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December 01, 2016

Why Every Free-Spirited Person Should Plan A Trip To Cuba

Text by Sandhya Mulchandani

Awakening from its five-decade slumber, the island nation of Cuba is finally accessible to tourists….

Blame it on Obama. With just a few months left for the end of his term, he had endeavoured to set right the wrongs of previous administrations with diplomatic overtures. And he sure did succeed! For one, the impact of his visit to Havana has been stupendous. Embargoed, forgotten and literally locked down, Cuba has finally woken up from its five-decade slumber, kissed awake gently by the American president.

Though he beat me to it, Cuba has been on the cards for a long time but planning it constituted a problem. You couldn’t fly directly into Havana from an American airport, the flights from Europe were few and far between, you couldn’t use credit cards affiliated with American banks, no internet, no Wi-Fi…the list was endless. The travel agents who had the necessary permissions quoted an arm and a leg and more to facilitate your trip. But by May, Obama had already danced in the rain in Havana and magically everything opened up. There were now a dozen flights a day from Miami, cruise ships had set sail and Chanel showcased its Spring/Summer collection on the streets of Havana, with the Castro family in attendance.

Cuba, to offset the decline brought about by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, is slowly opening its doors and the first ones to rush in are the tourists. “There are so many these days that we’re unable to cope. This is unprecedented,” says our driver gleefully. The Americans are coming as are the Latinos and Europeans, Canadians and Indians, resulting in a 77 per cent increase over the last year. Cuba is for the curious, especially for the young who want to personally experience contemporary history and explore nostalgia.

Havana resonates with the romance of history: its rich Spanish heritage, the Bay of Pigs stand-off between John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the intrigue of the Cold War, the cult figure of Che Guevara. Cuba offers an insight to a way of life that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It’s easy to see that Cuba was at first a rich Spanish outpost and then an American R&R naughty station. ‘Havana is a mistress of pleasure, the lush and opulent goddess of delights,’ wrote the Cabaret Quarterly in 1956 about the decadence of the night clubs and mafia run casinos, the party girls, jet-setting socialites and American mobsters who came to play in the Cuban paradise. And that’s what people come for now…to reminisce about a bygone era that will soon get overrun by technology and modernisation.

It’s very early days yet and apart from a cosmetic cleanup for the American president, much of the city remains as is…crumbling but elegant, disintegrating but stylish. Balconies propped up by timber beams, clothes hanging from railings, unpainted and peeling buildings…. Nonetheless, the architecture is stunning; an eclectic mix of Moorish, baroque, art deco and American that creates a unique cityscape. The centerpieces of these styles are the just-renovated El Capitolio, that’s a startling copy of the Capitol at Washington DC, and the cathedral San Cristobal that’s been described as ‘music turned to stone’. The art deco buildings along the wide esplanade called Malecón, with the sea splashing against the low stone walls brings to mind Bombay of the ’50s and ’60s.

The slow bohemian life, its pristine beaches and the rum and cigars have always attracted the free-spirited. Havana marches to a basic beat and a simpler rhythm than what the world is used to these days but all this is changing. There are new hotels coming up, old ones being renovated, and pop-ups are everywhere. Still tacky but touristy brica-brac like magnets, postcards, Cold War posters, Che and Hemingway shirts are everywhere as are the bottles of Bacardi and touts selling cigars (and no the cigars are not rolled against the inner thighs of Cuban women!). Also slowly opening up are hitherto forbidden tattoo parlours, private restaurants and handbag shops. And then there’s Airbnb which has over 1,000 properties to choose from in Havana alone where hotels are a bit basic.

Baring a couple like the Nacional and the Saratoga. The Nacional is famous for its architecture, history, Cold War memorabilia as well as its line-up of guests. They include Edward VIII, Errol Flynn, Winston Churchill, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire as well as the notorious Cosa Nostra mafia families who controlled the casinos in Cuba. There are no casinos yet in Havana but maybe that too is only a matter of time.

Cubans are friendly, gracious and happy to help. Landing in Havana we were immediately surrounded with offers to find taxis; seeing our dismay, one man gently drew us aside, “There’s no mafia in Havana. Don’t be afraid, we are only trying to help.” This proved to be a recurring refrain throughout our trip. There is indeed no or very little crime on the island and the Cubans are surprisingly open to discussing life as well as their hopes and fears with strangers. Everyone wants to see Cuba ‘before it becomes another Miami’, which is creating both opportunity and excitement among the locals. Professionals like doctors and engineers, who make very little money here, are now becoming cabbies as tips from tourists far exceed their incomes. Not quite prepared to face the rapidly changing realities, this enthusiasm is mixed with skepticism amongst the older generation. “It’s difficult to understand what’s happening in this country, it’s very confusing,” says a senior manager in one of the hotels. “Change needs to come as so many of our young people have fled the island, but the shape and form it takes is also important. Cubans are very proud of their culture and the worry is that this sudden exposure to too much may erode our heritage and roots. It’s very important for us to remain Cuban.”

Undeterred by the problems of change, young people huddle over hitherto banned phones, talking and surfing the net. Wi-Fi is still very basic. When we checked into our hotel, we were given slips of paper with different passwords for each day which we could use to surf for an hour daily in our rooms. Cubans live their lives on the streets…smoking and drinking and gossiping…old women sit in the fading sun smoking cigars, young girls, all dressed up, hang out at the bar in Hotel Saratoga…. And then there are the cars! Thousands of vintage Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Buicks, DeSotos and Fords are reason enough to make a special trip to Cuba, especially for aficionados. The lovingly polished and souped-up cars with Toyota engines are a treat and have a bit of their own history. Many of them belonged to the mafia and other big-ticket gamblers, who came to Cuba in the ’20s and ’30s to escape Prohibition in America.

In Cuba, there’s the constant pulse of rhythm and dance, probably the most widely recognised artistic expression that has known no political boundaries. The ffhabanera is a heady mix just like its people — there’s Creole and Spanish, French and South American all mixed up and performed with equal vigour and zest. The first signs of political leniency came when legendary rock band, The Rolling Stones, performed in Havana to 5,00,000 people. An equally integral part of Cuban life is opera and dance, especially when it’s performed in the newly renovated Gran Teatro de La Habana theatre. This new freedom of expression is finding manifestation everywhere. There are DJs in bars who are constantly experimenting and evolving and there are jazz bands in even the smallest paladares, family-run restaurants in private homes that have only recently been sanctioned by the government. Old bars like Floridita, which is marketed as local hero Ernest Hemingway’s watering hole of choice, is bustling with noise from the band, tourists and too much daiquiri. And then there’s the art that’s literally pouring out into the streets. Open markets are packed with stalls selling art…good, bad and indifferent — but freely.

Cuba is changing, slowly breaking the shackles of its colonial and political past. It’s bringing with it hope and ambition for its youth along with droves of investors, real estate developers, businessmen and tourists. It will be interesting to see how the largest island in the Caribbean handles this new onslaught.

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