Maybe the heading sounds a bit unfair to many Americans. It’s not that I think that the 2 million Americans who have visited Cuba already since the new agreement was signed between the two countries would have destroyed the island nor that it would change any problem to the better. But now that we are traveling to Cuba again tomorrow, I’m terribly curious to see if things have changed since I was there last year. I won’t have internet access for some weeks so I thought I’d share last year’s spontaneous Cuba trip in the meantime.
I looked at Fidel on the wall behind the consular secretary. She put two pieces of visa papers in my hand. (They don’t put the visa in your passport so that you don’t get problem getting into the US afterwards.) Was I really going to Cuba? Alone and just a couple of days after getting the idea. It all started with breakdown over the commercialism in Bogotá where I live. I couldn’t stand seeing all the adds asking me to consume this and that in order to be happy. Half or fully naked women advertising cars, socks, plastic surgeries, private health care, private schools… I went online looking for tickets to go away. Anywhere.
Some days later I was in Havana. No billboards or commercials whatsoever. Pastel colored houses, cars from the 1950s (although there are almost as many new cars, but they never appear in the tourist pictures.)
I checked in at Casa Lourdes, a ‘casa particular’ in Habana vieja. The room for 22 dollars was good enough for me and Lourdes is really caring and helps her guests with anything alongside her job as a doctor. At this point I did not know, though, that I wouldn’t be sleeping here.
“Do you know who Silvio Rodríguez is?” Lourdes asked. How couldn’t I? “Well, he is playing tonight”. I grabbed a sandwich in a ‘ventana particular’ – one of hundreds of private windows where you pay in Cuban pesos to get something to eat on the go – and ran to the new cultural center that ‘Silvio’ was going to inaugurate (here he’s just Silvio with everybody).
I cried when I got to hear “Unicornio”, “El mayor” and “Quien fuera” at just some metres from the stage.
In the concert I stood next to some Venezuelian revolutionaries and a Cuban girl. After the concert Cuban Analiz took me and our new Venezuelan friends with her for a bar tour in places where foreigners like us were completely out of sight. One of my new friends – who looked like a common easygoing guy – was staying at fancy Habana Libre hotel. We decided we’d try to get into Habana Libre all of us and continue the party in his room.
I taught Paula some Swedish so that we could pass the guard as Swedish tourists and Analiz made it through like the diplomat’s girlfriend. Then Analiz taught us Cuban salsa moves (quite different to Venezuelan and Colombian). At some point we all fell asleep on that Five Star hotel bed and we woke up to the sunrise over Havana.
Next day at the Museum of Revolution, I asked a guy who was holding a map to show me how to get to the University. I never got to the University but I ended up strolling the streets of Havana all day with this Maksim.
We watched the sunset in the Malecón, the beach stroll of Havana.
Photo credit for this one: Maksim Mukhin
In the evening we found Casa Habana, a small second flor bar in a family’s house. Maybe the best Mojito in Havana.
Then we met Antonio and Marisol who were playing and singing outside their bar in a dark street. So we ended up singing with them.
The next day a taxi took me to Playas de Este, the beach areas near Havana. I was dropped off in Guanabo and found Evelio and Silvia’s house.
Guanabo is a bit sleepy and run down during the winter since it is not where the international tourists go. I really loved it.
Since many buildings are too close to the shore and vulnerable to hurricanes, these are not rebuilt when they get damaged. They are not removed either, though, so the impression gets a bit ghosty.
Evelio and Silvia rent out half of their house, I got my own entrance and a beautiful patio. However, soon I was going to spend more time on their side of the house.
The beaches of Guanabo during low-season are not so tidy, but the water is crystal clear.
At the beach I met a man with a horse. I don’t know how I dared, but I simply asked him if I could ride. I could. After some galloping along the water we decided to meet the day after for a tour in the Cuban countryside.
On my walk back along the beach in the evening I ran into a family from Santiago having a barbecue on the beach. Ángel, Juan, Isabel, Elizabeth and their children invited me to join them.
I was only asking if I could take a picture of their old car in the sunset light, but they gave me vodka and food and I hung out there until it was almost dark.
The next day I got to know Yoel, the man with the horse, a bit better. This rodeo professional took me for a five hours ride through the Cuban country side.
We had some sugar cane along the way. But we also had food – food that was no good for me. When I got back to the house i started feeling bad. The floor was moving and I stumbled over to Silvia and Evelio’s. Silvia tried to make me eat and drink but I couldn’t keep anything. In the evening I was so dehydrated that Evelio took me to the clinic to get some kind of injection to stop the convulsions. We took a horse carriage to a local village clinic. The one for Cubans, not the tourist health center. After only 20 minutes I got to see a doctor and within 35 minutes I was given intravenous infusion. Evelio was holding my hand and talking comfortingly to me the whole time. When I had gotten better and it was time to leave, I asked where I should pay. Everyone looked at me as if I was crazy. “Why would you pay for health care?”
I can’t say that I’m sorry about spending the two last days being ill. I got to see one of those things that we only hear about in the polarised debate about Cuba. I was in Cuba for no more than five days so I can’t judge about anything. I met Cubans who hate Coca Cola passionately, who lack body lotion but do have food to eat, who have to stand in line a lot, who have all the basics but lack the little (consumerism) extras, who get to study and who travel outside the country. And especially, who complain about and praise the Cuban government in a far more nuanced way than what people from the outside do.
The last morning I felt well enough to take a walk along the beach and picked sea shells of the same size as my sandals.
“You came as a guest and leave as a daughter”, Silvia said when I was going to the airport. After their love and care when I fell ill and they watched beside my bed at the clinic, I am willing to believe that she meant it.