Saturday, 8 September 2012


Local transport - 1950s style
The last week has me thinking about Cuba..maybe it's our impending return to the Caribbean, or maybe it's the fact that it's been a year since our bare feet felt the soft sands of Cuba's beaches. Travel can mean different things to people of course - for some it's more about 'doing' the country and checking off a list, for others it's about exploring a new place, new climate and the mindset of a nation's people. And trying to realise the difference; for it often takes longer to understand the difference. When I first mentioned to friends that we were thinking of going to Cuba, I was generally greeted by the repeated comment that we should go before Castro dies and everything changes...before Cuba succumbs to the (inevitable?) pressure of westernisation? - both the economic and social pressure. I wonder did people say that about Ireland before our own surrender to McDs and our very own westernisation?

Tobacco country: Vinales
I have been thinking a lot about the people and the places that we encountered along the way. We met several Cubans, but we rarely got into any level of conversation other than chat about the weather, our journey or our home. No heavy chats about the Castro regime or how things have been and might become. Speaking with other visitors to Cuba and reading books around the topic, the consensus is that the Cuban people just don't talk about it...certainly not to curious outsiders who want to be able to share the truth with the coffee club when they get back to warm Irish homes - far from that 'idealistic socialist regime nation' - "it won't, can't last". Maybe it is on its last legs, and sure - every country must change as the mindsets of its people changes, or risk tyranny. But it sure is beautiful.

Very cool Trinidad ;)
We only traveled a short time about the place, staying in various Casas Particulares of diverse standards - all clean, all welcoming, but some more basic than others. In the bigger towns there were a lot of small apartments dissected out of grand palacios to make homes for maybe twenty families today where pre-revolution there was one. There was something about those families though - seemingly squeezed into the size of a modern Irish kitchen. They were connected, and they were - are - community. Too naive to muse on how they must be so happy and content, but there was a certain magic there.

Sweet sugarcane, yummy juice!

The food outside of the government run places was great - again it varied between Casas Particulares and Paladares. But we eat fresh lobster - best ever, fresh fish, pork, chicken....and real vegetables, like the ones growing in a pesticide free zone outside our window. And we eat a lot! I am still carrying the memory of those massive dinners and feasts of mango and omelette breakfasts, though the coffee was not so reliable. I was also reminded by my traveling companion that everything was served up with wedges of lime on the side - not complaining! I started the same thing when we got home for a while - very tasty ;) And the rest of course can be used wisely with the sweet rum...mmm

Local transport on right; tourists to the left..
spot the difference?
Highlights were trekking on horses through the countryside outside of Trinidad in the province of Sancti Spiritus; the fabulous people we stayed with and of course - the much slower pace of life. The tourist buses were on time, air conditioned and even with poor Spanish we managed to communicate well. Again, the world of the tourist is not that of the Cuban people and we were reminded a few times when we spotted the non-tourist transport. Less glamorous and very rudimentary air conditioning!

Cuba is a place of contradictions, explore it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. I loved it - the lush green valleys of Vinales; the red earth under our feet; the heavy rain showers when we had to shelter with our horses in thatch sheds; the over-feeding by our Casa Particulares hosts; the blatant adoration of Che Guevara; the slow, slow pace; the hens who ruled the back roads; the clear blue waters of the Caribbean and the biggest avocados (straight from the tree) and sweetest bananas ever tasted.

Cuba is a place that has stayed to the fore of my mind in the year since we left it's shores. If you want to read more, Dervla Murphy's fantastic book The Island that Dared: Journeys in Cuba is an excellent companion.

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