Lonely Planet describes Cubans as having the family values of South America with the loquaciousness of the Irish. It describes the country as having an interesting mixture: the educational virtues of the US, the tropical pace of Jamaica, the musicality of Africa, with a pinch of Soviet era austerity and WW1 rationing. That’s quite a combination and not a bad summary. I’d also mention the people’s enormous capacity to enjoy themselves, despite the hardships they face.
The April 2016 Cuban trip was blessed to have a great local team to look after us. Julio was our steadfast, calm and gracious, Spanish speaking driver, and Rigo our wonderful, knowledgeable and generous guide. Rigo gave us the background through which to understand the complex history, culture and current day issues, as Cuba emerges into a new era. He also demonstrated the qualities of Cuban people at their best, and we became very fond of him.
Cuba’s infrastructure for the increasing numbers of visitors is still developing. The casa particulares, which are rooms made available in family homes, are a wonderful way to have a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people. The hosts appeared to have a completely open sense of boundaries; we walked through the middle of lounges and kitchens, through conversations with extended family and friends. No Spanish? No problem, charades produced some delightful exchanges. And when English was spoken, there were fascinating conversations. This was especially so with the younger generation, who are looking for new opportunities in life, including aspirations for moving overseas. These casa owners will become a new middle class in Cuba, as working in the tourist industry pays much more than the basic wage most workers make, including professionals.
Some of the best meals we ate were cooked by the casa owners. However, the selection of private restaurants, paladares, provided us with a good choice of meat, chicken and seafood, if a little sparse on vegetables. We enjoyed a couple of rooftop restaurants with spectacular sunset views over the surrounding area. A bonus is that every eating place or bar has at least one group of musicians performing for the guests’ pleasure, with a wide variety of music. Members of our group were amazed by the talent; some of the musicians having completed music courses at university. Of course they don’t get paid by the venue, but rely on tips or selling CD’s for their income.
Music and dancing springs up everywhere, so the parks and squares often feature drumming, improvised instruments and singing. We were treated to some exotic rumba by a large group outside our hotel in Santiago de Cuba. This area has a large population of African Cubans and the music had a real mixture of influences. Our hotel was located on Calle Heredia, a street of music halls and bars. Some of us took in some live music there, and even got to practice our new salsa skills with the locals. Fantastic!
You can’t visit Cuba without being intensely aware of its history, most particularly the Revolution. Most of the squares have statues of revolutionary figures and there are numerous museums on aspects of the struggle for independence. Some notable ones are Che Guevara’s monument, The Bay of Pigs at Giron and the relics from the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are political slogans everywhere, reminding people of the purpose and values of the revolution. This is especially so in the eastern end of the island, as this is where some significant events happened, including Fidel Castro’s victory speech in 1959. May 1 was May Day and there were parades and celebrations in every city. Some of our group got up early to see the beginning of the march in Santiago de Cuba. Unfortunately most of us were flying out when the music and dancing was to start in the cooler time of the late afternoon.
There were some hiccups along the way: problems with water supply in the casas, last minute changes in bookings. My thanks to Diane for her smooth dealing with all the little issues on a daily basis, which make this holiday in such a unique place, a truly remarkable experience.