Surely the best place to judge the readiness of Cuba to embrace the imminent stampede of American tourism is inside the control room of the annual tourism trade show for the world’s travel press. Charm and chaos in equal measure!
Cuba, they were only too keen to tell me, broke her own records last year with three million visitors. The main tourist spots outside of Havana being Matanzas, Villa Clara, Jardines del Rey and Holguin. People flock to the island typically for the sun and sand, and for the cigars, the salsa and the old colourful cars. But they may well be newcomers to the real consequences of socialism.
How a convenience-driven nation like the USA will tolerate the inoperable is going to cause some irritation. Especially with the lack both of products on offer in the shops or of any modernity in technology. My hotel bookshop stocked nothing but copies of Fidel Castro’s life and works and other versions of Communist bibles.
Frozen in time: the good and bad bits
The lack of efficiency can only partly be excused by the Caribbean sun and the attempts at manual work in the midday heat. It’s more that the entire sense of time has been frozen since 1959 when the revolution took hold of the island. While they are clearly highly intelligent, there’s little evidence of initiative on view or enterprise on offer. The State has stripped away any self-reliance, any desire to challenge. Luckily, Cuba is a blissful and providence land, so food is plentiful for all. I had pineapple nearly every meal (or else guava, papaya and mango) and the waters are full of the very fish Hemingway was so keen to catch.
It’s also, I discovered, a country brimming with solar light, wind energy and sugarcane biomass. Focusing on the development of renewable energy sources to generate electricity, as it strives to protect nature and the environment.
Cuba is undoubtedly one of the world’s most sustainable countries, based on its own human welfare index (life expectancy, literacy and GDP) and an ecological footprint (the amount of land needed to fulfil a person’s food and energy needs).
So it’s a time lapse. Almost cinematic. Certainly scenic. Beautiful old cars from the 1950s hoot and crank around the capital, customised and often with the doors and side-mirrors held together practically with sellotape. Havana at its best!
Havana: oozing the glamour of the 50s
The city has a strong resemblance to Naples with her laundry lines and systematic chaos, bustle and deprivation. All steamy. All frenzy. Very Tennessee Williams.
Better at night and sundown for me even than by daylight. For it’s then that semi-clad figures emerge from the balconies (that drip with rusty electricity wiring) to express themselves, brandishing food, cigars and drink.
I preferred the fading and peeling Art Nouveau buildings, with their intricate ironwork, more than the recently repainted touristic area currently backed by an UNESCO initiative.
Then there’s the Nacional hotel. I loved it! So wonderfully redolent of yesteryear glamour with a wall of fame boasting Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It has an old music hall and a casino both reeking of cigars (there’s no ban on smoking indoors!) and the swimming pool is so retro and in such a state of disrepair that it has a cachet of its own.
The beauty of Cuban Spanish
Here it was, in a salon of a waiting room, that I picked up a dictionary of Cuban Spanish only to rejoice in its slang.‘Gordo como una buoya’ means “Fat as a buoy” while ‘orracho como una uva’ is, “Drunk as a grape”, while ‘flaco como un güin’ means “As thin as a sugarcane flower”. Similarly graphic and pertinent in their descriptions are ‘ponchar’: to fail an exam (literally, to get a flat tyre) and ‘paton’ duck feet (said of someone who can’t dance).
Cuba: charm and chaos in equal measure
More to the point or the national psyche are ‘resolver’ (to resolve or to work out) and ‘conseguir’ (to get or to manage). I have to say that I found grasping these concepts a truly enigmatic process. The world’s press had gathered for a week-long invitation to the touristic delights of Cuba.
Unfortunately our police car convoy, designed both to ease our way and to keep tracks on us all, broke down and caused untold delay.
I tried to take a snap but was told it was illegal to take photographs of the police. Something to do with the Cold War I imagine (as no reason was offered).
The internal flight from Santiago back to Havana was itself delayed for half a day with the representative standing on a chair reading out the names of lucky few who could take the next flight. Yet, all along, there were the welcoming drinks, the guitar ensembles, the iced sculptures.
Prepare to be harried but never hurried! Charm and chaos in equal measure!