Cuba was definitely an experience. I'm undecided yet as to if I loved it or hated it, I think maybe somewhere in between.
As soon as we hit the airport, it was obvious that we were some where completely different. As we waited in the customs cue we were surrounded by people puffing away on cigars & cigarettes, & the queue wasn't moving anywhere fast. If you have ever been to Queensland & found yourself wondering why everything takes so long, don't go to Cuba. Cuban time runs about twenty times slower than Queensland time, on a good day.
We were lucky to have an Australian friend of a friend, Gerry, living in Cuba who had arranged accommodation for us, so once at the airport we caught a cab straight to his house. It only took minutes for our first sighting of some Che paraphernalia as our taxi drove straight past the Plaza de la Revolution. This definitely wasn't the last time that he would rear his smiling face.
We arrived in Cuba two days after hurricane Wilma, after changing our flight that was to land on the exact day of the hurricane. When we arrived many of the areas of Havana had no power, as there had been massive flooding & all there wiring is underground (although I have heard that the power supply in Cuba is dodgy at the best of times). The part of Havana that we were staying in had no power. This was short lived however as the power came back on only hours after we arrived, which was cause for much yelling & hurrahing from all the locals that had been without power for days. Nikki & I were just as relieved, spoiled little Aussie girls aren't used to living without power!
Gerry & his family, Ebon his girlfriend, Eline their beautiful daughter & Ebon's Mother & grandparents all live in the same little area, making for a very inviting family atmosphere. Even after only travelling for two weeks, it was really nice to experience some normal family life again (as normal as life can be in Cuba). They were nice enough to invite us to have dinner with them every night that we spent there, which was great as it meant that we got to eat some real Cuban home cooked meals, which I must add were extremely tasty. I have never & don't think I will ever taste frijoles (beans) quite as tasty as the ones that Ebon & her mother Aida kindly cooked for us.
We stayed three doors down from Gerry & Ebon's house at the home of a friend named Enrique. Enrique's father had been wealthy doctor before the revolution, so the house was very large in comparison to those that others lived in, & would have been amazing in its glory days. Simple things like the tiling & ceiling decorations hinted to it former grandeur & it still had amazing charm, even after being left to decay for the past 40 years.
That's what the whole city is like, you can see that it must have been spectacular once, & it still is but in a very different way. The water front looks much like that of St Kilda, if you just left it for 40 years with no repairs. In some areas you can see relics of the paint that used to coat the buildings, hinting that it would have been full of colour, but now there are only a million shades of grey.
On our first full day in Havana, the first task on our list was to get some cash. Now this would be easy most places, but in Cuba it required walking across town to a fancy hotel, finding the little cove where the teller lady lives & handing over your passport & credit card, which they taxed at 15%. This made Cuba the most expensive destination so far. Cuba also has two currencies - one for the locals & one for the tourists. This makes things fairly confusing, but we soon worked out that the only thing that we could buy with the local pesos was pizza & fruit. This was the basis for our breakfasts & lunches for the week. If you ever get to Cuba, you have to taste the pizza, it's the cheesiest & greasiest stuff around & I'm not saying that that's a bad thing.
Anyways, back to the point. On the way home from the bank, on a very crowded street, a little bastard teenager tried to steel my bag, camera, passport, cash & all. Now I thought that I was pretty safe from such events, as I was carrying my bag over my body & at the front of me, but it seems not. As we were walking, I noticed a pair of hands wrapping themselves around my side & grabbing my bag with a very firm grip. Then the tug'o'war began. He yanked at my bag with all his might about 4 or 5 times, but to no avail. Luckily I'm big & tough....& that Gerry (who's 6 foot & tough) was with us & ran at the boy yelling. Apparently the penalty in Cuba for snatching a bag is 10 years in prison. This sounds fairly excessive to me, but the locals went crazy when they saw him run away, it's really is looked down upon. After the initial shock, a few tears & hugs we headed off to drown our sorrows in grease with the first taste of the aforementioned pizza.
After this point, unless I was sure I was going to need to take some photos, my bag stayed safely at home.
Latter that day, after we worked up the courage to go out again, we headed to the plaza to do some sight seeing. We obviously looked like tourists & soon had two local guides, showing us the sights. Now due to the poverty & political situation in Cuba, there is no such thing as a free tour. Once we hit China town we were soon lead into a bar where we bought over priced mojitos for ourselves & our tour guides. All the bars & restaurants have deals with the locals, who obviously get a commission for bringing in new people. This was fine as they had given us a great tour & seemed very kind. The next stop was the home of a friend of our new guides, where all the black market cigars you could dream of where paraded in front of us. Even in Cuba, cigars are quite expensive, so we were grateful for a dodgy cheaper deal. After we had purchased our cigars, our new found friends were off. I think they got what they wanted and we soon found out that there are more black market cigar sellers in Cuba than registered ones. On every street corner & every park bench, there is someone who "works at the cigar factory" & can get you a good deal.
That evening we were off with another couple of locals, who we had met the evening before and who were going to show us some of the sights. As we were quite conscious of how expensive everything was, we only took a little money with us. After a bit of a wander around, we were taken to another bar, where we could only afford 2 drinks, one for myself and one for Nik, so we made this perfectly clear to the guys we were with. They seemed fine with that and ordered there own drinks also. Then when the bill came, they still expected us to pay for their drinks. Now we really didn't have enough money to pay for the four drinks, especially considering that we get charged twice as much as the locals, so we paid for our two drinks and left.
This possibly wasn't the greatest idea, as the next day there were rumours around town that the guys whose drinks we did not buy, were going to do a burg on the house we were staying in. Luckily this was just gossip. Havana is a bigger gossip circle than the smallest towns in Australia (i.e. cockatoo), mostly because everyone is living right on top of each other.
While in Cuba we visited a couple of museums. The Modern Art Museum was amazing. There are two of these in Cuba, one for international art and the other strictly Cuban. We visited the Cuban one. It was huge and took up the entire day. I was most impressed that they had kept the Che art to a minimum, as I'm sure that they could have filled the entire place with art in his honour. My favourite section was a small walkway full of 1920s advertising illustrations. They were beautiful, in a functional kind of way.
Walking around the gallery for four hours was hard work, so it was off to the ice cream store for the greatest choc peppermint ice cream I have ever tasted.
We had planned to do the revolution museum after that, but we decided on a nap instead and headed back the next day.
We caught a bicycle taxi to the museum as we were getting lazy by this stage, but who would have thought that the first person to stop to pick us up would be a one armed bandit. I have never felt like such a spoilt little white girl. Somehow it didn't look so bad when the locals were being transported via bicycle taxi, but as soon as we jumped in, we both hung our able bodied heads in shame.
The revolution museum was very interesting. I didn't know much about Cuban history before going to Cuba, and I don't know too much more now, but the museum definitely gave me a good insight into the way the place works. I think by the end it was a little bias in favour of the current government, but I guess with a one party system, how else would it be?
Politics in Cuba are very shaky at the moment, Mr Castro had just come out of hospital when we arrived and the people have no idea what will happen when he dies.
We decided to skip the ice cream that evening and headed straight to a bar for some cheap daiquiris (when you go by yourself you get charged the real price). You can't visit Cuba, the birthplace of the things and not give them a go, but who knew that a whole afternoon could be spent slurping on them.
On our final full day in Cuba we headed to Casa de la Musica, with Gerry and Ebon. It was really great. The building is a fairly tacky old theatre, but that definitely has charm and the band was hilarious. I kind of felt like I was at the Sydney Mardi Gras, there were many tight light coloured pants on the boys and a lot of ass shaking. Ebon tried to teach us how to shake it, telling us to move our hips like the ocean, but she wasn't very successfully. I think Cubans must just be born good dancers, it must run through their veins. The funniest thing however, was the music that they were playing before the show. Cuba has a salsa version of everything, including Gangsters Paradise. Too funny.
The next morning it was time to head back to the airport, it was sad leaving our new little family, but also exciting to be heading somewhere new. This is also where Nik and I parted ways, Nik headed to Peru and I was off to Guatemala, to hopefully learn some Spanish and with any luck, some salsa too...