“Where is your favourite place in the world?” I often get asked this question and find it increasingly difficult to answer because there are so many places I hold dear to my heart, and have very fond memories of. Ultimately, I choose the two places I want to revisit the most and therefore answer with Antarctica and Cuba, both for very different reasons. Antarctica, because well, it’s Antarctica, and Cuba because it was a time-warp to 1959 when the revolution took hold and Cuba seemingly stood still; it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
I first visited Cuba in 2012 as a naïve young traveller on my first backpacking adventure. I spent about five days in Havana and as aforementioned I was naïve because I had barely researched the country, didn’t have a guidebook or enough cash with me and given the embargo with the States, my bankcard didn’t work.
Luckily, without a supply of money or even a basic understanding of Spanish, I managed to get by and I was astounded by three main things: the lack, or basic non-existence of internet and mobile phones, the way kids were kids; playing in the streets and families would live their lives outside their front doors, and the time-warp that Cuba seemed to be in with the very old classic cars and the clothes that were worn. It was mind-blowing and I wanted more, so I decided to return and booked for exactly 29 days (visas last 30 days) so I could explore more of the country.
I was more than excited to be back in Cuba after touching down in Havana but immediately I knew things were going to be different. I first notice that immigration was no longer fully concealed. In 2012, the immigration officer was in a small box-like room and you entered one-by-one, hoping they would allow you into the country. If successful, they would only stamp your visa, which was a loose piece of paper slipped into your passport. This time around, I was served by two young women who joked with me and asked me how to pronounce words in English, before stamping me into the country inside my passport.
I was in Havana for a total of six days and most of that time was spent walking around the capital. I’m not a huge fan of museums, instead preferring to roam the streets and get a feel for the life of the city. The Malecon, the plazas in Old Havana and Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway lived, were some of my favourite haunts. I also awoke to a room filled with balloons on my birthday thanks to Victoria and celebrated it with a nice chilled day tasting two of the country’s finest exports, cigars and rum.
The Five Senses of Havana
Havana looks like people on their mobile phones. No longer are kids playing soccer, baseball or marbles in the streets, instead they are gathered in groups outside hotels connected to Wi-Fi on phones that family members or friends have brought back from the Forbidden Land.
Havana smells like cigars. Cliché, yes, but also true. Puffing on an iconic Cuban is a way of life here.
Havana feels like it’s in the process of change. Many kids now have mobile phones and there’s Wi-Fi readily available, which didn’t exist in 2012. People are no longer living their lives outside their houses, with TVs also commonplace in homes.
Havana tastes like Spaghetti Napolitano. Havana isn’t especially kind to vegetarians and I got used to Spaghetti Napolitano.
Havana sounds like ‘Taxi’. Every street corner is presided over by a taxi driver or pedi-cab chauffeur who would just shout ‘taxi’. I would start off by saying ‘No, gracias’ but after a few days would just ignore them.
This might be selfish of me, but I was saddened to see the change in Havana. The city is opening up and the technological age is taking over. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some kids playing in the streets and some people sitting on their doorsteps, but most are now congregated around Wi-Fi hotspots, or inside watching TV. It’s great for the Cubans who are now able to connect with family members in other countries, but for travellers wishing to experience a country that was nearly five decades behind the rest of the world, time is running out.