Darcy Keith | CanWest News Service
Cuba is a reminder that life’s simple pleasures are its most precious.
In its cities and towns, children play ball among decrepit houses. Neighbours congregate on door stoops to share gossip. Women hang laundry on improvised ropes outside windows lined with shattered glass. Car owners are seen patching up vintage Chevy and Ford jalopies from the 1950s and 1960s with self-made or Soviet-era auto parts.
The familiar signs of consumerism—fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and billboards—are nowhere to be seen. Violent crime is rare.
The sounds of Cuba may be the most uncomplicated of all. Thunderous Afro-Caribbean rhythms seep out of cafes, dance halls or just a simple street corner turned into an impromptu concert, instantly persuading hips to start moving to tunes born from salsa, rumba, mamba and cha-cha-cha. Frequent laughter penetrates the thick air of a humid night.
It’s easy to forget when in this largest of the Caribbean countries that it’s the 21st century, the digital era that has brought dizzying advances in technology, household furnishings and all things material. The complexities and amenities of modern life seem to have largely bypassed the inhabitants of the island, which is inescapably tied to its volatile political past.
That’s not to say vacationers don’t enjoy the benefits of modern technology. Tourism is now the country’s biggest industry, and visitors to the many three-to-five-star resorts can pamper themselves not only with sun-drenched white beaches, but also with nearly all the imported advances of the 21st century. Most hotels have air conditioning and offer their own Internet cafes, although connections are of glacial speed. Satellite television beams in the latest from CNN and HBO.
Of course, under the watchful guise of Fidel Castro, Cubans aren’t allowed to be “corrupted” by the values portrayed in American television, and must settle for rabbit-ear reception of state-controlled television—if they can afford television at all. They aren’t even allowed to set foot into many of the zones designated by the Cuban government as solely for tourists and resort staff.
Indeed, Cuba is a tale of two worlds, one artificially created to resemble a sunlover’s paradise and another engineered to be a socialist’s paradise but in the end came up short. It’s no accident the two remain out of sync. Beach resorts in the towns of Varadero and Cayo Coco feature guarded checkpoints to ensure the worlds don’t collide.
All this makes Cuba a fascinating vacation spot because both spheres can be explored. Some of the most popular packages allow vacationers to split their time 50-50 between the beautiful white beaches of Varadero, the island’s largest resort district, and Havana, the political, economic and cultural centre of the country filled with stunning, if often dilapidated, colonial architecture. Even those who have booked their whole time in Varadero can plan day or one-night trips to Havana (only two to three hours away by car, bus or taxi). And for a richer taste of the real Cuba, there are numerous fine hotels in Havana catering to tourists.
For those who are more adventurous or on a tight budget, many Cubans open their homes through their own version of a bed and breakfast, known as a casa particular. There might not be hot showers and the bedding might not offer five-star comforts, but they do offer homemade meals and first-hand insight into the life of Cubans. Cuba is not known for its cuisine—even some of the better resorts fall short. It’s simple homemade dishes Cubans do best—roasted and fried pork, beef and chicken, white rice and beans, and plantains.
Although some local people may approach tourists in the hope of some economic gain, many Cubans seem genuinely interested in hearing about life beyond their borders. A trip to some of Havana’s museums offers a hint as to why hearing unfiltered stories direct from a foreigner must be an eye-opening experience.
Propaganda lives large in these institutions. The Museum of the Revolution, for instance, tells the story of Cuba’s struggles for sovereignty through exhibits illustrating the many attempts by “Yankee Imperialists” to poison Cuban society through its immorality and failed interventions. The museum even documents as fact what it claims as U.S. terrorist attempts, ranging from trying to kill Castro with exploding cigars to concealing explosives in shampoo bottles to infect Cuban pigs with swine fever.
It’s an interesting insight into the teachings of a government of a communist nation becoming increasingly isolated in this capitalistic world. With Castro in his twilight years, and the younger generation eager for change, Cuba is unlikely to stay in this time warp for much longer.
IF YOU GO ...:
PASSPORTS: Canadians need passports to enter Cuba. There is a 25 Cuban convertible peso a person departure tax (cash only) payable at the airport.
money: U.S. dollars are no longer generally accepted in Cuba. It’s best to bring Canadian cash or travellers cheques, as surcharges are often applied to credit-card transactions and bank cards can’t be used at ATMs. Credit cards issued by U.S. banks are not accepted. Cuban pesos are worthless outside Cuba so make sure to exchange your money for Canadian currency before departing.
FEW AMERICANS: There are few Americans in Cuba because of the U.S. travel embargo (although some enter the country by flying first to Canada or Mexico, and then request their passport not be stamped upon their return), but aside from many Canadians, the island is awash with German and British tourists. Cuba is Spanish-speaking, though English is widely spoken at most tourist hotels and restaurants.
TAXES, TIPS: There are no specific taxes on goods and services in Cuba. Tips are appreciated, especially given the country’s low wages. For meals, tips of five to 10 per cent are the norm and for hotel staff, tips are often given in the form of goods (cosmetics, candy, small items of clothing, etc).
WHEN TO GO: Most Canadians go to Cuba December through March, which coincides with Cuba’s dry season and temperatures are generally in the mid-20s. However, it can occasionally get chilly during this period in Cuba, the most northern of the Caribbean destinations. Best deals are usually in January, when some Canadians avoid vacationing while Christmas bills arrive, and outside of this peak season.