The PA system crackles into life as the pilot nervously stutters his way through his English translation. After a moment of confusion, I manage to gain an understanding that we are to keep our seatbelts on, as it is bumpy, and we are about to begin our descent into Havana, Cuba. As I strain to look out the window from my aisle seat, I try to imagine what the next couple of weeks have in store for me.
In my mind, Cuba has always conjured up romantic notions of paradise. As we descend, I give up my attempts to see out of the window, close my eyes and see palm trees, old men smoking sweetly scented cigars, the Buena Vista Social Club in full swing and attractive women strolling along perfect beaches drinking mojitos. All the while, old cars slowly rumble by as their drivers tip their hats to those passing by. I am jolted back to reality as the plane bounces onto the runway and rapidly applies the brakes.
I am visiting Cuba at a time in which its history is at a major turning point. My stay in coincides with expectations of the US enforced trade embargo being lifted, the historic visit of President Obama and, perhaps more importantly, the free open-air Rolling Stones concert!
Arriving in Havana, we drive the short distance from the airport to the centre of town as our driver, Charles enthusiastically points out some significant sites. One that I instantly recognise is the Plaza del la Revolucion with its enormous eight-storey high mural of Che Guevara. One of the first things you realise upon arriving in Cuba is how old things look. Cars from the mid 1950s grumble through the streets spitting smoke as they pass crumbling, grand colonial houses and buildings that line the wide boulevards. It seems that both the cars and buildings haven’t seen a bit of maintenance since the revolution took place in 1959.
Within an hour we had dumped our packs, hailed down a yellow 1954 Buick convertible, animatedly haggled with the driver and spent the afternoon taking in the sites of the Old Town and Eastern Havana from its back seat. As we cruised along the Malecón – the road that follows the waterfront, we passed buildings in ruin, children playing baseball in the streets and an assortment of grand statues, many of which had seen better days. It became clear early on that my romantic dreams of Cuba needed a little adjusting. Our driver, Ramon had been lucky enough to inherit his car from his grandfather. He told me that he makes a comfortable living driving tourists around Havana but is also looking forward to the changes that the lifting of the embargo will bring- as long as it wasn’t McDonald’s or too many Starbucks cafes.
After a few days in Havana enjoying the food and drinks that the country is famous for, we decided to drive a few hours along a deserted highway out to Viñales, the tobacco growing capital of Cuba. Viñales was the change of pace that we needed and we spent a couple of days wondering around the town and surrounding farms. This was the Cuba we had come to see. We passed old men yelling directions to their buffalo as they ploughed the fields. We walked past thatched sheds filled to the brim with drying tobacco and we stopped off at a tobacco farm to see the cigar making process. It just so happened that the owner, Jose also made what he called “the best mojito in Cuba”. Sure it was 10am but who was I to argue with a man who had been rolling cigars and making mojitos for longer than I have walked this earth?! I have to give it to Jose, his mojitos are the best I’ve had in Cuba so far and his cigars aren’t bad either.
Whether it is strolling the streets of Old Havana, drinking Cuba Libres in bars with tattered posters on the walls paying homage to the heroes of the revolution or simply chatting to the owners of the small houses we stayed in, the Cuban people showed a thirst for knowledge about the outside world. They wanted to know what life was like in Australia and whether we knew of the history of Cuba and what we thought of it. Perhaps the funniest moment came when an old man, having heard me speak, stopped me in the street and asked if I had a kangaroo like Skippy when I was growing up. Believe it or not, Skippy was a popular kid’s show here in the 80’s. One thing that everyone I have spoken to, both young and old, has told me is that they believe the time for change in Cuba is overdue.
It has been well documented that Cuba is on the brink of change. While no one seems quite sure what this change will entail, the feeling is that it will be big! My take on what will happen in Cuba over the next five years is one of rapid expansion where the gap between rich and poor will grow. Some believe that this gap has already begun to appear in a society who for so long prided themselves on their people not going without. Overcoming, or at least attempting to prevent this from happening is one of the biggest challenges for a Communist government undergoing economic change.
Speaking with some of the Cuban people, it is clear that their main hope around this change are for all Cubans to have a better standard of living. Recently, laws were altered to allow for Cubans to own and run private businesses in Cuba. This change has seen the rapid increase in people running small hotels, or Casa Particulars. Charging, on average US$25-$40 a night for a room in their private house, these people earn in one day what many state workers earn in a month! I believe this is one place where the gap between rich and poor will begin to appear. Those with capital and business nous stand to make a fortune when the laws are overhauled and the American floodgates open. Those without are at risk of standing by and watching the American tourist trade fill the pockets of the newly formed middle-upper class.
While the gap between rich and poor is likely to grow, it is the access to unrestricted and uncontrolled media and information that will spark the biggest change in Cuban society. Surely this is the greatest concern to the government in Cuba, hence their reluctance to provide Internet coverage to their people. Internet access is extremely limited in Cuba and where it is available it is expensive and tightly restricted. I can’t access any news from home and even my personal banking website is blocked. It wasn’t until being here for a few days that I realised the irony in the fact that people have iPhones but no Internet coverage to make use of any features except the camera and making a simple old-fashioned call.
While in Havana we were lucky enough to make the short 5km walk to see the Rolling Stones play a free, open-air concert for the Cuban people. Along with the 500,000 other people standing in the field, I felt that I was watching history in the making. In a country that once outlawed listening to the Beatles and hip-hop, this concert alone is a sign that the times are changing. Speaking in broken Spanish to a middle-aged man who had spent his entire life in Havana, he excitedly told me that he had goose bumps at the thought of seeing Mick Jagger live in his hometown. The Stones didn’t disappoint. Somehow Mick Jagger still manages to dance his way through three hours with more gusto than I can muster in my early 30s. In typical Cuban style though, the toilet facilities at the concert consisted of five small cubicles positioned over stormwater drains in the gutter. As Start Me Up blared over the speakers, I couldn’t help but feel for the poor street sweeper who would be responsible for cleaning this section of road tomorrow.
Putting my romanticised and somewhat delusional visions of Cuba aside for a moment, this country is exactly how I wanted it to be. I feel blessed that I am seeing Cuba with its old crumbling buildings, classic cars and people lining up at public food distribution points trading tokens for sugar, rice and cigars. However, with change I fear that much of this will be lost. I wonder what it will be like when the embargo is lifted, the American dollars flood in and those with the means begin to make their own fortune while others sit idly by wondering what could have been.
One of the beauties of travel is having the ability to reflect on your own life and how it compares to time spent in another part of the world. While I had what turned out to be an unrealistic vision of Cuba I now realise that, for me its true beauty lays in the fact that it feels like the country and its people have been frozen in time. For nearly 60 years, this tiny island has sat less than 100 miles from the United States thumbing its nose to the greatest superpower the world has ever known. The Cuban people experienced extreme hardship when the Soviet Union collapsed, with many starving. They have supported and worked in an agrarian based economy where 90% of their yield, sweat and hard work goes to the government for mass-distribution, leaving them with a meagre 10% to sell in the hope of obtaining some of life’s simple comforts. I agree with Charles and Ramon, it is time for a change in Cuba. The challenge for the government is to ensure that the change is a positive one for all Cubans.