Cuba is a mess. It’s a country rife with contradictions, where the modern world and colonial past collide with mixed results. It’s one of the last bastions of communism in the world, yet its primary industry is tourism. It has the highest literacy rate in Latin America, yet one of the weakest economies. It’s a country where taxi drivers earn more than doctors, the food is awful, the rum is cheap, the beaches are incredible and the music is better. You should go there.
When I first stepped onto the bustling streets of Havana, part of me secretly expected to be accosted by a passionate mob of revolutionaries who might wrap me in a Che-emblazoned shroud, offer me a cigar, hustle me into a 1950s car and insist that I convert to communism.
Instead I was mugged by a ten-year-old boy.
After spending two hours in Havana Centro Police Station (also a prison) I decided I didn’t like Cuba’s capital – it was a bit grubby, a bit old-fashioned and more than a bit terrifying. And so, vowing to return once we’d “seen somewhere a bit nicer,” we caught the morning bus to the colonial town of Trinidad.
A myriad of vibrant pastel painted houses and cobbled streets, Trinidad truly is the gem of Cuba’s south coast. We rented a room in a Casa Particulare (private house licensed by the state) owned by a humble, obliging couple who presented us upon arrival with oil lamps “in case of a power cut.” There wasn’t one power cut during our ten-day visit. There were six.
Cuba is still recovering from the economic devastation caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989; shortages of petrol and fuel are widespread. During this sensitively named ‘special period’ it became compulsory for private vehicles to pick up hitchhikers, a practice still fairly standard today. Everywhere in Cuba you will see sweaty herds of people huddled under the shade of trees and overpasses waiting to be picked up by passing cars and trucks.
Bizarrely, it is along these roads that communism is most palpable. Instead of advertising products and services, roadside billboards in Cuba are all Socialist propaganda, promoting the revolution and its heroes. Support for socialism is visible everywhere, from large banners in hotels to tiny quotes and slogans etched on the side of buildings. It is a country furiously resisting the capitalist onslaught that will inevitably come when the regime collapses.
A lack of capitalism gives Cuba a lazy vibe. Never before have I seen so many people standing around with (apparently) so little to do. If there were an award for a nation’s ability to pass time unproductively Cuba would win. They really do sit on their front step smoking cigars all day, they really do sit on the beach drinking straight rum out of plastic cups at ten in the morning, and they have a really good time doing it. There’s nowhere better to soak up this relaxed atmosphere than on Cuba’s stunning northern beaches, where fine white sands meet the warm waters of Florida straits and the living is easy. Unfortunately we could not dwell in this rum-soaked paradise until the end of our three weeks; we had a second date with Havana.
After renting a dubiously legal room in the apartment of a very jolly but undoubtedly mad local woman who asked us kindly to keep our shutters closed at all times and to please hide in the cupboard if immigration came round, we set off to explore the museums and leafy squares of the old town.
Havana won us over and we returned happily hours later to find a salsa lesson in full swing in the living room and our hostess strumming away furiously on a battered old guitar. They may not have McDonalds but they sure know how to have a good time!
Cuba is vibrant, interesting, challenging and very odd. Yet there is something quite remarkable about a country which lies just sixty miles off the coast of Florida but doesn’t sell Coca-Cola. Cuba is on the cusp of change and well worth visiting before this lifestyle is lost beneath a sea of franchise restaurants and superstores.