Cuba, travel to a most surprising country

It’s a balmy New Years Eve, on the farm surrounded by friends and family. One family friend is drunkenly playing a guitar in the corner, on the other side the teenagers have taken control of the CD player, and I am enveloped in the crisp fatty scent of slowly spinning roast pig on a spit.

NYE spit roast, Cuba
NYE spit roast, Cuba

But this is not my family, I only met the friends a week ago, I’m in Cuba and it is indeed a surprising place. I am travelling with a small group of Aussies, Kiwi’s, Canadians and Americans through I am surprised at how many Americans are visiting Cuba since in theory they are not allowed to, they are sneaking through Mexico or Canada in large numbers every year, and are happy to flout their government’s nonsensical rules.

Cuba: an extended family.

My hosts are the family of our excellent local guide, and they are almost a cross-section of Cuba. There’s Granddad, the charming silver fox, Dad who is a staunch communist who isn’t comfortable with so many foreigners around, Grandma who is happy as long as we refill her little half glass of beer, shy but smiling Mum, a brother in law who is loudly pro-American and wants to discuss politics all night, and the whole extended family. We feel honored to be invited to their party while we are so far from home.

Cuba: music, party, art.

This is the only communist country I have visited that really seems to love a party – I don’t know if there is much financial support but there seems to be great artistic support for the arts and musicians (& movies), and you didn’t have to look very hard to find music and dancing. It has become part of our everyday experience in Cuba. The locals are born to dance with snake-hips that no amount of salsa lessons are going to give me, but after a couple of Cuba Libre’s I give it a try anyway.

I am here during the 50th anniversary of the Revolution , which just amplifies the partying – there are government sponsored street parties at night. And I am amazed at how easy it is to indulge my love of art – paintings everywhere, art galleries, street markets. Camaguey and Baracoa have the best, while there was also a huge range of cheap but good street market stuff in Havana.

I am lucky enough to visit the Camaguey home of Ileana Sanchez & Joel Jover, and fall in love with, buy and take home a Joel Jover painting. I also realize that the value of art is very subjective – the price I pay is equivalent to a talented art student’s first exhibition in Sydney, and at least one tenth of the price for a known artist with 20+ years on international exhibitions, but it was still enough to make the bus driver nearly faint from shock.

art, Joel Jover, Ileana Sanchez, Cuba
art, Joel Jover, Ileana Sanchez, Cuba

There is another memorable party we go to, well, gate-crash really. Travelling on a long trip through the mountains to our next city, we stop at the gate of a house where the driver knows we can usually buy some lunch, as there were no shops or roadside cafes on this route (or on most in Cuba). There’s a bigger crowd than just the family here today and they warmly invite us to join them. It is National Honor Teachers Day, and the teachers and their families have gathered at this particular house to celebrate.

On our arrival they quickly wring the neck of one of their turkeys, and then invite us to join them for lunch, a feast that needs to cook for the next 4 hours or so. We sample their local rum, play some dominoes, dance a bit of salsa, and have deep conversations about the importance of great teachers in our lives – although this was somewhat tempered by our very bad spanglish.

We also wander down the farm to visit the beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. Of all the things I associated with Cuba, waterfalls had not been on the list, but I discover there are many throughout the country.

Cuba: more music, dancing and old cars.

I have to admit that most of my pre-conceptions about Cuba are a bit out of date – while I was thinking salsa, the locals are at the nightclub, while I was thinking Buena Vista social club the locals are thinking Latino hip-hop. We quickly learn the various rituals of “clubbing” of any form in Cuba – generally we would start the evening late, and sit through a “show” – it might be cover band of Celine Dion numbers, or Latino boy bands or Buena Vista copy cats, of varying levels of skill. After enduring the show, the dance music comes on and the crowd throw themselves into what they’ve really come for – dancing and partying. We also learn that the best way to order drinks is “a bottle of rum and four cans of cola” and then mix our own for the evening.
I’d heard all about the wonderful old American 50’s cars and they are everywhere, they look amazing, and it is even more amazing how they manage to keep them intact and running for so long without access to spare parts. And it is no surprise to see the old Russian Ladas, although somewhat less attractive. But I am surprised to spot some brand new Audi’s, imported as car rentals for tourists apparently – a sign of change indeed.

old cars, Havana
old cars, Havana

Cuba: change is happening.

Everywhere we go, change is the most common topic of conversation, although probably influenced by our own level of desire to understand it too. Many Cubans are openly talking about how things are changing, whether they think that is a good or bad thing, what they would like to see change or not change. Everyone has different views, and everyone seems to be engaged in a public conversation on this, again more so than I would expect in a communist country.

And it also seems like every visitor has a version of “I wanted to come now before it changes” – me too, even though I know how selfish a view this is. I take heart at the level of public debate on this, hopefully a good sign for the future – I only wish there was this much involvement of the general public in political debate in my country. And I hope that before too long the ridiculous 47 year blockade is finally lifted. What do you think?