Monica Ardisson gives her take on tourism in Cuba
After my visit to Cuba I was adamant that I would never aim to write about it. Before arriving, I had done the usual pre-trip abundance of reading and research, but post-trip I found myself thinking with a new Nietzche-esque type of view on how we so blindly trust the tool of language to convey what needs to be conveyed. I still maintain that regardless of how linguistically-adroit the greatest of writers might be, the limitations of language rob us of the means with which to paint a picture of Cuba to those who have not yet seen it.
But, lo and behold, here I am, attempting to write about Cuba. I remember walking around the neighbourhoods of Havana and feeling a consuming urge to describe what I was seeing to those back in England, but whenever I tried, I realised that Cuba absolutely cannot be described; Cuba can only be felt. I am aware of the cliché here, but I just couldn’t help but think that trying to put such a place into words would be doing it a great injustice. I am conscious that I have risked sounding hyperbolic and over-embellished, (not to mention paradoxical), but all clichés and exaggerations aside, this mini ‘preface’ to my writing serves to establish that all material written on Cuba should be read with a pinch of salt, as it were.
In visiting Cuba, you would be wrong to anticipate a relaxing, tourist-favoured, foreigner-accommodating trip. Granted, this does not apply if you visit the garish tourist-riddled complexes such as Varadero or its counterparts. What I’m referring to is the real Cuba, the Cuba that is quasi-untouched by the avaricious tourist industry, the Cuba that oozes authenticity and the Cuba that removes you from any degree of familiarity.
It’s important to remember that the exact reason for its individuality is owing to the fact that visiting Cuba is more than just a displacement of location; it is a displacement of an era. This displacement of an era is exactly what plunges you into this bittersweet type of paradise. Just attempt to imagine how difficult it is for a twenty-something traveller, in the midst of a smartphone-dominated, social media-reigned generation, to find paradise in a world of slow-paced, technology-lacking inefficiency.
Our three-week sojourn began with a blank canvas of plans, we had booked our nights at a Casa Particular in Havana and everything henceforth was a question mark. Casas Particulares are Cuban family homes in which a spare room has been licensed by the government to accommodate tourists, and they can be identified by a blue symbol above the door.
Owing to the lack of technology, bookings for Casas Particulares are rarely made through any online platform, but rather through word-of-mouth, or by ambling around the city and looking for the Casa Particular symbol. A knock on the door and an ‘any room at the inn?’ type of request is the extent of the booking procedure. Nothing screams authenticity quite like leaving behind the foreigner-filled youth hostels and having traditional Cuban dinners and breakfasts prepared by your hosts.
Stepping into a Cuban home couldn’t be more of a contrast from the gadget-filled houses we’re used to back home. Generally, the extent of technology in a Cuban Casa will be no more than a box television, reminiscent of those we had in the 1990s. With the lack of wireless-internet, navigating from your Casa to the centre of town or to your next activity is far from simple. Instead, you’ll find your way from A to B through the caveman-esque skill of reading a paper map(!) or by remembering each road name and left-turn included in your host’s very quick directions given in Spanish. Even taxi drivers find it hard to know where exactly they’re going, and they’ll often stop on street corners and ask a local whether they know how to find the destination.
The lack of GPS access at your fingertips gives you no option but to be more communicative with the locals when you’re finding your way around, and it forces you to take in your surroundings so that you can orientate yourself, instead of forgetting that the actual journey between A and B might be of more interest than the instructions on your smartphone screen.
Though internet is very scarce in Cuba, it is not totally inaccessible. Each city or town has a central park with wireless internet signal. You have to queue at a little Etecsa hut and pay the equivalent of around €2 for a ticket with a scratch-off code, which will then allow you one hour’s internet access. The lengthy process and painfully slow connection somewhat echoes the days of a dial-up internet connection, and often the procedure requires more effort than it’s truly worth.
It isn’t until the luxury of immediate internet access is taken away from beneath your fingertips that you realise how many times a day we turn to aimless browsing just to fill a momentary gap in our day; on a car journey, whilst queuing, whilst waiting for food to arrive at a restaurant.
Walk around a Cuban town and you’ll see groups of youths sitting around a makeshift table in the middle of the street playing dominos or cards, listening to salsa or Reggaeton music on a battery-powered CD player, not a smartphone in sight.
Indeed, this lack of a virtual world means Cubans are very much socially isolated from the globalised world in which we live, but with this comes a myriad of cultural benefits. Undoubtedly, the globalisation of the rest of the world and intercultural reciprocity is immeasurably valuable in our day and age, but there is something so charming about the way in which Cuba reminds us how important cultural preservation can be in a world whose lines are so blurred.
Cubans live in real-time, they live with what is in front of them and their isolation means they enjoy their own trends, they share their own popular culture and everything is still as quintissentially Cubano as it has ever been. The Cuban passion for salsa dancing can never be replaced by the latest viral video phenomenon, nor by the latest number one that has taken the Western world by storm. Thanks to its detachment from everywhere else, Cuba is a world of its own.
In light of recent political changes, Cuba is beginning to open its doors to the rest of the world, meaning that slowly and inevitably, this individuality will start to dissipate. Cuba is coloured by so many more aspects than its charmingly antiquated approach to technology, but this is certainly one which can’t go unnoticed.
Nostalgia is definitely an apt term to evoke the spirit of Cuba in terms of its politically and socially alternative state. I use the word ‘alternative’ because I am reluctant to use the term ‘backwards’, as this would suggest a perception of Cuba as relative to the Western world.
To understand Cuba, you must detach it from the Western world and embrace it for everything it is rather than dwelling on everything it lacks.
Featured Image Credit: pxhere