“I’ve never been anywhere in my life like it and I only really noticed it when I returned to Los Angeles and then Berlin. Everybody is much better off in these places, there is not poverty like in Cuba, but everybody complains about things.”
Sometimes as a traveller you visit a place that impacts on you more than you might expect. German film maker Wim Wenders seems to have felt this too in the above quote and has managed to capture my overwhelming thought about Havana and the Cuban people when I reflect upon my time there.
Poverty is a stark reality for the majority of Cubans: buildings crumble around them, rationing is a way of life, payphones are still the dominant form of communication and the internet – what’s that many would ask? Yet, even in the face of this, they have something that many nations might not: a make do and make the most of it way of life which seems to leave them genuinely happy.
The pace of life is incredibly relaxed: no one is ever on time (which must have been a shock for German Wenders), people amble along and living life out on the street seems to be the done thing. This made for a pleasant change from the frenetic pace of London where often it seems that people can simply glide past each other like ships in the night. Combined with a seemingly instinctive friendly nature, we couldn’t go ten steps without being stopped to ask where we were from and being wished ‘happy holidays!’, even if Ali G seemed to be their immediate cultural reference for England. Don’t even attempt Wales, not a single person had heard of it.
There are other causes for celebration too, with universal access to education, a well praised National Health Service and life expectancy that is almost on a par with the US. It strikes you that there is a real determination to make the most of life and what you have. Take the overwhelming dominance of 1950’s cars as the mode of transport. Anywhere else in the world one would be a rarity that people would turn their heads to look at. In Cuba, it genuinely seems unusual to see anything else. Pontiacs, Studebakers, Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets in every colour of the rainbow line up, like stepping back in time. They vary in condition, comfort and make but one thing is sure – they keep going. The determination of the Cubans means that they find genius ways to keep these vehicles on the road when others would have long sent them to scrap.
An example that I want to give of this inspiring nature from when I visited last month is an inspirational man called Ricardo. Ricardo is a 24 year old Cuban, intensely proud of his country and a walking encyclopaedia of its history that puts my comparative knowledge of the UK to shame. While working incredibly hard to earn his business degree at university, he has mastered four languages, set up his own successful tour guide business and practically falls over himself to go above and beyond in helping every visitor he meets to experience the best of the country. All of this is done with a smile on his face and a genuine interest in your story and experiences. This attitude embodies what I found I loved about Cubans: their resourcefulness and overwhelmingly positive outlook on life. All I can say is, if you are visiting Havana, then don’t miss your chance to meet Ricardo and learn more about this wonderful country from him. He can be found as the man behind Havana Journeys.
I will be writing blogs to give you top tips when visiting Havana and why the small town of Trinidad deserves a spot on everybody’s bucket list. For now though, I felt it was important to explain why Cuba has left a lasting impact on me. I only hope that you get the chance to see it for yourself. Keep an eye out for other posts, and let me know what you thought of Cuba if you’ve been.