Saving the best

You can see the Malecón stretching around the coastline

We went out for a posh dinner in Havana the other night to mark the end of the trip, and after much debate concluded that Cuba is the best country we’ve been to. It has it all: warm weather, decent homely food, tropical jungle, beautiful beaches with clear water and white sand, fantastic architecture, fascinating politics – and people so friendly you want to hug them all. A perfect way to finish – only of course it means that now we don’t want to leave.

All in all, it still remains a bit of a puzzle. There are two currencies, which effectively segregate things into tourist (CUC) and local (MN), and although we got our hands on a fair bit of local money for great 5p ice cream and fold-up pizzas, there was a lot of that local way of doing things we just couldn’t reach. Obviously things are much worse for the locals, for whom a 20 CUC ($20 USD) monthly wage is not unusual; when you consider even a cheap on-the-street fold up pizza is 10MN – or 0.40 CUC, life isn’t easy. As I’ve said before, from our capitalist perspective we find it hard to understand why people go through all the trouble to train as doctors, when they get much less income than those who work in tourism – and after a lot less training. Many of the Casa Particular owners we’ve stayed with have pointed out how the money we’ve given them will help their whole extended family, such is the culture of sharing and friendship.

Economically challenged, it’s clear that liberty doesn’t fair much better for Cubans either, even if this isn’t that visible to us. There’s a distinct feeling of segregation between foreigners and locals in much of what you do: tourist-only buses (and indeed a bus company), hotels, beaches, restaurants, bars and cafes – some by law, and others due to the crazy prices charged for the western visitor. The Internet is off-limits to locals too – only those who need it for their jobs are allowed it at home, and access is extremely rare. Internet cafes are state-run and require a foreign passport to get in, and today’s wifi revolution hasn’t exactly hit yet – there are fewer than 15 wifi points (for foreigners only) in a country of 10 million! As a final marker of the level of communications, consider the national phone company van we passed on our way to the airport, advertising a great new way to get your phone bill – this fantastic technology called email! Yes, this is Cuba in 2012!

“Cretins’ Corner” in the Museum of the Revolution

Then you have the question of the USA. Even today, Cuba is officially declared an Enemy Nation, and US Citizens face huge fines in the states for spending money in the country. It’s important to note that in spite of the two-sided war of words, the restriction is essentially one-way in practice: Cuba freely welcomes inhabitants from anywhere, including the US – it is the US government who place restrictions on their own citizens, although we still met plenty while we were travelling around. When you look at Cuba in its present day reality, it seems ridiculous and entirely farcical that the US sees it as a threat – what Cuba has is education, healthcare and culture, not an army or even a model of a truly functioning alternative economy to defeat the western system. Much like the situation in the occupied territories, it just seems to be a sad reflection of the US political system and indeed the votes in the swing state of Florida that Cuba is held in the same category as North Korea. I’m just waiting for Romney to declare it an addition to the Axis of Evil.

One piece of that puzzle is how Cuba has continued to function in spite of everything that’s been thrown at it. Right now, I can’t offer an explanation more sophisticated than “because of the people”; something I intend to read up on when I get back.

The other conundrum which is perhaps a bit more relevant for our trip is why Cuba has kept its political essence when the other states we visited with communist history essentially haven’t? After the chaos of Mao’s years, China is following a path of market reforms to its economy; Vietnam is decidedly capitalist in spite of the ‘Socialist’ in its official title; Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge saw utter destruction of a country through unspeakable horror. While Cuba remains a communist state, isolated, and with a decidedly non-market economy.

“Words of the intellectuals”

I think one answer is that this was an intellectual revolution that thrived – and still thrives – on education and literature, which have long since supplanted the gun. As we walked around the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, there was a pamphlet from Fidel, “Words of the Intellectuals”. There is definitely a case that at the point Mao and the Khmer Rouge were going into a frenzy decrying those who were educated as not true revolutionaries because they weren’t working class, Fidel and his bunch were promoting a civilised society, where learning is admired and not admonished. It hardly seems like a particularly wild move on their part, but the country now is a huge contrast to the horrors elsewhere.

Clearly that was then; right now, the lack of access to the Internet – probably the greatest learning tool ever – is an indicator of a very different present. I can’t help but think as we wonder around what we’re not seeing – what skeletons lie waiting to be discovered by a future government prepared to cast off the cloak of the past? As we’ve travelled, we’ve seen many examples of the horrors of repression from both sides of the political spectrum, and of course every eventual page of history is first written in the present.

It would be so wrong to leave the country on that note, because that’s not what defines the place we saw. In fact, it is those vibrant flourishes of life in spite of the system that make it what it is. Such warmth, energy, and passion – and that gorgeous feeling that as a traveller you’re not being welcomed with open arms because you look like a walking dollar sign, but rather because people are genuinely interested in finding out about your life and sharing theirs with you. And all this joy and colour dances there firmly in contrast to that soviet stereotype of drab concrete, dull monotony and a world of have-nots. Sure, the material possessions are refreshingly absent, but the ones that matter – human emotions – they’re here in abundance.

“Sane love is not love”

Food for thought part ten: ‘el ultimo’ – Cuba

A feast for two!

If you eat at your casa particular (which you really should for the best quality food and the feel-good-factor of knowing the family that your money is going to) you’ll definitely leave Cuba a few pounds heavier than when you entered. Meals provided by the casa owners have been consistently fantastic and huge! For a taste of Cuba read on…

Fantastic fruits
Although perhaps slightly less varied that the tropical fruits in Colombia, the flavours in Cuba are just incredible, with the sweetest pineapples and tangiest mangoes I’ve ever tasted. And with a platter of fruit at every breakfast and dinner you can’t help but get your ‘five-a-day’!

Fruit salad, a key part of every meal

Langosta (lobster)
For some reason lobster appears to be both cheap and abundant in Cuba (for tourists at least). I’ve eaten more lobster in the past two weeks than I have in my entire life! Cooked with a tomato sauce and served alongside green beans, avacado, cucumber, manioc, rice and a black bean stew, it made one of the best banquet-style dinners provided by the friendly casa owners.

A whole lobster

Lobster in pieces

Black bean stew
Not all that dissimilar to the feijao in Brazil, this slightly salty black bean stew is the perfect side dish, providing more variety and flavour to accompany the staple South American meat-and-rice main course.

Black bean stew

Fried plantain/bananas
Another common side dish found in Cuba is fried plantain or bananas, not being a fan of bananas I leave this treat (as I have at every meal) to Simon…. “I do like bananas, but being compelled to politely eat these oily yellow discs at every meal, I’m beginning to see Laura’s point of view! Sweet, filling and delicious, yes; a huge plate every day alongside an already massive meal? I think I’ve had my quota for the next few years!”

Pizza, and ham sandwiches
These are two classic street snacks found throughout Cuba, perfect for a light (well compared to the huge dinners) lunch. Bought for 10-20 moneda nacional pesos (25-50p) ham and cheese pizzas, cooked in ovens fashioned from old oil drums, are served on a disc of paper and eaten folded in half. Ham sandwiches can also be bought on every street corner and are nearly always toasted and served hand-scorchingly hot.

Ice cream
We delighted in spending our days in Viñales sampling the different ice-cream flavours peddled by the town’s various ice-cream vendors. The Mr Whippy-style dispensers give nothing away, it’s not until your first lick you discover you’ve been sold a delicious pineapple or some other delightful yet unexpected flavoured ice cream, and for only 2.5p!

Tasty ice cream

Rum (Ron)
With the sun shining and live Cuban music playing you can’t resist the temptation of sitting back for the afternoon with a nice refreshing mojito or cuba libre. These rum based cocktails are impossible to avoid in Cuba, and why would you want to?

Mojitos, the perfect refreshment

Thank you to all the lovely casa ladies for the fabulous feasts and for making Cuban food some of the best we’ve had in South America! ¡Buen provecho!


The last bus

Colour and Cobbles

I’m writing from our last bus journey, heading back to Havana before flying home on Monday. Wow – it’s been good! I’m listening to ‘Salsa Celtica’ a crossover South American/Scottish group, which seems appropriate for our upcoming return.

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks first in crumbling Havana, then colourful Trinidad, and finally the luscious tobacco country of Viñales. All very different, although some familiar Cuban themes of friendliness, warmth and good hearty food thread them together.

In between the glorious sunshine, there has been one other thing in common – tropical rainstorms in the afternoons: it is rainy season here. Our first taste of it was while out horse-riding in Trinidad, as a monstrous thunderstorm appeared over the nearby hillside. We sped up, but it soon caught us, cantering along the open road and getting absolutely drenched. By the time we reached the town it was as if someone was repeatedly throwing buckets of water at each of us; a ‘natural shower’, as our guide put it – although definitely a power shower at that! We then went out for a night of open-air music in Trinidad that was rained off in a storm that hit after the third song – this was after they’d spent over an hour sound checking with the lightening approaching. Poor timing, perhaps! And finally, our Viñales beach experience: beautiful white sand, turquoise water, long stretch of beach to ourselves – utter perfection, if it wasn’t for the colossal thunderstorm that arrived 30 minutes after we did. Now, we’re no stranger to beaches and rain and thought we’d just adopt the wait-it-out-in-the-sea tactic: you can’t get any wetter if you’re already underwater. But we soon realised that isn’t quite compatible with nearby lightning strikes in the water around, even if they do look pretty cool – instead retreating to the undergrowth nearby to shelter, and apparently provide the mosquitos with lunch. You can’t say we aren’t thinking of the local wildlife.

Sunset in Trinidad

Trinidad brought us a taste of Cuban picture-postcard life: wandering down cobbled streets surrounded by colourful houses, admiring the architecture and soaking up the live music (and rain). Viñales gave us the Cuban countryside: the bright red soil evoking memories of our time in Asia, while the tobacco plantations there bring Cuba one of its most famous exports: the hand-rolled Cigar. We were shown around one of the black wooden tobacco drying houses that are scattered among the fields and then shown quite how quickly a cigar is rolled while the farmer told us of the carcinogenic addictive chemicals the government add to their cut of the tobacco – while his was entirely organic. Obviously it was in his interest to push his cigars, but this is just the sort of accusation we pin on the tobacco giants in the west – it was very interesting to see such a capitalist attitude being attached to the communist state here.

Tobacco farmer

We met up with our Finnish friends who we travelled with in Bolivia and Peru and spent a lovely few days with them, revisiting a beautiful beach on the coast near Viñales – although the idyll of a stretch of sand to ourselves was somewhat spoiled by the arrival of three bus-loads of Cuban holidaymakers, complete with a pumping sound system – and sadly playing the latest hits from Miami and not Havana.

To get to the beach, we had hired a taxi for the day, and our driver gave us a fascinating insight into life as a local. First up was that Cubans are not allowed in places where there are boats, unless they have a license – lest they flee to Miami in something more powerful than a flimsy raft. Fishermen have to sign in and out, and are not allowed big engines, and the only island Cubans are allowed to visit is on the south side of the county, a long way from any other mainland. It’s pretty clear that not everything is rosy in any country that has to physically restrain its inhabitants from leaving.

On the beach with the Finns

Then there’s the economic disparity, which you might not expect for a communist state, but has become pretty significant in recent years. Our driver’s wife is a qualified doctor, earning a paltry $22 USD per month. Bear in mind here that a standard international definition of severe poverty is living on less than a dollar a day. And our taxi driver – well, he has access to the tourist economy and so earns $50 USD in a single day when his car is hired out. There is obviously more complexity to this than just money and benefits – a desire to be a doctor and help people, for example – but it is a fascinating illustration of inequality and social worth even in a society that has largely eschewed capitalism. I guess you could also use this to argue the system is working – there are still plenty of doctors here in spite of the relatively poor wage, and they’re becoming doctors rather than taxi drivers because they believe in the state? Perhaps.

Either way, you can’t help but look at him driving an authentic 1956 Chevy and see it as representative of both sides of a country in flux. On one side is the iconic old car, battered but lovingly repaired and patched up, symbolic of the country and its ability to survive and make do in spite of the US sanctions; on the other is an economy which needs the benefits of capitalist tourism to develop and survive – but where the inequities that introduces undermine the very fabric of the country people seek to visit.


“Sin cultura la libertad no es posible”

Fantastic architecture in Havana

Cuba is a warm blur of sensation and emotion. It is colour and heat and music, and altogether different to everywhere else we’ve been. For me, it also comes with a feeling of satisfaction: a wish for many years finally delivered – ‘we are here in Cuba‘, we keep saying to ourselves. But it also brings a sense of conclusion: after nearly 11 months of travels, this is our final country, a two-week holiday at the end of a trip of dreams – and some surprising realities.

I’m writing this sitting in a wooden rocking chair on our porch in the early evening sunshine, looking out in the distance at a panorama of palm trees and tropical forest covering a limestone rock formation – and in the foreground, the more comical quiet street where a horse has broken free of its tether and is making its way through all the gardens for dinner. Somewhat symbolic of this friendly, sharing culture, nobody seems to mind – including the house owners sitting out in their respective chairs. And as if this picture of idyllic beauty needed liquid accompaniment, our landlady has just brought out ice-cold mojitos. Oh yes: Welcome to Cuba!

When we were driving out of Havana the other day, we passed one of the slogan billboards that are everywhere here, and it struck a chord. “Sin cultura, la libertad no es posible – Fidel”, “Without culture, liberty is not possible” (and that’s a direct quotation, it’s first name terms with him here). It seems to capture the feel of the place: yes, this is one of the last remaining communist states; yes, there is effectively rationing, close state control and in places brutalist soviet concrete architecture – but yes, there is also vibrant, colourful and enthusiastic life on the streets: real culture. Almost everyone we’ve met has been overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming – and not demanding of money as we’ve found elsewhere. (OK, so Havana is a bit of an exception, but its certainly nowhere near as bad as other places we’ve been). The live music and dancing is brilliant, and I think its fair to say we’re captivated by the whole thing.

Of course, as the millions of exiles in Miami would no doubt point out, there is another side to all this – one that’s essentially invisible to us as wealthy foreigners peeking in from the outside. I think that’s why I really like that slogan, for it can be so easily turned around: surely “Without liberty, culture is not possible” too? One of Fidel’s key rules about cultural expression was apparently “Within the revolution, anything; against the revolution, nothing”. It’s not hard to see how that means public political dissent is simply not possible – but that certainly isn’t the slightest bit visible in the positive energy we’ve found on the streets. This is not China, and certainly not Tibet.

Facade supported by scaffolding, which has been up for so long its become a jungle!

Iconic images appear everywhere you go like some photographer’s picturesque fantasy land: I keep having to ask myself ‘is this real?’. It is! The anecdotes just write themselves. That includes the dusty cowboy on horseback who’s just trotted past, complete with picture-perfect spurs on his boots; gleaming vintage American cars, curvaceous, huge and colourful; and the mildewed decaying architecture of Old Havana and Trinidad where you can witness at first hand the physical impact of 50 years without imported building materials and state priorities other than a glossy facade.

Our Cuba experience really began when we were queueing to board our flight in transit in Caracas. Yes, there was the ludicrous beaurocracy of needing to buy a tourist visa in local currency before boarding the flight (which we didn’t have, being in transit). Much more significant were our fellow passengers – or rather their hand baggage. It felt a bit like we were in Dixons during the January sales. Everyone seemed to be carrying boxes of electrical items, flat screen TVs, rice cookers and power drills, importing what the blockade has essentially stopped. For the first time in a while, we felt we should have been carrying more with us!

It’s not hard to see the problems Cuba has faced in its near-total isolation since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s a general principle here of make-do-and-mend that means everywhere except the fanciest of tourist hotels has a sense of decay and faded glory about it; new buildings (and actually, new machinery) are generally absent. Alongside those iconic classic cars, what little traffic there is comprises rusting old red tractors, motorcycles with side cars, VW Beatles, and horses and carts actually being used as transport and not just for quaint tourist trips. The exception amid all this is the odd new shiny small car, which look totally out of place. Government workers perhaps? Who knows. For most, the conventional intercity bus is a case of standing in a big old belching dumper truck, which if you’re lucky has had some metal crudely welded to give the passengers a roof and possibly some seats.

It’s not all quite so drastic though. Cubans have essentially been forced to save the few resources they have for what really matters – and the state has decided that is education and healthcare. The literacy rate of 99.8% rivals any developed country – it’s no wonder we’ve found the most local English speakers here, giving travelling around a distinctly ‘easy’ feel to it. The country also has 75,000 doctors – compare that with 50,000 for all of Africa. After the earthquake in nearby Haiti, it was Cuban medics who were some of the first on the scene, and were still there recently as some of the only aid workers to help tackle a cholera epidemic – 40% were treated by Cubans. According to our guidebook, 1.8 million people outside the country had their sight restored by Cuban aid worker doctors in the five years up to 2009. Take these indicators of welfare hand-in-hand with low resource consumption (even if just by necessity) and a society that isn’t entirely materialistic, and you can see why a 2006 WWF report named Cuba as the only country in the world actually living sustainably. Quite a different perspective to the communist demon projected by some.

Viva la revolución

As I write this, the man living in a pink house opposite has just nailed up a handwritten cardboard sign in his garden. It says “Viva la revolución”. Although the cynic in me says he’s just some over-zealous official seeking party credit, you can’t help but get the sense that for many, there really is emotion behind the slogans; despite the visible problems, things are still working working and Cuba continues to set an example – even if not a model – of a different world. It will be interesting to see how long it continues once the Castro dynasty have themselves reached their end.