Cuba is the colour of an ice cream sundae, the ones they served in leather-boothed, jukebox-diners in America during the 1950’s. A mash up of Colonial and Art Deco architecture splashed in shades of lemon, strawberry, mint and vanilla. In Havana’s Old Town, the spruced up tourist centre, balconied buildings are almost fully restored. In Centro, a largely residential area, many are barely standing. And yet everywhere there is music, the whole city sings. People converse on every corner, classic cars clatter around the dusty boulevards and the scent of cigar smoke is never far away. ‘Cuba is changing’ we are told by everyone who thinks they know. But it is this colour, the vibrancy of the city and vitality of the people, that strikes me as something Cuba has always had, and I hope it always will.
Havana is a real trip. Waking up in our hotel on Parque Central to observe the bullet ridden yet grand surrounding buildings and the rainbow parade of cars from the 1950s, you’d be forgiven for believing in time travel. Not being able to resist taking a tour of a city stuck in a time warp from the back of a topless Classic American car, we hired a driver of a cobalt blue Pontiac to show us around. The driver takes us down Prado de Paseo, the French designed boulevard that divides the Old Town from Centro, and it’s our first introduction to Havana’s decay. For whilst some of the elegantly aged Colonial structures are still standing and providing shelter for residents, in their neighbours place stands a pile of bricks. 1 out of every 4 balconies has completely come away, the rest still bravely in use.
We pull out onto the Malecon, Havana’s 8 km coastal stretch where locals like to parade of an evening, and settle in to watch the sunset away from the choking inner city streets. Our guide tells us this is the location of every Habaneros first kiss but it is a far from pretty scene today. The weather and wind beaten buildings that face the sea have fared worse than their counterparts on the Prado. If there used to be cafes and trade along this strip, there is no evidence of it now. But the romance of the area lives on in the locals and visitors minds alike and the wall facing the ocean remains filled with couples every night.
We drive onto Vedado, once an area of swampland that was forbidden to enter (Vedado means forbidden in Spanish) and it is an utter surprise. Suddenly we are on a tree-lined boulevard, surrounded by large, secure houses from the 1950’s – I think I even see some cars from more recent decades. Vedado was where the wealthy Americans built their homes during the height of Cuba’s gambling and glamour days. When Castro came into power he seized all the properties and they have since been redistributed to high-ranking government officials. It’s a glimpse at the more recent history of Cuba, which the rest of Havana had not yet afforded us. It is also the first, and only, time we witness any form of government dissent. For in Verdado the women in white gather every Sunday to discuss their oppression under the current regime. Sometimes they march down the wealthy looking boulevards and there is ‘often trouble’ our guide informs us. ‘They are very brave,’ I comment. But the driver doesn’t reply. He has said all he will on the matter.
We leave Vedado and return to the rawness of Centro. The Pontiac’s engine is spluttering and clunking even more than before and I wonder if it will make it to the end of the tour. On the side of the streets, everywhere it seems, are men with their heads under rusty bonnets. The cars on the road that are still running sound as if they are powered by tractors. We drive deep into the narrow streets of Centro and you get the feeling that most buildings are only just standing.
Every form of transport is available in Havana – cyclo taxis, horse and cart – but most people walk. And there are people everywhere. Hanging over balconies, sleeping in doorways. Queuing by dark holes or cross barred windows that distribute pizzas or trade plumping supplies. Of an evening the number of people on the streets intensifies. Their socialising is not done online (Cubans were only permitted to own mobile phones in 1998 and there seems to be no such thing as broadband) but instead people converse in the park, on the roof, on the corner of the street.
Havana’s Old Town may be a sanitized area spruced up for the tourists but boy is it beautiful. Every street is an opportunity for a quintessential Havana shot – classic car, cobbled alley, candy-coloured building and Cuban flag fluttering in the breeze – but you may have to pay for it. We encountered many Cubans hoping to make a fast buck off the tourists. You can hardly blame them. Just be aware that if you photograph an old car watch out for the man behind it with his hand outstretched, be prepared to pay to pee in every bathroom you enter (from the airport to the restaurants) and keep some change on you for the band, who will unfailingly turn up at every place you stop to eat, drink or think. Don’t expect good service in exchange for your tips though. It seems Cubans operate on a different time frame from one I am used to – 20 minutes to receive a menu, a further 10 to order, the drinks arrive at the time you are due to leave – but you soon adapt to it. Probably on the day you leave Havana!
I found food in Cuba to be largely terrible. If you order a chicken and vegetable paella you are lucky if it contains either of the two main ingredients. In our experience vegetables were in constant short supply, but you can always rely on rice and beans. Almost all restaurants, particularly in the Old Town, are government owned so no matter where you pick you will receive the same menu at the same prices and be served the same fatty meat. We tried out Los Nardos one night, a semi-private restaurant opened by the Spanish Asturianas Society, and often claimed to be the best restaurant in Cuba. We queued for 1hour and 30 minutes to assess this claim for ourselves and still we were not able to get that paella I so desperately wanted. On the advice of the waiter we ordered the mix grill, and whilst it was the best meal we had in Cuba, I would have sent the dodgy cuts of meat back had they been served to me in Europe.
This lack of supply is something which can bring you back to the reality of life in Cuba when you are being swept up in the glamour of classic cars and endless sunshine. The situation is the same on the touristy tip of Varadero, a picture perfect peninsular of all-inclusive 4 and 5 star hotels; when the ice cream is all gone, it is gone, and we don’t know for how long. A 5 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) hop-on hop-off bus ferries tourists up and down the strip. We hopped on and couldn’t help but notice that all the hotels, with prime beach locations, looked as tired as each other.
The colour of Cayo Blanco is a sight to behold. A popular and short (approx. 45 minute) Catamaran trip from Varadero, this white island is what I picture paradise to be like. The shallow sandy waters turn the ocean 50 different shades of turquoise and blue.
It’s a different type of poor in Cuba, one I have never seen before. The people have roofs over their heads, but they may not have 4 walls. The children in the street are clothed, they appear healthy (Cuba has some of the best and largest number of doctors in the world) but they are surrounded by ruins. There are not high levels of propaganda on the streets, I spot the odd Communist billboard or homage to Castro and Che, but the unfocused eye could easily miss this. What I am struck by is the lack of advertising or commercial posters. I am ashamed to say that I miss Diet Coke. I’m surprised by the number of shops springing up; I’m fascinated by the women on the Prado holding pictures of homes they are looking to exchange. I’m surprised to hear what I think are American accents. But I am thinking, feeling and questioning things about a place in a way I have not done for a long time. I’m frustrated and enchanted by Cuba in equal measures. I am reminded what it means to really travel. And I know I will not forget the colours of Cuba for very long time.