Is it the sumptuous inefficiency of those exaggerated fins and curvy bumpers? Is it the friendly smile of an old front grille? Or the dignity of really heavy metal? Is it the innocent joy in colors other than black, white and silver?
A short stroll around any Cuban town – especially Havana – reveals a Buena Vista Social Club of aging Pontiacs and Chevvies, Plymouths and Fords (to say nothing of long-lost DeSotos and Packards, Studebakers and Nashes). You see them parked along the sidestreets, waiting patiently to be admired by an enchanted photographer. You see them rolling past in the form of taxis trawling for fares. It’s like finding the certainties of your childhood again. And these solid certainties of yesteryear have survived for so long in Cuba.
I don’t really like cars, but I love the well-tended museum of vintage cars that is Cuba. Besides overwhelming you with a serious case of nostalgia, they beguile you with possible back-stories. Did that Cadillac maybe belong to the mob? Or to a movie star? What romantic evenings has that Buick witnessed?
They are relics from an innocent and unreflecting past: the “good old days” (which of course were not really that good) before complicated thinking and guilt about the environment started to cloud our enjoyment.
Let’s talk about money. How much do things cost in Cuba? Well, prices can vary considerably.
Luxury beach hotels are certainly not cheap. You can pay from $100 to $300 a day for a double room with meals. But, as this blog keeps telling you, touring Cuba doesn’t need to be wildly expensive. You can stay at a clean and welcoming casa particular (a room with bath in a private home) for about US$25 a night. Food is not expensive either. Main meals are anywhere from $8 to $20, depending on the type of restaurant. And you can even eat at your casa particular, enjoying some of the best meals available in Cuba. Fruits like guavas, pineapples, papaya etc. are tasty and reasonable. Even fish and lobster aren’t expensive. When you go out, a fruit juice in a café is $2; a beer is $1.50. A taxi ride through Havana starts at $5. By North American or European standards those are not high prices. Plus, they have the added advantage of giving Cubans jobs and a decent income.
On the other hand, some people – often Cubans – will tell you that those are high prices. They’ll argue that you don’t have to pay the “standard” tourist prices because Cubans themselves pay much less for rent, meals, transport, drinks, and so on. For instance, Cubans only pay 2 cents for a city bus ticket, 4 cents for a movie ticket, 25 cents for a concert ticket, 20 cents for a meal in a subsidized restaurant, 10 cents for a cola, 20 cents for a mojito in a Cuban bar. But here’s the thing: Cubans only earn $20-$25 a month. Ten cents for a cola seems very low to us, but not to Cubans, who have less than a dollar to spend each day. And those “low” prices are heavily subsidized by the Cuban government. As a tourist you shouldn’t be claiming a Cuban government subsidy that you didn’t earn. You shouldn’t expect Cuba to subsidize your vacation!
Cubans themselves will often encourage you to take advantage of the subsidized Cuban prices. “Why should you pay $25 for a concert ticket when my ticket only costs 25 cents?” they’ll say. “It’s the same ticket.”
The answer is that paying the subsidized local price means cheating Cuba, and it’s just not honorable to cheat one’s host. If you love Cuba, you won’t want to live on a shoestring. Prices are reasonable enough without that.
Wherever you walk or drive in Cuba you see school kids. Whether they’re walking hand-in-hand with a grandparent or with a group of other kids, they’re always dressed in clean uniforms: maroon and white for elementary school pupils, ochre and white for secondary students.
In the countryside, there are no school buses in the North American sense. School kids have to find another way to school. On my travels I’ve seen 6-year-olds riding on the back of their father’s bike or sitting in a horse-drawn cart, being brought out to the highway. Once there, they are eventually picked up by one of the trucks or tractor-drawn wagons that take country kids to school every day. So, if you’re driving along Cuban highways, you’ll often see 20 school kids standing in the back of a dump truck or wagon, their little hands holding on to the rim, their eyes peeking over their hands. But even then they’re dressed in crisp, clean uniforms in the regulation colours.
Schools in Cuba don’t always look like the ones we’re familiar with either. They aren’t surrounded by lawns and playgrounds unless they’re located in a public park (which some are). In fact, elementary schools often consist of just a few classrooms on the ground floor of an apartment building. While walking down the main shopping street in Havana once, I happened to peer into the narrow open window of an apartment house, only to find 30+ pairs of young eyes staring back at me. The teacher ignored me. The little girls above go to a school that’s on a major boulevard in Havana. They normally have recess on the boulevard “island” in front of their school until it’s time to go in for the next lesson. Despite a bit of friendly shoving, they seem to be enjoying their environment.
Once in the classroom, Cuban kids are lively participants in discussions, unafraid to speak their mind. If you don’t believe me, try to see the Cuban film Conducta, which is about a disadvantaged boy, his classmates and his retirement-aged teacher who goes to a lot of trouble on his behalf.
But not all Cuban kids are disadvantaged. These two 12-year-old pupils let me take their picture at an English teachers’ conference, where their teacher had them perform an English dialogue in front of a roomful of teachers. When I talked to them alone afterwards they were shy, but happy to try to answer my questions.
While wandering down Obispo in Havana’s picturesque pedestrian zone, Julian and I came upon a hotel with considerable character called ‘Ambos Mundos’.
“What does that mean?” I asked my Cuban friend.
“Yes, it’s a strange name,” he answered, “It means ‘both worlds’, as in the best of both worlds.”
Ernesto, our private taxi driver, let the car glide along the southern coastal road towards Cienfuegos. Behind us was the Great Zapata swamp, where we’d just spent the whole morning visiting the crocodile farm and boating to islands in Treasure Lagoon. I didn’t realize we were driving around the infamous Bay of Pigs until I noticed humongous billboards blaring slogans (in Spanish) like:
A decisive battle in the victory of socialism was fought here or: This is as far as the mercenaries got and best of all: Giron: First defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America
Deep in conversation, Ernesto and Julian let the billboards slip by without comment, but I could scarcely believe my eyes. I’d certainly heard of the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion, but never thought I’d be driving past its patriotic commemoration.
Shortly afterwards, Ernesto pulled into the driveway of a free-standing house and got out to chat with a friend who was busy mixing cement for the walls of the new tourist bedroom. The friend directed Ernesto to “the best and cheapest restaurant”, where we found a table in the shade and enjoyed another great, late lunch of very fresh fish, rice and beans, vegetables and salad, accompanied by beer and coffee. Price for the three of us: $18.
Speaking of fish, the Caribbean is famous for its colourful tropical fish, and Cuba has some of the most unspoiled reefs. I’m a bit nervous about scuba-diving but enjoy snorkelling, so I was really delighted when Ernesto stopped off at the Cueva de los Peces (Cave of Fishes) a little way beyond Playa Giron. A short path inland from the road leads to what looks like a small lake.
Except it isn’t a lake, it’s a limestone sinkhole that goes down 72 meters and is full of salt water. Yes, due to a geological anomaly, sea water enters the cave underground, bringing with it schools of tropical fish from the nearby Caribbean. This means that lily-livered divers like me can rent equipment lakeside and happily snorkel on the deep blue surface of this salt-water lake, gazing down at dozens of yellow, purple, turquoise and blue tropical fish. It was paradise and there was almost nobody there.
Cuba is home to many exotic-looking birds, so it’s not really surprising that the Cuban national bird is colourful. It’s called the tocororo (to co RO ro).
The tocororo’s plumage may be exotic, but the bird can be found in forests all over Cuba. I came upon my first tocororo in a dry jungle in the Escambray mountains, near Topes de Collantes. Ernesto, our taxi driver, guide and friend, had taken us there for a refreshing walk before swooping down to sub-tropical Trinidad on the Caribbean coast.
You hear a tocororo before you see one; its call is a low, bubbling warble. Ernesto knew right away and stopped me in my tracks, whispering “Tocororo!” He then silently led me to within ten feet of the bird, which was sitting on a branch over the path. Fumbling with my daypack in excitement, I somehow whipped out my camera and took as many between-leaf shots as I could before the bird flew away. One of them is posted above. As you can see, tocororos are dark blue, white and cherry-red, with navy and white polka-dot wings and a very attractive forked tail. What you can’t see is that they also have an iridescent blue-green back.
For a better idea of the back, check out this much more professional photo.
My very first ‘casa particular’ was on the tenth floor of a Havana apartment house, right across the street from the well-known Hotel Nacional, with its spacious garden, bars and restaurants, currency exchange, and email room. Living so near meant I often used the Nacional’s infrastructure: I could read in the breezy garden overlooking the sea, or send expensive emails back home to Switzerland and Canada.
My 75-year-old landlady, Magdalena, lived alone in a four-room apartment, with me as her only guest. Every morning at breakfast, she treated me to freshly pressed papaya or guava juice and lots of Spanish conversation, which sometimes turned into a cross-examination on my private life. Anyway, it did my very elementary Spanish a lot of good, and I learned all about Magdalena and the conditions of daily life in Cuba: where she shopped, where her three grown-up children lived, what to see in Havana, where I should be careful.
Later in the day, when I returned from one of my many sightseeing trips to Habana Vieja, there’d be some small treat waiting for me from the dinner Magdalena had cooked for herself and her granddaughter: maybe a slice of flan, which she called ‘poodeen’, or a dish of sweet potato chips.
On the evenings when I didn’t go out, Magdalena and I would sometimes sit side by side in the living room, watching her little old Sanyo TV. There were only five channels, two of which were monopolized by talking heads. That left the Cuban dancing channel, a Brazilian soap opera or news reports. The TV content may not have been scintillating, but we found lots to talk about anyway. Magdalena was refreshingly critical of all government announcements.