Merely a week after returning from my month-long Cuba trip, I am already worried that my fabulous memories will soon get dimmer. So I am quickly jotting down my favourite experiences from my holiday – images of Cuba that I want to keep with me for life. It is a long, rambling blog post. But blame Cuba and not me!
Walking the streets of Old Havana
The crumbling colonial structures in Habana Vieja in pastel shades look fragile against the strong tropical winds. It’s hard to imagine people and commerce in these buildings. But the Cuban government is doing a great job of restoring and maintaining these old structures. The streets of Habana Vieja have a strange pull – they force you to wander, unabashedly peering into street-side souvenir shops, schools, old age homes and houses with inviting, open doors – the patina of age equally veiling all. I spent most of my time in Havana doing just this aimless wandering.
Too many happy moments. Walking up and down Callé Obispo to take in its heady buzz of activity and to feel like a Habañero. Lounging around in cafés at Plaza de Armas and Plaza Vieja for a lazy post-lunch drink while listening to the amazing musicians at the La Factoria micro-brewery. Watching street performers – men of steel to women on stilts. Plonking myself on the steps of practically any building and people-watching. Scanning through innumerable paintings of cars, drummers and La Bodeguita del Medio (Ernest Hemingway’s favourite mojito bar). I so wish I had bought more than 1 painting. Getting totally caught out in a tropical thunderstorm in the night, getting fully drenched and riding back to my Casa on a rickety bici-taxi struggling to keep its balance on flooded, cobblestone streets. Absolutely, a recipe for disaster! But I survived and lived to tell the tale.
Riding a vintage car
I will never forget my first sight of the vintage cars that Cuba is so famous for. What was an unfortunate impact of the U.S. Trade embargo has now become the calling card for Cuba. Most cars including taxis (barring a few Russian-make cars like Lada) are remnants of the pre-cold war era – Fords, Chevy’s and Studebakers from the 1940s and 1950s. With no access to new cars, the owners of these old cars have been forced to keep them in great shape. And they are now reaping the benefits of it – owners of convertibles especially are a happy lot ferrying around excited tourists. For all tourists, me included, it’s impossible to keep the camera away when you spot a vintage car. I thought the attraction would dim in a few days. But alas, I couldn’t have been more wrong. This one is a lasting love affair. With a hat on your head and rum in your blood, it’s easy to feel like Grace Kelly while driving around the city in a chauffeur-driven convertible.
Dancing in Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba was the best part of my trip. Joining a dance school in Cuba has been a dream for several years and the main reason for this trip. And Santiago did not disappoint. The music and dance scene is absolutely authentic and its a part of the city’s soul. While I did enjoy a little dancing in Trinidad and Viñales as well, Santiago was a world apart. The young and the old, the thin and the fat, men, women and children all seem to enjoy dancing. The variety in dance and music is amazing – Son, Salsa, Reggaeton, Bachata, Kizomba, Pilon, Chachacha, Rumba, Merengue. It’s hard to remember it all. But its fun to try it all – however awkwardly!
The icing on the cake was being told by our dance professors after a 2 week course that we would have to put on a salsa-son performance at the Jose Marti theatre as a part of their own performance to a paying audience. Unbelievable! And what an act of trust! This was such a bonus.
My feet are already itching to get back to Santiago for some more dancing.
Here’s a link to my post on Dancing in Santiago:
Ballet at the Alicia Alonso Theatre, Havana
Promoting the arts and culture were an integral part of the Revolution agenda. Dancers with potential are trained from a young age at no cost. Plus once they become a part of the Ballet Groups, they are paid salaries on par with doctors! So as to create no disincentive for people pursuing arts. As a result, under the guidance of Alicia Alonso, Cuban ballet has become world-class and has created some of the biggest dancers in the world, including Carlos Acosta (who was the star performer at the Royal Ballet, London for long years).
I crammed in 2 performances at the Alicia Alonso Gran Teatro de la habana. Much to my surprise, the performances I saw had excellent production quality, classy sets and the most graceful dancers – surpassing performances that I had seen at the Sydney Opera House and even the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow! The lovely costumes in fine lace and velvet in pastel shades were magical. But the best thing was the fact that apart from the Prima Ballerina, there were 2 other dancers who were good enough to be Prima ballerinas. Rare to see this.
Having an organic, instant cocktail on a farm in Viñales
My friend and I were on a long hike through the Valle de Viñales. Led by a local guide who spoke no English. We walked on red dirt paths through yuca, sugarcane and plantain farms. While we were in the wrong season to see the star of this valley, its famous tobacco fields, the rural landscape against the backdrop of the Mogote hills was still a spectacular salve to the urban streetscapes of Havana and Santiago. Our guide seemed to know everyone – we stopped again and again to speak to guajiros (rural cowboys) trotting away on their horses after a long day’s work at their fincas (farms). We casually stopped to talk to yet another farmer, who kindly invited us into his farm. Pretty soon he was showing us how to extract sugarcane juice on a traditional cane press and pointing at various fruits in his tree. Bah, said the Indian in me. Seen that a million times. But surprise, surprise. He plucked a lime and a pomelo. He chopped a pineapple with his machete and squeezed it to juice it. Within no time, the sugarcane and the pineapple juice had been mixed with locally sourced honey and generous doses of Guava rum (made locally again). Our cocktail was ready! With a deftly made wedge, the pomelo became our glass. He inserted a lime wedge into the pomelo and asked us to pour our drink in small quantities into the pomelo and before every sip, squeeze the pomelo and the lime wedge for some much-needed citrus zing. The best cocktail ever served in the fanciest way at a farm by a farmer! What an unexpected treat!
Playa Girón and the revolution stories
The Cuban Revolution has made a lasting impression on my mind. Most of all, the battle at Playa Girón or Bay of Pigs between an American trained force and a newly created Cuban force is stuff that legends are made of. David vs Goliath. The failure of the U.S. to succeed in this invasion of Cuba will continue to haunt them for time immemorial and serve as a motivation to all nations who are battling Neo-imperialism.
Here’s a full post dedicated to the revolution stories.
Street art in Cuba
The love for bright colours and patterns that Cubans have finds it way to their graffiti as well. It was pretty common to find alleys, walls and houses covered with graffiti, mosaic as well as interesting installations (bath-tubs seemed to be a weird favourite). It was interesting to walk through Callejon de Hamel and Fusterlandia in Havana, where individual artists inspired by religion and Gaudi respectively had let their art flood out of their studios into their neighbourhoods.
Exploring the streets of Trinidad
Cuba has 9 UNESCO world heritage sites and in my humble opinion, Trinidad is the queen of this list. My first impression of Trinidad wasn’t much, but as I drove into the centre of the city, I felt myself gape all around. The town seems like a frontier town. Horse carts and cowboys on horses are commonplace sights on the cobblestone streets and the pastel shades of the Andalusian style buildings make Trinidad look like a slice of Spain marooned on the Carribean. Cafés, bars and casas are tucked into little houses, all quite similar looking unless you remember the door number. The Plaza Mayor or the main square is the star of the town – dominated by the main church, Iglesia de la Santisíma Trinidad. At the centre of the Plaza is my favourite part, La Escalera, giant staircases that host the Casa de la musica and turn into a fun salsa dancing venue under the stars every night. The stairs lead up to an old roofless building which is rumoured to be the ruins of an old church. This is now a discotheque – a rather unique experience after all the salsa/son routines.
Drinking mojitos and daiquiris throughout the day
At 2.5 CUCs, it is pretty easy for anyone to be on a liquid diet in Cuba. Mojitos and Daiquiris are both Cuban inventions – I didn’t know this before going to Cuba. And well, Mojitos are pretty much treated like lemonade. So drink up all you can to battle the heat!
Being complimented a 100 times a day
A woman, especially a foreigner, cannot pass a street without being complimented! Cuban men just won’t allow that! Even if they are walking with their wives or girlfriends! Sounds of “Mi amore”, “Linda” and “Bonita” will follow you everywhere. And it’s fun to bask in this attention. While it lasts I guess. Good luck to my husband now. He has a hard act to follow:-)
Meeting amazing people
People who know me, slot me as an introvert. But, my Cuban holiday exposed me to so many amazing people that for a change, I was actually happy to talk and socialise! My amazing dance instructors, the other students at the dance school, my excellent guide, other travellers with whom I travelled around, random people I bumped into at cafés and on roads, my many dance partners, my lovely hosts at the Casa particular, the bookseller at Callé Heredia, the bar-tender at ARTex, my fellow-travellers at Cubana Air with whom I was stranded for 2 days, the neighbour who would greet me every day on Callé Basilio – I have a long list of people and happy moments that I want to retain forever.