Cuban Scents

Cuban Scents

By Rebecca Tompkins

Cuba smells of cigar smoke and guava. The rich, earthy smell of cigars assails you when you phase off the plane as portly airport officials smoke Cuba’s best. The guava requires longer to spot. Its juicy, pink flesh and tart taste accompanying pretty much every single meal.

But Cuba also smells like history, like revolution — hardship and triumph. Its past, current and hope for the future is reflected in the booming voices and regular laughter of its residents who remain cheerful and seem genuinely content despite the continuous restrictions of ration books, principles and rules.

Arriving in Havana leaves even my cynical and spoiled travel mind agape. I am staying in Casco Viejo, Havana’s outdated town, when property to rich sugar barons and real American gangsters. The elaborate mansions created by these former residents of Havana continue to be. They are dilapidated and crumbling, but nevertheless majestic, echoing their former glory, like grand old dames whose jewelery has lost its gemstones and as soon as fine clothes has develop into threadbare and moth-eaten.

These regal remnants of a bygone era of wealth stand guard along Casco Viejo’s several streets, but really do not allow their rundown visual appeal fool you, the decrepit buildings and ramshackle sidewalks of Havana are alive.

Washing hangs from every balcony, a multitude of colored flags flying substantial over the street, and music and households pour out of every doorway. Ladies sit and gossip on the actions, calling out to a single another and laughing heartily. Men sit playing checkers on the pavement corners, and young children perform baseball in the street, overcoming their lack of sporting tools by employing sticks as bats and bottle tops as balls.

Now and again the baseball players aspect as a ’50s-design American Dodge, Ford or Chevy rattles previous. These aging vehicles are all over the place in Havana, their smooth operating and fantastic affliction testament to the skill and ingenuity of Cuban mechanical engineering. Unable to import any automobile elements from the U.S., Cubans fashion their own replacement pieces out of scrap metal.

I remain in the heart of previous Havana, in one particular of individuals grand outdated buildings, a household owned by a massive Cuban extended relatives. These government-regulated homestays are identified just as Casas, and provide a room in the household of a Cuban family. For vacationers on a budget, Casas are the least expensive way to accommodate by yourself while in Cuba, but even if your spending budget permits you to keep in one of the numerous government-owned hotels or all inclusive resorts, paying a handful of nights in a Casa is a need to. Casas indicate staying in the properties of ordinary Cuban men and women, offering you a glimpse into their lives and making it possible for you to value their warm and unyielding spirit.

By means of my Casa expertise I meet Roberto and Mariella, a smiling, effervescent couple who continuously try to engage in conversation with me despite my halting Spanish and who envelope me with hugs and kisses like a prolonged lost relative when I leave. Roberto and Mariella run a well-known Casa and look to be accomplishing fairly effectively for themselves. Even so, as I locate to be the situation with pretty much every little thing in Havana, the specter of the communist government hovers overhead. Casas are heavily regulated and Roberto and Mariella get rid of a large proportion of their earnings to government taxes.

Mariella does all the cooking, with the exception of lobster — lobster is Roberto’s domain, and he proudly tells me, his specialty. Each day he hopefully asks me if I will have the lobster for dinner and his eagerness is so endearing that ultimately I give in. It’s tasty, and Roberto’s apparent pride and delight in my praise for his cooking tends to make the working experience all the extra pleasurable.

I inquire Roberto if he eats lobster frequently?

“No. It is not doable. Only for vacationers.”

The consumption of lobster and beef is government regulated. Roberto and Mariella can procure the two for their Casa visitors, but they are not permitted to consume it. Roberto does not seem bothered by this, and his rotund belly and twinkling eyes make me wonder if his eagerness for me to sample the lobster was relatively motivated by his need to consume it for himself. I suspect that underneath the guise of cooking it for me, his total relatives can love a forbidden lobster dinner.

As it is in Roberto and Mariella’s Casa, undertones of the communist regime run all through Havana. Some are evident: the lines of persons waiting outside the bakery to have their ration cards filled, the women approaching you on the street asking for soap or lip balm and the bare-as-a-baby’s-bottom supermarket shelves. Others you have to delve a very little deeper to find: the restrictions positioned on tv programming, internet utilization and travel for Cuban citizens, and the comprehensive absence of any kind of marketing (a reality that you may well not notice till you return to a capitalist country and are assaulted with promoting virtually all over the place you appear).

Most Cubans are loathe to speak about the government regime or to pass any judgment on it. It is as if they dread that their feedback will be overheard and reported back to a faceless larger power who will make sure that they are reprimanded.

By possibility, I meet a single Cuban who is ready to discuss the communist regime. Eduardo, a thirty-a thing, gold-toothed Cuban who presents to enable me back to my Casa when I turn out to be lost in Casco Viejo’s rambling streets. Eduardo is the youngest of 13 kids and still lives at residence along with his father, most of his siblings and several of their spouses and kids. His mama, he tells me sadly, creating the signal of the cross and offering a quick prayer, has lately passed. Eduardo, his tongue loosened by some fine 30-12 months-previous Havana Club rum, also whispers furtively that he does not like the government, and that “everything is their fault.”

With this comment, the guards who previously stood firmly outdoors the doorway to Eduardo’s genuine emotions about his government seem to be to have gone off duty, and all of a sudden he is inclined to speak. So, against the strains of jazz music coming from the piano bar subsequent door, surrounded by cigar smoke, enclosed by the gleaming surfaces of the dark mahogany bar and just out of ear shot of the impeccably dressed old man turned out in what I’m positive is a genuine 1930’s cream suit and matching hat, Eduardo and I talk politics.

Chief amongst Eduardo’s criticisms is the government’s implementation of a dual currency — Pesos for locals and Convertibles for travelers, with one particular Convertible being well worth about twenty Pesos. The reason for Eduardo’s disapproval of this system is straightforward: it creates a division between individuals who can access Convertibles and those who are unable to. If one particular Convertible can be converted into twenty Pesos, the Cuban who can access even a modest volume of Convertibles will generally be a lot wealthier than the Cuban who are unable to. Eduardo illustrates this difficulty as a result of the illustration of his older brother, a thoroughly certified doctor who earns less than a taxi driver as taxi drivers can transport vacationers and get paid in Convertibles. This division, in essence, would seem to undermine the very ideals behind communism itself.

I request Eduardo about the supposedly imminent death of Fidel Castro. Will Cuba transform the moment their infamous leader is gone? Eduardo is nonplussed. Practically nothing will change. Raoul (Castro’s younger brother) will consider over, and almost nothing will adjust. Does Eduardo like Raoul? No. Do most Cubans like Raoul? Eduardo doesn’t feel so.

I meet Eduardo the following day and the guards are securely back at their posts. So I inform him how I would like to pay a visit to Trinidad. Eduardo’s eyes shine at the mention of Trinidad and he tells me of an amazingly attractive colonial city, with cobbled streets and picturesque buildings colored faded pastel pink, yellow, blue and green.

I inquire him when he visited Trinidad. “Only in my dreams,” he says wistfully.

He would enjoy to go there but is unable to leave Havana. A further government regulation, Cubans are only permitted to leave their district for operate functions. Eduardo doesn’t have to verbalize his emotions about this government policy, the faraway search in his eyes speaks volumes.

Eduardo clearly feels that the government is holding Cuba, and its citizens, back — the two practically and figuratively — and is saddened by the hardships and restrictions Cubans face as a outcome of government policies. Nevertheless, these emotions are tempered by an apparent pride in his country, a contentment and a resigned nevertheless not unhappy acceptance of the way things are.

Government laws may possibly restrict the Cuban folks in many methods, but they do not avert them from residing their lives to the fullest. They are not restricted or restrained in their passions, their appreciate of relatives, their baseball, their music and their fiery salsa dancing. They have a warm, buoyant and sturdy spirit which has carried them by means of substantially adversity, and prevails in spite, or probably simply because of, the continual intrusion of the communist regime in their lives.

Just as the magic of Havana has been enhanced by the city’s checkered past, and just as Havana has retained its charm and grandeur regardless of the ravages of politics and time, the people today of Cuba have been shaped by their background, and by the hardships and restrictions which they encounter. And it has enhanced their magic and their charm. It has left them with a power of character and a zest for daily life that is nicely suited to their excellent and enthralling capital city.

Havana wears her heart on her sleeve. Her political circumstance, her music, her colorful previous, her vibrant current and her uncertain future. I can't help but be absorbed by her. But it is her dynamic inhabitants that genuinely deliver her to daily life.

My days in Havana pass considerably also quickly. I love Cuba Libres and Mojitos in smoky jazz bars I am surprised by the rapid feet of the dancers in Havana’s quite a few salsa clubs. I delve into Cuba’s fascinating background in the city’s revolutionary museums, I consume churros by a roadside stall and watch the planet go by, and I simply shed myself time and time yet again in the magical streets of Casco Viejo. Havana, and her colorful residents, delight, confuse, fascinate, frustrate and captivate me. It proves to be a truly exceptional and critical travel working experience.


[“Street in Centro” by Robin Thom/Flickr “Basball Rules” by Hugo van Tilborg/Flickr “Che, Fidel and Camilo Havana Day 2” by Steven Mileham/Flickr]


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