My initial touch-points with Cuba weren’t very pleasant. Starting with getting a visa to go there. Actually, not so much getting the visa, but getting the right information about where to get the visa from… after lots of asking around and sifting through stuff online, I put my passport into a DHL courier guy’s hands and hoped for the best. Ironically, the process was surprisingly swift and easy (The Cuban embassy in Saudi issues visas for all residents of UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait, FYI). And all of a sudden, that bucket-list trip that my BFF and I had been talking about for a very long time, transformed from a twinkle in the eye into a very real plan.
But that wasn’t really the hard bit – it was my first evening in Havana. On landing after a long 22-hour double-leg journey (part of which was flown in cattle class, sadly), I was detained at the immigration counter for questioning – something I’ve never had to experience before, and didn’t react very well to. For no apparent reason really, other than the fact that they probably aren’t used to receiving too many Indian passport holders, I realise in retrospect. So, after some pointless questioning by a very ‘official-looking’ immigration official dressed in a sexy miniskirt and fishnet tights, I got out to see the baggage carousel had stopped running half-way through. Again, for no apparent reason. Most of the passengers on my KLM flight were similarly stranded, haplessly waiting for the belt to start moving again. Which it did eventually, and the bags did come out. But by then, considering I had already landed a couple of hours late thanks to our flight being diverted to nearby Varadero airport, due to Air Force One arriving at exactly the same time (I happened to be there at the time of Barack Obama’s historic visit), my airport pick-up had given up on me and left.
After muscling my way through a chaotic airport into a rainy Havana night, I realised I had to make my own way to the Casa Particular (the Cuban home-stay concept) where we were staying. Standing in the taxi queue seemed pointless, as there didn’t seem any method to the madness, and eventually, I found myself sharing a cab with a Danish gentleman (who was on the same flight as me, and is a regular visitor to Cuba) into town. He seemed a lot less stressed than I was with the situation, and helped me with my orientation saying, simply, “This is Cuba.” And indeed, if you maintain that mantra and the go-with-the-flow attitude it brings with it, throughout your trip, then you will be rewarded with a wondrous, unparalleled experience.
Because Cuba delivers on every promise those evocative pictures make. Cuba is every bit as exhilarating as it is exasperating… Cuba is everything it looks like in the photos and much much more.
My trip started looking up from there on out. After I made it to Casa Zaiden, the warm welcome from friendly owner Mildred, and a hot shower was all it took to lift my spirits. Oh, and my first mojito, and my friend’s arrival later that night (who’d also had an eventful entry into the country) of course!
We spent the first few days wandering around Old Havana (even catching a glimpse of the POTUS’ cavalcade at one point), waiting in line for hours to get a phone card and money exchanged, and nonetheless, slowly falling in love with Cuba. Street names such as Calle Obispo, O’Reilly street, and Plaza de Armas tripped off our tongues as if we’d lived there all our lives! We soaked up the vibe, drank lots of mojitos, popped into galleries and tiny stores housed in the front room of people’s houses, walked along the Malecon – quite magical on stormy days when the water gets very choppy – and of course took in the tunes. Music is everywhere in Cuba – spilling out on the streets from bars and restaurants, homes, or bicytaxis (the Cuban version of a cycle rickshaw). It is well nigh impossible for anyone to not sway a little to the infectious rhythms, as you walk along.
There’s an immense amount of artistic and musical talent here – street artists abound, and every second storefront sells local art; almost everybody can effortlessly carry a tune (if they are not professionally singing in a neighbourhood bar)! Be warned though, the nightlife here wraps up pretty early – by 11-ish – so if you want to party, then you need to seek out specific nightclubs. We were quite content with turning in early after cocktails and dinner, especially as we had the lovely Casa Zaiden to look forward to returning to.
Dating back to 1919, the delightful casa is filled with antiques, period furniture, and vintage family memorabilia, to effectively recreate a Victorian-era home, while interesting Cuban art emphatically embeds it in its locale. Mildred Zaiden runs an efficient operation, and is friendly to boot, offering clueless tourists useful tips, and translation help with her better-than-average English skills.
That wasn’t the case at our next destination, Vinales, a tiny town in the deep heart of Cuban tobacco country – but what our Casa hosts Mary and Andres lacked in language skills (they barely spoke any English), they more than made up for in the warmth of their hospitality. In their humble village home we were fed copious amounts of delicious home-cooked food (pork roasts, the freshest crispiest plantain chips, and hearty soups), and some of the best mojitos I’ve ever had – bar none. With roosters crowing in the mornings, pigs running around in the backyard, and their affectionate dog (they should really advertise him, for dog-loving suckers such as me!) providing playful companionship, this was the ultimate rustic getaway.
While in the Pinar del Rio region, we also took a tour of local cigar farm; visited some ancient caves, saw some bewilderingly named ‘prehistoric’ art on a giant rock face that was actually a 1960’s concoction (it’s a tourist trap, but with precious little else to do here, it’s one of those things you should probably tick off anyways); and made new friends in our casa mates, with whom we checked out the local nightlife – basically the main street of Vinales lined with bars and restaurants that liven up after dark.
From Vinales we wound our way further south to Cienfuegos, a UNESCO heritage-listed town that probably showcases the faded grandeur of Cuba better than anywhere else. It features on most tourist trails, but I’d give it a miss next time. On the other hand, Vinales, Havana, and Trinidad, I’d go back to in a heartbeat!
Oh, Trinidad. That idyllic, picturesque, vintage town of cobblestone streets, historic houses, and country charm. Formerly home to wealthy sugar plantation settlers, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has kept its 19th century Spanish colonial heritage intact, not just in the buildings and many museums, but in its laid-back spirit.
Here, Cuban life plays out on its streets – perpetually open doors and windows, thanks to the tropical heat, allow unhindered views into the daily lives of the people, and they don’t seem to mind nosy tourists peeking in at all. In fact, with the fronts of many houses being converted into ‘paladar’ restaurants, or souvenir shops, the opening up of homes to tourists is de rigeur.
An unforgettable Trinidad experience is the nightly communal party on the steps of ‘Casa de la Musica’ – where the whole town converges (or at least it feels like that) for free salsa concerts, plus performances of Rumba and other Afro-Cuban entertainment forms. The energy is incredible… wrinkled geriatrics shaking a leg, talented professionals whirling each other around to show everyone how it’s done, and merry-making tourists joining in the fun – some gingerly moving their limbs, while others bust out moves learnt in long-forgotten salsa classes – but everyone living out their ultimate Caribbean dream for a night or two (and yes, guilty as charged).
The urge to party in Cuba is ubiquitous and deeply entrenched. On my first night in Trinidad, I was kept awake by the thumping disco beats of a party next door. After a while, I gave in and hopped across to see if I could gatecrash; turns out I could, but I didn’t stay long. It was a kids/teens’ party in full swing in an abandoned warehouse lot (and as a clear outsider I was even allowed in for my ten minute stint without paying the 1 CUC entry charge!). But what startled me was the impunity with which these kids (mere children,some of them couldn’t be more than ten) were drinking and smoking. And doing a lot of the other things that people tend to do in parties, after drinking and smoking. It wasn’t disgusting or anything, all the preening and strutting was quite sweet in fact, but still felt a bit under-age to me. I went to bed with the realisation that this ‘party spirit’, if you will, obviously starts early. A friend and I share this theory that people in countries where the future is uncertain (I’m looking at you, Lebanont!) tend to party with a sort of urgency that you can’t find elsewhere.
I started to uncover the genesis of this psyche a little bit further when I came across a book that I borrowed from our Casa the next day, Carlos Eire’s ‘Waiting for Snow in Havana’. At Casa Juani, apart from a tranquil, leafy, old-world atmosphere, and central location, what you get is excellent insight into Cuban culture and its people, thanks to the lovely, garrulous host Juani – a former English teacher whose language skills were, naturally, on point – and an interesting library. I couldn’t finish the book while I was there, but found it fascinating, so I went and got myself a copy as soon as I returned home. This confessional, evocative, incisive book by one of the thousands of children from anti-regime families who were ‘airlifted’ out of Cuba into the US, after the revolution, offers a completely different perspective to the propaganda-esque blanket that covers everything in Cuba. Eire displays a barely concealed smouldering rage against the regime that is shared by innumerable exiled Cubans. For a bystander like me, it felt like I was discovering, and peeling off layer after layer of the fabric that makes up this highly complex, unique, and utterly fascinating country – long after I’d physically left it. And it has only left me even more intrigued.
To conclude, the point of this uncharacteristically personal and long-winded post is to say that Cuba isn’t an easy trip, by any means. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to people travelling with children – unless you’re travelling in a tour group, and I can’t think of a worse way to discover a country like this, or are particularly intrepid. I wouldn’t recommend it to those who like their holidays to always go according to plan. But, if you’re up for an adventure, I urge you… go to Cuba. Go now! Or is it too late already?