Now, in case we develop a – somewhat deserved – reputation for being grumpy gits, we hasten to add that while Cuba has been the most challenging and frustrating country we have visited, it has also been one of the most enjoyable.
A large part of this is because, unlike the rest of our trip, Cuba felt like a holiday. An annoying, brilliant holiday. Now some of you may scoff at us, thinking the past two months have simply been one hell of an extended vacation. You’d be partially right. There were days, plenty of them, which consisted of beautiful, relaxing indulgence. We may not have splurged the way we would on a shorter trip, but it hard to argue the allegedly superior merits of backpacking (“it is just so enriching, yah”) when you have a beer in the hand and the sand between your toes.
However, sandwiched between these amazing days – for which we continue to be insanely grateful – were the standard backpacker woes. Travel can be fucking tiring, and in Central America we lost many a day of our lives cramped on sweaty buses, in traffic jams, in three-hour queues, disgusting toilets, bedbug-ridden beds and apocalyptic fly swarms. Anyone who tells you that long-term travel is one long joy-filled holiday is either doing it on a much bigger budget or snorted one too many lines of fresh Colombian coke.
But Cuba was different. Here, we massively increased our daily budget, not because it is more expensive than anywhere else in Latin America, but because what was on offer was too bloody hard to resist. A three course lobster dinner for £9? Cocktails aplenty for £1.50? Amazing private rooms with your own personal waiter/cook for £20 a night? A sunbed on a pristine Caribbean beach for £2? Yes, yes and thrice yes. It didn’t help that our amazing Casa owners in Trinidad brought us free cocktails aplenty and thought we had gone mad when we decided to go teetotal for one whole day. Accordingly, our usually saint-like eating and drinking habits (pah) took quite the walloping. Honestly, I have never eaten so much seafood in my life, forget muffin top, I have a lobster top. We were told Cuban food was awful*, but thanks to some solid Trip Advisor-ing and our incredible Casa Chef, we had the best food we’ve eaten in months on a daily basis. IT WAS BRILLIANT.
The other reason it felt like a holiday? No. Bloody. Internet. On the one hand, this was frustrating for the standard app-addicted millennial. Instagram missed me after all, and not being able to randomly Wikipedia important information like the Cuban Revolution, or where the best churros were was quite distressing.
One the other, much chubbier hand, thank goodness they didn’t. I have spent the last 8 weeks attempting to balance freelance graphic design and travel with increasingly crappy Wi-Fi, awkward time zones and a dying computer. I am incredibly lucky to do something I enjoy on the go, but I really didn’t anticipate how often my days would be monopolised by it. Tasks which should have taken minutes sometimes took hours, and when you get paid hourly and aren’t a complete arsehole, it meant I spent a lot of unbilled hours staring at the spinny ball of doom. Sometimes this was softened by my location, but other times it was all the more frustrating. You don’t save up for two years and travel halfway across the world to miss out, which sometimes I did. A new computer, slower pace of travel and better Wi-Fi should all help on the next trip, but dividing my time is definitely something I need to work on. In the meantime though, nine days of offline activity was pure bliss.
It wasn’t just a lack of internet and good seafood that made Cuba so special. The country is unbelievably beautiful, like ridiculously so. It’s so unspoiled in so many places, and the “spoiled” bits like the cities are teeming with life and activity. As mentioned in part 1, there are darker sides to Cuba – the relentless money grabbing, belligerence and scamming which all seem to be actively encouraged by the government. Disregarding this small portion of the populace, Cubans are incredibly helpful, generous and friendly people. Sometimes their kindness genuinely caught our (increasingly cynical) selves off guard. They also really, really know how to have a good time, and it is both infectious and hard going on the wallet and the liver. The music scene is obviously incredible, the beaches are pristine and the colonial architecture, combined with Cuba’s famed antique cars means every corner is postcard-worthy.
But it’s more than that. Cuba, at its best is saturated with a feeling of old school Hollywood charm. Sitting at Plaza Vieja, sipping mojitos and puffing a cigar while a salsa band plays in the background, you can almost imagine Sinatra doing the same sixty years earlier. Knowing Cuba, the chairs were probably ever the same. Thanks to its ridiculous government policies, it remains, for better or for worse, largely untouched by the West, a perfectly preserved snapshot of 1950’s Latin America. But between the beautiful cobbled streets, smartphone-wielding youths now crowd the designated Wi-Fi zones, and shiny new cars infiltrate the classics of old. Cuba is changing, and changing fast. We feel incredibly lucky to see this Cuba, conflicted and confusing as it is, before the West’s undeniable influence takes hold.
I for one, would much rather the odd scam or two on a street packed full of lively and original bars, than see one single Starbucks open.
*The local takeaways that line the streets truly are abysmal though. Spaghetti with tomato ketchup on top, maybe with a side of “meat tubers” (no idea) does not a rounded diet make. Meat-tubers for fucks sake.