by Stephanie Illing
How History Shaped Cuba’s Design
With a 400+ year history worthy of my limited attention span, and photographic landscapes, cities and people, Cuba stunned me with the unexpected at every turn.
It must be noted that at the collapse of the Soviet Union (1989-1991), Cuba froze in time. Magnificent, hodgepodge structures line the street, painted in the most vibrant colours, albeit a little weather-worn. Cars that any collector would die for, cruise the streets. The owners-turned-mechanics fussing over their 1956 Chrysler with one removable window handle that can be used to open or close all four windows! And with the country being in lockdown for the past 50 years and access to limited resources, interior decorating that is just as bold, no space is left untouched and the rules just don’t seem to apply… my favourite is the metal garden chairs that form the basis of a lounge room setting.
Despite how unique this makes the country and therefore fascinating to a first-world country resident like me, it also hints at the fairly recent time when Cuba and its people were desperate. Food stamps, lack of communication with the outside world, no access to popular culture (television, music, movies) and a fear of the banks and loss of money, with life savings in US cash hidden under mattresses.
It’s this charm, character and rough-readiness that absolutely stupefies you. It’s like stepping back in time. Oh, and the noise. Be prepared for the noise. It hits you like a slap in the face. It. Is. Constant! Always music. Always singing. Vendors cruising the street with their little carts crying “El pan. El pan.” (that’s bread in English). And don’t forget the sound systems attached to the backs of horse and carts.
It makes me smile just to think about the beautiful chaotic nature of it all. No wonder everyone in Cuba is so happy and friendly. You won’t meet anyone that’s not happy to chat (in Spanish of course, even when you explain “No habla Español- un pocito” – which translates roughly to I have no idea what you’re saying cos I don’t speak Spanish).
But once you’ve grasped the basics, the Cubans are willing to do just about anything for you. Everyone seems to know everyone (they’re “my cousin’s brother’s uncle”) and as you’re driving along in a car made in the 1950s (repaired with whatever parts they can scavenge) expect to hear the horn blown every couple of metres as your taxi driver waves to just about everyone you pass. As we quickly found (with our lack of accommodation options due to everything being fully booked in high season), the Cubans use these communication networks to organise everything for you via their home phone line from a casa (house-stay) in Trinidad to a guided city tour by their next door neighbour.
The Lack Of Internet Spawns Ingenuity
Without an internet port in sight, Cubans have a way of making things work. Dodgy wifi is only available in public parks where the community comes together to sit on laptops and phones (but not the latest Samsung or iPhones like we have- “oh no, they’re too modern for our wifi”). And even when you mention you’re currently binge-watching the TV show, Homeland, you betcha they’ve seen it – from a friend of a friend of a friend who put it on a memory stick!
As a primary school teacher what blew me away was the system of working class. The top paying jobs include being a taxi driver, a waiter or barman. Whereas your local GP and teachers get paid only 30CUC a month (equivalent to about AUD$45 a month). No way am I stopping to work here!
A Country That Offers Everything
In saying that, I could definitely stay longer. And why wouldn’t you?! Cuba is beautiful in its uniqueness. Carribean coastlines that stretch for miles with the Malecon (long brick wall protecting you from the ocean) running beside it. Tobacco fields. Sugarcane. Lush green hills in the distance. People of every colour, religion and race in a big, beautiful mixing pot- although it’s not hard to spot the pasty Aussie tourist.
And as we leave Cuba and head back to civilization in Costa Rica all I can say is get here. I don’t care how you do it. On a tour. By yourself. For a week. A month. Just do it. Do it now before McDonald’s and other major chains infiltrate and the days of open casas where the meals are cheap and “buenisimo” (delicious) disappear.