My, my I do beleive that I have caused, and am continuing to cause, quite a stir with my last entry on Cuba. As I stated, no promise was ever made that I would not offend! Some thought that we had not enjoyed Cuba. Quite the contrary, we enjoyed it immensely, and met some amazing people as well as made some phenomenal friends. But, we did it Cuban style…..no resorts, expensive drinks or hotels….we tried to do it like the Cubans do it….or try to do it. Doing it this way, opened our eyes to many things, and the reality is that every time I hugged a new person goodbye, I could feel my heart breaking and sinking. As I walked away from many of them, my eyes filled up with tears (as they are doing so now), as I struggled to truly understand the emptiness behind their eyes, despite the smiles on their faces!
The following will reveal the places we saw and the people we met, which I will treasure forever! Cuba may be another planet, but it is certainly worth seeing, and trying to understand.
On arriving at the airport, and picking up our luggage, we taxi -shared to central Havana, or La Habana as it is known in Spanish, with Segovia, a north American we had met in Cancun. From the airport, taxis are pretty much the only option. And you guessed it, the price is pretty steep. Remember, there is not much you can do when you only have one option!
The trip into the city centre did not take that long, but it was certainly long enough to begin to absorb the visions our eyes were beholding. It was like seeing, in real life, the typical pictures you so often see of Cuba; of old pre -1960´s North American vehicles cruising roads lined with palm trees. As we neared central Havana, we were also presented with the often viewed and famous old and colonial houses. It was like stepping back in time. The city looks like it never made it past 1960! Very imposing, however, and very grand.
Aida and Octavio Garcia had given us their family´s address, and true to our backpacker form, we found it without incident. As we jumped out of the taxi, we were greeted by Dora and Gilberto (Gilberto is Octavio´s brother who lives in Miami, and whom we had met for the first time only months prior in Miami), and who were also in Cuba on vacation. Coincidence, or destiny, would have it that we would all spend the night together, before they would fly back to Miami the next day. As we entered the beautiful and old colonial house where Ondina (Octavio´s sister) and her family live, we were immediately greeted with the same love and warmth that the Garcias have always so freely given me. As I hugged Ondina, I felt like I had met a long lost family member, and the warmth of that hug was as natural as if it had been awarded me a million times before. We also met Teresa, Ondina´s daughter and her teenage children, Dionis and Diana. We had a very special night together, and Teresa, your cooking was fabulous! It must be a Garcia trait! We all wished that the Australian Garcias could have been there for this special moment. They were not, so we managed the next best thing – representing the Garcia family was a bottle of Kahlua liqueur. Kahlua has always been, and still is Rita´s favourite drink. (Rita and I also have quite a long history with this alcoholic beverage, which I will not go into right now!)
On arriving at Ondina´s house, I noticed that the top part of my backpack had been opened, and the contents sorted through. Yes, it had a lock, but that had not been opened or broken. They had obviously prised the zip open with a sharp object. Fortunately, nothing was stolen. Also fortunately, several years of backpacking has taught me never to leave any valuables inside checked in luggage. I would also later find out that in Cuban airports this is quite a common occurrence. When we eventually left the country we had to seal our bags – the plastic wrapping service that seals your bags is not only free, but compulsory! Somebody once told me that desperate people do desperate things! And in Cuba, I saw a level of desperation that I had never encountered before. It truly is virtually impossible to describe, unless you see and feel it for yourselves.
We spent the next few days exploring Habana Vieja (the old and colonial part of the city), which lies right on the malecon, or beachfront. Havana truly does look like it has been caught in a time warp. It´s as if the clock stopped in the late 1950´s, and in many ways it has indeed. The buildings are old, but beautiful, despite their mostly dilapidated status. As we wafted through the city centre, I closed my eyes and wondered what life had once been like here. It would not take me long to work out that I would not have to wonder very hard, as we were living it! How much had changed? Had anything changed? As the sounds of salsa wafted through various establishments, along with some phenomenal voices, I felt like I was in a dream. Or maybe I was! And then suddenly we would be snapped out of that dream by a jinetero/a, the famous touts! No, we do not want to buy cigars! No, we do not want a mojito! No, we have no bad habits! No, we do not need a restautrant! These touts will try and sell you anything to make a quick buck, and whilst I can understand where they are coming from, it can become rather annoying and sometimes aggressive. With a good command of the Spanish language, however, and an immediate and firm response of no thanks as you walk away, you can usually ward them off.
I would like to point out here how incredibly talented the Cuban people are. One very positive aspect of the revolution is that education is free. The result is a very intelligent and learned nation. Quite apart, I have never come across a nation which has so many talented people, including singers, dancers, painters and writers. If you are wondering if there is a Cuban that cannot sing or dance, the answer is NO! Categorically! And the darker their skin, the better they move! I feel this lies in their African roots. They don´t hear the music, they feel it! And when you watch them, the energy is electrifying! You should see those gals (and guys) move their booties, which by the way are not a size 8! I have already told Alex that I want to come back in my next life with one of those butts! Forget that size 6 anorexic rear which has become so popular in first world countries!
That´s another thing I loved about Cuba…..having hips, a butt and curves is……….NORMAL!! Concerns about weight in this nation rate appallingly. And besides, both men and women think that stick thin is unattractive. You have to love that! I certainly did! How wonderful to be a size 12 – 14 and feel normal! Not that I have hang ups about my weight, but it´s lovely to be surrounded by ¨care factor 0¨ pertaining to weight! Twelve inches gap between the thighs, move over for muffin tops! (Thanks Alex – he wanted me to add this).
There are lots of things to love about Cuba, here´s another one…….good, strong expresso coffee!!! Hallelujah, someone saw the light! After months of wondering why Central America and the Caribbean simply could not get it together, coffee wise, when they are the producers of fine coffee beans, Cuba was the light at the end of the tunnel. I am sorry if I offend some Italians here, but Cuban coffee was right up there, and available everywhere, using, I might add, the best Italian coffee machines. My only qualm is that sometimes they add too much sugar, making it a little too sweet. But hey, I am not loking a gift horse in the mouth, good cofffee is good coffee!
Signs, physical signs I mean, of the Revolution were to be found everyehere. Alex and I got to the point where we wanted to see if we could walk more than 2 blocks without seeing some form of propaganda….impossible! Fidel, El Comandante (The Commander), Che Guevara, the 5 Heroes (or the 5 spies, depending on how you see it!)……professional signs, hand written signs, new, old, worn, whatever……..there was no escaping. There was no possible way that you could either forget the revolution, or not be reminded of it! One of my favourites, was a billboard mocking George Bush, as the lead actor in a film called ¨The Assassin¨ (picture posted on the last blog). Most of you would know that I am certainly no fan of Georgie´s, but I do think that people need to look in their own backyards first! What´s the old saying? The pot calling the kettle black!
Our first visit outside of Havana, was a place called Cienfuegos, to the east. We just opened up our guidebook one night, did some reading, and figured that it sounded like a tranquil and interesting place. We had made our way to the Astro bus station , before finding out that ¨for the time being¨ they had suspended foreigners from using the service (so, we can spend more on Via Azul, of course, which is the only other bus service! Surprise, surprise, yet again, I know!). We ended up travelling in a privately owned car. Of course its illegal, but as the driver stated, ¨I need to eat too!¨. He told us that although there was a small risk involved, for him it was worth it. I can understand this – Alex and I paid 15 CUCs each. Quite apart from the fact that it would have been 20 CUCs each on the bus, this man had just earned 3 months worth of money in a few hours! Did Alex and I have a problem with that! No way! We would indeed spend the rest of our trip doing just that, trying to put our money in the pockets of the people, where it was most needed, instead of in the pockets of the state!
The ¨communications¨ network in Cuba is phenomenal, as everyone tries to help everbody else, as most people are in the same position. The guy who drove us to Cienfuegos told us that he had a contact there, some friends who owned a ¨casa particular¨, or particular house. These places are much cheaper to stay in, usually costing roughly between USD $15.00 and $35.00. They are mostly very clean and comfortable, have a private bathroom, air-conditioner, fan, fridge and sometimes kitchenette. Although it was included in the price, we never used the air-conditioner, as it bumps up the price for the people renting it. The ¨owners¨ (the state actually owns the houses they live in, and you cannot buy or sell a house…in theory) of the houses that have rooms that foreigners can rent have to go through a rigorous process. The houses which have rooms for rent have a blue sign above the door saying, ¨Arendador divisa ¨(or rent in CUCs). The symbol, I believe, is supposed to be that of a house, but to Alex and I it seemed more like an eye…….Big Brother is watching you!
We ended up staying at ¨Chin Isi¨, with Jenny and Isodoro. The location was great and the hosts superb. It would not take us long to forge a friendship. The couple had a teenage daughter and young son. Jenny´s sister, Esperanza, also visited frequently, as did her parents, Ines and Gallego, on weekends. They treated us like family, and Jenny was often giving us samples of her amazing food, which by the way, was excellent. Along with Teresa´s food in Havana, it was the best food we tried in Cuba.
We spent a few days in Cienfuegos, walking along the Malecon, or beachfront, admiring its old colonial buildings, drinking good coffee, watching some Cubans entertain themselves, watching other Cubans dancing in salsa halls, playing with local children near the beach, visiting the local Sunday fruit and veggie market, which required having several blocks closed off, and just observing life in general. We also visited a place called Palacio del Valle. Built-in 1917 by a Spaniard, its most outstanding features are its jumble of Moorish tiles, and the fantastic view of the Cienfuegos Bay, as seen on the upstairs balcony, or terrace. The woman who was singing and playing the piano downstairs also gave it that extra zing, and we once again had to remind ourselves that we were actually in 2007.
Cuba is a rather large country, or island for that matter, and certainly the biggest in the Caribbean. We knew that, with travel taking a large proportion of time here, that if we did not keep moving we would not get to see at least some of the other places that we had picked to visit.
When we hugged Jenny, Isodoro and their family goodbye, I had a tear in my eye, and Jenny one in hers. I thanked her for being part of our Cuban experience. As we walked towards the bus station Jenny waved to us from the balcony, and I kept turning around and waving goodbye until she was out of sight. I had a smile on my face, but my heart felt heavy! Is this how Cubans must so often feel? I hoped that one day, we would be able to meet again, and inwardly cried. What destiny had given us two so very diferent paths!
A Cuban´s response to my question of whether something he was about to obtain was legal –
¨In Cuba, nothing is legal, but anything can be organised”. – Anonymous
Dedication (English): I would like to dedicate this blog to my new family in Havana, and especially to Ondina Garcia. We will always remember the love and care you showed us. Please know that you will always hold a very special place in our hearts. We will see each other again!
Dedicacion (Espanol): Me gustaria dedicar esta publicacion a mi nueva familia en la Habana, y especialmente a Ondina Garcia. Siempre recordaremos el amor y cuidado que nos brindaste. Por favor recuerda que siempre ocuparas un lugar muy especial en nuestros corazones. Nos volveremos a ver otra vez!
Next: Trinidad & Baracoa (on Cuba´s easternmost point)
(Photos: 1.- El Capitolio, Central Havana. 2.- The Cuban Garcis (L to R): Diana, Dionis, Pucho (Tere´s partner), Teresa, , Ondina (Octavio Garcia´s sister), Dora (Gilberto Garcia´s wife), Ombi (the adopted Garcia!), and in the front Gilberto Garcia (Octavio´s brother), and of course the bottle of Kahlua!. 3.- The facade of a house in Old Havana. 4.- A typical Cuban car, and in the back, typical Cuban trasportation for the locals ( and which we also got to use), Habana. 5.- Street musicians, Santiago de Cuba. 6.- Billboard close to the the USA Special Interests building in Havana. It implies that George W. Bush and Luis Posada Carriles equals Hitler . 7.- On the way to Cienfuegos. 8.- Roof top view from the El Palacio del Valle, Cienfuegos. 9.- Having Fun with local children on the malecon, Cienfuegos. 10.- From left to right are Jenny, Ombi and Ines.