Cuba always held a special place in my heart. The misguided romanticism in the communist stories I read as a child certainly had a veto on it (see what I did there?). And just like that, I found myself in Cuba and found how different it was from the communist Utopia that I had dreamt it to be from a land far far away.
While making my reservations, I pooh-poohed at the all-inclusiveness of resort packages and booked my own flight and accommodation via Airbnb. My casa was a very interesting one. It was situated in one of the streets in a labyrinth of old dilapidated buildings of old Havana but was fixed with all modern amenities, sort of. Something that I found distinctive about Cuba. You can buy grocery from supermarkets, sort of. It is very cheap to travel there, sort of. Cubans are free, sort of.
What Cuba truly is, is touristy. The reason for this I understood over the duration of my stay.
As per my itinerary, I had 2 have-to-dos. Visit Hemingway’s house, now a museum and dance Salsa every(other) night. While I accomplished the first on my second day there, the second item proved almost impossible. Why?, you would jump in your seat and ask in a shocked tone. Simply because it is Reggaeton that Cubans love to dance to. I hunted for a salsa club every night. Paid to enter a club only to nonchalantly watch a stand-up comedy in Spanish. Got a ride to upscale clubs with lot of people grinding to Latin music… But authentic Cuban salsa? Nope. Not until I gave up and then suddenly found myself in a club called Asturias. There I finally had a chance to dance to my heart’s content to Cuban salsa, Bachata and even a lil bit of Merengue! But I also have new-found love for Reggaeton now. Especially this song.
As a travelogue is wont to do, may be I should go about my travel in a chronological order. Meh. Let me just cite the interesting ones for the sake of both your ADHD needs and mine.
After kicking into the past(which is not very difficult a task in Cuba) at Hemingway’s beautiful residence, I took the local ferry, got over charged because hey! ignorant tourist here, found myself climbing a slope towards a tall Christ statue and some cannon-filled forts further down the road. This where I invaded into the privacy of two young travellers and forced myself into their company for rest of my trip for better or worse(for them)!
We posed for pictures sitting atop an old canon, at the verge of a cliff and got accustomed to each other. We strolled the streets of old Havana together in a drunken haze from too much food at night and tasted the best churros in the world. Long, thin, freshly fried sugar coated churros. Two of us met other travellers, explored clubs, got stuck in a beach during hours of thunderstorm and travelled together further to Vinales.We also silently watched and fumed afterwards when 2 policemen took two black Cubans away from their table at a restaurant where we all waited together for an hour to get in. Their crime? They complained when they were singled out of the crowd and carded.
It is not often that travellers get to see the underlying repression beneath the light-hearted joviality of Cubans. They say they have excellent free education and health care. But an engineer with 2 jobs earns $40 a month and I paid a cabbie with a tiny beat up car $35 for 3 hrs to take me to Finca Vigia. The difference is in the currency they are paid in.
When I got to Vinales, If I hadn’t known any better, which is again questionable, I would have thought that Cuban govt must have sprung up a cardboard town at the wake of tourists hitting the small jade-coloured township. Because every other shop in the town is either a restaurant or a curio shop. All houses have been converted to casas to accommodate tourists. Horses are paraded around in groups with or without tourists riding them, similar to old classic cars in Havana. Tobacco and sugarcane farms have numerous tours and products aiming at enthusiastic tourists. Local people are overtly after the CUC(money that tourists use and is 24 times more valuable than CUP that the locals use) and sometimes offer very less service for money.
But all of it dissolves as you start moving out of town and towards the limestones mogotes. They spot the karst landscape majestically. There are caves and murals to check at your own pace if you rent bikes and ride, high fiving an odd bullock cart or two on your way, but not a good idea if your stomach is on a non-compliant mode and you have a taxi to catch later during the day – as yours truly came to realize tragically late. But as I was in the company of a stud of a travel companion (C., I hope you are reading this), I was packed into a passing vehicle along with my bike and thankfully made it to the taxi back to Havana on time.
Friend in need is a friend indeed, huh?
Though Cuba is charming in an old fashioned, colonial way, one can come out of it feeling empty and light like a sheep coming out of a shearing shed, if not careful. The tourist money gets returned in changes as local currency if you stand distracted at the sombreros , tourists are overcharged but food and drinks are cheap and plenty. To these add music, happy-go-lucky people sitting on the malecon and the abundant rum, and there you have it! A fine glass of Cuban Libre.