How I remember Cuba

In the week’s Econimist I read about President Obama’s recent trip to Cuba. He was the first president to visit since 1959. It was a pretty big deal and symbolised a huge shift in the relationship between the two countries.

Two years ago, I visited Cuba with my boyfriend. We were only there for a week. It was around this time people were starting to talk about the trade embargo with the US lifting. People kept saying “it’s so amazing that you’re going to see Cuba now before it’s flooded with tourists and there is a McDonald’s on every corner”.

After visiting Cuba, that’s something I simply can’t imagine; it really is like another world over there. However, in a sobering way, I understand that it could very well happen one day.

So I thought while it’s fresh in my mind, I should make a note of a few of the things I remember about the Cuba I experienced which made it so unique.

People don’t have the internet

Truly. The internet simply isn’t an every day commodity. Before our trip we mangaged to make the reservation for our Havana Casa online. However, it wasn’t until we got there and chatted with our host, Lily, that we understood how it worked. Lily’s sister in Canada runs the booking website for her from Canada. Every day Lily will call her and write down all the details of the people who are going to be coming to stay. That’s how it worked.

When I read earlier in the week that Air BnB has opened up listings for Cuba it felt odd to think how much of an impact it was going to have on the way these sisters had run their business. And while on the one hand it’s a good thing, on the other, you lose this amazing story of the daily calls to Canada and the transfer of people’s names to a handwritten book.

Cuba doesn’t have corner stores

One day were were out and about and needed water. We ended up walking two kilometers until we found a petrol station where we had to buy a six pack of two litres bottles. There’s no such thing as ‘popping down to the off license’.

There’s not much to the Cuisine

When a country runs on rations, there’s little room for herbs and spices. Most of the food in Cuba is pretty bland. One evening we went to a restaurant which had salt and pepper shakers. This was a big deal.

They make great Pina Coladas though.

There are 1960s cars everywhere, and it’s amazing

I knew this about Cuba before we went but for some reason I thought the old cars were a token thing. However, because Cuba has lived through decades of trade and import limitations, the Cubans didn’t have a choice with their cars. If they didn’t nurse these 1960s beasts for all they were worth, they wouldn’t have any automotive transport. If anything, it’s quite remarkable.

Of all the things I loved about Cuba, the cars are really what makes it feel like you’re in a time warp.

No computers make for interest systems

When we bought tickets to catch a bus from Havana to Trinidad we had to buy tickets two days beforehand. We walked into one ticket office and lined up to see the ticket woman. She wrote our names down in a book and gave us a piece of paper that looked like a raffle number. We were instructed to give this to another woman on the other side of the room. This second woman ticked the numbers and told us to take them back to the first woman who swapped them for hand written bus tickets.

To this day, I have no idea what logic, if any, existed there. Probably for that exact reason it was one of the most impressionable experiences of the trip.

Handwritten history

The information plaques in The Revolution Museum were roughly cut pieces of paper stuck to the walls with sellotape. They were typed either, everything was handwritten.

There’s a double currency

In Cuba there is a tourist currency and a local currency. The local currency means food is cheaper and the tourist currency basically means you’re paying too much.

The fruit is wow

The fruit in Cuba was the freshest and most flavoursome I’ve ever had. We may have had a good season or come at the right time, but I’ve never had more delicious mangos anywhere in the world. I suppose that’ part of a country where everyone is living under a restricted regime; you’re only allowed a certain amount of produced food and the rest is up to you.

I find it baffling when you’re sitting in a country that you know it grows a certain product, but you end up buying an imported version from a store instead . I don’t really know enough about what any new US trade agreements will mean, but for something like that to happen to Cuba would be sad.

People dance in the street

Truly, it’s just like they say. I hope this never changes.

In a way, I don’t think I really understood what I was experiencing in Cuba while I was there, which I guess is the whole thing with retrospect. Even though Havana is only an hour’s flight from Mexico, it feels like another planet. Cuba exists in a bubble, or at least when I visited, it felt that way. It’s sort of innocent.

The day Coca Cola starts appearing on the streets of Havana and ‘we have free wifi’ signs pop up in cafes, I almost feel like a part of that country will be extinct. That might read as a bit dramatic it’s kind of how it feels.

I’d encourage anyone who is thinking of going one day to fast track their plans. It’s the closest thing to time travel you’re likely to expereince.

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