Havana, Cuba – Flight 7322 coming from Mexico just landed in Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. Cuba, I’m finally setting foot in the dream!
Like an orchestra, employees worked in sync in the small airport. After immigration officials checked our Palestinian passports, a lady approached us asking a younger man to help us exchange money and find a taxi. For $200 we got some 160 Cuban Convertible Pesos; that is the currency tourists – like us – need to use. Each Convertible Pesos is worth 24 National Pesos.
In the darkness outside, a small car waited. The driver tucked our luggage in and flew into the heart of the capital. Very few cars passed by and if it wasn’t for their bright, funky colors, one would think they’re in a trip back in time, to the 1960s. You see those cars every couple of kilometers, with someone staring into the hood… Probably thinking, what’s left to repair or change!?
Life filled the alleys of Havana Vieja: Loud men playing domino’s, kids playing football in the old streets, women standing by old buildings’ doors with their coffee, all breathing Havana’s humid air.
With the first rays of sun, we went out… Unprecedented reconstruction is taking place in the old city, workers heading to scattered construction sites, women hanging laundry on balconies, bellmen cleaning hotel sidewalks, returning passerby smiles and police hovering up and down the marbled streets.
Galleries line up the streets, next to armerías – where most weapons used in the revolution that ended Batista’s regime in 1959 are exhibited. Pictures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara foil storefronts, slogans glorifying the revolution make visitors feel revolution happened yesterday!
There is no Internet connection here to upload the pictures… To get online, one needs a card to access the government-controlled web. “That’s 6 Cuban Convertible Pesos.” But, wait… Who has a computer here and who can pay a quarter of their salary for an hour online!?
Finally, a place with internet cards, a computer… and coffee. In Cuba, coffee has another taste, one that resembles communion; holy like the revolution. Nevertheless, revolution here no longer resembles what Che wanted it to be; eternal like sea waves. Here too, its icons became for sale. As if the attitude is “if you can stamp his picture on it, sell it”!
Behind wooden doors, in a dark humid room, a policeman invited us to inspect different Cuban cigars. Dealing with cigar, like other national resources here, is a government monopoly. Our “buddy” in this dark room sells it smuggled from and in Cuba, to foreigners craving the world most famous cigars.
Like everything else, stores in Cuba are governmental or semi-governmental. There’s no difference in storefronts nor in the few goods available for sale in them. Local bands play Cuban Jazz and Tango to help diners digest the excessive oil used in cooking… You find musicians playing in almost every corner of old Havana. If you like the music, then booking a night at Cabaret Parisien is a must, in attendance are Canadian, Spanish and French tourists above all.
Most Cubans don’t speak English. They don’t hate it as our guide explained while on the way to Trinidad. “Our problem is with the American government,” he noted. “We don’t have a problem with America.” That much was obvious for Jack, as he wanted us to call him. For some reason he reminded me of Napoleon of George Orwell’s Animal Farm! Jack was a taciturn, short, with gray hair and a very sharp look. He was loaded with silver rings and leather bracelets… I don’t recall if anyone had a glimpse of him in the three days of the excursion without his cowboy hat. He wore jeans and spoke “American” fluently!
On the way to Trinidad, we stopped at Santa Clara. Here, the decisive battle of the revolution took place in the last days of 1958. It was led by the Argentinean revolutionary physician Ernesto Guevara, best known as Che, meaning “mate” or “dude” in Argentinean slang. At Santa Clara’s railway, the guerilla cut the way on a train loaded with ammunition and headed to Batista’s troops. There too, a mausoleum for Guevara occupies a top of a hill. Although Guevara was killed in Bolivia some 43 years ago, Cuba did not retrieve his body or the remains of his comrades until 1997.
In the mausoleum, taking pictures is forbidden. The place holds many of the legendary revolutionary few belongings: His school certificates, which show how he loved history – and apparently – hated math… Among the exhibited objects are also some of his books, his white coat and medical equipment, cameras, weapons and the last pages of his diary.
The bus stopped in Trinidad, where time also stopped. This is probably why the town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the southern Cuban coast, Trinidad is a natural living museum of a former Spanish colony, mottled by sugar fields. Its 80,000 inhabitants seem to live outside time in one of the most beautiful spots I’ve laid eyes on: Sancti Spiritus, meaning the Holy Spirit.
A lady in her late seventies stopped me. Like others in Cuba, she didn’t ask for much: some candies, gum, a pen, mineral water bottles… Many things are missing here, as one may imagine after more than 50 year of embargo. There was something special about this one though, something I haven’t seen before. She was almost hiding of her own shadow… She offered five handmade necklaces. “Five for one Pesos,” she said while firmly gripping my hand. Before I could convince her with the little Spanish I learned that I am only taking one for a pesos, she yelled “police, police!” and disappeared in Trinidad alleys. If I didn’t see what she was selling, I would have thought – because of the way she fled the scene – she was a thief or a drug dealer of some sort! Later, someone reminded me that private “businesses,” like this one, are banned and that government controls almost all aspects of the Cuban economy. As I always do, I put on the defense mode: “Better than having whales take over,” I snapped. In the silence of Sancti Spiritus, my voice bounced back a question to me, one that didn’t leave me since I left the land of Che: What if Guevara knew that the voice of rebels has eased, and the world’s burden is weighing on the poor, perhaps in Cuba, more than any other place?