Let’s face it. The entire title is a misnomer this time round – neither Bogotá nor digital nomading are going to feature in this post, because instead we have a detour via Cuba. And not only does Cuba deserve a short novel to itself, but also it’s one of the few countries pretty resistant to that strange breed of travelling creature, for reasons which will become apparent. After two weeks’ holiday travelling round the isolated island, though, I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. The only thing I am certain of is that it’s by far the most “different” place I’ve been yet.
Arriving in Havana early on a Saturday evening, we were picked up from the airport in a car that summed up all my pre-conceptions of Cuba perfectly: a beautifully-preserved, 1950s, sky-blue Chevrolet. Any suspicions I had had that this type of welcome was just put on for the tourists were quickly put right on the drive into town when I realised that, while there were a few modern vehicles (mainly taxis and coaches, all from China I think), the vast majority of the traffic was actually made up of classic cars, in various states of repair but all running impressively well. It really does feel like someone hit the pause button 60 years ago and the intervening decades just haven’t happened.
Whether that “someone” was the USA or Castro or both is of course a matter of debate, and not one that I am qualified to weigh in on, but the result is that a lot of things we (ok, I) take for granted in other countries either aren’t available or are a lot more difficult to access in Cuba. New cars, obviously, and replacement parts for broken lifts too, it would appear, but also many day-to-day goods and services. For instance, it turned out that at the weekend 6pm is too late to exchange Mexican Pesos or use an ATM in Havana (and of course nowhere takes cards) so if we hadn’t been with a group who kindly lent us some cash, it would have been a hungry first evening. Also I don’t think I managed to buy even a bottle of water from a shop (as opposed to a café) without help from our local guide (either to locate a shop, or to persuade it to open for us, or both) the whole fortnight. And as for the internet – well, hence the lack of digital nomads. It is possible to get online, but to do so you have to buy pre-paid cards which will give you say an hour’s access and then find a wifi zone where you can log on – typically the town park. Not the most productive of environments.
The restrictions Cubans face are particularly evident in the east end of the island, probably due to the long distance from the tourist hotspots of Havana and Trinidad. The biggest city in this region is Santiago de Cuba, where we met the first of a series of lovely landladies who would be looking after us during our stay – there aren’t so many hotels in Cuba and so instead you stay in a casa particular, i.e. a private house whose owners rent out a couple of rooms. It’s a bit like a B&B in the UK, and one of the few types of private enterprise allowed in Cuba. Inevitably, all the casas vary somewhat in their amenities – electricity and water included – but throughout our hosts were incredibly warm and welcoming, and treated us like royalty. It leaves no doubt as to how important the income from tourists is. One thing which didn’t vary from place to place though, was the menu – for breakfast you can guarantee there’ll be exactly the same cheese, ham, eggs, bread, fruit and coffee with powdered milk, on every dining table. If you do manage to find a grocery shop, it all makes sense, as that’s pretty much all that’s on sale.
In fact, it turns out that if it’s a variety of food you’re after, the shops are the last place you should go in Cuba, as many of them – the bodegas – are only stocked with goods which the government deem essential and make available to every Cuban at reduced prices in quantities fixed using a ration card system. Looking like something straight out of 1950s Britain, it’s actually more of a voucher book with the aim of ensuring everyone is able to access at least the basics, but according to our guide it’s not enough to live on, so in practice everyone needs to supplement it by buying extra food, at higher cost, from outdoor markets where farmers are allowed to sell their produce (primarily garlic from what I could see), after giving a certain proportion of it to the state. So the ration system is not so much a restriction as a popular benefit – but it’s telling that so many people rely on it that the Government are unable to withdraw it despite wanting to do so to reduce costs.
Still, none of this stops Cubans from having a good time. Every night is salsa night, and when we got to Baracoa – a small seaside town on the north coast of the easternmost tip of the island – the party was in full swing with a fun fair spread out along the promenade to celebrate national students’ day (the Cuban education system is one of their big successes) and the anniversary of the town’s founding. Given that this area was devastated by Hurricane Matthew less than a year ago (and there are still downed palm trees lying everywhere if you were in any doubt), it’s impressive how quickly they have rebuilt and recovered.
Travelling back west, via the towns of Bayamo and Guantanamo (yes, the Bay is just a few km away) we spent a night in Camaguey, and then headed on to Trinidad. A UNESCO heritage site, this is one of the most visited towns in Cuba – and you can see why. Its colourful cobbled streets and giant bird-cage style windows make it a wonderful place for a wander – and not only was the variety of food on offer notably better, it was also so much easier to find. Unlike in the towns further east, here the shops, cafes and bars did actually seem keen on advertising their presence (rather than hide in someone’s backyard). Trinidad is also popular for its beautiful sandy beaches a short drive away, just off the coast of which is a beautiful coral reef perfect for snorkelling. Sadly though, Cubans themselves don’t get to enjoy it – as they aren’t allowed on a boat without permission, just in case they don’t come back…
And so back to Havana, with more questions than answers. But one thing’s for sure, next time someone says to me that they want to visit Cuba “before there’s a Starbucks on every corner”, I’ll tell them not to rush. Nothing happens quickly in Cuba, least of all something so delicate. I suspect, though, for the average man on the street there, change can’t come quickly enough. And coming from somewhere where choice, variety and freedom is taken so much for granted, I really hope it does.
Next Month: Bogotá (this time, I promise) and Medellín, Colombia