|From Cancun, I flew to Havana Cuba with Cubana Airlines. Flying Cubana was one of the more intense experiences of the trip and made the experience of diving with sharks a few days earlier in Belize seem like a relaxing Sunday stroll through the park. Cubana's state of the art fleet is comprised of Russian jets from the 60s that were probably sold as scrap by the Russians about two decades ago. When you get on the plane, the cabin crew gives you a lolly, which is about the extent of the cabin service; I think the lolly is their way of saying sorry.
The plane was full of Russian signs that I couldn't understand, but that was the least of the planes problems. Half the seats were missing some of the bolts that held them to the floor and were shaking around the cabin the whole time we were in the air, it was like even the seats were scared to be on this flight. There was air-conditioning on the plane, but only one of the air-conditioning outlets worked. The working vent was at the front of the plane and the vent was pouring out so much air that it looked like smoke was streaming out of the cockpit. The door to the cockpit was also broken and would fly open whenever there was turbulence. This was nice because it meant you could see if the pilots were shit scared too. And guess what, at one point they were. As we were coming into land, I could see the landing gear, which were visible from my window, come down about half way and then, following a loud grinding noise, go back up. It took the pilots about five goes before the landing gear actually engaged, much to my relief, and we landed safely in Cuba. Cubana is the only airline where the Cabin staff and the pilots start to cheer and give each other high fives if they actually manage to land the plane.
I ended up spending a week in Cuba. Stace and I originally planned to hit about three towns but ended up getting stuck in Havana because there was so much to do. The city has some beautiful architecture. But, it is all falling apart, Havana's buildings looks somewhat like what I imagine New York would look like if they had decided that the idea really wasn't working and everyone had moved on mass to New Jersey about 50 years ago. The buildings in Havana are huge and regal, similar to the better neighbourhoods of Manhattan, but minus the window, paint job and, occasionally, the roof. There are a few houses in the city that the government has had done up, so you can get a bit of an idea about what the place would have looked like in the forties. Havana is a tough place to live; they get free rent, medical treatment and subsidized food, but it is all crap and they have to line up for hours to get any of it. They get paid about $10 each a month, even the doctors, and it is just not enough to buy all the things they need, everyone is involved in the black market economy in some way to get by (everyone can sell you a Cuban cigar, or, for a price, take you to an out of the way bar where the Buena Vista Social Club just happens to be playing this afternoon. Honestly the Buena Vista Social Club is an amazing group, they seem to be able to play at about 20 bars simultaneously and do it again day after day. Not bad considering half the members are over 80.
Despite the governments best, or worst efforts, a big class divide has emerged between those who can get their hands on tourist money and those who cannot. There are two separate currencies, Cuban pesos and Peso convertibles, a currency that is sold to tourists at a one-to-one rate when they enter the country. Half the stores in Havana only accept Peso convertibles, and the prices in these stores are about five times as much as in the local stores. However, there are many things, such as tampons or cigarettes with filters, which are only available in the Peso convertible stores. So most Cuban's just have to go without. There is however one thing that is available to everybody at a reasonable price, ice cream. They have an ice cream parlour in the centre of Havana that seats a few hundred people at a time, and doesn't serve anything but ice cream. You have to line up for about an hour before you get in but it is worth it when you can buy four huge bowls of ice cream for less than a dollar. I'll enjoy visiting any going to enjoy any country where I can do this.
Cuba has the same sex tourism problems you find in the rest of the 'developing' world. In every bar you see heaps some of the most beautiful women in the world, giving you come hither eyes, for about two seconds you feel like an absolute stud, before you realize that they are giving the same look to everyone, including the hugely obese European bloke of about 40 with the very serious adult acne problem and you quickly come back down to earth. I think a good rule is this: if suddenly 100s of amazingly good looking women who wouldn't give you a second glace back home suddenly start giving you the eye, it is unlikely that you have suddenly become much better looking, or irresistibly charming, and there is probably something else going on. However Cuba was different to the rest of the world in one very interesting way. I saw just as many older Western women with very pretty young Cuban boys as Western men doing the same. I think that Cuban men offer Western women a lot of things that Western men do not, they are slim, toned, passionate black guys, who can dance better than anywhere else in the world. In Cuba it is often not prostitution in the simple sense, often the Cubans just wants drinks and clothes paid for, and many of the bars are priced completely out of the reach of your average Cuban. Many also want to marry a westerner so that they can get out of Cuba.
A strange place indeed, unlike China and Vietnam, the government still seems to be trying to maintain some of its socialist goals, but it's failing, thanks in large part to the USA, plus a lot of stubbornness from Castro. The way that the Cuban people feel about Castro and his gang is an interesting ambivalence. The Cuban's will talk about it if you have a little bit of privacy. Many will tell you that they don't like the bloke at all and can't wait for change, but many others seem to legitimately and strongly like him and believe in what he is trying to achieve. Interestingly, a lot of people seem to have contradictory feelings mixing the two opinions above. However it is difficult for the Cuban people to hold informed political positions (sure it seems like it's difficult for Aussies, and Americans, also but it is more our own fault). Free speech and free media are stifled and, apart from in a few of the expensive hotels there is no Internet access in Cuba, in fact the Internet is banned for Cubans.
I visited the sites of Havana, such as the Museum of the Revolution, the giant Che Guevara mural, and such. I went to the boxing (which they absolutely love here, seeing it make me glad I managed to avoid any fist fights while I was in Cuba, I think I would have been in trouble). I saw a Santeria ceremony. Santeria is a religious movement that mixes Catholic beliefs with traditional African religion and it has a large following in Cuba. The ceremony involves a lot of dancing, and people dance themselves in to trance like states before starting to convulse like they're having an epileptic fit. A little different to most religious services I've attended and mighty interesting. Although avoiding the flailing arms required most of my attention. None-the-less, the main highlight of Cuba is the nightlife. It took it out of me, all the Salsa dancing. I even took a couple of salsa lessons while I was here; I'm about twice as good as I was a week ago, but still very bad of course. Cuba is a good place to come to terms with being a crap dancer, every Westerner here is a crap dancer compared to the Cuban's and would need about 10 years practice before they came even close. We headed out to some absolutely amazing clubs, and saw some absolutely amazing Salsa bands, with a Swiss girl named Regula who we met in a taxi. She had been living in Cuba for a few months learning Spanish. Some of her Cuban friends, in particular a guy named Lino, who showed us all the great spots, taught me a few salsa moves. Whenever we went anywhere, Lino kept trying to pay for himself, and sometimes succeeding, despite earning in a month what I earn in an hour. He was a great guy. It is sad but most of the nightclubs are out of reach for Cuban's and are mostly full of tourists (often with there pretty Cuban boys and girls in tow). However they do know how to party, they just do it in their homes or on the street and however they do it, they do seem to be able to scrape together the money to get a bit drunk on the weekends.
I got to party with the locals on the streets one night. A group called Jose Fermelli and Los Bon Bon were performing a free street concert in Havana. This band is probably Cuba's most famous contemporary Salsa band, they have even won a few Emmys apparently, and it seemed like half the town came out to see them. I had a great time listening to the awesome music and trying to dance salsa with the locals, who were very understanding of my lack of skills. The only thing I had to put up with in return was people trying to steal my wallet over and over again. At one point about 5 guys grabbed me, and another tried to grab my wallet, I was however holding on to it for dear life with my hand wedged as deep into my pocket as it could go, there was no way I was letting go. After about 10 seconds, some Cuban guys I knew arrived on the scene and the other guys gave up and cleared off without my wallet. I reckon on this one night I felt about ten different people have a go for my wallet, luckily, without any success (although there was only about 10 dollars in there, a lot more to my would be assailants than to me).
While we were in Havana, we stayed in the home of a local family who are licensed by the government to rent out rooms to foreigners, we were put onto the place by an Aussie guy we met on the plane who had married a Cuban girl and visited Cuban every couple of months while he was trying to get his wife a visa. The place was amazing, one of these huge regal homes in Havana, but unlike many, these guys had the tourist money to maintain it. It was like a five star hotel, for about 10 dollars a night. We were there for the owner birthday, and he threw a big party for friends and the guests staying at his house. It was a night full of Cuban rum, good food and revelry. The night however came to a strange end for the tourists. The family put on a video made at their daughters recent 15th birthday party. For young Cuban women, the fifteenth is a huge event in Cuba. It is a kind of coming of age party. The girl's get several glamour photographs taken and have a huge party with all their family and friends. But here is the strange part. Some of the glamour photos are, more than a little erotic, nude shots, and at the end of the party the girl does a strip tease in front of all her family and school friends. I was watching the video of all this, and looking at the photos that were being passed around, all while sitting next to the girls grandfather. It was all very strange and really uncomfortable for a little Aussie boy.
Havana's a beautiful place that is falling apart (both the buildings and the society) but it's also a place of passion and dancing, and people finding a way to make a life, and to have fun along the way, no matter what the obstacles.