It’s hard to describe our five days in Cuba. It was mindblowing, as our disconnectedness made us take in every moment. 5 minutes of downtime wasn’t spent with a phone filling the gap. We learnt from the Cuban people that true happiness starts with people, one on one, with no devices in our way. Going straight to the intensity of New York to open a pop-up afterwards hit us like a smack in the head, so we asked Kirsty Bennett to dive into Cuba’s history and what makes Cuban people so special.
If the world was having a party, Cuba would be the country who finds out a week or two later. After more than 50 years of not being invited to anything, the largest island in the Carribean is back on the guest list.
Since 1961, Cuba has been stuck in another era. They haven’t been buddies with the US since the Cold War so that made life a bit tricky. The US placed sanctions on Cuba, so no American company was allowed to export goods their way. And within Cuba, the Castro-led government wasn’t too keen on people leaving either. Cuban nationals needed permission from the government to leave the island and if they stayed out too long, they might not be allowed back in.
Fast forward to now and Cuba is finally catching up with the world around it. In 2012, the Cuban government relaxed its travel restrictions, so people can now leave with just a passport and identity card, just like you would in the US or Australia. And just last year, President Barack Obama became the first president in 88 years to visit the island. There, he met with Cuban President Raúl Modesto Castro Ruz, and they put their country’s pasts behind them. They both agreed to reopen their embassies and relaxed some of the trade and travel restrictions.
Now everyone wants to follow Obama’s lead. What was once a country that was blocked off from the world, is slowly opening up for all of us to see. In a time where you can find a Starbucks in every nook around the world, Cuba’s isolation has become its intrigue. In Havana, you’ll find 1950s American cars rolling around the streets with some crafty DIY engines, while the city’s buildings creak and peel away with the weight of Spanish, Baroque, and Art Deco movements.
There’s a lot of history in Cuban houses. The architecture’s beauty is because it hasn’t been touched.
That’s Cuban native, Leo Lopez. He says architecture – along with the country’s coffee, cigars and love of salsa – are what Cuba is known for. He says every day starts with a cup of coffee. But scrap all the fancy names like a long black, frappuccino, latte or flat white – and don’t even go down the almond milk route. It’s all about the espresso here, direct from a farmer and shared with everyone in the street. In Cuba, the front door always stays open.
Alongside coffee, you’ll usually find a Cuban with a cigar. It was Christopher Columbus in 1492 who brought the Cuban cigar to fame after he saw the country’s Indigenous people rolling up tobacco leaves during his travels. Today, Cuba exports around $US213 million worth of cigars. It all comes down to the country’s rich soil and humid conditions with the Pinar Del Rio region one of the best. Leo says that coffee and cigars go hand in hand.
“The Cuban cigar and coffee, they’re like a couple. That’s a marriage”, he laughs.
Outside of coffee and cigars, Cubans are known for their music. Leo says “there is always music in the background and a glass of rum on the table”. Dance is how Cubans unwind from the day and dates back to Spanish colonisation. When explorers arrived they brought with them new instruments and new melodies. This blended with the Afro-Cuban beats have created many of the dance styles we see today – or on a Saturday night out.
Just like their music, Cubans have always moved to their own rhythm, only this time more people are watching. If you’re heading over that way, don’t expect rows of ATMs, high-speed WIFI, or an almond frappuccino available on every corner. It’s got its own thing going on. There’s always a party here, only this time the world is invited.
Time Well Spent in Cuba is taking in the UNESCO World Heritage site Old Havana; enjoying a drag of a Cuban cigar from La Casa del Habano; and taking a motorbike tour with the youngest son of Che Guevara at Ernesto Guevara’s La Poderosa.