HAVANA TIMES, Dec 29 — Marta is Spanish. She has traveled to numbers of countries, but for a long time there were two she yearned to visit but hadn’t, Brazil and Cuba. She traveled to the first one in 2009. Then, this year, her fiftieth, she visited Cuba and was able to compare her expectations with reality.
Marta: As you know, Spain has many connections with Cuba. My family has indirect links through my grandparents and siblings who traveled here. ??I have Cuban cousins who I barely know. My sister has been here several times, and I have Cuban friends who live in Barcelona.
Before coming, I’d heard a little bit of everything. It seems Cuba is a country that you either love or hate, depending on who you talk to. Some people told me they found it to be a country full of poverty, a sad place. Cubans who left and have no desire to return spoke poorly of it.
From Spanish travelers I had heard it was a country with a lot of sex tourism. I was told to be careful with Cubans; they’re known for going after tourists because it’s a way getting off the island. But I’d also heard that it was an exciting country, a fun one, and that the people were happy and I’d have a great time.
Marta has been here on the island for almost two weeks. During this time, she has stayed with a Cuban family where there’s only water from 6:00 to 7:00 in the evening. Like any Cuban, she has had to fill the pots and whatever containers during that time for use the following day. Now she can talk about Cuba from her own perspective.
Marta: I’ve traveled a lot and I hope to travel more. This country — or at least Havana, which is the only city I’ve visited so far — I put high on my list. I think it’s the city that I’ve connected with the most.
Could it be that Marta is a masochist?
Marta: It’s a different kind of country, perhaps a bit frozen in time. I know that Cubans complain a lot about their lack a lot of freedom, not having Internet access, about having to put up with so much. I suppose that if I were Cuban I’d feel the same. It’s not the same thing coming here on vacation as living here. I’ve gotten on the Internet twice since I got here, and I haven’t missed out on much.
I’m from Spain, and there it’s terrible how we’re bombarded with news: that Spain could be drowning, that Europe could be drowning. It’s amazing how the media manipulates people. We’re all in the most catastrophic mentality. Here [in Havana], it’s such a pleasure — a delight — to be free from all of that. The city seems beautiful. I love it.
HT: Are you referring to the architecture?
Marta: That too, but also the people. I was lucky that I already knew people here. It would have been different if I’d been alone, stuck in some hotel all the time. Cubans are people you can talk to about anything. They’re strong and witty. In addition, you’ve escaped the real estate speculation that has affected the rest of the world for such a long time, which has a good side and a bad side.
HT: Don’t you think we’ll be affected by speculation now that people are allowed to buy homes?
Marta: I’m referring primarily to aesthetics. I also realize that many parts of Cuba are nicer than others, but there are many beautiful houses from the colonial era and the early twentieth century.
I can only compare the structures with the Spain of my memory. They’re like the houses and settings I saw in my childhood. Back there, all of that has been lost. All those houses were demolished and horrible new ones have been built, ones with no aesthetics.
The other cities I’ve visited, like San Francisco, Sydney and Wellington, New Zealand (in a country that is less than 200 years old), the structures have no soul, although they’re modern and very nice.
Here, it’s true that the streets are dirty, the sidewalks are broken, the roads full of potholes. They need to sink money into infrastructure. But anyway, Havana — and I think all of Cuba — is a diamond in the rough. There’s a lot of potential here. If there had been property speculation like in other countries, they would have torn down many of these houses and built those horrible apartments.
Speaking as a visitor, I think you’re in a transition process. I don’t know what might happen when Fidel dies, but this place can’t take much more. I think that if there’s a change, what Cubans need to be scared of is Miami Cubans coming over here and taking over everything. They’ll begin tearing down the place and building what they want. I think UNESCO should declare all those houses built before 1959 that have architectural interests as artistic monuments. There aren’t many more left in the world.
HT: What is it that you’ve disliked most about Cuba so far?
Marta: The food. The nutrition in this country is terrible. I’d like to see the statistics for diseases like diabetes and cancer. There’s very little variety in terms of food. Cubans eat very few vegetables and fruits, and too much sugar and pork. Plus fish seems pretty expensive.
The system should promote healthier diets, especially for children. People should eat more fruits and vegetables. They should also help farmers. I know about the embargo and all of that, but I think more fruit could be grown here.
Before returning to Spain, Marta traveled to Varadero, which she considered the most beautiful beach in Cuba, though it’s almost forbidden for Cubans given the high prices, charged in hard currency of course.
Marta: It’s true that it’s spectacular…nature, the vegetation…it’s all very attractive, but it was full of tourists. It was like being on any beach in the Pacific or the Caribbean. It has no personality. Actually, I prefer Havana.
HT: Did you find it expensive?
Marta: Well, for tourists it was normal. For two of us they charged 200 CUCs ($214 USD) to stay in a five star hotel with an open bar and all that, including transportation. But in the end, it didn’t work out very well for the hotel because they made a mistake with the shuttle that was supposed to pick us up. They had to send us back to Havana in a taxi, which drove us back here to the door of the house. Really, things aren’t very efficient in Cuba.
HT: Do you think you’ll come back?
Marta: Definitely. This has been the beginning of a long love story.
She has lived and worked in New Zealand for twenty years. In 2009, a Spanish television channel filmed a documentary called “Aragoneses in the World: Marta in New Zealand” (Aragoneses por el mundo: Marta en Nueva Zelanda), which is still being shown on YouTube.
There, she works as a social worker attending to refugees coming into the country. But it’s possible that she may not continue doing that work. She’s in a moment of change in her life and still has no idea of ??the direction she’ll take. Spending a good while in Cuba and perhaps taking a course in filmmaking might be a good option.
Marta: But next time I’ll look for a house that has all the conditions, especially one that has water 24 hours a day.