Sunday, 19 February 2017

Cuba - You've stolen my heart

Cuba!  It is near impossible to aptly describe  the atmosphere of this amazing country.  Picture a place where sunlight shafts down into narrow streets lined with colourful but crumbling plaster buildings, where you dodge huge 1950's Chevrolets  competing for space with horse drawn carts and cycle taxis.  Imagine then suddenly bursting out into a magnificent square edged with elegant and gracious colonial buildings.  Reply to the many calls of 'Hola' as you pass by and envy the locals who sit on their doorsteps at the end of the day gossiping and calling up and down the street to one another.  Let yourself go and get into the music and dancing which fills the air from dawn to the next dawn while sampling a few mojitos and daiquiris which flow like, well, like wine. Channel Ernest Hemingway while drawing on a big fat cigar.  Revel in the fact that in Cuba people actually talk to each other, where the only heads you will see bowed over cell phones or tablets will be those of tourists. Admire the proud, independent spirit of the Cubans, who, despite years of economic sanctions, have made their own way in the world against all odds. Cuba is how the world used to be and  a visit is a precious insight into so much of what the modern world has lost. For a people who are economically very poor their good fortune has been to maintain a rich and abiding culture.

Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, Plaza de la Catedral, Havana (Habana is the local spelling)

As Lonely Planet says: ' No one could have invented Havana.  It's too audacious, too contradictory, and ...too damned beautiful. How it does it is anyone's guess' (pg60 Cuba)  From what I saw this quote equally applies to  other parts of Cuba too.

Back home in New Zealand I know for certain that I have left a piece of my soul in Cuba.  As someone who has traveled to close to 50 countries, and has favourites, Cuba has affected me like no other.  It may be just the sheer energy and spirit of the place, or the fact that time has stood still there, or perhaps the music has entered my blood. All I know is that on two particular occasions in Cuba I thought to myself ' I am as happy as it is possible to be'  While in Havana I messaged my family,  that I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Obviously, after just 10 days in Cuba I cannot presume to know or understand what life is truly like for a Cuban.  I did have some lengthy discussions with our local guide who offered lots of interesting information and it would seem life can be pretty tough.   The average income for everyone, university professors down to street cleaners, is 25CUC per month, that is equal to $25US.  On top of that every family is issued with a ration book for a monthly supply of staples such as flour, sugar, oil, salt and beans, but nevertheless the mind boggles as to how they survive on such a low income. Our guide, in his mid forties, was a university lecturer but is now a tour guide finding the generous tips improve his quality of life.  He has never been able to leave Cuba
Outside, always ready for a chat
 Or afford a car so has no passport and no driver's licence. We were constantly asked for soap and shampoo, which are scarce commodities and there are no supermarkets in Cuba.  The country has an excellent free education system and health care is also free but there is, apparently, a thriving black market and now that tourism is opening up there is a myriad of opportunities for locals.  Tourism, while wonderful for the local economy will, no doubt change the very things people go to Cuba to see.  Americans are now permitted to visit Cuba but the Cubans, understandably, have not forgotten their recent history and made no secret of the fact that they were delighted to find we weren't American.

Stand by for many more posts on Cuba.  It will be a pleasure for me to relive my travels!

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