Outsider In Cuba: A glimpse of Santiago de Cuba

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

I’m suddenly in Santiago de Cuba, just 24 hours after landing in Havana. A one hour flight with Cuba Air got me here – thankfully. The other end of the country (east) and the second city of Cuba, it feels completely different to Havana: quieter, cleaner, better kept and, to my delight, with far fewer tourists.

In Santiago, it’s less about the cars and more about the motorbikes. Classic, of course, from the 50s. I wonder what foreign collectors would give for some of these models. Here they serve an entirely practical purpose as motor-taxis, getting Santiagans(?) from A to B. Everyone riding them wears, frankly, very cool little peaked helmets – black, often with a thick red or blue band going over the top of the head.

A wander down to the quayside and beautiful young Afro-Cuban boys are hurling themselves energetically and joyously into the sea. They all look under 13. A few have their noses pierced. They ask for things but don’t pester, and I give them the water bottle I’m carrying. They clearly want to talk and I hear one boy quietly practising English phrases but is too shy to use them. In Spanish, one tells me that they don’t have running water and so that’s why they are bathing here. I know that they’re actually having a great time in the sea but I also think there’s a high chance what he’s telling me is true.

I fulfil my Santiago tourist obligations by being bussed around to various ‘must see’ spots on the outskirts of the city. In fact, here there was a real must see for me, inspired by my Fidel Castro interviews preparatory readings*, and that was the Moncada Barracks. For, in the otherwise somewhat dry first few chapters, it’s Fidel’s account of the failed attack on these military barracks in 1953 – and so failed start to the revolution – where things really get going.

Startlingly mustard coloured, the building is now a school, with mock bullet holes decorating the facades in reminder of what took place here. After the attack, the original bullet holes were quickly filled in by the then president, Fulgencio Batista.  When Fidel was finally successful in his revolution in 1959, he ordered them to be re-gouged…

In each town or city in Cuba there is a Plaza de la Revolucion – ‘Revolution Square’. More of a gigantic roundabout in a nondescript part of the city, Santiago de Cuba’s revolution plaza is a slightly strange monument of humungous machetes, a giant man on a horse and a small memorial area. Impressive, in a slightly frightening Soviet sort of way, it feels stark and bleak as opposed to inspirational.

One of the tourist ‘highlights’ in Santiago is the city cemetery, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. It is packed to the gills with some of the most important figures in Cuban history, including 50s revolutionary martyrs, family members of the Bacardí rum dynasty and, since my visit, the ashes of Fidel Castro. Of central importance is the mausoleum of José Martí, the father of Cuban independence.

My real high point is watching the changing of the guard in front of this tomb. Taking place (an excessive) every 30 minutes, I would say it’s 90% engineered for tourists.

Performed by the young men somewhere in their two year compulsory military service, they high-kick march to a tune that makes me feel like I’m watching a musical. Their choreographed moves only add to the effect – pauses, slow motion elements, slightly comical gun and elbow waggling… I want to applaud at the end!

I enjoy their lack of real discipline as the boys in uniform can not help but wander their eyes over to our small group of tourists and crack a smile of gleaming white teeth. It seems that Cubans can’t help but flirt, even when they’re on military duty.

Another trait revealing itself, is the curious and talkative nature of many Cubans. Thirsty, it seems, for knowledge, a foreigner is the next best thing to costly internet and hard to come by international newspapers. In just two days in the country, I’ve had conversations on streets, in plazas and casas and on planes, with intelligent Cubans who seem well-informed and hold strong political opinions. They have been keen to share and open up their way of life and confirm if what they know of the rest of the world is accurate – and maybe prove that they’re not so isolated after all.

Enjoying a conversation in the main plaza of Santiago, I notice a police officer from afar gently discouraging my friendly and polite interlocutor, attempting to break up our interaction. Tourist bothering is something that the police are obviously made to crack down on, but I don’t feel bothered at all. I do realise that it may work both ways, and the Cubans are being ‘protected’ from me just as much as I am from them… It’s a shame because I crave these exchanges in the hope of obtaining some real insight into Cuba.

Finally, food must always get a mention, and one pleasant food discovery I make in Santiago is a sapote when I am given a half one at breakfast to be eaten with a spoon. It is like a giant avocado with a large stone in the middle but with a harder brown shell. The flesh is similar in texture but rust coloured and has a pure sweetness in flavour, in a way that a date is so very very sweet.

My other food adventure in Santiago is when a travelling buddy and I make a Cuban’s day by buying his nuts. I have been noticing little conical twists of paper littering the streets in many places and so, when we come across someone selling them, evidently with edible goods inside, I want to know just what they are.

Our Cuban salesman is quick to open up one of the little cones and pour roasted, salted peanuts into our hands. We know we have to pay, of course, and his response is as for everything Cubans sell on the street to tourists: “1CUC”, equivalent to $1. Our smallest denomination is 5CUC. Spotting an opportunity, he gives us six more twists for our $5 and trots off smiling ear to ear whilst the Cubans in the shop in front of which we are standing look on in bemusement tinged with horror.

To put it into context, in one transaction we’d just given him the equivalent of nearly half a month’s salary for the average Cuban in a menial state paid job. Well, lucky for him coming across us pair of wallies that day – I hope he enjoyed spending his mini-jackpot!

*Fidel Castro: My Life, Ignacio Ramonet

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Outsider In Cuba: Lessons from Havana in 24h

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

I’m in the taxi from the airport. My extremely accommodating driver is my first Cuban voice into the Cuba of today and the changes the island is going through. His words are accompanied by dark, damp urban views affording me a frustratingly low-key visual entry into the country: I glimpse palm trees, squat blocks of houses, a few other cars.

He explains that now having internet access, and the opportunity of meeting more tourists and speaking with Cubans who travel, have given him a newly positive view of his country. The free education and healthcare, so frequently cited, for example. Now that private enterprise is allowed there’s also generally a lot more hope. Being enterprising seems to be in the Cuban nature. He tells me that he taught himself English from scratch, and driving tourists to and from the airport every day is how he practises. He works seven days a week and has taken just eight or nine days off this year. His English is excellent.

Reaching Old Havana, we pull up in a back street. In the drizzle and low lighting, everything is a picture in sepia until I step inside my casa. This first casa particular, akin to a bed and breakfast, is quite something: marble staircases, furniture from 19th to mid last century, highly decorative tiles all worth taking pictures of (so I do), and ceilings three times the height of an average person. This house also happens to be chock full of religious (Catholic) paraphernalia.

I don’t ask too many questions of my hosts; my Spanish is frazzled, as am I. My low key start to Cuba continues in the same vein with bed calling. The spectacular, I hope, will start tomorrow.

***

Morning one and it’s pissing it down with rain. Biblical levels of rain. Most of the streets have turned into small rivers. Spectacular scenes, yes, but not quite what I was hoping for. Committed to a walking tour of Old Havana that I am already on, we find ourselves taking shelter in a warehouse type building that happens to be hosting a jiu jitsu and taekwondo competition for children and teens. I notice that there are some blind and partially sighted participants as we watch the warm ups and tumbling exercises across the multi-coloured mats.

Waterfalls are cascading in through the windows, doorways and holes in the roof. Small lakes spread across the concrete floor threatening the activity but the Cubans are unfazed.

A judo instructor befriends me and gives me some tips on where I can find salsa clubs to go dancing. He doesn’t ask me for anything untoward in exchange but perhaps a donation towards the martial arts centre. He doesn’t insist, though, and is quite happy just to chat and then leave me be.

Sheltering in the martial arts warehouse turns out to be the best insight into Cuban life of the day, as the rest of it is spent… surrounded by tourists. The centre of Old Havana seems strangely quiet save for the sheer masses of guided walking tours. I find myself mostly observing other tourists in horrified fascination. Being part of the mass of tourist numbers doing guided tourist things was, ignorantly, and arrogantly perhaps, an experience I wasn’t expecting.

One sight I had been expecting, and am not disappointed by, are the promised classic cars – American, from the 50s and 60s, mostly Chevrolets and 80s Russian Ladas. At the airport, my taxi driver had pointed out a car that used to have the honour of being a security vehicle for Fidel Castro. Russian built, bullet-proof, apparently. Now it carts tourists around.

By the end of the day I am having my first in depth chat with a young Cuban. Denis is 28, Afro-Cuban. Very quickly going past the pleasantries, he is telling me about living conditions and his views on Cuba. With so few jobs around, he feels young Cubans have become unmotivated, and just do what they can to get a fast buck. He tells me that he is opposed to the government, describing it as a dictatorship. Despite having trained as a nurse, he no longer works in the profession and, instead, goes house to house selling bleach. He makes more money this way. It also means he’s not working for the state.

We talk about housing conditions. In fact, it was in catching me taking a picture of his house that our conversation started. I saw a photo opportunity in the dilapidation. He, along with many others crammed into the space, has to live in the dilapidation. I don’t go inside but through the glassless barred windows I can see that the state of reparation is appalling. In fact, driving back out of the city, past more and more buildings, it strikes me that never before have I been somewhere where such a great proportion of the buildings are in such dismal condition.

Eventually Denis and I come to be discussing the dream many young Cuban men have – escape from the island via a foreign woman. Marriage to a foreigner is the best passport for leaving the country to a more economically secure and democratically free life. It seems that love is an unnecessary bonus for the Cuban men who salsa their way into the beds and hearts of these women but for him, he tells me, it must be the basis of any relationship. However, when five minutes’ later he’s telling me that he may be falling in love at this very moment on the street, I decide it’s time to bring our conversation to a close.

So from love, to food, which actually is a love for me. Unfortunately, it is currently only remarkable in that I’ve eaten virtually the same bloody thing for every meal since touchdown: sandwiches. My midnight snack on arrival at the casa was a reconstituted ham toastie.  Breakfast included a roll with egg.  Lunch was a tuna sandwich.  My afternoon snack, a round hot crunchy bread with sweet tomato sauce and cheese, masquerading as a pizza but folded into a sloppy sandwich.  And dinner? Cheese and ham toastie. Lesson learnt – when you have the choice don’t go for a sandwich because there are probably many occasions when it will be the only thing available to eat!

***

Looking back, I can see that, in under 24 hours, I had stumbled across some of the main themes that were to recur throughout the trip, onto which I would build a bigger picture of Cuba today. The positive and negative aspects of the revolution in evidence: good health, socialist practices and education; disenfranchised youth, but a hope for the future; the important feature of tourists to this isolated country, offering a means of escape from poverty or a literal escape from the island. The friendliness and willingness of Cubans to talk and share, and to praise and criticise Cuba – and flirt! – in equal measure. And the former glory, the faded grandeur peeking through crumbling facades and infrastructure…

I was determined that the food situation was going to get better, though. I wasn’t eating just sandwiches for the next three weeks!

Outsider In Cuba: Pre-take off, post-touch down

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

It started at the Cuban Tourist Embassy on High Holborn in Central London. Well, actually, it started with a phone call to a travel agent and then another one and then some internet surfing… but let’s say it started at the Tourist Cuban Embassy; a small, brownish building, quiet and unimpressive, highlighted by a Cuban flag and a little plaque. I’m here for my tourist visa.

I’m buzzed in and feel as if I’ve walked into.. I’m not sure what era, but one before I was born. I wonder if any of this is representative of what lies ahead on my three week trip: brown and cream flock wallpaper of leaves and trees, thin brown carpet, leatherette wine-coloured sofas and armchairs. There is a mild sense of shabbiness and not much light, incongruent with the colourful idea I have of the country.

The uplifting element in the room is the friendly receptionist, who patiently repeats to each tourist-to-be approaching her window: “Do you have your visa form and postal order?”. Postal order?! I’ve managed over 31 years on this planet without procuring such a thing, and thought they were now defunct. Evidently not alone in this thought, there is a constant trail of people back out of the embassy to the post office, which is thankfully close by.

The post office clerk is not surprised by my request. I Imagine that Monday to Thursday morning, the hours visas are processed, at least 50% of this post office’s trade must come from the Embassy. The £17 thirty day visa costs, as a postal order, a random £19.13… There’s no ‘sell’ on currency – they know as well as I do that you can’t get Cuban money outside of Cuba.

Back in the embassy I go past the receptionist’s post to another little shabby waiting room, with three visa processing windows, all occupied by women. In my preparatory reading before heading to Cuba, I’ve been grinding through My Life: 200 hours worth of interviews with Fidel Castro conducted and transcribed by Ignacio Ramonet. Fidel has taught me that women make up to 65% of the Cuban technical and scientific work force. At one point, quotas had to be put in place to ensure enough men were entering university! Having seen only women so far in the Tourist Embassy, it makes me wonder whether they also dominate in civil service roles.

My mind wanders further.. is it considered an immense privilege as a Cuban to work in an Embassy in London? The earnings must be considered eye-watering. It would also be a way out of a somewhat isolated country, even if it’s to immensely uninspiring surroundings with minimal natural light and little real human interaction – stamp stamp, photocopy, process, next please, stamp stamp. Morning after morning after morning.

I will never know the feelings of these women towards the streams of us making our way to their fascinating little island. And, although Fidel has talked of the high levels of political and cultural education of the population, with control over the media and limited internet access, I wonder how enlightened the island’s inhabitants really are – and what they will share with me once there.

***

It’s a week later and I’m on the plane having my second dealing with Cuban bureaucracy; a customs declaration form. It’s been a while since I’ve filled one of these out but it seems that Cuba has some unique customs items concerns: satellite communication equipment, walkie-talkies, pornography(!), and other, simple, miscellaneous articles, like footwear, clothing, toiletries, etc etc. Good quality versions of these latter products are hard to come by in Cuba, so visitors are often encouraged by tour agencies to bring something of the kind as a gift or donation. Looks like the government isn’t quite so encouraging.

In the final part of the declaration, I’m told that if my answers are all ‘no‘ then I am to ‘sing‘ and hand over my form at the customs area. I imagine joyfully singing a tune and salsa-ing through customs celebrating my non-criminal entry into the musical, rhythmic Caribbean island of Cuba! Ah, no – I realise it’s only a typo. They just want me to sign and enter the country with little fuss – I get a “Welcome to Cuba” as my passport is stamped.

I step past the officials, my eyes wide open, devouring the newness of it all. The women look glamorous, if a little tacky, with gold jewellery and glittery eye makeup. Fishnet tights are a thing. I walk past an open office door and catch my first glimpse of the Che Guevara image and another of Fidel Castro. As I wait for my bag a guy by me is collecting first one, two then three squat cylindrical shaped packages off the conveyer. He is patiently awaiting the fourth – a set of tyres, presumably like gold dust in Cuba.

Into arrivals, all red and cream and seventies, a sea of foreign faces, a humid warmth. I find my taxi driver. A friendly handshake, good English. He’s keen to go. I step out to the damp outside. The next three weeks stretch deliciously ahead of me.