Born in 1992 and on the other side of the world, my understanding of Cuba was that it has always been flagged as the troublemaker in the classroom – antagonising the teacher. Fidel’s unyielding attitude to the giant in the north belonged to circumstances in a faraway place that had no relevance to me except that it was the Caribbean and supposedly the home to a fictional Captain Jack Sparrow.
Fast forward 25 years and I found myself considerably more intrigued by it’s tumultuous political history, rum and turquoise beaches. That being the case, I committed to 4 flights and 50 hours worth of travel from Perth, Western Australia to get to Havana.
I imagined stepping off the plane to be greeted by palm trees and those beautiful classic 50’s cars that are so quintessentially Cuba. As it were, I was hungover like a dog and operating on 3 and half hours sleep in a 36 hour period and my first impression was tainted by the very intense need to locate a bottle of water and a bed.
The first local I met was the Cuban equivalent of Robin Williams; broad and stocky with rosy cheeks, eyes crinkling as he beamed and introduced himself in broken English. Despite the language barrier, he cracked jokes and laughed at himself. He was my taxi driver. His companion was dressed in tight blue denim jeans and a bright yellow top that complimented her dark complexion. Her afro was a mass of chocolate coloured curls, erupting high above her brow. Together, they were the perfect introduction to the Cuban people.
There isn’t really a word to describe the feeling of arriving in a new place. To have your nosed pressed against the taxi window, watching a different world unfold before you. Cuba was no exception and the drive from the airport into Havana offered up horse and carts competing for space with bicycles, 60’s chevy pick up’s, tractors and buses. There were women in tightly, brightly stretched lycra leggings and polka dot head scarves; children in the hot pursuit of a soccer ball, skinny dogs sleeping in the sun and men congregated on a stoop, cigars in hand – also watching the world go by. It was fast and slow all at once. Che Guevara’s face defiantly looked back from shop windows, bumper stickers and billboards. Propoganda emblazoned crumbling buildings and La Revolucion Cubana was mounted high above school buildings.
It was a beautiful, confronting time warp that was evidently fraying at the edges.
As we weaved our way through a warren of side streets and alleys, all I could marvel at was the people. There are 2 million people in Havana and they had me convinced not a single one of them was inside. Everyone was on their way somewhere (undoubtedly a few hours late; I was yet to learn about “Cuban Time”).
We reached an unremarkable alley, with an unremarkable door and I was left to settle in. I found my way to the roof top bar and was quick to learn una el agua por favour (one water please). As I looked out at the city, with it’s buildings in every pastel shade available, and the masses of people below me (also in every shade available) I thought that the very last thing this city is, is unremarkable.
And that, was only the beginning.