Surveying the departure lounge, I saw that we were an odd-looking bunch: the products of privilege, excess and entitlement no doubt. A voice over the tannoy finally asked for those with priority boarding to come to the desk. To a man, everyone stood and began to form a disorderly queue, apart from the burly bloke in a frock and a long blonde wig sitting next to me, apparently content to buck the trend.
“They can’t all be priority boarding can they?” I asked no one in particular.
After nearly a ten hour flight, against the jet-stream and over the vast desert of the Atlantic, we caught our first sight of land: a long string of Islands set in a pale blue-green sea. Minutes later we landed in Holguin.
Holguin is Cuba’s fourth largest city, founded by a Spanish military officer of that name and the spot Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, opening up the Americas to European conquest. Ours was an altogether different invasion and I wondered what the natives would make of us.
Cuba is roughly the size of the UK, but with a population of only twelve million it feels uncluttered.
Given the fiasco over Brexit at home I was intrigued to learn that communist Cuba had held their own Yes/No referendum only two days prior to my arrival, almost unanimously approving a new constitution proposed by the National Assembly of People’s Power.
The new constitution raises eyebrows: term limits for the president and the creation of the post of prime-minister. The recognition of private property. The recognition of foreign investment. The presumption of innocence in the justice system and the banning of discrimination, opening the way for same- sex marriage (presumably a pre-condition of foreign investment).
Critics talk of coercion during the vote and that it cements the role of the communist party forever. Perhaps the pretence of a choice in the UK wouldn’t amount to much either.
I wondered where the truth lies.
Feet now on the ground, I noticed the airport was painted in iconic peppermint green and Cuban ladies in smart uniform -pencil skirts and black, individually patterned fishnet tights – busily Salsa-ed and Cha-cha-cha-ed about the tiled expanse. We had arrived in Cuba!
We were soon checked and on our way in a new air-conditioned coach.
I pressed my forehead against the window to watch the rolling roadside documentary:
Old Dodge trucks. Fifties vintage cars. Skinny horses showing their ribs. A lonely fruit and veg stall. A farmer ploughing a field with a yoke of oxen. A small boy flying a kite. Chickens and goats browsing at the roadside and Turkey Vultures circling menacingly overhead.
I travelled, not only through a new land, but back in time to a bygone era. It was strangely familiar: like black and white film reel converted to colour, the past came to life.
Soon the long, straight, tarmac roads led us through open, flat countryside, bordered by tatty concrete shacks to reveal conical, green, heavily-wooded hills and mountains of Shortleaf Fig, twisted West Indian Satinwood, Kapok and Royal Palm.
The hotel was grand and sprawled across pleasantly green and spacious grounds, skirting a long section of white sand beach, punctuated with interesting Seagrape trees. The accommodation looked a little tired in places but was well equipped with everything we needed.
As we checked in at the desk we were offered an upgrade for £700 a week.
“Do we need one?” I said, concerned that we had been earmarked for a view of the back of the kitchens next to the generator again.
A woman appeared beside us and rubbing her wet arms against Michelle, draped herself over the counter whilst angrily shaking an empty water bottle at the receptionist with whom we were speaking.
“I have no Wasser,” she interrupted in unapologetically Teutonic fashion.
She stomped off without a word after the receptionist politely told her she was, in fact, at the reception desk and that she should go to the bar opposite for drinks. We shrugged shoulders and eyebrows at one another, closed our open mouths and decided to check out the room first.
After briefly sampling the buffet on arrival, we decided book up a different restaurant each night of our stay, especially as we told ourselves that we had saved £700 on an unnecessary upgrade. The restaurants were all-inclusive apart from two.
We changed some English pounds to Cuban Pesos at reception as we were expected to tip our hard working hosts. There was certainly no shortage of staff.
The first night we had all-inclusive Lobster. It felt like a real treat given the cost of the crustaceans at home. It was a little odd though, that the accompanying vegetables were tinned peas and crinkle-cut carrots where I had imagined bounteous and fresh Caribbean produce. ‘Perhaps the scaremongers were right and this is what we might expect after the Brexit apocalypse,’ I joked.
On the second evening we had Lobster again. This time it was wrapped in bacon and accompanied by tinned mixed vegetables and a pair of olives in brine, followed by rice pudding. At this rate Grandma’s pantry will be empty in no time, as well as the Lobster stocks, I thought.
We were given a small bullet-hard roll, which by all accounts was something of a rarity as there is a shortage of flour on the Island, so I made sure to eat it gratefully.
By the third day we were ready see some of the ‘real’ Cuba, and booked to spend the day with Luis in his immaculate Pink and Black Chevrolet Bel Air.
I sat in the front with Luis so I could pick his brains and marvel at the red leather coach seats and luxurious dash board. No seat belts of course – we were back in 1956.
Windows down, elbows pointing out either side, we relaxed as the engine cleared its throat and picked up to a lazy chugg.
We enjoyed the authentic smell of leather and let the warm air blow our hair for a time before anyone spoke.
It was the Luis family car, he explained. It had belonged to his father and his grandfather before that. The 50s were prosperous and there was a large middle class in Cuba. The car had been in a garage for twenty years before Luis resurrected it and nurtured it back to gleaming splendour.
A qualified engineer, his talents were more profitably utilised by fixing the car and driving tourists.
I had read that education and healthcare are very good in Cuba. In fact, Luis told us, Doctors, Nurses and teachers are now one of their main exports, in return for Venezuelan cooking oil that seems to be in such short supply.
He proudly showed me a picture of his young daughter on his phone as the conversation warmed-up. I returned the compliment but the ‘Pheeeew!’ noises and lingering stare made me wish I hadn’t.
Every now and again we slowed to pass farmers in small carts, pulled by a scrawny horse at the trot and the occasional shirtless cowboy on horseback. ‘Why are the horses so thin?” I asked.
They don’t get any supplementary food, they work hard and eat only the thin grass, was the answer.
An enclosed Dodge livestock truck rumbled by, used as makeshift public transport; fingers gripped the bars between the narrow ventilation slits as faces sought relief from the midday heat.
As if there were any doubt, a large roadside sign told us, ‘TENEMOS Y TENDREMOS SOCIALISMO’ – We have socialism!
We stopped at the cigar factory and saw the portraits of Fidel and Raul Castro on the wall. We saw the large brown leaves being stacked into neat piles. We saw the factory floor and the mostly young torcedores sitting in rows, expertly selecting, breaking and rolling the leaves into neat cigars: finishing one and beginning the next with seamless industry. Workers are expected to make a minimum of 120 cigars a day for around 60 dollars a month. The quickest will make up to 250 a day overtime is always available.
We bought five cigars of various size for twenty-five pesos in the factory shop and jumped back into the Chevrolet. I felt a pang of guilt then dismissed it.
In Holguin the streets were noisy and bustling. Wires sagged from concrete buildings and telephone poles. Some buildings were either half-finished or half-ruined. Motorbikes and horse drawn carts carried as many passengers as possible and moved between the vintage car parade.
Ladies walked, shaded by colourful umbrellas. Bicycle taxis with parasol and sidecar lined the pavements waiting for trade.
Everyone looked fit, clean and tidy and I noticed noisy queues outside the few shops.
Towards the centre of town the buildings took on more Cuban glamour.
Spanish Collonial style columns and arches in a riot of terracotta and red, yellow and lime, teal, pastel blue and mint green.
Luis dropped us by a large Bronze plaque that tells the story of Cuban History, from Columbus to Castro. I surveyed my surroundings and imagined I had been transported into the set of the 1980s film, Back to the Future, complete with Biff’s truck.
We walked through the central square gardens and into St. Isidore Cathedral.
It was apparently upgraded to a Cathedral by Pope John Paul II who said of communism:
“The fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.’
“A person who is deprived of something he can call “his own,” and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognise his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community.”
He’s right of course but our brand of Capitalsm, it seems to me, produces similar results. The common factor in the failings of each system lies in the human heart.
As the great Russian commentator Alexander Solzhenitsyn neatly put it; ‘If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.’
And in his devastating summary of the many millions of his people who perished under Soviet communism, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
On the way back Luis offered to take us to his family home. His sister- a qualified lawyer who makes a living sewing leather handbags- made us a lovely coffee and we relaxed in rocking chairs on the balcony overlooking a dusty road and a piece of waste ground where a young boy flew a kite among the rubble. It’s always windy in the afternoon so the conditions were ideal.
Luis and his friends had played baseball and soccer on that piece of ground when they were growing up. “Now the kids play their computer games,” he complained.
I asked him about rationing and he brought out a ration book to show me.
Arroz (rice) 10
Granoz (grain) 20
Aceite (oil) 2
Sal (Salt) 1
Fosforos (matches) –
Other supplies can be bought but without state subsidy and at a much higher price.
We had seen a lot of school children and remarked on their clean, smart uniforms as they walked from school. Across the country the uniforms are the same. Primary children wear red, Secondary pupils wear yellow, higher education students wear blue and those at Technical College wear brown.
There is two years national service at age18, but only one year for University students, Luis told us.
It was a slow and enjoyable ride back to the hotel. We had booked our evening meal in the ‘premium’ section of the hotel.
Lobster and tinned pineapple for dinner, accompanied by some weird, repetitive, psychedelic Jazz, reminiscent of Patrick McGoohan’s Prisioner.
“If I had to eat Lobster every day and listen to that, I’d try to escape too,” I confided in the waitress. “I AM NOT A NUMBER, I AM A PERSON! ’ I was tempted to shout through a napkin megaphone. “I WILL NOT BE PUSHED, FILED, STAMPED INDEXED, BRIEFED, DEBRIEFED OR NUMBERED!”
Indeed, that cult series of the 60’s had some rather uncomplimentary things to say about both communism and capitalism. Perhaps the jefe de la casa was enjoying an ironic joke.
Cuba is a haven for ornithologists and naturalists. We saw all manner of birds, fish and reptiles. The cunning but noisy Antillean Garacle that pinched the sugar sachets from the lunch table and the delicate yellow throated warbler. Michelle even spotted a Bee Hummingbird, drinking from some pink tubular flowers on her way out of the toilet: an example of co-evolution apparently.
I was intrigued by the graceful needlefish that moved like muscular water in the crystal-clear shallows and studied the territorial curly-tailed lizards that emerged from the tree roots to chase one another or bask in the sun.
We went on a boat trip to Cayo Saetia, Fidel Castro’s holiday Island, where I saw the large Cuban Rock Iguana, a beautiful but mysterious long-spined sea urchin that pulsed red alien lights from its heart and a small group of Russian poseurs.
The girls dipped their long hair in the water and all flicked on the count of “tri” as the men snapped away.
The safari was fully booked but we heard them secure a spot at someone else’s expense on the offer of “many roubles.”
That’s capitalism I suppose.
Castro had the island stocked with ostrich, zebra, buffalo and various antelope as didn’t really have the option of an African Safari.
I snorkelled along the sparse coral reef and among the brilliantly coloured fish before it disappeared forever.
I couldn’t resist a wry smile on hearing later that the Russians had seen nothing but the inside of bumpy Russian jeep.
We all sat down for the promised lunchtime feast. What arrived was some warm wine and a cornucopia of nuclear-bunker supplies.
I can’t say I’ve ever been asked to clap a chef for opening a tin of peaches but that’s what happened.
From that point, the rest of the holiday galloped to its conclusion as I did to the nearest toilet.
Cuba is a beautiful country in its own way. The people seem content with their frugal lifestyle and look after their neighbours. They share transport and scarce cooking oil supplies. I suppose I should call it community spirit. They don’t have much to call their own but seem happy and content with their lot.
There isn’t much to buy anyway.
Everyone seemed to be proud of their deceased leader, Fidel Castro. They believed he cared for them. That he had looked after the people.
Unfortunately I couldn’t say the same for our politicians at home.
Sadly the baggage handlers soured things a little by stealing from our hold luggage and cabin bag after we checked-in for the return flight.
I realised then why we had been urged to write a helpful list of the contents and value of our suitcases for Cuban customs officials. It was a shopping list!
The insurance company told us it happened a lot.
I wouldn’t say it spoiled the holiday but I felt that, on balance and despite my putting a dent in the Lobster and tinned vegetable supplies, that it had for the Cuban economy, been a successful harvest.