Ana sayfa Editörün Seçtikleri Cuba (1): A different insight into the country

Cuba (1): A different insight into the country

Gürcan Elbek

After retiring from the Turkish Navy, it felt a bit strange being out of work after so many years of living days filled with quite an intense schedule. I was being paid despite not working, which also felt strange. After some attempts to write up a new resumé for myself, I started to question why I was doing it. It was not about extra income. Then I decided to focus on what really mattered to me in life. It was the beginning of another difficult process for me, because it was forcing me to look for my real self. As a result, I found myself on a long and distant journey to South America. On this journey, the movie “Diarios de motocicleta” (Motorcycle Diaries), was and inspiration for me to plan my initial route and get me into my first close encounter with Ernesto Che Guevara. After traveling to Patagonia, Chile, Peru, I visited the tiny village of La Higuera in Bolivia where Guevera was executed. As weeks passed during my trip, I had a growing desire to visit Cuba and a sense of curiosity towards the country.

It is not that I was trying to check off items on my bucket list; rather, I wanted to participate in Labor Day celebrations in Havana while Fidel Castro was still alive. I went to Havana in late April of 2015. I made a plan for one month. My flight took off from İstanbul on Aeroflot – which was quite reasonably priced (700 euro) – and continued with an eight-hour layover in Moscow. In those eight hours I visited the Red Square and the Pushkin Cafe; I was rather lightly dressed for chilly Moscow. Having the spirit of an apprentice traveler though, I was too enthusiastic to suffer during that short while. After a brief touch-down in Moscow we landed in Cuba to a hot and humid day.

Couchsurfing (CS) is an organization to share a couch at a fellow traveler’s place and spend time together to get a different insight of the culture you are visiting. You can meet up with new friends of the same group as well. CS helped me a lot on my trips. I decided to try one for Cuba. When I left the Havana Airport, there was a taxi waiting for me which had been arranged by my Cuban CS friend. It didn’t take me long to understand Cubans were using CS as a commercial tool which is quite different from the way it is used in other countries. This was how my first accommodation arrangement was set up. It was the first observation for me that everything was different in Cuba.

The first morning in Havana…
The house where I stayed was one of colonial style. In early morning, I went out and walked about the streets of Old Havana. There were some people around sweeping the streets, selling fruit and walking about like me. I reached the seaside (Malecon) by walking close to the Revolution Museum. Everywhere was quite safe. The environment felt different but safe.

First chats in the streets…
I was quite new to Havana. I had read a lot before getting there and at the same time I was trying to observe the city as much as I could. I always love to talk to locals. When I listened to the first street sweeper I met in my early walk, I was lost in the sad stories of poverty and deprivation. This brought my spirits down. I invited the sanitary worker for dinner that night. During the day I visited Hotel Ambos Mundos and the bar El Floridita where Ernest Hemingway frequented. In the cafes and lobbies of the hotels I visited, I talked to waiters. They all told similar sad stories of poverty and of not being able to meet their most pressing needs. Listening to those stories made me sentimental, instead of a happy tourist enjoying a new country.

However, after spending a month in Cuba, I can say that this begging culture was prominent in places with tourists such as Havana, Varadera, Pinar del Rio, Trinidad and others. In the rest of the country the national character of the locals was quite different from it was in these places, especially in the east.

An expensive country for a backpacker…
At dinner, after drinking some rum, I was in tears because of these guys’ stories. Beside this, I paid a treasure for dinner for a self supported traveler on a budget. That night I understood one thing very clearly: it was not possible for me to support everyone like them in Cuba. Because, Cuba is not a cheap country for a backpacker. Accomodation in a “Casa Particular” (someone’s house used for staying as a guest house with government permission) was about 20-25 Euro for night, which is quite expensive for a backpacker.

Classical Cuban trip routes of the tour companies…
Cuba wasn’t a country for self-planned travel like in South America or South East Asia. Tour companies organize specific routes for at most two or three weeks. Havana, Varadero, Pinar del Río, Trinidad, maybe, Cienfuegos, Pigs Bay, Santa Clara and Sierra Maestra…

Also there is a beautiful resort in the northern coast of Cuba called Jardines del Rey (King’s Gardens), with all-inclusive hotels near the beach where only foreigners are allowed to stay. I saw people who arrived as part of a tour in a nearby airport , staying in a secluded heaven without contacting Cuban people for two weeks and then taking off from the same airport.Salsa dancing, drinking excessive rum, smoking cigars, listening to stories of the Revolution, beautiful Carrebean beaches, soliciitng prostitutions may be right for someone not interested in the reality, but it certainly wasn’t for me.

Different Cuba in the east…
My different Cuba experience started after heading east following being in these places. Camaguey, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo and Baracoa were really different. People were showing good character and I could understand other facts about Cuba. Still living conditions remained challenging, but people were much happier and confident about their coutnry. They held onto the values of the revolution more strongly than those in the west, or better to say, than those in areas with tourists..

End of first day in Havana…
On my first day, after dinner I was walking along the seaside, on a long boardwalk which is called Malecon. It was so lively. Lots of people were enjoying the music they played on guitars and other musical instruments. Families chanting, eating peanuts with rum and beer, or enjoying some coffee along with the nice ocean breeze. After my first day of sentimental encounters I couldn’t be there any more and I just watched them like a movie on the screen. I couldn’t get in.

The rest of the days in Havana for me were much better although a little bit isolated. Just the places I visited and myself. I visited museums including the famous and historical Hotel Nacional de Cuba, as well as others. I went no-contact with my couchsurfing friends (!). During Labor Day observations on 1 May, the weather was overcast. The sky was crying on that day. Under the heavy rain, I tried to experience and understand what May Day meant to Cubans. Fidel’s health didn’t allow him to address the crows. This expectation was also a bit commercialized in 2015 with a lot of people coming from different countries to listen to that speech.

The questions in my mind…
My trip took three more weeks after my Havana days. I enjoyed being out of the touristy routes where you can meet with more real people. I was traveling on buses of a company named Viazul with nice air conditioning and mostly foreign passengers. The cost for these trips are way beyond the means of many of the locals. Along the roads, I saw people, standing in the back of trucks, or riding decrepit buses; riding bikes in poor shape – but mostly on foot.

I listened to many stories that I hadn’t heard of until then, all of which raised even more questions for me. Who was Camilo Cienfuegos, who was represented together with Che in posters, graffiti and wall paintings across the country? Why did Che leave Cuba after so many years serving this country? Was Cuba really a heaven for the communist ideology? What happened after Batista left the country and what was the impact? And maybe many others..

What do you really expect from a trip to Cuba? What do you really want to see in Cuba? It all depends on your awareness, as is the case in every moment of life. Cuba is a delightful country. Its people are really nice. In some way, they are living in tough conditions. What would a capitalist approach bring to this beautiful country? What will change in the near future? I hope it doesn’t go the same route and at the same pace as the modern (!) mindset.

With my regards and respect.

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