Salsa rhythms, classic cars, dark rum, thick cigars, and iconic revolutionary faces are only a fraction of the imagery evocative of the Grande Caribbean Island. Cuba is big, Cuba is rich, Cuba is alive with its centuries-old culture and traditions, but what strikes the newcomer is the omnipresent feeling of happiness and joy Cubaneros carry with them. From battle time to austere economic hits, they have learned how to survive and enjoy simple life better than anyone.
The box of the forbidden land, the inaccessible crown jewel sealed in the 1950’s, has started showing some cracks to its U.S. neighbor. But, don’t be fooled! Cuba has been a highly touristic destination for 30 years now and welcomed three millions visitors in 2014. While the U.S. administration is beginning to ease travel regulations, Cuban customs are well familiar with daring U.S. Citizens sneaking in via a third country, so much so that often they won’t stamp American passports to avoid trouble.
As comfort is not popularly a prominent feature of communist countries, high-end hotels (while being developed) are still in short supply. However,the independent traveler might be glad to know, Airbnb is well established in Castro’s territory and makes stays at Casas Particular (private homestays) easier than ever.
For the spontaneous type, a multitude of rooms are available for rent in Havana – and really, in any place of interest across the country – one need only show up at any door featuring the commonly used blue anchor sign. A visitor is welcomed with open arms or redirected to a nearby homeowner in case of a full house. The close proximity with Habaneros will quickly be proven invaluable when it comes to the time to sit on the musty doorstep of a colonial house.
While the paved streets are two lanes wide, few cars ever drive by. The three story tall decrepit buildings boast gigantic carriage doors, and wrought iron balconies making front row seats to watch the world go by. Street life watching really is a special treat in some neighborhoods like Centro Habana where the dusty streets are the ground of choice for the lively local community to gather, check in on each other and share the latest news.
At every street corner, classic cars and problems along get fixed, services are traded for goods, improvised soccer games take over a block, romances bloom and mature out in the open, bands practice on benches and empty corners make the perfect baseball diamond.
Laughter, music and joy are wherever the ear falls. Broadcasted from house speakers, classic car CD players or pedicab amplifiers, Afro Cuban rhythms set the free and easy pace of the Habaneros. And, may the wanderer be a Habanera, every single step she takes will be accompanied by some piropos of choice: the sound of kisses, whistles and other “beautiful lady” isms. Solicitations may be relentless, but are never rude or rough and the fit Cubano is often subtle and charming. As for those seeking a little romance, there is no better dating site for the lonely soul than the busy Malecón at sundown to find some immediate company. Sunsets here are astonishing, waves crash against the old fortification wall and pelicans bend their wings to dive on their prey in the Caribbean Sea.
Life can be just as sweet as the famous local ice cream shop, Coppelia but happiness in Cuba seems inversely proportional to the material conditions. As social relationships and togetherness extend beyond the close family circle to a radius of several blocks, Cubanos find in them a much-needed solidarity for coping with the limitations of everyday life. While doctors and lawyers can make up to 1200 Cuban Pesos (CUP) or $50 a month, a basic government employee income ranges from 200 to 400 CUP. The State provides every citizen with a small monthly ration of oil, rice, beans, chicken, eggs, coffee and milk for kids up to seven years old, so the bare essentials are covered.
In addition, everyone benefits from almost free housing and transportation as well as free social security, education, culture and entertainment. With this socialist reform inherited from the revolution, homelessness and begging have basically been eradicated and the public services have good enough standards that even some neighboring countries would be floored.
The Cuban system uniquely has a dual economy: On one hand the government subsidizes a wide range of services assessed in CUP while imported goods along with tourism activities and independent work are valued in Convertible Pesos (CUC) — 24 CUP = $1 and CUC = $1 — at a cost similar to the Western market. The end result is the frustrated 75 percent of government workers who want to access some basic nonessentials, in example, furniture or a varied diet, but struggle to.
As the private sector has been encouraged for the past five years, many families jumped on the opportunity to open their beautiful houses to travelers, turning them into rooms for rent or restaurants (paladar). Considering a household is often constituted of an extended family of three generations, an extra 30 CUC per night can make a huge difference. Street trade has also expanded so the plumber, nail salon, phone repair guy, fortuneteller and cobbler have all set up shop on the sidewalk despite very limited resources.
Cuban society has an incredible level of resourcefulness and imagination developed to acquire a relative quality of life. As the clock of progress broke in the late fifties, keeping the old classic American cars running is an everyday challenge as tools and parts are barely available. But, according to cab drivers, it’s worth any sacrifice to keep the vintage icons spitting thick exhaust smoke and dispatch half a dozen riders across town to the devilish salsa rhythms.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are barely any motorized vehicles to be found in Cuba’s tobacco fields. One might expect to hear some obsolete tractor roaring, or other coughing agricultural machinery, but in the Viñales valley only hand-held and animal traction equipment is in use. In this quiet village nested at the foot of the mogotes, green rounded hills of limestone stand tall. The vernacular architecture of the family run farms are scattered along the lush valley where exotic fruits, fragrant plants and flowers along with coffee and tobacco are organically grown.
While the government levies up to 90 percent of the harvest on tobacco – generally less for other crops – life in the tropical fields of Viñales seems comfortable for the farmers who benefit from the many tourists drawn to the area. Despite the traditional farming culture, the town gets electrified every night when DJs set up their booths on the church square and the whole village comes together a bit closer to practice some well mastered salsa steps into the wee hours. During the day, when the sun is too high to work in the fields, local Viñaleros gather on their adirondack chairs under the shade of brightly painted colonial porches.
Having the unique chance to discover the incredible Cuban community lifestyle is an eye opening experience for the western citizen who is often driven for more material comfort in a consumer society. Most Cuban people surely wish to have a more democratic country, an open outward-looking economy and maybe just a little more tourism, but overall, the preservation of their culture and tightly-knit social fabric will be the greatest challenge in the midst of the new era to come. No trip to Cuba would feel complete without a basic knowledge of the ins and outs of this singular system, and no matter how long your stay, the desire to immerse yourself in the beauty of the Pearl of the Antilles may never wane.
Published in Upward Magazine, June 2016.
Photo and Text Copyright ©Noemie Trusty