Drinking Rum and Queuing until Infinity
“If this is going to be like spending three weeks in Home Affairs, I don’t think it’s going to be that much fun.” My wife was grumpy. We’d been in Cuba for only 3 hours and already she was grumpy. To be fair, her grumpiness was not without reason.
The bulk of our time in Cuba had been spent in queues and we hadn’t left the airport yet. It had started well enough – the queue for passport control had moved fairly quickly and it was only when I reached the front that we encountered our first problem. I always felt that when I travelled I projected an air of the “happy Jewish accountant wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt going on a beach holiday”. The Cuban official on duty thought otherwise. He eyed the tripod that I had attached to my backpack suspiciously. Of course, I am used to some odd reactions to my camera equipment by now – it had revealed my irresistible sex appeal before (see here) but despite my rugged good looks, I never felt it would mark me down as a tough war-correspondent or a devious propagandist. The Cuban official took me aside and started asking me about camera equipment. I don’t think he was interested in buying – Cuban government employees earn about $20 a month on average – and he seemed a bit non-plussed when I said it was just a hobby. A few more questions, posed in a chillingly calm fashion, like how many cameras did I have in my bag and were they big or small, then a consultation with a colleague, a few more questions, a couple of squint-eyed looks and a disdainful flick of the hand and I was eventually allowed to proceed. I think he grew tired of my clumsy Spanish or was just completely bewildered my other-worldly responses.
I joined San-Marié in the long, snaking line to get through security, something which you need to do before you can get your luggage. She’d given up her spot so she could keep an eye on me whilst I was being interrogated, although I never quite worked out what she planned to do if I was whisked away. The security line moved more slowly than Collen Maine going up a flight of stairs and it wasn’t hard to see why. As people exited passport control, they joined the line at random places, so those of us towards the back never progressed. Eventually, San-Marié lost patience with this particular phenomenon and started walking up to people who had weaseled into the line ahead of us and politely yet firmly informed them where the back of the queue was. Most of them sheepishly took the point and slouched to the back; others professed to understand neither English nor Spanish and simply shrugged their shoulders, remaining where they were. Fortunately, San-Marié had started a bit of a popular movement and others in the line followed her lead, informing the interlopers in a variety of languages that they should go to the back. And they did.
Of course, by the time we had passed through security, which seemed to serve no real purpose, our baggage carousel had long since stopped. I found my suitcase casually tossed to one side, whilst San-Marié’s was nowhere to be seen. We wandered around aimlessly for a while, receiving no help from either airport signage or airport personnel. Eventually I received a semi-coherent response from an indifferent airport employee and was directed to a spot about 300m away where I found San-Marié’s suitcase. My good deed for the year was completed as I accompanied a bewildered and despairing French backpacker, who spoke neither English nor Spanish, to the same place to find her backpack. I hope, in vain, no doubt, that the next time I visit France, the forces of cosmic tourist-karma will shower warm French hospitality upon me…
After some further confusion around customs forms, we were able to go in search of currency. Currency in Cuba is not a simple thing. When Che Guevara headed up the newly nationalised bank of Cuba in the early sixties, Cuba was seriously considering abolishing all money, so I suspect it is the vengeful gods of capitalism that now ensure that they have two different currencies – one largely for tourists and one for locals. Since no other money is useful in Cuba, and credit card usage virtually non-existent, it is essential to exchange money at the airport, or you are stuck at the airport. Four queues, two empty ATM machines and three unhelpful money changing booths later, we eventually found ourselves with some Cuban currency and heading into Havana. My wife was still grumpy.
After this somewhat inauspicious start, Cuba proved a revelation. Although at times challenging, both of us warmed to the relentless charm and optimism of the people and found ourselves fascinated by the way of life, history and dramatic changes being experienced in the country. Many tourists who visit Cuba do so to experience the ramshackle blend of dilapidated and rejuvenated buildings in Havana and to while away their time on white sandy beaches in a perfect climate at all-inclusive beach resorts – we chose instead to travel around most of the country to try and capture some small flavour of the Cuban lifestyle. As a result, we elected to stay in “casas particulares”.
As one of the steps in trying to liberate the economy and cope with the influx of tourists, the Cuban government has granted an increasing number of licences to private houses, allowing them to host tourists in a room in their house. All of these rooms are priced similarly, at around $25 a night, cheap for us, but a fortune for the average Cuban. The obvious advantage of this is that you get some small insight into day-to-day Cuban life, as you are effectively living with a family. The downside naturally is the variable nature of the accommodation, sometimes comfortable and quiet and at other times, a little bit less so. These occasions revealed resources that I never knew my wife possessed – I was impressed by her silent stoicism when faced with toilets without seats and showers without hot water and an apartment that was located on what must have been the busiest corner of Havana where trucks rumbling past competed for airtime with the neighbour, about 1 metre away, watching a TV soapie loudly until late at night and the youngster downstairs practising the violin.
Given the climate in Cuba, it is quite common for Cuban men to walk around at home and, very often, away from home without shirts. San-Marié felt that the likelihood of a man not wearing a shirt was directly proportional to the size of the man’s belly. Staying in casas particulares we were often greeted by the owner or the neighbour or the son or the second cousin drifting around the house without a shirt, flapping their bulky midriffs around with casual indifference. On more than one occasion, usually as we were sharing some rum, I was encouraged to remove my own shirt as “we are all family here.” Being the polite guest that I am, I naturally refused, not out of any false modesty, but rather because I didn’t want the locals to feel uncomfortable when they saw my physique.
We arrived in Havana about a day or two after Fidel Castro’s death and Cuba was in the midst of 9 days of official mourning. This meant that Cubans, who have a reputation for relaxed partying, drinking and dancing were not permitted to partake in any of these activities, at least not in public anyway. We asked our host for a restaurant recommendation and reading our wishes incorrectly, she sent us to a nearby restaurant which has pretensions of grandeur. It turned out to be a surreal experience, more Fawlty Towers than Heston Blumenthal. The restaurant was set in a famous (ugly) Cuban building and the light fittings scattered around the room were made up of small trios of candle-shaped lights, each trio seemingly only having one bulb that worked, dimly illuminating the white table cloths. Most of the tables were empty and those that did have people were either silent or disturbed only occasionally by the odd whispered murmur. Of course, everything that we wished to order from the menu was not available (a common theme throughout our stay in Cuba) but once we managed to find something that they did have, I sat back to admire the silver service. This involved the waitress carrying the food from the kitchen some distance away and depositing it on food trolley about two metres from our table, covering it a with a silver globe, moving the trolley about half a metre, removing the silver globe and then carrying the food to our table. I struggled to conceal my giggling at this sight and San-Marié tried her best to silence me, perhaps fearing that the mourning police might take me to task for my irreverent behaviour.
The one luxury that we afforded ourselves was the use of a rental car and driver, which came in the form of a Peugeot 306, 2001 model with 570 000km on the clock and Damián, a personable ex-paramedic from Santa Clara. We’d considered renting a car without a driver but this proved extremely difficult to do and the horror stories I’d heard of foreigners being kept in Cuba for months waiting for a court appearance after being involved in an accident, irrespective of culpability, scared me a little. Despite needing to turn off the aircon when going uphill, despite the odd emergency repairs needed to the fan and the fanbelt, despite the erratic windscreen wipers and the temperamental starter and doors that sometimes opened when we were driving, it was one of the best decisions we made. Driving in Cuba is extremely tricky even though there are few cars on the road – dodging tricycle cabs, horse-drawn carts and a myriad of bicycles and potholes is challenging, not to mention the complete lack of road signs and addresses which made navigation virtually impossible. Riding the buses, whilst considerably cheaper, was dismissed early on as we felt avoiding interaction with the mighty Cuban bureaucracy wherever possible would be instrumental to our happiness. Damián proved wonderful company too with a good sense of humour. He made the mistake of telling us early on that he had 3 kids and maybe a 4th on the way, an idea which he seemed less than enchanted about. I never fully understood what “maybe” a 4th on the way meant but I took to ribbing him regularly with this likelihood, which usually led to him shaking his head and saying, “It’s no possible” or “You no good man”.
Damián was a helpful fellow, often assisting us to make accommodation bookings and directing us to tourist sights that he thought we might find interesting. We communicated primarily in Spanish and on one occasion he pointed out the “Museum of Ballet”. San-Marié was obviously delighted at this and told me how good the Cubans were at ballet. The next day we asked Damián to take us to the museum and I failed to interpret his bemusement when I told him how much San-Marié loved ballet. Upon entering, we saw some old furniture, a restaurant and a bunch of German and Asian tourists, but a decided lack of leotards, tutus or pointe shoes. We soon discovered that we were not in the “Museum of Ballet” but in the “Museum of the Valley”. And no, valley in Spanish doesn’t really sound that much like ballet. The “museum” turned out to be an old palace with a good view and Damián’s quizzical looks and confusion at our enthusiasm suddenly made more sense.
Much of Cuba is a bit of a mystery, with rumour and gossip and conspiracy theories abounding. This is also the case with Santería, a syncretic religion which about 30 percent of the population apparently follow. Combining West African roots with Catholic saints, I confess I did not try too hard to dig into the mysteries of their particular belief system. From my vantage point all it looked like was a good excuse to dress up like ghosts and chop off the heads of chickens. Although thinking about it, those reasons seem about as good as any for a religion.
Havana is a striking city, with its mix of old and restored buildings and well-known fully restored classic cars, and whilst some of the other sights in the country are also attractive and interesting, a mix of colonial cities and beaches and strange mountainous outcrops, what I will remember most about Cuba is the people that we met and spoke to. We spent much of our time walking or driving the streets or sitting in our casa, talking to people in our functional yet stuttering Spanish, observing the signs on the streets and the activities of the locals, trying to find out about their lives and what Cuba was really like.
I’ll always remember celebrating my birthday with our casa family, who whipped up a special meal for me, including cake for the occasion and then gave me a bottle of good rum as a gift but not before making it clear that the gift was to be consumed immediately with them, which it was. We’ll remember meeting an old man working on a gutted Lada, convincing us that he’d have it running within a month. I believed him, unlike my “Industrial Arts” teacher at high school who claimed that he could build a Ferrari from scrap metal.
I’ll never forget the man we were introduced to who, when he found out that we were from South Africa, said that he had fought in the Angolan war, but he didn’t like talking about it. Thirty seconds later he was in tears but still insisted on having a photo taken with us. Or the 18-year old waiter who had never been on the Internet but didn’t seem particularly worried about it. Or the long queues that seemed to be everywhere, most often on days when eggs were available. Or the barrage of billboards, not showing McDonald’s or KFC, but propaganda, celebrating the party or Fidel or Che or the Revolution or the Fatherland or the unity of the people as Cuba’s greatest strength. Or the long afternoons, sitting on the Malecón in Havana or Cienfuegos or Baracoa, with its post-apocalyptic feel, drinking Havana Club rum from plastic cups with Damián and other locals as the sun dipped below the horizon.
I don’t know if it was the sputtering progress of our 2001 Peugeot with its 570 000km on the clock. Or the fact that we snorkelled in the Bay of Pigs. Or the cute endemic birds that we tracked down. Or if it was just the rum. But by the time we left Cuba, my wife wasn’t grumpy anymore.