We had an awesome time. For a blow-by-blow photo-story of our visit, please check out the Flickr stream here. Havana as a city is sometimes beautiful, often poor and run-down, often lively and energetic, very friendly (picking up local hitchikers is compulsory by law), always hot and sometimes smelly. It was a fantastic place to be.
It was great to take a week off to completely disengage – no emails, voicemails, even text messages (whilst there are (state-run) mobile networks in Cuba I opted to stay properly incommunicado to help me relax). Drank a lot of mojitos y daiquiris, learnt a little Spanish thanks to Damo, who proved his usefulness time and again, and saw some interesting things. For the record, though, despite Damian’s assertions to the contrary, Cabaret was not invented in Cuba.
Although many people had told me that Cuba would be unlike anything I’d have ever seen, it had some similarities to bits of Malaysia I remember from my yoof: distinctly ex-colonial, poor, in need of development and investment. The neighbourhoods were very similar to ones I remember visiting when I was very young; large families, smallish houses, the heat… just felt very familiar. Unlike Malaysia, however, Cuba has rejected Capitalism and has a poor relationship with the US government; as such, its economy is in a bizarre state. For 30 years the Soviets subsidised the Cuban government and provided a guaranteed market for its single biggest export (sugar) — since the fall of the USSR, Cuba has clearly had to find new sources of income.
And find them it has — primarily through tourism, now Cuba’s number one earner. Through the introduction of a new currency back in 1995 (the CUC), tourists are essentially ‘taxed’ for visiting. US dollars are no longer accepted, and everyone has to convert into the local tourist money at a 10% loss (worse for the USD). The bizarre consequence of this tourist currency is that a middle class made up of service industry workers has been created — taxi drivers, hotel workers etc — who get their income in CUCs. The average salary in Cuba is 10 CUCs per month (about £6) so a tip of 1 CUC goes quite a long way — its worth 24 pesos in the local money, which can buy you quite a lot. The result of this is some of the highly educated Cubans — including some of their ludicrous number of doctors — will end up driving taxis. It’s all a little strange, and think they need something more sustainable in the long run.
Free enterprise in Havana was an interesting thing — its only permitted in two, localised forms — Casa Palladeros (B&Bs, basically) and Paradors (restaraunts based in people’s homes that are allowed to serve around 12 people max). We had great experiences of both and our most expensive meal in Havana was at a parador, which was interesting in itself…
Cuban youth congregate along the sea wall by the Malecon (a coastal highway) in the evenings; often getting soaked by the large Caribbean waves crashing over them. Despite repeated soakings lovers, friends, groups of kids stay there for hours, chatting, singing, playing music and generally have a good time. I’ve never really believed the Bacardi advertising — but Latin culture really is very different to anything else… of course, in Cuba it’d be Havana Club advertising as Bacardi moved out after the revolution… and of course, there’s no advertising as its a Communist state, but even so. The only adverts we saw were for the CDR – the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution – and some very amusing Anti-Bush propoganda (one poster showed, pictorially, the equation Bush + Cheney (I think) = Hitler).
Music is everywhere; literally every café we went to had musicians playing, and although it was great (and got me to really enjoy the song ‘Hasta Siempre Commandante’, about Ché Guevarra), it did get slightly overbearing. The Cubans love it though; the Casa de La Musica, a large old theatre where live bands play to a dancefloor of energetic and coordinated Cubans was something to see. Of course, due to the low, low incomes, many of the women at the Casa de la Musica were pseudo-prostitutes. Whilst prostitution doesn’t officially exist in Cuba, a local explained to us (as did Damo, repeatedly) that many of the girls who will approach foreigners like moths to a flame at the Casa de la Musica are just looking for someone to fund their beers and a good time out. It was a little strange to deal with.
I was also struck by how much heroes figure in Cuban culture. José Marti, Ché, Fidel — heroes from their past and present are everywhere. The images and stories and songs of Ché in particular were very moving and am planning on learning more as a result. Have ordered the Motorcycle Diaries and have bought a version of ‘Hasta Siempre Comandante’ off iTunes. It’s a great song.
Food and drink
One thing that my friends didn’t overstate is how bad Cuban food is; although we found some exceptional places, it was often bland and occasionally undercooked — and undercooked pork and chicken, the two main meats on offer, are not good things. Matt and Ricky Bobby were both ill from something, though we didn’t manage to work out what. It is meat-tastic, however; the Pollo con Arroz Murro (fried chicken with rice cooked with black beans) was one tasty option, and we occasionally had good Pescado and Bisteck. However, we didn’t risk any street food (technically you need pesos to by this, which tourists shouldn’t have access to), and whenever we felt ill or anxious about the quality we headed to one of the increasing number of Italian restaraunts for Pizza as a safe option. The fried bananas and Churros con Chocolate in the Tryp Habana Libre (our first hotel) were awesome, though.
Worth noting that whilst Cubans hate the American government, they love Americana and American things. I (ineptly) strummed a few chords of Hotel California and they were loving it!
Drinks: the Mojitos were great; we always asked for them to be made with Havana Club (they occasionally use the disgusting Ron Moulata, which you would do well to steer clear of), occasionally having them made with ‘Tres Anejo’ – three year aged rum. They don’t quite taste like the mojitos you get over here – no crushed ice, and no mint – they use something called Herba Buena instead, which is not quite as Bueno but you get used to it. On the whole, they were things of awesome beauty and power (except for the ones at the Hotel Inglaterra which were made with Lime cordial for some reason). Also delicious were the daiquiries, and the very potent Hemingway Daiquiries. I’m sure the Cuba Librés were nice too, but I can’t drink coke so missed out on that one… Beerwise, Cristal was a good light beer and Buccanero was tasty too (es fuerte!). Matt tried the newly introduced Buccanero Max, which is Cuba’s answer to Special Brew and just as disgusting, although one musician we spoke to loved it. “Es fuerte,” he said, flexing his arms between sips of the double shot of Siete Anejo we bought him.
We spent a night at an all-inclusive in Varadero, hoping to get some time with the Caribbean, which we did and which was fun. We played chicken with the waves. Damo, wearing his bright blue shower cap to protect a cut on his head from infection, had us pulled in by the lifeguard who pointed out that the hat was ‘por senoritas’. Very nice!
Everything else about Varadero was bad, though: no night life to speak of (it was off season, though we had been charged on-season rates), the drinks were dire, the food was the worst I’ve ever tasted in my life and the hotel was generally depressing. It wasn’t even the cheapest option on offer! But we managed to have fun nonetheless.
In all, it was an awesome experience. I’d recommend Cuba to anyone who can (a) speak Spanish (b) likes meat, especially chicken, (c) doesn’t expect 5 star accomodation or service (d) likes rum or some combination of these factors. It would have been great to have a little more time to explore some of the other places in Cuba we’d heard were good, including Vinales and Trinidad, but I guess we have something to go back for! The fact that Malaysia has a ‘special’ relationship with Cuba and I don’t need a visa to go there might well prompt me to make a return visit at some stage, when I’ve learn some Espanol…