This one one of a series of travel emails I sent to friends and family who wished to follow my travels through Latin America in the first half of 2007
The window was a dirty dark porthole to the hot humid air above the Caribbean Sea. It had not been cleaned for some time and it looked, from the well-lit interior, like a misplaced slab of black marble. But for the rattle and hum of the engines, one wouldn’t know that we were aboard an old IL-62 on our way to Havana, Cuba. Soon the lights of small fishing vessels and eventually the bright jewelled cobwebs of small towns and the roads that linked them broke the impenetrable visual silence of my window. We were both very excited. Although we had both visited a place to which we had never been in Mexico just six weeks prior, the 26 hour transit from Melbourne to Mexico City had dampened our spirits somewhat. This was something new; something fresh.
The plane from Cancun had been delayed, but not by much. My travelling companion and I arrived the night before and, after staying in a dingy hostel for one night, had been ambushed by Sunday opening hours the next morning as we tried to tie together loose-ends before leaving Mexico. We could scarcely believe that the previous week had seen us travel at a prodigious pace through the four most significant archaeological sites in Mesoamerica. From Teotihuacan, home of the world’s third largest pyramid to Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, site of civil unrest only a few months ago, via a mammoth 15-hour bus trip to Palenque, site of one of the most extensive complexes of Mayan ruins and, finally, to Chichen Itza the famous Mayan astronomical observatory and calendar.
In this whirlwind of archaeological discovery, we had had precious little sleep but somehow managed to keep ourselves reasonably together, until now. Despite arriving a generous three hours prior to our departure, we had, through unfortunate twist of bureaucratic fate, somehow managed to miss our check-in. Fortunately, my bag was small enough to pass as hand-luggage (although, in the end, it did require its own seat). My companion was less fortunate, having to leave his bag in the hands of the Mexican staff at Cubana airlines in the hope that they would send it to Havana on the next day’s flight. They didn’t. Nick wouldn’t be united with his luggage until four nights later.
Despite a fairly strong and constant sea-breeze the smog in Havana is oppressing. No wonder so many people here smoke cigars; they probably filter out most of the pollution, or at least make it palatable. Something I did not find palatable was Cuba’s apartheid. Cuba maintains strong relations with South Africa and it is well known that Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela are friends but while South Africa abandoned its system of segregation, Cuba still exercises its own form of apartheid in the form of tourist segregation. A good friend of mine recently wrote of his experiences in Morocco where he felt “that the whole country is one big entente set out to fleece tourists”, well the Cubans have it down to an art.
“Psssst! Hey, where you from? Wanna change money? Wanna buy cigar?” is the calling-card of the jineteros – hustlers who relentlessly hound and hassle anyone who doesn’t look Cuban. In addition, There are two separate currencies circulating in the Cuban economy: the Convertible Peso – tourist money; and the Moneda Nacional – local currency: this way, the government can make sure that everything is more expensive for tourists. The conversion is about one to twenty four. A rather unfortunate Irish traveller, with whom we shared accommodation with in a Cuban family’s house – a casa particular, had foolishly changed a thousand US dollars worth of Convertibles to the local currency at the unfortunate ratio of two to one, from a guy he met on the street – it seems the Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman jokes are more perceptive that we give them credit for.
To say that everybody in Cuba is a jinetero would be vastly misrepresentative. On my fourth day in Havana, I ran into several Cubans who seemed to be interested in no more than a friendly chat. I learned that the flow of information in Cuba is very tightly controlled by the state and the only way that the common population can really learn about other countries is by interacting with foreigners. While I was talking to one particular couple, a man who I later learned to be a plainclothes police officer came by and took down both their names. It seems that the Cuban government doesn’t like their people talking to foreigners. “In Cuba, there are 11 million people, 6 million of them are police” commented one of them.
But not all the locals are so scathing of the machinery of the state. Indeed, most of the Cubans with whom we spoke spoke highly of Castro, his comrades and the many great things that the revolution has brought. Walking through the streets of downtown Havana, certain areas look war-torn, the buildings being in a considerable state of disrepair. Those who populate these buildings though, are anything but war-torn. They are healthy, well-dressed and, on the whole, if not happy then content. While the Cuban economy has been beaten and bled to within an inch of its life by the US-imposed trade embargo, nobody in Cuba goes hungry, nobody sleeps in the streets and Cuba has a superior health system to all but the wealthiest of first-world nations. The affluent west could learn a great deal from a state which puts the state of its people before the state of its buildings.
Speaking of the great things that the revolution has achieved, the Museo de la Revolucion is definitely a sight worth seeing. Inside is a detailed, if slightly biased, account of the recent history of Cuba and how the band of young revolutionaries took the bus (I’m not making this up) to take control of a country. Cuba, like certain parts of Mexico, is the Poland caught between world superpowers, at that time – The US and Spain. Indeed a US ship called the “Maine” was reputedly sunk by the Spanish which precipitated the Spanish-American war. Of course, the Cuban take on events is slightly different, their history subscribing to the theory that the US sacrificed their own ship in order to have an excuse to make war with Spain. In fact, the plaque on the monument to the victims of the Maine which takes a prominent position on the famous seaside road, the Malecon, reads “to the victims of the Maine who were sacrificed by voracious imperialism in its desire to gain control of the island of Cuba”.
Unfortunately, neither this author nor his fellow travelling companion (both ex Melbourne University Amnesty International group presidents) managed a visit to the infamous US Naval base in Guantanamo Bay. While both countries exchange unpleasantries and hypocritical accusations of human rights abuses across the Straits of Florida, the US rents its very own legal black hole on Cuban soil for the princely sum of $4000 which the US coughs up every year and which Fidel refuses to cash and keeps (it is rumoured) in his desk’s top drawer. Meanwhile, the Comite de Defensa de la Revolucion offices, scattered throughout Cuba keep an eye on… well, everything.
Cuba isn’t all politics and revolution though, a quick trip by rental car across the island on the Soviet-funded autopista highway reveals much about the true nature of this interesting island. To begin with, the autopista stops about halfway along the island – as far as they got when the Soviet Union collapsed. Hitchhiking here isn’t limited only to the young and poor, everyone does it. Cuba’s transport crisis, although now partially alleviated by Cuba and Venezuela’s oil for doctors agreement, is such that all government vehicles, distinguishable by blue number plates, are actually obliged to stop for anyone that waves them down. In this collective struggle, there is a sense of solidarity and community and it is ever-present in the extraordinary generosity of its population, always eager to talk to foreigners about anything from music to cigars to politics, despite the efforts of the government.
“Why go to Cuba? It’s so dangerous!” quipped one of the Americans in my Spanish class in Mexico. Whatever the US media feeds its people, it certainly sells many countries short (note: this same group of Americans could not identify most European capital cities, including England’s). Cuba is anything but dangerous, in fact, even in Havana, even in the most dilapidated war-torn neighbourhoods, one does not feel unsafe, even if one walks alone in the dead of the night looking thoroughly like a tourist, as this author did on more than one occasion. And to describe the Havana night as “dead” would be to commit yet another gross injustice. When arranging accommodation, one should ensure a reasonable degree of soundproofing if one wants to get any sleep – the communist party isn’t the only party happening around here. Music flows through the veins of the Cuban people and African-influenced drumming beats at its heart in the various music clubs found wherever there are people on the island.
Music is the place where the real Cuba is found. The sounds of salsa emanate from live bands playing in the streets and are often accompanied by spontaneous dancing in the street – and the Cubans can really dance! A cacophony of guitars, bass and, of course, brass saturates the evening air more than even the Caribbean humidity can, permeating, like the steamy climate, through one’s skin and into one’s very soul, in much the same way that the warmth of the Cuban people does. Walking back from the Casa de la Musica to our casa particular in Trinidad, we stopped to observe a partial lunar eclipse. Somewhat surprised at the stillness of the moon in a night bustling with activity, the bright moonlight in this surreal setting, with deafening music and dancing crowds in the streets behind us; so very different to our home in Australia, was the perfect light to guide us on our journey back to reality
Hasta la victoria siempre!