Originally published in Summersite Magazine, Sydney
Imagine a place that is both the past and the future, both heaven and hell. A place of crumbling splendour and jewelled seas, of derelict buildings emblazoned with the revolutionary flag. This is the Cuba that teeters on the brink of westernization, a country that clings to its tumultuous past, but hasn’t quite crossed the threshold into the future that lies ahead.
The Cuba that exists today is the culmination of so many eras. It is impossible to describe my experience of this place as something not affected by its multifaceted history. Believe it or not, for the most part of the 19th Century, Cuba was actually incredibly rich. As a Spanish colony, it dominated as the world’s leading sugar cane producer and it was this era of prosperity that paved the streets of Havana with opulent colonial buildings.
But from 1959 onwards, Cuba was a communist state and America, itself in the midst of The Cold War, quickly cut off all trade and relations. Cuba did not fare well in this political isolation and by the 90s things were bad. Marketed by the regime as the ‘Periodo Especial’ (special period), from 1990 to 1994 a crackdown on rationing and fuel meant that widespread hunger was so extreme, it was not uncommon to see a Cuban family rearing livestock in their bathroom just to stay alive.
Foreign visitors are dragging Cuba back from its political and economic apocalypse. Today, despite years of inaccessibility, tourism is the country’s biggest industry. In 2015, President Obama finally thawed US-Cuba relations allowing Americans to freely visit for the first time in over 50 years. This will no doubt change things massively.
But for now, Cuba is still a place of extremities. Extreme poverty contrasted with the comparative hedonism of tourists; five star hotels next to one bedroom family homes. Extreme ideologies are coloured by extreme hardship and disillusionment. And you can tell, I can feel it with every eye upon you. These people have suffered and we, the tourists, are both their salvation and their undoing.
Havana is like some kind of dystopian Paris. Magnificent buildings lie in disrepair, fighting off a new kind of colonisation - plant life. People hang from ornate balconies, yelling at each other in Spanish or lowering items onto the street with a bucket and a string. Shop shelves are almost bare, locals line up on street corners for bread rations and families sell espressos out of their window for one peso. Everyone, everywhere is scraping by. But it’s not austere. Every Sunday the streets fill with drumming and dancing. Rum, which is cheaper than water (and considerably easier to find) flows everywhere.
Barely any new cars have been imported into the country for the last 50 years, so Havana is full of the kind of rusting, vintage classics that westerners would pay mortgage their house for. Many of these also serve as ‘Collectivos’; the local Cuban transport system that works something like a taxi service combined with hitch hiking. Just throw your hand out on the street, and some kind of Cadillac will screech up to the curb and squash you in with whatever other passengers he’s driving. It’s never direct, but if you’ve got the time you can see all of Havana in these cars. At your desired destination, just yell "aqui!" and thrust 10 pesos (about 40 cents) into the driver’s hand.
PLAYAS DE ESTE
Two pesos and a 45-minute bus ride from Havana are the Playas De Este, the jewelled beaches of Havana’s east. This is where the split in the Cuban economy feels most prominent. Between tacky beachside resorts, gutted out mansions lie scattered like carcasses along the coastline. They stand as haunting monuments of prosperity either lost or abandoned in the tough times of the Periodo Especial. Now they serve as drinking haunts for locals, the twisted cement is as fine a beach umbrella as any.
Sitting alone on the sand, I was approached by a big Cuban policeman in aviator sunglasses. After a broken English/Spanish exchange and a lot of sign language, I managed to communicate that I was walking to the local town, Guarabo, for lunch. He immediately declared that he would accompany me, which he did, all the way through the village and into a backyard of two broken chairs where we commenced a strangely intimate chicken lunch together. It was one of several moments on my trip where I had to decide if I was being adventurous or just plain stupid. A police uniform doesn’t necessarily represent safety or trustworthiness, just as ‘lunch’ doesn’t necessarily represent a shared meal.
Cuba is like this, confusing acts of kindness are as common as catcalls thrown at you in the street. As a young female traveller, I was in a constant state of caution despite a strong desire to connect with locals beyond bartering and hedging scam artists. But mistrust is rife amongst both tourist and local parties, and the internal struggle I felt over these encounters was matched by the guarded curiosity I sensed in every Cuban I met.
Trinidad, like most of Cuba, is a town caught between two worlds. Ritzy hotels circle the heart of this rural mountain setting. But while Cuban performers in garish frocks dance salsa for pina colada-sipping tourists, if I walked five minutes down the street I found tired old men selling battered fruit for a pittance. Mountains fringe the village outskirts, which are dotted with waterfalls that can be reached by foot or horseback. So I hired a horse and guide and trekked up the mountain to see the scenery for myself. Whatever serenity I might have found up there I’ll never know, as we arrived to greet fat raindrops falling thickly from the sky. The storm came in fast and I was drenched within seconds. Mildly dissatisfied with the whole excursion, we turned around and pointed our horses back towards town.
My guide however, had other plans for us. We veered off the main trail down a dirt track and eventually came across a two-room shack on a sweeping paddock dotted with pigs. I was standing in the rain holding my horse in front of at least ten Cubans outside their tiny, farmhouse home. My guide - who was obviously a family friend - sat down, poured himself a shot of rum and waved me into a seat, and I quickly realised that I had just gate-crashed a local birthday party. The rain beat down heavily on the tin roof as I weighed up my options. I was absolutely filthy and soaked to the bone - I really didn’t have any. So I took a seat, accepted some boot legged rum and a plate of pork carved off an entire pig simmering in pot in the garden and embarked on my first true Cuban dinner.
Over the next two hours, as the storm continued, I ate and drank with that wonderful family, establishing what can only be described as a warm friendship - despite the cultural gulf between us. What we lacked in language, we made up for in charades, laughter and shots of rum. I felt the most at home since arriving in that strange, isolating country. This was the Cuba I’d been looking for.
Cuba was strange, at times lonely and, almost always, utterly bewildering. As a budget backpacker, I fell into the gap between five star tourism and local living, and that kind of travel market is only just starting to exist.
I spent a lot of the time trying to be adventurous and not admitting to myself that I was just stranded, sweaty and confused. But that is absolutely why I loved it. For every ornate terrace there was a crumbling ruin, for every catcall in the street there was a favour from a stranger. Everywhere I went, I saw the contrast between the Cuba that was packaged and presented to the foreigner, and the reality of a country that has been surviving without us for centuries. A place that is raw, passionate, disillusioned, stricken and proud. I barely scratched the surface of that kind of Cuba, but how long will it even remain?
There is a change coming as Cuba’s doors open to the commercial west. It’s in the boy who taught himself perfect English from Youtube, or the old man who whispered “Viva America!” at me from a park bench. Tourism is giving Cuba a second chance at prosperity, and I can’t lament a change like that. I can only hope it doesn’t dilute the true experience of a place that is unlike anything I have ever seen.