“Are you a virgin?” the Cuban rep asked me. Trying not to smile too much, I told him I was. Yes, BackPacking Granny is a virgin! What he meant was, had I come off the Virgin flight to Havana. OG (Other Granny) and I were off on our travels again. Her multiple injury to her ankle had mended and we were spending the next two and a bit weeks travelling across Cuba. Our hopes were high as it was virgin territory for both of us!
Six loos were not working on the Virgin flight and we had had the misfortune to be sitting on the bulkheads near the only ones that did. We didn’t get much peace and quiet on the flight. So it was with great joy that we finally bumped down the runway at Havana with the thought of a delicious mojito foremost on my mind. I was soon to be disappointed. The airport is pretty chaotic. Long lines of people snake towards the immigration booths and it takes a couple of hours to get through. However, happy to have met our rep, a delightful Cuban named Lazarus, we boarded the bus to The Hotel Nacional. This is an hotel with a history, now of course Government owned and therefore smiles are limited. No one so far has thought of charm courses for employees, but I’m sure they will get round to it one day in the dim distant future.
Our first hurdle was to find our room. The numbering is pretty suspect and it only took us an hour. No there was no one to ask! Once we had finally worked out the complicated entry system, we got into our room. It was like a film set with dark furniture, heavy silk curtains, two beds with very ancient bed covers, two rocking chairs and an enormous several times painted gloss white bath. Nevertheless it was “the” hotel. Rita Hayworth, Sinatra and even Kate Moss have stayed there. It must have been magnificent in its day.
What you have to realise is, that in Cuba, nothing new has come into the country since 1958. The great big American cars are noble rust buckets shining on the outside and definitely dodgy on the inside. How many thousands of bottoms have sat on those car seats I thought – what a story some of those cars could tell. Hemingway, The Godfather, The Rat Pack, those dusky maidens from Copacabana to mention but a few! Even in the largest and poshest of hotels like the Hotel National they frequently run out of glasses and it is not unusual to have plates and bowls and dishes from several different sets. There are two currencies. One for tourists. One for locals. When you realise that what you probably spend on coffees in a month, is what the average Cuban earns in the same period of time, you understand why just about everything is out of reach. Virtually everybody gets paid a lowly wage, even doctors.
On the first morning we met our fellow travellers. We were a mixed bunch. 11 of us but we slowly seem to gel. What of our guide? He is Cuban, very tall, and very black, with excellent English. I thought he looked more like a Harlem basketball player than a Cuban, but I now know that there are white Cubans , mulatto and black Cubans – and every other sort in between.
The first day we had a walking tour of Havana City. Then a ride in one of the ancient cars. They really are rather fun – huge, old and American, patched and painted, oiled and greased and very much loved by their owners. Most are open topped and are the most wonderful garish colours. I saw a pink one which must have belonged to Miss Penelope of the Thunderbirds. It is a great way to see a town – with the wind in our hair and FEELING LIKE FILM STARS, we drove around crumbling houses which had the air of dignified old ladies who had seen better days. Instead of wispy hair they had trees growing out of them. Once grand balconies had tatty washing hanging out and the wide curved staircases which had once led to some rich family’s front door had people sitting on them, aimlessly watching nothing as their lives ticked by. Sad.
In this socialist state no one looks elegant or well dressed. The schoolchildren wear a universal Cuban uniform – beige shorts or skirts, white shirt and the red Russian kerchief. One good thing is that the standard of education is brilliant. 60 per cent of students go to university. However over the generations this has caused real problems as they now have an imbalance of professionals to blue collar workers. No one wants to be a labourer. Indeed the problem is so big that the government has had to make up incentives for young men. Instead of going into the army (which is apparently deeply boring – hours on duty doing nothing) you can do your service on a collective farm. Due to the political system, it is well nigh impossible to be an individual farmer. The taxation system is just too extreme. Everyone goes to school and kindergarten. But food is expensive and scarce despite being given rations.
If you are a gourmet this is not the place for you! The basic dish is beans and rice and there is not much meat or veg. Cuban cuisine is pretty bland. I had difficulty even getting a salt cellar let alone any chilli which seems potty as they grow easily in Cuba. On a happier note the drinks are great! Rum is very cheap so everything is rum based and of course the mojito is the national drink. I have become quite a connoisseur! I asked our guide why people don’t grow their own vegetables. Or keep a few chickens. But I just got a pretty blank look. It seems that most people just sit back and wait for the government to provide, and provide they do. Every little village has a doctor and dentist. No one pays medical expenses. You get a house and are reasonably well looked after from cradle to grave. But people are taxed very heavily. For example if you are a farmer you have to donate 90 per cent of your earnings to the government but they in turn provide you with tractors and equipment. Everything seems to be done for you – so it rather kills creativity.
Very few people have cars. The motorways are a joy to drive on there is no other traffic. Just lots of hitch hikers. People travel in or on anything. I’ve seen them squeezed into the back of dumper trucks, jeeps, lorries and buses. If you are reasonably well to do you have a horse. It is charming to see them being ridden by guys wearing spurs and cowboy hats. It seems to be a man’s prerogative to drive the horse drawn trucks. Women, on the whole, seem to be at home, cleaning or cooking, washing (without a machine) or doing any of the hundred and one things women always do. Despite our guide telling us they have equal status I didn’t find it so.
I don’t know if all the guides have been Party trained, but I am pretty sure they are. Ours was hugely proud of the way the state works. “We share in Cuba” was his favourite phrase. There was never for one moment a flicker of dissent or discontent. Indeed he got extremely agitated and offended when we asked if we could see more of “ordinary people’s lives” and accused us of “pushing him too much” and that we should read our itinerary. So you have to go by the rules. I suspect guides are watched. They dare not show the tourists anything that is not successful socialism. Service is nearly always the minimum. OG and I watched government paid waitresses standing and chatting whilst people were trying to get their breakfast. They never anticipate that butter or bread might run out and are grudging when asked to fetch some more. So far service and customer relations do not seem to be on the agenda, which is really such a shame as this country has much to offer.
There seems to be little interest in solving problems – I suppose that is generations of socialism – and even less in pleasing customers. At one coffee stop I found myself being charged £3.50 for a very small cup of coffee. I asked our guide if this was correct. It was at that moment we realised we had all paid different prices! I may be sounding negative but I believe in reporting warts and all. And of course this is only my opinion and only mine. The climate is heavenly. Not too hot , but sunny and the lush countryside and mountains are very beautiful.
After Havana we boarded our bus which had a delightful driver named Mr Candy. It was air conditioned and we motored eastwards towards Trinidad. The roads are absolutely wonderful. Russian built and completely empty. We passed numerous horse drawn trucks but no one passes us. We stopped at a government run place for lunch. Again it’s clean but pretty faded. The loos had no running water but the ice creams were delicious – so there is always something that is somehow a saving grace. There are virtually no petrol stations and very few loos. When you do get to the loo in a cafe or petrol station the going rate is 25p for a pee. And woe betide you if you try to go without paying. The loos have saloon bar doors so you are at the mercy of the height of the carpenter who fixed them!
After a very long drive of about 7 hours, we arrived in Trinidad. A very old town with wonderful old colonial architecture and impossibly narrow roads. Our bus could go no further, so the last three blocks we had to pull our cases over the cobblestones up hill and down dale. There are not enough hotels in Cuba, so most people stay in a Casa Particular, the equivalent of a B&B. Our first room was a classic. We had no window. Just two curtains at the head of the beds, a striplight, a door and a bathroom. Hooray the bathroom had a basin! Ah yes but no plug, a loo with the wrong size seat and a shower that distributed water everywhere except where intended. However there were compensations. A rooftop was at our disposal. Sunny and with a washing line.
I really liked Trinidad. It is like a Spanish mountain town in Andalusia. Cobbled streets. Simple houses – mostly with adjoining walls. The children, who have no wifi and very little TV, make up their own games. Kite flying was the favourite – the children jumped from rooftop to rooftop! Hair raising, but such fun to watch as we breakfasted on our rooftop. Every traveller had a bathroom tale to tell. Plumbers merchants do not exist in Cuba! You are lucky if anything comes out of a tap. There is nothing like bodily problems to pull a group together – we all had something in common!
Cien Fuegos was our next stop. A seaside town with decadent art nouveau buildings and a wonderful theatre. Of course nothing was playing but we were allowed in! It had the original hard Victorian seats and a wonderful large stage and painted ceiling. Carlos Acosta no less, had danced there.
The next day we were very excited – it was Bay of Pigs day. The Bay of Pigs conjures up so many images. For me it is the famous photo of President Kennedy, extremely worried and anxious, looking around to get the support of his be-medalled American generals The clash between Russia and America brought us to the brink of war. Fortunately Kruschev gave in first. Well I hate to disappoint you but the terrain couldn’t be more boring. It’s a just a very large bay. There is a small museum with a few tanks and the remains of an American plane. Inside are the names of the mercenaries who lost their lives. There was only one American that died and he was a pilot.
Before we left on this expedition we were advised to bring anything we could as presents, especially for owners of the Casa Particulars, as it is very difficult for Cubans to buy anything. Particularly clothing. I brought mountains of cotton reels and needles and some frilly cotton tops that I am now too old to wear but which were pounced on with great glee. In particular, my frilly pink tops which were snapped up by a gay cross dressing waiter (until a few years ago gays were persecuted). Some of our fellow travellers brought crayons and colouring books. They were received with huge excitement and the travellers were overwhelmed with the thank you’s.
Since arriving in Cuba I had been dying to try salsa. However the opportunities just did not arise until a trio of musicians arrived in a bar we were in. First a a tall dark handsome Cuban approached another member of our group who had near hysterics and insisted it would be me, not her, to make a fool of myself. However…. my instructor’s snake hips, good looks and the rhythm (and a few mojitos) got to me. So I salsa’d away like a native (sorry, no photos as I do not wish to be blackmailed in the future!)
The last part of our tour was to drive through the western part of the island. We saw wonderful botanical gardens and coffee growing on terraces as we headed to the Vinales region. Here the vegetation is completely different. The earth is red, full of iron and perfect for tobacco. This area has the lushest terrain in Cuba there are some collective farms but most are very small and humble farms. The growing of tobacco and rolling it is a specialist art learned over generations. We had a wonderful walk through the agricultural lands with a knowledgeable guide. A university professor, he knew every tree and plant. Vinales was the only place that I saw where I felt people could sustain themselves.
One extraordinary sight was to see a farmer tipping rice out of bags to dry onto the tarmac of a quite a busy road (by Cuban standards). We stopped and spoke to him. He had a very hard worn and tired face and I felt he looked much older than his years. He had his daughter with him who had no shoes and threadbare shorts and shirt. We asked if anyone ran over the rice – he told us drivers were used to seeing it. A small holding in Cuba is very hard work, with very little reward.
No sooner than we arrived back in the UK, than we got the news that Fidel Castro had died. Despite a lot of teasing from friends asking if I had had anything to do with it, I do hope his death will lead to better things for the Cubans. I am saddened that I only saw what the tourist board allowed. I have travelled in Burma and Vietnam, both countries which have had similar extreme socialist regimes but there I was far more able to gauge the temperature and undercurrent and feel the vibes. Certainly in Burma and Vietnam I saw people striving to start up businesses. I felt an energy and an excitement about their future. I did not feel that in Cuba. I do hope that now investment will flood in. Cuba is a country which is in the Caribbean but sadly has none of its joys. But things could change – it has fabulous beaches (which just need grooming), a warm clean sea, lots of rum, and very musical people. It is ripe for golf courses….. get in there Mr Trump! The Japanese are visiting already. Cuba, 70 years ago, was an exciting, romantic vibrant and colourful island full of “creativity” of every sort – art, music, theatre, ballet, wonderful hotels and successful businesses. I hope I live long enough to see it become a prosperous nation again.