Something different – My holiday in C-U-B-A

Posted on March 6, 2015 in Journalism

“How was Cuba?” everyone is asking me, after my holiday there last Christmas. But I seem to be struggling to answer – or to know where to start.  After all, where else is the first person you meet called Vladimir, is everyone paid the same wage, and can you still see so much left-wing propaganda – or art – like ‘The Revolution is Irreversible’?

Some of you might know the lure of the Caribbean…

Especially as an escape from grey and cold European winters, but I had been slightly put off going to Cuba when people told me … the food was dire.  But things are changing fast. Indeed, the biggest surprise of the trip was … the food was fine – good, even. None of us like lobster, so we had to ‘satisfy’ ourselves with red snapper, barbecued chicken, luscious fresh fruit, etc.

And our biggest disappointment?

Now here’s a surprise for you … it was precisely what many people go to Cuba for … yes, the music!  Yes, one or two bands were good, but the majority of the music (certainly in the capital) was the same old, same old… i.e. Guantanamera, and songs from the film Buena Vista Social Club, played round and round again. However, did a film ever do so much for a country – I doubt it.

What of Havana?

Well, the city’s a time-warp, not least because of the old American, which are everywhere. (Our ride to the airport was in a mint blue Cherolet, 1956.) Many areas of the city would pass for Barcelona, with tall Colonial buildings, graceful squares and plush hotels. Others are more like the scene after an earthquake: shells of buildings, mighty potholes and major roadworks.  And in-between those extremes, Vladimir, on our pony-cart ride, proudly pointed out the 20 or so huge, grand old buildings being done renovated into apartments, shopping arcades and hotels … someone must have known that the Americans are coming!

What will I remember Cuba for?

First, cocktails – especially Hemingway’s favourite, daiquiri. Try it! (rum, lime and ice).  Second, what with the good weather and the poor housing, it is a place where people live on the street.  The very few cars make you think it’s safe to walk on the roads, but the street is also a place for repairs, washing, football, anything.  It’s also for round the clock (almost) music and blaring TVs; for people hanging out and doing …nothing.  So, earplugs are a must at night – although my friends impressed me hugely by managing without!

And third, I know I said the music was disappointing in Havana, but Cubans are good all round artists.  There were signs the music is better away from the capital. And in a town called Viňales, about the size of Wantage, they had ‘cultural (music) evenings’ every day, and we saw electrifying dancing.  They also paint a lot – and are good at it. Every Cuban man may offer to sell you cigars, but the only gifts we returned home with was paintings.  It is great to have a burst of Cuban colour in my house, epitomising the spirit of the country.

A few other things…

It’s safe – they drive well, there are lots of single women travellers, and we never heard of any thefts.  Nor did we ever see any agro; and couples seem to be on solid, equitable terms – husbands doing the cooking as much as the driving, women managing restaurants as much as men, etc.

Cubans must be tired of every tourist’s question, ‘Has Fidel been good for the country?’, but a summary of the replies we got was: ‘It is tough, day to day… but we are happy’.  Yes, some have complicated and expensive plans to get to the USA, but others are enjoying life. After all, to anyone who can access it, tourism is now giving opportunities to earn more and faster than dreamt. Get on your bike!  Be a tourist guide, a taxi driver, anything … the Americans are on their way!

When shopping for food back in Oxford in late December, I was struck by the Christmas jingle music Sainsburys was playing over its tannoy – as they had been 18 days earlier, before we left.  It sounded tinny, flat and well beyond its sell-by date – in a word, dreadful.  Propaganda of a different kind, I thought: ‘It’s Christmas, spend more in with us!’  i.e. Exactly what we went to Cuba to escape from, and why we were so pleased to have gone.

Don’t miss the opportunity to GO!