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Retro jaunt in Cuba
'HELLO, how are you? From China? Do you need a guide?" asked the Cuban man, who obviously saw us as a potentially lucrative diversion from his date with his girlfriend when he sidled up to us.
Naturally, we declined. Which was when he fired his parting salvo. "Are you sure? You'd better be careful! There are spies all around. Out of 10 Cubans, seven will be spies!" he cackled as he walked off; miffed, no doubt.
That was the most intriguing statement we'd heard in our 10 days in Cuba, in a trip that was mostly led by a perfectly pleasant local female guide - as we travelled from Havana all the way east to Santiago de Cuba. We were back in Havana, however, with two days to explore the old city.
Perhaps it was the area we were in that inspired this talk of spies: we had just left the Revolutionary Museum, and were walking towards a collection of military exhibits in a park. At the Granma Museum, there's a Hawker Sea Fury F50 plane mounted in the centre of a gigantic glass building. That's the plane which helped repel the seminal Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Next to it was the engine of the Lockheed U-2 spy plane which was shot down above Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Then, a model of the said weapon of destruction - the SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile.
Spies? Oh yes, it was quite believable, from what we had heard over the first few days. Like good ol' Communist China, there's also a system of governance where Cubans can't move around of their own accord. If they live in one town, for instance, they need official permission to move to Havana, or to any other town as they'll be monitored by the "neighbourhood watch" people who notice who's new and over-staying in town.
On our second last day in Cuba - having experienced the Unesco heritage site of Trinidad with its filigreed and colourful French architecture, the blue Caribbean seaside resorts, the quaint Spanish-influenced, sugar crop-driven towns of Sancti Spiritus and Camaguay and Santiago de Cuba, the place where the revolution started in the 1950s - our interest in Cuban political history was ignited.
The Revolutionary and Granma Museums provide good insights into Cuba's psyche - in this country full of "Che Guevara-isms" (revolutionary sayings by the rebel fighter stencilled and sprayed on the faded walls, along with his beloved dashing likeness) and vintage cars. Those, along with the faded grandeur of neo-classical buildings, speak most eloquently and romantically of a country that's been caught in a time warp since the 1950s.
Even so, it seems that Cuba is on the cusp of change. It has to do with the fact that blocks of buildings are being renovated and refurbished. Parts of the Revolution Museum itself were closed to the public on the day of our visit because of restoration work. The National Capitol Building was also all-scaffolded up for a five-year restoration project. Where is the money coming from?
We heard mention of China and Canada being among the biggest investors in Cuba. And heard it whispered that President Raul Castro, brother of former president Fidel Castro, is quite a "progressive" leader. But our guide resolutely remained tight-lipped on current politics and Fidel Castro's health.
If Cuba isn't on your bucket list yet, it should be. And you'd want to plan that visit soon too lest Cuba, by some economic trade agreement, joins the developing world where big investors and big brands move in, tourism becomes over-commercialised, and its current landscape eroded.
For now, as it's probably been for the last few decades, Cuba is as languid as it gets with an enforced slow pace of life. For a country that's about as big as Great Britain, it only has a population of 10 million. Outside of Havana, we travelled on wide roads which are flanked by acres and acres of green jungle, with hardly any evident agricultural activity. Traffic was minimal but we did see the occasional "working" vehicle, like vintage trucks and lorries.
A common sight was loose groups of men and women standing around by the roadside, and we later found out that they were waiting for rides from anyone who could give them. We were told that if you drive, you have a moral obligation to give some folks a ride - since public transport is scarce or non-existent between some places, and the majority of Cubans can't afford a car.
Hotels are worn but not too badly rundown, considering their age. But the lovingly polished vintage cars run amazingly well. The most surprising thing to us was how bad the food was, in general - tough chicken fillets, for instance, and don't get us started on the hotel buffet lunches and dinners where most food was over-cooked and under-seasoned. To compensate, though, there was live music emanating from practically every corner of any city.
Surprisingly, Cuba isn't as anti-American as we expected, for a country defined by its resistance to the United States. In fact, we saw only one billboard decrying the country's economic blockade, and some satirical cartoon characters drawn of former US presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush at the Revolutionary Museum. What we really appreciated was the excellent public art throughout the country.
On our last day in Havana, we encountered our very buff and good-looking waiter at breakfast, with his military-style haircut. And it occurred to us, just how muscular most Cuban men were, but where are the gyms? As our imaginations went wild, it wasn't hard to cook up possible scenarios where staff in the tourist industry are "spies" with access to government-run gyms.
Hunger for tourist dollar
Could our waiter be the eyes and ears for the authorities, reporting on tourists? It's highly plausible, and a most sensible plan, really, since they're the first contact of foreigners who come into the country.
Not that we were really too worried. For now, it seems that there is a hunger for the tourist dollar, or CUC (Cuban convertible peso) as it's called, after you exchange dollars into Cuban currency (one CUC is about the same as one euro). The spirit of revolution seems strong still but like Havana's buildings, even that might be undergoing some kind of overhaul now, to fit in with the times.
The slew of unresolved political issues, intrigue and mystery - you will find plenty of literature in Cuba detailing how the American Mafia messed up their politics - adds just the right sense of adventure and interest to Cuba, which otherwise would be just another Caribbean island with plentiful rum, sipped to the live croonings of the ever-popular Guantanamera.