Despite my efforts to curb my enthusiasm, I couldn´t help but arrive in Cuba with a tantalising sense of anticipation. I wished to see iconic yank tanks, ride in the back of one and yell out obscenely benevolent niceties at random strangers. Indulge in Communist propaganda, smoke a cigar, drink a mojito, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. Back from the technological hinterlands, I can report with delight that what Cuba lacks in modern conveniences, she more than makes up for with her unique character. Even if Cuba was a pretty ugly person, you´d probably still be charmed by her to the point of being compromised; such is her charm.
But it´s not just inner beauty that Cuba possesses. On a purely superficial level, she´s striking, apart from the bogwater spattered streets of Havana. One balmy evening, I was walking home carrying six bottles of Havana Club when my beloved Havianas broke. I waded through 12 daunting blocks of street slime, stale bread, pot-holed pavements and the persistent attention of a sausage dog, whose more handsome husband I saw in Peru.
My first impression of the Cubans was that they are an immensely friendly people. This didn´t change during the week I was there, despite being diddled out of a little bit of dinero (the notorious cash money) by a couple of crafty Cuban diddlers. Although Cuba is safe when you consider the low level of violent crime, the fairly relentless attempts at scamming tourists on the streets is a distinguishing feature of modern Cuba, which is capitalising on the influx of capitalist visitors post-1990.
I walked down the Malecón, where elderly fisherman cast out into the choppy waters flanked by spectacular edifices in a spectacular state of disrepair. I encountered a couple of Cubans as I strolled down a beautiful little street in Old Havana. They (a brother and a sister) appeared delighted that I was an Australian, not a gringo. He held out his arm, we compared shades, and he declared that I was dark enough to be a Cuban – I was doubtful about this, but from that point on, we were brothers. They took me to see the Buena Vista Social Club. I later discovered that the Buena Vista Social Club plays at about 14 venues across Havana, every day of the year. This German-like work ethic is at loggerheads with the otherwise laidback ethos that permeates through Cuba, and is even more astounding when you consider that most of the band members are now dead. In all honesty, I have never had a problem enjoying a good counterfeit. I requested the bill and my hosts didn´t have the right currency to pay, so I fitted it. No big deal, only about twenty dollars, for ¨Cuban realidad¨, which my host repeated frequently, before doing a cool handshake and finger click with his sister which I couldn´t replicate. In their defence, they had warned me to be wary of prostitutes in Cuba. I enjoyed this hypocrisy. But then, prostitution, like all things Cuban, is a little bit unique.
(As taken from the Wikitravel warning section on Cuba, which I really should have read: Watch out for “friendly” locals inviting tourists to bars for a drink (normally a Mojito) or to a restaurant; the tourist will be charged two to three times the normal price, and the spoils split between the establishment and the “friend”. In Central Havana area, a running trick is a young local man or couple, in pretext of practising English, to invite tourists to attend a performance by “Buena Vista Social Club” (note, most of the members of BVSC have passed away and the group hasn’t performed in Havana for many years) while suggesting to go to a nearby bar for a drink while waiting for the show to start.)
Anyway, back to my lengthy discourse about prostitution. Prostitution is far less segregated in Cuba than in Australia or the United States or other Western Countries, where girls (the less exclusive ones) wait conspicuously by a curb in a designated red light area waiting for clients to swoop. Many of these women have turned to prostitution to feed a raging drug addiction.
This wouldn’t appear to be so in Cuba, where drugs are far less a problem. HIV, too, is about 0.1%. The working girls in Cuba are well presented and can be quite difficult to spot, especially when they are amongst a group of Western girls with no less revealing attire. In a country where a doctor is paid something between 16 and 18 Euros per month, is it that they are simply wanting to be treated to a night out, the luxuries of a few cocktails in a swanky bar with a tourist from a country they will more than likely never visit? A cultural exchange, followed by another exchange? Conversation, I don´t imagine, would be too much of a problem here, given the excellent standards of literacy and education.
Of course, this is all speculation (as it often is), and for a short while there, I was paranoid that every Cuban girl who made eyes at me was a prostitute… something akin to the paranoia CIA agents would have felt about Russian spies during the Cold War . Or wondering who was the alien shapeshifter in The Thing. I estimated that the collective mass of prostitutes in Havana was 19.2333 (repeater) tonnes, but then I had a problem defining exactly what a prostitute constituted in Cuba; had I unwittingly become a client with my visit to the Buena Vista Social Club?
But it´s not all about prostitution, of course. The Cubans, by and large, are a charming lot, whether trying to diddle you down or not.
There was Daisy, a waitress who had worked for twenty-seven years at our hotel in Varadero and who sang a lovely tune, lamented Hugo Chavez´s medical woes and delighted in discussing soap operas with my Brazilian companion.
I met another man, a trained doctor, selling ice creams on the street. I wondered what had happened to his career, or was it simply economics that he could make more money doing this than practicing as a doctor?
Conversation is important to the Cubans. There´s a pronounced sense of community spirit on the streets, and even more appealing is the absence of aggression and fear which distinguishes certain Latin American destinations, including parts of Mexico. Women here still encounter overt attention from men, but the whistle or comment is never aggressive and is laced with a great deal of humor, which receives an altogether more favourable response.
There was Leo the Bartender, who made outstanding tropical cocktails on the terrace of my hostel in Havana and showed me how to properly smoke a cigar. Like all Cubans, he danced a wonderful salsa, perhaps the most energetic version of it I´ve seen, the type that leaves you sweating even as a bystander in the pleasant tropical winter.
This was the case at the Casa de la Musica in Trinidad, my favourite Caribbean city, where I watched Cowboys charging down cobbled streets with terrifying potholes from the safety of the balcony of my casa paticulare (sort of like hostels, but where you live with a family). But I couldn´t remain a bystander eternally, and discovered my not-so-repressed caveman at the Cave Nightclub – literally in a Cave, at the end of a dirt track. I started smoking again – just for a short while – to enjoy the subversive thrills an Australian might receive at being allowed to smoke in any indoor venue.
Anyway, if anyone is still reading this, not surprisingly, I will heartily recommend a visit to Cuba. Quit your job, dump your spouse, do what you need to do. Go there. And, of course, go to Brasil as well. They are both cherished children in my family of beloved countries.