by Katie Mustard
I went to Cuba because I was curious; because Id read so much about it; because it is forbidden; because so many people have championed it while so many others have abandoned it; because Cubans make great music and aromatic cigars; because Ive never been to a Communist country; because I wanted to learn the salsa; and because of its alluring mystique.
Beside the fact that it is vaguely illegal, going to Cuba as an American for a short stretch poses no problem. My travel companion, Amy, and I were whisked quickly through immigration and warmly greeted to a gauntlet of jineteros: Cambio? Taxi? Casa Particular? Being the savvy backpackers that we are, Amy and I ignored the hoots and hollers and even snapped the occasional cambio tu fucking madre at the overly persistent hustler. Nonetheless, we fell to the mercy of being the trapped tourist 15 miles outside the city and ended up paying a hefty $20 fee to Habana Central.
Oh HAVANA: the magnificent, vibrant, beautiful and crumbling capital of Cuba. My feelings for the city can best be compared to those of a mistress for her lover: happiness and sadness, admiration and frustration, passion and paranoia, sensitivity and revulsion. What's more, I do not believe there is a foreigner who could walk the streets of Havana without feeling afraid, without sensing something special, without feeling the music which forms the backbone of the society, and without realizing he or she is in a country clutched between the past and the future. After spending only a few hours in Havana, I become conscious of an unfortunate truth: it is the very ills of the society which draw the flocks of tourists; and thus my combating feelings commenced.
While Miami is closer to Havana than it is to Orlando, Cuba can feel as exotic as China. It is a place out of time, the least "Westernized" country in the hemisphere, and its allures are countless: classic American antique cars that somehow still rumble along the cobblestone roads; colonial style mansions with colorful shutters, faded pillars and torn up yards complete with playing kids and mangy dogs, grand 20s style cabaret halls packed with eager-to-please dancing women; horse and buggies that out number the bicycle taxis and old Soviet war-time motorcycles with side carts; and the most captivating attraction, is the sight of the hundreds of Cubans who pass the day in the street - displaying their profession of manicurist, hair cutter, tire-repair-man, lighter-fluid-filler, and cucumber-seller for all the gawking tourists to photograph More specifically, my initial observations sounded like those such as: Look, Amy, its a homemade cargo trailer that holds the entire family, how clever or Look at the toilet paper and the coat hanger displayed in the window, isnt that odd and Holy shit, did you just see that old lady get booted off the overflowing bus of people. And of course, the recurring, I just cant believe it, 200 people waiting in line for ice cream, and they only have vanilla?? Needless to say, the more I noticed all the lucky leftovers of a colonial past, the more the novelty images became sad symbols of a Communist present in serious need of repair, repainting, replastering, replumbing and rebuilding. Yet, despite all the economic hardships, Havana proudly wears its Caribbean colors; a tropical rainbow reflected in smiles, flowers and (when its available) ice cream.
More remarkably, the city continually fabricates a boundary-free backdrop between the home and the street, and all doors are left wide open for on-lookers and out-lookers alike to converse. I easily adapted to the warmth and openness there. In Cuba I could be passive, tentative, and still be taken in, brought close to people and situations, for it is a place that is about people and intimacy. I suppose it is because they have nothing to lose, because they know what cannot be taken away. They have been through and are going through something together, as a people, one nation under Fidel. So it is of no surprise that, effortlessly, Amy and I found ourselves in several Cuban homes for several home made dinners with several new friends.
However, it was not until the day we attempted to depart Havana on the government run bus system that our real Cuban experience began. What do you mean there is no bus to Batabano?!? We were here just yesterday and reserved seats? These types of questions would soon prove to be silly as we learned the reality of public transportation And so, illegal taxi rides became our most frequent mode of travel, and oh how one cannot deny the exhilaration of racing down 200 kilometers of potholes at 95 miles per hour while the doors rattle off and the hole in the floor widens. Luckily, Amy and I arrived in Batabano just in time to wait 5 hours for a 4-hour ferry ride and a 30-minute walk to our final destination on the Isle de la Juventud or The Island of Youth.
Not necessarily by choice, Amy and I spent 3 days on the attractive island. The change of pace was extremely refreshing - the unhurried way of life gave us the opportunity to truly enjoy the Cuban people and their habitats. Mangroves lined the bustling center road through town. Hundreds of small, beautiful, and completely dilapidated houses stacked along side each other down narrow seafront streets. Prime real estate in any other universe, the houses displayed paint 40 years weathered, worn to breathtaking pastels of blue, violet, pink and grey. Although, the Isle de la Juventud is the least populated region of Cuba, the streets constantly jangle with bicycles and horseshoes hitting the pavement. Blackouts are regular, and the dirt roads at night are so dark that when a car appears, its headlights are blinding and leave you stumbling to see the wrinkled concrete sidewalk. Yet, the streets still whir with brave riders through the blacked-out nights. Couples sharing a ride, families of three perched comfortably on a solid Cuban clunker, giggling home in the silence of a country blessed with a lack of gasoline. Ironically, one of the most impressive sights on the island was the man made Presidio Modelo, the prison in which Castro was housed for several years. Three five-story circular blockades make up the penal colony, all set against towering marble hills, which look absolutely exquisite at sunset. I guess Castro did not appreciate the view.
As in Havana, the people on the island were very approachable (to say the least). They always want to talk, not only to find out about you (continually asking which country you are from and how you like Cuba) but also to tell you about their life, their cousin in Miami, their brother in Ohio and their daughter-in-law in Charlotte. Amy and I were happy to accept an invitation for dinner from a charming couple we shared some wine with at a peso-only bar. Soon, we were introduced to all the children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents who would also be joining us for dinner. While we waited for the meal to be prepared, the couple entertained us with wine, beer, music and dancing. Amy and I graciously tried our hand at the salsa while the children laughed and tried to teach us the correct rhythm. As I watched the couple dance together, I couldnt help but notice that Cubans dance with their whole bodies not just their feet, and as I was later informed, one must feel the passion in order to do it properly. Without fault, all the Cubans I met could dance the salsa, meringue, casino and other complex partner-dances. I dont know if it's genetic or environmental, but it's there, in the blood and in the air.
Not to worry, our excursion to the island was not all giggles and rainbows. There were, of course, many life-threatening situations, including a 2-hour scuba dive with a non-English-speaking freelance instructor on a dark and windy day. And last but not least, Amy and I (tired of waiting for the overbooked ferry) took a Cubana flight on an old Russian jet, military style, the color of metal inside and out. While passengers passed around open bottles of rum, I noticed a man lighting a cigar in the third row, who had just come out of the cockpit leaving the door swinging behind him. Maybe I am just a squeamish First-Worlder or a bit compulsive with my traditional ideas of safety, but this made me feel a little unstable. Thankfully, the rum went down smooth.
Upon arriving back in Havana, Amy and I made the acquaintance of a lovely British couple (the first foreigners we had actually met on the trip) and together, we spontaneously decided to hire a driver to take us to the Pinar del Rio Province, 200 kilometers Southwest of Havana. Along the way, I become aware of the proper etiquette for hitchhiking, a form of basic transportation for all Cubans. People patiently line the roads at all major intersections, waiting for rides as all shapes and sizes of cars and motorbikes speed past. Any truck going anywhere will fill up its bed with companeros, as many extra riders as can fit standing, with perhaps a bicycle or two holding on for the bumpy ride. More so, there are all manner of jerry-rigged vehicles from which to choose. Tractor-trailer cabs pulling steel containers, their small cutout windows covered by bars of steel, and jammed like third-world prisons with suburban passengers, often painted on the side, "Transporte Popular"-- indeed. As we traveled further into the country roads of Pinar del Rio, I observed the most curious form of location: a sled involving two oxen connected by a yoke from which two ropes extended back to the hands of a man standing on two twenty foot long logs, as if they were skis. The logs were, in turn, chained to one of the oxens hind legs, the man stood causally with the cords taut, while the oxen pulled him and the logs along. Suddenly, the tin box frame with four wheels and a stereo in which I snugly sat, steadily chugging down the open road, did not seem so bad.
We arrived into the Valle de Vinales at sunset. The beauty of the limestone mountains and the rich vegetation of the rolling plains was still unmistakably visible. We stopped at a house with a room for rent sign dangling outside the door, and while the owner did not have space for all of us, his neighbor and brother, did. Manuel and his wife cooked us a tremendous meal of black beans, rice, fish, chicken, fried yuccas, fruit, coffee, and bread. Amy and I got along quite well with the lively Londoners, and the four of us stayed up late into the evening hours, sipping rum on the back porch, comparing travel tales, and enjoying the cool night air.
We rose early the following day, eager to experience in full light the glimpse of beauty we had marveled over the previous night. By bike, we set off to find a community called Los Aquaticos; a group of families who live in the hills and believe in the healing power of water, supposedly bathing three times a day and allowing themselves to be dried by the wind. As we began our ascent into the awe-inspiring mountains, I was struck by the provinces limestone bedrock, riddled with fantastic shaped caves and rivers that dive underground, creating impressive rounded tunnels that gush into sulfurous springs and sinuous waterfalls. The scenic land is densely populated with colorful jungle green and brown tobacco growing fields, and sprawling plains that overflow with sugarcane, rice paddies, stalks of yucca, clusters of coconut trees and furrows of parched earth awaiting seeds of corn. Beef cattle ranches rest snugly in the luscious foothills, bordered by spectacular arrays of tropical fruits and vegetables. The tranquility of the soft and inviting land gracefully overwhelmed me. Vinales is without a doubt, not only a photographers paradise, but the loveliest place Ive ever been in my whole life.
The valleys natural riches are equaled by the charms of its people. With a slight breeze, I was stopped in my tracks at the sight of a striking young farmer who seemed to emerge with the wind. The attractive boy sat patiently under a straw hat with curled side brims, gently smoking a cigar. Not to the liking of our solo male travel companion, the three of us, stood entranced by the natural beauty and simplicity of the Cuban country boy. He hardly spoke a word, and yet we faithfully followed him as he led us up to his humble home in the mountains. His grandfather, the only family member who appeared to be living with the boy, had the face of a thousand emotions. His organic, toothless smile and wide-eyed stare made me want to reach out and hug him.
After a glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, the boy continued to lead us, by foot, up the mountain, under the sturdy trees, and through the darkened caves. Completely fascinated by the innocence and authenticity that radiated from his presence, I studied the boys every move. With bare hands, sweat and skill he rolled a fine cigar. Later, I nearly missed it when, the boy quietly unlatched the knife from his belt and disappeared into a field of sugarcane, only to return moments later with the sweetest sugar stalks one could find. It was here, following the footsteps of a Cuban Crocodile Dundee through a misty Caribbean outback, that my journey provoked that rare sentiment of a pure, uncomplicated pleasure for life.
Sitting in the dismal and empty Jose Marti International airport, I, once again, considered the reasons behind my mixed emotions for the country I was leaving.
Its beaches are the best in the Caribbean, its culture is exceptionally unique in Latin America, and its history is fascinating. Yet the contradictions in Cuba are abound. Coated by a thick edge of poverty, they express themselves quite visibly in Cubas lines. I suppose, line culture is essential to every communist bureaucracy and post-communist poverty. In Cuba, a line-joiner asks simply for "el ultimo or the last" and takes his place. Lines lounge, wait respectfully for hours across the street from the cafe that is full and the store that is yet to open. Yet the longest line in which Cubans wait is the one behind the foreigners who have now taken the front row seats in Castros orchestra.
Tourists have all the advantages and almost all the rights in Cuba, as everyone is in need of dollars and tourists have them. The power of the dollar flowing from the pockets of tourists is rapidly devaluing the Cuban peso, and at the same time, encouraging the people to hustle as many dollars from the tourists as possible for a better life. Sure travelers get hassled in most countries, but it's sad in Cuba where increased exposure to an outside world is driving them to it. It's a country where bartenders earn more than doctors, television and cinema are strictly censured, no one can leave freely or make any money independently. But then again, Socialism is all about living in a land that is not ones own. And so, the country waits. They wait not only for ice cream, but also for something to happen, for someone to press play on their history. It is my assumption that Cuba is a country on the verge of inevitable and incalculable change.
In the end, despite all of Cuba's festering sores, I embraced the country like no other before. It is the warmth of the people and the beauty of the country which still stand out as my strongest memories. It was an odd feeling when it actually came time to go: I knew I could never live in the country, but yet, I was sincerely heartbroken to say goodbye.
"Nobody is in agreement…It’s that, no one says it and no one takes the risk to say it, to speak the truth. That’s what is happening. In other words, one of the foundations, of what are the regimes in the entire world, in all of history, has been fear and lies. In other words, once you are in fear that's when you don’t take a risk, where you collect yourself and don’t unite…understood? To be in fear is not to offer help to anyone because that signifies risk." -Gorki Águila Carrasco, lead singer, guitarist of the music group Porno Para Ricardo and political prisoner
"Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers. One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand." --Jose Marti
View Che Guevara's Forgotten Victims on Scribd
Sunday, August 26, 2007