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Memories of Cuba

By on April 18, 2016

Can you feel nostalgic about a place you’ve never been to before? Trust Cuba to bring out that feeling. A lot has been written about how traveling to Cuba is like traveling back in time, but one has to travel there to experience a much more complex emotion . The crumbling infrastructure of old Habana lies in contrast to the vibrancy of day to day life of its people. It’s chaotic yet charming, you meet the happiest of people sipping rum along the malecon during sunset but also have to deal with jineteros you are bound to come across on the streets. One has to constantly tread between these contrasts that Cuba throws at you and traveling there is not easy for the same reason. But one thing that Cuba assures is that there is never a dull moment in this country.

For us, the old part of Havana brought reminiscence of old Calcutta in India. The old colorful restored building, crumbling buildings with laundry hanging, some old fractured buildings, the 1950’s Pontiac and Cadillac’s and the horse carriages all take you back in time. But the time warp ends in the old part of the city. The contrast is astounding if you move away from here to Miramar and Vedado, the neighborhoods where the rich live with luxury cars parked outside their mansions and the nightclubs which are unaffordable for an average Cuban.

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Cubans indulge themselves in people watching, it’s their favourite past time. You can see most men and women standing in their iron grilled balconies, sitting at the entrance of their doors or standing on the street observing as life goes by. With no distraction from their limited TV channels and sparse access to the internet, they spend time with their families and neighbours. This was nostalgia for us. When we were growing up in the 80’s in India, our parents indulged in the same act of people watching and chatting away with the next door neighbour. It was endearing to see Cubans live such simple lives away from the complexities of consumerism and ‘modern’ lifestyles. The doors of  houses are open all the time allowing you to be a part of their lives for those fleeting seconds as you walk down the road. Privacy is an alien construct for them. If they catch you looking inside, they’ll shout out Hola and strike up a conversation.

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The languid pace of life is what makes Cuba so enchanting and unique almost ironically unfamiliar to our complex ways of living. Despite government’s control over most socio-economical aspects, Cuban culture is one area where they haven’t interfered. In fact, art and culture have thrived here as unlike other countries the best venues for theatre, music or dance are not just places for elites but rather equally accessible to all. Take as much as a short 10 minute walk around Habana Vieja and within that short space you are bound to see men huddled together around a table out on the pavement playing dominoes, young boys playing football in the alleys, girls practicing ballet, musicians playing on the streets, old men reading the newspapers with a cigars in their mouths, men fishing on the sea front, tourists zipping past in vintage cars, loud rap music spilling out from little houses and hawkers selling cones of peanuts. The streets are so full of life that it’s easy to lose way and sense of time. Something that we often did.

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We were walking along the Malecon in the evening to catch the sunset with the waves crashing against the walls when a brother-sister duo enjoying their bottle of Havana Club in small plastic cups asked us if we are from Turkey. When we told them we’re Indians they got excited. The woman pointed at my nose pin and threw a kiss at me. She wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing a bindi on my forehead. That’s the picture they had of Indians from the Bollywood Films they’d seen. They offered us the rum and invited us to join them. We spent about half an hour with them communicating with a few words and mostly actions. They wanted to learn a few words in Hindi and we happily obliged. We took pictures together on each other’s camera and left them to enjoy the stunning sunset. It was a beautiful connection which surpassed the language barrier. We left with a warm fuzzy feeling and the memory of which brings a smile to my face every time I think of them.

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It’s easy to get shepherded into the tourist trail of Havana-Viniales-Trinidad-Santa Clara in Cuba. To be honest, we weren’t complete exceptions as these places are definitely worth their popularity. But taking even slight detours along these trails can provide peeks into the country otherwise hidden from the guidebooks. Cuba is a vast wonder with balmy weather, incredible architecture, plazas with a lot of character, warm and friendly people, amazing music and a vibrant and laid-back atmosphere. There are loads of things to do in Cuba from rock climbing, salsa dancing, scuba diving, cave exploring, hiking, vegetating on their beautiful beaches, exploring the tobacco farms, horse riding in colonial towns and walking down the streets of Havana or Trinidad. It’s unpredictable and full of contrasts. It’s also a heaven for museum lovers. They range from the Museum of the Revolution and Museum of Fine Arts which are very popular with tourists, to a few quintessential Cuban ones like the Rum Museum, Cigar Museum, Automobile Museum and some extraordinarily unique like the Humour Museum, Playing Card Museum, Pharmacy Museum. The notorious Rule 34 probably applies to museums in Cuba 🙂

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I don’t think I’d be exaggerating when I say that India has prepared us to deal with people who strike a conversation which typically ends with a sales pitch, or haggling with sellers till the price comes down to about 1/3. So when we walked down the streets of Habana Vieja, the old part of Havana and got accosted by people selling us Cohiba Cigars, vintage rum or endlessly persuading us for a taxi ride we felt right at home. We smiled and said, Gracias and walked away most of the time. They usually didn’t leave us at that, they engaged us in conversation and we indulged them. We enjoyed these exchanges with a new Cuban around every block. Not knowing Spanish didn’t discourage them, they tried even harder to get their point across animating with a big smile on their faces. When that failed they’d pull an English speaking friend from a shop or bar for a better attempt at the pitch. These for sure is one of the highlights in Cuba.

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The first time we got accosted for cigars on the street- ‘a box of Cohibas for 250$, a special discount for only that day at the Cigar Festival. We went along for the adventure and landed in the living room on the second floor of a crumbling building. We walked in to find some gullible tourists looking at the boxes of Cohiba and Montecristo. We were taken to a different room and shown similar boxes. When we declined them politely, they quickly pulled out every type of cigars they had and tried harder to convince us. They weaved stories about relatives working at the Cigar Factory to validate the authenticity of the cigars. We had no intention of buying them, we only wanted to see the ‘scam’ so we left them disappointed. We met at least three for four people every day telling us the same thing about the special discount at the Cigar Festival and every day was the last day.

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We spent the most memorable evening at a bar with a few friends we had made. After a while, a Mariachi band started to play on the street in front of the bar. The band was called to celebrate the bar owner’s son’s birthday. We all looked out from the first-floor balcony of the bar and soon the party shifted to the street. It was so incredible that we forgot about dinner. When we were looking for a restaurant later in the night, we got accosted by a smartly dressed man who talked us into coming along with him in our search for grub. It was late and most of the restaurants had stopped serving so we went along. We landed in his brother’s expensive restaurant, the walls covered in graffiti and football paraphernalia. They asked us to put a message on the wall which we happily did. We did have a good meal seated on the only table in the narrow balcony in one of those many dilapidated buildings in Habana Vieja. In the end, we came out with our stomachs full but our wallets a bit lighter. It’s not uncommon for tourists being led into overpriced restaurants. By the third day though, we had learnt how to spend a fourth of what we spent initially and still get a decent meal.

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While the jineteros can be a cause of annoyance in Cuba, it’s important to not to let that get in the way of meeting some genuinely nice people on the streets. We met an old man who stopped us just to let us how much he loves India and wanted to know about the political situation in India. He asked us what we think of Cuba and if we are enjoying ourselves. We also met a newspaper seller who swore by Gandhi and respected him more than even the Cuban revolutionaries for his non-violent vision. They didn’t want anything from us nor were they trying to sell us anything. They just wanted to talk. And we were glad for these exchanges.

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It’s impossible to travel to Cuba without being curious about what people think about their government or whether they look forward to the economy opening up. In other countries, you might not know a thing about the political situation, have a jolly good time and come back but not in Cuba. It’s impossible to isolate yourself with the socio-political situation of the country. It’s apparent everywhere- remnants of the Soviet Union in the Russian Lada’s or the 1950’s American Cars. So, it’s important to go back and look at the history and how it has shaped the Cuba of today.

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The US embargo was imposed on Cuba in 1961.The Soviet Union mitigated the effects of the Embargo by supporting the country with its subsidies. But with the fall of Soviet Union in 1990’s Cuba ran into desperate shortage, Special Period, as it is known. This was the time when the government slowly started opening up its economy. Shortage of basic supplies encouraged the emergence of the black market. The government needed the tourist dollars to pump it back into its economy so that education and healthcare can continue to be free and the ration cards which allows Cubans to get food at subsidized rates.

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Tourism by the late 90’s surpassed sugar as the country’s main revenue. Until 1997 Cubans were forbidden to engage with tourists and until 2008 they were not allowed to stay in hotels meant only for tourists. The country has come a long way from then to Cubans allowed to run private businesses in the last few years. Hence, tourism has resulted in the emergence of a two-tier economy allowing people working in the tourism sector to earn in a day what a state employee earns in a month. This has led to a widening gap in the living standards of Cubans and the pyramid continues to be inverted with skilled workers earning much less than unskilled workers. For us, this alone was the most shocking reality of the country. One of the friends we made in Cuba, who happens to be an engineer working with the government put it as “The government pretends to pay us, so we pretend to work for the government”

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The young Cubans we interacted with were looking forward to the lifting up of the US embargo. President Obama’s visit in March 2016 gave some of them hope. They all had aspirations similar to all young people around the world – for a better life. Unlike what we’d been told that politics should not be discussed with Cubans, we found the young especially were not shy to express their opinion about the government. Some very critical about it and were looking for a way to get out of Cuba while others in support of it proudly telling us about its achievements like free healthcare and education for all citizens. We didn’t see any homeless people sleep on the pavements at night or beggars on the street.

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The embargo has made Cubans very versatile and enterprising. They have learned to live happily with the restrictions and if they can’t get to something with a straight path they always have their way around. There are always alternatives in Cuba. Cuba would not be Cuba without them. If the Etecsa office has run out of internet cards, you can still get them via another route. We heard stories about a young man who downloaded movies and series on his hard drive and he’d let anyone copy the content for 2 CUC, another smart young man we met had written his own proxy to get around the government’s internet firewall to access internet, some more young people who figured how to extend the range of wifi hotspots and sell that for 1/4th the price and all the ingenuine people who continue to keep the old cars still on the road.

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Cuba is a very different world, a world so far removed from the Capitalist society. One of the most striking thing for us was a complete lack of consumer driven advertisements. This was such a pleasant change, almost had a calming effect on our minds saturated with advertisements back home. It is a world far away from the Mcdonalds and the Starbucks. On the positive side, we saw advertisements advocating safe sex, the importance of hand washing, posters about awareness of AIDS and homosexuality in the state-run pharmacies we visited.

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There are however billboards with Revolution related messages and slogan. Wall murals and graffiti of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo and other revolutionary heroes is a very common sight. Che however, is most popular, his face plastered on t-shirts and souvenirs. It was ironic to see his face being used to sell all sorts of things in Cuba. There are huge billboards encouraging people to work hard, quotes propagating Cuban unity, encouraging the youth to continue the ideals of the government. With quotes like – “The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth. -Che” These are a constant reminder for its people of the country’s revolutionary history and it’s socialist values of justice and equality.

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Our cliched Cuban fantasy came alive when we took a ride in the classic convertible along the Malecon in Havana. It’s a very touristy thing to do but an experience one must take. A vibrant color car along the Malecon makes for a great photograph. Some of these cars look so fresh like they’ve just been driven out from the factory while others look completely time-worn with upholstery wearing out and wires dangling.

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Things are slowly changing and the change is apparent on the streets. You can see old American cars alongside modern vehicles and Chinese-made buses, lots of buildings under construction with a poster of a modern building plastered on its facade. Cubans can now shop at stores like Benetton, Zara, and Mango, buy Plasma TV, tablets and iPhones things which were unimaginable a few years back.

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And it’s not just the buildings taking new facades, people too seem to be changing rapidly. With parts of the economy opening up mainly around tourism, people are becoming more and more enterprising. Although in some cases the sense of business seems to border ethics. Like a taxi driver who charged two Australian girls double the amount he charged us for the same shared journey just because we had booked the ride with him a few hours before they did. He later justified it, probably more to himself than us, by saying – isn’t this how business is done. One can’t blame him for this misplaced sense of business though, for it’s still a relatively new phenomenon in the country which its people are coming to grips with.

Things will continue to change now with travel restrictions easing out for US citizens (restricted to special categories) and flight and cruise ships set to begin this year. There is also a promise of a better future for Cubans with ongoing discussions about lifting the embargo. For our own selfish reasons we would never want to see McDondalds and Starbucks reach Cuba but the charm that occasional visitors like us see hides behind it a struggle that many Cubans have to go through every day to survive. Although looking at the Cubans, one can’t imagine them being any happier than they already are but that again is a testimony to their indomitable spirit. Change now seems imminent and Cuba seems to be in a rush to get to it. Afterall, it has half a century of world imposed isolation to catch up on.

Planning a trip to Cuba? read our practical guide.
                        Watch this video if you need more reasons to travel to Cuba.
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3 Comments
  1. Reply

    Eli

    May 30, 2016

    Good post and great insights…if anyone needs help with travel to Cuba feel free to contact us at http://www.yourcubatravel.com.

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Vatsal is a techie and a coffee junkie. Most often he’s caught watching a film with Guinness for company. Preeti loves everything about the mountains. She always has her head buried in a book sipping tea.
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