Everything you have heard about Cuba is a lie.
“Time warp”, “addictive”, “picturesque” are commonly uttered phrases when the Caribbean island comes up in conversation. “Oh, but you must go before Castro dies – after him, the true Cuba will vanish”.
If you ask me, this vanishing act cannot come too soon.
I admit, the island photographs offensively well. The colourful houses everybody posts on their Instagram profiles are all on one or two streets and the book market in Havana is lovely indeed. Your first memory of Havana is more likely to be a poorly lit street, piles of rubbish at every corner, a decapitated cat carcass and boys and girls too young to be offering you the threesomes they are indeed offering you. And if you’re hoping for a cosy cafe next morning to wash the nightmare of the first impression away, think again – cosy cafes and communism simply do not mix.
Incidentally, it turns out that in practice communism does not mix with much.
Incidentally, it turns out that in practice communism does not mix with much. You will be forgiven to think that rum is the natural mixer for the latin american rendition of Marx’s ideas, but I hasten to inform you that: 1) most rum producers you think of as Cuban had smelt trouble before it arrived and packed their bags on the eve of the revolution; and 2) the few that remain sell their produce at prices unattainable to the local population which means every for every mojito you order, a Cuban could have fed a family for a fortnight. Salud to that! Many of the locals instead make do with gualfarina – a spirit distilled from yeast and alcohol, famously made from the disinfectant used in hospitals. It’s sold in plastic bottles on many poorly lit street corners in Havana. All you need to do is ask a loitering local and chances are they will swing a door open to show you their stock.
Frequently when you swing the door open however the sight revealed will be a rubble interior. Staircases falling apart, electric installations hanging unearthed and ever-present dust as if the half wall that’s missing came down just before you opened the door. Cuba is a sad rubbish heap of inequality and misery and the Cubans, its main victims, have long lost hope.
“We fight” said Ivan, our driver, almost immediately after we got into his stylish 1950’s carro – a rusty, rattly Chrysler. “The revolution continues. We are a fighting nation. We fight with the car. We fight with work. We fight the Americans. We fight with the system. Hasta la Victoria siempre!” And then he added: “We never win”. Ivan has a PhD in engineering but gave it up a long time ago because all salaries are set by the state and average £20 per month. We paid him just under that for one journey from the airport to our casa particular. He told us his son was a doctor. Apparently he has a chance of making more money – the legendary Cuban health service is particularly outstanding in quality delivery for patients who have spare cash. The cash changes hands under the doctor’s desk unnoticed in order for you to enjoy the legendary health service faster than other comrades can.
In fact, Yordanis, another driver in Havana I spoke to told me that the black market is estimated to be twice the size of Cuba’s official economy. Bribes are seen as a part of daily life and deal-making has been transformed here into an art form. Everyone “has a friend” who can arrange for almost anything. The more Cuban peso you get out of your wallet, the quicker the service delivery. Think of it as the marxist answer to Amazon Prime: you pay extra to get the same thing faster and no tax is ever paid on anything.
“We fight. We fight with the car. We fight with the system. Hasta la victoria siempre!” said our driver. “We never win.”
The thriftiness of the locals is likely to come in handy if you come into unexpected trouble and run into it you will, unless of course you are on an all-inclusive organised tour. Trouble is how I found ourselves in another person’s car on the way from Havana to Trinidad. What began as suspected case of too many piña coladas, turned out to be a near death experience of food poisoning in a casa particular lacking in both electricity or running water. The idea of embarking on a seven-hour long coach journey with no guarantee of air conditioning or toilets is not one I would choose even when in top health. With my insides feeling as if they were put through the spin cycle hot wash the only way to get to Trinidad was to make friends with our casa particular owner who (of course!) had a friend who happened to have a whole day to drive us to Trinidad. The journey was largely uneventful unless you count the diversion we took just outside Havana caused by a collapsed motorway bridge. “When did this happen” – I asked, weakly from the back seat (no seatbelts). “Ah, not long. Seven years now, I think” said the driver.
For your benefit I must mention food although I would rather draw a veil of amnesia over the state of the culinary arts on the island. I know what you’re thinking – if you have come to the Caribbean for food, you must be out of your mind. Of course I did not. I came for the sun and for the culture. Both of which I got in spades (and sicles?) but alas, food is unavoidable on a 10 day trip. So here are a few snapshot memories selected for your warning: our first breakfast which resembled a post-socialist school meal in both smell and taste. The processed frankfurter sausage, the blueish boiled eggs, the damp yet squeaky bread, the saddest under-ripe tomatoes and cucumbers. I am not sure if it was the breakfast or the rooftop view of what I can only describe as a cityscape of dereliction, that brought me to tears but it truly was an unforgettable experience. Then there is the ubiquitous pineapple. Add to it salt and pepper and you get the holy trinity of flavour of all food in Cuba. Great once, but having tried rice with pineapple, lobster with pineapple, prawn with pineapple, beans with pineapple and rum with pineapple, I regretted the regime set the pineapple rations so generously high. Charlie also tells me to steer clear of the local beers – only one can is needed for a lingering dull headache.
If not food, then surely the beach is worth a visit. Now the beach is where the true nature of Cuba is exposed to the harsh light of reality. The sea, the beach and the skies above are some of our planet’s greatest readily available pleasures. There is something simple and calming in dipping your toes is the pearly white sand and staring at the pulsating surface of the deep blue sea. Cuba is blessed with miles of this view. You would think such natural wealth would be the easiest thing to distribute evenly to all the comrades – visiting and local alike. But even here the revolution has stirred up a storm – the beaches belong to hotels, most run by the state, and the hotels are strictly divided into the ones with right of access for the Cubans and those where Cubans are simply banned from staying. There are some unquestionably beautiful beaches in Cuba. Make sure to take some photos and show them to the locals so they could also see.
I’d recommend channelling your inner Hemingway – Cuba’s most famous expat – get another daiquiri.
This brings me to the essential point – authenticity. I like to think that in my travels I attempt to “do it like a local”. I am no fool and reserve the right to decide what I mean by this of course, but the fact remains – I like to at least have a small taste of what everyday life might be like in places I visit. Cuba prevents visitors from doing this very successfully. In its attempt to create perfect equality it has created two parallel worlds and a grey zone between them. There are two currencies and shops operate in one or the other. The shops are clearly divided into the ones serving foreigners with the convertible peso and locals with local peso. Walk into a locals’ shop wanting to buy shower gel. It will be worth going just to see that the concept of shower gel has not yet made it to the back streets of Havana. With two currencies you can always choose if you want a refresco transnacional o national – meaning a coke by Coca Cola or its local ersatz. There are two transport systems and even after 10 days I was not sure how to cheat the rulebook – if you are a visitor you are not allowed to travel on the locals’ buses. And locals are not allowed to travel with you on your buses. The two currencies and two worlds existing in parallel mean that most Cubans will never make enough money to afford a bottle of the rum you will be buying as souvenirs or share any restaurants with you. All locals I asked said restaurants are for tourists, not Cubans.
Doing Cuba like a local is unattainable, I am afraid, so I’d recommend channelling your inner Hemingway – Cuba’s most famous expat – save your energy and get another daiquiri from your rooftop bar. Venceremos!
That said, Cuba is an experience like no other and now that you have been informed, I would recommend you go. After all, it does photograph deceptively well. Forewarned is forearmed, so here are my top tips for making the most of your Cuban adventure:
- Adjust your expectations – luxury and comfort are relative and nowhere more so than in Cuba.
- Don’t assume that spending more will get you a better product or service. 20 USD might get you a night in a hell hole devoid of electricity and running water but it can also get you a boutique hotel style casa particular. Expect to be surprised.
- Learn to like pineapple and papaya (if you can).
- Take your own toiletries.
- Tip generously. Preferably in dollars.
- Speak to the locals – a little goes a long way in discovering the true Cuba.