian traffic heading towards Calle José Martí. The narrow footpaths were so crammed with onlookers it seemed that a quarter of all the town’s residents were out to watch the annual march – and the other three quarters were actually in it. As well as the lead group of participants attached to local associations waiting at the beginning of the main road, thousands more marchers waited in the many intersecting streets along Calle José Martí’s length with flags, banners, placards and balloons and a few basic floats. Most bore socialist and nationalist slogans, and some had pictures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara amongst others I couldn’t recognise. In a patiently organised exercise once the parade began, all of the marchers from each of the cross streets waited for the procession along the road to pass them before filing out to join the back of it, until the march became so long we could no longer see its front. It was a massive demonstration of fervour for their country and the current regime (how truly genuine, of course, is impossible to say), no doubt repeated in every single town in the country.
Even though I was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the symbols of their old allies the USSR to at least give some semblance of solidarity, all of four of us noticed we were attracting occasional stares from a few people in our close proximity like we were uninvited guests at a wedding. Though we were trying to be as respectful and impartial as we could, I really couldn’t begrudge them for that. And then, as the last of the procession finally passed us, about four or five tourists dancing and waving a Polish flag disrespectfully went to join the end of the parade before being yelled at to stop, and I wondered if we were to be tarred with the same brush and would be yelled at too.
When back at the casa enjoying a late breakfast we listened to the radio coverage of the mother-of-all marches in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. With a voice that rarely dipped below fever-pitch excitement, the announcer frequently screamed out catchphrases like “¡Viva la revolución!” and “¡Viva Fidel!”
On that last point I am not quite sure whether the people of Cuba (and the rest of the world) are being duped. Though he was announced as being present in the Plaza to witness the march, there seemed to be no proof of this or any other public appearances since handing the presidential reins to his brother Raul almost a year ago. I can’t help but wonder whether his long battle with ill-health ended some time ago but, in the interests of the revolution and its current social order, his death has been covered up. I’m sure more than a few conspiracy theorists would join me in this.
To alleviate any further tension with the fine folk of Trinidad we left town for the middle of the day. Bearing east we were aiming for a waterfall shown on our map near the Rio Agamba, but all we saw all around was flat land. Not all that disappointed we couldn’t find it, we continued on to the city of Sancti Spíritus. While randomly driving around in search of something to see we happened upon the significant José Antonio Huelga baseball stadium, yet another landmark that looked completely neglected since its original unveiling sometime in decades past.
Out in nearby streets lined with pink-blossoming trees and very staid apartment blocks, a light-hearted crowd gathered in a fair-like atmosphere to celebrate May Day. We were very clearly the only non-locals in attendance and, unlike Trinidad, we sensed absolutely none of the signs that we were about as welcome as a fart in a crowded lift. A band was playing on a stage, a goat-drawn carriage was giving rides for small children and a number of trailers were selling beer. For three national pesos (€0.10) I was able to buy a large 700ml aluminium can that had been fashioned by removing the top of one Cristal beer can and the bottom of a second and fusing the two together. For only three more national pesos I could have it filled up.
My Grandad was a bit of a demon for the old home brew and so at exactly 12:30pm, the time his funeral had begun at home fourteen hours earlier, I was able to slip away from the crowd and find a relatively quiet place to reflect, say hooroo and have a beer for the old Beggar-Whoop.
On getting back in the car and finding a more commercial area, the crowds were even bigger. We mingled amongst them and the many food vendors, buying snacks and ice-cream. Earlier in Trinidad Derek had got some pork carved directly from a whole roasted pig, and we found another one here too which I was only too happy to sample. Eating strips of freshly carved moist pork served in a bread roll with a slice of cucumber, out on a busy street of a small city smack bang in the middle of the country during First of May festivities, was most definitely one of my Cuban highlights.
Ben, Tony and Derek (or El Gato – The Cat – as Derek had also become known as by this point for his rather limited energy stocks) all went back to Playa Ancón until dinner time (finding a nice sandy beach this time) while they dropped me off back at the casa in Trinidad for a siesta. Refreshed, I once again wandered the town’s streets, though now the day was almost over they were much quieter and I felt none of the morning’s animosity. To the contrary, as I passed people whiling away the last of the daylight by chatting outside their houses and watched young boys playing impromptu baseball games, this only reinforced my original pleasant experiences of the place.
If someone had asked me the easiest place to find crabs in Cuba I would have suggested the more promiscuous head towards Varadero, but we saw thousands of massive ones on the coastal road between Trinidad and Cienfuegos without engaging in anything lewd whatsoever. Initially we found them individually crossing the road here and there and we derived great entertainment from watching them go absolutely berko as our car approached – they’d stand up and spin around and around on their back legs while their outstretched giant front claws snapped aggressively.
The further we went the more crowded the road became until the bitumen was liberally covered with an army of marching crabs rearing up at us – not to mention the smashed shells of countless thousands of others that had already fallen victim to other vehicles.
Cienfuegos was bustling and its expansive central square, yet another landmark named for José Martí (a late nineteenth century figurehead of the fight for Cuban independence from Spain), was lined with the most ornate and best maintained civic buildings we had seen. I also saw my pick of the finest vintage cars, and would dearly have loved to have swapped our wheels for a rather delectable black Plymouth.
Alas, the chances of that happening were about as high as an army of crabs crossing the road back to Trinidad casualty-free, and we completed the last leg of our journey to Havana in the familiar practicality of the Hyundai.
We had chosen to spend our last nights in Havana in a slightly different part of town than on arrival and, though we had some difficulty with road works and one-way streets, were very happy with the superb location of our last accommodation, rooms in two adjacent apartments in a building right near the meeting of the Prado and the Malecón. After Derek and I dropped the car off back at the Hotel Sevilla (allowing Gato to have some time to preen himself around the lion statues as we walked down the Prado on the way back), I was feeling antsy to spend the remaining days exploring Havana and catching up on what the other three had already seen. I happily cris-crossed the streets around the Capitolio building and Habana Vieja on my own for a few hours, and couldn’t help but notice how different Havana felt compared to all the other places we’d seen. From afar, the domes punctuating the city skyline gave it the appearance of Rome or Florence. The urban make-up of buildings, traffic and people made it feel much more crowded than elsewhere, the architecture was on the whole more decayed and the pace of life was conspicuously quicker. And around the Capitolio in particular, I had to fend off a succession of touts trying to lead me to cigar shops.
Dinner was a casual and protracted affair on a restaurant terrace looking down on the Prado as dusk turned to dark, before we became startled at the time and had to race out to hail a taxi to take us through the tunnel under the harbour over to La Cabaña fortress. We had been planning to see the nightly 9pm cannon firing ceremony and, after sprinting through the fortress, managed to make it right as the military theatrics were coming to an end and a volley of cannon-fire rang out over the city.
After having paid the admission price for a performance we’d almost entirely missed we weren’t keen to immediately turn around and get caught in the crowd making their way out, so decided to stick around the fortress and enjoy the warm evening sitting outside with a couple of Bucanero beers. We were the very last people still around when the bar closed at midnight, and we took that as our cue to leave La Cabaña. The car park outside, choked with buses and taxis on our arrival, was now deserted – which was a bit of a problem as, though the distance back to our casa was not far, we could hardly walk through the harbour tunnel dedicated only for traffic. A security guard about to close the main gates for the night spotted someone who could help us, and this man, after being talked down from a ridiculous asking price of eight convertible pesos, aggressively motioned for us to get in the back of his white mini-van. Clearly this wasn’t a licensed taxi and we were a little hesitant that getting in was a great idea, especially when it was immediately obvious his female companion in the front passenger seat was visibly annoyed with him (and/or us). Our hesitation turned into alarm soon after we set off when the driver took a swig from a half empty rum bottle and passed it over to her to do likewise, and while in the exit lane as soon as we were out of the tunnel we got him to pull over and let us out.
All four of us split up and did our own things in the morning, and my plan was to walk to the Plaza de la Revolución. From the look of my map I figured it would take forty five minutes to an hour at most, a proposition over breakfast that made Gato put his paws over his eyes as he gave a little exhausted groan. Ben thought it would take substantially longer and suggested I take a coco taxi (the Cuban version of the Thai tuk-tuk) like they had done but, convinced I had the time, I set off on foot up the Prado enjoying the sunshine of the already warm morning.
Just past the Capitolio I turned right, and kept going towards Avenida Salvador Allende. I was enjoying seeing a different part of the city, especially as I was not hassled by any touts, though I was a little unsure of the area’s colonial influences – the names of the destinations indicated on the front of the ultra modern buses along this way all looked German or Dutch. That the advertisements on the sides of the buses contained internet addresses ending in ‘.de’ and ‘.nl’ made things more clear, though I found it somehow amusing that the government department responsible for Havana buses were in such a great hurry to get these ones recently shipped in from Europe into service that they didn’t bother removing their former livery or final destination.
A little more than half an hour after leaving the casa I was walking across the great asphalted open space of Plaza de la Revolución. Though it was undoubtedly a sight to behold when filled with close to a million marchers and onlookers two days earlier, I was astonished when comparing it to the squares of the other towns how empty, barren and downright ugly it was. This was evidently not a living, breathing part of the city offering recreation space for the populace, it was solely reserved for intermittent demonstrations of the strength of the revolution and that was that.
At the top of the plaza I entered into the star shaped tower of the José Martí memorial and took the lift to the observation deck, joining many perched vultures as I looked out over the 360 degree view of the city, the sea, the stolid Cold War era government department buildings ringing the immediate vicinity, and a conga line of Ladas of the people who worked inside them.
I took a slightly different route back to the Capitolio through residential streets with no traffic, and as the late morning was now quite hot I stopped every so often to buy glasses of refresco, home mixed orange cordial for one national peso each, from outside the window of small shops many people ran from the front room of their ground floor apartments. At the last of my drink stops I found a particularly friendly old woman, and after downing my glass I offered her three more one peso coins and asked in as best Spanish as I could muster if she could change them into a three peso note for me – the last denomination I needed to complete my souvenir collection. In ready agreement she took the coins, left her front room and then quickly returned, presenting the red coloured note with the face of Che Guevara on it to me with a beaming smile.
I escaped the heat for a little while by going inside the Capitolio. With a dome almost identical to Washington DC’s capital building (though a tiny bit higher, just to put the Americans’ noses out of joint) and a copy of a massive twenty-five carat diamond in the floor of the entry-way, it is a fittingly grand edifice for a national parliament. Not that there’s been any need since 1959 to use it as such. After all, if the Cuban Communist Party is the only legal political party in existence then there’s no need for piddling democratic things like parliamentary debate.
After all meeting up for lunch, deep-fried ham and cheese from a local street-side vendor near the Capitolio, Derek and I headed over to the tourist markets in Habana Vieja. I had been all over this area the day before but had somehow missed this particular precinct of clean and recently re-paved streets, exceptionally well maintained churches and forts, and large numbers of visitors milling around. There were a few old locals dressed to stand out trying to make some cash by having their photos taken, amongst them an old man with a straggly grey beard wearing a cheap touristy army beret – who, without a shadow of a doubt, is the face on the cover of the 2006 edition of the Cuba Lonely Planet travel guide.
As dusk neared we all met up again and set out to walk most of the 7km length of the Malecón and, surprisingly, even Gato seemed almost cheerful about this. It’s this coastal promenade where the rest of Havana’s posers like to hang out, from the scene for a film, TV show or commercial that was being shot on location with a male model giving his best smoulderingly moody Latin looks to the camera, to the assorted guys sitting on the sea-wall playing trumpets and trombones with exaggerated technique to attract our attention. There is a definite glamour or showiness to Havana that completely sets it apart from the rest of the country.
As the fiery orange the sun sank steadily into the sea, we had made it to yet another statue of José Martí.
Immediately beside that was a recently constructed memorial of over a hundred black flags – in remembrance of all Cuban civilians killed by externally influenced acts aimed at the country since the revolution. This site had a particularly active security presence that shooed us away from both the flag memorial and the most concentrated collection of road-side anti-US propaganda posters around it. What a co-incidence to later find out that the memorial had been hurriedly built in order to block out the view of the adjacant US mission – in particular the building’s illuminated ticker board that had been displaying messages of anti-Cuban propaganda. That at least explained all the security, but sometimes this little game of tit-for-tat is just plain comical.
With not just Gato’s legs tired from all the day’s walking we took a taxi back towards Central Havana and after grabbing something to eat headed to the Casa de la Musica. We weren’t quite sure exactly what kind of live music show we were about to behold in the large cabaret-style theatre, but it turned to out to be a large band led by a gyrating, Malecón-esque poser of a lead singer wearing two pairs of socks – one on his feet and other stuffed down the front of his ultra-tight black leather trousers. At the table next to us sat a number of middle aged European men being fawned over by a couple of heavily tarted-up Cuban women no older than us. As our table was also four foreign men, though with no female companions, we were attracting some unwanted attention from those we could only surmise to be the women’s pimps. It was becoming rather uncomfortable and, as we were all not keen dancers and had by this stage heard enough of the band, we hastily bid a retreat just as the show was reaching its crescendo and most people at the other tables were hitting the dance floor below the stage.
After a relatively idle morning the Cuban season of the Golden Girls finished as I said my goodbyes to my three companions when their taxi (driven by a friend of the people from our casa) came to take them to the airport. Though by this point I also felt ready to depart I still had most of the afternoon to while away, and as I hit the streets for the final time I came up with a new strategy to fend off the cigar selling touts. Whenever they descended on me and called out in English “Hey, where you from?” I would at first ignore them and then give them a blank look.
After being asked this or similar questions a few more times I would pretend I finally guessed what they were asking and in my best hard Eastern European intonation would answer “Polska.”
“Polska?” Would come the uncertain reply and then, after a second or two of silence, a look of recognition, “Ah, Polonia!” And then, more often than not, with no further knowledge of how to hassle a foreigner that only spoke Polish they gave up and I was able to keep walking without further discourse – until the next bloke on the lookout for a fast buck saw me.
The very last thing on my agenda was the Museo de la Revolución, located in what was the palace for the twentieth century leaders before the revolution, and which displayed the history behind, and success of, the 1950’s revolution in only the most glowing terms.
The reason given for the Castro brothers’ failed assault on an army barracks in Santiago in 1953 was not that they were out-manned, out-witted or out-gunned, but was only down to “unforseen causes (that) frustrated the success of the actions (sic)”. That following his subsequent imprisonment after this defeat and while in exile in Mexico, Fidel Castro met Che Guevara and organised the guerrillas that were to be more successful from late 1956 onwards, I think they could have twisted the reason behind this initial failure into something even more flattering. Perhaps “this small defeat was completely necessary in order to go on and fulfil their destiny” would do the trick.
The picture of life under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was illustrated in the bleakest way possible, with much made of the necessary reasons for overthrowing of Batista’s regime: Shortages of goods, substandard housing, the island having turned into a fantasy playground for rich foreigners, and the shameful necessity for women to turn to prostitution to survive. This left me terribly, horribly and utterly confused – it sounded like the Cuba of 2007 just as much as that of 1957.
Perhaps the most entertaining era of the museum was the high-handed condemnation of the US (aka the ‘Bourgeois Imperial Empire’) for their generally subversive, but sometimes outright aggressive, attempts at regaining political control of the island since the 1960’s. On this point I can’t help but admire the current regime for standing up in the face of the United States’ arrogant and interventionist foreign policies, when so many other places in the region (Panama and Nicaragua to name but two) and many more across the globe (most recently of course Afghanistan and Iraq) have fallen victim to their destabilising meddling for personal gain. But given the blatantly partisan view on display within the museum I can’t for a second believe that Cuba always responded to these invasion attempts as blamelessly as is made out either, and the last thing I saw before leaving the building made me question this skewed representation even more. Three large and rather unflattering caricatures of Ronald Reagan, George Bush Senior and Fulgencio Batista were placed side-by-side on a wall entitled “Corner of the Cretins” with wording addressed to each in Spanish, English and French to the effect of “Thankyou, cretin, for making our revolution stronger.” For mine, while the various roadside propaganda posters we saw throughout the country contained a degree of wit and artistic merit, this exhibit was nothing but tacky and juvenile, and extinguished any hint of credibility to Cuba’s claim of the moral high ground in the diplomatic struggle against their near neighbour.
My head was heavy with contemplation. Despite its consistently bloody history of wars against colonial powers, the Cuba of today is an incredibly diverse place of ethnicities living together in what appears to be social harmony and equality, and the education, arts and health systems are the envy of the region. Is this as good as it could get for the standard of life for most Cubans? Even if it is, this is a time after the fall of communism in Cuba’s previous allies in Eastern Europe, and the country is now more reliant on other foreign investment than ever to keep afloat. So is there enough strength in the revolution to endure in its current state after the last of the revolution’s surviving heroes head to that big idealistic regime in the sky? Will the Castro brothers be idolised in death in the same manner as their comrade Che Guevara, or like José Martí before them? Or, conversely, is it very soon inevitable that the country will rapidly evolve into a more open, free and capitalist market where the gap between the rich and the poor will inescapably widen?
In my last hour before going to the airport I needed a quiet spot to sit, ponder and formulate some kind of answer to all this, but I spent it continually brushing off guys trying sell me cigars to make a quick peso. And that, perhaps, was all the evidence I needed.
My parting feeling was then one of incredible good fortune to have been able to witness Cuba while in its current state of being before it crumbles completely and the country transforms into something more akin to every other Caribbean island – complete with Fox News and the Golden Girls filling the airwaves. Viva la revolución!