I went to Cuba knowing not too much. Having spent two weeks there, I am but a little wiser. That it was the most amazing place I have ever seen is not to imply that I or my friend John enjoyed every last moment. But I knew, even after a few days, that this was a holiday I would not forget.
But forgetting was how it all started. After a day or two in Havana, I realised that my habitual engagement with the online world would have to go on hiatus. My fledgling command of Spanish was also put to the test by the fact that English on the island is still relatively scarce. There were hand gestures and monosyllabic words a plenty as I remembered that essential communication is fundamentally based on common sense.
For the most part, the people of Cuba come across as tremendously likable. Even if many we interacted with saw us as a pair of walking cash machines, there was less of the aggressive salesmanship I've encountered elsewhere. There was almost the sense that, underneath the toil with which they obviously grapple, Cubans don't take it all too seriously. The truth, I know, is much less simplistic.
But that disarming lack of seriousness leaves a lasting impression. One night, a group of four men sat down nearby in the bar we were drinking in. The barman asked them where they from, to which they said they were Italian. “Ah Italia,” replied the host, “La mafia”. In a Havana restaurant, a local patron unloaded cúpla focal on us when we told him where we were from. He was an ex-boxer, who had trained in Ireland under none other than Michael Carruth. “Póg mo thón, indeed.”
Tourism is Cuba's lifeline. And not just for those wise enough to avail of impending change. In Santa Clara, around three hours from Havana, we passed by a school yard where teachers and junior students were conducting class outside. When one teacher noticed us, she gestured to know if we had any pens. I had three, and after taking my bag from my shoulders with earnest affirmation, I tossed her a black bic and continued on my way. This was a memorable dose of reality: a teacher begging tourists for pens. I tried to ward off the smugness that inevitably followed.
More grit was evident on our journey to Trindad in a 1950s Dodge Taxi. Through the Sierra del Escambray mountain range, the driver navigated potholed roads that had to be seen (or felt) to be believed. After a snail's pace ascent, we gathered some speed on the way down. From the back seat I had just about enough time to anticipate our subsequent collision with a cat rising out of the ditch. I'd call the event fitting if it didn't trouble me the way it did.
Trinidad welcomed tourists like no other city we visited. Old men with cowboy hats sat on corners smoking giant cigars, ready to charge anyone who considered them photo-worthy. In every bar, the resident band sent out their often beautiful singers to boozy customers with cap in hand. On one occasion, I donated three pesos and was met with disapproval because I had used the wrong, much less valuable, currency. John, ever the diplomat, defused the situation with two convertible pesos.
With notable exceptions, the food in Cuba was the worst I've eaten. Generally, the restaurants ranged between average and terrible. A pizza in Santa Clara was certainly the most disgusting meal I've ever been served. Thankfully, the guesthouses, or Casa Particulares, were of a much higher, if still basic, culinary standard. As a vegetarian, I lived functionally on rice, eggs and vegetables. John's experience of meat was more volatile. In Cienfuegos, he suffered a night of vomiting that left him even lower on energy in unforgivable heat. Enough said.
And then there's la revolución- the preverbial “two fingers” extended by the Cuban state to the world's most powerful country, with only ninety miles of water to keep them apart. Although Cubans still practice Catholicism, it takes only a few days to figure out who Christ competes with. The famous print of Ernesto “Ché” Guevara is omnipresent, reminding citizens of their role in one of the Cold War's most remarkable episodes. The martyr takes his place along side the still living Fidel and Raúl Castro, a sort of Holy Trinity for Cuba's declining version of Marxist-Leninism. With recent events in mind, it would interest me to see Cuba again in about ten years' time.
Underscoring this recent experience was the ever emitting sound of Cuban music. As no kind of expert, I am still prepared to agree with popular opinion, that the island's musicality is a particularly strong attribute. A classical pianist in a Trinidad bar, flanked by his bored looking wife, summed up so much of what, here, is so difficult to convey. And that kind of thing, in case you think this entry has been a bit negative, was the incommunicable highlight. Go and find out for yourself.