An aspiring writer based in Honduras, offers his views and recounts his experiences of a week spent in Cuba.
By Ben Anson
HAVANA TIMES – Having been back in Honduras for almost a month now, the time seems to have passed distressingly fast since my return from Cuba. I truly do not know where four weeks have gone. The following are some of my observations of the Caribbean Island country.
I travelled from San Pedro Sula, Honduras via El Salvador and then to Havana with many expectations and a lot of visions in my head of how the country would be. Particularly Havana. I found myself sat next to a very amiable (almost ‘simple’ for he really was overtly-friendly) Costa Rican fellow on the flight from San Salvador to Havana. He told me how he was heading to a place on the coast as he had met a Cuban woman online… Fair enough. The character had come equipped with a Costa Rica t-shirt, a Costa Rica hat and even a Costa Rica flag at the ready. This being so that the lady would recognize him at the airport.
“¿Tú crees que ella me reconocerá amigo?”
“Do you think she will recognize me buddy?” he asked at one point.
How the **** not? All he was missing was a fog-horn in which he could have announced his arrival.
“Seguro mano” I replied instead. “I’m sure bro”.
On finally arriving in Havana, which all in all was not a long flight from Honduras (where I’m based) – I was sadly met with a less than good first impression. The airport’s electricity kept coming and going and much to everyone’s horror we were forced to wait for well over in hour at security. I had never seen such a fiasco of poor organization and utterly useless personnel before. As the lights kept going off, their computer systems also kept crashing to which hilariously long breaks were taken by the security officials. They sat chatting, looking at their watches and telling jokes it appeared whilst hundreds of hot and bothered tourists stood in their immense lines – watching. Hoping for the signal to move forwards…
It was a very trying experience. Luckily I had arrived towards the front end of the lines yet I still waited for over an hour before I finally got my passport stamped. Something I then immediately took in were the female workers who sported fish-net tights with their uniform. These Cuban girls were certainly ‘well-equipped’ for the tights, it’s just they really did look out of place in a security uniform.
I then had to amuse myself in the airport for four hours or so as I awaited for my father and brother’s flight to arrive from London, England. I went up and down the three floors, took a few gazes at the Che-Guevara t-shirts being sold and drunk myself one too many beers. I say one too many as the heat was noticeably fiercer than that of Honduras, which doesn’t assist alcohol consumption. I also had to ‘get myself together’ for the sight of my father and younger brother (whom I hadn’t seen in two years). That was the purpose of the trip – a family reunion.
I listened quite intrigued to the Cuban accents:
“Ya tu sabe’ chicooo”
“Mamita que guapa tú te ve’”
“Gracia’ papito tú también tas bueno”…
The last two phrases came from a young girl and boy who were flirting on a staircase. Made me laugh. They were busy telling each other they good they looked. How nice. I sometimes wish someone would tell me how good I look. If I do…
Anyhow, those four hours certainly dragged. I was utterly fed up of going up and down the escalators after half an hour. All kinds of nationalities were present in Havana’s Jose Marti international airport. Italians, Spaniards, Brits, Asians and Latinos. I heard Central American accents, South American and Caribbean ones intermixing themselves in the small airport cafes. Some good prices yet I did get ripped off by an old prick who charged me $US1.00 for a ‘Presidente’ beer yet gave three Cuban pesos change… I was never able to spend that three pesos note as everyone contested me with “pero esto no sirve”.
“But this isn’t valid/good for nothing”.
Very puzzling indeed. Money in Cuba does take a few days to get one’s head around. There are two currencies: the Cuban CUC and then the US Dollar. Then there are Cuban pesos… To be honest I still don’t really understand how it works…
My father and brother finally arrived to which we had a good laugh accompanied by some swift British hugs – no need to overdo it after two years of not having seen each other. My father exchanged some British Pounds and we then moved out of the airport to search for a taxi. My Dad was very keen on gaining a good price and not being ripped off. Living in Honduras, I didn’t really give a mother if the Cubans charged a few pesos more. Latin America suffers immense poverty, life can be a terrible grind in this part of the world. Those few pesos extra could be what bought a child’s milk or what secured the month’s rent. One never knows. My father and brother had arrived with their Western European mentality though…
The drive into Havana was eye-opening. The high-rise socialist apartment blocks lined up alongside the very smooth highway. I will say that Cuba possesses some good roads from what I saw. Well-constructed indeed. The taxi driver didn’t speak much, he’d immediately settled for our thirty CUC offer for him to take us from the airport and into central Havana. So he did.
On arriving at the apartment’s location (a rented apartment – casa particular) we were immediately taken aback by the sheer grit and realism of the surroundings. It was very much a ghetto-like neighborhood. Crumbling buildings, filthy streets, stray dogs, bare-chested youth play fighting with hammers and beer bottles – “where the f*** has he brought us to?” – was the question.
I stepped out the taxi and moved over to a group of women who stood beneath what was supposedly the apartment – number 36. Being the only Spanish speaker amongst us I was naturally made interpreter for the week. In fact whenever someone approached either my father or brother a cry of ‘Ben!’ was always made. It tended to go as such…
“Ben what does she want?”
“She says good morning.”
“Oh… alright then…”
Anyhow, we had indeed arrived at the location. Paying the taxi driver off we proceeded to enter the dilapidated building and thus climbed the endless stairs to the top floor. On arriving at the top, we were merrily greeted by the owners – a middle-aged couple. Very friendly and extremely talkative the pair of them. Especially the wife. She was the more involved of the two and on realizing I spoke Spanish I found myself engaged in many, many conversations with her for the course of the next three days. She loved a chat. A nice lady though. On meeting her daughter during our last day in Havana I was left somewhat wanting for I’d have enjoyed a few chats with the girl.
Anyhow…. Before I get carried away. We quickly settled in after our rather prolonged chat with the owners. I believe that they managed to tell us everything feasible about Havana in an hour. The chat rather tired me.
Our next few days in Havana were spent exploring. We took to La Habana Vieja, spending hours walking its cobbled alleys and sitting within its small bars and restaurants. Whilst the colonial architecture grasped my interest the many street vendors and hustlers constantly had my brother and father at unease. It can be irritating in the fierce heat, as one must barge their way past the endless swarm of hustlers from woman of a certain trade to young men desperate to get you into their restaurant…
“Hello my friends! Jou wan eat? Jou come here to eat yes? Mira chico – el menú – ¡el menú!”
Taxi drivers too incessantly honk their horns at anything white-skinned. White means money, the Cubans in Havana made it quite obvious that dinero was all they wanted. Who can blame them? To have come from Honduras and to have been shocked at the sheer level of poverty there – says a lot. Honduras, which is considered to be one of the poorest nations in the Americas – looks like Dubai compared with Havana, Cuba. A rather callous exaggeration but Honduras is undoubtedly in a far better state. Where I live, we’ve shopping malls, cinemas, proper supermarkets etc.… Good luck trying to find a supermarket in Havana.
Writer: “Hay un mercado por aquí cerca manin?” (Is there a supermarket nearby ‘manin’?)
Local: “No se”. (I don’t know)
Nobody knew anything. Nobody had any interest in helping. Not the friendliest of people the Cubans that I encountered. Especially not in Havana. Even in the second place that we spent time in – Varadero (a 22 km beach famous for its tourism) – nobody knew anything. I recall asking for juice in a cafeteria type place to which they said they didn’t sell juice. They being two young girls who didn’t quite tickle my fancy which was a rarity as those Cuban women on the whole – were most attractive. Anyhow, on asking where I could purchase juice, I was told rather fiercely that there was no juice.
It was said as if there was no juice in town… anywhere.
“Paja” I responded. A word used in Honduras which went over their heads. ‘Bullshit’. The word ‘pajearse’ actually means to masturbate in Spanish yet in Honduras it’s come to mean ‘bullshitting/lying’. How was there no juice in the tourism town of Boca de Camarioca?
There was. Two minutes down the road. A very ‘socialist’ supermarket (in Cuba it would be classed as a supermarket) had a few different flavoured juices on offer. It would appear that whilst Cubans were ready to receive tourist’s money, due to their disadvantaged lifestyles – perhaps a sense of resentment was there towards foreigners. I could not say that I found them to be a friendly people from most that I came across. Some individuals were, yes. However, I did notice a lot of differences between Hondurans and Cubans.
I recall once asking a Honduran fellow on the street where I could buy a football (soccer) t-shirt. That being the Honduras national team jersey. He smiled and motioned for me to follow him. That fellow walked me two blocks to which he then stopped and pointed to the windows on the second floor of a large store. I looked up and saw an array of football shirts. He then gave me a pat on the back and took off.
Compare that to the miserable Cubans I encountered on the streets who didn’t know anything about anything and weren’t at all willing to assist.
Moving away from discussing the completely dilapidated buildings and vile filth of Havana’s central neighbourhoods, the country itself from having driven from Havana to Varadero – is most beautiful. Lush and green, from the forested hills to the golden beaches, Cuba is without debate a Caribbean gem. The two taxi drivers who took us from Havana to Varadero and then from Varadero back to Havana – were both very interesting gents. I learned a lot from them.
From being educated on the island’s history to its rum, tobacco and sugar production, I also learned of how during the early 90’s many Cubans were forced to eat cats and dogs. This was a period in which Cuba suffered terribly from the USSR collapse. Their one strong ally back then. The US blockade having further added to the island’s crisis. One of the two taxi drivers made his contempt for the US quite clear.
“Cabrones e hijos de puta. Nos tenían aquí muriendo del hambre”.
“Bastards and sons of bitches. They had us dying of hunger here”.
According to many Cubans that I did exchange words with however, things are slowly changing for the better. So they say. Having seen the misery of life in Havana’s central ghettos; supermarkets without food, human excrement on doorsteps – I sincerely hope that they speak the truth.
If I were to describe Cuba using only one word – I should choose ‘unique’. I had never been somewhere with such a unique atmosphere and feel to it before. I shall say as well, that I would by no means turn down a second opportunity to visit for I feel that this is a place which grows on you with time. It displays a beautiful naked honesty; the good the bad and ugly are to be seen anywhere and at any time.