„You should go to Cuba now, while it still is the real Cuba“ – do I detect a little bit of cynicism in this sentence, in it’s unspoken wish to have Cuba remain as is, when viewed from the perspective of a Cuban? What is the „real“ Cuba anyhow? And – will you even be able to experience it, as a tourist? Is the „real“ Cuba the untold number of people who offer a constant stream of taxis, cigars, rum, everlasting love and pictures of Che? Is it the Cuban cigar smokers who are so few that they can demand money for a picture? Or the cooperatives who take 90% off the harvest of hard-working farmers, thus doing their part to ensure that those will maybe never visit a different country, despite the now existing freedom to travel abroad, unless they swim to Florida?
Cuba, that is: Beautiful old cars from the 50s, Colonial style buildings with „shabby chic“ (next to Russian style buildings with no chic), the rhythm of salsa and rumba, the taste of cuba libre, mojito and daiquirí.
Real socialism, with appeals of Patria o Muerte and similar on huge signs, and long queues in front of shops.
Perhaps it is known that Cuba has a high quality of education, an excellent health system, and a high average life expectancy. And of course one thinks of Ernesto „Che“ Guevara when thinking of Cuba, the national hero, whose counterfeit looks back from walls and books and mugs and fridge magnets and T-shirts, and and and…
A brief question of „what if…“ – what if Alberto Korda hadn’t taken his picture one March day in 1960, during Che’s 15 seconds appearance during an event, or Che had had a bad hair day – would he still be THE hero, recognized in the whole world, loved without really being known, an icon? I think: not – the power of pictures. And perhaps this cult is just the expression of a bad conscience, because Che felt that he had to leave Cuba, for whatever reason, and found a very un-hero-like death in Bolivia – I don’t know. At least it got him and his fallen compatriots a large mausoleum in Santa Clara. Where of course he is memoralized by THE photo. And his toothbrush, his camera, and his used toilet paper – well, perhaps not the latter, but you get the picture.
The „real“ Cuba hasn’t really existed anymore since Raul Castro took over the reins from his brother Fidel. There are still the local offices of the revolution (who keep up the ideal of „watch thy neighbour and report on him“), but Cubans today can – theoretically – travel in the whole world, own houses, flats, businesses and cars, Facebook has arrived, in some hotels and even an entire square in Trinidad there is wifi against money, and the youth talks openly about politics and the future. And by now even Obama and Castro are talking with each other, and the first ferry service between Miami and Cuba is expected to open soon.
And really – Cuba must be the country with the most US Americans outside the US – in all of my 16 months of travelling I’ve met a handful of them, and here they are everywhere, in hordes. Embargo? What embargo? And the foreigner currency CUC is already attached to the US Dollar – is it too forward to think that one day, Cuba may be the unofficial 51st star on the spangled banner and Cuba officially introduces the Dollar as its currency?
You don’t have to be a prophet to foretell that soon, the border between the US and Cuba will be wide open. And with that, two streams will start rolling: The one, going from Cuba to the US, of those who see the chance of big bucks in the real capitalism, and the other, of millions of US Americans going South and making Cuba their own personal vacation resort.
And that is why I am saying – and I don’t mean it personal, dear American friends – yes, go to Cuba now, before the country vanishes amidst McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coca Cola et al., and loud shouts of „oh, this is a frigging hot pork steak“ ruin every beautiful sunset (I am talking from personal experience here). What else will happen? Many old cars will remain, because they mean tourist money; the old colonial buildings will also stay, old and genuinly shabby in the non-touristy areas, and old and pretty in all others; Wifi and smartphones will be omnipresent; the touts of taxis, cigars, everlasting love etc., can hardly become more, but they will also not go away.
Und I believe that this real Cuba will stay: The friendliness of the Cubans you meet when staying in their houses; the sounds of the street, of barking dogs, shrill females voices, the calls of the street vendors, the clicks of dominos, and the chugging of old engines; the rhythm of Salsa, Rumba and Cha Cha Cha, the wiggling of hips and big behinds, the smell of cigars, and the original stink of real leaded petrol when beautiful oldtimers pass by.
And hopefully, for the Cubans, the doors to the world will be more accessible, they truly will have the opportunity to do what and as they want, whilst retaining at least some of their own culture, a spirit of sharing and of helping each other, of community, and of joy.
At the end, some tips: To experience the real Cuba, avoid hotels and stay in casas particulares – homestays in Cuban houses, often in Colonial buildings; make sure you also have them cook your dinner, because the amount and quality of the food is amazing. I found Old Havana very exhausting , artificial and rather irritating, much better cities are Baracoa, Trinidad, Vinales, Camaguey and Cienfuegos (real Cubans call the first three the „real Cuba“). And the beach at Varardero, although the town is already one large tourist resort. Cuba is considered the safest country for tourists, and that’s what it feels like. Travel within the country is easy, modern buses go everywhere, or you can rent a car, road traffic is pretty civilized. But do not run over a cow, because they are state owned, and to kill one means 25 years in prison.
Cuba is expensive, and Havana is very expensive – if you expect a vacation on the cheap, forget about it. And cigars are also rather expensive, and no, they are not rolled on the thighs of young girls, sorry. The quality of mojitos etc. is changeable, four very important words in tourist Spanish are „mas ron por favor“ (more rum please). One can take salsa lessons everywhere, but it’s hard to imitate the oomph of Cuban hips as a stiff Northern European. Mojitos are quite helpful in that case.
And at the very end, my personal „real Cuba“ picture, taken from the balcony of my casa in Havana:
To the left, a domino player; in the middle, a little girl being deloused; and to the right, a man enjoying the sights of the street after having had his dinner. Viva Cuba!