Last updated on October 28th, 2017
Cuba – introducing amazing experiences of a lifetime
I tend to feel overwhelmed when I am asked to describe my experiences of Cuba. Many emotions start pouring in all at once. The thrill of approaching and touching down on ‘Jose Marti International Airport’ of Havana. Stepping out onto the hot and humid tarmac and into a colourful display of buildings, vegetation and a wide open sky. Driving through the suburbs of Havana to reach the ‘Havana Vedado’, (new) district, via the famous ‘Malecón’ waterfront area. Absorbing all the details of the architecture, which at first seems a sight for sore eyes. Watching the people sitting outside their mostly dilapidated houses. Guys fixing their 1950’s automobiles and shining them as if they are a brand new, top prized possession.
Music, oh how much of this soft Latin music, pouring out from everywhere.
Dreaming of Cuba
My sweet yearning for Cuba started years ago when I was still living in the Southern-most point of US, (Florida-Key West). At the SW part of Key West, where the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico meet, there is a site called ‘The Bullet’. It is
actually shaped like a 6-foot bullet with the words, …”90 miles to Cuba – Southernmost Point of Continental U.S.A.” inscribed on it.
I felt a strange attraction to this place and often went there. It was great just to be in that corner and gaze south. On a bright, cloudless day, I would use my binoculars and try to make out mountain shapes of Cuba. If I concentrated my ears to the direction of this enigmatic country, I could swear that I heard the rhythmic sounds of Salsa hovering through the air. The sounds of my very favourite ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ band, luring me to their direction.
It was then that I promised myself that one day I would definitely visit this fascinating country called Cuba.
Arriving in Cuba – crude diplomacy
There were only 2 hours of flight left to reach Havana. I could already feel a tingling sensation of excitement in my stomach that slowly worked its way through the rest of my body. A euphoric feeling that comes from knowing that you are about to set foot on yet another unknown land. A country you’ve been waiting to visit for many years.
My partner and I had boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight from Gatwick-UK earlier that morning, (highly recommend the particular route, airline and its crew).
The line at Arrivals was moving reasonably quick for Cuban standards. Before long, we were next in line to come face to face with the Cuban authorities for the first time. I sent my friend first in the event there was any problem, and I had to intervene. Her paper processing seemed to be going smoothly, and I could already see her picture taken for the records. I noticed how serious everyone behind the glass partitions looked and how solemn all their faces were. Not even the slightest hint of a smile to anyone. My thought was that this must be the strict communist regime and its effect on people. Before I completed my reasoning on strictness, my partner seemed to have finished. She picked her bag up, but wait! Instead of moving forward, she actually stepped back and stopped halfway between me and the checkpoint.
The officer motioned for my approach, and as I passed her, she told me that she was just directed to stay put. Had they found out somehow? Did she give out the wrong passport by mistake, (dual nationality-US passport)? No, I wasn’t going to have these thoughts torment me – so I approached the counter with a smile and handed in my passport.
The same process took place for me, and before long he seemed to have finished by taking my picture as well. I was about to put on my brave face and ask about my friend, but I found myself walking back to join her. What did just happen? Why were we singled out?
It was a bit embarrassing for both of us. No explanation was given by the officer or anyone else, and we just stood there. To make matters worse, another lady officer approached his counter, took both of our passports, (yes my partner had shown her Greek passport), entered an office and shut the door behind her.
We stood there for at least another 15-20 minutes. People passed us, approached the officer and moved on to baggage claim. I told myself repeatedly to stay calm and reason. There was nothing that could have gone wrong, and this was just a misunderstanding. It was at this point that another guy followed the same route and joined us. Apparently, he was stopped because he had visited Egypt before his arrival in Cuba. There was an outbreak of a highly contagious disease at the time in central Africa, so the Cubans were being cautious and trying to control entries from anyone coming from the Big Continent.
This surely had nothing to do with us starting from Greece, to which he told me that..”it’s all the same for Cubans, they are not bothering about distance and proximity of Greece and Africa… communist stuff you know..”
We exhaled a sigh of relief to the sound of that. At least there was nothing more mysterious happening with our case. Some 15 minutes later, we were finally given our passports back. Went through the same process again by the same officer, (not even a word of ‘sorry’ from his part), and were able to proceed and claim our baggage. We were the last ones by that time, and the hall was almost empty. We picked up our bags and walked through the glass sliding doors.
CUBA, HERE WE COME!
Dilapidated, yet dignified – the essence of Cuba
We had already had a glimpse into Havana’s crumbled architecture from our bus ride the previous day. So after a hearty-exotic breakfast and full of energetic curiosity, (must have been all the exotic fruits), we hit the streets of Havana Vedado and started taking in all the neighbourhood sites and becoming one with the crowds. Some locals going about their business, while others, getting ready to watch an early screening of ” A Filme Cubano – La Pared” at the “Yara Cinema”.
This was one of the first sites that I remember seeing that morning on Cale L & Avenidos 23, close to the hotel we were staying. It seemed a little odd that there were such early morning cinema shows but as I later found out, the movie industry used to be huge in Cuba back in the 50’s. There were over 130 movie theatres in Havana itself, and most of them were
directly serviced by big production companies such as MGM and Columbia.
We walked everywhere during our time in Havana. Got lost in mazes of small streets teeming with life. Buildings that were caught in a time warp, half dilapidated and partly painted with vivid colours to conceal the 50 plus years of economic embargo. As if they draped a veil of dignity over them and allowed just the romanticism and sweet nostalgia of good passed times to sip through their pores.
Having visited 3 years ago, we were lucky to see much of what we had perceived as authentic Cuban essence.
Pirate taxis we occasionally used to catch a late night ride back to the hotel, driving what most of us wouldn’t even see in a scrap yard. The rides in these ‘vehicles’ were such eye-openers that we couldn’t help scanning the interiors in discreet disbelief for all of the 10-15 minutes it took us to reach our hotel. One of them, in particular, used a bucket, (yes a bucket), as a driver’s seat. Yet they were such proud owners and so polite to us that it was almost heart-breaking.
Watching school children catching a ride on a horse cart (!) with immaculately worn uniforms and in such orderly manner. You can’t even begin to describe the impact of such powerful images. They put to shame the children of the ‘Free – Western’ world and their privileges they, (we), have.
As expected, we did come across many ‘touristy’ areas, (especially around the colonial plazas of Old Havana), where you will get dragged into a bar-restaurant for the usual salsa dance and some drinks. You will be ushered aside by the smooth ‘talker-operator’ lady who will try to convince you to visit the ‘secret market operativo’ of the people of Cuba and get cheaper cigars.
The older ladies dressed up in African-Caribbean dresses posing next to you for a picture, smoking a huge cigar and expecting some Cuban Pesos in return. But if you stop to look long enough into their eyes, you will see vast reserves of kindness. Traces of pain that go as far back as the start of the embargo and the hardships they have endured since because of that.
These experiences make it all worth-while in the end. You have to start your Cuban adventure in Havana. You need to go through these roller-coaster emotions of being sometimes a tourist in the centre and an explorer of hidden gems in the maze of smaller streets further off the grid. Venture off to the pristine white sandy beaches that hug Cuba’s coastline and drive inland to transport yourself even further back in time, another era altogether.
No matter how emotionally prepared you arrive in Cuba, get ready to be blown away by the diversity of its culture, and colonial history. It will pleasantly surprise you in many ways and stay with you forever.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, with an area of 109,884 square kilometers (42,426 sq mi), and the second-most populous after Hispaniola, with over 11 million inhabitants.
Capital: Havana – population: 2,210,610 (census of 2010)
Other big cities include: Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey, Holguín
Culture: Cuban culture is influenced by its melting pot of cultures, primarily those of Spain and Africa. After the Revolution of 1959, the government started a “national literacy campaign”, offering free education to all and concentrated rigorously on Sports, Ballet and Music.
Music: the main music style is “Son”, which has its bases in styles like “Danzon de nuevo ritmo”, “mambo”, “Cha-cha” and “salsa”.