Cuba, Cocktails and Community…
I have recently returned brown, bruised and bitten from an amazing two week visit to Cuba with my boyfriend and some friends. In a nutshell, it was fascinating, charming, different, baffling, inspiring and thought provoking… not so easy to sum up in one word!
After a day’s travel across the North Atlantic – with a short stop in Toronto – jaded but still excited, we arrived in Cuba at the José Martí International Airport. Feeling a little like a rabbit caught in headlights, we ventured towards the town centre taking in our new surroundings, soaking up the afternoon sun and acclimatising ourselves to the smell of diesel and old cigar. It wasn’t long before we were settled in, watching the old 1950’s American cars speeding up the Malecón that stretched along the seawall, amongst colourful slightly dilapidated charming buildings and sipping Mojitos to “Guantanamera”
It was very different from home and very different from anywhere else I had seen – but we quickly fell in love with the place, the people and the cheap cocktails!
During our trip, we travelled around the North area of the island, usually in an old beaten up Chevrolet taxi along pot hole filled roads (looking through split fingers for most the journey). We visited several towns staying in casa paticulares (private homestays), where we were submerged into local Cuban family life. Our day would start with the sounds of cock-a-doodle-doos, clip-clopping of horse and carriage, tooting of old car horns and nattering neighbours.
Our casa hosts went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and to ensure we enjoyed our stay (this was often with big smiles and lots of pointing, due to our shamefully limited/non-existent Spanish). After a long, hot journey (and sometimes squished as we’d picked up a relative or two of the driver) we enjoyed the much-needed refreshing guava smoothie on arrival. After a night of awakening to the slightest itch (at the fear of been bitten by a mosquito) we welcomed the custom freshly brewed coffee and breakfast spread of fresh papaya, mango and banana followed by an omelette. This set us up for the days’ activities including a bumpy horse ride to a cigar making farm, swimming and catching a glimpse of a hummingbird at a waterfall and dancing the night away at a Cave Rave (yes, a real cave!) to name a few.
All the places we visited were very different, ranging from the city buzz of Havana, a more rural and relaxed way of life in Viñales, charming cobbled streets of Trinidad, a paradise beach in Varedero and the tranquillity in a national park watching shy flamingos huddle and bathe in the water.
Although all the places were different in style and pace, we found that they all shared an overwhelming sense of community feeling and we witnessed acts of kindness throughout our trip. On our third day we had been in a taxi half an hour leaving Havana when the taxi driver received a call from our Casa that we had just left to say that one of us in the group had left a large amount of money in their room (which may or may not have been me) – straight away the taxi driver spun around so that we could head back and collect it.
On our way back from the beach, going along some windy roads in the middle of nowhere, we came across a car full of passengers that had broken down. Our driver (who seemed to know every other person in town, waving at them as we drove past), checked with us if it was ok to pull over and help the fellow taxi driver before putting his head under the bonnet and helping them get back on the road.
Each time we moved to a new place our current Casa host would ring their friends to find us our next place to stay, trying to accommodate for a group of 6 – on a couple of occasions this was at a last-minute request. Walking through the streets we were often approached by friendly curious locals; a tour guide on his day off gave us a free 5-minute history lesson and a security guard sat chatting with us one evening relishing the chance to practice his English – he joked about a local stray dog that had befriended us that he called ‘Tourist’ as all he did was “eat, drink and sleep”! In the early evenings, we would often see kids of all ages playing together and neighbours sitting in doorways chatting. Several times whilst sitting in a bar listening to live Cuban music, I was pulled up by a local and spun around the dancefloor smiling ear-to-ear!
I’ll certainly take away from this trip that despite the apparent lack of material wealth of most of the people we encountered, not to mention Cuba’s political upheavals over the last 50 years, you couldn’t miss their great sense of supporting each other and cheerfulness. Aside from making plans to learn Spanish and Salsa, I hope I have brought back and can spread that warm community feel!