Last week saw Dublin’s Cuban immigrants and lovers of Cuban culture come out of the wood work – it was the first time a Cuban Festival was hosted in the capital with the promise of salsa, mojitos and Cuban cinema. The festival was ultimately a tourism push – the website persuades us not to take Christopher Columbus’ word for it, but to discover the country’s beauty for ourselves. Trying to get the ‘real’ Cuba across to those unfortunates who have not yet been isn’t easy – but adhering to cliches does the country no favours.
Allow me to bust three of the most common cliches:
#Cliche 1: Cubans Desperately Want to Leave Cuba
It’s far more complicated than this. Cuba is a soulful place and a beautiful country, but the people are frustrated. After travelling through Cuba and speaking to a number of different youths, from a variety of backgrounds, it seems that they are torn between the benefits of communism and the lure of materialism which is dangled before them by tourists.
Being in Cuba is like taking half a valium – the heat and the culture lulls you into a wonderful stupor where the transition between day and night is softened and yet still intensely pleasurable. Imagine being on valium all your life – sensing there is more, seeing it and yet never being able to grasp it. Regardless of their socialisation, that burning ambition of Cuba’s youth is being taunted by tourism. They want wealth and status too.
One young man called Rudolpho made it to Germany, married and fathered a child before being deported when the relationship broke down – he was only 28 when I spoke to him and had no problem telling me of his desperation to leave once again. However, another young man called Jordanis hoped to live in Europe, but was adamant that he loved his country and would rather stay. He felt that Cuba had nothing to offer him – he spoke passionately about its slow progress. Then there was Will, a Habanero well used to the benefits the under-belly of tourism has brought Cuba – in his case in the form of a 40-year-old French woman who comes over every three-months and shows him a good time. He was a happy-go-lucky 21-year-old.
#Cliche 2: All Cubans Are Expert Salsa Dancers
It is true that in Havana everyone seems to be a salsa teacher. It’s not true that Cubans salsa dance all day and that all Cubans can dance. My tour guide Osvaldo loved to watch as the dancing kicked off in the sleepy rural town of Vinales – but he would also recoil if anyone attempted to get him on the dance floor.
The fact is that in Havana many of the so-called salsa teachers are jineteros – chancers at best and prostitutes at worst – hoping to spend some time with a tourist. This is no reason to avoid ‘salsa teachers’, as they are generally harmless, with their own interesting stories to tell. The entrance fees for many of the clubs visited by tourists are extremely expensive for the locals, who tend to hang out on the Malecon – the promenade – or in local bars.
I found the salsa dancing in Havana pretty intense. It was in Vinales, a tiny town in the Pinar Del Rio region, that I managed to really let my hair down – which surprised me. In a roofless courtyard with everything from salsa to reggaeton, bachata and merengue, tourists mingled with locals and danced without any hassle. The atmosphere was light, it was pure, it was all about the dancing – not who you were dancing with. No one told me to ‘wait, wait…I am a salsa teacher. I’ll show you’ – which is lovely but patronising and totally off-putting. If you’re looking for a dance, I would recommend getting out of the capital, simply for the contrast.
However, there is much more than salsa to Cuba’s dance scene. Thanks to the tropical fusion of cultures, the Afro-Cuban community brings the more frantic and yet equally mesmerising Rumba to the streets of Havana. Checkout Callejon de Hamel on a Sunday afternoon – you won’t regret it.
#Cliche 3: If you’re in Cuba, it’s all about the Mojitos
Mojitos are great – especially when consumed in front of a balmy Cuban sunset, as Ernest Hemingway would have agreed – but there are other beverages that will help you to integrate. If you’re in the western city of Pinar del Rio, you might want to pick up a couple of bottles of Guyabita del Pinar – a mysteriously sweet and nostril stingingly strong liquor. You can watch them make it in the local factory and will struggle to find it elsewhere. It tastes great on the rocks or with a splash of lemonade.
If you are in Havana, then you have to spend at least one night sipping on a bottle of Havana Club on the Malecon with the locals – bring a mixer if you like. Wiling away an evening on this four mile esplanade as Habaneros sing, dance, romance and hangout beside the glimmering ocean is where the real magic lies. Similarly, if you venture out to Havana’s coast – the bustling Playas del Este – you may wish to seize the moment and crack out the rum like the locals. Don’t be surprised to find big groups of Habaneros descending on this 10 mile stretch of beach at the weekends, barbecuing and blasting a mixture of Cuban music.
If you manage to squeeze into a Cuban taxi on a night out – tourists are supposed to take the more expensive and regulated ‘tourist taxis’ – then you may notice Habaneros sipping on what looks like a carton of juice. It’s actually rum and pineapple juice: sweet, effective and totally recyclable.