27th August, 2017

Okay folks, problem solved. There is a good reason my photos look like they were taken by a 2yr old after drinking red cordial – it appears I have a nasty crack in the lens of my phone. And it seems the settings were all wrong too. Who knew?

Cuba has always seemed to me to be the most exotic of destinations. Way back in the 60’s, as an impressionable 16yr old, I had more than a passing crush on Che Guevara; doctor, author, revolutionary, and so damned handsome he looked like he was chiseled out of marble. Also a dead ringer of Jim Morrison of The Doors. Then, dead at the tender age of 39. Shot by the CIA in Bolivia in 1967; forever young. His image can be seen all around Havana; on buildings, posters and t-shirts.

As soon as you step out of the airport, you know you are in Cuba and no other country on earth. The cars, the cars…how good are the cars? We appear to be extras in a 1950’s film set. These cars are a perfect example of “they just don’t make things like they used to“. How else can you explain 60 and 70yr old machines still moving today? Sure, they’re not purring like kittens, but they’re still going strong. Either it’s a feat of engineering genius or, perhaps more to the point, these Cubans can fix anything. Necessity is the mother of all invention. Sure, some of the cars now have a Toyota or Hyundai motor, some are taped up with wire, some are sporting the odd bit of welded steel, and more than one boasts an old mattress cut to fit where the back seat once was. All seemingly covered in scraps of old, passed their use by date with towels neatly hand stitched together. Some of the cars have been loving restored, but all that takes money, which is what Cubans don’t have.

Cuba is probably the last of the last true ideological communist states remaining in the world. A doctor is paid the same as a school teacher, nurse, lawyer etc. It’s about $40 per month. Ration books still exist for the basic necessities of life. Nothing is thrown away. There is no rubbish anywhere. No discarded cans, because who can afford to buy a cola? No advertising, anywhere. So much so it’s hard to find a shop, because that shop might just be a modest door of what you presume is a house. And nothing is made in the USA.

The USA embargo, which has been in place for nearly 55 years, is the reason some parts of Cuba look like a bomb site. So, if any country wants to trade with America, it cannot trade with Cuba. So the Cuban government is hamstrung to whom they trade with. How bloody stupid is that? Concrete, wood, steel, machinery; everything is scarce. Don’t get me started on the USA foreign policies. Big discussions here in Cuba on how dare the Russians interfere with the American election. You think the USA hasn’t interfered with enough elections in other countries already?

Food is pretty basic here too. Chicken, pork, rice and beans – repeat, repeat. Our tour was by G Adventures, only 15 of us from all over the world – mostly young people (meaning under 40). Havana has some nice hotels, but our tour led us out to the country where we stayed in Casa’s (home stays). Basic food and accommodation but a great chance to meet the people and get a real feel for the country.

There are a lot of material things Cubans don’t have, but what they do have is free education, including university, all health cover and free housing. No one is hungry, no beggars, no homelessness, no drugs and very little crime. You can walk the streets at night and the only thing that will disturb you is the music that never ceases until the wee hours of the morning.

Did you know that all Cuban cigars are hand rolled? I didn’t. I now know how to smoke a cigar. More complicated than a Japanese tea ceremony. First, pick your cigar (I choose a Cohiba, the cigar choice of Churchill and Castro). Then, take the centre vein out of the tobacco leaf which contains the nicotine (that’s what we were told). So, in fact, the cigar is a healthy cigarette (hey, don’t shoot the messenger, I’m only repeating what I was told). Then you light your cigar with a cedar stick, without putting it in your mouth. Then it’s ‘suck suck blow,’ but never taking the smoke into your lungs. Oh, and you need a small glass of rum too. And when you have finished your cigar, you rest it in an ashtray until it goes out. And you never re-light a half-finished cigar unless you have a cigar cutter. We were told these are all the tell-tale signs of a gentleman.

I was damned exhausted after our 10 days in Cuba, the heat was stifling; so if you’re thinking about Cuba, give August a miss. So many good things about the country to talk about; the music, the people and the history. But they want what we have too. It is not quaint to see a farmer ploughing his field with 2 oxen and a single disc plough. It’s bloody back breaking work. He wants a tractor. You share a road with horses and carts. People walk miles and miles to hitch a ride to town. No public transport in most of the country. Yes, private enterprise is starting with little business’s opening up, but what they desperately need is trade and more tourism.

It is a complicated country and who knows what will happen in the next few years? Will the government relax its borders? But they say here “we are Cuban” which sort of means we are tough and we are resilient. And their beautiful country is proof that they are all those things and more.

So, here we are now in the Florida Keys having a relax. Living life like a Beach Boys song. Onto The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico now.

Hooroo

Photos – some examples of some typical Cuban cars and architecture, plus a picture from the airport of some women travelling from Mexico to Cuba with a case full of toilet paper (the little luxuries they don’t have).