Travel

So hot right now: This is why you should make Cuba your next holiday destination

It's a country that time forgot, but what you discover about Cuba is a journey you'll always remember
 

Photo: Samuel Cheng

Each time I step off a plane on my travels, I expect to see a different world from the country I left behind. In Cuba’s case, it’s a different era.

Emerging from the Jose Marti International Airport, I am greeted by a gleaming parade of classic American cars, all polished chrome and radios blasting upbeat Cuban music. They are not cabs but are all passenger-ready. I load my luggage into a yellow 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air (25 Cuban convertible pesos, or S$34, for a ride).

Photo: Samuel Cheng

On the way, I spy a spice peddler in a dusty backstreet ring a small, highpitched bell. An elderly woman beckons to him for a small pouch of spices from her balcony and then gingerly lowers a basket of money to pay for it.

Later, at the Artisan’s Market near Havana’s main train station, I eye a large raised fist carved from wood – a Communist revolution symbol. The stall owner asks me what I have to trade for it. Seeing my confusion, he asks what is in my backpack and I pull out my soccer jersey. He fingers its lightweight polyester fabric and after some negotiation, exchanges his carving for it.

1950s Ford Thunderbirds, money baskets, barter… These are the oldworld peculiarities that give Cuba its lost-in-time allure, the same magnetism that drew some of the 20th century’s most razor-minded literati – from Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote Hurricane over Sugar after his visit here in 1960 with his wife Simone de Beauvoir, to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway and even Winston Churchill.

Indeed, Cuba – more specifically, Havana – is the stuff of romanticised nostalgia, a place where things which are found nowhere else on earth still exist as part of daily life.

Photo: Samuel Cheng

ALIVE WITH MUSIC

Cuba may be lost in time but that doesn’t mean life drags by. It dances to its own rhythm – and it’s truly a different beat.

Shops typically occupy the ground floor of buildings and are set such that the upper storeys with wrought-iron balconies jut out over the streets and hang over the sidewalks, supported by pillars. Cubans, who tend to spend their energy on music and bread-and-butter community affairs, perch on these balconies, chatting with neighbours and watching life go by beneath.

Photo: Samuel Cheng

The streets vibrate with music in all forms. One of Havana’s most vibrant streets, Calle Obispo, is narrow but beautifully kept, and is alive with rhythm and busy with crowds day and night. It connects to Plaza de Armas, the main city square, where you’ll find the Book Market, which stocks old and new literature on Che Guevara. Elsewhere, stalls also peddle local crafts, rum and cigars.

It is not uncommon to see performers on stilts burst forth from a nearby alley, followed by a succession of musicians with conga drums, maracas and guiro – a percussion-like instrument. There are jesters in colourful costumes, too, juggling balls as they saunter around the plaza, greeting tourists and posing for photos.

Photo: Samuel Cheng

One of Havana’s best street markets happens on Paseo del Prado, a picturesque avenue, on weekends. Artists set up stalls along the avenue displaying experimental Cuban art, of which some use a combination of photographs, news clippings and painting, and most others use recycled materials such as soft drink bottles, seashells and old licence plates.

Photo: Samuel Cheng

BY THE BAY

From across Havana Bay, the gaze of Cristo de La Habana, the 20m-tall statue of Jesus of Nazareth, falls on the old neighbourhood of Vedado, filled with the decrepit remnants of once-splendid pre-revolution mansions. At the bay’s northernmost tip is the Malecon, the seaside boulevard where people fish, musicians serenade ladies out for a stroll in the refreshing sea breeze and lovers whisper softly to each other.

Photo: Samuel Cheng

Along the waterfront, I came across a group of naval cadets, who were eager to pose for photos and practise their English. Fluency in the language is a must since tourism is the island nation’s top earner, with Canadians and Britons forming as much as 40 per cent of the 2 million tourist arrivals a year.

Reaching Plaza de San Francisco, near the Havana cruise terminal, I rested on a bench near the fountain in the middle of the plaza and watched an upbeat performance by a two-man mandolin band at a nearby restaurant.

On the plaza’s south side is the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis, reputed to have the best acoustics in all of Cuba. I wandered into the calm, cool cathedral-like church and was delighted to enjoy the music of a talented pianist rehearsing.

On the Plaza de la Catedral is the Havana Cathedral. It has been called “music cast into stone” for its charming facade, part of which was carved out of coral taken from the Caribbean Sea. In the 19th century, it had once guarded some of Christopher Columbus’ remains.

The square is buzzing with activity. Tourists wander through or stop for refreshments, children and dogs mill around, and local artists work outside of their shops churning out images of vintage cars and abstract cityscapes on canvas.

Photo: Samuel Cheng

On the edges of the plaza, musicians play acoustic guitars, bongos and marimbula, an instrument with springy metal keys, in impromptu jam sessions, imbuing the square with an air of festivity. Some are dressed in khaki and garments resembling revolutionary-era militia uniforms.

At night, Havana shimmers. After supper, I witnessed yet another reminder that Cuba saunters at its own leisurely pace. The El Canonazo de las nueve is the traditional firing of the cannon at 9pm by soldiers dressed in Spanish colonial uniforms. This also signals when the city gates shut for the night, harking back to practices of an older time.

TIME AND AGAIN

Photo: Samuel Cheng

British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote in his best-known work, The Go-Between, that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Well, they certainly do things differently in Havana, a city lost in the past, but time may not always remain frozen here.

Already, Habana Vieja – the city’s oldest district and a World Heritage site – is gradually being gentrified as construction crews work hard to restore crumbling exterior facades and lofty interiors. Progress is only hampered by lack of funds and equipment, and damaging hurricanes in the summer.

As the roar of the firing cannons continues to ring in my ears and the merry tempo of the marimbula lingers in my mind, I hope, albeit hopelessly, that time continues to stand still in this beautiful land.

 

This story was originally published in the June 2011 issue of Her World.

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