Quizas, quizas, quizas
Cuba - I have been thinking about going there for quite some time. And I was finally there. The security at the airport was quite tight, they took pictures of me, were checking my passport few times, had to pay for entry visa etc. It all took ages. The cab ride was quite pleasant and I began to think "well this ain't so bad". Until we got to the Havana Vieja. Most of the buildings in ruin, trash lying around on the streets, hungry limping dogs and add to that hungry and limping people. It wasn't the Havana I was romanticizing about.
I took a step outside. The following hour was disturbing. A black guy with golden teeth, an elderly lady with only few teeth left, doesn't matter what gender or age - 5 seconds after we started a conversation they wanted something from me and were quite direct with asking. Some food, some money. They weren't begging, each one of them offered services: I'll take you to a salsa class, I'll sell you some cigars really cheap, I'll show you where the museum is, do you need that plastic bottle, cause I want it etc. I struggled. I wanted to speak to them, get to know their stories, but now I just started mistrusting them. And on the other hand it was a painful realization that they didn't see me as a person there. Whenever they started talking to me, it was because they saw an opportunity to make money.
When they didn't see you and just chatted amongst each other they behaved differently. They spoke of life, health, sports and families with the passion you were hoping to see. The second they saw you their attitude changed. I was an outsider who doesn't share what they have, who is there to pry, someone who came for a visit, will leave and never come back.
After the initial disappointment Havana started to reveal its other side. But maybe I should explain how my first encounter with the city took place. As with so many others it was a movie. Buena Vista Social Club by Wim Wenders. It was the mixture of sad empty buildings in which you could see the former long forgotten grandeur, the band members with touching fragility and the sound of nostalgia. I don’t think before I saw that movie I truly understood the relationship between history, the people, their city and their music. In this day and age we are used to the music industry being closely connected with money. Almost as if one could not exist without the other. In Cuba people play music because they love it. The era of the 1940 is often described by themselves as the time when money was difficult to come by and music was played because people wanted to play it and hear it. And this is exactly what you see in the movie, people who love the music for how it makes them feel.
The members of the Club, once so prominent in their youth, would almost have finished their lives in oblivion if not for the world going crazy about old Cuban son.
That is what I wanted to see, those were the people I wanted to meet. But movies are made, directed and edited. I’m not saying it completely distorted the Cuban reality, but it only showed a small percentage of it. A small side that an average tourist will struggle to see.
Huge part of the Havana-feel are the buildings. I only began to realize I liked architecture after I started traveling. And Havana is one of those places where architecture plays a huge role in the character of the city. Looking at the history about 80 years ago Cuba was the place to be and party. Nightclubs, casinos, beautiful women, sensual music, sandy beaches – it was a paradise. For wealthy Americans. The majority of Cubanos was not profiting from this lifestyle. I think to this day there is a big division between the Cubans themselves into those who work in or close to the tourist industry and the rest of them. You walk into the Hotel Nacional, like you would have 70 years ago, and you see splendour (or these days remains of it). The staff there is well dressed, always smiling and flirting. As if the country knew only splendid and great customer service.
And then you visit a place like Trinidad, in the middle of farm lands, and you see the real people on the streets, you get to see the shops where they need to do their shopping based on the ration coupons. And it strikes you: there is Cuba for tourists and there is Cuba for Cubans. There is even different currency for tourists.
You cannot visit Cuba and ignore Che. He is the idol, the fallen hero of the revolution. People might say something about one of the Castros, Fidel this, Raúl that. Bur Che they love. It’s not just the big monuments and the whole museum in Santa Clara, if you want to buy a trinket, chances are it will have Che’s face on it.
Speaking of the museum, I actually learned quite a lot about the revolution and about Ernesto Guevara’s life. I have already read the “Motorcycle Diaries” and had this romantic vision of a young man, on a mission to make the world a better place. In Cuba you experience the young man growing up, becoming a fighter for what he thinks is right.
I left Cuba with his Bolivian memoire in my pocket, or rather a bag cos that book is too big to fit in any pockets. It’s almost unreadable. He turned into a man who most of the time doesn’t acknowledge the fact that he left a family behind. He fights a guerrilla war in a country foreign to him without realizing that people there don’t want him to save them. He decided that for them.
The diary ends couple of days before he gets captured and killed. The only thing he had in his life at that stage was thinking about setting traps, counting rations and worrying about being betrayed by the local community – which happened in the end. It is sad to watch a hero fall, even sadder to watch how they cannot see their own madness and how eventually become monsters themselves.
I think in a way that’s the fate of Cuba. The revolution was over, the Americans gone, but Castro needed to make sure they don’t return and once he was behind the steering wheel, no one else was allowed to drive. Even if it meant prosecuting his own people. Of course, the world political situation didn’t help. If you were against the USA, you had to be with the Soviet Union.
At the time I was there, it was Raúl who became the official president. The tensions were thawing slowly. Now he is stepping down as well, the US has an embassy in Havana, a new era has begone.
I guess it would have been a different experience if I was staying at a friend’s house or with a family – it would have been easier to gain access into their day to day life. But I worked with what I had and managed to take a step back and see the Cuba I have heard of – was that the real Cuba? I don’t think I will ever know.