I have just devoured platefuls of plane food. Lukewarm perspiring chicken plonked in greasy matrimony with something green broiled beyond recognition. Every soggy mouthful a deliverance (context later).
Serge and I are recovering from the first leg of the trip celebrating our marriage.
So as I enjoyed the uniquely pungent cocktail that microwaved food and toilet fumes create in an enclosed space, my thoughts turned to the preceding week.
In many ways, on paper, Cuba was what we expected. A rainbow of sunshine, vivid architecture and vintage cars. However, postcard expectations are slippery things.
Havana is vision of once glorious architecture and pre-revolutionary monuments. The flamboyantly coloured neo-classical buildings are marked with the history of neglect. Houses once splendid claimed by nature; corroded by the salt and winds blowing in from the ocean. A city fatigued by poverty. A beautiful ruin. Here buildings regularly collapse into rubble – something that Cubans refer to as derrumbe. Living space is tight. Cubans live cheek by jowl, multiple generations and families crowded into the smallest of one bedroom apartments. No running water, intermittent electricity and poor sanitation.
The streets teem with people. It’s little surprise given the squalor indoors and mind-fogging heat. So they just hang, with nowhere to go and nowhere to be. People hawking cigars and cheese. Young men crouched staring at passers by. Old prostitutes as derelict as the buildings they lean against. It’s hard to believe that this is “the Triunfo” which in Cuba refers to the Triumph of the Revolution in 1959.
The backdrop is wealthy American tourists in their white linen shirts, panamas and thousand dollar cameras. They are everywhere, sipping rum in the bars and hanging out of old American cars, which steadily splutter along.
I organise the transport. My husband buries his face in his hands as our steed arrives. A bubblegum pink Buick convertible worthy of Dolly Parton. So off we go, me and my surly Russian in his novelty cowboy hat.
Everyone is curious about where we are from. In Cuba, our responses elicit a rare and welcome reversal of sentiment. Serge being Russian isn’t treated like an unfortunate affliction or greeted with dumb ignorant questions about Russian politics. Instead it’s my accent and British upbringing that are regarded with cool indifference.
Capitalism seems to be trickling in slowly, around the fraying edges of the system. There is a robust black economy with people earning on the economic fringes of what is permissible. The government led by Raul Castro has of late been experimenting with socio-economic reform and now allows fledgling commerce. Having exhausted all touristic possibility we left Havana for the gorgeous beach resort of Varadero. On the beach we matched the enthusiasm of an enterprising local on his offer of all you can drink. The next morning was a shit show.
I reserve a paragraph for our accommodation. The Saratoga. Consensus awards it the accolade of Havana’s best hotel. There’s a category of people who pay for pain and humiliation. Staying at the Saratoga I joined this privileged elite. Walls wet with humidity and damp. Strange and mysterious odours. Stained pillows and duvets. Showers caked with the scale of bodily detritus; pubes and toenails in the plughole. I’m afraid it’s just too traumatic for me to continue. Pool was nice though.
I hope you like rice. If you do, I hope you like it with lentils; for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For the locals, this is their reality. Our guide explained that food shortages mean that ordinary Cubans do not enjoy much else. Even basic ingredients like flour are all but impossible to get hold of. Beef and milk are scarce (it is a criminal offence to slaughter a cow without special permission) and the country’s plentiful seafood is all exported or fed to tourists.
The state owned restaurants are purveyors of starchy stodge and tinned vegetables. A better option is one of the paladars, private restaurants in people’s homes. We managed to get a reservation at Havana’s premier paladar, Dona Eutimia, a small homely restaurant serving traditional Cuban fare. The food was definitely better than elsewhere, but it didn’t give me that Meg Ryan moment. From all the places we went, the only one I would recommend is El Litoral which delivered pleasure befitting its name.
Before you go
Now, if you’re still with me, to the more mundane aspects of tourism in Cuba. The first thing you need to know is that Cuba may well be the most romanticised destination there is. For some (like me), this will make disappointment an inevitability.
Also, allow me correct the misconception that Cuba is cheap – it is anything but. More importantly the hospitality standards are abysmal. So if you are after some winter sun, romance, a beach holiday or anything that involves getting away from it all – I counsel you not to come here. You would be better off going anywhere else.
Havana is interesting for a few days as a historical/cultural destination (although I can think of better); but you will need a good guide - self-censorship means you won’t necessarily get the full picture.
Finally, Havana is many things. Most of them you would have expected. But it is the experience of those expectations that's so unexpected. Get me? Maybe, just maybe, if you have been there, you'll know what I mean.
p.s. the credit for the photos looking snazzier than usual goes to Serge! Thank you :)