She was rather attractive, past her best years, filthy and dressed in ill-fitting clothes but behind it all there was a beauty. His left eye was clouded and his thick black hands shook from what I assume was alcohol, for they calmed to an intermittent quiver after the first mojito. She avoided my eyes until the topic of their children was masterfully woven into the conservation, whereupon she held my gaze in what I believed to be a sincere manner.
“They are hunger,” the supposed father blurted out, feeling the strong tug on his lure. Straight away I thought them to be an odd couple, though it took longer than I like to admit before I realised they were scamming us. As we left the bar together after a couple of drinks, a large woman selling powdered milk confronted us. How convenient.
“Please, you buy from our children.” The father insisted. I managed a glace at his wife but found her staring at her feet. In our daze we handed over the unfamiliar banknotes. What turned out to be two bags of thirty-dollar powdered milk later and we were walking down the street feeling sick to our stomachs. The awkwardness of ditching the couple had left a sour taste in my mouth and my head swelled from the days of travel.
“We’ve been in this city three hours… not a good start,” my brother said.
I dressed out of character the next day; in an open linen shirt, dark shades and khaki shorts. I justified it as being practical for the overwhelming heat, but it actually made me feel adventurous, dignified and a friend of Hemingway’s. We did the typical must-do’s around Old Havana; Drank a Daiquiri in La Floriditas’, saw the squares, tied salsa dancing and failed miserably, smoked, drank, and walked the cobbled stoned streets till our feet ached. The colours consumed me like the paint pallet of a child producing their first artwork. Every building, pulled the attention of my camera, every local, the broken Spanish of my tongue. I fell in love with La Havana on that day, though I feel a drag of guilt even now. The guilt of knowing it was old Havana, the refurbished and largely tourist sector, where I paid for my photographs and the hordes of Hemingway lovers, dressed like me, took comfort in a manufactured Cuba and the romance of the era gone. It’s not the real Cuba, not the Cuba that has been locked away from the world for fifty years. But we would find it.
“WE’VE BEEN IN THIS CITY THREE HOURS… NOT A GOOD START,”
We drove east along the sea wall in a bright pink 1940’s Chevy toward new Havana. The water looked enticing, but you could not swim here. The further we drove out of old Havana the more the buildings became skeletal, crumbling to the sidewalk in palm-sized crunches like a bleached coral reef. We ate lunch in a nostalgia café on the waterfront. The café was blacked out inside and the air conditioning blasted; we ate our ham and cheese sandwiches sitting in a cast iron bed converted into a table. It was a refreshing change in diet from the usual contradiction you find when eating in Cuba. You’ll find yourself dining in the most picturesque of settings; on a veranda or in the courtyard of a 17th-century Spanish mansion, while a jazz trio play and well-dressed waiters wait on you hand and foot. But the food is comical; the same three options are served everywhere, black beans and rice served with grilled chicken, pork or fish. Spices are limits to salt, pepper, onion and lime. But bizarrely, in the two weeks I spent in Cuba not once did I find myself complaining. The food is healthy and fresh, I felt exceptional not eating the processed food of the western world and as long as the water is avoided the diet quickly becomes fashionable.
Our four days in Havana did not drift by in the conventional big city blur I expected. At home I find on occasion my city can encourage a heedlessness, whereupon I find myself suddenly surprised as the day comes to a close.
In Havana however, every detail seemed to remind me I was awake and keep me present. While the heat and mojitos haze the edges of my memories, I still feel the infectiousness of Havana’s vitality. I have never seen such a harmonious place in every sense of the word. The varied cultures are integrated to a degree that would surpass any first world country. At night the streets and squares become the lounges of each household and thy neighbour the television. In the cool air whole families congregate; children shoo shoo the stray dogs and parents shear a cigarette. There is very little privacy in Havana and no say of noise, yet no one seems to complain. On our last evening in the city we watched a football final in the lobby of a hotel.
My brother and I sat beside a Chilean family while drunken football fans chanted with such a bellow I could not understand. The game drifted into a penalty shootout and in the emotion of it all I began to feel sentimental. I wondered aloud if I could move here and witness the change that was due to happen to this city. I wanted to learn every street, every bar, and every pothole, I wanted to dance and laugh with every local, to kiss and to explore. As the game wrapped up my brother turned in his seat and reminded me of our early start, suggesting some sleep. Tomorrow marked the start of our road trip. We had a country to explore.
SALT, PEPPER, ONION, & LIME.
The next day we drove west along the eight-lane highway. Deep potholes dotted its surface and flustered locals stood in the shade of the overpasses, hitching rides or selling cheese and fruits. We turned right off the dilapidated highway and began the winding drive inland to the mountains and Las Terrazas. Our hotel was tired, built in the treetops overlooking a stagnant body of water; it would have been quite the spot in its era, though that era was thirty years ago now. The town, built in the same era, seemed only to be there to service the hotel. The architecture was verging on brutalism and the whole setting felt reminiscent of the soviet era collapse. We checked in and sat overlooking the green water as a tremendous thunderstorm opened up. The sky became scarred with lightning; rain fell and the clouds themselves seemed to shake at the crack of thunder. The rain soon softened and we headed to investigate the pool to discover a scene that had us truly perplexed. Russian club music thumped away from a concert speaker while elderly couples drank mojitos in the cracked pool painted a vivid blue. The bar looked close to collapse and many of the patrons dangerously drunk. It was like a group of nostalgic Russian old times trying to emulate a cool James Bond scene from the 80s, but failing miserably. The wildlife around Las Terrazas made up for any of my bewilderment however; hummingbirds, lizards, fireflies, I was in awe of it all.
Our underpowered Citron took us back east to Havana the next day, then south to Cienfuegos on the coast. I weaved the Citron between a horse and cart and parked outside La Union, the beautiful turquoise hotel where we would be staying in Cienfuegos. As we gathered our bearings we met a man named Louis who quickly offered to show us around. He was round and bouncy and passionate about his city and its people. As we wondered the sweltering streets and became acquainted, I began to feel a stare from a number of locals. It threw me at first but I soon realised it was more of an appraisal, as if examining us for what was fashionable overseas. Cienfuegos seemed intermit and exciting but the population is ageing and beginning to outnumber the youth. In the town square we came across another bronze statue that I stared up at. It’s curious in Cuba, they often immortalise these philanthropists in bronze that gave back to the city by donating theatres and halls, but who made their fortune in the slave trade.
As the day progressed we felt comfortable and started to ask Louis about his views.
“Yes he made his money through slaves, but it was not questioned back then,” Louis said, “He was a man who loved his city”.
I suppose it’s impressive, but I just couldn’t see anyone getting past the slave side of things in the western world. As the heat of the day become too much we took refuge in an air-conditioned cigar room while Louis talked about his country he was so proud of.
“I don’t even know what that word means,” he replied when we asked about the communist regime, as if trying to prove his innocence of the notion.
“I just know everyone is fed, and everyone is equal.”
I hadn’t thought much about communism before visiting Cuba; but this country instilled a certain curiosity in me that I did not expect, for amongst the rumble and isolation there are a few critical things going quite right.
The coast road east to Trinidad was striking but the swimming spots looked polluted so we resisted the urge to cool off and instead found the cobbled stone maze of Trinidad’s streets. We stumbled upon our La Casa overheating and flustered. That night our host cooked us a three-course feast with of course the familiar black beans and rice. We ate on a rooftop terrace and watched the sun drop behind a bell tower. That night we wandered the streets, ending in the town square where hordes gather on the cobblestone steps to Salsa, drink and use the Wi-Fi hotspot. Waiters took our order in the street and quickly returned with the mojitos.
“Trinidad’s changed a lot,” said Trine, a tourist on her third visit to the town in a few years. “This square, these steps use to be the locals hang out, but the tourists are happy to pay three dollars for a beer so the locals went elsewhere” Trine took a sip from her bottle of home mixed mojito. “It’s sad, but Trinidad is still my favourite place in Cuba, it’s where I’d live if I moved here.” We spent three nights in Trinidad, tasting, exploring and marvelling at the daily four o’clock storms. Trinidad is charming and undoubtedly peaceful, you get lost in its streets and somehow feel at home. I found myself wishing I could have seen the town three years ago, before the onslaught of tourist, but I suppose people will be thinking the same thing three years from now. The romance that had infected me in Havana was all but gone by this point. The country still captured my imagination and heart, but it wasn’t the same romance I found in Hemingway’s novels or the music and colour of old Havana. Perhaps we were on the right track then.
We left before most were up and drove deep into the mountains. As the potholes became more common and the tarseal less, so too did the landscape change. Gigantic cliffs streaked with reds and oranges scarred the healthy bush; low-hung cloud gave a mystical look to it all and the empty road an eerie feeling. Small villages were dotted throughout the mountains; the pace of life here was slow and the farming subsistent. Children would wave at the obviously rented car as we slowed in each village and offer us fresh fruits and cheeses to buy, then happily chase us as we sped off to the next village. The bush thinned and the outskirts of Santa Clara began. We stopped at hotel America to meet our guide and have our lunch of black beans, rice and grilled chicken. Our guide was ecstatic to meet us and we soon discovered he was the founder of Santa Clara’s ‘Kiwi Club’. We spent the next three hours answering his rigorous questions on everything from social welfare to the breeding habits of our namesake bird. A visit to Che Guevara’s mausoleum and an extended lunch saw us out of time. We parted ways and found the main highway having found out very little of Santa Clara’s history.
Louis had described Varadero as “not Cuba”, which I understood as soon as I laid eyes on the hotel-lined peninsula. We stayed in hotel Melia las Americas, a bizarre place where the food and drink was included in the cost.
“So I don’t have to pay for this?” I kept asking in disbelief.
I felt the familiar drag of guilt as I lay on a beach that could have been anywhere in the world, but the slowed pace finally gave us time away from the whirlwind of Cuba. Time to reflect and sink our teeth into the untouched books we had been lugging around. After two days on the beach we headed back for Havana. As our car swerved from lane to lane dodging potholes I tried to draw some profound conclusion about this place, but nothing satisfied me. Had we found the real Cuba? I took comfort in the knowledge that Cuba is changing and always has been changing. So perhaps we had found the real Cuba, just our generations’ version of change. Perhaps I should think of the Americanisation of Cuba as my generation’s revolution, just unsavoury and lacking any notion of nobility. We caught the ring road and headed for our flight. The dregs of the city spilled out to its rural edges and I felt the tingle of excitement that Havana can so easily infect you with, that desire to explore and the nostalgia of an era gone. Locals waved blocks of cheese on the roadside while vultures circled overhead. I had overheard an old woman saying circling vultures meant rain was on the way. I wonder what Havana is like in the rain?