Cuba was our honeymoon destination but we decided to go there even before the actual wedding. That could wait a little – Cuba not so much. As I come from an ex communistic country, I wanted to see how that old regime is holding on at the other end of the world.
To be honest, we were a couple of years too late. Yes, Cuba still has communism, but it is so obviously dying out. Two different currencies (money for locals and money for tourists) make you see that things are really going downhill. Normal jobs (doctors, scientists, government workers…) are paid in local currency (CUP) which is worth next to nothing, so they are desperately poor. On the other hand, everyone who works with tourists (taxi drivers, room rentals, all sorts of guides) get paid in tourist currency (CUC). That has approximately the value of an EURO. Why would anyone want to be a doctor who can barely survive, if he can be a taxi driver and earn a monthly doctor salary in a single day?
We landed in Havana where we stayed for a few days before renting a car and heading for a short road trip east and west.
We had a room reservation in an old colonial casa particular in the suburbs of Havana. The house was huge and no one spoke english. (Neither did anyone else later through out the trip.) Luckily I used to watch some Mexican soap operas and I could speak a little Spanish. (Now here’s a lesson: soap operas are actually not a complete waste of time.)
On our first day, we decided to take a walk to the centre of Havana. That turned out to be a mission impossible. We don’t really look like cubans (skin too pale) and a biketaxi driver spotted us immediately. He wanted to drive us to the centre and we couldn’t shake him off. Eventually we caved in and climbed on his back seats. Now, that’s a funny device. A front part of a normal bike is attached to a double car seat at the back and with a little roof for so needed shadow. I have to admit that travelling this way is really nice, but we weren’t comfortable because we felt like some rich lazy lords taking advantage of a poor taxi biker. It was hot and he was pushing the pedals driving our (luckily very low weight) asses to the centre. He even made an effort of pointing all the main attractions that we drove by. We paid him more than generously and the feeling of being an rich exploiter faded away when we later realised that the amount was about an average month salary. Not much for us but a lot for him and his family. Eventually you start to see thing differently.
One of the first things we went to see in Havana was Lennon park. A park dedicated to John Lennon and his statue is sitting on a park bench waiting for tourists to seat next to him and take pictures. When we tried to do that a security guy came to us and we thought we were in some kind of trouble. But no, he just came to put some glasses on Lennon’s nose and explained that if he leaves them on, they get stolen on regularly bases. So he just waits for tourists to come to the statue and brings the glasses and when they are done, he takes them back again.
The centre of Havana was very lively and colourful. Full of little parks and flowers (it was march) and it seemed quite neat and tidy. Later on we walked a few blocks away from the centre and you could see the difference. The streets were not paved anymore and there was more dirt and trash everywhere. We were the only tourists walking there and you could tell that this was the real Havana. But despite the obvious poverty, the happiest kids I have ever seen where just there. Playing baseball on a muddy street, with a wooden tree branch and a bottle cup for a ball. And biggest carefree smiles ever.
A special treat for the artistic souls is a little street called Callejon de Hamel, which is quite short but very colorful. Poetry written on bathtubs built in wall-fence and things like that. It’s also the location of many local art galleries (just basement-style like galleries – don’t expect a professional curator to guide you through some famous art collection).
A big part of the sea shore of Havana is Malecon – sort of a seaside promenade but without a beautiful sandy beach to it. (For nice beaches it’s best to go a few kilometres east of Havana.) Malecon was pretty empty when we were there (during the day) – but somebody warned us that at the evening everything comes to life. Sadly most of the happening is prostitution. (We saw the popularity of that on the beaches near Havana too.)
A few km east of Havana sandy beaches start and don’t stop all the way to Varadero (a fancy high end resort for rich tourists that locals can’t even enter unless they work there). We settled in a small local town of Guanabo where we were the only foreigners. It was a complete opposite of the rest of our trip trough Cuba. Nobody harassed us for anything (taxis or or any other services) and that was the most peaceful 4 days in Cuba. They had only one restaurant but it was incredibly cheap and we even found a local store that had some chocolate bars. In all of Cuba this was the only place we saw chocolate (on our last day) and for a chocoholic like me, those two weeks of Cuba was like an involuntary detox.
Although the traces of revolution were still present on every step (revolutionary and patriotic graffiti, pictures of El Comandante and Che Guevara..), there was a lot of hustle around the pope’s visit which was about to happen in a few days. Communism doesn’t go very well with religion, so the pope’s visit was really a big deal. At that time Fidel Castro was still alive (April 2012) and he and the pope apparently had a great time together, since Castro immediately announced a new holiday (Good Friday). That was a new work free day for Cubans and a big problem for us. That Friday was our last day on Cuba and on that same morning our landlady told us about the new holiday. All the banks were closed and ATM’s on Cuba don’t really exist, so we had no money for food. Luckily we paid the room in advance. We spent our last day chewing snack leftovers and peanuts we found in our pockets and bags. Despite that, Cuba left a nice exotic Caribbean taste in our memories.