Caribbean Islands | Cuba – Christmas in Cuba
It had felt like 80 degrees F or so for days. I made Yorkshire pudding. There was a lopped-off side of a bush sitting in the living room decorated with a few shiny balls. ?Feliz Navidad! It was Christmas in Cuba.
Sometime between reading about Alice Walker´s admiration for Fidel and becoming addicted to salsa dancing, Cuba took on an allure. The music, the dancing, the living example of communist ideals, and the – what?! – Americans aren´t allowed to go there because we are a great democracy that has an embargo against evil communists..?! Oh yeah, I´m going. I have to see this for myself.
I wanted to dance my heart out and see some proof of the evils of capitalism and the virtues of communism. After a month, I returned to Central America, exhausted. I have the same reaction as every other traveler I’ve met who has been there, when asked about it: ‘It was… well… interesting.’ Did I love it or hate it? Well, neither. Would I recommend it as a vacation if you’ve saved all year for your two weeks off? No. But, well, you do have to see it.
I stayed close to Havana, only exploring two other areas, the Pinar del Rio province and the city of Trinidad. The countryside is beautiful. I never tired of seeing fields of sugarcane with their tops of swaying pink fuzz. Around Vi?ales in Pinar del Rio, the landscape was intriguing – mountainous rock formations rose from the land like humpback whales surfacing for air. The cobblestone streets of Trinidad were quaint, although not very conducive to salsa dancing in heels, or walking in heels, for that matter. But the music and dance partners were irrestible, so I persevered. And I did the tourist thing and enjoyed a ride in an old-fashioned train through the sugarcane fields.
Havana was a photographer’s dream and an NPR reporter’s holy land. Every street corner and alley was a picture waiting to be taken: the crumbling edifices from decades long past, the colorful dancing of laundry strung out to dry, the people hanging out in doorways and balconies, the schoolchildren playing along the walkway called the Prado, the classic 1940’s and 50’s cars reincarnated as peso taxis. Everyday life looked romantically photogenic, as did the more dramatic images: Jose Marti’s ubiquitous stern face in statues and pictures, the imposing tower in the Plaza de la Revolution, the five-story metal rendering of Che Guevara’s famous expression placed on the side of a building exalting “Hasta la Victoria, Siempre.” And I adored the Malecon, the walkway that extends all along the northern shore of Havana – where couples embrace, families stroll and children play as the waves crash against the rocks.
And the sounds! It wasn’t like Guatemala, where things can be quiet and peaceful, only to be disrupted by an obnoxious muffer-less motorbike or exploding fireworks. In Havana, the cacaphony was never ending, particularly where I was staying, in Centro Havana. I would sit on the balcony, writing in my journal or reading, as the streets provided a musical backdrop – horns honking, people laughing and yelling, and always, salsa melodies floating along the wind from somewhere – the vibrant noises of city life.
Cuba seemed intimidating though, and I found myself feeling dependent on my host and his network of friends to help me negotiate the place. It is a different system, which is obvious, but I couldn’t understand it until I saw it. There is a dual currency: Cuban pesos and American dollars. Tourists are only supposed to pay in American dollars. And because the tourism infrastructure in Cuba is weak at best (and some would say nonexistent), travelers get charged tourist prices for backpacker level services. I attended the closing show for the 21st International Jazz Festival while I was there. Tourists from all over the world had arranged to come in for the weekend´s events, including this last show, at the Karl Marx Theatre. I went to the ladies´ room – no toilet paper. Not entirely unusual for Latin America, because there is usually someone selling some at the entrance. Not here. Hey, it’s happened to me before in bus stations, budget restaurants – but at the closing show for the International Jazz Festival? I can’t imagine that the tourists who were shelling out several hundreds of dollars for the airfare, shows and hotels expected to drip-dry.
So, there doesn’t appear to be a real sense of how the tourism industry works, or succeeds, in Cuba. The main goal in tourism is, of course, to inspire return visits. Not providing adequate facilities for visitors does not bode well for future family vacations in Havana. You can see the same problems in the customer service (haha) aspect. I encountered many employees in the most common tourist areas, the airport, museums and hotels, who were unfriendly, if not downright rude. At times, I would approach them encouraged, because I would see them talking and laughing with colleagues, or on the phone. As soon as I said “hello, how are you” (in Spanish), the smiles would disappear. There is certainly very little “happy to help you” or “the customer is always right” mentality. It made me realize whey Cancun is so unbelievably successful as a tourist destination. Despite the disgust and contempt it engenders with many “socially conscious travelers” – they know how to do it right. The climate, beaches and activities are not all that different from Cuba, but everywhere you go, the people are so warm and friendly (whether genuine or induced by floating images of dollar signs, or both, it’s hard to tell), you feel good about yourself and want to return.
To be sure, I met many Cubans who were warm and friendly, and a joy to be around. My fondest memories were of dancing. The Cuban style of salsa is slightly different in which moves are used most frequently, but not too difficult to catch on to after a few tries. And I don’t think I can adequately describe how these people can move. They can spin, pulsate, shake, grind, rotate and thrust their hips like nothing I’ve seen. What was truly amazing to me, was that with dancing so overtly sexual, they manage to pull it off without looking raunchy or tasteless. (I guess the true test of this theory will be when I try out some of these moves at my friend’s upcoming wedding in front of her Catholic relatives). The dancing and music seemed to convey, more than anything else, pure joy and comfort. Dancing in rounds was a blast – usually three couples dance with each other, as one man calls out directions for the other guys – to spin us, change partners, or do silly moves, like kissing our hands. It was like dancing in a blender.
So, was it a communist utopia? Not as far as I could see. The lauded health care system? According to some medical students I met, everyone has access to a doctor, particularly for preventive care, but the conditions in hospitals are often appalling, and the necessary medications are nonexistent. Education for all? Apparently, but Cubans don’t truly have a choice in what they can do with educations anyway.
The political repression is very real and present. Cubans’ mobility is restricted both in international travel AND travel within the country. You stay in the town or state where you grow up, and that’s that. I was never sure how to handle conversations with Cubans about where I was from, or where I was going, feeling an intense discomfort knowing they probably wouldn’t even bother dreaming of that kind of travel.
I reread George Orwell’s 1984, while I was there. Besides the frightening similarities to American culture (the uses of gratituous violence for entertainment purposes, the creations of an evil “enemy of the people”, and the soundbite mentality of language, among others), many elements appeared to be a handbook for Fidel. The most striking and obvious, of course, are the similarities to “Big Brother is Watching.” The only billboard advertisements I saw in Cuba were for Cuban cigarettes, and Fidel, socialism and the revolution. While Americans are bombarded every 1 millionth of a second with advertisements luring us to consume and consume products, Cubans receive constant messages to buy into Fidel’s brand of socialism. I’ve never seen the phrase “Yankee Imperialist” more times in my life. The newspaper (state controlled) focuses almost entirely on the evil deeds of the United States. The Museo de la Revolution is an excellent illustration of the propaganda. At one exhibit of the time period immediately following the revolution in 1959, the caption read, something along the lines of, “We found it necessary to dismantle some of the organs of power, which were still controlled by the elite and imperialists, which had caused the people so much sadness…” – above it was a newspaper article announcing that Congress had been disbanded. As much as I agree with most of the criticism against the United States as imperialist exploiters of all of Latin America, I found it hard to cheer on the elimination of democratically-elected legislative bodies.
On a personal level, it was a great place to be for my first Christmas away from home. It was hot (unlike snowy New Jersey). And because Christmas has only been allowed to be celebrated since the Pope visited a few years ago, it is still not a very prominent holiday. No reminders of home, thankfully: no carols, jingle bells, Christmas trees or frantic shopping. I would up celebrating the holiday with some other foreigners in a most unusual way: helping to prepare a proper British Christmas lunch (with bread pudding, brandy butter, some strange ham and sausage concoctions, etc.), offering a bottle of tequila for a couple rounds of shots, dancing to …. oh, I don’t remember what music, that was after the tequila, having some interesting conversations about love, sex and relationships that I usually don’t engage in with grandma, and finishing off the night with a few beers and a view of the sea under the watchful eye of Jesus (at the statue, El Cristo).
I meant to stay for two weeks, and wound up extending my visit to a month. I still don’t think I know a thing about this country, although I could go on for pages about my observations. I am happy that I saw it for myself. And despite it being an often frustrating and confusing place to be, there is still something very seductive and intriguing about it. If someday I can comprehend the people, the leaders and the politics a little more, and be able to shake it on the dance floor like they can, I’ll be satisfied.