After some hesitation and eventually convinced by gentle persuasion, I was on my way to Havana and Varradero for a week long stay.
Having lived under communism and being brought up by my parents in the humanist spirit with love of freedom, democracy and justice, I had to take a deep breath before going.
Needless to say, anyone familiar with the Marxist doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat would see the signs of the totalitarian regime as soon as you step of the airplane. Control, control, control: passport, stamps, tourist registration and last but not least a mugshot taken by the immigration clerk to have records to feed the administrative bureaucracy of citizen control.
Once out of the zone of control and in to the subdued chaos of the more or less functioning tourist industry, the real Cuba starts to appear from underneath the dullness of the system.
These tourists are coming to have fun, but there is no music, no bright colors, no shops with tacky souvenirs, no overpriced shops offering luxury items; just a shaggy looking mongrel dog jumping over arriving suitcases looking for stuff. Don`t ask me what kind of stuff, I guess drugs….
The items that are strictly prohibited to import to Cuba are GPS and baby monitors. You can be jailed for bringing these items to Cuba and I understand that there is at least one person rotting in a Cuban jail for trying to bring in forbidden electronic communication gadgetry. So far this import restriction averted any attempts at baby monitors contra revolution in Cuba and, as well, everyone has to use old fashioned means of finding their way around.
The first half of our stay was in Havana. This is a place where the whole world meets, except for the Americans. Throughout our stay, we met only one American who was in Cuba on a humanitarian mission bringing religious items to the 1,500- 2,000 Cuban Jews who were during our visit celebrating Passover.
Havana in spite of the serious deterioration of buildings and structures proved to be a seductive city. I felt like Alice in Wonderland and my travel companion, Ruthie, with her fluent Spanish held the wand. Sure, we would have found Floridita (daquiris) and la Bodeguite del Medio (mojitos), two watering holes of Ernest Hemingway during his life in Cuba, but it would not have been half the fun.
The best part were the conversations we were able to have with locals. Learning about their daily struggles was quite the shocker. At first it appeared that every taxi driver and bellhop was a lawyer or doctor. So, I presumed that these were some degrees one could buy in a souvenir shop.
Until my initiation into the two parallel currencies used in Cuba, the pesos for locals and CUC (pronounced: kooks) for foreigners I could not understand how anyone survives on 25 CUC per month which would be the average salary of a professional like a doctor, lawyer or an engineer. To supplement their incomes, the many professionals take jobs as movie extras, guides, bell hops, taxi drivers or do some other state permitted self-employment activities. Then I understood that their degrees were legitimate and that was also why majority of people in the travel industry was highly cultured, extremely well informed in general knowledge, spoke very good or excellent English and overall was an amazing ambassador for the Cuban nation.
Of course, the propinas (tips) were very appreciated as they represented the real and needed income. Thanks to Ruthie, I quickly mastered the propina power in soliciting and acquiring favors: the best table on the terrace of the restaurant, beach loungers and umbrellas waited for us on a crowded beach, room always cleaned and towels folded in fanciful manner.
When it came to food, I did not share the chronic complaint of travelers to Cuba who find the food boring, not good and too much fish. There was plenty of food, plenty of choices, amazing ice cream and you did not have to worry if is it was organic, because it all was. There was plenty to drink especially if it was rum based. I put my liver through few hoops with my steady diet of mojitos, daiquaries, pinacoladas on top of three daily Spanish coffees ( morning , noon and night- three ounces of liquor diluted with a bit of coffee). The son and salsa rhythm of Ibrahim Ferrer and the Buena Vista Social Club was ubiquitous, but only few groups were as good and as original.
On our first night in Havana while at the Hotel Nacional (UNESCO protected site) to attend the cabaret Le Parisien we befriended a young cabby driving an American 1953 Chevy. Subsequently, we hired him and his cousin again for our short days and long nights in Havana. Of course, we were driven to the Tropicana in an American antique car!
For our three nights in Varadero, we arrived to rest. It was just perfect amount of time, ambiance and rest, still on liquid diet…I loved the beaches and the people we met: Czechs, Slovaks, Chileans, Mexicans, Argentines, Venezuelans, Colombians, Icelanders, Germans, Dutch and other assorted variety of nationals. Still, because of the half a century old embargo there were no Americans anywhere. The conversations with our fellow tourists, as well as, with the locals were enlightening.
The opinions reflected ranged from crazy left to crazy right and generated lively discussions. Our beach guard from day one never came back to his post, so I hope that he did not get in any trouble. As for us, we were ready to face the interrogations of the Cuban KGB on our departure at the airport. I guess, things are changing, we had just as lively and controversial debates at the airport while waiting for flight departures. Nobody was politically indifferent.
Everywhere there were pictures of Che, the poster boy of the Revolucion. It was also his image in various forms that was sold as souvenirs. Other than Che and Cuban flag, there was not much variety and nowhere would you see the kind of souvenir peddling that we are used to on other beaches of the Caribbean islands. I saw an intricate helicopter made of pop tins, but it was not interesting enough to wish to acquire it. Beside, I am at the stage in life when I am getting rid off things, not acquiring them.
I will be back…perhaps things will change by then, for the better for the people.
Is that not what La Revolucion is about?