Havana, Cuba - In the thick of it
Stepping out into Central Havana on our first day was unsettling. There we were, standing outside our Casa in what felt like a post-apocalyptic scene from a Stephen King novel. The once beautiful colonial buildings surrounding us were all but empty, seemingly uninhabitable shells. Roads were upturned and dog mess lay in the streets from the hundreds of stray dogs that roamed. The sense of poverty was palpable.
People were watching us, really watching. I'd never felt more out of place. Regardless, Seamus and I started walking to make sense of our new surroundings.
We arrived at the tail end of hurricane season. Grey skies reflecting the bleak reality of where we had landed, and the poverty that I really wasn't expecting.
After changing money at the bank and sorting out the basics we headed to a bar that was recommended in our guide book as being cheap and tourist/Hemingway free. Our first Mojito and first cooked meal was at El Chanchullero, a small, bohemian style dive-bar.
Behold - our favourite bar in Havana!
El Chanchullero. The Mojitos were pretty damn strong, the food was without doubt the most DELICIOUS I had eaten in any bar, and the music was pretty good. One drink and one meal - £3.50. With the price of a cocktail averaging £1.20 I knew I was in for a good time - or a mental break, at least.
Our first night out
Oh, it rained. Relentlessly. As we attempted to navigate through the streets in search of a place to eat, every taxi man, restaurant owner, passer by en route tried to lure us one way or the other. A few of them even followed us. No five steps taken were taken in peace. We gave up and went back to our bar - El Chanchullero.
I went to the toilet - no seat (which was fine) but this is common in Cuba - seats are expensive to replace. I came back and Seamus was taking pictures for a couple, Betty and Miqael. Betty was from New York and worked for an organisation called Artists Making Changes. The foundation fosters the creative development of underprivileged groups of children by bringing art workshop programmes led by skilled artists to their home-towns. Betty was engaged to Miqael, a Cuban guy who owned a taxi bike and lived in his parent's home in Centro Habana.
As the evening rolled on and the rum started to take its hold we began to learn a lot about Cuba, Betty's work, Miqael's work, the fact that Seamus is a spitting image of Cuba's national hero, Camilo Cienfuegos...
And that the very bar in which we were sitting was owned by the nephew of Fidel Castro. Drunk and in need of a proper introduction to the city, we were charmed into taking a $15 CUC (£9) bicycle taxi ride around Havana with Miqael the next day.
Waking up was tough. Rum was banging against the walls of my brain. OUCH. We began to wonder whether agreeing to a hungover tour of the city with a guy who didn't speak a word of English was the best idea. What the hell? We sat at the table of our Casa with other tourists eating breakfast.
Betty and Miqael both pulled up outside our Casa in the bicycle taxi and took us to Miqael's parents home a few blocks away for coffee.
The coffee was black. There was no milk in the house, being a luxury item that few people could afford. People relied mainly on rations from the State. Any other food that came in to the family home needed to be paid for out of other money earned. We learned that the average monthly salary for those who work for the State - so engineers, doctors, teachers etc. was $25 CUC (£15) per person.
One chicken cost approximately $4 CUC - you get the picture.
It explained why so many engineers and doctors had abandoned their careers to work in restaurants, making more money from tips than from the government. Some people stuck to eating what was cheap and available mainly through the ration system; rice, beans, eggs and some meat and oil.
Day 2 and we were learning a lot.
Miqael pulled out a DVD and set up the rocking chairs in the living room so that they are all facing the television and motioned enthusiastically for us to sit down. I wondered how many other tourists had entered this family home and sat in the same chairs. A bit of a set up. But we rolled with it. It was educational and the coffee was good!
Before he pressed play, Betty explained the content of what we were about to watch, whilst Miqael sat, a cigar hanging between his lips, waiting eagerly to press play.
Here in Cuba, explained Betty, people are good at knocking things up out of junk and bits of machinery - anything they can get their hands on. For example, the mirrors in the house are framed using bits of old magazine and newspaper.
Miqael, his brother and friends built a raft out of anything they could lay their hands on; designed to cross the Straits of Florida to escape to Miami so they could live a life of 'Freedom' in America. The footage Miqael was about to show us was of a journey to Miami his brother made in the raft with his sister and friends, and was shot using a mobile phone.
Every day Cubans attempt to flee the country, risking their lives to touch American soil to receive amnesty and live in the US. Many die or don't make it far and have to return in failed rafts that can't withstand the pressures of the sea. Many are caught by Miami/Florida coast guards only a few hundred meters from shore. We learnt that a little than over a decade ago the Cuban Government handed out a death sentence to a group of Cubans who had hijacked a boat in an attempt to sail it to Florida. A few years later in 2005, Cuba refused to cooperate with a mandate for a UN envoy to investigate human rights abuses on the island.
Travel from Cuba is not easy - unless you have money, dual nationality or connections. Up until 2013 it was not possible for a Cuban to travel as a tourist, and even today Cubans are high on the terrorist and illegal immigrant list, and so obtaining a Visa from other governments to enter their countries is not so simple.
Relations between Cuba and the US have improved somewhat since Bush but The US Trade embargo which prohibits trade and travel between The United States and Cuba, is still in place and felt widely across Cuban society.
Betty explained that people were scared to utter the name 'Fidel' in their homes or to say anything negative against the government, paranoid that government spies might have placed bugs in their homes or paid neighbours to spy on them. Betty laughs, after all, Fidel is no longer in power, but when I heard that over 100 people were still held as political prisoners in 2008 for speaking out against the government (I don't know if they still are), I wasn't surprised that these people were paranoid and wanted so badly to leave. Damn - even I felt paranoid.
In Cuba, to speak out against the government (again I'm not entirely sure if this is still the case today, but it certainly was 5 years ago), is a serious and heavily punishable crime that if it doesn't lead to imprisonment, will almost certainly lead to social ostracism.
I couldn't help but get goose bumps as I watched Miqael's video. This apparently was attempt number 17. Miqael made it to attempt number 7 but something went wrong along the way and Miqael cut his foot. The wound got infected and hypothermia set in and he ended up losing some of his toes. He vowed never to go on another expedition. 10 attempts later and his brother, sister and friends made it across to Miami.
I watched as they marked in the sand, using empty cola bottles, pieces of debris and junk from the battered raft, the word Freedom. His siblings now live in Arizona. Miqael's mother has a calendar photo of them hanging on her wall.
I liked his parents. They were very warm, full of love for their family and pride for their home.
Their apartment reminded me of my Grandmother's home in Warsaw in the 80s. Same small balcony, tiny kitchenette, same washing machine - although they don't use the machine here in case it breaks down. Machines, like toilet seats, are also expensive to replace.
With ongoing political and economic instability and an uncertainty of what will happen to the country after Fidel and his brother Raul die, who can blame the Cubans for wanting to jump ship? Cuba remains a ticking time bomb, and boy did we feel it.
I understood the need to escape but I had the freedom to do so. I had never visited anywhere in the world where freedom was restricted so much. Welcome to the World, Ola.
I took my freedom for granted
I was ignorant of the reality of Cuba when I arrived - to its poverty, its pressures, its politics, but I know from talking to people that the smoke is slowly beginning to clear. Under the new government Cubans have had restrictions on running private businesses lifted and are taking full advantage, while they can, of the money coming in through tourism. Cuba was shaking up a storm and you could feel it. You could feel the hope and anticipation as much as you could the deprivation.