This is what Cuba’s like
Cuba’s like a slap in the face that wakes you up from your Carribean heat induced slumber.
It’s like going back in time, as if post 1960 left Cuba and the fifties get to live on forever, a moving, chaotic time machine caught in a loop like an old record player.
Havana is a chaotic affair of vintage cars, rundown rugged buildings that morph into UNESCO World Heritage sites depending where you look, and a constant moving mass of people who, despite the heat rising up from the concrete and wrapping you snugly in humidity, are always smiling.
The best escape from the heat of the city comes in the evening when everyone heads for a stroll along the malecon. As the sun goes down the level of picturesque goes up.
Lovers silhouettes, men with fishing rods in one hand and a cigarette in the other, tourists with their cameras raised, all looking out towards Miami, watching the sun descend, surrounded by the smell of the sea.
You could get used to evenings like that.
If you combine a lack of internet, one new Lonely Planet and some old rusty Spanish the result is two weeks of travel organised in succession by each casa owner, where your more or less sure your going to make it to the next destination intact.
More or less.
In case your wondering, casa owners in Cuba are awesome. Quirky. Fun. Kind. Proud. You kinda feel like part of a new family each time.
“You stay with my very, very good amigo and my other very, very good amigo pick you up.”
So we were waved goodbye from one paint peeled porch as we roared down the road in our new amigos hot, bouncing collectivo.
We made the 180km trip from Havana to Vinales with wind in our hair, although humidity like that with curls like mine kills the romance of a classic car trip fast.
As we got closer to town, the roars and pops of classic cars merged into the unmistakeable clip clop sound of horses hooves.
The carriages being pulled along were like moving illustrations of the change of pace Vinales is famed for.
We were delivered to our new front door where our host, Alberto, was waiting. Arms, potbelly and near toothless smile, out wide in welcome.
Every morning, roosters announced the suns arrival and breakfast was laid out in splendour on the kitchen table.
Farm to table eggs, freshly squeezed juice, locally made cheese and home made bread, warmed and toasted with melting butter and jam.
We spent our days on horseback in the rolling green valley, seeing where the coffee beans grew and how the cigars were made.
We spent most evenings lazily rocking back and forth on the front porch, while cicadas rang in the sunset.
We attempted to smoke a local cigar, but two puffs in we realised if any Cuban stereotype was for us, it came in the form of a Cadillac. We gave the cigar to Alberto.
His open shirt and bare chest gave the cigar more street cred than we ever could.
Cienfuegos has you feeling like your standing at the entrance to two different time portals. Run down buildings from the 1920s sit next door to faded 50’s hotels. Their side by side existence echo real life museums.
The malecon is a playground of locals swimming, kids fighting over soccer balls, street food vendors working the crowd, and youths knocking back swigs of rum.
To quote a good man, that's all I've got to say about that. Travel sickness, the beast that it is, confined me to our casa for most of our time in Cienfuegos. Ah, travel. You gotta take the good with the bad. With our casa owner bringing me freshly squeezed orange juice on the hour every hour, it really wasn't all that bad.
In Trinidad, we took lessons from an animated Cuban woman whose large breasts were barely contained in a tight bra which she liked to peel out from underneath an equally tight singlet and fling out into her sparse living room where it would land with wild abandon on the floor, or if lucky, on one of the two armchairs. This usually occurred after she had nipped off to the neighbours for a few shots of rum, during which time her barechested son would appear like a Cuban Houdini and take over the lesson with gusto.
It’s funny the things you remember from your travels. These lessons were so entertaining they remain the stand out from our time in Trinidad, even though I know we stumbled across bars, restaurants and went on more than one excursion to the waterfalls and hikes that surround the area.
There’s a lot to keep you occupied in Trinidad. It’s smaller than Havana, bigger than Vinales, a little touristy and a lot of fun, with the most succulent mangos to help temper those times of too much Cuba Libres.
Which is often.
Cubans love to talk. People come up to you in the street and chat, curious, ready to practice English or invite you out for a drink. No harm, all fun. You can ask anything you like. Talking about life in Cuba, one of our guides said with a casual shrug
“Before it was better. Everyone was the same. No one had more than anyone else. Now who knows what will happen.”
Modern life is beginning to reach out and touch Cuba’s edges, but it’s a long distance to cover. Supermarkets are nonexistent. The Cocoa Cola is Cubas own, sweetened with sugarcane. A hostel is mere code for a casa that has more than one room available, but probably not more than three. The recent introduction of cell phones means you'll pass a mobile store as frequently as you see a vintage car pass by, like past and present merging to form a new era. Wifi is hardly worth a bother. Purchasing a prepaid card will see you in the main square with crowds of Cubans and gringos alike, all trying to connect to the outside world that seems to fade further away the longer you stay.
Cuba dances to its own beat. You gotta settle into its rhythm to enjoy the gems on offer. It’s a country that inspires polarising opinions, but if you want my advice (hey, you read this far), go. Find out the answer to one of the questions we’ve been asked the most on this trip.
“Cuba? what’s that like?”.