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An Afro-Cuban Mix – Unplugged

For those of us living here on the southern tip of Africa, Cuba is a bit far flung. Since charter flights from Miami are prohibited, our arduous routing via Europe just served to reinforce the isolation of this mysterious Caribbean island, feared by most, pitied by many. But we made it! I was finally in Havana and had no idea what to expect. We collected our hired car at the airport and then proceeded to get horribly lost whilst trying to find the badly signposted city centre. A word of advice: get a taxi to your hotel and rent a car when you’re ready to leave Havana!

Talking of cars, I’m happy to report that it’s all true. There are literally thousands of antique American cars purring across the island. 1950’s Plymouths, Chevrolets and Cadillacs function as collective taxis for Cubans, but can also be hired privately. A bridal procession in Santiago was preceded by a gleaming convertible Chevy, the bride’s veil billowing in the wind over the shiny chrome wings.

Transport in Cuba is an eclectic ensemble of mobile contraptions. Apart from antique cars in varying states of restoration, there are also dilapidated Lada’s and Fiats, Chinese bicycles, bright yellow mopeds ferrying tourists around the cities, bici-taxis and ancient smoke-belching trucks and busses overflowing with Cuban commuters. All this helped to wake us up far too early on our first morning in Havana.

Our stroll around Havana began on the Malecon – the name given to the long seafront promenade flanked by impressive monuments to Cuban heroes and historical events. Across the harbour entrance is Castillo del Morro, a massive fort built on a limestone headland to protect the city. The Malecon connects Havana’s business and entertainment district (Vedado) to La Habana Vieja, the original Spanish colonial centre of museums, art galleries, churches and hotels. Millions of dollars have gone into restoration work since La Habana Vieja was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, a process that began two decades earlier when some of Havana’s finest buildings were converted into museums in the wake of the revolution. The impressive dome of the marble Capitolio Nacional dominates the centre and is similar to the US Capitol Building in Washington. At the bottom of the steps you can have a genuine antique photograph taken with the Capitolio in the background. The camera is three decades older than the 20 year old photographer.

On the fringes of the city centre, there is a general throw of decay and neglect with broken pavements, peeling paint, huge structural cracks, and wooden scaffolding holding up some of the more unstable buildings. Each year about 300 buildings collapse, and it’s estimated that 88 000 homes will have to be demolished. But restoration work is underway and, in the years to come, Havana’s facelift will slowly reveal her timeless charm.

There is a dynamism to Cuba. Each new economic reform creates new opportunities for the Cuban people and, hungry for transformation, they surge forward on the tides of change. In 1993 it became legal for Cubans to hold US dollars, and soon, a booming market in private accommodations emerged. These proved to be a huge threat to the state owned hotels and, in 1997 stiff licensing fees were imposed on these “casa particulares”. Owners pay $100 per room per month in taxes, as well as an additional $500 annual tax. A room will cost you $20-$30, and your host family will also provide meals which are home cooked and freshly prepared. Quite a welcome change from the utterly dismal cold food (and matching waiters) in the state restaurants. Your host will serve anything from pork and chicken, to fish and crayfish, but vegetarians beware. Potatoes and rice are the staples and green vegetables are rare, but you’ll usually get a good salad. Breakfasts are usually pretty filling, with fresh tropical fruit, eggs, bread and honey. Orange juice is freshly squeezed, and the “cafĂ© con leche” could kick-start a Buick.

Once ensconced in a guesthouse, we had the rare opportunity to meet ordinary Cuban people and gain some insight into their unique world. They are not allowed across the threshold of tourist hotels, and many young people you meet on the streets are hustlers. Learning some Spanish will be a huge help in Cuba, especially when you get to a private house. This is where Cubans may drop their guard, and speak openly about the real impact of socialism, and what the future may hold.

Casa Particulares were our main source of accommodation as we drove across the island during the next 3 weeks. Our journey took us through endless tracts of sugar plantations which dominate the central spine of the island. The western province of Pinar Del Rio is tobacco growing country with some spectacular limestone rock formations, some of which conceal extensive cave systems and underground rivers.

The most idyllic spot we came across was the little known Cayo Las Brujas, a small coral key off the Atlantic north coast. A 45 km causeway connects the mainland to this beautiful islet. Water-logged mangroves and unspoilt stretches of palm fringed white-sand beaches enclose the cayo which forms part of a shallow archipelago. Nothing beats sipping rum ‘mojitos’ as the sun sets over the deserted beach. There are many similar keys off the Cuban coastline, but sadly most of them are overrun with tourist resorts catering to Europeans and Canadians on cheap package beach holidays.

The Caribbean south coast is where the Sierra Maestra mountains, national parks, and colonial town of Trinidad are to be found. This well preserved town is a gem, and has many diving and snorkelling sites nearby. Along the coastal road heading west from Santiago de Cuba, historical landmarks abound, amidst some sensational scenery, but beware of rockfalls and the badly pot-holed road. In Cuba, “off the beaten track” is a very beaten track!

No matter where you go in Cuba, you will encounter the two main pastimes – music and baseball. Traditional “son” will be played for the benefit of tourists in every town, but with a bit of luck, you’ll also hear some Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa. It’s all unplugged, so don’t be surprised to see someone hurrying along the city streets with a huge double bass in tow. There is some awesome talent here and we were literally weighed down by CD’s by the time we left.

Baseball is the Cuban national sport, and every province has a team in the league competition. We went to two games, and became so caught up in all the excitement, that we inadvertantly became vociferous supporters of Pinar del Rio. Playing for the national squad is highly prestigious, and American scouts have had a tough time trying to poach their players, even with lucrative offers. Games are pretty festive and very different from sports events in the rest of the world. Look out for the blind snack vendor at the stadium in Camaguey, and the guy selling shots of coffee in cone-shaped cardboard cups in Havana!


he complete lack of American-style consumerism reminds one that this really is the last outpost of resistence to the global capitalist economy and, although one can sense the utter futility of their efforts, I found myself rooting for the underdog, and enjoying the absence of constant advertising and the ubiquitous fast food chains.

After a 21 day journey to the heart of this isolated island, Cuban-style socialism has become more than just a concept or ideology for me. The reality was a series of contradictions, and I came away with more questions than answers. There are aspects of the Cuban political system that really work. People are healthy, well-educated, housed, fed and employed, albeit in pretty dismal, badly paid jobs. It pushes against the limits of human complacency. Stone-faced men and women sit, bored behind display counters littered with faded goods covered in dust.

And yet, there is an irrepressible exuberance that is quite contagious. Cubans know how to have fun, but there is always an underlying faint sense of sadness, anxiety and discontent. The sadness of separation from exiled family members and friends, the anxiety of always being watched, of everything being controlled, and of course, the discontent with Fidel Castro’s resistance to the outside capitalist world persistently hammering on the front door. Added to this is the uncomfortable feeling of a country simply waiting.

One really needs to be geared up for a visit to Cuba. It’s noisy and shabby with a lingering smell of diesel and cigars, but with a palpable magnetism and energy that is impossible to explain. It will confuse you, surprise you, stretch your resourcefulness and, at the end of it all, will be one of the most memorable and fascinating journeys of your life.

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