Cuba: Walking the path between myth and reality

In Published work, Travel

Walking the streets of Trinidad, Cuba © Lachlan R. Dale

Part 1: First impressions and façade

As I stepped off the plane at José Martí Airport, haggard and sleep-deprived, I was embraced by a gust of hot, wet Caribbean air. It had taken three days but I had finally arrived in Havana, Cuba. The intense humidity helped me stir some semblance of consciousness as I wandered into the terminal.

I had only taken a few steps inside before I was stopped by a short, dark military man, rifle in arms. Glaring, he accosted me in a rapid-fire Spanish I had no hope of understanding. After making some pathetic hand signals and murmuring I did not comprehend he intensified his glare, demanding, “You. Cuba. Why?”

I tried to explain I was on a holiday. He wanted to know where I worked, where I’d come from and where I was going. When I mentioned I would eventually travel on to Guatemala he seemed suspicious; why did I want to go there?

“Temples. Jungle. Tourist,” I lamely explained.

He studied my face and passport once more before allowing me to move on.

The experience shook me up slightly. It certainly crystallised the fact that if any Cuban official decided they didn’t want me in their country – let alone if they suspected me of any ill will or wrongdoing – I was at their mercy.

It was a subtle glimpse into the dark side of Cuba.

I waited nervously at customs. My line was progressing at a painful pace. I looked around to see other lines racing through, then ahead to see our customs agent confronting travellers with intense questioning and narrowed eyes. After a deep breath I risked calling further attention to myself and switched lines. When my turn came the agent smiled at me, stamped my passport and let me go on without a word.

And so I was granted access to Cuba, a country of countless contradictions and tensions. I’d heard much in the way of utopianism from Westerners and intended to weigh the myth against the reality.

This is my attempt to make sense of the colour and the chaos.

* * * * *

During my first few days in Havana I was intoxicated by the beauty of the Old City. The streets were lined with colonial buildings, kaleidoscopic in their colourful, fading paintwork. The road was a rough cobblestone on which American automotive relics would occasionally putter by in various states of decay. The sun was relentless in the middle of the day, providing the perfect excuse to hide out from the heat with a mojito in hand. When the sun fell, the temperature dropped mercifully and music began to drift out of streets, restaurants and bars to fill the sticky night air.

The rumours of Old Havana’s romantic visage were not without truth. At times the scenery was too much to take in; my mind reeled as if it could not absorb all it saw. The city has benefited much from UNESCO’s restoration funding. At the time of my visit, restoration seemed to have touched most of Habana Vieja, but there were obvious exceptions. The contrast between the dirty ruins and the freshly restored was stark, inspiring me to daydream about what state the city was in ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Some of the severe urban decay was as enchanting as the restoration; those ruinous buildings brought the city’s difficult past to the forefront.

I spent countless hours wandering through the streets, marvelling at the city as the light changed throughout the day. I was hopelessly seduced by its façade and helpless in my compulsion to take photo upon photo. As I walked I tried to shake the lingering sense of disbelief that I’d really made it inside Cuba.

Walking the streets of Havana © Lachlan R. Dale
Walking the streets of Havana © Lachlan R. Dale

On the street, hustlers were common. Almost every Cuban I walked by in the old town would offer up their services as a taxi before uttering the inevitable, single-word question, “Cigar?” with consistent upward inflection. They were mildly annoying but not overly forceful. I was also approached by a number of jinteros (scammers). Each would proclaim our luck at it being some special festival day, and imparting free advice…

Cuba, my friend, is the safest country in the world. Did you know that? Habana’s population? Two million – and one million are police! You are safe here. And you are lucky! Today is in fact the anniversary of the Buena Vista Social Club – that’s right! There is a festival, a celebration. Dancing, rum…

And on and on until I would show my obvious distrust or disinterest, and then they would politely slip away. The approach was usually the same:

“Hola! What country are you from? Australia! Wow! (Insert an anecdote about a family member living in Australia, or an Australian living in Cuba). Let me give you some advice…”

Most seemed to want to sell cigars, or to “recommend” a music venue or bar to score a little kickback. They were harmless enough.

On my fourth day I recall sitting in a small cocktail bar along the Malecón at the northern end of the Old City. A group of aged musicians performed soulful Cuban standards in the corner. They impressed me. Being a fairly ruthless critic I thought it only fair to give them a $5 CUC tip (about 5 USD) when they passed their hat around. The weathered, old guitarist held up the note for his comrades to see, a huge grin on his face. They all cheered. I wondered how such a small sum could mean so much to these people.

Through conversations with locals (tour guides and drivers mostly) I slowly began to assemble a rough image of daily life for Havanans. Most worked ten to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. The average wage seemed to be about $7 AUD a week. While citizens are granted food stamps and rations by the government, these supplies don’t grant much to the imagination. I found it no surprise that there is a huge black market in Havana; survival without it is either impossible or highly uncomfortable. The trade covered everything from technology, to fresh food, to building supplies.

The image that stays with me is of the bare, dust-covered shelves that occupied every supermarket I ventured into – and of conspicuous underground figures laughing and shaking hands on street corners, their excessive gold glinting in the sun. The scarcity and suffering wrought by the decades of America’s trade embargo and the Cuban political system was clear.

I reflected on the image I had been sold of Cuba in postcards and in literature: it was of a country free of cares, its citizens’ lives liberally softened by delicious local rum. The reality clashed harshly. At $9 AUD, an entry-level bottle of (delicious) Havana Club or Santiago rum was outside of the grasp of most.

I spent a day in the nearby coastal town of Varadero lazing about the white sand and crystal-blue waters of the Caribbean. At the bus stop, a local convinced me to let him drive me in his old hot rod. On the road, we got to talking. I asked him how often he enjoyed a glass of rum. He laughed a little sadly, and signalled “a little” – money was scarce, he explained, and he was far more inclined to save that money for his family.

Curious, I inquired what he did when he was not working. He explained that on the very rare occasion that he did not work, he would do chores around the house. He showed me where he lived; a sort of bland, Communist-style apartment block built purely for functionality on the edge of town; a dilapidated and overgrown concrete monstrosity. I told him it was lovely.

As the days moved on I was overcome with a sense of unease. Havana’s carefully orchestrated stage-show was evaporating before my eyes. No better is this symbolised than in the city’s restored buildings; while from the outside they look transcendent and commanding, when you are able to steal a glimpse through their towering wooden doors, a dimly-lit world is revealed, its dilapidated staircases and walls encrusted with grime.

The surging demand to live in Havana has led to severe overcrowding. Each apartment-style dwelling holds three, four or more families, which means as many as fifteen people might live in a single apartment, some resorting to renovating the bathroom into a makeshift bedroom.

Life for inner city Cubans is hot, cramped and lined with decay. Each month they are given tokens for rations of rice, beans and meat – barely enough to survive, and certainly not enough to avoid slipping into a state of boredom and culinary despair. Doctors earn a mere 50 USD a month, and many end up driving taxis to make ends meet. The concept of disposable income is inconceivable to most, and while basic schooling and health care is free, medication is supremely rare.

The city was beginning to show its true face.

Part 2: Piecing together the real Havana

In spite of my sceptical nature I was sucked into the tourist facade of Cuba during the first few days of my stay; but as time wore on a feeling of unease settled over me.

What I was seeing was incredible, but something lurked beneath the surface that didn’t seem quite right. I was plagued by a suspicion that many locals wished I hadn’t come to their country. It was easy to pick up on their lack of enthusiasm; perhaps a third of those serving me in the heart of tourism-focused Havana Vieja seemed displeased. They expressed this by refusing me smiles and eye contact, and by making heroic efforts to look bored or absently away whenever I wanted something.

These awkward interactions didn’t align with the rumoured warmth of the Cuban people. I certainly don’t blame them; their attitude is completely understandable. In a country where they have so little, they are exposed to a stream of tourists spending inordinate amounts of money, draining their nation’s already scarce resources, and generally occupying the most beautiful part of their capital. In their faces we flaunt the very things they lack and must surely yearn for: spare time, expendable income, and personal freedom.

That feeling softened when I ventured outside Havana to spend a little time in the beautiful bayside town of Cienfuegos, and amongst the Spanish-colonial splendour of Trinidad. In both towns life seemed lighter, and the dirt and scarcity that so plagued Havana less pronounced.

Walking the streets of Trinidad, Cuba © Lachlan R. Dale
Walking the streets of Trinidad, Cuba © Lachlan R. Dale

Trinidad had a magical charm of its own. Amongst its cobblestone streets and rough-rendered houses I found myself overwhelmed with nostalgia for a past I had only experienced in movies.  The whole town sloped downward towards the sea and baked in the afternoon sun. While classic cars still made up most of the sparse street traffic, it was not uncommon to see a horse slowly wandering by, cart filled with fresh local produce, a dust-covered farmer at the helm. In the mornings, cries of “El Pan!” rang through the streets as men rose early to provide fresh bread to waking families.

I feel oddly sentimental about my banking experiences in Trinidad; it was then that I felt truly in a time warp.

When you approach a Cuban bank the whole business seems very serious. An armed guard watches the door and carefully controls the flow of traffic inside. The rooms are sparse; on the walls might hang a picture of Castro, or support a low, buzzing fan. The paint is peeling, and on three sides you are surrounded by a large, wooden desk. Each small compartment conceals a bored looking teller lazily fanning themselves, cartoonish piles of money at their side. Since computers are in short supply across Cuba, all transactions are recorded by hand. This gives you the strange notion of the teller as an all powerful figure; albeit a fickle and disinterested one. These were tense and fascinating times; faint echoes of the pre-digital era that seem so far away to us now in Australia.

Trinidad also possessed a vibrant musical culture. Like Havana, most restaurants featured live music every night of the week – but rather than simply stumbling through Cuban standards for tourists, these bands seemed more likely to engage in experimentation and fusion. They seemed younger, more passionate. I can recall one group breaking into a heavily afro-Cuban influenced cover of Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon. It was excellent.

I wish I had more time to spend in Trinidad. It was a lovely, if sometimes sleepy town.

When I returned to Havana so did my sense of unease, and it stayed with me long after I’d left for Guatemala. When I walked through the memories of my visit I was surprised to find them stained with bitterness and disappointment. From the classic colonial architecture, to the Caribbean beaches of white sand and warm, crystal water, Cuba was impossibly beautiful; so what was it that tainted my recollection?

It took me a long time to work through my thoughts; it was no easy thing to reconcile my disjointed and often surreal experiences with what I’d learnt about the country’s history and politics. Bewildering and contradictory feelings are common amongst those who’ve travelled to the Caribbean island; it seems to throw up countless projections which mirror, distort and dance with your perceptions, and mock your expectations.

At times the country felt inauthentic; it seemed to serve up a tourist facade that, while satisfying on some shallow level, lacked depth. Compared to my experiences in Guatemala – which were a visceral and intense mix of globalised influences and indigenous Mayan culture – Cuba seemed to fall flat. Hustlers characterised my experience, coupled with people who seemed bland and downtrodden. Perhaps this is the effect of being under the thumb of a regime that has so brutally restricted free speech and expression; for if it is the expression of personal, cultural, and intellectual identity that represents the vibrancy of an individual, then this could explain why many in Havana seemed so hollowed out.

Perhaps this reveals only the shortcomings of my expectations and the failings of my perceptions; it would be ignorant to believe you can know a country from a few weeks in its capital and a fumbling grasp of the local language. I freely admit my experiences are fragmentary and my knowledge extremely limited. There is the looming chance I am projecting my own fears onto my confused, inadequate recollection; for the notion of being unable to speak or think freely about politics, philosophy or religion seems to me unbearable.

Regardless, it was extremely instructive to walk the path between the Cuban myth and its reality. Feeling the effect of intense political censorship first hand was a mystifying experience; its effect on society was palpable – and very different to the crushing poverty and historical trauma I’d witnessed in Cambodia. There were dozens more towns and regions to explore, and perhaps out there some illusory Cuban dream can still be found. All I can say is that, for myself, the intensity of Havana overwhelmed my brief detours into the countryside.

In their idealisation of Cuba, many people seem to forget the country is controlled by a totalitarian communist regime. Its influence can be detected in every aspect of Cuban society, from its justice system to its tourism industry and media. The government has much to benefit from maintaining a tourist-friendly national myth; they also have the power to ensure all citizens play their part. A friend remarked to me that it often felt like people in Havana were reading from a script, and I can attest to the same sensation.

Do not let this sketch dissuade you from going, but do not be so foolish as to believe Cuba a magic, carefree utopia. In many ways it is opposite, but the mysterious, enchanting nature of the country will have your thoughts circling for months after. Trying to perceive the essence of Cuba is like grasping at smoke.

It truly did feel like another world.

This piece was originally published at The Big Smoke: Part 1 and Part 2.

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