CUBA: Heady rhythms on an island road trip

Une lettre signée 'Fidel' vient d'arriver. Bizarre, elle date de 2013. Dans l'enveloppe, suivent les impressions d'audacieux voyageurs avec leurs conseils, fous rires et des poèmes nés de la plume d'un écrivain en devenir. Pour nos amis anglophones, voici de quoi vous régaler. Les autres ne devraient pas être en reste.

 OLA COMPAGNEROS !

My name is Fidel, I am happy to welcome you to this curious selection of photographs of my beautiful country.

A popular Belgian photographer took the pictures and an up-and-coming young English writer wrote the texts and songs. They visited Cuba in the summer of 2012 with their wonderful friends from Europe and Mexico.

Unfortunately, I was unable to meet them on their visit, as I have been ill for a time. So ill, in fact, that I had to ask my brother Raul to take care of the house, the family and other domestic formalities.

Look carefully at the pictures. On the surface you will see a poor country coming to terms with the ghosts of the past. Ghosts of buildings, ghosts of machinery and ghosts of old politics. But if you could scratch these photographs and look a little deeper, as these guys did on their visit, you will see beneath sullen smiles, a proud people with big, warm hearts. You will find a vibrancy, a resolve, indeed a binding, collective determination to make do and not to give in. You will find something essentially human in their persistence and ingenuity.

I am tired now. I have never admitted defeat. Some say my dominion over this house long ago began to feel like a drawn-out, tired experiment. An experiment I continued to justify, perhaps for too long. Along the way, Cubans have endured years of great suffering, being punished by bullying outsiders for seeking a different way. I would have wished otherwise. Now as my body feels weaker and my heart heavier, I wonder if sometimes I mistook obstinacy for conviction, but then what sort of man lacks the courage to follow his own vision?

Enjoy the photographs.

Yours,  Fidel  (Julio 2013)

Text : John Baldwin  - Photographs : Anne Coryn

Havana, try a different Cuban Experience...

Forget Varadero or any other of the resorts with their hotels outside the capital. Forget the day trips that allow you just to dip your toe in Havana. We suggest you find lodgings in the city itself. Find a Casa Particulare, a family home converted into a guesthouse, usually the best solution wherever you are in Cuba.

Put on your comfortable, nondescript clothes and shoes. See the sights, the churches, the museums, and the architecture. 

OK, take the obligatory cigar factory tour. Buy your bottle of Havana Libra rum. Sample the peculiarly preserved decadence in the lobbies and bars of old, colonial, central hotels like the Inglaterra or the Telegrafo on Paseo de Marti. Or mingle with the ghosts of film stars and gangsters at the Hotel Nacional.

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But most of all walk Havana’s streets, by day and by night. The narrower alleys with their ruined tarmac and cracked pavements in Havana Vieja as well as the large, open, clean-swept squares and connecting thoroughfares. And meet the people. At first reticent and long-suffering, then warmer, smiling, helpful and sometimes effusive and garrulous. Observe the body language, listen for the music. Feel the heat, the rhythms and the innuendo. 

Then, whenever you’re feeling a little tired, or shabby, spill out of the side streets onto the iconic Malecon, with its arcing downtown ocean drive and sea wall. Here your mood always shifts, whatever the time of day, whatever the weather.

Right now, maybe the stark, bright glare of the afternoon sun with a refreshing breeze, ushering in a moderate swell that breaks on the rocks below before busily sucking them clean. Later, at night, against the reflection of the moon on the water, discern the silhouettes of fisherman floating in old inner tubes just offshore acting as a silent backdrop to the intimacy of Habanera life in the shadows on land.

Dawdle in Havana. Take two or three days at least to let it get under your skin, before moving on. That way, when you eventually leave, you will forgive the poverty and sometime squalor and you will experience the particular, gentle, life-affirming urge to return, which is at once nostalgic, romantic and exciting.

“And the Malecon whispers, whilst quick glances say that morals have drowned beneath sleaze and decay.”

The Road Trip

We found driving around Cuba easy and safe. There are the usual stresses and uncertainties in Havana but otherwise, out of town, the roads were relatively quiet and one could make good time although one tends to underestimate distances. By Caribbean standards, Cuba is a large island.

We realized it was best to concentrate in one part and we chose the western part for this first trip. 

Our route took in Havana, Las Terrazas, Cayo Leviso, Vinales, Pinar Del Rio, Maria la Gorda, back to Havana, Bay of Pigs, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Topes de Collentes, Santa Clara and Matanzas before a final return to Havana.

We visited in July 2012. It was very hot!

Fidel was ill, his brother Raul was “in charge”. There was hope in the air that the fervent hard line policies of the past and the antipathy with the USA would soften.

This article will not read like a typical travelog. The intention is to give a feeling for and a flavour of the island through prose and poetry. Hopefully, then you will buy your Lonely Planet, Routard or Rough Guide and be inspired to design your own adventure around these loose clues. We found a beautiful country, a beautiful people and a perplexing politics that asks you to focus on the essentials of the human condition. I hope you are so lucky too.

Cruisin’ Cuba

An old Plymouth, a Ford, or a Chevrolet.

Iconic Americans past their day,

Some purr, some rattle or cough and choke,

Some glide serene, others bellow out smoke.

Here polished chrome on a drop head saloon

There lurid green or vulgar maroon

White-walled tyres on a sleek, sky blue

Wing mirror dangling from a Bordeaux hue

From pugnacious taxis on city streets

To distant shimmers in the haze and heat,

On open highways to provincial places,

At open windows, smiling faces,

On quiet back roads to God knows where,

Sounds on the radio, breeze in your hair…
— John Baldwin