Cuba, My Surprising New Year’s Eve

May 13, 2009 by

Caribbean

It is New Year’s eve, a warm balmy evening. I’m at the farm with friends and family, there’s a pig roasting succulently on a spit, and the CD player is controlled by the teenagers. A friend of the family is drunkenly playing a guitar surprisingly well in the corner.

But this is not my family, and the friends I’ve only known for a week. I’m in Cuba and it’s a surprising place indeed. The friends are a mix of Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and Americans. (There’s also a lot of Europeans visiting Cuba, but none tonight.) That’s one of the surprises – there are more Americans visiting Cuba than you might think, and I didn’t met a single one who was there on an approved trip. They come through Mexico or Canada in large numbers every year, and are happy to flout their government’s rules.

Cuba - Vive la Revoluccion?

Cuba - Vive la Revoluccion?

The family is the family of our local guide. It includes Grandad, the charming silver fox; Grandma, who is happy with a little half-glass of beer; shy but smiling Mum; staunch communist Dad, who isn’t comfortable with so many foreigners around; brother-in-law who is loudly pro-American and wants to discuss politics all night; a delightful grandson, and many more. We were honored to be invited to their party while we were so far from home.

Cuba: It loves to party

Another surprise – this is the only communist country I have visited that loves a party – there seems to be great support for the arts and musicians, and you didn’t have to look very hard to find music and dancing – it is certainly part of every day for us. Of course the locals dance with snake-hips that no amount of salsa lessons are going to give me, but after a couple Cuba Libre’s I am always happy to try. It helps to be here for the 50th anniversary of the Revolution – I’m appreciating the government sponsored street parties every night. And the art – paintings everywhere, art galleries, street markets – great galleries of diverse originals in Camaguey and Baracoa in particular, huge range of cheap but good street-market stuff in Havana.

Drumming to the salsa beat

Drumming to the salsa beat

There was another party we went to – we weren’t exactly invited to this one, more like gate-crashed, but when we stopped at the gate in the middle of the mountains to see if we could buy some lunch, they warmly invited us to join them. It was National Honor Teachers Day, and the teachers and their families had gathered at this particular house to celebrate. On our arrival they quickly wrung the neck of one of their turkeys, and then invited us to join them while a feast for lunch cooked for the next 4 hours or so.

We sampled their local rum, played some dominoes, danced a bit of salsa, and had deep conversations about the importance of great teachers in our lives – although this was somewhat tempered by our very bad spanglish. We also wandered down the farm to visit the waterfall and swimming hole – very beautiful and another surprise for me – it was the first of many waterfalls, not something I had associated with Cuba at all.

Cuba: Buena Vista Hiphop

Many of my pre-conceptions about Cuba were a bit out of date – where I was thinking salsa, the locals prefer the nightclub, while I was thinking Buena Vista social club the locals are thinking the latest Latino hiphop. I never quite figured out whether it was a requirement or just a strange local taste, but it didn’t matter what club you went to in the evening, you first had to sit through a “show” – maybe a singer of Celine Dion numbers, or Latino boy band numbers, or Buena Vista-like copy cats of varying levels of skill. After enduring the show, the dance music comes on and the crowd throw themselves into what they’d really come for – dancing and partying. Maybe it’s their version of our old “you have to buy food to drink” licensing rules.

Cuba: Expect the unexpected

I’d heard all about the wonderful old American ’50s cars and they were everywhere, they looked amazing and it was even more amazing how they’d managed to keep them intact and running for so long without access to the spare parts. And it was no surprise to see the old Russian Lada’s, although somewhat less attractive.

But I was surprised to spot some brand new Audi’s, imported as car rentals for tourists apparently – yes times they are a’changing. Change was the most common topic of conversation – many Cubans were openly talking about how things were changing, whether they thought that was a good or bad thing, what they would like to see change or not change. Everyone had different views, and everyone seemed to be engaged in a public conversation on this, again more public than you might expect in a communist country. And it also seemed like every visitor had a version of “I wanted to come now before it changes”.

I took heart at the level of public debate on this, hopefully a good sign for the future – I only wish there was this much involvement of the general public in political debate in my country.

Hanging out on the beach in Cuba

The beach in Cuba, pretty close to paradise

Another surprise – how many tourists there were in Havana (not to mention the hop on hop off bus, how did that get here?) – some parts of the old town at about 11 in the morning would have 3 or 4 tour groups per block, it’s not too hard to imagine you are in Venice or Prague instead. But it was so fascinating I would’ve have missed it, no matter how many crowds. The rest of the country so far has a much lighter touch of tourism, and is equally fascinating.

Cuba: The food? Que bueno!

And the final surprise? Every article and guide book I read said to expect the food to be in short supply and boring – some even suggested going armed with muesli bars and other snacks. In most cases this was completely wrong, we ate very well indeed. Breakfasts of omelettes and fresh fruit and good coffee, dinners of fish and lobster and pork and chicken, not to mention the national obsession with ice cream. It’s true that if you only eat in the hotels and the government owned and run restaurants you will be unimpressed. But why would you when you can get great food in so many other places.

Hanging out in Cuba

Hanging out in Cuba

I highly recommend eating in your casa particular (the B&B-style places you will almost certainly stay in if you venture outside of Havana), they have the best access to fresh food and they cook it well. There are also many private restaurants run out of peoples houses, called a paladar, licenced by the government but run by families, and again the food is far superior, you’re eating in their front room and the best known ones have queues around the corner.

So unsurprisingly I eventually had to leave and go home and back to work but I certainly left a little bit of my heart in Cuba, don’t be surprised if I head back there again soon.

-Victoria Pottering

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4 Responses to “Cuba, My Surprising New Year’s Eve”

  1. Sean Says:

    Great post Victoria. Wondering if you got a stamp in your passport, or if you we’re able to get in and out without any official paper trail. My country, the USA, may soon change the but still have to be careful until that happens. Any advice?

  2. Eric Fessenden Says:

    Cubans enjoy your visit and don’t stamp your passport. Just don’t advertise your destination by returning to the USA with lots of Cuban rum and cigars hanging out of your bags. Feels weird to have your home country be the one to fear!

  3. john Says:

    Great post! I found this today to open travel to Cuba for all the folks in the US.

    http://www.opencuba.org/