Throwback to … the year 2007. Having recently graduated from university, my parents have taken to sponsor me & my brother on a family trip to Cuba. Once again, the four of us cross the Atlantic (we have already travelled to the States twice before) in order to enjoy the fascinating culture of Cuba before it is “too late” (quote, my mum). Check for yourself if it really is now: My brother and his girlfriend have been to Cuba only two years ago, and written about it here: “Quick off to Cuba before the onslaught of everyone else“).
But for now, let us stay in 2007. Having grown up in Austria and only been to the US and Western Europe before, our trip to Cuba has offered us many strange, sometimes wonderful, but above all contradictory experiences, some of which I’d like to recall here.
There is Luis, who wants us to send him sports shoes in size 45 after we return to Austria. There are no such shoes in his own country, he says. Whether we could be so kind and send them to him?, he asks, giving us his address.
Lala, our Havana city guide, officially works as a teacher, but uses her holidays to earn herself an extra salary off tourists to the city. Above all, to be able to afford a very expensive refrigerator, she emphasizes.
Refrigerators, we soon learn, are the latest craze in Cuba. They are proudly presented everywhere and at all times. Almost as much as the (even older, more rusty) cars.
“Cuban food”, which is served everywhere, consists of delicious, tropical fruits next to rice with beans, fried chicken, salad, as well as fish. That’s pretty much it, as far as variety goes. Once, we all get diarrhoea from a particular stir fry. Duh …
Throughout the country, there is no “advertising” whatsoever (no signs, not the usual billboards, etc.). We navigate our rental car mostly by sense of direction, as well as the position of the sun in the sky. Apart from (and amidst) the fascinating natural landscapes of Cuba, the only thing we see “advertised” are socialist propaganda boards. “Socialismo o Muerte!” – “Fideles a Fidel!” (Faithful to Fidel Castro). “Venceremos!” (We will win). And so on.
Towards the end of the month of July, children and adults ask us if we have some spare “soap & pens” for them. It is not a question of begging, but rather a consequence of the Communist regime: Everyday goods follow a monthly distribution roster in Cuba, using food stamps similar to what my grandmother tells us from the post-war period in Austria. In late July 2007, the country unfortunately ran out of, well, soap and pens for its people.
And yet (or exactly because of all of it), we do find ourselves falling in love with Cuba.
Cuba, this spectacular country full of contradictions, full of dance and music, sun and rhythm, history and culture, fascinates and impresses us. Raises many questions, which we try to discuss and understand together in the family. Teaches me to once more reflect on completely different everyday life situations of people around the world. The fact that I am already fluent in Spanish at that time thanks to having lived in Spain before, is a blessing as well as a curse: People literally tell me everything. Phew. It’s intense, listening out for the personal life stories, the odd contradictions, the history of a nation. Not easy while actually meant to be on holiday, and I recall having really needed my family to understand, to analyze, and to digest everything after I’ve heard such stories. Well, we did stay in a resort in the north east of the island for a “vacation from the cultural trip” in the end. A nice comedown. And what an experience. Check this out.
And you, what comes to your mind when you think of the travel destination Cuba?