Cuba is a country of contradictions, complications and compromises, where instead of providing answers, visiting only poses more questions and uncertainties about the fascinating mix of people and cultures. To speak about the beauty and generosity of the people, the lushness of the forest, the idyllic turquoise and white beaches and the magnificent patchworks of crumbling colonial buildings seems to denigrate the country into cliched brochure-speak.
But it’s all true. Cuba is not the most comfortable country (far truer for citizens than visitors), where the heat reaches unimaginable humidity levels without breaking, plumbing works only occasionally and even the government-owned hotels and resorts are not exempt from flies, mosquitoes and bed bugs – great levelers in a genuinely unequal system. Yet it is one of the most authentically beautiful; besides its physical aspects the island has an enthralling history, a complex social situation and is one of the only places in the world virtually untouched by contemporary American culture. The fascination and beauty of the location does much to distract from the occasional discomfort.
Culturally, the talent is astounding, and incredibly accessible. The amazing quality of live music at every meal renders one almost inured to it after a few days, yet leaves one surprised at the silence surrounding meals back at home. Cd’s from bands we had listened to for hours and paintings from people we met and with whom we had discussed the challenges of Cuban life have become personal souvenir
of the experience, far more treasured than any anonymous mementos would have been.
Few things measure up to walking along a narrow Havanan street in the dark, the interiors of buildings lit up in relief as people eat, play or watch sport on television. Groups of young men kick at soccer balls or smoke on street corners, children run around chasing each other and women chat comfortably through open doors or on the edge of pavements. We undeniably stand out as being foreign but attract no hostility; everyone wants to know where we are from, what languages we speak, how we live and what we think of their country. Many implore us
not to believe the international perceptions of Cuba – they are anxious to show us the reality of the country, the citizens, the governmental systems and the pride. Possibly due to half a century of international semi-isolation, Cubans, even dissenters, tend to be intensely nationalistic. And they have reason to be proud. Even ingrained poverty is presented with beauty and style, which does not take away from the hardships that working people face.
The sweat and sweet flower smells of Havana, the open doorways leading to labyrinths of households, the generosity of spirit, earnestness and inherent pride in what is good – these are things which will stay with me forever…or at least until my very next trip.