Well hello there and happy New Year to those of you who haven’t packed your bags and left yet. I am still here, yes. And I have lots to write about! No New Year’s Resolutions this time – we all know what happened to last year’s blogging-related ones, ahem – but some memories of a rather wonderful two weeks spent in Cuba over Christmas and New Year. I know, I know, this isn’t a travel blog. But if spending two weeks in Cuba doesn’t inspire me to write a post, then what will?
You probably already want to punch me in the face a little bit for being lucky enough to spend my Christmas break on a tropical island, so I will just get the other bit that will definitely make you want to punch me in the face out of the way quickly: Oliver’s mum was lovely enough to invite me along with them on a fully-paid holiday. How brilliant is that?? I know she will be reading this, so once again thank you. It was incredible and I will never forget it.
So. If you haven’t slammed your laptop shut in disgust, I will share some impressions with you. I am not going to pretend for a second that two weeks are enough to even begin to understand the complexities of this fascinating place where everything is owned by the government, shampoo is a commodity, people queue for ages to buy a card that will get them an hour’s worth of internet; where the exhaust fumes from the 1950s Buicks and Oldsmobiles make it almost impossible to breathe sometimes; where people travel packed like sardines in almost windowless 1980s Hungarian buses across roads strewn with cavernous potholes – if they’re not in horse-drawn carts, that is.
There is no advertising in Cuba, or none to speak of. The only billboards you see as you gingerly manoeuvre the potholed ‘motorways’ display Revolutionary propaganda extolling the virtues of Fidel, Che, Chavez, Cienfuegos. La revolución es invencible. Orgullo de nuestro pueblo. Hasta la victoria siempre. To us a curiosity and a translation challenge – but a daily, lifetime reality for the Cubans. I quite enjoyed my two-week consumerism and internet detox, but am not sure if I would like to live somewhere where ‘No hay’ – ‘there isn’t any’ is a common answer when you want to buy something. A woman selling souvenirs at a tourist market in Trinidad noticed my red lipstick and asked if I would exchange it for a wooden ornament or necklace. I refused, apologetically, because it was a Chanel one and I rather like it. If I’m lucky enough to visit again, I will bring a bunch of Rimmel makeup to hand out.
That is, if I am lucky enough to visit again before Starbucks and McDonalds outlets start appearing on every street corner, and people can start buying cheap American makeup in Wallmart. In Havana we came upon an open studio used by graphic artists, one of whom had made a small piece showing a map of the island and a bell with the instruction to ring it if you agreed with the embargo being lifted. In Santiago de Cuba we had a great conversation with a man in a cafe who was explaining the complexities of making a living as a Cuban and the eagerness with which people await more trade, more commodities, more freedoms, more choice – coupled with a deep-seated anxiety about losing forever the culture they hold so dear. It is a conundrum and there is no easy answer, but the lifting of the embargo is imminent so if you want to experience the country the way it is now, you’d better get your skates on.
Other than the complex political and economic situation, Cuba is absolutely beautiful: the magnificent ruins of colonial residences that look like they might crumble into dust if you so much as breathe on them; the astonishing old cars that look like they’ve come straight out of a 1950s Hollywood set; the tropical vegetation; the majestic sierras that colour gold as the sun disappears behind them; the white beaches; the sea like glass. The weather is warm, the rum is cheap and plentiful, the people are friendly if you manage to avoid the legions of jineteros (hustlers) who ambush you in the larger cities to entice you into their taxi or their ‘grandmother’s’ restaurant: ‘My friend, don’t go eat there, it’s not very clean, I take you to my brother’s place’ etc. etc. In a place where the national average wage is around $40 per month, tourists are big business.
And then there is the music. Small bands play everywhere, in the restaurants, on hotel terraces, in squares. They are all excellent musicians (this may seem a sweeping statement but I can genuinely say I did not come across a single bad one. By contrast, imagine how quickly you would be tempted to stick a fork into your own eyeball if you had to endure a 19-year-old singer/songwriter or spotty indie band every time you went out for a sandwich in the UK). I wanted to invite them all home with me so they could play to me all day long. Maybe not Guantanamera though – I think I have heard that one enough times now thanks.
With music and rum comes great dance, of course – and my the Cubans can bust a move. Salsa is pretty infectious so me and Amy, Oliver’s sister, decided to take a lesson on a roof terrace in Santiago de Cuba. We were slightly nervous about the prospect, having stumbled upon the dance school randomly, but by the end of the hour we were both being twirled around sweatily by Leo ‘El Oso’ (The Bear) and Ramón ‘El Serpiente’ (The Snake) respectively. For a few happy seconds I actually forgot to count my steps, smiled and enjoyed the sensation of dancing salsa on a roof terrace in Santiago de Cuba. There is nothing like dancing salsa on a roof terrace in Santiago de Cuba with Leo El Oso though to make one feel extremely white and northern European. My salsa nickname would be something more like ‘La Rigida’ I fear.
We spent the last five days of the holiday in an all-inclusive resort in Guardalavaca on the north coast. I had never in my life stayed anywhere all-inclusive before and it was certainly an experience… Extreme laziness and self-indulgence ensued pretty quickly and I must admit it was quite nice to order stuff and walk away from the table without having to wait for the bill. With the palm tree-lined white beach, daily catamaran and pedalo trips and free cocktails, I can definitely see why most of the guests never set foot outside. But what a crying shame to go all the way to Cuba and never leave the all-inclusive bubble of a resort that could just as well be in Jamaica or Barbados or Costa Rica or Tenerife. Humans are strange creatures.
Anyway. It is January now and I am back in England, where the nights are long and the rain lashes down. That white beach with the cocktails and catamarans is a world away. But I find myself quietly humming Guantanamera as I collapse my umbrella and step into Boots to decide which of the 20 types of dental floss I will choose to put in my basket. Without contrast, life would be but boring.