My love for Cuba, began many years ago in a little dance studio in Melbourne Australia learning to dance Salsa with Cuban teacher. A dance that has changed my life forever. It introduced me to the Cuban culture, the Spanish language and gave me a new found confidence.
And so the journey began, with a 2 week dance and culture tour organised by my Cuban dance teacher from long ago for his Melbourne students. I had left Melbourne at this stage and was living in London. So I took a solo trip from London to Havana to join the tour from there. These couple of weeks opened my eyes to so much. I left feeling more intrigued about this Island and passionate for its culture and people. And of course the dancing, which was what drew me towards it in the first place. I vowed to return, two weeks was just a teaser and there was so much more I wanted to see and discover about this island. 12 months later, I breathed that Cuban air again, this time I had 30 days to amerce myself in it all.
Through my eyes
Most tourists on arranged tours will not see what I saw. The two weeks dance and cultural tour was a completely different experience to the one 30 days I spend living with and being surrounded by the everyday people of Cuba. I loved both experiences and feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to see both sides of the coin. Below is my interpretation of this unique, beautiful island in pictures, because words alone cannot convey what this island has to offer.
Classic cars from the 50’s are still the main means of transport.
Here in Cuba, everyone knows their neighbors, in fact, they know the whole street, and they do not avoid talking to each other like most do in Australia and England. Everyone knows each other and reach out to one another, a real human connection, a real sense of community. You walk across the road, you can get your skirt hammed up, a few doors down, a man will fix your broken appliances, another neighbour will cut your hair, and another will welcome you into their home so you can buy their homemade ” Duro Frio” – a flavoured hard frozen ice block refreshment. – Don’t forget to bring your own cup -.
The children are out on the streets playing football even if the ball is flat, they play with instruments they made themselves put together with bottle tops and scraps they find on the streets, you find them sliding down the streets on their homemade wooden carts, they are not in front of the TV or their tablets or mobile phones lost in front of computer games. Children live in Cuba, they really live and happiness radiates from them. How can this be? How can they have so little yet have so much?
Children playing football outdoors
Culture/ Music / Dance
Dancing and music are what attracted me to Cuba in the first place, and although you will often hear music played on the streets and restaurants, a real cultural experience was visiting ‘The Hamel Alley’. The venue is a great place to experience the Afro Cuban culture for Santeria rituals. The best time to visit is on Sundays between 11 am – 3.00pm. This is when the Santeria priests and participants dance to the rumba rhythms and stirred up by the atmosphere and the drums invoke the spirits of the Orishas, the Santeria Gods.
Its success has made the event a little “commercial”, however, my experience was surrounded by many locals who come to be part of the ritual adding to the experience. On the downside, many locals also come as they are attracted by the tourists, so watch out for hustlers and pickpockets, and expect to make a donation at the end or purchase a CD.
It’s not for everyone as it’s loud, hot, and crowded, but the atmosphere is great, and a Cuban experience everyone should experience.
When I think of Trinidad I think of colours, homes painted in vibrant bright colours, the cobbled streets, and dancing salsa under the moonlight. It’s very different to Havana, if you think Havana is stuck in a time warp, Trinidad will take you back even further. The historical center of Trinidad is the best to see by foot, cars are not permitted in the center and so you will see donkeys being used as a means of transport.
Colourful Houses in Trinidad
For me, interacting with the locals is a must when visiting any town and this young man in the below picture was kind enough to share his passion and talent for his artwork with us. He not only agreed, but was honored to be photographed naturally at his work. A donation for his participation was not expected, but I believe in supporting such cultures, talent, and these beautiful people who through no fault of their own don’t earn enough to make a decent living.
Local painter in Trinidad
With recent more relaxed trading terms, more private restaurants are showing up and you can find decent food if you look for it. I personally struggled a little with quick on the go street food, it was very limited and if you are nutritiously conscious, white sweet bread packed with cheese and ham is not usually part of my diet. But you adjust. Eating out in restaurants was a different experience, I normally ordered fish or chicken with rice to keep it healthy. And at least you know that the chicken is fresh and was probably killed just before cooking, no battery hens here! And those eggs you ate for breakfast, you know they are fresh too.
Trying to keep it healthy – Lobster with Rice and uninvited fried bananas.
At Restaurant “La Osnaldo” opposite Le Capatolo in the heart of Havana. Two-course meal for 2 and a jug of Sangria, all for USD$35. – Beat that! (Apologies to Vegetarians)
The conditions I saw some of the housing in was appalling, the family I met on a previous visit was an extended family of 8 people living in a house that only had two bedrooms. The house was infested with termites and I wondered how much longer it will stand for before it comes crumbling down. This was not uncommon, in my 30 days in Cuba I saw this happen twice, houses just crumble to the ground. The toilet of the family I was visiting had no running water, I had to go fetch a bucket of rainwater from outside before utilising it. I was given newspaper for toilet paper, I saw condoms being blown up in place of balloons for a birthday celebration because they are cheaper. But I did not complain, it was all part of the “real” Cuban experience and a real eye-opener. On the contrast, I also visited a home of a Cuban family where there was an obvious difference in the quality of living standards. This family had relatives living in America, therefore sending money for support. I found that food in Cuba is scares, I was shocked to see their mini supermarkets, the shelves are bare and whilst I take advantage of browsing down Coles or Sainsbury’s supermarket aisle who have dedicated half an entire aisle to different breakfast cereals, their shelves display one or two if you are lucky of each item. There are no choices here. Another vision that sticks in my mind is a lady in a wheelchair being pushed around by who I assume was a relative. The wheelchair had no tyres and was functioning on its bear rims. A sad sad vision to witness.
Houses falling apart.
Houses in Central Havana looking in poor condition.
In recent years, the Cuban government has slowly and incrementally implemented limited economic reforms, including allowing Cubans to buy electronic appliances and cell phones, stay in hotels, and buy and sell used cars. Just this year the Cubans have also been given limited access to the internet. The Cuban government also opened up some retail services to “self-employment,” leading to the rise of so-called “cuentapropistas” or entrepreneurs. Recent moves include permitting the private ownership and sale of real estate and new vehicles, previously Cuban’s where only permitted to exchange property and vehicles. Private farmers are now permitted to sell agricultural goods directly to hotels and expanding categories of self-employment. Despite these reforms, the average Cuban’s standard of living remains at a lower level than before the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s which was catastrophic to Cuba and it’s economy.
I had so many unanswered questions about Cuba’s economic state. Fidel Castro’s name Graffitied all over Cuba found everywhere you go. Why was there so much expression of love for this Communist leader who has lead this once beautiful vibrant island to the crumbling state it is now, stuck in time warp without the basic necessities? Why are doctors only earning the equivalent of USD$30 a month, and needing to have a second job to make ends meet? Why are professional teachers quitting their profession to set up a hairdressing salon in the front room of their crumbling home? Why is the national newspaper only contains 4 pages and bears news only about Cuba? Why are the Cuban people not free to leave Cuba and travel freely? I had to do a little research to get these answers and speaking to the locals about these affairs is forbidden, they simply won’t talk about it as they do not have freedom of speech. Yet most Cubans who have left Cuba, speak of their previous home with such pride and love.
In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American war, a defeated Spain signed the rights to its territories — including Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam — over to the U.S. This subsequently granted Cuba its independence from Spain, but with the stipulation that the U.S. could intervene in the country’s affairs if necessary (later relinquished). For the next half-century, the two countries cooperated, with the U.S. heavily investing in Cuba’s economy. Then came the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959, after multiple years and a few attempts, Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas successfully overthrew the corrupt government of President General Fulgencio Batista. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, relations between the U.S and Cuba quickly became hostile. By 1960, Castro’s government had seized private land, nationalised hundreds of private companies — including several local subsidiaries of U.S. corporations — and taxed American products so heavily that U.S. exports were halved in just two years. The U.S than under Eisenhower Administration responded by imposing trade restrictions on everything except food and medical supplies. Subsequently, Castro expanded trade with the Soviet Union instead. The U.S. responded by cutting all diplomatic ties and President Kennedy issued the permanent embargo on Feb. 7, 1962. Within a few years Cuba, whose economy relied on the use of American-made products, became a shell of its former self. Food consumption decreased, electronic goods were harder to come by. With no way to import American cars, Cubans watched their pre-embargo sedans rust into jalopies. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 affected Cuba drastically. For decades, the Soviet Union had been Cuba’s principal source of arms, trade, and economic assistance. After the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered an era of economic hardship known as the “Special Period in time of Peace”. A 2001 agreement to sell food to Cuba in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle has so far remained in place; the United States is now Cuba’s main supplier of food, with sales reaching $710 million in 2008. Changes and reforms are still being made between Cuba and America, whether for better or worse, only time will tell.