Being in Cuba is like being somewhere at the boundary of heaven and earth. The endless turquoise ocean, dreamlike sun and breeze, and mesmerizing landscape whisper in one’s ears: “Why this is heaven. Nor am I out of it.” Stepping into the cities, browsing in supermarkets, and talking to the locals take you back to earth and its realities.
But there is more to Cuba than its natural beauty. Warm, kind, and beautiful people are also a great part of what makes the Cuba experience an ethereal one. I had never felt so safe anywhere in this world. OK, maybe in Yazd in Iran. I remember seeing open doors of some houses in Yazd and asked the guide about it. He said it was very safe; people didn’t feel they needed to close their doors.
Now, if you are a resort person, you can continue living in heaven uninterrupted. I get bored to death having a lot of fun or rest. I need something to engage my mind. And there was a lot in Cuba.
On the road from Havana to Varadero, we saw very many young and old men and women hitchhiking day and night. It is a very common, safe, free mode of commuting all over Cuba. Driving was fairly good considering the road was shared by cars, bicycles and sometimes horses. The streets were full of old, I mean really old cars painted in amazing colours I had not seen anywhere. The cabs were amazing: yellow and a really funky shape.
In general, people cared about their appearances. Regardless of their occupation or social position, they seemed to pay attention to their looks. I liked that; I saw so many colours and then I came back to Canada and everyone was in grey, white, black interrupted by a few in dark navy and dark brown.
People also seemed happy. I saw people who were in charge of providing tissue in return for a small sum of money for public washrooms. They were laughing and joking and talking happily. I have not seen that anywhere in Europe where the public washrooms also have attendants. And certainly not in Iran.
My guide was a young man who was very disappointed that they were not allowed to have credit cards. He was upset that he had to save money for a long time to buy things. I told him about the huge debt Canadians incur at the moment on their credit cards. He seemed surprised.
Before I went to Cuba, I asked the health officials in Canada what vaccines I needed to take. None, they said, as Cuban health care has eradicated all epidemics for ages. When I got to the airport in Varadero, I noticed all workers wore masks. I assumed there was an epidemic there! And realized quickly that they protected themselves against all that we might have taken to their country. Health care is available to all Cuban citizens without any payment.
Education is not just free but mandatory. University entrance has exams. Everyone is paid more or less the same salary. I wondered how many people I knew (Iranians, Canadians, Europeans, Americans) would go through years of study and training in medicine if they knew they were going to be paid as much as a clerk or janitor or driver. I couldn’t help asking, why do people go into medicine? Love of their profession, my guide said. I was embarrassed.
I secretly hoped that I could, by some extraordinary incident, see Castro. I asked where he lived (no, I was not planning an incident. It was an innocent question). I was told that Castro lived in a military base in secret. He moves about without anyone knowing when or where. Whether any of this was true, I have no idea, but I got a sense of how some people felt. I asked the guide, is Castro rich? Well, he owns the country, he said! So I gathered he must be rich.
People cannot have their own business, and worse than that, they cannot travel. I couldn’t get over these. Also, food is rationed. My guide said every person is allocated 10 eggs a month (I think). He said that there was a shortage of food and a thriving black market. Walking through the supermarkets reminded me of shops after the revolution and at the start of the war in Iran. I don’t know how many of you remember these. I remember the shelves were half empty. Whatever they had in stock was sold but not replaced. There was hardly any variety.
Satellites were forbidden too. And people kept trading dishes and … Sounds familiar?
Tissue was a rarity in Cuba. I mean that. If you have allergy problems, like I do, make sure you stock up on tissue if you travel to Cuba. There were no tissue boxes, only small packages. I had a severe allergy attack and felt miserable on two accounts: one being incapacitated by my allergy, two constantly focusing on how to get tissue to wipe off my watery eyes and runny nose. We walked all over old Havana and we found no tissue in any pharmacy or supermarket. I later saw a doctor in a medical clinic who provided medication and saved the rest of my trip.
There were no vending machines either. But I didn’t care about that. Most things were European or European style, understandingly as US is in very bad terms with Cuba. The coffee is great. Even in a kiosk on the road, they have a coffee machine that brews espresso, Americano, etc. I drank 6-7 cups a day, and thanks to the allergy medication which made me utterly drowsy, I didn’t lose any sleep.
Old Havana was beautiful but not in very good shape. It was like an old aristocrat who has lost most of her wealth but none of her grace.
This was the earth part, the reality of people living there. As far as I could tell, for some, this was part of heaven too. For others, it seemed more like hell.
Back to heaven, I remember the banana, avocado, mango, and sugar plantations on the road to Havana. And a sugar mill, and the aroma of sugar in the lush green road winding up toward on a hill…
Seeing a coconut tree for the first time in my life was one of many wonders of my trip… It was so beautiful…