We were curious about Cuba. Recent shifts in Cuban – USA relations and the easing of travel and business restrictions for Cuban citizens seem to suggest that change is in the air, and if we didn’t go now it could be a very different place in a few years. We weren’t sure what to expect – apart from 1950’s cars … relics of the American influence that ended with the revolution and rise of Castro’s communist regime and subsequent American embargo.
Airport delays meant that it was dusk by the time we re-assembled the bikes and got on the road. There was a sense of unreality riding into the city, the 1950’s ‘Yank Tanks’, belching foul black clouds as they lumbered past; socialist slogans and images of revolutionary poster boy Che Guevara plastered on buildings and fences; and then the sensory smack in the face that is Havana Centro. Arriving in the dark, it seemed that we had blundered into a post Apocalyptic streetscape of puddled, potholed roads, rough uneven pavement, broken concrete, and gaping holes. People sat in doorways and out on balconies, kids played in the street, music echoed from windows, bells dinged as ‘bici-taxis’ rolled past. Battered doors revealed crumbling stairways, an empty facade, or opened straight into rooms where people sat or lay on sofas watching the street. The street hummed with life – it seemed that Cuba was going to be a little different …
Deciding to make use of Cuba’s network of ‘Casa Particulars’, a strictly policed system that permits Cubans to let rooms to visiting foreigners, we left our bike trailers and most of our gear back in Mexico City. For the first couple of days we explored Havana, trying to get our heads around the dual currency system. Tourists are expected to use the ‘Cuban convertible’ (CUC), which is pegged 1:1 to the US$. The local Cuban peso is worth 25:1 CUC. Buying a shot of Cuban coffee in the tourist-infested Old Town costs 1CUC – buy one from a little street eatery in the residential Centro area and it’s 1 peso. Cuba is theoretically in the process of integrating the two currencies into a single national unit. But it’s hard to see how this will work with such a dramatic difference in currency value. Access to CUCs (by providing tourist services such as food, accommodation, tours) is quickly creating a wealth divide in Cuba, where international travel and ‘luxury’ goods have only recently been permitted (2008: mobile phone & some electronic goods; 2012: international travel).
For most tourists the everyday shortages that are part of Cuban life have little impact – remember to pack the necessities and that’s about it. Walk in to an optimistically titled ‘Supermercado’ though, and the empty shelves are a rude awakening. Alcohol (rum) and soft drink (a rare example of choice – four flavours available!), but often not much else. Items are generally stashed out of reach behind the counter, or secured in cabinets. It’s a far cry from the consumer paradise of the west – reinforced by shop windows displaying such giddy delights as a group of cleaning products, or a collection of plumbing accessories.
Early on I joined a queue outside a cake shop, quite taken by the young man in a dark suit and ‘aviator’ sunglasses ‘guarding’ the door. Then I realised that getting in the door meant joining a second and even more lengthly queue to actually be served. Given the glacial pace of Cuba’s ‘take or leave it’ attitude to customer service I decided that even cake wasn’t worth the effort. It does make you realise that in order to serve you breakfast, your Casa host has probably spent several hours beforehand just sourcing the ingredients.
Looking at it differently, it’s interesting (and confronting) to note that a 2006 World Wildlife Fund for Nature report found that Cuba was the only country in the world with sustainable development – based on an index that included both human welfare (where Cuba excels in areas of life expectancy & literacy compared to Africa and Asia), and ecological footprint (where low consumption Cuba knocks the socks off the consumerism crazy West). What we noticed was the lack of disposable products – buy pizza at a street stall and it arrives on a piece of paper, BYO container if you want to takeaway. That includes plastic bags – if you don’t bring one you’ll be carrying your fruit, sweets, biscuits, bread etc home in your hands. Juices were served in cut down beer stubbies, coffee in tiny cups – there is no such thing as a throwaway cup. As a consequence there is far less litter here than for example, Mexico – where riding through some areas is akin to wading through a rubbish dump.
Indeed, Cuba has something of a 1950’s time warp feel – not just because of the old cars, but also the attitude of making-do, where availability and product choice is limited and everything is re-used, repaired or refurbished, as opposed to todays abundance and throw-away culture.
We loved Havana, but it was nice to jump on the bikes and escape on to blissfully car-free rural roads. Traffic mostly consists of horse and cart, oxen, bicycles and a variety of livestock – providing endless entertainment and some of the most stress-free and enjoyable cycling of recent months.
With a pretty lean timeframe we opted to head west, deciding to concentrate on just one region. And yes – our focus was more on mojitos than miles, and the rocking chair on the verandah thing did take up a day or two. The loop we came up explored the north coast to the beautiful Cayo Jutias, and the limestone cliffs, tobacco plantations and rural villages of the Vinales valley, before heading back past Havana to the beach at Guanabo.
We were enjoying some verandah time at our Casa on the outskirts of Vinales when a visitor rolled up in an immaculate 1955 Chevrolet Bel Aire. Our host family were looking to buy a car, a privilege only open to Cubans since 2011, and the seller assured us that his vehicle was all original and a good buy for the equivalent of US$12,000. Car ownership sits at around 38:1000 in Cuba, as compared to over 800:1000 for the USA – no wonder the roads are ‘muy tranquilo’.
We enjoyed the opportunity to meet some Cuban families and practice our faltering Spanish while staying at Casas. There was a huge contrast between the loud and proud younger city folk, often working in tourist focused businesses, and the quiet rural farming communities. Apart from Casa stays (must be paid for in CUCs) we used mostly local pesos, eating in local cafeterias and street stalls.
Coming from Mexico where an enquiry about camping often results in you setting up in someone’s back yard and having dinner with the family, the mercenary attitude of many Cubans comes as a bit of a shock. It’s not unusual to receive unsolicited directions from ‘helpful’ locals, only to find that there is a price attached. Or to find that the price in pesos has helpfully been converted to CUCs, and simultaneously trebled. But then it’s difficult to imagine what life must have been like here following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With the loss of Soviet support Cuba’s economy fell apart and the ‘Special Period’ of brutal austerity must have left indelible memories for those who lived through it.
It’s impossible to get more than a fleeting impression of a country on a two week visit, especially when you don’t speak the language. For us, Cuba was frenetic and fascinating, intoxicating and irritating all at once. The seductive Caribbean vibe, the undercurrents of Africa, glimpses of Americana, an elegant colonial framework,… with a Soviet aftertaste. It all added up to a unique experience. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this small nation that definitely punches way beyond its size…
Until next time …
Rubber side down,
Ed & Gaye