I don’t think I would have ever gone to Cuba... if I hadn’t already been there!
I was, in fact, born in Cuba, many decades ago, in what the Cubans call “the American Period”, to two British parents who decided that Cuba, with its’ warmth and a tropical lifestyle, suited them better than dreary, rationed, post-war Britain, and we left to come to Australia when I was only 4-years-old. So as tourism began to open up in Cuba some years ago, it became time to revisit and rediscover this vibrant and unique island that was my birthplace.
World Expeditions has a great 12 day Cuba Adventure tour, and my sister (also Cuban born) and I planned to arrive a couple of days early. Our first evening we strolled down the wide pedestrian footpath in the middle of the Paseo de Marti, accompanied by couples walking hand in hand, young people whizzing by on skates, the older generation taking a rest on strategically placed benches, down to the iconic Malecon.
Havana’s seafront was heaving – everyone was out and about in the late afternoon sun. We ended up having dinner nearby in a small cafe, complete with a salsa band and dance floor. We were to discover bands and dancefloors everywhere!
The next day was magic. We had come armed with a number of addresses of homes we had lived in as tiny children, and so we set off in the hands of an obliging taxi driver to see them for ourselves. We had lived in a flat close to the vast El Cemeterio de Cristobal Colon in Vedado, above a flower shop. The cemetery had been our playground and a flower shop was still there. We drove through the suburban (non-tourist) streets, encountering people lining up outside the small local markets to pick up their rations, with kids playing baseball in the narrow laneways, dilapidated buildings everywhere. There was music in the air and dancing in the streets. We purchased bright, naive style paintings in the local market.
For lunch, we enjoyed our favourite childhood meal, Cristianos y Moros – black beans and rice. We rode the elevator to the top of the fabulous Art Deco Bacardi building to see the length and breadth of Havana spread out below us. We admired the huge American vintage cars (many stopped in the middle of the road, with a pair of legs protruding as the driver tweaked an ailing and aging engine). We arrived sorrowfully at a large square, hundreds of locals dispersing, after a music concert – we had just missed it, but the music buzz was still there. We visited an art museum – Cuban art is bright, exciting, full of life, much of it also outside on the walls of crumbling buildings, alongside the propaganda slogans.
Our hotel room in Havana Vieja, Old Havana, was above a narrow pedestrian lane, crowded with locals that Saturday night, shouting, singing, dancing, drumming, making music till the early hours of the morning. So, what with jet lag plus the party outside, and a non-functioning alarm clock, we slept past our tour group meeting time, to be woken by loud banging on the door from hotel management! Not a good way to start a tour! (we made sure we were always on time from then on). However, once we had got our act together, it was a great day visiting magnificently restored buildings and experiencing all that Havana could offer us, including the huge Plaza Revolution, which was being prepared for the huge crowds of people, come to hear Fidel Castro as they celebrated the Bay of Pigs 50th anniversary soon after.
The next day, in our fabulous minivan (supplied by China), we set off for the western end of Cuba. Suddenly, there was a screech and a crashing sound, we had collided with a vehicle hurrying to work. OK, so not heading west just yet then! Our driver spent the whole day at the police station while we did a quick whip around to help pay for the repairs. Our tour guide took us to Plaza Vieja, treated us to a hot beverage and went off to find a new vehicle and driver. And we had a fascinating few hours seeing how Havana residents lived!
First, the older ladies came to do their outdoor exercises. Being so isolated from the rest of the gym obsessed world, there seemed to be a lot of floating around. So a couple of us joined in and showed them a few more up-to-date moves. They reciprocated by singing Happy Birthday, Cuban style, to my fellow passenger. Then came the kids doing their PE class, running up and down the square, jumping and shouting and generally having fun. All the time there were noisy road works, and water tankers buzzing around and nearby, a smelly public toilet, where, for a price, one could receive 2 small pieces of toilet paper to use. All in all, an experience so valued and one we could so easily have missed!
When we did get going, I loved the beautiful Vinales area with its unusual topography, and tobacco farms – we visited a most interesting hand-rolled cigar making factory, Cuban cigars being state of the art! We enjoyed the best meal we had in Cuba – fresh lobster, in a tomato-based sauce, salads, the inevitable beans and rice, in the front room of someone’s home, now turned “cafe” (we had been warned that you don’t go to Cuba for the food, and they were generally speaking, correct!). We went offshore for a day to an island resort where I snorkelled amidst dying coral in choppy seas, and later kayaked in fresh winds that threatened to blow me out to sea. And we climbed a very steep path up to a cave which we explored with headlamps.
At the centre of the island we were enchanted by beautiful countryside, including lots of sugarcane, coming to a national park (complete with its own band and mojito stand). In the hot humid sun, we set out on a long hike, accompanied by our local National Park guide, who filled us in with all the wonders of the natural world there- birds, plants, animals, butterflies etc. I was to have a first-hand experience of some of these wonders, as I fell heavily, and my knee swelled up alarmingly. He ran into the forest and returned with several large green leaves and lengths of vine, and proceeded to bandage my knee while telling me of the leaves’ therapeutic qualities. I have to say I inwardly rolled my eyes - but he was right and I was wrong. That bandage stayed put for the next two hours as we trudged on, and the swelling reduced.
Trinidad, on the coast, with its cobbled streets, colourful buildings, markets, and ancient squares were fabulous. In spite of my crook knee, we danced the night way at an outdoor dance party, the music loud and insistent. Cienfuegos was a more dignified town, wide streets, old elegant palaces, shady squares - loved it. We swam at the Bay of Pigs while learning of its history and the upcoming anniversary. We visited another area of natural beauty for lunch and sighting of some spectacular hummingbirds. And we stopped at the shrine of the Virgen de la Calidad del Cobre, seen as the “Protectress of Cuba”, full of locals leaving treasured gifts in thanksgiving.
We came finally to Santiago de Cuba, one of my favourite towns. Huge statues commemorating Cuba’s long and turbulent history (Australia’s short history since colonial settlement seemed so boring in contrast); streets teeming with people, eating, playing dominoes, dancing to the ubiquitous music; a museum with bullet-ridden walls, where the revolution started; walls covered in propaganda graffiti; the huge Castillo San Pedro de la Roca fortress guarding the bay; trucks, long buses, horses pulling their carts - all full of life, all vibrant, colourful, loud.
Our last night in Havana, my sister and I decided to walk, one last time, down to the Malecon, to see the sunset. There we were serenaded by another pair of musos of course (for a price, but we didn’t care)! A fitting end, I thought, to our return visit to a fascinating country and culture, our birthplace.
Words by Jane Irwin.
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