Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Final stop on the cold war tour

I'd seen Vietnam and it's nominally communist society. I'd been to Moscow and taken tourist shots of the KGB headquarters (the tallest building in Moscow, as the joke goes... you can see all the way to Siberia from its basement). Now it was time for the real thing: Castro-led, government-controlled, US-embargoed Cuba. I actually booked this holiday just a matter of weeks before news broke of the Fidel-to-Raul handover, so I wasn't sure what I would see by the time I got there. Fortunately all the doomsayers predicting and immediate McDonald's and WalMart invasion were wrong, and the only difference was the appearance of "Viva Raul" graffiti alongside fading "Viva Fidel" slogans.

A week in Havana still didn't seem like enough. Sure, we stayed in the made-for-tourists Habana Vieja, but trips to the outer suburbs and other towns showed the marked contrast with the life of locals. Although the sight of people living in over-crowded and crumbling apartments was a shock, you soon realise that you're the only person that seems to mind. Kids play baseball or football in the streets, adults sit by their door listening to music, having a drink and chatting to anyone passing by... just goes to show that the corollary of "money can't buy happiness" is that poverty doesn't force you into misery. Compared with the constant stream of downcast, frowning faces you see on your daily commute, you have to start wondering if 'our system' is so vastly superior.

The trip to Cuba also gave me reason, and time, to get in some reading. Apart from reading up on the history of the island, I also thought I should get acquainted with Cuba's literary connections. Hemingway is of course one of Havana's major draw cards, and we stayed in the hotel used as a setting for Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana", so I thought I should give them both a read on the trip. "Our Man in Havana" is a fantastic novel set up with a farcical plot of 1950's espionage, which presciently foreshadows the Cuban missile crisis. As for Hemingway, having somehow gone through life up to this point without ever reading any of his work, I opted for "The Old Man and the Sea" and it absolutely absolutely blew my mind. I still can't believe that educators will insist on destroying literature for teenage boys by forcing Thomas Hardy onto the curriculum when they could be reading this. Both books are fantastic and worth reading to get a picture of a Cuba and Havana that unfortunately no longer exist.

I won't bore you with details of the trip itself, because I could rave about it at length. I'll just say that if you ever get the chance to go, you should. And if you do, you should definitely stop off in the Museo Del Chocolate.

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