News that the USA was softening its approach towards Cuba reminded me of when I visited there in December 1998. I still have fond memories of Cuba.
Most of the tourists were Italian, Canadian or British. The Italians flew in via Mexico, the Canadians flew straight down for the diving (same time zone) and the few Americans there sneaked in from Mexico and the Cubans did them the favour of not stamping their passports (it was illegal for US citizens to travel to Cuba).
I had Spanish lessons every day alongside the Italians and that was a bit confusing but we all got on well.
It was a very poor country with planned power outages on a rotation and rules about having to give people lifts (unless you were a tourist or a government official). I saw people on Chinese-donated bikes, packed on the back of flat-bed trucks, riding horses and even a train I swear was out of “Back to the Future” – all in the space of a few minutes – as they made their way to work, or to look for work.
I visited some beautiful places, sailed, snorkelled, swam with dolphins (not as friendly as you might think – one gave me a deadleg), and rode through the jungle on the back of what our guide Norbeto called a “Limusina” (actually a soviet army truck/troop carrier). We visited a museum in Trinidad (A UN Cultural Heritage site) where the old ladies in attendance sold us home made sets of coins and stamps for a few US dollars.
We also visited a cigar-making factory where the women kept whispering what sounded like “Sopa” as we walked round. Having taken Spanish lessons I wondered why they were asking for soup and it was only later I realised they were asking in English for “soap” as their hands were so stained by the tobacco leaves. Our guide pretended not to understand when I asked him. I think he was embarrassed.
Outside the factory in the street men kept popping out of doorways offering cheap cigars but we’d been warned that if we were caught with them they would be confiscated. The Cubans aren’t stupid when it comes to protecting their cigar industry.
Some Italians in our party had actually taken soap and pencils as they knew the kids wanted them. After that I collected unused soap and shampoo from our fellow-tourists as they left and gave it to locals on the beach (where you can buy literally anything!).
We also met lovely people. Cuban women can be disconcerting as they look you in the eye and gently touch your arm as they speak to you. The men don’t but they do like to look their best.
And there was always the music. Apart from the concerts at the hotel there was a bar in Trinidad with a double bass and saxophone, and in our hotel a close harmony quartet who played every night in the restaurant (pictured here with our lovely waitress who helped me with my Spanish).
On our last night we bought a home-made audio recording on a tape cassette for $5 US (Cuban dollars are worthless off the island and not much better on it). They said they could buy meat for their families with that and that put things into perspective.
The musicians were called the Cuarteto Puerto Principe and here are three of their songs – “Besame Mucho”, “La Bamba”, and “Never say Goodbye“
Things have changed a little since then with some private enterprise allowed and I wanted to go back before McDonalds or similar Americanisation occurred. I haven’t made it yet but who knows?