Rest assured, the rest of this article won`t be as illegible and serious as this New York Times-worthy headline, and will be accompanied by the usual logorrheic levity of my other blogposts about the slightly surreal experience that is touring Cuba in 2016.
As I sit her typing on my iPad in the lobby of the Aeropuerto Jose Marti, waiting to board the
8mm thick aluminum tube that separates me from explosive decompression plane back home, I realize the extent of my disconnection from modern civilisation the instant I notice that my iPad is still on Belgian time, and that it hasn’t automatically adapted to the timezone applicable in Cuba, which it usually does automatically when first reconnecting to the internet. iCloud is prompting me for the umpteenth time to connect to the internet in order to back up my iPhoto collection, of which it warns me more and more that failing to do so soon might result in ‘lost files’. I don’t know if it’s a legitimate threat or a clever way for Apple to find out where I’ve been hiding for the past two weeks, not that they’d care.
Either way, at a certain point during this trip I had been disconnected from the internet for 5 consecutive days, and I frigging loved it. It instantly legitimized these internet-detoxing cures I had been reading about in otherwise completely uninteresting airport magazines. I can’t remember the last time I had been disconnected for so long, but I’m pretty sure it went all the way back up to the ancient days of dial-up internet. Bear in mind, this disconnect from the internet was not a choice predicated on an inherent desire of mine to isolate myself from the rest of the world, but rather a result of the general lack of internet-availability in the country. Obtaining internet is best compared to throwing handful’s of bread to pigeons in the park, where you -the western tourist – are one of the pigeons. You can spot the vendors of these cards on the streets by following the hordes of tourist flocking around them like crack-addicted prostitues hovering around their dealer on the corner of the street. You have to buy these dingy internet cards with a scratchable code which will allow you to access the world wide web for a limited amount of time (that is if you manage to find one of these highly coveted internet hotspots, usually located in the snobby lobby of an upper-class hotel). Recent estimates number the total amount of hotspots in the country at 33-ish. It is so extreme that it is hard to fathom for a person accustomed to having internet as far as on the toilet (what DID people occupy themselves with before, when disposing of unwanted bodily fluids and solids??).
But Cuba is a country of extremes at heart. Although individual capitalistic longing is officially frowned upon; increasing tourism, softened embargo legislation, Obama’s landmark visit in March 2016 and the Rolling Stones performing live on Plaza de la Revolucion in April have gradually and partially lifted the veil on what life could be like for these cubans, who until know have known little else but the state-imposed misery and relative poverty with which they seem to content themselves on a daily basis.
Extremes are everywhere. You either have a beautiful colonial townhouse, or you have an absurdly decayed building that could very well be one of the two houses that collapse everyday in Havana when the clouds open up and rain flushes the streets. You either drink rum or milk (I realize this comparison seems illogical, until you learn that milk is more expensive in Cuba than 3 anejos Havana Club). You have either the pure mountain air of the Vinales Valley or you have the Havana smog, which is equivalent to wrapping your lips around the exhaust pipe of a waste recycling plant). You either have an Audi A4 or a 50`s-era Oldsmobile, which has been reassembled and repaired more often and with a bigger collection of assorted pieces than a Vietnam soldier stepping on a landmine. There is something unequivocally nostalgic about having an automobile parc composed for 95% out of American oldtimers from the 60’s, but the inevitable downside is that the pollution in Havana is off the rails. If the pollution particles were any bigger you’d be able to use them as pingpong-balls for a game of beerpong.
Talking about accommodations is another worthwile topic. Much of Cuba seems to have remained stuck in time for the past 50-so years. It’s wonderful in many ways, when you are here for a stint as short as I have been. You feel as if you wake up in an old Hollywood crime-thriller set in Miami in the sixties. Havana’s – and probably Cuba’s – real beauty unequivocally lies in it’s decrepit nature . The sights you see when you drift from the main arteries and enter the lost alleyways are unreal. Yet Cubans seem completely happy with it. It’s like Cicero said : ‘If you lose something but you don’t miss it, have you really lost something?’ We stayed in every type of accomodation Cuba offers : Luxury resorts, hotels, and the ubiquitous Casa Particulares. The Casa Particulares are truly the way to go in Cuba when you’re anywhere but the beach (simply because of the fact that there are no casa particulares on the beach). The casa-experience is basically just staying with the, often loving and very nice, people who rent out rooms to weary-eyed travellers – some in a more professional fashion than others.
Aside from the hotels in Varadero, I would generally not recommend staying in hotels in Cuba. The Cuban hotel experience (aside from the luxury resorts in Varadero) can best be summarized as ‘No es possible’. It’s the answer you will invariably receive to the majority of your questions and mojito-requests. The thing with the majority of the hotels is that they are state-owned and have barely been re/in-novated in the last 50 years, resulting in hilariously and/or hopelessly outdated accommodations. The crown however, unequivocally goes to the Rancho Luna hotel in Cienfuegos, which I can only assume compares to what vacationing in Pyongyang, North Korea must be like. Eerily empty hotel, unstocked facade-only bars attended to be ghost-faced personnel whose sole reply to every demand for alcohol is ‘no est possible’ despite the all-inclusive nature of your booking, abandoned playgrounds for kids who never showed up, creepy rooms with doors that do not lock and mural colors reminiscent of what many a murder scene in Bones or CSI : Whereverthefucktheyreatnow looks like are the least of your troubles. This was a Wes Anderson movie waiting to happen. The whole package. Asking for a roll of toilet paper (because why would a hotel issue it standardly in a room right?) is an experience in itself and will get you weirder looks than singing Stars and Stripes at a North-Korean banquet. The dinner buffet proudly boasts a metal heating tray filled with potato chips as a serious meal choice, even the wandering stray cats suspiciously following you everywhere were present. It was so bad it was downright comical. Olivia and I agreed that the only thing that could have made it worse was if the shower water had a slight green/brownish hue to it -which thankfully it hadn’t-.
Olivia – psychologist, medstudent,writer and iphoneographer extraordinaire -instagramhandle : obm (soon to be obmd, once she graduates from Medical School in Milan this summer) – was supposed to spend a day or two in Havana with us, but the social experiment called the Moller family took a liking to her and she travelled with us for a week. She provided us with the much needed knowledge of Spanish language one gets from taking spanish classes for 7 years during highschool in California. Since we have never seen each other twice in the same country ever since meeting on a godforsaken beach in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, we decided upon meeting in Havana, for the sake of continuing this tradition of overseas drinking and obtaining more of these ephemeral airmiles everyone keeps boasting about.
The colors and the vibrance of life in Cuba is really where it’s at. The plethora of colors are literally everywhere. It’s as if everyday some kind of Holi-festival was being celebrated with toxic lead paint instead of harmless colordust, and they bring such a joy to the houses, cornershops and hotels that it lifts everyone’s spirits effortlessly. The whole island is very reminiscent of Piet Mondriaan’s ‘compositie nr.3‘. The complete country is basically one giant, living billboard for Havana Club and communism. Don’t even dare mention Havana Club’s jealous stepsister, Bacardi, who eloped abroad in search of better fortune in Miami, and who is now banned from home).
Travelling inland is also an experience. You have two basic ways of getting around. The universally present Chinese ‘Viazul/Turistur’ busses or private taxis. These busses apparently surfaced on this island via a murky government deal that turned sour for the Chinese because the Cubans – accustomed to being supplied automobiles that last for 60 years – were disenchanted with their piece of shit busses that started falling apart 1 day after the expiration of their 2-year warranty period, and subsequently told the Chinese creditors to bugger off, regardless of outstanding debts. Given the number of luggages we were hauling around and the many stops we had to make in remote and deserted places we elected to go with a private driver and his vintage cruiser. We were smoothly whisked in between these many towns and places by Luis, our ever-smiling 24-year old driver. In the care of Luis no place was unattainable and no problem unsolvable. He played a comically elaborate game of Tetris each morning trying to fit our oversized luggage in the back of his car, squeezing them in tightly between a spare wheel, a toolbox and an assorted series of things which would come in handy if the car broke down. If Cuba had a spatial program and endeavoured to send a space shuttle in orbit, I’d imagine there would be a greasy toolbox and all-purpose hankerchief in the cockpit. They seem to fix everything. He graciously accommodated our every request to see the most touristic things, and brought us there in his vintage 1956 ORD (the original logo having lost it’s first F, much like a seasoned icehockeyplayer his front teeth) which purred like a content kitten happily digesting it’s diet of unfiltered liquid explosive dinosaurs. At 20,000 CUC (grosso modo 20,000 USD) the market value for these puppies is still surprisingly solid south of Miami!
We wrapped this little trip up by acting out like real American tourists by planting our behinds on the white beaches of a luxury resort in Varadero, before heading out to Havana for a last stroll down Habana Vieja, and a final mojito in one of Hemingway’s favorite stumping grounds, La Boquetida del Medio. On our way back to Havana, we witnessed the chaos brought forth by the Americans and which Cuba had involuntarily managed to avoid for the last 50 years, when we found ourselves in the middle of the filming set of the 8th installment of the ‘Fast and the Furious’ series. An oversized jetblack chopper hovering over the city to film B-roll and street scenes, endless rows of filming trailers filling up the streets like peas in a pod, and some 40 crewmembers blocking off streets causing an organized chaos that had probably not been seen since the crowds attending the last speeches of Fidel had gathered on the Plaza de la Revolucion. Those modern, Hollywood trucks stood apart from the delapitated state of the streets and buildings around them, and were – if possible – the best sign of a new future for Cuba, where outside (read : american) influence would be growing by the day.
In my humble opinion, Cuba is heading for a golden future, but that golden future is irrevocably incompatible with the current communistic political situation, which is trying to stay afloat and which tries to keep capitalism at bay much like the human body’s T-cells trying to keep infections away. There are not enough flashy roadsigns sporting swanky communist propaganda in the world to keep people from wanting an iphone and the possibilities to go online and look at catpictures.
Now it’s back into the reality of the daily grind and internet-availability on the loo. And cigars. What a world we live in.