Plenty of travel memoirs give in to the seductive pressure of labeling a destination that is being visited as awesome, great, fun and omg wow. The picture perfect imagery through the hordes of travel websites is created as that of funk and electric colors. Often hiding behind the meaningless garb of ‘must visit’ and ‘cannot miss’, are hidden narratives that tell themselves after the initial euphoria subsides. What does it mean to be in a place is often very different from what comes across in the ’15 things to do’, in a place.
I land at the airport to North-Korean-ish wide roads. The electric green and neon pink cars stand out in the grey of the buildings. There is an intoxicating gush of diesel and cigars, fragrances that would stay and become reminiscent of this Caribbean Island forever. Behind the facade of abundance and glossy paint lies the chipping history which might get more audience once more visitors start pouring in.
Tourism in Cuba
Before US opened its ports for tourism, travel websites would not carry prices of hotels and bread and breakfasts. There was no Airbnb. Hotels were booked through government certified agencies only. The situation appears grim when one evening I did not know where are we sleeping. All hotels were booked and it came down to knocking doors and checking if they could take us in for the night. It doesn’t feel right to complaint about no running hot water in a Hilton. You wish to empathize, because this travel and tourism board government employee who is sitting behind the desk, waits in a queue every day at 4 am to acquire the rationed bread distributed free and prorate to all Cuban families. There is no explanation to the lack of everything and to these insufficiencies. There is all ubiquitous, slow-motion shaking of the head from left to right, to everything that is being asked for. If one were to subtitle it, it’d go something like, “Sorry my friend, can’t help you. Times are such”. Expecting an online reservation, something that travelers take so much for-granted is unavailable. In the era of Expedia and Airbnb, the reaction felt other worldly.
The rickshaw puller takes us to the much celebrated Cuban live musical performance that has made ‘Guantanamera’ much popular. Only for us to discover for every tourist he fetches here, he gets his promised free dinner. He did not lie about ‘Guantanamera’ being the best musical performance. He just did not disclose the whole truth that there was a discreet benefit for him.
The hotels are starkly reminiscent of Russian era. The chandeliers cigar-smoke filled hotel lobbies, hats, fur and pearls. The whole country seems ready for the film rolling. I am tempted to yell ‘action‘. The night tells a whole other story. Get off the glossy Cuba grid that we wish to focus on and just a block away off the tourist trails are stinky, leaking, dilapidated quarters allotted by the government. In Cuba, you can own nothing. The government is there to take care of everything you need. The same jobless youth, dressed up in rags to go nowhere women, surprisingly quiet and loitering around children. If Havana Central’s streets are not well lit, it is worth pondering where does the electricity come from and is used at. Crimes are rare, almost unheard of. Nobody steals. They don’t have to, because the government is taking care of everything.
The second most traveled to place, beach-city Varadero is a few restaurants run by expats. The place seems devoid of the political and social shadow that Havana lives in day in and day out. There are a few spas, beach shacks and pavements to walk on. Breakfast is difficult to find. It is unusually cold here for it to be qualified as a Caribbean island. Its proximity to Atlantic Ocean gives the chills sometimes. The party places are the hotels that run 24 hours and offer all you can eat or drink packages. These hotels could be anywhere in the world. An escape from what exists outside the periphery of these hotels.
Hand rolled Cuban cigars provide much employment and character to this island. Travelers throng with their cameras and money to take home a part of Cuba with them. The much famed cigar tour ends little adventurously. The tour guide locks us inside a room after the other tourists have walked out. Whispering too fast she says in Spanish, ‘Do not buy any cigars from here. I smuggle a few out every day. I will sell them to you at a decimated price.’ Just out of curiosity we agree to the ‘hard to say no to’ deal. It lands us in a dark staircase of a poor neighborhood. The money will have to handed over before unpacking the wooden cigar box and verifying its contents.
Something doesn’t add up. Calling off the deal leads to being pestered and followed on the street for a few blocks. It doesn’t feel I am under threat when stalked. It only feels that they are desperate. They have pride. They are not begging. They are trying to strike a deal. And save something today, because they don’t know what tomorrow holds for them.
A tricycle tour of Havana ends in me being cheated with. ‘The $10 was for getting you here. I have got you back as well. An additional $10 for that as well’. There is a self-righteous air in the eye contact. I can imagine the cycle rickshaw driver telling himself every night, ‘It is OK to cheat because those $10 extra is all I have got tonight’.
A sense of unreasonable mistrust crawls in. It also feels not-right to click selfies. A certain gloom that I has sensed in the air descends on me for a while.
Cuba is known for its refurbished and iconic cars. There is no statistics for how old and how many cars are whizzing around in the Havana. They are every color and every mark. They are old, ancient, needless to say. As if the cars have learnt to live like the Cubans do, with little maintenance and worn out spare parts. The cars are running on gasoline extracted with in the country, one of the very few employment generating government enterprises. One can rent these with a driver to take a tour within the city or travel elsewhere, like Varadero as we did. It is inexpensive and better maintained than the all-green taxis. The drivers can pose for a V for Victory sign the instant cameras are pointed at them. Just like the two year-olds these days, who, before learning to speak have acquired faking a smile for the lens.
He is everywhere. Starting from Plaza de la Revolucion to roadside souvenirs. I whiz past a “La revolucion es bueno”, the revolution is good sign painted on a wall. What good, I am yet to comprehend. The ‘post- Che – Fidel Castro – Raul Castro’ era is a scarily uncharted territory. —isms work when they have succeeded at the end. Success or failure, good or bad is a relative concept. Unless this is the end of the Cuba as we have known and grown up to know, it is premature to call it a failed or successful state. Now that the port of the country are being opened to US and the world, entering Cuba feels like a time machine. Everything is certainly pre-dated, to at least four decades ago.
The very famous cigar factory in HavanaWith the tourists expecting it to be a certain way, I feel protective towards the dwellers of this state living behind heavy curtains of communist shadow. Threatening what they have believed in for so long, fought for and paid the price of with no foreign investment and withholding of the financial aid that benevolent USA and former Soviet Union would extend in one up-man-ship.
In the face of extreme poverty, the employees try to make clandestine income by under-the-hood and behind-the-door sales to pocket the money. It doesn’t feel right, expensive four wheeled suitcases being unloaded from cars dating as old as 1950s.
Cuba’s claim to fame, mojitos and Hemingway may be able to sustain tourism for a while. But very soon, there would have to be a real deal thrown. Besides celebrated medicine studies, there is nothing to bank on the past laurels. Bored and tired eyes that are looking for something charming, expectant of a good news, in fact any news.
You visit a place finding or not, what you are looking for. The place has always been there, ready for exploration and interpretation with changing perspectives and times in tandem. Tagging a destination good or bad is juvenile. Respecting it for what it has become and how did it arrive to be is the least we as tourists can do.
After knowing about pre and post-cold-war era, it is now time for Cuba to brace up for the Instagram era.