by Maria Taylor with Adam Taylor
Bulletin editor Maria Taylor had the pleasure of two weeks in Cuba in January with son Adam and daughter Christina. (Travel tip – three weeks would have been better!) A future story will focus on a novel musical exchange program between Australians, with the group leader based in Braidwood, and Cuban musicians some of whom are coming to Australia in March.
‘Perhaps (quizas), perhaps, perhaps’. A fitting slogan for Cuba in 2015. The 1950s Doris Day oldie is a staple you’re likely to hear from every busking musical group in Cuba: a good match for the time-warp and legendary old Chevys and Fords on the city streets.
‘Perhaps’ doors will also open to a better economy soon, given the Obama-administration pledge to normalise relations.
Performers of romantic ballads and hip-swaying salsa are common in Havana and particularly easy to find in provincial towns. Foreigners often conclude the music and charm reflect that Cubans are just a happy-go-lucky lot despite the challenges of their embargoed economy. The reality is that Cubans enjoy a level of cultural education (music, dance, theatre) unheard of in Australia, and busking is a good way to earn a few tourist dollars.
Once you accept that you, the tourist, are currently the main avenue to foreign currency for the government and the average Cuban, you can relax and enjoy the place and feel like you are helping.
“I remember the mixed feelings about having everyone out to hustle you in some way, but when you accept it for what it is, you can learn a lot about life in Cuba”, says Adam. “It seemed like a fair trade to be hustled for a bottle of rum if you got a good night out of it with some good company and music. There isn’t really any other way these guys could afford to have a simple night out like that.”
Shortages were are evident looking into 1950s-era shops and their wildly eclectic window displays: one window had some tinned food, plumbing equipment and a motorcycle helmet.
Visiting Cuba today is partially stepping back in time. Not just to the 1950s, but stepping back 100 years in the provincial cities and villages with horse-drawn transport – eight people sometimes in a single horse cart – substituting for local buses and taxies. It’s possible to see ox-drawn drays (substituting for tractors) cross in front of the admittedly light traffic on the autopista (freeway) – we did see just that!
We found the demands on and condition of some of the horses distressing, but horses here are simply beasts of burden, not pets. Humans, hauling others on ‘bicicletas’, also work very hard. One gear bicycles, often laden (we saw one carrying a fridge) add to the ‘between the wars’ flavour. The only flashy new bikes we saw were under lycra-clad tourists.
The lack of private cars and public buses, particularly in the countryside, means hitchhikers are everywhere outside of Havana. Many are just trying to get to or from work, it can take hours, or they might be mothers with babies visiting grandma.
All of this is the consequence of 50 years of United States-led trade embargo, particularly after Cuba’s patron, the Soviet Union, crumbled. Scarcity of everything that powers cars has created sights that are so picturesque and so photographable. But underneath the picture postcard, life is clearly not easy for humans and animals after trade difficulties over so many years.
Of course the alternative is not pretty to contemplate either: will Cuba go the way of China when things open up and descend into car-mania gridlock?
Shortages were also evident looking into 1950s-era shops and their wildly eclectic window displays: one window had some tinned food, plumbing equipment and a motorcycle helmet. Going inside we might find cheese or meat but not both, one kind of chocolate, umbrellas, sweet biscuits, beer and Cuban-branded cola. Bottled water is often somewhere else. Cuban rum is a revelation and not hard to find. Shopping may be challenging but a visitor can think of it as a treasure hunt.
Driving test and settling in first with cash
We hired a car and lived to tell the tale despite dodging potholes everywhere, dodging horse carts, bicycles, tractors, walkers, impossibly narrow streets in provincial towns and a few mad affluent Cubans driving Audis.
Don’t believe any guide book that tells you there are no road directional signs. Cuba has adequate signage particularly on the freeways but we also saw enough on secondary roads to find our way, with a few questions in villages as needed. A bit of Spanish helps.
Before taking off you’ll spend a few days sorting out money – ie finding ways to get Cuban cash (teller machines take Visa but not Mastercard and reject cards with American banks lurking in the background, as one of our group learned applying her Westpac Visa; teller machines may also not work or spit out a mound of tiny currency. Take Euros or Canadian dollars for exchange at a bank or money exchange).
With cash in hand, we were able to start on the network of good bed and breakfasts –‘casa particulares’ are Cuba’s step into private enterprise often in stately old homes, with delicious home-cooked breakfasts and dinners offered.
We started with colonial cities Cienfuegos and Trinidad and places in-between – exploring by local taxi, including a sidetrip to snorkel in the Bay of Pigs!
Having learned in this way how the locals drive, we motored out and mustered up the courage to pick up hitch-hikers, aiming for the old or the child-encumbered. We also had good luck with a few single guys who spoke good English. We got good directions and met good people.
“The natural landscape was incredibly beautiful. Not so much wildlife except in the ocean where we saw stingrays, spotted eagle rays, a remora with its shark and countless colourful fishes,” noted Adam of the road trip.
“What stays with you most are the wonderful characters such as our casa hosts, Dr Victor ‘tranquillo’ ‘no worries’ Sosa Rodriquez; the Havana familia with professional salsa dancer Ailyna as our hostess; the Santa Clara casa packed with antiques where we learned about the lively antique trade in Cuba.”
On the way back from Maria La Gorda (beautiful diving destination) we met our incredibly enthusiastic national park tour guide Abel who shared his passion for ‘80s music as we gave him a ride. [Abel hitchhikes some 50 km to and from work every day]. Earlier near Vinales, we picked up Alex, the young teacher of English who also has to hitch-hike every day to work and on weekends to visit his son.
We learned about daily life from these passengers, not least that the sumptuous meals offered to tourists are hardly staple fare. Cubans might eat meat on special holidays. A bottle of rum is a luxury. Not surprising when a teacher like Alex or a naturalist like Abel are paid less than $30 US a month.
Cuban pride in equality and social network
Off-setting their paltry government salaries or pensions, the Cubans have free medical care, free education, free cultural events and a safety net where no-one starves or sleeps on the street. Cubans are very proud of those social achievements.
Indeed it could be worse, “Their system seems to prevent the predatory violence and crime prevalent in Central America. Unlike much of Latin America, where if you get sick without money you’re screwed, Cubanos of all stripes get free access to some of the best doctors in the world,” noted Adam who was just in Central America.
Where to from here?
Cuba is in a bind as it opens the door to more and more tourists. The political system doesn’t leave anyone behind but, as one writer put it, they’ve traded the evils of inequality for a general level of poverty. Dissatisfaction is unavoidable for some who meet more and more comparatively rich tourists and Cuban expats while earning what Alex the teacher does.
How will Cuba hold onto the good while trading up, if and when the embargo folds?
That is the fascinating question.
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Travel tip: If you want to experience ‘real Cuba’ avoid the big coastal resorts. They could be anywhere. Some good casa particulares: Casa Sardegna, Vedado, Havana, run by Ailyna Valdez, email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Las Golondrinas, Cien Fuegos, run by Dr Victor, email:email@example.com. Once you are in the system, your host will recommend others.
Image: Trinidad, Cuba. Christina Taylor