El Truinfo de la Revoluciòn

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

One month in Cuba has passed quickly and I have now departed its shores. It wasn't an easy country to understand, but Cuba has certainly grown on me as time progressed. Its complexities and eccentricities seem to enhance its unique flavour. It might be fortunate that I had the opportunity to visit Cuba at this point in history, as current and imminent political changes could well change the cultural landscape of this Socialist country forever.

For this travel entry, I thought I'd 'briefly' describe my experiences and contacts with five different working class Cubans from different places in Cuba.


At around sunset one evening in hectic Santiago de Cuba, I was discussing the nightitme possibilities with another traveller, when a lady holding her baby daughter waved to us from her balcony. The two travellers were promptly invited into the humble Cuban residence for a strong black coffee and a glass of delicious Mamey juice. Yolandis worked as a guide at the nearby museum and was a tiny woman in stature. Her husband Javier, towered over her in comparison. Their wedding photo was one of the funniest things I´d seen, where Javier might´ve been able to pick Yolandis up with his thumb and index finger, such was their difference in heights. Javier owned a handicrafts store, but had to also work as a computer technician to make ends meet. The computer parts which he owned were almost as old as the Cuban Revolution. The interior of their home was quite basic with a few old cupboards, a couple of beds and precious pictures hanging on the peeling walls. Despite their lack of wealth, they made do with what they had and were content with life in general. I enjoyed talking to them, and our conversations ranged from Bruce Lee movies to Cuban ice cream parlours to breakdancing in the USA. Javier and Yolandis carried themselves with great dignity, and I won't forget the warmth and hospitality which they showed us. This was my first real experience with the 'real' Cuban people, away from the hustlers and street rats in the cities, and one which filled me with great contentment. After almost two hours of chatting, we waved farewell to our new family in this part of the world.


I might as well have dived straight into the pages of one of those glossy picture books of Cuba which I have seen in bookstores, as my first sighting of Havana was exactly how I had imagined the city to look like. Grand colonial buildings rich in detail; horse drawn carriages clomping and rattling on the asphalt; 1950's Buicks, Cadillacs and Dodges exhuming grey smoke whilst cruising the streets; old Cuban men smoking their beloved cigars whilst conversing about daily events. Old Havana certainly retained an ambience and glamour that seemed frozen in time.

A few dusty streets away from the main centre, Ángel the mechanic was busy at work beneath the rusted bonnet of a beaten up Buick. A wide smile beamed on his face when I greeted and approached him. With a typical Habañero accent, Ángel talked briefly about life in Havana, and then informed me with a casual tone that he had served as a communications officer during Cuba's involvement in the Angolan War some twenty years ago. The Angolan War had taken many casualties from the Cuban army. Rather than look upon his experiences in the war as a negative, Ángel optimistically enthused that Angola is the only country he had visited outside of his native land. In the midst of our discourse, a final jiggle of a recycled engine part with his greasy fingers, and the dipilated motor grumbled into life. A few other Habañero's came over to inspect the traveller and his overseas accent, and have a decent old chat about life in Cuba. I was later invited into someone's home to have a quick look inside and a sample of a local lunch. The whole experience was so cool, and I was beginning to feel pretty stoked about my time in Havana, a city which has become into one of my favourite places in the world. Indeed, after enough time spent in the capital, I felt rather like a local Habañero cockily strolling the streets and eating cheap peso pizzas, instead of a camera totting tourist stuck in the sanitised tourist area.


I arrived in the city of Camaguey, with its famous winding streets and friendly folk awaiting to greet me. However, my stomach was growling discontentment  and was on the verge of devouring itself. Robert, the guesthouse servant brought out a MASSIVE meal which I somehow managed to put away, much to everyone's astonishment. My subsequent after dinner conversation with Robert was most interesting.

In the year 1986, Robert was sent to the Ukraine on a scholarship to study engineering for five years. Having had to learn Russian from scratch (as the syllabus was entirely in that language), Robert obtained his Masters Degree from Kiev University in 1991. Barely a month after completing his Masters Degree, with the document in his hot little hand, the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union had sent him back to Cuba. Due to the political and economic circumstances of the early 1990's era, Robert never secured a proper job in his home country, despite being a fully qualified engineer. He now serves as a guesthouse servant in Camaguey, as employment opportunities in Cuba dictated that he performs such duties to manage a living. With much pride, Robert showed me his University Masters degree (printed in both Cryllic and Spanish), as his eyes gazed wistfully into space for a moment. Cuba still holds dear in Robert's heart though, as he staunchly defended the benefits of the Revolution, which had given Cubans free education and healthcare for nearly five decades. He honestly believes that the majority of the population is happy with the current system, and there will be few changes in the near future (even if El Presidente Castro passes). With the absence of beggars in the streets and a relatively healthy population, I wasn't about to disagree with his sentiments. 


In the countryside surrounding the sleepy village of Viñales, the 'guajiros' (name of the local farmers) were hard at work tending to their tobacco plantations, ploughing the fields using oxen and hand pulling out weeds that contaminate the soil. I greeted a passing guajiro and his grandson on horseback and within minutes I was invited into their farmhouse. Miguel had been a farmer his whole life, and his weather beaten face is testament to all those hours slogging under the sun. After being offered the customary cup of coffee, Migual pulled out two large tobacco leaves and proceeded to roll a couple of fresh cigars. Whilst we both puffed and exhaled the cigars with great authority, Miguel told me how the previous hurricane three months ago had devastated the region by destroying houses and uprooting almost all types of plantations. The telephone cables were still not functioning during my visit there. All the local farmers were still slowly rebuilding their livelihoods and starting the whole farming process again. He explained how the Cuban farmers had to sell the tobacco to the State and the relatively small economic returns they received for their work. In Miguel's own words, "It's a hard life". Despite all this, life carries on at the laconic pace which the guajiros are well known for. As I waved Adios to Miguel, I looked around at the lush countryside and up above at the scorching sun, and once again I admired the farmers' tenacity in today's ever modernising world.


After months of pounding different pavements, my beloved CAT boots began to show their age as the soles were on the verge of falling off. I entered a local shoe repair shop and handed over the offending boot to one of the workers. A tall, dark and bespectacled Cuban man emerged from behind his workshop and started a conversation with me. Alejandro, who had self taught himself English from books and television for many years, spoke English with such eloquence and refinement that I was astounded that he made a living as a cobbler in blue overalls, and not as an international translator or university teacher. Alejandro informed me that he spoke with an American accent during his initial English speaking years, however after watching the BBC news on television one day, he decided to adopt the British accent as his own and has spoken English with the innotations and rhythm of a Londoner ever since. Alejandro rarely had the opportunity to converse with native English speakers, especially from the dark confines of a local peso shoe repair shop. For me, it was amazing that a non-native English speaker could have the ability to simply switch accents with such ease, and have the vocabulary range that he possessed. Alejandro was humble about his life in Cuba, and never once complained about the lack of opportunities available. He prefered to talk about where I came from, my background and my 'half British' accent. "A once in a lifetime opportunity!", he exclaimed upon the conclusion of our conversation, and with a firm handshake he sat back behind his workshop and recommenced fixing shoes. I put my now repaired CAT boot back on, and walked back out on the street shaking my head in amazement as to the randomness of travel.

Cuba is a unique country, its infrastructure and socialist government dictates the type of lives its people have. The queues outside banks, bread shops, supermarkets and bus stops are simply a part of daily life. The old automobiles and their recycled parts on the streets, the Soviet washing machines inside the homes, the antique cash registers in the stores and the general lack of affluence (compared with Western countries) within the majority of the population are evidence that Cuba has indeed been trapped in some kind of a 'time warp'. It's this 'time warp' that attracts most foreigners to visit this country, and it was certainly what had attracted me. My experiences in Cuba were enhanced by being able to converse to an extent with the locals. Those glossy pictures of the picture books only recite part of the Cuban story; the Cuban people themselves provided the intangible missing link to the puzzle.
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