For 10 days three friends and I travelled around Cuba. I’d love to say we chose to go there for some very intellectual reason, but in reality we went because 2 of my friends had been travelling around South America and Cuba was a bit closer and cheaper than going onto the continent to join them. I was, however, extremely intrigued to see a country that I expected to be completely different to anywhere I had ever visited, and I was not disappointed in this respect.
Without sounding too patronising (I hope, do tell me if I’m wrong!), Cuba seemed to be a country of contradictions. The people are incredibly generous, with their equivalent of a hostel being a room in a persons house – casas particulares – where you can also get food and invaluable advice and help organising activities and trips. Yet you can’t help but feel like a walking cash machine as you walk down a street – constant and unrelenting calls of “Taxi, taxi” (and if you say no then they may as well try “Boyfriend, you free for love?”) The country is absolutely beautiful, as you will see later with my pictures, but outside of the main tourist areas in cities, buildings are left to crumble, with paint peeling or entirely faded.
These contrasts made me feel both uncomfortable and very privileged. It was hard to deny that I come from a country where my income isn’t limited, where I am not forced to help with the harvest when yields are low, or where the newspapers are only 1o pages, and contain no criticism of the government whatsoever (many thanks to our taxi driver who gave us his Granma after a lengthy discussion about the state of Cuba); I have an arguably much easier life than cubans, and it is hard for me to begrudge them wanting to make some money out of undeniably better off tourists. But at the same time it does make it harder to warm to the population as a whole when you are constantly being called upon to part with your money for using a toilet.
However, my privileged feeling stems from the fact that I have (pretty much) got to see the real Cuba. The gritty, still resolutely and unapologetically communist Cuba that fascinates and horrifies me in equal mesure. I saw hundreds of propaganda messages of “Patria o Muerte” and “Todo para el socialismo” painted on rural homes, I saw the poster in the airport that called the 5 Cuban terrorists “unfairly accused” of trying to blow up Cuban emigrés in Miami, and I got to speak to a taxi driver who was completely honest in telling us about corrupt traffic police and his opinion that a successful, powerful government will always limit the press. I don’t think this Cuba will last long. With Raúl Castro now in charge after the abdication of Fidel in 2008 restrictions are being lifted (albeit slowly and minimally at the moment); Cubans can travel more freely without hugely expensive bureaucratic processes, and I think this will lead the way to more free travel generally, especially for Americans to Cuba. While this represents a political victory, and undoubtedly an improvement in Cuba’s global relations, I cannot help but feel nervous that with an influx of American interests Cuba will lose some of the uniqueness that I was able to experience. It was a complete culture shock for me to arrive in a place where internet is the hardest thing to come by, where residential buildings are allowed to fall into a clearly unsafe condition, and where a communist state isn’t just a social idea but the power which drives everyday life. Of course I do not condone the activities of the Cuban (or indeed the American) administration that limits access to medicines, food and necessary consumer goods, and I would never paint myself a communist, or even close to it. However I think that it is unavoidable that tourism and an influx of American products and ideas will change Cuba irreparably, albeit mostly for the better. This change will mean a loss of a truly unique culture that I found completely fascinating, and I only regret that we had to limit the trip to the 3 cities we visited.
Without further ado, here are just a few of my pictures from the trip!
Under the colonnade of the Gran Teatro de la Habana
El Capitolo, Havana
View of the Canal de Entrada, Havana
The Cuban flag, hanging in the Museo de la Revolucion
View of Iglesia de la Santísima, Plaza Mayor, Trinidad
El Nicho waterfalls, between Trinidad & Cienfuegos
The plunge pool which we jumped into at El Nicho
El Nicho waterfalls
Hotel la Union, Cienfuegos (our night of luxury in the middle of the trip)
Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion, Parque Marti, Cienfuegos
Sign for the ‘Cuban 5’, with their slogan ‘Volveran’ (They will return)
City Hall, Parque Marti, Cienfuegos
On playas del Este, just outside of Havana, for our last day
Che Guevara, Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana
I would really urge anyone who can to go to Cuba. It is an amazing country, and if you take the time to get out of the hotel or off the beach (although there are some truly beautiful beaches), you will get to see a glimpse of a way of life that is completely alien to an outsider.