Overall I’m not exactly sure what magic would be waiting for me in Cuba. Images of crumbling colonial buildings filled my mind’s eye. Of American 1950s classics rattling their way through traffic. Of streets filled with music and bars clouded with cigar smoke. I knew of the ingredients, but I wasn’t sure of the taste of the tonic yet.
In July 2015 it was announced that America would open diplomatic relations with this Caribbean beauty. An end to the 54 year long embargo was in sight. If there was ever a time when motivation to travel was high, this was it. From the mouths of many similar words fell, ‘go now before it changes.’ Such defiantly played on my mind and before I knew it Cuba was incorporated into my travel plans.
Cuba grabbed my attention back when I was a teenager as my world view started to come into focus. I wanted to roam around one of the few remaining socialist countries still following the Marxist-Leninist ideology. I wanted to breathe in that revolutionary air which shone light on the suffocating dictatorship of Batista. I wanted to see a country which had, for 54 years, had no economic trade with America. A country which is predominantly viewed by the West as lacking the political and economic freedom we perceive ourselves to have. Yet despite this the World Health Organisation ranks Cuba highly in human development. In fact this little Republic just so happens to be the first country in the world to eliminate the mother-to-child transfer of HIV. Wow, that’s one rather you know, world leading type achievement for an “underdeveloped” country. So what would such a place look like? What would it feel like?
For me, with a few exceptions, one city is much of a muchness of another. After the initial excitement of a new destination has worn off they all begin to merge into one sterile offering. Tall buildings off set against old squares. Boastings of restaurants serving up world class dishes. THE number one view waiting through the windows of sky bars. As you stroll through the streets your eyes fall on knowing sites; billboards with familiar faces and brands with known messages. It all gets just a bit, well, samey. With Cuba, specifically Havana, the differences would surely be obvious. A city not yet whitewashed by Americanism.
As I drove out of Cuba’s main airport the first sites of Havana were apparent. Ramshackle Cadillac’s chugged their way past me, billowing exhaust fumes and a smell I’d soon affiliate with the city. Ahh the sweet smell of diesel. Within half an hour I was sipping on a classic rum cocktail and puffing on my first Cohiba cigar. This is it, I thought, I’m finally here. Havana revealed its skewed glamorous history easily enough. Crumbling balconies defying the laws of physics. Jazz bars, Hollywood hangouts and Hemingway haunts played the perfect host. From here my journey through Cuba took off. Heading eastbound I hit up the town of Santa Clara and Camaguey. I stopped by Trinidad and Cienfuegos before I headed West to the green hills of Las Terrazas and then Vinales. After a round trip I found myself back in Havana soaking up some jazz and a daiquiri in La Floritias. At the end of the bar a bronze statue of Hemingway glared towards me. Pictures of Hollywood icons oozing 1950s glamour and demour hung above my head. If these walls could talk. Remnants of such a history colour this city, and with it a mix of vitality beating out from the sounds of Salsa and Afo-Cuban Jazz.
Understandably so I expected this taste of Cuba to stay with me as I made my way through the island. I thought back to my expectations of towns outside Havana, expectations conjured up from written promises of past visitors. ‘The hippest town outside of Havana’, were the words used to describe Santa Clara. A city of ‘…new trends and creativity…’ If the beat of Cuba was to be found anywhere else on the road surely it was here, but Cuba is set for a change, and it’s coming fast.
Forget the end to the embargo. The biggest influence in changing the personality of Cuba, the internet. In July 2015 35 wi-fi access points were opened to the general public. A privilege only previously enjoyed by an elite few. It’s not hard to imagine how the Cuban youth of today look like; having stepped out of the equivalent of the Bermuda triangle in the internet world. No longer do swelling groups of youths create a spontaneous rhythm beating out from old town squares. Instead dimly lit faces hang in front of mobile screens. An out stretched arm balances a laptop mid air hoping to catch a good signal. Life has reared off the streets of Cuba as we know it and into virtual reality.
Such developments will no doubt erode traditions. Cuba is a country known for nurturing musical talent from cradle to grave. Soon the will and desire to engage in after school sessions will take one hell of a nose dive. Jazz bars, restaurants and hotel lounges will indeed deliver to us tourists. However the way in which music has been flowing through the very veins of this country is without doubt under threat. There is no debate that the developments in communication rights are a positive step. Cubans can now participate in an online world we take so much for granted. The same can be said for the newly emerging possibilities in enterprise. Fingers crossed they benefit Cubans directly, rather than simply lining the pockets of foreign investors. As with any positive step there is always a negative. Traditions are eroded to make way for the new.
If you have been promising yourself a trip to this historical island then get planning. Sure Havana city throws up a visual paradox like no other. Cigar smoke and Cuban Jazz fill your nights antics. Trinidad holds on to its colonial beauty, with a musical backbone propping it up every night on the old town steps. But when all the creases are ironed out. When all the cracks are filled. When the cars are no longer started on a wish and a prayer what will be left? Well presented hotel grandeur polished for tourism. Where will that magic mix that makes Cuba, Cuba remain? I wanted to resist feeding into the hype. But in uttering the words of so many others, yes, go now before it’s too late.