The whole place is a museum. A lot of people curating it, analysing and pulling it apart, trying to define it. But you can’t define Cuba.
Perhaps not the first destination on any nineteen year-old girls hit list but with a keen interest in social history and the news of the lifted trade embargo between the U.S and Cuba, I grabbed my best friend Liv, packed our bags and flew half-way across the world to step into a time-warp.
After almost three weeks travelling through Mexico, we finally landed in Havana and prepared ourselves for what we expected to be our most challenging adventure yet. We quickly discovered you can not prepare yourself for Cuba. Nothing can prepare anyone for Cuba. A country in full communist swing, Cuba is like the deteriorating 1940’s wireless radio blanketed with dust that sits in your Grandmother’s living room; it works but the fuzziness makes it difficult to understand.
Take a few hours to stroll around the capital, Havana or La Habana, and you’ll see collapsing buildings, inhale the fumes of 1950’s American cars and dodge horse and carts as you try and understand the road rules. You’ll shiver to the distinctive sound of hissing Cuban men demanding attention and throughout the entirety of your travels through this bizarre country, you will constantly find yourself asking; how is this place still working? But therein lies the beauty of Cuba. It will keep you wondering how it manages to continue ticking even though the clocks stopped over 50 years ago.
I would be lying if I said I fell madly in love with Cuba. When people ask Liv or myself what we thought of Cuba, we both find ourselves with a stupid grin on our face completely lost for words. In Cuba, nothing ever went to plan. The concept of a plan is seemingly unheard of. The food is complete shit. Rum is cheaper than a bottle of water and the few tourist attractions like museums or memorials are always under ‘reconstruction’ and therefore closed.
But Cuba isn’t about seeing, it’s about absorbing. Soaking it all in. Often, we enjoyed ourselves most when we could just sit back and watch the country work itself out.
On one occasion, we borrowed some partially working bicycles and peddled through beautiful tobacco fields in the town of Vinales in the Pinar del Rio Province. We stumbled across a humble farmer who invited us in for some fresh coffee and a home rolled cigar. His curiosity was striking; his hospitality, warming; and his wisdom, astounding.
Sure, living in a country that has left him barely able to peer through closed curtains meant his understanding of the world was somewhat limited, but he and his daughter were eager to learn. Through the couple of hours of conversation that took place, we took away with us more knowledge than we could have ever offered them. We were immersed in a new way of life. There are no text books for those kind of lessons.
Now, when Liv and I sit back and reflect on our trip to Central America, specifically Cuba, we can always laugh at all the shit that went wrong; and there was a lot! Stolen money, getting kicked out of home stays and having no running water was a common problem. The communist ideology really did not attract either of us. Whilst it seemed no one was completely without, everyone suffered with very little. No one really had the ambition to work hard, construction jobs were incredibly slow in reaching completion and the grey, characterless housing apartments that the government hides from tourists have an unwelcoming feeling.
In the face of all this, the Cuban people adapt. In fact, they do more than adapt; they turn it into something more than you thought it could be. Beneath the tired façade, an enigma lies in the heart of the Cubans. For a country that shows its scars and is held together by a never ending terrain of brutal history, the people have remained perseverant and most importantly, passionate. Despite a limited knowledge of English, most of them will tell you, “anything is possible in Cuba.”
For those of you strolling by, Cuba will sweep you out of your depths, get in over your head and sometimes damage your love of travel. But against all these adversities, you will recognise an evanescent beauty that will stain you, the only way Cuba knows how – unapologetically.
Written by Gabrielle Lynch