Cuba

Published on December 25th, 2011 | by Simon

Cuba Libra

Cuba is extremely tough to describe. For many it is the tourist enclaves that exist at the best beaches and which actively exclude everyday Cubans, providing all-inclusive resort accommodation to Canadians, Europeans, and Russians. With good roads, carefully manicured lawns, and ‘local’ handicraft stores, it is about as close to the real thing as a themed hotel like Paris, Las Vegas, is to the 9th Arrondissement.

For me, it’s like the Soviet Union I visited in the 70’s. For Karyna, who doesn’t have that memory, it’s a post apocalyptic world where people are surviving with items from 55 years ago, mended, remodeled, and fixed time and time again – with absolutely nothing thrown out. So the Casas Particulares (a sort of Cuban B&B) we have been staying  in have been cluttered with heaps of mismatched items from your grandmothers closet. And the current bathroom has eau de nil coloured matching fittings, mats, shower curtain and paint that I recall from my parents house 50 years ago.

 
 

Our taxi this morning was a lovingly cared-for Chevy from 1952. I would say lovingly restored, but hauling out the old petrol engine and putting in a more economical diesel one probably is not what purists would call restoration. A pretty good ride for all its age, and with floral pattern seat covers made to fit precisely.

This is a pretty big island with some decent roads but distances still dictate that you cannot cover it all in a short time. For us this meant Havana, Santa Clara, Remedios, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Matanzas, Havana which is a figure of eight route covering the central third of the island. The reason time is limited – for me at least – is that ironically this is the only place in the world I have visited over the past 5 years or more where I cannot practically carry on my internet business. The government here has a tight lid on all communication, which means barely any internet, very little mobile (they ran out of sim cards in all of Cuba last week), and no satellite TV at all. The people are totally dependent on the government agencies for all news. Internet exists at regulated terminals in one location in major hotels or towns. There simply is no wifi of any kind. As a Swiss couple put it to me yesterday – “Have you managed to make contact with the outside world yet?”.

And then you factor in the American embargo, which means even trying to use accounts run by US banks or Paypal will get you suspended because it is a serious offence for any US citizen or corporation to make or facilitate any payment to any Cuban person or company. And believe me, that is pretty all-encompassing, and seemingly catches non US people in the net too. Which also means no ATMs and no usable US cards.
Arguably, the US embargo plays into the hands of the government here who can paint the US as an evil bully and has a perfect excuse for locking out all things American (for which read capitalist), like most luxury consumer goods, new cars, the internet, texting, smartphones, all advertising – and the profit motive. And the absence of the latter at an official level means there is barely any incentive for anyone to go the extra mile as there is no personal gain in doing so. Strangely, musicians and artists are wealthier than doctors and teachers, because the former can earn foreign currency by selling their works, whereas the latter are on fixed salaries with little prospect of advancement through personal enterprise. That said, the absence of marketing means people seem not to desire things they have no prospect of getting (there are no credit cards), and they are thus much more laid back, helpful to each other, and seem generally much happier than many in capitalist societies.

The heavy hand of government regulation is everywhere. Until last year, you could not sell your house or your car – you could only swap with someone for like value. The Casas could rent only two rooms to two people each. All that has changed to make people feel a little more free. There is a dual currency system that makes things much cheaper for Cubans than tourists, and a food ration is available for a practical payment. But extras are expensive which leads to a black market. Our cab driver explained that a colleague with unathorised beef in the trunk of his cab was sent to prison for 3 years, and any farmer who slaughters a cow without government sanction will get 20 years. But their biggest fear is what happens when the current leadership dies (all are well past 80). Two promising newcomers have now been excluded and have found themselves teaching in primary schools in remote parts of the country.

Cubana, the national airline, has the right idea about flying – drinks are free, but while they may ration the cola, rum is dispensed in decent measures as many times as you want. I’ve seen some strange immigration procedures in my time, but the door with buzzer release in operation at Havana implies they need to keep people from making a run for it *into* the country, which perhaps somewhat overplays the attractiveness of Cuba as a final destination…

  
Havana is a very mixed collection of crumbling 50’s elegance, mixed with 30 years of monolithic communist architecture, which is if anything crumbling even faster, and the occasional building site showing evidence of great optimism but not much completion. As a result, the Malecon, the much fabled seafront walk, is a bit of a disappointment without any real consistency to the buildings or the state of repair. By contrast, Old Havana has been somewhat gentrified for the tourists and looks quite pretty, if a little soulless. The book and antique market on the Plaza de Armas is, however, everything one would want.
 

Old books, stamps, ancient Leica cameras, and just general bric a brac. Perhaps the biggest shock is the transport. I had expected to see the occasional fabled 50’s Chevy, but cars going back 60 or more years are everywhere, and not just spruced up for tourists, but doing duty as regular cabs or personal transport. And at almost every corner there is a mechanic with his head stuck somewhere in the engine compartment or re-machining brakes or changing wheels, or whatever.

 

Food is something of a disappointment, shortages and having to make do with what is available having deprived the Caribbean cuisine of almost all creativity and most of any quality that might have been present. Drink is, however, plentiful and cheap, as is pretty good coffee.

The road to Santa Clara is a surprisingly smooth and major 4 lane highway. I comment facetiously that you could land a plane on it and the cab driver says ‘yes that is why there is no central crash barrier and it’s paved across the central reservation’. Well wonders will never cease. We pass a village called Australia which seems to have no claim to fame but for a cement works…

 
 

Santa Clara is a pretty sleepy town, but with a cigar factory and shop selling all the top Cuban varieties at about 20% the price I’ve seen them for duty-free. I never did get to buy one, but my coffee was spiced up somewhat when my request for a tot of rum (I meant on the side) was poured into my espresso at no charge. That somewhat compensated for being ripped off by a burger joint which insisted on charging us Convertible Pesos for burgers that should have been in National Pesos, thus effectively having us pay 24 times the going rate for a very very mediocre burger.

Santa Clara is famous as the burial place of El Che (Ernesto Che Guevara). Not that he lived here, but he did organize with about 20 other revolutionaries to blow up a train with government troops and supplies. This was seemingly so critical to the government that the President fled the country as a result – after the New Years Eve party – leaving the way open for Castro. And so 20 guys and some explosives changed the fate of nations. This is Che in a characteristic pose…

Our Casa, though the second best in town and on the main square, was still rather an interesting mismatch of styles, content, and age…

It was here that we discovered Cuba had run out of SIM cards across the entire country, and gave up on the notion of communication with the world at large!

But the real reason for staying in Santa Clara was to visit the parranda in Remedios which is about 30kms down the road. I found an online description of this event on Christmas Eve, and thought – yeah, this is hyped up…

“In the Parrandas de Remedios the competition between El Salvador and El Carmen camps – between the hawk and the rooster -, is about all manifestations of art, theatre, music, secret preparation of lamps, flags and banners to be disclosed at the last moment for the best surprising effect; the best floats and art works like monuments of wood with exquisite decoration and endless mechanical and light changes are selected and the winner gets the honours but, in the end, the real winner is Remedios. The best night is Christmas Eve. Every person from Remedios tries to be there, whether coming back from other places of the island or abroad. The most incredible and gigantic combination of light works, figures and colours start at dusk. At nine start the firework salute from the corresponding camps and then every half hour, each time stronger, in a competition reaching almost fanatic proportions. Close to three in the morning the floats come out, turning the centre of the town in a huge stage for theatrical representation in which the public intently tries to discover each element of the play, listen to the legend, and recreate with the music, until they end up being one in front of the other across the central square. It is almost four in the morning now and the fireworks again explode everywhere. After the victor is announced, the dawn is there with the deafening noise of the fireworks, the smell of gun powder, the compasses of the rumba and the public ending an unforgettable experience. But for Remedios, it starts all over again, until the following year.”

Hyped up? Oh not it isn’t. If anything that’s understated. This is without any doubt at all the craziest festival I have ever seen. And as it takes you from Christmas Eve into the early hours of Christmas morning, it’s extra special. We constantly found ourselves saying ‘oh s…t’, and ‘Cuba is worth it for this alone’ and ‘they must be insane’.

This is just the beginning. Maybe 3,000 people crammed into a small town square which looks like a set from a spaghetti western. Open the hotel to sell beer and bottle of rum for about $3. Put on a competing fireworks display with absolutely zero regard for the safety of the organisers or the public. Parade your symbols around and wave flags. For SIX hours.

 
 
 

All that smoke isn’t an accident or down to the street sellers (of whom there are many), but the ridiculous barrage of fireworks – some carted in on trestles on the back of semi-trailers…
At one point the crowd scattered as if a wild bull had been let loose. Actually they had seen guys carrying another trestle into the street right by a building. What looked for all the world like ropes hanging down were in fact the sticks from hundreds and hundreds of rockets – which they proceeded to ignite simultaneously. It was like World War III…

 

Note the people, trucks and buildings all in close proximity. I saw three or four people hit by falling fire, as well as rockets hitting buildings and landing on roofs. But there was no need for the one fire truck thoughtfully stationed on the perimeter of the square – it could never have got through the crowd anyway.

And as if this was not enough, it was merely the preparation for the two competing floats which arrived at the end of the evening. Hollywood got my vote (complete with theme music). No problem with copyright in Cuba! The competing Venetian theme seemed to lack well a theme really!

 
 And through all of this alcohol and excitement, not one sign of drunkenness, aggressive behaviour, and not one policeman or security guard anywhere to be seen. Just people having fun. A stupendous and priceless way to see in Christmas.
 
Trinidad is more the conventional idea of a Cuban colonial era town. Few buildings are over one storey. Most are brightly painted. And many that are neither are falling down – sadly.
 
It was here that we were caught by a jinitero (scammer). We arrived in a cab with plates from another town and on entering Trinidad a cyclist called out to the driver offering directions to our casa whose address we knew, but no more. The cyclist took off at great speed with our cab following and I remember thinking how incredibly kind the cyclist was being. When we reached a pedestrian area we had no choice but to let the cab go and follow  the cyclist – now on foot – with all our bags. When we arrived at the casa we were told ours was full and they had transferred us there. Clearly this place was not of the standard we expected, and Karyna, with great presence of mind, asked them to tell us the name on the booking. Of course they could not, and much debate ensued with us essentially saying there was no way we would be staying and insisting on being taken to the correct address. After much more hiking, it turned out our place could have been reached by our cab to the door, and then the jinitero had the nerve to ask for a tip. As Karyna said, if she hadn’t been unsure of the repercussions, she would have slapped him. As it was, he got a very severe ear-bashing and no money for about an hour of his time. But on reading the guidebook, this scam quite often works.
Further into town we arrived in a very poor area, though with this decrepit mansion at the top of the hill, and were asked if we could spare pens or soap. Not normally carrying a supply of either for handing out, we couldn’t help, but it did remind me of the old Soviet Union where even the most basic items were in short supply.
 
And it was in Trinidad that we had possibly the only really good meal in Cuba, complete with a great band. It did show that it could be done if people had the desire to try…
 
 

By contrast, Cienfuegos was much more a provincial hub, with some lovely old buildings that looked quite romantic in the dusk.

 
 
I think the absence of any commercial advertising only struck home here where there were slightly more creative government-sponsored efforts…
 
 
 
And of course the ubiquitous coffee shop cum beer hall with a great street band playing for small tips and sales of their home-produced CD.
 
 
And so finally to Matanzas back on the north coast, by virtue of a ride with the cousin of the waiter with great English whom we encountered after failing to find a restaurant we were searching for in Cienfuegos. That’s how things turn out sometimes. I would bet they had never done the trip before as they badly underestimated the distance. But they got us there in a reliable old Peugeot station wagon.
 
 
Another sleepy town with old houses, old cars, and…
a truly fantastic main street where we got two pulled pork rolls, two Cuba Libras (very alcoholic), some chicharon (pork crackling), churros, and an icecream for less than $2 all up…
 

And me…

 
Please view many more images from Cuba here.

 

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