14th April 2023
Cienfeugos, Cuba – Havana, Cuba
‘A Tale of 2 cities’ begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” These words were penned to describe the differences between London and Paris during a time of revolution and change, these same words could describe everything we have found in Cuba as we travelled between 2 cities.
In Cienfeugos the wide Parisian boulevards thrummed with life. Horse drawn buses ferried commuters around the town and the horses took no notice of the motorbike taxi’s that noisily weaved between them. Taking our bicycles around this town we were just another price of road furniture for everyone to avoid but we were about to change both towns and mode of transportation as we headed for Havana.
Taking the air conditioned coach from city to city those jostling horse drawn buses and motorbike taxis felt a long way away as we joined a 6 lane highway. Those busy town streets had been replaced with mile after mile of empty highway. The highway was bereft of traffic*, its sides housed no life and the fields we passed were cultivated as if we were in a different age where only a few thin cattle grazed and crops fought for life. We weren’t in a city yet but we were already seeing the different faces of Cuba.
As quickly as life disappeared it re-emerged on the outskirts of Havana. Every dilapidated frontage housed stalls trying to sell meagre offerings and looking up, every window was filled with drying laundry. In true Ruffian style, once we were dropped off at the bus station, we opted to dive into local life and walk to our bargain basement accommodation instead of taking a sanitised tourist taxi**.
Everywhere we looked buildings were falling down, facades crumbling and roofs caving in, but they were still full of people going about their daily lives. Traffic seemed to consist entirely of cars held together with good luck and string; or people pulling hand carts that were precariously piled high with produce that disappeared to destinations unknown.
As we crossed the park outside the capital building the town instantly changed. The crazy traffic calmed and manicured cars left over from the 50’s and 60’s, whose chrome glistened and faultless paintwork looked bottomless, tried to attract the tourist dollar. The uneven pavements under our feet was replaced by perfectly smooth marble and every facade was freshly painted and housed no laundry. Havana on its own was ‘A Tale of 2 Cities’.
As night fell this exacerbated the feeling of 2 cities. The high rise run down accommodation that housed the people of Cuba were shrouded in darkness. Just the occasional window housed a dim light and the odd doorway was illuminated by the weakest of bulbs. The roads had no street-lights and the pot holes turned walking into a game of Ruffian Roulette. It was a different story where tourists walked and the great, and apparently, not so good lived. Every building was up-lit, every window glowed and street-lights were reflected in those ever present polished cars.
Signs of revolution also lined the streets and monuments to the greatness of the state and the evils of capitalism pervaded. We decided that we had to see some of these up close and personal in the hills overlooking Havana harbour and master public transport at the same time. Taking our lives in our hands we we were crammed together with 100’s of local commuters into a ferry that looked like rust was a structural component and its engine sounded like it ran on nails instead of diesel. This feeling of danger was heightened as we spied all the life-jackets were secured by liberal use of padlocks and then cage like doors slammed shut on every exit making escape impossible.
Walking through the monuments and forts overlooking Havana we could almost feel the indoctrination of the people. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, architects of the revolution, were celebrated like religious icons and information signs talked of the great struggle in overthrowing greedy capitalism in preference to a shared peoples socialist utopia. This seemed disingenuous as the military sat down to lunch in pristine buildings while we plonked ourselves down in a rickety street-side cafe where locals took pity on us, rustled up ham and cheese toasties and dispensed weak orange squash from a shared container.
Throughout our time in Havana we talked of peoples experience of ‘the best and worst of times’ of ‘wisdom and ignorance’ and ‘belief and incredulity’. The more we experienced the more confused we became, the more questions we had and the more we wished that somehow we could get under the covers of the city and country that had many more than 2 tales. Then we bumped into lady luck.
Standing on a street corner we were just contemplating our lunch options when someone sidled up-to us and in deepest of west country voices asked if we needed some help. Within moments we’d been invited to lunch with Jackie and her friend Susan who’d both seen Havana through the eyes of worldly wise international mavericks*** and who could answer all our difficult questions.
The following hours gave light to the most intriguing conversations. We covered all the usual topics new friends do; politics, religion and money! We learnt about the American blockade****, the intentional hurtful politics, the ascent of power, the struggle and survival of the people, how collectives and rationing work, global geopolitics and the its real impact on daily life and their thoughts on the difficult future that this country has.
Jackie and Susan really showed us that Cuba could be the setting for ‘A Tale of 2 Cities’. In our time in Havana we can see that Cuba is in a ‘season of light and a season of darkness’, there is also ‘the spring of hope and the winter of despair’ while the people have ‘everything before them and nothing before them’.
* Due to a severe shortage of fuel, rationing meant the people of Cuba cant afford to drive long distances along highways.
** This also helped satisfy Iain’s tight fisted-ness.
*** Both Susan and Jackie are the most amazing woman having worked and studied all over the world in times of crisis and upheaval, but their hearts are still full of hope empathy and openness.
**** Which is dressed up and sanitised by being called and embargo.
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