They say that travelling broadens the mind. I would say this is true, unless those precious two weeks are spent entirely on a beach or by the pool. The latter is the way I used to enjoy my holidays, with maybe the odd excursion thrown in for good measure. And there is nothing wrong with that, if you are in need of a relaxing break. But recently, I have wanted to be more adventurous and explore places that have a lot of history and culture (it must be my age; maybe I am finally growing up!), so I decided to book myself a tour to Cuba called The Revolutionary Road. I first thought of visiting Cuba with my brother and sister in law, who go twice a year, every year. Then I thought about it and realized that I couldn’t travel all that way and stay in the same resort for two weeks, without at least visiting Havana. After making some enquiries, I found Voyages Jules Verne, who are very reputable and also have a reasonable single supplement (non -flying partner, remember?)
A year later, I was on the Virgin flight to Havana, to meet the group I would be travelling with and our lovely guide Erik. As I was the last to retrieve my suitcase from the carousel, I was last out of the arrivals hall and extremely flummoxed! But I didn’t needn’t have worried because I was met by Erik and the Kuoni rep, who were all smiles and very welcoming. I had always wanted to visit Havana; it has a kind of romantic appeal, being so different to anywhere else I have experienced. Of course, the vintage cars and colonial buildings are the typical images you expect and I was not disappointed. I would have liked to have experienced the nightlife but we were not there long enough for that. A trip for another time, maybe.
After Havana, we were on the road. And what a lot of road we traversed! And not the quality we are used to at home. I worked out, by the end of the tour that we had been on the bus for over 48 hours over the 2 weeks. So, you can imagine, we saw the “real” Cuba from our comfortable seats and it was a true revelation. I knew that Cuba was a relatively poor country, torn by 3 revolutions and now free from its Spanish colonial rule, it has been under communist rule for over 55 years. Although preferable to Batista’s corrupt regime, the communist alternative is not without it’s problems. I was amazed to find out that there is still a ration system in operation; we saw evidence of this when we visited Baracoa, on the Far East coast and only accessible by a 55km road transversing the mountains, called La Farola. In fact, very few Cubans have ever visited Baracoa because they wouldn’t be able to afford the fare and only 10% own a car.
That brings me on to another subject. Transport. As most buses and some taxis are state owned, they are not allowed to travel empty. Oh no; there is a “yellow man/woman” positioned on all main road junctions and motorways to enforce the law! Travellers that want to get to the next town are found at the side of the road with a fist full of CUCs (convertable Cuban Pesos), waiting to be “lifted”, as Erik, our delightful tour guide described the practice. In the towns and out in the country, folk get about by pony and trap or bicycles. I thought it quaint but knew that I wouldn’t really like to live like that.
Another thing I noticed on our travels through the countryside and small towns was that there seemed to be a lot of people sitting on porches or lingering on the roadside, chatting to fellow malingerers, which made me wonder what these people did for a living. Erik told us later in the tour that there was high unemployment but that the Government tried to cover up the figures. This was on account of, it later transpired, that as the wages were so low (about 40CUCs a month for state workers and 20 CUCS for private workers) that it didn’t pay them to work because families that had migrated to the US sent money back which far outstripped what they could earn! It was a crazy system, in my opinion and we were informed that there are only 11.2 million Cubans left in the country, as the rest have left for a better lifestyle and you can’t blame them really.
As we passed miles and miles of sugar cane fields and banana plantations, Erik informed us that over 100 sugar mills have been sold, lock stock and barrel, literally. The parts of machinery have been sold to other countries, this is a big mistake according to Erik because there are many parts of the sugar cane that can be used, apart from the sugar itself. The most popular by product of the cane, is of course Rum, or vitamin R, as we came to know it!
Another common sight as we passed through the country and mountain vistas were the amount of cattle meandering around aimlessly. We first witnessed it on the motorway; cows tethered to the side of the road and goats, horses and sheep. I wondered who they belonged to and why they grazed the beasts at the side of the road. I was amazed there wasn’t any road kill but as one of my fellow travellers pointed out; maybe it was picked up straight away and made into a tasty meal before the rigour had set in! Some gardens had a horse on the front lawn, casually grazing and even when we passed a block of flats in a larger town, I saw goats and horses hanging about and yet again I wondered why?
State owned houses were free of rent and some people did own their houses now, since October 2011 . The state owned ones could only be described as huts and not big enough to swing a cat in by the looks of them. Some were nicely painted outside in pastel colours and some were ramshackle, shanty town affairs. I noticed as we went through certain towns that the attractive looking ones were Casa Particulares, which are normal homes that tourists can rent a room for, instead of a hotel or hostel. Meals are included and I would like to stay in one, next time I visit Cuba because I feel it would give a really good insight into how Cubans really live.
Every neighbourhood in Cuba has it’s own CDR, or Committee for the defence of the Revolution. Erik explained this to us in great detail and his own CDR representative with much humour, even though the Cubans take their security very seriously, the committee was set up to flush out any imposters when it was set up after the Revolution in 1959. Nowadays though, it sounds as though it is no more than a neighbourhood watch, lead by elderly busybodies that want to know the ins and outs of everybody under their jurisdiction. I would find it very irritating if I were questioned about my every move, but Erik made his CDR representative sound quite comical and just another quaint part of this charming, quirky country.
I think that the experience I will always remember from this trip was the night in Baracoa when we visited the Salsa bar, or it’s correct name: Casa de la Trova, where pure Son (pre-Salsa music) is played by a live, if not ancient, band in an atmospheric and small room. A lady introduces each song in Spanish and when the band start to play, she invites the seated audience to dance. It was a strange set up; on arrival, our drinks orders were taken – rum or beer, by a man who appeared to come straight out of an old gangster movie and led us to a seat where we waited until asked to dance on the tiny dance floor! I was eager to try but also conscious of the fact that I wasn’t sure of the moves and had to improvise. It wasn’t long before I was chosen out of the crowd by a somewhat smelly young man, but what he lacked in personal hygiene, he made up for in his dancing talents. I really got into the swing of it and so did the others and now I think that if I ever went to a Salsa/Son venue again, it would never live up to the spit and sawdust atmosphere of that place; there was something magical about it, probably because it was the “real thing.”
As memorable experiences go, trekking 6km there and back to Fidel Castro’s HQ deep in the Sierra Maestra mountains, was pretty high up on the list. It was graded by VJV to be a 3 (highest being a 5) so I took my hiking boots, as they hadn’t had much use of late, and boy was I glad I did! Being the youngest of the group (average age 67), I was embarrassed to find that there were those much older than me (one was 81), who galloped ahead and climbed the rocky terrains with the aptitude of a mountain goat. While I trailed behind, puffing and panting and wishing I had got rid of this excess weight and sweating profusely. We were driven to an altitude of 950 metres by the trusty 4×4’s, that took over from our coach that we had to leave behind due to the steep roads, so the hard work had already been done.
But the Comandancia de la Plata (Fidels hideaway) was set deep in the mountains, so that it couldn’t be discovered during the Revolution in 1958-9. I have to hand it to him, he must have been made of sturdy stuff to hide out in those conditions for 18 months; I was really impressed. The scenery was stunning but I didn’t have much time to enjoy it on account of I had to concentrate on my footing. Geoff paid the price for not concentrating, by nearly careering off the side of the mountain, only to be saved by some conveniently placed bushes! I nearly wet myself laughing. Geoff was the clown of the trip, needless to say. We stayed in the area for a couple of days in what Erik described as “very basic” accommodation. And it was, I suppose, but it added to the magic of being in the middle of nowhere. The food was nice and the location; the only complaint I had was being woken up at 4 in the morning by cockerels both mornings!
The hotels we stayed in, and there were 10 of them in 14 days, varied in size and quality but most of us agreed that the smaller, more intimate ones in say, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus, Bayamo, Baracoa and Camaguey were our favourites. The big, modern ones, while very comfortable, lacked the atmosphere and quaintness of the smaller ones. This surprised Erik, who had his own grading system on 1-10 basis and his grading never matched ours, which was interesting. So, to sum up; a great time was had by all, we all “gelled” and looked out for each other and I, for one, learned a lot about a country that is so different from the one I live in and I will be forever enlightened.