What a singularly strange place Cuba is to be sure. Caribbean – but not really, American – only superficially, Communist friendly – increasingly less so, a haven for Canadians – definitely.
The first thing that struck me about Havana was the sheer lack of global brands – nada de Coca Cola, nada de Starbucks, nada de Macdonalds and nada every other big franchise one can think of. Why even Beijing has a KFC but not Havana. Ever since the Bay of Pigs “falling out” in the early 60s American capitalist products have been debarred from Cuban shelves. Even now Americans are not generally allowed to holiday there. Only visits to family members or trips for an educational purpose are permitted and even though the American embassy was reopened in 2015 it is still regarded with a degree of suspicion. Will the thaw continue now that Fidel has died? Possibly. Or, now that Donald J. has been inaugurated, possibly not!
So America is a no – no (hence all those Canadians??) One notable exception are the Chevys, Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, etc which fill the streets. All from pre the 1960s, lovingly restored and carefully tended with judicious use of Cuban Chrome (a type of foil duct tape) these blasts from the past act as family vehicles as well as the more obvious tourist trap taxis. They are there because Cuba imported them in abundance during the 40s and 50s but then came the trade sanctions so suddenly there were no more repair parts. The flood of imported vehicles also dried up and a cottage/cabana industry grew up to preserve the largest collection of vintage vehicles you are likely to see outside the Brighton rally. And yes we did take a ride in one – an open top 1943 Chevy. This took us all round the sights of Havana. Around Cuban Chinatown, out by Plaza de la Revolución with its huge murals of Fidel and Che, all along the Malecón (sea front and harbour). Perhaps the most unexpected sight was the statue of John Lennon sitting on a park bench (“they say you want a revolution!”). Designed with removable granny glasses there is now a lady attendant who looks after these and pops them on the statue for the tourist photos – apparently the original ones kept getting stolen.
The only bit of Havana you can’t really see from a car is the old town – the expected mish mash of narrow cobbled winding strets and alleyways with cafes every few yards. Here also is the ancient cathedral and some very Spanish looking squares. There are many tourist shops and “regular” shops. The latter are often run by the state and featured queues of locals outside trying to get their hands on the latest delivery of fruit or toiletries. There are clear shortages of basics still and even if one is temped to buy something (cheap rip-off cigars, anyone?) there is still the notorious double currency to negotiate. Both local pesos and tourist money exists – a cup of Cuban coffee might therefore cost 2 or 200 depending on the denominations you’re working in. And of course you can’t take currency in or out – neither are the airports particularly keen on resupplying your own currency when you leave. We had to make do with Euros rather than stirling before flying out – have these people never heard of Brexit?
Hotels are pretty acceptable though restaurants are less inspiring; Christmas dinner was half a chicken – the bottom half! But then, of course, the Cubans don’t really do Christmas. On December 25th it appeared to be just a normal day though it was in fact a public holiday. Markets were bustling, people were hustling. There is clear evidence of poverty in many quarters but everyone seems remarkably happy and friendly. The apparently ceaseless sound of the song “Guantanamera” floated constantly above the crowds (although a love song it hails from the Cuban region of Guantanamo Bay and therefore now has distinctly unfortunate overtones to Western ears). Still, nudging 25 degrees in the middle of
December can’t be bad and reading Graham Greene’s famous novel set in the city gained a new resonance as the tale of Mr Wormald the vacuum cleaner salseman and reluctant double agent became all too believeable following visits to the places that are mentioned in the book.
After three days in the capital it was off to Varadero some 80 miles from Havana and a beach resort purportedly built by Russian oligarchs. This was a bit more recognisable as a standard Caribbean resort featuring miles of white sand, all inclusive hotels, and a laid back attitude for those seeking some holiday down time. It soon became evident that the vast majority of the peninsula was owned by just a handful of international chains notably the Spanish Iberostar which has links to the Nadal family (he of tennis fame). No room for poverty here – quite the reverse. Opulence, luxury and excess abounded. The hotel shop even had Coca Cola (though admittedly imported via Mexico and therefore quite expensive).
The beach area and hotel grounds was a haven for wildlife with many species of gecko and birds such as the tri coloured trogon, the national bird whose red, white and blue colouring is echoed in the national flag (and definitley nothing to do with the same hues on the stars and stripes!) There was also the bee hummingbird, at only 5 cm the smallest of the species and far too quick for me to capture on camera – though this guy seems to have managed it
Like Christmas, New Year was relatively muted though there was a knees up for the internationals around the pool at midnight. There was intriguingly some little mounds of what I can only assume was talcum powder in the lavabos that evening – must have been a local custom!
It was rather a shock to come back to cold grey leaden skies and the freezing temperatures of London. Even more of a “shock” was the obvious enfranchisement (literally) of the streets by Costa Coffee et al. Ah well, I suppose there’s no avoiding it!