In April 2016 Travel Enriched conducted its inaugural trip to Cuba. Over a period of 15 days we immersed ourselves in the history, culture and modern day life of this fascinating country. Following are a few of the highlights of the first few days of our journey, as seen through the eyes of one participant. These thoughts, with accompanying photos, aim to provide some insights about our experience.
In La Habana our tour group was introduced to some of the Government run social service programs funded by the State, sometimes with financial assistance from sympathetic foreign donors. Over the three-hour session our local guide brought us up to speed with a wide range of Cuba’s social programs – food cooperatives, food coupons for all, free education, free health care just to name a few. As part of this tour we visited a day centre for the elderly. There we met Louisa, an 87-year-old ‘gun domino player’. Louisa and her companions were charming. One of our number quickly became her domino partner. But he found that the residents were far too fast and agile for him!
Small private businesses are thriving throughout Cuba – like restaurants, souvenir stalls, tour companies and taxi drivers. Michael owns his 1951 lime green Chevrolet. It used to belong to his father and grandfather before him. Mike was very proud to tell us that his Chevy still has the original engine, a straight six cylinder. He insisted we take a photo of it as he lifted the bonnet. The chrome carburetor was the feature that probably accounted for the 1 litre of gasoline for every 4km travelled. There are many more 1950 style American cars here than we imagined. They’re used almost exclusively by touristas like us. A cruise along the famous La Habana waterfront called the Malecón and through the city in the convertible with white seats and a hot exhaust is something we can now cross off the bucket list!
Two years ago it was extremely difficult to connect to the internet. Tourists could sometimes find a limited wifi connection in the more expensive hotels. But by 2016 public access to the internet can be found in many city and town plazas after purchasing an internet card (for around 2 CUC or AUD$2.75) from the State owned telecom company. In contrast, in 2016 it is now common to see locals, especially young people, filling the plazas both day and night, emailing friends and surfing the net. Interestingly, the Government has made a deliberate decision to provide internet access in communal areas rather than to individual homes. After some investigation one enterprising member of our group located a rooftop bar at the Earnest Hemmingway Hotel where one can ‘connect’ for around AUD$4.50. How fortuitous for us!
After leaving La Habana we travelled westward in our comfortable, air conditioned, Chinese made bus. The freeway on which we travelled (part of which was a former airport runway) was built by the Soviet Union in 1982. We cruised at 100kms/hr until forced to slow down due to a slow moving vehicle or horse and cart. We passed oceans of sugarcane fields before heading towards the mountains and the small rural town of Viñales. This outback town is famous for tobacco growing but also grows many other crops such as mangoes, avocadoes, bananas, arrowroot and coffee.
In the late afternoon we walked through an expansive, fertile valley surrounded by stately, sheer limestone cliffs. With the help of local guide, we learnt how tobacco is grown, harvested and dried. In a large thatched-roof barn filled with varying stages of dried tobacco we meet Omar, a handsome young tobacco grower. He wears a big black cowboy hat and workman’s clothes with a big, crocodile Dundee type knife on his belt. He smokes one of his hand rolled cigars while he demonstrates and explains the art of cigar making. The camera’s whirr!
It’s just after dawn in Viñales in north-west Cuba and I’m sitting in a rocking chair on the front verandah sipping exceptionally flavorsome coffee. Carmelo, our ‘home stay casa’ host, roasts his own beans that are grown locally. The dirt street provides a thoroughfare for all sorts of vehicles including horse and dray and oxen and cart. It’s also a playground for children for ball games, bike riding and all sorts of unsupervised games until nightfall.
Carmelo is 50 something and his wife Olga is a lovely woman who clearly makes the rules. We choose to eat here rather than at a local restaurant because Olga is such a great cook. For our evening meal which costs AUD$10, I have a whole lobster and my partner has the tastiest roast pork that she can remember. Our bedroom is air-conditioned, with an ensuite, like many other homestays in this town of 10,000 people. This type of accommodation is widespread throughout Cuba and provides a fantastic opportunity for visitors to learn about Cuban culture, daily life and the importance of family and neighbours.
The people in Viñales are strong, happy, healthy, open and warm. Their houses are close together. There are no fences or hedges and you can step from one verandah to the next. Everyone knows each other. There seems to be mutual support for everyone. People greet each other enthusiastically with a smile and with warmth. We Australians could learn a lot from these people as we segue our way into increasingly isolated lifestyles and big boxey houses that severely limit neighbourhood togetherness. Last evening after dinner we heard guitars playing at the front gate. We joined the extended family and neighbours to enjoy the up beat music. My partner and I put on an impromptu dance display in bare feet on the cool tiles. Our performance was lauded by the crowd. In Cuba – music and dance is everywhere!
Based on the experiences shared with the editor by Phil Williams, N.S.W.
And for a change of scenery – here are a few photos at the beautiful Cayo Levisa …
And if you missed it – see our Facebook page for a little video of a salsa lesson at Cayo Levisa!