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Aug 29

On Cuba.

 

Few words – few countries – can conjure up as many images, as many feelings, as Cuba does.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve been there or not, someone mentions Cuba and instantly a timeless montage flashes before you eyes.  Cigars, Rum, Revolution, Ché, Fidel, 1950´s Cars, Salsa, Cigars, Rum, Carnival, Buena Vista Social Club, Communism, ¡¡¡Revolución!!!, Bay of Pigs, US Embargo, Cigars, Rum, Guantanamo, Guajira Guantanamera, Cigars, Rum.  For many travelers, a trip to Cuba is almost like a pilgrimage, an attempt to access an island wrapped in mystery and intrigue.  People come from all over to give tribute to a culture and society frozen in time and separated from the world, to see a people still moving to the same classic latin rhythms, their blood pulsing in time to the same beat.  I was no exception, I also wanted to go to Cuba like so many others so that I could experience it “before it opens up, before it changes, before it is flooded by Americans and spring break parties”.  I wanted to see it in it’s “purity”, and so I booked a flight to La Habana.

Smoking an artesian cigar, and drinking rum from a coconut after riding a horse in Vinale, Cuba.

My holiday from my holiday.

Normally I take my travels pretty seriously.  Not in Cuba.  After 9,000 km on the bike and nearly 11 months without a home, I needed a break.  So I ditched the bike in Cancun, and headed to Cuba with only three items on my itinerary:  Rum, Cigars, and Salsa.

After a few days, I thought that perhaps I had picked the wrong destination for my holiday from my holiday because in many ways Cuba is a frustrating destination to travel in.  For starters the food is horrible, the spanish is extremely difficult to understand, and it’s easier to find a bottle of rum than it is to find a bottle of water.  Then there is the double economy (and two different currencies) that results in a monstrous disparity between local prices and tourist prices, something that frustrates to no-end the seasoned budget travel.  “Wait, so I can take the bus for 4 cents, and the taxi will cost me $10?!!!”.  Sadly this disparity also means that is worth the time

Street art in La Habana, this one piece of a collection all around the city.

and energy for Cubans to try and squeeze a few dollars out of the passing tourists – giving rise to the notorious jiniteros that plague the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba.  Do you need a taxi? Cigars? A bottle of water? Tour? Can you buy milk for my son?  The jiniteros are not easily dissuaded, and they often are willing to invest 20 min, an hour, or even a few hours of putting on the act of innocently wanting to be your friend before their true motive comes to light.  (For the boys traveling in Cuba be warned that any Cuban girl who wants to talk to you is very likely a prostitute.)  The sad result of the jiniteros, is that after a couple of days in Cuba you develop a healthy distrust towards friendly cubans – making it very difficult to make friends.

If you soldier on though, eventually you break through the shell and find yourself face to face with a different Cuba – a passionate, intense, hot and sweaty mix of brusque humor, and open generosity.  True, you won’t find salsa street parties on every corner like you dreamed, but you

Busy Playa Siboney near Santiago de Cuba

will eventually find the group in the park with the lone guitar singing and dancing together – jiving in perfect synchronicity.  Or, you will find the spirit of carnival at 5 am on the malecón of La Habana; witnessing a dance-off fueled by a cheap bottle of rum and a reggae-ton beat.  Get off the beaten track just a little and you will meet wonderful people, who invite you over for dinner… or to a heavy metal rock function.

I had three weeks, and I stuck to the plan.  The hot sweltering days were split up into an agreeable routine of sleeping in, venturing out for food, salsa lessons, and finding a shady spot (on a beach or otherwise) for reading and studying Spanish.  Once the sun was setting, the bottle of Rum would be brought out, the cigar would be lit, and the next few hours would be spent in what ever pleasurable company was available before heading out for a sweaty night of salsa and reggae-ton – usually not getting back until after 4am.  The next day would be a repeat of the last until the

Salsa music in Trinidad

days began to blur together and a never-ending salsa beat of 1,2,3 pause, 4, 5, 6, pause, 1,2,3, pause, 4,5,6 pause gave rhythm to my thoughts.

When it came to leave, I felt a mixture of sadness and relief.  I felt sad to be leaving a place I had only just begun to figure out, but I felt relieved that I wouldn’t be tackling the enigma this trip.  Cuba hadn’t been what I expected or what I had hoped to find.  Once you are there and the mysterious veil is pulled back, you see it for what it is: a country full of people who are extremely proud of Cuba – but who all want to get off the island.  Cuba let me down on so many levels, but in the end – once I had opened my eyes to what was right in front of me – it picked me right back up agin and I began to fall in love with the place.  I should probably explain myself better, but that would be too much like work and I am on holiday.

In the days leading up to my departure, my cuban friends all asked me “How long until you come back?”.  The question never failed to surprise me.  How long until I come back?  Am I ever coming back to Cuba?  It made me pause and think, because the sad reality about endeavouring to travel the world is that you very rarely go back to a country you have already visited.  Did I honestly think I would ever come back to this McDonald’s forsaken island?!

Yes.  Yes, definitely.

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If you are a US Passport holder and are planning a trip to Cuba, read my post Traveling to Cuba as a US Citizen so you know what to really expect.

Also, read Ten Thing you will struggle to find in Cuba

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