Having landed and cleared customs at José Marti Airport, I stepped out into the evening heat, was ushered into the back of a taxi (a Russian Lada). Within seconds I was rushing toward La Habana and haven’t felt so instantly submerged in a culture since India. As we hurtled along the highway belching black fumes, Alberto the driver indicating the blue license plated were government vehicles and he said, they must stop for hitch hikers by law, if they have the room. Cars with red plates were diplomats he said and feigned driving into one. Or did he just check himself in the mirror and almost hit them by accident? I couldn’t be sure such was the local necessity to drive erratically.
‘Desculpe! Donde esta la casa Lourdes y Jorge?’ I asked a local, in my limited Spanish, before he pointed me in the direction with a smile like Jorge was his cousin.
I was soon to find out how friendly and community-driven the Cuban people (of very diverse skin colours, I might add) were. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and people were openly talking to others, regardless of age, race, or, in the tourists cases, nationality. The kids played Los bolos (boules with pebbles) between passing Oldsmobile’s and cycle rickshaws, while their mother’s cooked chicken, black beans, and rice with the vast wooden doors open. Caribbean spiced music, from behind Spanish colonial shutters; wafted up between the dilapidated buildings, like exhaust fumes from a battered Chevy Cadillac and everywhere idealism belched itself hoarse.
‘Discipline is triumph!’, ‘Resist and Conquer!’, and ‘Get well soon, Fidel!’ preached the manic street walls, the flaking grandeur of a sensory Havana education already getting the hairs up on my neck.
I visited the Revolution Museum to get an idea of how the Revolution was won, and was overwhelmed by the display and amount of information proudly bestowed on the walls. I actually felt a sense of pride well up in me, for them. ‘Estupendo!’ I wanted to shout, for them (only twelve guerilla fighters under Castro at one point) achieving where many other oppressed countries have failed. I also visited the Revolution Square to imagine what it must have been like full to the rafters, in the middle of a busy roundabout with dump trucks of civilians flying round and round tooting their horns, on victory day in 1959.
After that and a lot of walking in the hot sun, I needed a Mojito, so wandered past the communist corn exchanges and doorways re-filling lighters, selling unappetizing ham rolls and pink ice cream into Habana Vieja to Bodeguita del Medio. This was Hemmingway’s old haunt and signed memorabilia bestows the walls of graffiti. A band played Buena Vista Social Club’s music (and even a Beatles track in my honour) as I drank, relaxed and watched the Habaneras, a very proud and shameless people, dancing their way through the streets in a whirlwind of Lycra and Esplendido cigar smoke. On my way home to Chinatown, I visited the famous Coppelia ice cream hut and then ran to the malécon and jumped passed the rocks into the dirty sea, like only you can when an overwhelming sense of freedom takes you over, everyday there feeling like the weekend.
The countryside was succulent, lush, and the further we went towards Viñales, Pinar Del Rio Province, and the more extravagant the scenery. From men scything the central reservation and women ambling crossing carriageway traffic with umbrellas to the ox-herders in the middle lane, I felt myself reach a level of pure relaxation. Vultures circled high above, hummingbirds flew past my right ear and Ramón’s words into my left, it was agreed he, my driver, would show me two places of outstanding natural beauty for an extra $10CUC.
First was a layered snaking river over rocks in Las Terrazas, up in the hills, where I perfected my back flips into the rock pools before lunch. The second was Soroa, a beautiful waterfall in an enclosed forest, where I just swam, lounged on the rocks and then had a drink at the bar. Then Ramón decided to take me home for coffee and to meet his welcoming family – can you imagine a cabbie doing that at home? I was humbled.
When I arrived it was late afternoon, so I decided to go up the hill to El Ermita, a hotel with a pool and the best view (Mirador Buenissimo!) of the Vallé de Viñales – a green paradise of Mogotes (Limestone mounds) and plush valleys and caves. Here I had a Daiquiri and watched the sun go down, swatting away the mosquitoes with my book.
The next day my hosts Jorge y Sara (the former made the best mojitos ever and the latter the tastiest home cooking) asked their friend, Willfredo, to take me horse riding into the valley and it was a fantastic experience. As we rode through he taught me everything about the surrounding red earth which yielded crops of: coffee, tobacco, pineapple, guava, mango, bananas, plantain, maranga, sweet potato, potato, avocado, sweet corn, bamboo, and sugar cane. I swam in a lake, explored a cave, and even rolled my own honey-tipped cigars with Juan, a local farmer, who seemed immune to the mosquitoes everywhere. Once home, I was in bed by eleven o’clock, absolutely exhausted and mosquitoed to breaking point.
On my final full day, I decided to rent a scooter to take me up to Cayo Juatias on the north coast. I took my time (about 3 hours) to go the 70km, as I snaked my way up and down the hilly roads, stopping every now and again to take photographs of the stunning layered plains below me. When I arrived, I paid a nice man to watch my bike, got my snorkeling gear out, and hit the beach. Before long I had been enraptured by the flat turquoise water, beautiful fish on the reef, and the white, white sands that I lost track of time. It was getting on and rain loomed on the horizon. I felt sun burnt and dehydrated and I had a good two hour ride home, which I really didn’t want to do in the dark.
A massive tropical storm lashed down minutes after I left the paradise, sending floods down the hills my scooter was already struggling against, and stinging my eyes, (at least there were no mosquitoes) but it was so much fun that I almost wanted to stay out on the bike all night, but alas I just got it back before my rental time expired. When I got in, I barely had the strength to eat, let alone hit the town. I forced myself and ended up dancing a bit of embarrassingly bad salsa at Polo Montanez, the popular local haunt. On the way home, I stopped at the cultural centre for a Rum nightcap, to watch how it was really done and was amazed at how flexible and sexual the old couples dancing were. At least they weren’t in Lycra, I though remembering La Habaneras of a few days previously.
The next day, I waved goodbye to my excellent hosts and promised to send their son, Duviel some heavy British rock music. Ramón picked me up, drove me to the airport, and after a week I will never forget I wanted just one more mañana, and then another. If you haven’t been to Cuba, go!
Viva La Revolućion!