What do you think of when you think of Cuba? Old cars? Crumbling buildings? Salsa? Rum? Cigars? Well, it’s all of that. And it doesn’t disappoint me.
I get picked up from the airport in a crumbling car who’s doors barely close. The seat squeaks and the springs are begging to be allowed to pop through the thin vinyl. The smell of oil, petrol and general fumes filtrate through the car, with intermittent whiffs of cumin and other random scents (some good, some bad) on the way into Havana. My eyes are bombarded with old classic cars, shanty ghettos, the odd modern car and most interestingly, women in active wear and stilettos.
The homes of the fancier suburb of Vedado where we are staying are glorious mansions of all colours. They, however, haven’t been maintained in years. They are crumbling from four corners. Some homes are no longer habitable. Some have been restored to some extent while others seem to be barely standing. Driving the backstreets, it looks like a movie set that has been deserted and left to die. It looks like I shouldn’t be here - like it’s dangerous and brimming with criminals. But it’s not. I feel safe here, not just because I feel like everyone watches (aka keeps an eye out for) me. But because the people are nice. They go about their normal everyday life - which I still haven’t figured out - without making a spectacle of me, the tourist. I wonder whether they work, or how often they work. I see a lot of relaxing on balconies. One morning I see a lady in an upper-level apartment getting her newspaper delivered via bucket lift system. She lowers a bucket, postman puts letters and paper in, and she pulls the rope up. Wow, she doesn't even need to answer the door or climb the stairs.
Salsa and rum go hand in hand… nearly. I am told, essential for longevity is Vitamin R. Rum. And I have enough of it in my two weeks. So I guess I’m living a long life, right? The mojitos and pina coladas are some of the best I’ve ever tasted, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with the free pour into the glass that nearly fills it. Never. When rum is so cheap, think under $10 a bottle (to buy from the supermarket), heck, it’s the cheapest part of the drink.
But drinking lots of rum is not conducive to great dancing… so you either drink or dance. At night, I opt to dance (with a few mojitos or rums to quench the thirst ;)) That is, after all, what I am here for. Salsa and concerts are on every night in Havana - and with concerts costing under $20 each - sometimes I do two a night. Venues range from inside venues where we are shipped out immediately after the concert to outdoor venues on the water's edge where we can dance through the night after the show has finished. Twinkly tree lights, sparkly ocean water lapping just outside the railing and plenty of seats to relax on when not dancing. The dance floor is packed tight, and the floor is uneven, but everyone moves suavely and sensually, rarely bumping into other dancers. The power of dancers knowing their craft - or a lead knowing where they can send their follower.
One day I venture out of Havana, and into Vinales. It’s a place I’ve seen many photos of and always wanted to see for myself. It’s the place of tobacco. Farmers grow their tobacco in the fields, build huge drying houses and then hand roll their tobacco into cigars. I meet one farmer and he shows me how it’s done. From walking me through the drying house (a huge timber shed much bigger than their home) to rolling one for me to try. I don’t smoke, but of course ‘when in Cuba…’ I have to try. I cough and splutter a little, but the taste is actually ok. I expect it to be horrid, as I can’t stand the smell or taste of cigarettes - but it’s not. The day trip to Vinales is completed with a visit to caves and more interestingly, a big artwork rock face where we have ’the best pina colada in Cuba’. The drinks are made fresh and a standard rum is added, but then the bottle is put on the bar to ‘top up to your taste’. To say we were ‘happy’ before lunch is a slight understatement. I’m sure our singing echoes could be heard for kilometres.
I also visit Trinidad for a night. It's known as the best preserved historic town in Cuba so is crawling with tourists. Something I don't usually like. But here, it's still relaxed. Perhaps it has something to do with the pebble streets - nothing can go too quick. Or maybe because it's in Cuba - nobody lives too hectic. An afternoon spent wandering the streets followed by salsa in the square at night then clubbing in an underground cave... I discover many different sides to this town. I also seem to make friends with the local mosquitos while sleeping. Maybe they are trying to suck the rum out of my eyelid, the only part of my body not smothered in insect repellent? My souvenir of Trinidad is a very swallon eyelid and a painting (which I ended up ruining because I leave it rolled up in the heat causing the paint to crack). One I keep, the other I happily wave 'adios' to by evening.
So, what else is Cuba? Plenty more. But I'm yet to discover it. I’ll let you know when I go back and meander further. It is a country I will return to - the friendly people, the culture, the dancing, the rum…