Cuba was never on my radar till last year, when a friend mentioned her desire to visit this country “frozen in time”. Till then Cuba to me was one poor, war struck country with a bad communist dictator- Fidel Castro. Frankly, I knew very little about this almost mysterious country. When I looked up the internet to find out more, travelers to Cuba spoke about super old cars, dilapidated houses and most importantly, a place where internet Gods had not yet set foot. Cuba kept playing on my subconscious mind but it was too far to do a spontaneous trip. I still haven’t learnt the art of prim and proper long term planning, not the least for vacations. I travel whenever an opportunity swings by and when it does, I am usually quick to grasp. With this one, well it happened much earlier than I could have imagined. I got put on US project and just end of February, a business trip to Mexico City came up. To add to this fabulous stroke of luck, I realized I had 3 days to take compensatory holidays in lieu of my working over the Chinese New Year break. So in a week, flights got booked, and I landed in La Habana!
You wonder why from Mexico and why not from US directly. So the thing is, travel to Cuba from US is not permitted as of yet. That is expected to change soon, but as I type this the economic and travel embargo imposed on Communist Cuba by Capitalist US of A is still in force. That doesn’t mean Americans don’t travel to Cuba. Loads of them do. In fact, in the last few years, there has been a solid growth in tourism in Cuba because people anticipate the embargo to go away and Cuba to become like any other city with Burger Kings, MacDonald’s and Starbucks around every other corner. Also aiding the growth in tourism is Cuba’s extremely simple visa procedure. One can buy a Cuban visa on most airlines that fly to Cuba. I got mine at the AeroMexico counter at the Mexico City airport for a charge of ~$25USD.
I land in Cuba and for some reason the guy at the immigration desk senses something fishy about my traveling alone, an Indian girl visiting Cuba from Mexico City on a US visa and that too with just one small cabin bag. The rest of fellow passengers were already on their way out but I was at immigration facing some intense grilling about my reasons of visiting, my work, my home, my life etc. etc. followed by multiple bag scans, first on a small machine followed by a larger machine. I would be lying if I said I was okay. I was terrified. I was alone, in a communist country without any phone network. If I were to disappear, not a soul would know at least for next 5 days. The ever reliable Gayatri mantra came to my rescue, I kept chanting it in my mind to not let the stress show. Eventually, the ordeal ended and I was asked to go. Still haven’t figured why I was given this special treatment but all is well that ends well! 🙂
It was 10 in the night and few cars were on the road. The guide books were bang on about the old cars. Get out of the airport and that’s the first thing you notice. Buick, Chevrolet from 1950s. Some are real broken down but are still running somehow. “Well its mechanics after all, you can keep working on the mechanics and the car will keep going”, explained a driver in his broken English. As we drove out of the airport, what struck me was the amazing quality of roads, well laid out and wide. And of course you can’t miss the posters celebrating Castro, Che and the revolutions along the way, spaced well enough though, not too cluttered, I’d say. Over the next 4 days I was to see a lot more of these guys, especially Che Guevera, the handsome outsider (he was an Argentinian by birth), a brave-heart, anti-imperialistic revolutionary, who played a significant role in ousting the US backed dictator Batista and bringing Fidel Castro led socialists to power, back in 1958. Che died young, in 1965, when he was captured by CIA in Bolivia for assisting the revolutionaries there and executed. But in Cuba he remains a hero, fondly remembered and venerated. The US-Cuban bitterness goes beyond the 1950s though. To that and to Cuban history, I’ll come in the next section, first let me write about the places I visited. (Too much I want to share, hence dividing in 2 sections so that readers can pick what they want to read)
Section 1: Touristing Cuba
I had about 4.5 days for the trip. First day, I spent exploring Havana, a city of contrasts not unlike cities of most other developing countries. On one end there lies a colonial old town with beautiful public squares, colorful colonial buildings, churches and museums. This colonial part is called La Habana Vieja, the most touristy area of Havana, followed by the older residential Centro Habana which also has colorful colonial buildings, most of which are quite falling apart but still functional, just like those vintage cars. Centro Habana is sequentially followed by the newer Vedadao area with taller buildings, Consulates, big 5 star hotels and modern residential area. The University of Havana, also stands in the Vedadao area. An impressive structure that reminded me of my own younger days in my university back in Mumbai! I walked in to find few students hanging around in the verandah. They were studying Computer Science (more nostalgia!). I asked what next after engineering, one guy mentioned he wanted to become a professor, others spoke about going to Spain or Brazil for further studies and another lankier one looked at me with his eyes bright and shiny, I am going to Silicon Valley, he said, as he burst into laughter with his fellow students!
The northern coast of Havana is the Malecon – think of it as the marine drive of Havana, only much longer running along the entire stretch from Old Havana to Vedadao. Standing at the Malecon facing Centro Habana, move your head from left to right and the entire evolution of the city lies bare before your eyes. You travel from one era to another, in time, in architecture! Early mornings and evenings along the Malecon are truly beautiful. Mornings are good times for some exotic bird watching at Malecon, the guys just come and sit by the ridge as if posing intentionally for the stray morning tourists like me to take pictures. And evenings..well what do I even say, the picture below will suffice!
One thing about Cuba which guide books tell you, one that is absolutely true, is that, there is very very little connectivity there. There are few “wi-fi zones” in main cities where one can buy cards to connect to internet. $3 an hour. There is not “Edge” or “3G” connection either. One explanation for the measly internet infrastructure given to me was US embargo leading to lack of investment in optical fibre and cable network.
My next destination was Trinidad diagonally opposite to Havana, about a 6 hour bus ride away. Trinidad is one of the most well preserved colonial town with cobbled paths and cute little “casas”. Its colorful, its musical, it straight out of a fairy tale. Those who have been to Cartagena in Colombia or have read about it, will feel a sense of déjà vu here, only that Trinidad is little smaller but more vivacious. The whole townlet is set up for tourists, so it seems like. Almost every other house is a “casa particular”, or B&B as we call it. It has only 2 central squares, one much smaller and the other bigger one, also the most happening, name Plaza Mayor. This beautiful square comes to life post 5 in the evening when various local music bands unravel their wares outside the Casa de la Musica and locals as well as tourists gather to groove along the beats.
The day I was there was no different. As the evening descended, couples jumped in to show their salsa moves. I stood by one of the stairs taking in the music and letting my body give in the musical notes, a young handsome Cubano came by and asked if I would like to Salsa with him. I know zilch salsa but he said he could teach me and so I went along. What a beautiful evening it was, this guy was quite a dancer and quite a teacher. Half Italian and half Cuban, he was an artist by profession. He guessed I was from India and insisted I listen to his favourite music. Guess what, his favourite song was “Beetein Lamhe”, he knew it by heart, without understanding a word of what it meant. Anyways, after some nice pleasantries we went our ways! That’s the best part of travel, you meet, you depart, no hang ups, no baggage only pleasant memories to cherish for a lifetime!
I was to stay in Trinidad for just a day, and then head north to visit Vinales, the town with greener valleys, tobacco plantations and Cigars. Cuba is known for its Cigars, apparently amongst the best in the world. But I so loved the spirit of Trinidad that I chose to stay put for another day and visit the Caribbean coastline instead. Playa Ancon, considered one of the best beaches of Cuba is just 18km outside of Trinidad. This 18km stretch too, runs by the coast with multiple smaller beaches along the way. I took a bus onwards to Playa Ancon but decided to walk back exploring the multiple Playas on the way. It was stunning, it was beautiful. Even in the 18kms, the coastline changed from sands to rocks to reefs, so did the color of the water manifesting umpteen shades of blue, the blue becoming deeper with the intensity of the Sun. The only price I paid for the experience was getting tanned 6 shades darker, and I am not fair by any means to start with. But what the heck, I would do it again if I could! Walking is therapeutic for me. Not that I needed a therapy but it relaxes me like no other activity can. Just me and my thoughts and sometimes not even those!
When I reached Playa Ancon, it was 9 in the morning, there were few tourists around. The beauty, the breeze, the uncaring birds – everything around was so overwhelmingly intoxicating. And in that intoxication, the following lines just oozed out of my heart –
“Look at those birds sitting there, unfettered, unaware and unconcerned of not being aware. Who knows what tomorrow holds after all. What matters is this moment. This moment of inexpressible emptiness, this moment where even happy memories refuse to trespass, afraid of ruffling the peace. This emptiness, this lightness is not void mind you, not void at all but emptiness of thoughts, of memories, of emotions…there is no motion and no commotion, just stillness. Stillness of depth, Stillness of balance, of sync within myself and with the world around me, with all that has ever happened, with all that will ever happen, with what has come to me and what hasn’t. With life I am in sync and of life I am in awe! The swooshing waves added a musical note to this peaceful harmony in me, occasionally punctured by a bird whistling nearby, why should she be left out? After all, she is as much a part of this harmony, as the grains of sand on which I stand, as the sea I behold, as the sun that shines above teasing the blue-ness of the waters below! Does it even matter if God exists or if he doesn’t? All I know is divinity does exist and in me I feel it right now.”
That evening, I sat in a café near the main square getting early dinner, when one old and frail looking gentleman walked. He seemed like a regular. As I was the only other customer in the café he started chatting with me in Spanish. The advantage of Indian features in Latin America is that everybody always just assumes I am a Latino. So I rattled out my customary “No ablo espanol, poco entiendo” (I don’t speak Spanish and understand little”, he switched to English and was amazed to know that I was Indian. Turns out he was a professor of History and Sociology in University of Havana and what more, he was a big admirer of Rabindranath Tagore’s work. Interestingly, back in Havana too when I was chatting up with a young customs officer Jossie, her first reaction on finding out my Indian heritage was “I love the works of Rabindranath Tagore”.
The cherry on the cake however, was my last evening back in Havana. Walking back to my hostel after a nice long stroll along the old town, I hear chants of Hare Krishna, Hare Rama and I turn around to see 3 young men affiliated with ISKCon. The elder one among them was a Canadian who has made spreading Gita the sole purpose of his life, the two younger ones (in early to mid-20s) were local Cubanos who were son influenced by the teachings of Krishna that they decided to commit their life to educate their country men and women. I almost always find Krishna and Dharma symbols wherever I go – have found him in Sao Paulo, in Bogota, in La Paz, in Ho Chi Minh and now here. Some spiritual experience it has been!
One bit of trivia before I dive into the next section – Beef consumption is banned in Cuba as it is considered economically unsustainable. Cattle is reared for dairy and for tending farms. But slaughtering cattle for food is a punishable crime!
Section 2: Observations on life and lives in Cuba
Cuba was quite unlike what I came thinking. Not in Trinidad, not in Havana, did I see “abject poverty”. Though quite some houses were old and falling apart they still were pucca houses, there weren’t any shanties in sight, neither were there beggars and homeless. Moreover, I didn’t feel unsafe even for a minute, not at late night, not during the day, not even while walking down 18 kms on an almost isolated road. (Yes, apart from those never ending minutes at the immigration). The general impression I got was that the lowermost denominator of a Cuban, was actually better off than the lowermost section of India or even China. In fact I have seen more homeless and beggars in New York and Hong Kong.
However, most shops in the city which were meant for locals seemed like ration shops with few items, limited stock and locals queuing to buy groceries. One of the most interesting queues I saw was at an Ice cream shop called Coppelia, that too on a Monday morning. (The queues are only for locals, for tourists, there is a separate area with separate prices, much more expensive than locals, same goes for long distance buses. Locals can’t travel in buses meant for tourists and vice versa. There are two different types of currencies as well CUC and Pesos). One other aspect I found intriguing was this – people in Trinidad blatantly asked tourists to leave gifts for them, like t shirts, shampoos etc. And no, these weren’t beggars, they had their own houses, some had shops too, they looked decent and wore decent clothes.
I wanted to talk about my observations and political and social systems in Cuba with some locals but language was a constraint. Hence the Professor’s coming was a blessing indeed. We discussed Cuba History, Socialism, US relations etc. for almost an hour. The day after I got lucky again when I bumped into a Pakistani young man who had been living and studying medicine in Havana for the last 8 years. And I got a deeper peek into Cuban social life.
So yes, Cuba is a communist country, in toto, economically and politically. Apart from Casa (B&B), restaurants and individual skilled labour such as masons, plumbers etc., everything else is under Government Control. The wages are extremely low, and almost undifferentiated for different kind of professions. A much cited example was the salary of Doctors being only $50 a month, same goes for Professors in Universities. The only enterprise in which people actually make a hell lot of money is tourism. On the other hand, education (including higher education), healthcare (complete healthcare including expenses for any kind of operation) and housing is provided by the Cuban Government. So for these, Cubans don’t have to pay a penny. Food is rationed by family, however beyond the assigned quota one is free to purchase food in open market at higher rates, which too are controlled. Everyone had basic facilities. My observation about lowest denominator having basic facilities was bang on.
On the flipside, the system doesn’t make space for aspiration for an even better life. It does not encourage ambition, neither enterprise beyond what is needed for survival. But then, ambition and aspiration is human nature, a pervert incentive can either kill ambition and make people mentally laggards, or drive them to use other means to get what they want – the latter manifested people just asking tourists for gifts which they could otherwise never have. The Pakistani guy narrated incidents of how some people attempt to escape the country in search of a more luxurious life, like a local baseball team that went out for a competition but no member came back, they took the opportunity to run away (And it doesn’t seem like Cuba minds it too much, the only penalty for such guys is no permission to return for 8 years). The Professor though preferred the current system wherein “a larger section of the society has at least basic means of survival than one in which a smaller section has all luxuries and the rest none”.
My obvious question to both was – doesn’t this system incentivize corruption? I got very interesting response from both. The professor said, while corruption exists like in every other country, if caught by the authorities, the punishment can be harsh. The Pakistani boy said, corruption happens a lot but the scale is smaller – for example, a nurse or a doctor would steal small amounts of medicine or alcohol from the hospital and sell it in free market (he was a medicine student, hence the example), but there are rare cases of huge bribery scandals because nobody has that kind of money to bribe.
4 days are too little to get any real insight hence I will refrain from giving any opinions so will restrict my observations and discussions to just that.
Now for those interested, here’s a bit of simplistic history on US-Cuba relations and how Cuba became Communist?
- Spaniards come in 1500s and eliminate all natives ( To give an idea about how big a genocide this was – In the first 15 years of occupation, population of natives decreased from 3 million to 2000)
- They bring in slaves from Africa for cultivation and plantations
- Slaves and then locally born 2nd, 3rd generation Spaniards and kids born out of intermingling of slaves and Spaniards, revolt against the exploitation of Spanish Monarchy and officialdom
- While the fight for independence from Spain is going on, US comes into picture in 1850s onwards. It has its own imperialistic ambitions. It doesn’t support the revolting local Cubans but tries to “buy out” Cuba for itself from Spain (thrice). But Spain refuses (one of the reasons to not support Cubans was also “lack of racism against blacks”, US feared it will encourage the black slaves back home to ask for equal rights). Moreover, the revolting Cubans too aren’t excited by the prospect of being ruled by another foreign power. They want liberty and independence.
- Eventually, Spain concedes and Cuba becomes independent. US extends its support to the local government hoping to influence the Cubans into annexation.
- So now Cubans have their own government of people who fought the bloody battles of independence. But like history has shown us before, the government and governance falls into disarray, internal political fights break out. Personal ambitions outweigh ideals of independence. But even in all the internal strife, Cuba is determined to not get absorbed into US.
- So, US decides it is its “moral responsibility to instill mature government” in Cuba and backs the military dictator Batista who eventually usurps power overthrowing the elected government.
- Troubled by the atrocities of Batista, a new revolutionary activity headed by Castro, Camillo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Guevera takes shape. In face of all hardship and in spite of US opposition, the revolutionaries overthrow Batista and come to power.
- US obviously isn’t happy and encourages attempts to assassinate Castro, in vain
- Already inspired by Marx and socialistic ideals, and now also harassed by US, Cuban revolutionary government becomes an ally of Russia and turns Cuba into a full Communist state, further infuriating US. So finally in 1959, when Cold war was at its peak, US announced economic embargo against Cuba.
- Till date, US embargo on Cuba remains, though dialogues between the 2 have started and things are expected to change further post the upcoming visit of Obama.
Apparently, till date US shelters and funds activists trying to do a counter rebellion in Cuba, so said the Professor. Given US’s modus operandi, I am sure that must be completely true.
Quite a long write up for a 4.5 day trip, only goes to show what an interesting country this Caribbean island is. What more, it is absolutely safe for even solo woman travelers. If in Americas, do hop over!
ॐ शान्ति |