I recently visited Cuba, my fifth time there in four years (read about previous trips here and here). Although my frequent trips to Cuba are not because of any Hemingway-style love affair with the place. Rather, it is a lot more practical: someone from my company has to visit there occasionally, and I am always the first to volunteer. So, the truth is that Cuba has largely been work-related travel for me (“yeah, sure, how do I get that job?” is the most common response when I explain this at dinner parties…).
In any case, three things have happened as a result.
One, I have only ever spent time in Havana. Cuba’s capital city is where the country’s main international airport is; it is where all Government Ministries and Departments are located; it is where all important business in Cuba is conducted. So Havana is the only place in Cuba I have thus far needed to be in.
Two, I have become very comfortable with Havana. I have my regular hotel, my regular coffee shop, my regular restaurant, and my regular morning walking route. I can now find my way around Havana’s Old Town pretty well, without a map. And I am familiar enough with central Havana to the point I have started noticing when new places open or old places close, and even when the restoration of a dilapidated historic building is finally completed.
And three, probably as a direct result of one and two, my view of Cuba has become slightly skewed. Havana is the most affluent part of Cuba, by far, so whilst there is no shortage of crumbling apartment blocks and rundown infrastructure in the city, it also boasts a fair whack of gloriously restored architecture (especially in the Old Town), and many (absurdly expensive) international hotels catering to business travelers.
In Havana there are plenty of Cuba’s famed old cars to be seen, buzzing around in sufficient numbers to create traffic jams, but also in good enough condition to look utterly fabulous in Instagram photos. In Havana you’ll see lots of poor folks, although you’ll also see well-heeled Cubans in designer gear at flashy bars and clubs, because Havana is where the (teeny tiny) Cuban elite is concentrated. And in Havana there are tourists, lots and lots of them, from all over Latin America and the world beyond, dancing until dawn and dropping $6 a pop for mojitos (cheap by global standards, albeit a fortune for your average Cuban).
In other words, as a result of spending time as a business traveler in Havana, I have tended to only experience the form of Cuba that is popular in Western stereotypes of the place: a never-ending Caribbean fiesta of old cars, music, sunshine, and cheap cocktails. In a sense I have been insulated from (or perhaps I have willfully closed my eyes to) the true nature of modern-day Cuba. A real country hiding behind the romantic tourist façade; the slightly less-than-romantic, harsh and fairly grim place where most Cuban people actually live.
In any event, this all changed on this last visit, mainly because I was travelling with someone who had never been to Cuba before, and who wanted to do “tourist stuff”. So we made obligatory strolls though Havana Viejo, and along the glorious Malecón (Havana’s 7 kilometer long seaside promenade-cum-outdoor lounge room). We visited Floridita (home of the daiquiri) and Bodeguita el Medio (home of the mojito). And we indulged in a bit of impromptu salsa dancing at one of the many bars boasting (dubious) connections to the Buena Vista Social Club. But then I ran out of excuses as to why we should only be in Havana. Plus, it was the weekend, so blaming “work” as the reason simply wasn’t going to cut it.
The next morning – Sunday – we were picked up from our hotel at 7am, to begin a private tour I’d booked last-minute through the hotel concierge. As you’d expect, our vehicle was a nifty-looking old American car: a Buick, vintage 1952, with sleek tailfins and a shiny chrome grille. The driver explained in a mixture of Spanish and broken English the schedule for the day, which was to drive to Viñales, a small town about 200 kilometers from Havana at the center of an area well-known for its high-grade tobacco plantations. There we would go for a ride on horseback, visit a plantation, and have lunch at a local restaurant.
The driver also mentioned that the journey to and from Viñales would take about three hours each way. That seemed like a long time to spend in a car, but it did at least provide me with ample opportunity to observe the passing countryside. And, in the process, learn a few new things about life on the road, Cuban-style.
First, Cuba may be one of the world’s last remaining socialist economies, but at least amongst Cuba’s traffic police capitalism is alive and well. Roughly every twenty kilometers we’d pass a police check-point, and at several of them we were flagged down by the lone officer manning it. The driver would get out of the car, show some papers, engage in furtive discussion, and slip the cop a note. After which the driver would get back into the car, the cop would wave at us with a smile, and off we’d go. “Tourist tax!” the driver joked in heavily accented Spanglish.
Second, once outside of Havana, Cuba’s roads feel empty, in an eerie, almost post-apocalyptic way. This is a combination of two things: (a) really wonderful four-lane highways that crisscross the country, built circa 1980s, courtesy of the Russians when Russia was still a power and the Cold War was still a thing, and (b) practically no cars at all to be driven on those wonderful roads, courtesy of the Americans and their 60-year long, slightly vindictive and near total blockade of Cuba.
Thus, apart from aforementioned money-grubbing traffic cops, it seemed as if we mostly had the whole highway to ourselves. Occasionally we’d pass another old American car, or a newer model Soviet vehicle that even a cash-strapped Russian would nowadays refuse to drive, or an impossibly overloaded truck sputtering along on four different sized tires. But apart from that, it was just us and the road: mile after mile of pure, blissful emptiness.
And third, those old cars that photograph so nicely for social media purposes? Well, once you look beyond the shell you fast realize that everything inside of the vehicle is being held together by little more than glue and spit. More than that, worn-out engine components have been replaced over the years with whatever is available and works, most often bits repurposed from Russian tractor engines. So despite looking super-cool, most of the old cars in Cuba shudder and shake horribly when in motion, make ear-splitting noises, and emit trails of thick black exhaust.
In short, being inside of one of Cuba’s old cars for three long, long hours was the motoring equivalent of being locked up inside of a mechanically unsound washing machine. By the time we arrived in Viñales I was feeling both a little bit wiser, and a lot worse for wear.
When Columbus arrived in Cuba for the first time in 1492, he observed the locals to be “drinking smoke”, a centuries-old tradition of smoking the leaves of a local plant known as the cohiba. Columbus took this practice back to Europe with him and the rest is history, with Cuban cigars becoming famous around the world. And within Cuba, Viñales is considered the place where some of the finest cigars are produced.
So, no sooner had we arrived than we were passed off into the care of a guide, who was dressed in worn denim jeans, a denim shirt, a broad hat, and boots with spurs on the heels. He invited us to mount up onto horses waiting patiently in the shade of a tree (my horse was imaginatively named Mojito), and then together we and our Cuban cowboy rode out into the countryside, following tracks that were only accessible by horse or on foot.
The scenery was lovely, the area around Viñales lush and green. Most of the fields we passed through were devoted to growing tobacco – medium-sized bushes with broad green leaves that were pretty enough to look at, if not especially remarkable. A few fields were also given over to sugar cane and coffee trees, the other main Cuban cash crops.
The horse plodded along, the sun beat down, and after about an hour we came to a tobacco plantation, where our cowboy guide instructed us to dismount. Evidently, it was time to get up close and personal with some cigars.
That said, the word “plantation” seemed a bit grand for the reality of where we were, which was nothing at all like the expansive, Gone with the Wind enterprise I had been expecting. Rather, we had come to a pint-sized, relatively primitive, family-operated farm. Here, like almost everywhere else in Cuba, tobacco was being grown on a small-scale, harvested by hand, and air-dried in rundown wooden shacks. When dry the leaves were sold to a Cuban government collective, who aggregated the nation’s tobacco crops to produce Cuba’s famed cigars at government-run fabrigas (cigar factories).
We were led to a small outdoor table on which was a bottle of rum (flavored with a local form of the guava), a thermos of coffee, a tube of honey, and a pile of dried tobacco leaves. One of the farm workers ambled over, poured us each a shot of rum and a thimble of coffee, the latter heavily sweetened with the honey. Then, as we sipped, he picked up a wad of tobacco leaves and ripped out the central spine of each leaf. “Most of the nicotine is in this part,” he said, his English pretty good albeit in a rehearsed kind of way, like he had learned a script for the benefit of tourists. “In factories, they leave in the spine and treat cigars with chemicals. But on the farm we remove it and use no chemicals. So a cigar on the farm is organic and low nicotine. Good for you!”
In less than thirty seconds the worker had expertly cut the leaves, arranged them, and rolled-them into a fat, long cigar. Then, without even asking if I wanted to smoke it (seriously, who would have come all this way and not?) he proceeded to clip off an end, dip it in honey, shove the honey-coated end into my mouth, and light the other. “This is how locals smoke cigars. The honey leaves a sweet taste in your mouth. Now, puff!” he commanded.
Pretty soon I was leaned back like a colonial baron, puffing hard and blowing smoke into the air above my head. And pretty soon after that, I was coughing my lungs up. The cigar may well have been homemade, low-nicotine and organic, but it was also really, really strong.
Still, it did not take long before I was feeling light-headed and happy, and not just because of the cigar fumes filling my chest and screwing with my mind. Believe it or not, that was the first time I had ever smoked a cigar in my life. So, I kept thinking to myself, I was at least doing it in style. I mean, how many people get to say: “The first cigar I ever smoked was hand-rolled for me by a fourth generation Cuban farmer, and we smoked it together in the sunshine, on a bench, in the middle of his family’s tobacco plantation.”
See how seductive Cuba can be? Without even noticing, I found myself once again slipping headfirst into a popular stereotype of the place – in this case, the one that involves tropical weather, quaint tobacco plantations, horse rides in the bucolic countryside, and quality cigars.
And which I suppose is why “real Cuba”, when it finally presented itself, seemed all the more jarring by comparison.
Back in Viñales our driver made a brief detour, down a rutted, pot-holed road, before coming to a stop outside of a squat, rundown, three-story-high apartment building. It was one of six identical apartment buildings in a line, in the middle of otherwise unkempt rural fields. Each floor of each building consisted of eight apartments, so in total there were 144 concrete-box apartments, squished together under the Cuban sun.
The driver ushered us out of the car, shepherded us up some stairs to the top floor of one of the buildings, and led us into one of the apartments. There we were greeted by a smiling young lady with bright blue eyes and a blonde pony-tail. She invited us to sit, and gave us each a glass of juice. Her English was passable, and she explained that she was our horse riding guide’s sister, and that we were in her home. Actually, her entire family’s home – as well as her our guide, her boyfriend, her two kids, and her aged mother all cohabited in the one apartment.
The apartment was tiny, comprised of two small rooms, a miniscule bathroom, and an equally miniscule kitchen. It was also completely threadbare – a pair of battered chairs, an old TV set, a small beat-up fridge, a worn rug, and a few mattresses rolled up in the corner of the room. Laundry hung drying from the balcony; most of the window panes were cracked. And there was no air-conditioning or fan, so it was uncomfortably hot.
I gulped. This was no tourist attraction, but rather a brief, all too real insight into how average Cubans lived, packed cheek-to-jowl in tiny rabbit warren apartments with almost none of the blessings of modern-life that the rest of us take for granted. Forget the brilliant sunshine, the lush green trees and the surrounding tobacco fields. No, this was almost pre-industrial working-class misery, which would have been right at home in Dickensian England.
We got chatting, and our hostess explained a little about how daily life operated for her and her rural compatriots. “We must give 90 per cent of everything we grow to the Government. 10% we can keep, to smoke and make cigars to sell to tourists.” A socialist farming practice that extended not just to the tobacco crop, but everything else produced on the land, which in Viñales meant also coffee beans and honey harvested wild from native bees.
I asked if workers got paid by the Government. “Yes”, she replied. “We each earn about $20 a month.” I gulped, again. As if reading my mind, she continued: “But we also get free education and healthcare. And everyone makes a little on the side – like from selling cigars to tourists; or like my boyfriend who is a Government mechanic: on weekends he fixes cars by the roadside for extra money. We buy most of what we need at the rations shop, which is cheap. And we reuse everything – plastic bottles, clothes, food packaging. In Cuba, nothing gets thrown away.”
I asked about the rations shop, which I had often noticed in the side-streets of Havana. Dark, dusty stores, with rough-hewn wooden shelves on which a lame assortment of basic goods were arrayed: bags of rice, sacks of coffee, sugar, cooking oil, soap, toothpaste, female sanitary items, etc. The shelves always looked half empty, and the (Government subsidized) prices displayed were so low as to be practically free. A 2kg bag of rice was the equivalent of about 15 cents, for example.
Apparently, our hostess told us, ration shops are a feature of life in every suburb, town and village in Cuba – “the means by which production is distributed to the masses”, in socialist economic speak. As such, or so she explained, we would not be allowed to purchase anything at a rations store. Only a Cuban could do that, only at the store to which they were assigned (usually the store closest to their home), and only by producing their “personal supplies booklet” at time of purchase (the Libreta de Abastecimiento).
Each person’s supply booklet stipulated a monthly allocation of basic goods, the amount dependent on sex and age. For example, a bar of soap, 2.7kg of rice and 12 eggs (per month per adult), a liter of milk (only for children under seven), and so on. Each purchase made at the rations shop was duly noted in the supply booklet, with no more than the allocated ration allowed. And to the extent anything was needed beyond the permitted (bare minimum for survival) ration? “That’s what a black market is for….” our hostess said with a cheeky smile, although it was evident that she wasn’t kidding.
“There is also a Government bakery,” the woman explained. “We go there and get one roll per person per day. That is our daily ration of bread.” I asked about meat, and she giggled, like I had lost my mind. “Sometimes, once every two or three weeks, we get a bit of chicken or pork,” she added.
Then she paused, thought hard, and continued. “It is not a lot. In Cuba, everyone is poor. But we manage,” she said matter-of-factly, without the slightest hint of anger or jealousy. Thereby concluding both her thoughts on the subject, and our visit.
So there you have it: my day out visiting in the Cuban countryside. A strange mixture of popular fantasy on the one hand (old cars, a horseback ride through tobacco plantations, smoking farm-fresh cigars) and grim reality on the other (deeply entrenched socialist farming practices, cottage economy, corruption as a means of survival, really poor people, and a lack of just about everything – more so than I have ever encountered, anywhere else in the world).
Still, I am glad I did it. It was well worth the effort to leave the tourist-friendly cocoon of Havana and see something of the “real Cuba”, free of the nostalgic, slightly romantic ideas that pop culture likes to peddle. Even if what I saw was considerably harsher than I ever imagined possible. A place where almost nothing is ever thrown away, everything is rundown and broken, food and basic necessities are scarce, and most trappings of modern life that we all take for granted – working cars, internet access, accessible travel, well-stocked supermarkets, etc., – are luxuries that few Cubans ever get to experience.
As Marcel Proust put it so well, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”