Cuba touched my heart.
It enters straight in the top 10 of my best trip adventures.
It was the first time for me departing on my own with a group of unknown people. I have to say we were a cool group of people, well-matched, and our tour leader was a navigated traveler and this always makes the difference. If someone would ask me: things can go really bad or really well in a group like this, it depends on your attitude. If you are prepared to share space and time with people that might be very different from you, then you will get along. In the end it’s just for 2 weeks. Keep it relative.
We had a little bus and a local guide taking us around for 2 weeks.
We slept in the casa particular almost everywhere and ate the food the restless ladies would cook for us for dinner and breakfast. It was fantastic to enter their houses and sometimes sleep in their own beds (you have to imagine that for a one night stay you pay an amount corresponding to an average month salary, so you can understand what a good deal this is).
I have been to other 3rd World countries before, but Cuba was different. In other places (Thailand for example) you slightly feel assaulted, you feel most of the time like a walking wallet, like a scam target. To the point of asking yourself if your presence there is really appreciated, if it actually does anything good for the people, for their economy, if it’s worth it, if it is not just the arrogant dream of the western man to go around the world and put a check on the map he has at home. (I do have a scratchmap myself by the way, just to keep it honest. And I do feel I want to see as many places as possible in my life… but sometimes I ask myself these questions.)
But Cuba is a peaceful place, and quite safe. We never felt in danger nor the people who asked us things bothered us or invaded our personal space. It is quite surprising though to realise that no one asks you for money directly, they actually can’t buy the things they wish because they don’t have them there. The shops look pretty sad. Shelfs and shelfs of the same 2 or 3 items.So, instead, they ask you for t-shirts, make-up, soap, shoes, candies… I think I have seen the highest level of happiness ever into the eyes of a kid to whom we gave some candies, it made me think of my niece at home and all the toys she has and still wants more, and a candy is just a candy to her – not a treasure.
I give you an example: at the end of the trip I wanted to throw away my worn out sandals but my host lady asked me to give them to her instead. Can you feel proud or generous about something that? I felt a bit ashamed to be honest. But the dignity and the pride of the Cuban people really impressed me. They are very creative and reinvent constantly objects because they cannot throw them away; they have the best mechanics capable of repairing 100 times these old fashion colorful cars. Once I was riding a taxi that had my age! Rolando the driver was amasing. He took us on a moskvich up to the Sierra Maestra all in first gear. It was magical.
Culturally also Cubans are quite rich: such a mix of different origins and traditions and genetics. Cubans are blond as well as dark, they are white as well as mulatto. They can be quite different one another, but they are all integrated. Maybe living on an island and under a special regime helps to create cohesion, so it seemed to me quite a positive example to look at nowadays. I admire the way the aboriginal tradition managed to survive in a mélange with the imposed Christianity creating unique religious forms. (You know the story of this old Italian lady whose niece discovered she has been praying for years to a statue of a Star Wars character that she was believing was Saint Antonio? Well a bit like that, it made me think it’s not the form that counts but the meaning you put in it. In the Cuban Santeria in order to worship secretly their Orishas (semi-god and goddess) the people used to pray to the Christian saints, in this way they managed to keep their own beliefs alive and not being caught.)
Before departing, I found some people reacting a bit weird when I mentioned I was going to Cuba. People like insinuating things and being malicious, but I understood that the same geographical place can hide multiple types of destinations. Cuba is a typical example of such a bias.
All my friends who have been there before me and have similar points of view, where really enthusiastic. Most of all I wanted to go there before everything started to change too much. Well, timing couldn’t have been better because Fidel died while I was in the middle of the tour (we’ll get back to that later)!
On the same plane there were people going to a resort to spend 2 weeks at the beach during the day and with free alcohol at night. Each day the same. But holidays like that could be everywhere on earth, no??? Why bothering to go far? Other people (old people) going to meet their local partner for a relationship that is consumed few months per year. The habitual customers. And then people like me, the modest adventurous travelers.
You might already know I have a thing for the places I like to call “fucked up”, i.d.: falling apart, decadent and shabby (like certain Eastern European cities). Cuba has this flair throughout. But Havana especially. Havana avenues for me could easily beat the glamorous Champs-Elysees, no joking. There are so many beautiful palaces with that colonial style that everywhere else has been knocked down to make space to modern stuff, but if they ‘d just receive a little attention and care… and then there are little hidden gems, like restaurants and bars inside certain buildings that at first sight you would bet they are closed for imminent collapse danger. It’s all there to discover.And then Fidel died. It was at the crack of dawn when we got up to depart for the tracking in the Sierra Maestra. And the rumor started spreading in the group as people from Italy were sending text messages about this epic event. We could not believe it, it was such a special day. We visited the camp site in the forest and got exhausted by the 6 hours trail. Unfortunately the downside of being part of Cuban history while it’s developing is that the atmosphere totally changed, they stopped playing music in the casa della musica of every town we visited, and also stopped serving alcohol in most of the places, including those for tourists. In any case you can choose only between 2 beer brands: Bucanero and Cristal, but still we were craving one of those at each dinner after long and hot days walking around or after 6 hours transfer on the bus. We bought the local newspaper as souvenir which was quite an adventure per itself, we watch the local TV which broadcasted with no pause all the events and all the interviews ever recorded on Fidel. We talked to the people and we felt their grief. Because despite all you can say to criticize this government, Fidel was one of the most important leaders of our century, a powerful symbol of a dated ideal. It’s not easy to judge what is good or bad. You have to see it with your eyes. You have to understand the value of freedom like we perceive it in our part of the world and that we give for granted most of the time. But really isn’t.
If I just can tell you one thing would be to take time to go see places like this in your life, where things work different than in our reality, because you come back with eyes wide open, you come back and you re-asses things, you re-weight your values. It’s like a mental reset to me.
Finally, the only few days at the beach for me were enough. The weather was mostly cloudy and windy – which is ok being during their winter, but not to really enjoying swimming or even sunbathing (occasionally raining).Don’t get me wrong, Caribbean sea is indeed wonderful and crystal clear. It all made me feel like I want to discover much more of Central America now. I hope it will inspire you too.
Oh, sorry, wait a minute, I was about to leave you without talking about food!!! I loved all the exotic fresh fruits and juices and things I never ate before like guayaba. We ate a lot of lobster as well, meals consist mainly of white or black rice with beans plus chicken or fish, some side dishes like platano chips, tapioca and yucca. Interesting fact: red meat is rare and quite expensive, reserved for tourists, because there is an actual law that forbid the population to kill cows.
Ok, You can go now.