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Where Imagination and Reality Are One
Written by Giulia Grazzini. Photos by Matteo Grazzini
What are we looking for when we visit Cuba? We often search for the picturesque scenes reminiscent of the ‘50s. In Cuba, more than everywhere else I had traveled before, I felt that even the briefest glimpses were worth immortalizing in photography or in memory and the most common details seemed to turn into representations of unforgettable travel memories. The challenge for me was avoiding glamorous, nostalgic, clichéd views of Cuba - as it is often the case in the European or American imagination - and trying instead to get a personal and unbiased perception of it.
I took a ten day trip to Cuba last August with my brother and my parents traveling to parts of the northern and central regions of the island. Before embarking on the trip, I had asked friends who had visited Cuba about their impressions of the country. The majority of their memories consisted of whether or not the anticipation of seeing Cuba was more exciting than actually seeing it. They also remembered being in awe of the physical space. From its stunning relics of French and Spanish colonial architecture to American cars of the 60s to the ever-present signs of revolution and that ongoing epic, Cuba startled even the most passionate of historians. In my friend's’ words, it was clear that the rum, the cigars, the cars, the bubbly dresses from African influences and the indigenous hospitality were crucial to their collection of memories of the island.
I started wondering how much of this exoticism would be truly authentic and how much would be created solely for tourists’ benefit. I left my New York City apartment with the curiosity and the purpose to understand how Cuba earned its reputation as travel destination and what founded its true authenticity.
A popular itinerary to follow when visiting Cuba is a loop starting in Havana and continuing through Trinidad, Santa Clara, Varadero and back to Havana. My family - traveling from Florence, Italy - and I decided to avoid the coastal town of Varadero, as we imagined it to be purely a mass tourist trap, and we opted instead for three days in Havana, one in Cienfuegos, two in Trinidad and four in Cayo Santa Maria. This schedule promised full immersion in the local history and time to relax at the beach.
Cayo Santa Maria
While Cayo Santa Maria fulfilled the promise of talcum-fine sand beaches and turquoise waters typical of the virgin portion of Cuban land, what mostly struck our attention was the urban settings of Havana and Trinidad. Remnants of the revolution gave each city an intriguing charm, especially at night. Wandering around the streets of Havana and Trinidad, we felt that even half a century later, traces of romance and conspiracy still hung in the air.
Staying at bed and breakfasts called casas particulares allowed us to really experience the local attitude and lifestyle. We witnessed in person the kindness, joyfulness and sensuality that the Cuban reputation has widely celebrated. These bed and breakfasts were special paradises for me in the way that I love foreign languages and sharing stories with locals. During breakfast and dinner, I translated to/from Spanish to Italian to allow my family to ask curious questions and engage in long conversations with our hosts.
Cuba to me set the stage to be sensitive to people and receptive to their ineffable charm. Nevertheless, my question about how morally controversial tourism would be remained unanswered for the entire trip. I had the impression that despite the intriguing vibe we felt from the country, the media had been selling a version of Cuba to the world that overlooks its true characteristics. If travelers aren’t careful, they will miss out on the real gem hiding under the surface. To smoke a cigar and hire a 1950s Ford to explore this unexpectedly complicated and bittersweet realm is a dream for all tourists – us included. But on the other side of the glittering and nostalgic images published in travel magazines is a less idyllic Cuba that mass tourism has created.
Walking around the sometimes desolate, sometimes chaotic streets of Havana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos, a sense of abandonment came over my family and myself because of the lonesome relics of pre-revolutionary times standing off on their own. Just outside of Cuba’s well-preserved city center and UNESCO site are streets featuring decadent caved-in buildings, porous infrastructure, pervasive grime and poor living conditions. Large families live in small run-down shacks and kids play soccer or baseball barefoot. Pictures of dilapidated buildings in Havana are affectionately referred to as “vintage “by visitors, while city dwellers wonder whether the next storm will bring the roof crashing down.
Cuba has long served as a canvas for tourists` fantasies, which often don’t include these degraded conditions. This is why I was interested in the complexities of life on the ground for most Cubans and their views of their social and political circumstances. The Cubans I met did not blame their poverty - of which they were well aware - on the U.S. embargo or Castro's policies, but they simply surrendered and adapted to their fate. In a country with censorship and prohibitions, their hard-earned wisdom comes from learning how to survive ideological and practical challenges. Despite the failing communist system and the most recent introduction of economic liberalizations by Raul, the people continue on and find joy in their lives and in each other.
One night, my brother and I were walking down a street and my brother remarked how local socializing seemed to take place on the street, in bars or when standing in line for portioned goods at local bodegas (convenience stores). We later learned from our hosts in Trinidad that the vast majority of Cuban families rely on the Libreta de Abastecimiento ("Supplies booklet") when shopping, a system regulating the portions of supplies and the frequency each citizen is allowed to buy. Our host also commented on how socializing often happens around the few WiFi spots present on the island. We noticed this later when we walked through the center of Havana one night. We noticed a crowd of 100 people, locals and tourists, all squeezed like sardines in one corner to take advantage of the weak WiFi signal. There are only 54 WiFi spots on the island and no more than 10 percent of citizens have their own WiFi source.
There were two locals in particular that made a difference in our trip because they introduced us to true authentic Cuban culture. They were Maria and Eugenio. I met Maria on a private guided tour of Havana. The tour took place in a Cadillac driven by Maria`s cousin. Maria, a 32-year-old woman, told me that she held a degree in Psychology from the University of Havana and she currently made $30 a month with her public job as psychologist, which is exactly what she makes in one hour as a tour guide. While her cousin was driving us along Havana's most iconic streets, I was sitting in the front of the car next to her. It was hard to pay attention to the surroundings as I was enchanted by her story and occupied with translating to my family. Maria was telling us that Cuba is receiving four million visitors a year, the majority being Canadians, Russians and Europeans. All tourists are attracted by the inexpensive prices and sense of safety.
Cuba does feel secure indeed. Maria argued that there are about 50,000 hotels and casas particulares and about 150,000 rooms in total. Tourism has been generating private activities, but after Raul freed privatization (to a certain extent) this has also created an inequality issue: people whose jobs gravitate around tourism (taxi drivers, restaurateurs, guides, owners of casas particulares, etc.) are paid in Cuban Convertible Pesos (generally 1 CCP is equivalent to $1 USD), while people holding a public job get paid much less. Apparently there is deterioration in the quality of services since people with doctoral degrees, skilled and educated, like herself, are moving toward the tourism sector instead of continuing their careers.
The second person we met in Cuba was Eugenio, who drove us from Havana to Trinidad. The more we traversed the outskirts and the small rural villages of the center of the island, the more we realized that Eugenio’s economic status as a driver was privileged in comparison with many Cubans. We witnessed and learned from him that those living in the slums suffer developing world conditions, deprived of food, soap and toilet paper.
Our first stop was in Cienfuegos where Eugenio encouraged us try a local little green fruit called mamoncillo that we bought on a fruit stand by the road. We brought a bag of mamoncillos with us to a café, where we entered looking for an espresso. My dad, whose competitive blood would drive him toward anything related to sports, noticed this small coffee shop where a few local men were watching the final of the men’s volleyball match for the Rio`s Olympics Games. They were all cheering for Italy v. Brazil as the main hitter of the Italian team was a Cuban born guy. We had the perfect excuse to strike up a conversation and start laughing and cheering for Italy all together.
When we asked for an espresso, they told us to try the cortadito instead. We looked at the bartender who demonstrated that the difference between espresso and cortadito is simply a tablespoon of sugar poured into a very concentrated coffee and stirred vigorously to form a light golden yellow foam. I had already tried the cortadito in Florida, but for my parents and my brother it was a new experience. They remarked how the sugar felt infused rather than just dissolved; they felt that the process had changed the flavor significantly, making it very strong. That was an epic afternoon: tasting the tangy and sweet taste of the pale pink pulp of mamoncillos, learning how to make cortadito and chilling with locals in the jovial atmosphere of the Olympic Games.
Another object that seduced us the same afternoon was a box of Habanos cigars sitting at the bar counter. Eugenio explained to us the differences among Cuban cigars. Montecristo No. 2 is apparently celebrated for its complex blend of creamy and spicy aromas and it is described as the Cadillac of Cuban cigars with a name inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. The happy crowd at the bar invited us to try them out, as the Montecristo No.2 cigar is supposed to be good for beginners; we decided to light one up. In the end, we decided to buy a few boxes - souvenirs for friends back home.
That was not the end of the narrative for the afternoon. Our tour of Cienfuegos continued with a stop at a women’s clothing shop that sold handmade cotton and linen white dresses. Eugenio had pointed out that he was wearing the traditional guayabera shirt – the Cuban version of laid-back chic for men characterized by two (or four) front pockets and two groups of closely spaced pleats on the front and back. The guayabera shirt was designed by a woman who added pockets to her husband's shirt so he could stow a few guavas for the trip home.
A store that my mom pointed out was not particularly fancy, but she was intrigued by the quirky dated, yet timeless look of the window and green painted wood entrance. The boutique offered a handmade knit dress version of the guayabera shirt with very detailed and unique designs. We felt these dresses were precious handicrafts worth trying. We came out with a couple of white knee-long linen dresses that we both wore for dinner the same day and enjoyed wearing them as often as possible the rest of the trip.
For many travelers, the romance of Cuba as a place “frozen in time” obscures reality of the controversial dynamics that are tangible under the surface. I would like to go back without fantasies or glittering images clouding my vision. I'd go back and visit parts of the island I haven't seen, in particular the Viñales Valley with its mogotes hard limestone hummocks. But mostly, I will return to continue the search to find the true treasure of the island: the spirit and the stories of its people.