Before Castro Goes

Infectious Latin music, the finest cigars on earth, 1950s American cars, crumbling colonial buildings and Spanish forts in a piratical corner of the Caribbean. That’s Cuba. Justin Fox donned his dancing shoes and went exploring.

It’s sunset on the terrace of Senhor Ramírez’s casa in the town of Trinidad. Our tour group is having its first salsa lesson. Maria is a large woman who dances with the grace of a nymph. Her tinny ghetto-blaster provides the beat as she calls the time. “Uno, dos, tres. Uno, dos, tres. Sí bueno!”

But the one thing we aren’t, is bueno. We’re a bunch of dishevelled foreign travellers, stiff as marionettes, trying to get some hot Latin rhythm into our dance steps. Maria is dressed in tiny lycra shorts and a revealing top with straps. Her substantial breasts and backside have found the beat and are moving independently of her steps.

At last she’s forced to acknowledge that the foreigners aren’t at all bueno, so it’s demonstration time. She snatches me from the line up and I disappear into her terrifying embrace. We begin to glide. Well, she glides and I am hurled about like a rag doll. Soon we’re dripping with sweat. She’s taller than me and my face is lodged between her breasts (I note reluctantly that she has almost as much chest hair as me).

But after a while I’m getting it, and the others are too. The shoulders wriggle with a bit of confidence, the old legs find some purchase and Maria is beaming. “Sí, sí, BUENO!

Fly me to Havana

You know you’re in the communist Caribbean even as your plane approaches the soviet-style airport terminal. But the minute your taxi eases into the city, any fear that you’ll be subjected to socialism’s dour concrete edifices is dispelled. Havana simply takes your breath away with its long avenidas of elegant, crumbling buildings that haven’t seen a paintjob since the revolution in 1959. Art Deco ad infinitum, beautiful Spanish forts, murals of heroic guerrillas and vintage convertibles cruising by trailing a salsa beat.

You pass Revolution Square where Fidel Castro hosts his spectacular rallies; slogans everywhere proclaim the victory of socialism. You’re also immediately struck by the lack of advertising, billboards and neon signs – the scars we take for granted in all cities today. No Coca-Cola, no MacDonalds, no Kentucky Fried Chicken. Almost all hint of the corrupting capitalist Big Brother has been erased. You’re cut off from so much that makes the world modern. The media is state run, access to the internet is denied. In many respects Cubans are still living in the 1950s. It’s like entering a Cold War time capsule.

Our hotel was on the Malecón, a grand esplanade that sweeps round the bay and culminates in a series of protecting forts. It was evening and after dropping my bags, I went out for a stroll. The air was sticky and the ocean slopped against the sea wall. Fishermen sat along the edge, teenage boys flirted with pretty mulatto girls and thunderheads gathered over old Havana.

“Pssst, gringo, you want cigars. One dollar Cohiba!” hissed a man with a Saddam Hussain moustache.

Most of the buildings along the front were being eaten away by the salty air, some had collapsed into ruin. The promenade looked like a mouth that needed serious dentistry. A band struck up a sultry salsa tune and soon people were dancing in the street. Passers-by and tourists joined in as the beat grew more infectious. Havana was quickly getting under my skin.

I had a day to spare for exploring the city before our tour started and I concentrated my efforts on the beautiful old town. It’s partly pedestrianised and many of the important buildings, like the magnificent cathedral of San Cristóbal, have been restored. Guidebook in hand I walked the lanes: Hemingway wrote in this bar, Spanish treasure galleons anchored here, Winston Churchill stayed there…. But I soon lost track of the ‘sites’ and simply wandered where the alleys led me, taking in the spirit of this most compelling of Caribbean cities.

The cult of Che

Next morning I met my tour group and its leader, John Claveria. I was a guest of Gap Adventures (arranged for Getaway through Travel Vision in Johannesburg) and would be spending two weeks on a ‘Cuba Colonial’ tour tracing the history of the island. There were 10 other travellers, a mix of nationalities, all with an intrepid bent and an interest in Cuban culture … and music.

We piled into a hired bus and headed east, bound for Santa Clara. The stereo played reggaton, a Latin version of reggae, as we drove through sugar plantations and coconut groves. There were hardly any cars on the road – save for the odd 1950s jalopy packed to the brim – which made driving a pleasure. Petrol, it appears, has become unaffordable since Fidel no longer gets cheap Soviet oil for Cuban sugar.

Santa Clara is home to the cult of Che Guevara, that Argentinean-born revolutionary whose face adorns undergraduate walls the world over. With communist antagonism towards Catholicism in the post-1959 era, a number of latter-day revolutionary saints ‘replaced’ Christian ones. None are more venerated than Che, whose enormous mausoleum is in Santa Clara, site of a famous victory over the dictator General Batista’s military.

We spend the night in a casa particular – family homes cum B&Bs that take in guests. This was the arrangement in almost every town we visited. Staying with families provides a good opportunity to meet locals and practice your limited Spanish. Most days you’ll also eat at least one meal in your casa.

That first night on the road set the musical tone for the journey. We emerged on the main square after supper to find the place packed with villagers. Bands played a mix of son (made famous in the movie Buena Vista Social Club), rumba, cha-cha and salsa tunes and it seemed the whole town had turned out to dance. Bands are usually made up of older men: saxophonist, trumpeter, bongo drummer, guitarist, double bassist and three percussionists.

The rum flowed freely while young and old twirled across the cobbles. It was the best dancing I’d ever seen. We thought this might be a special festival, but on ensuing nights (and even during the day) each town we stopped in had bands. The novelist Gabriel García Márquez notes with admiration that Cuba has “the most dance-orientated society on earth.” Cubans claim to have invented every Latin American step you can name, even the tango and conga-line dance.

A thundercloud growled overhead, then came the tropical downpour and everyone ran for the colonnades … where they continued to dance deep into the night to the sweet smell of soaked earth, steaming streets and the beat of bongos.

Land of the sugar barons

The next day our route led over the mountains of the Sierra del Escambray, green with coffee and banana plantations, down to the island’s southern coast where we stopped for three days in Trinidad, perhaps Cuba’s prettiest town. Founded in 1518, it became a centre for sugar barons.

Trinidad from above – and it’s essential to climb a spire or hill to get a perspective – looks like a terracotta quilt: a patchwork of interlocking tiled roofs reminiscent of Spain. The town rang with the clip-clop of horse carts, the songs of children and Latin pop pounding from ghetto blasters strapped to bicycle rickshaws.

The heart of the town, centred around the Santísima Trinidad Cathedral, is a warren of cobbled streets lined with gracious Spanish villas, shady plazas, museums and churches. The grander 19th-century houses (now mostly museums) have large, ventilated rooms shuttered against the heat, marble floors, crystal chandeliers and fine colonial furniture. Paintings depict donnas in stiff dresses with stern, moustached faces (their husbands no doubt ravishing the slaves in the quarters below).

Our Trinidad days were spent either sightseeing or swimming in the bath-warm, flat and floaty Caribbean Sea beside a Communist style hotel where Europeans lounged on recliners on the sea sand sipping garish cocktails and marvelling at how far their Euro was getting them.

In the evenings, music seemed to pour from every doorway and a slow club crawl would take us through the history of Cuban music. It can be intimidating climbing onto a dance floor pulsing with wannabe ballroom champions, but after a few private lessons and a few mojitos (rum, lime, mint and sugar) Dutch courage propelled us into the limelight. Locals will invariably ask you to dance and diplomatically tone down their frenetic steps to suit your ponderous uno, dos, tres. In one bar we danced under a pergola of orchids, the young men picking flowers to decorate their chica’s hair … and that of the women in our group.

A cauldron of rebellion

The road led southeast via Camagüey towards Santiago de Cuba. Men in Stetsons smoked cigars and rode their horses bareback; others manhandled ploughs through the fields behind teams of oxen. Tall watchtowers stood guard over plantations to spot fires … or, in the old days, runaway slaves.

We passed tiny villages whose walls were daubed with graffiti such as “Socialism or Death”. Through windows we could see locals hand-rolling cigars beneath images of Che and worker slogans, the shop-floor boss patrolling among them.

The city of Santiago has always been a political tinderbox. Intrigue, piracy, slave rebellions and insurrections are the hallmarks of this area … and it’s here that Castro started the revolution.

Santiago is also a town of carnivals, festivals of Caribbean culture and the best son music we heard. If you’re not careful, the nights can get consumed in dancing and too much rum, putting an end to daytime touring. But there’s plenty to see and do in this city, the most interesting being the Spanish fort on a promontory at the mouth of the bay. Castillo del Morro is a boy’s dream of drawbridges, moats, dungeons, powder rooms and sentry boxes, while cannon platforms extend down the hill in tiers to the water’s edge. There are excellent displays featuring the famous Dutch, English and French pirates and privateers who plied these waters in search of Spanish silver.

To the Atlantic and back

Our route now led to Cuba’s easternmost shores past infamous Guantánamo Bay (a small patch of American soil on the island’s southern coast). Just over the fence were the soldiers of Cuba’s mortal enemy and their Al Qaeda prisoners. Slogans became more shrill and the military presence more obvious: check points, tank traps, spikes and booms.

In contrast, Baracoa is a laid-back town on Cuba’s Atlantic coast. For the guests on a GAP tour, it provides a few days of sun and beach before heading back to Havana. It’s a place where French influence is strong (immigration from Haiti is reflected in the colourful clapboard architecture). Baracoa is also the spot where Christopher Columbus butted heads with the Arawaks (indigenous Cubans). As always in such encounters, the locals came off second best and were decimated by disease and enslavement. Little evidence remains of their existence other than a few potsherds, petroglyphs and effigies in the decrepit local museum. But their legacy is a ghostly presence, and many locals have faces that bear no hint of European or African ancestry.

I stood outside the museum gazing at a giant statue of Columbus the conqueror. And an image of Cuba’s problems down the centuries came suddenly to mind. So many of the island’s problems boiled down to the big men in Cuba’s history giving themselves god-like qualities. From Columbus and the conquistadors who followed him to pirate lords and sugar barons with the power of life and death over their sailors and slaves. Then came the macho heroes and martyrs of the liberation from Spain, followed by self-aggrandising 20th century dictators, and finally the cult of Marx, Fidel, Che and the immortal revolutionaries. It seemed to me then that the one thing this island could do without, was any more heroes.

Doubtless Cuba is in the last throes of its Castro phase and one can only hope that when the big man goes, the country will enter its first democratic era (without a capitalist invasion – think condos and time-shares – from America) and find a political path that matches the potential of this tropical paradise. But take my advice, get there before Fidel goes…

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