Cuba is the colour of an ice cream sundae, the ones they served in diners in 1950’s America.
Havana is a a mash up of Colonial and Art Deco architecture, splashed in shades of lemon, strawberry, mint and vanilla. Even in the spruced up tourist centre, buildings are visibly crumbling. In Centro, a largely residential area, many are barely standing. And yet everywhere there is music, the whole city sings. People converse on every corner, classic cars clatter around the dusty boulevards and the scent of cigar smoke is never far away.
Cuba is a nation in a state of change. But it is this colour, the vibrancy of the city and vitality of the people, that strikes me as something Cuba has always had, and it no doubt always will.
Havana is a real trip. Waking up in our hotel on Parque Central to observe the bullet-ridden yet grand surrounding buildings and the rainbow parade of cars from the 1950s, you’d be forgiven for believing in time travel.
Not being able to resist taking a tour of this time warp city from the back of a classic American convertible, we hired a driver of a cobalt blue Pontiac to show us around.
The driver takes us down Prado de Paseo, the French designed boulevard that divides the Old Town from Centro, and it’s our first introduction to Havana’s decay. For whilst some of the elegantly-aged Colonial structures are still standing, there are empty lots and piles of blocks in-between them. Every now and then I spot a balcony that has completely come away and wonder how people are brave enough to use the rest of them.
We pull out onto the Malecon, Havana’s 8 km coastal stretch where locals like to parade of an evening, and settle in to watch the sunset away from the choking inner city streets.
Our guide tells us this is the location of every Habaneros first kiss but it doesn’t look too romantic to me today. The weather and wind beaten buildings that face the sea have fared worse than their counterparts on the Prado. If there used to be cafes and trade along this strip, there is no evidence of it now. But the romance of the area lives on in the locals’ and visitors’ minds alike and the wall facing the ocean remains filled with couples every night.
We drive onto Vedado, once an area of swampland that was forbidden to enter (Vedado means forbidden in Spanish) and it is an utter surprise. Suddenly, we are on a tree-lined boulevard, surrounded by large, secure houses from the 1950’s – I think I even see some cars from more recent decades.
Vedado was where the wealthy Americans built their homes during the height of Cuba’s gambling and glamour days. When Castro came into power he seized all the properties and they have since been redistributed to high-ranking government officials. It’s a glimpse at the more recent history of Cuba, which the rest of Havana had not yet afforded us.
It is also the first, and only, time we witness any form of government dissent. In Verdado the women in white gather every Sunday to discuss their oppression under the current regime. Sometimes they march down the wealthy looking boulevards and there is ‘often trouble’ our guide informs us. ‘They are very brave,’ I comment. But the driver doesn’t reply. He has said all he will on the matter.
We leave Vedado and return to the rawness of Centro. The Pontiac’s engine is spluttering and clunking even more than before and I wonder if it will make it to the end of the tour. On the side of the streets, everywhere it seems, are men with their heads under rusty bonnets. The cars on the road that are still running sound as if they are powered by tractors. We drive deep into the narrow streets of Centro and you get the feeling that most buildings are only just standing.
Every form of transport is available in Havana – cyclo taxis, horse and cart – but most people walk. And there are people everywhere. Hanging over balconies, sleeping in doorways. Queuing by scantily-lit pizza shops or windows with bars across that trade plumbing supplies.
Of an evening, the number of people on the streets seems to intensify. Here, socialising is not done online (Cubans were only permitted to own mobile phones in 1998 and access to the internet is still censored) but instead people converse in the park, on the roof, on the corner of the street.
Havana’s Old Town may be a sanitised area spruced up for the tourists, but boy is it beautiful. Every street is an opportunity for a quintessential Havana shot – classic car, cobbled alley, candy-coloured building and Cuban flag fluttering in the breeze – but you may have to pay for it.
(Be aware that if you photograph an old car you may have to pay the owner of it. You’ll also need change to use bathrooms in restaurants and the airport, and to tip the band who seem to waltz up to every restaurant.)
In some places I’ll admit the service (or lack of) tested me and I had the worst luck in restaurants, who always seemed to run out of ingredients for the one dish I really wanted.
One night we dined at Los Nardos, a semi-private restaurant opened by the Spanish Asturianas Society, which at the time we were told was one of the best in Cuba. We queued for a table for 1 hour and 30 minutes only to find they had no more meat for the paella I wanted. On the advice of the waiter we ordered the mix grill, and while it was the best meal we had in Cuba, I probably would have sent the dodgy cuts of meat back had they been served to me in Europe.
This lack of supply is something that can bring you back to the reality of life in Cuba before you are swept up in the glamour of classic cars and endless sunshine. The situation is the same on the touristy tip of Varadero, a picture-perfect peninsular of all-inclusive 4 and 5 star hotels; when the ice cream is all gone, it is gone, and we don’t know for how long.
A 5 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) hop-on hop-off bus ferries tourists up and down the strip. We hopped on and couldn’t help but notice that all the hotels, with prime beach locations, looked as tired as each other.
The colour of Cayo Blanco are a sight to behold though. A popular and short (approx. 45 minute) Catamaran trip from Varadero, this white island is what I picture paradise to be like. The shallow sandy waters turn the ocean 50 different shades of turquoise.
Back home, I reflect on our trip and what I saw in Cuba. The people have roofs over their heads, but their homes may not have 4 walls. The children in the street are clothed, they appear healthy (Cuba has some of the best and largest number of doctors in the world) but they are surrounded by ruins.
There are not high levels of propaganda on the streets. I spot the odd Communist billboard or homage to Castro and Che, but the unfocused eye could easily miss this.
What I am struck by is the lack of advertising or commercial posters. I am ashamed to say that I miss Diet Coke. I’m surprised by the number of shops springing up; I’m fascinated by the women on the Prado holding pictures of homes they are looking to exchange.
I’m surprised to hear what I think are American accents.
But I am thinking, feeling and questioning things about a place in a way I have not done for a long time. I’m frustrated and enchanted by Cuba in equal measures. I am reminded what it means to really travel. And I know I will not forget the colours of Cuba for very long time.
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