Typically what happens when you arrive at the bus station in the morning in Cuba is that you’ll encounter a flock of taxi drivers offering to whizz you away in a taxi for just a ‘pocito mas’ of the bus fare you’re about to go and pay. We’d put our names down on the Viazul list for the bus that morning to Havana but when we arrived we were offered two spots in a taxi waiting to go with two other passengers. It cost us about 5 bucks more so we abandoned our booking with Viazul and jumped in the beat up old Camry. It would get us there a good hour and half earlier than the bus, and right to Victor and Zoes front door.
What a land of contrasts Cuba’s been. Some great infrastructure.. and decent roads along the main highways; yet they’re full of crumbled old Buicks and Oldsmobiles. A beautiful Caribbean coastline with that jelly-blue water and white powder sand; and a looming oil refinery pumping out putrid sulfuric fumes just beyond the beach. Mind-boggling.
Entering the fume cloud of Havana and your lungs contract to protect the body. We rocked up to Zoe and Victors to find them not home. We waited anxiously with our stuff out the front of their place, which was thankfully was in the foyer of a residential building and not on the street. Not that Havana is overly unsafe, it’s just not a nice thing to be doing. Waiting somewhere with all your precious items. Penalty for taking the taxi it would seem. They finally showed up an hour and a half later, surprised to see us, having assumed we had taken the bus and they would have time for their morning walk. Regardless they were unnecessarily overly apologetic and ever so welcoming. We chewed the fat a bit before taking a long walk into town, and giving ourselves time to reflect on our time here.
Recent changes to trade laws has meant that Cuba is beginning to get a taste of life outside the boundaries of socialism. It’s still there of course, in a weird, misconstrued kind of way. For example; Victor can set the price of his rooms to whatever he likes, however the tax collected by the government on his rooms is always the same. This means that a casa particular trading in the dead center of old Havana pays the same amount (not percentage) of tax per room as one 3 kilometers out. And this used to have to be paid at the same time every month; and you pay it irrespective of whether the room has had visitors or not. You’re kept accountable by random visits by government representatives who will want to check your book of visitors against your payments. Casa owners are obliged to report guests to the government within 24 hours of their arrival. We noted that on one or two occasions at some of our casa’s, this didn’t happen. It’s common for casa owners to report to the government that they have only 1 room for rent, when in fact they might rent 2 or 3 and simply pocket the collectings.
‘It’s just a matter of time before they’re caught’ says Victor.
The Internet situation is said to improve shortly as well. There’s a big Internet pipeline off the coast of Florida owned by the United States. Cuba has, for obvious reasons, never been invited to tap into it, meaning they have a round-a-bout link to the rest of the world via Jamaica. Venezuela has recently established it’s own backbone and has offered Cuba to jump in, based on their sturdy diplomatic relations. It’ll be another year before the end-nodes are connected and every-day people are connected but it’s a significant development. It’s huge rest-of-the-world exposure to the Cuban people, I hope they’re ready.
Old Havana is beautiful at sun-down. We found an outdoor cafe that had a small band playing, ordered some mojitos and I finally managed to smoke the cigar I’d been saving from Vinales. The last sunlight illuminated the old, crumbled buildings in a dull orange and the taste of mojitos, smell of cigars and sound of some street music was simply the best way to remember such a unique country. Beautiful and enchanting and at times infuriating. We’re glad to have seen it now for it feels it’s teetering on a precipice, about ready to plunge into the global community, and potentially changed forever.