Santiago de las Vegas is part town, part sprawling suburb 30km south of Havana, just near the airport. It’s a rambling little place with about 35,000 people living there and is the place where I was going to be based for the first two weeks of my visit to Cuba. Around the outskirts of town are blocks of flats that were built in the 60s and 70s that are about 6 storeys high with rough, dry, scrubby patches of grass in between them where dogs wander and children play. Then, as you come further into town you come across more traditional houses. Streets and streets of low level houses that are neatly laid out on a logical grid making it easy for visitors to find their way around. Houses that lead straight onto the pavement and have gated doors so the air can get inside and keep the residents cool. And so people can pull their chairs outside and sit in the shade during the hottest part of the day, as they seemed to like doing. A lot.
INIFAT is situated on a large, green site right in the middle of the place, in a location that used to be a hospital many years ago. Now it is laid out with offices and labs at the top of the site, gardens and fields all around for growing and the hotel where I was staying (in a building that was once a hunting lodge) located on the bottom of the site near the main road that brings people in and out of town.
Rather irritatingly my first full day in Cuba didn’t start as well as I had hoped it would as I hadn’t slept particularly well the night before. This was partly due to my body’s confusion at what time it was combined with the world’s loudest air con unit in my room that also meant I was horribly cold all night, and that was my one and only experience of air con in Cuba! Who’d have though it? Perishingly cold on my first night in the tropics? It certainly wasn’t what I would have anticipated anyway!
The day started early with a simple breakfast of cheese and bread in the hotel. This meal also included my first confusion around language that involved some degree of debate over what I was going to drink which resulted in me learning that Cuban for juice is “jugo” and not “zumo” as I was more familiar with. I should also point out that this was to be the first of many Cuban word confusions during my stay! I then spent the rest of my morning with the wonderful Marisol who was to be my mentor during my stay at INIFAT. Marisol is a specialist in soil and soil fertility, and she spent the next couple of hours taking me through the basic structures of urban and sub-urban agriculture in Cuba – the different types of sites, how they are managed and how they are evaluated. It was all fascinating stuff and my Spanish just about held up to it, although it made my head ache to be in such a total language immersion where not a word of English was spoken by anybody! Though a good form of immersion I think because even within that first morning I felt more confident and fluent than I had felt in all the years that I had been learning the language and pottering by in the UK.
Then after a delicious lunch of soup and salad with omelet and the obligatory Cuban beans and rice Marisol and I headed into Santiago to have a look around. And what an amazing place it is! Classic cars driving all over the place – I’d thought that was a myth laid on for tourists but it so isn’t, it’s absolutely true and those cars, as a testament to Cuban ingenuity and inventiveness are everywhere you look. There’s a real buzz about Santiago too, with people everywhere going about their business. On the streets on bikes, walking, pushing things. Political slogans carefully painted on the walls like “Fidel – we’re still with you!” as well as a couple of the typical Che portraits for good measure. But alongside this energy there is also a sense of everything being physically a little old and tired and patched together – it’s a little sad in a way. If the people weren’t so upbeat and happy and the sun didn’t shine it would certainly be a very different place. And one of the most striking things for me was that, although the place was clearly poor, you didn’t get a sense of poverty – the first real sign of what high priority Cuba as a whole places upon looking after people.
First we went up to the main street in town so that I could change some money at the CADECA – the government run bureau de change where you could change sterling to Convertible Pesos (CUCs) and where you could also change CUCs to National Pesos (NPs). NPs are generally reserved specifically for Cubans and CUCs reserved for tourists but as I would need NPs for public transport in Santiago and to pick up snacks and items from the market Marisol advised me that it was worth changing a small amount of money into them. Though not too much – NPs are used as a way of keeping the price of staple goods stable for Cubans who are paid a very low wage (on average around 20 CUCs per month which is around $20 dollars) so even 10 CUCs worth of NPs (about 240 NPs) is an enormous amount of money in local terms.
After the CADECA we headed onto the local market, passing guys selling fresh produce from barrows and bikes all the way. It was an amazing thing to see people come out of their houses to see what was on offer as people passed, demonstrating an active and constant relationship with local seasonal food that hardly exists in the UK anymore. On the market Marisol showed me all sorts of fruit and vegetables that are typical to Cuba, and many of which we had seen growing in INIFAT’s own vegetable garden earlier that day. It was also on that market that I made my first NP purchase of a beautifully fresh pineapple for 10NP (about 20p) and an equally fresh grapefruit for 5NP (about 10p) – gorgeous!
Next we took the bus the short journey to Marisol’s flat, via the CUC shop where we bought two cans of Fiesta which is a Cuban version of Coke, even going so far as to have Fiesta written in a font which is a blatant copy of the font used for Coca-Cola. I should also point out that each can cost 0.60 CUC putting it far out of the grasp of many Cubans who do not have access to CUCs, which are typically either earned through working in the tourist industry or are sent over by family members and friends living overseas. My first simple but clear lesson of how much of a challenge everyday life can be for Cubans.
Marisol lives with her son and husband at the top of a small block of flats about a kilometer away from INIFAT. To get to her flat you climb the stairs that run up the front of the building until you reach the landing at the top shared by Marisol and her neighbour, and where you are greeted by two beautiful Eames style chairs which have been set out there to make the most of the evening sun at the end of the day. I stayed there for about an hour talking to her, and her son Roberto, who is studying Maths and computers at Havana University and who is clearly extremely bright, who spoke good English and who had a great desire to learn as much as he could about England and Europe from me in the short time that I was there talking to him. As we spoke we drank cola and shared fruit we had bought on the market and it felt like my first introduction to the warmth and openness of Cubans that I would come to know well and love during my time on the island. Then, when it was time to go back to INIFAT, Marisol and her husband gave me a lift back in their old Lada that was proudly parked in front of their building and that was a real luxury item for them to own by Cuban standards, especially as they didn’t use it as a taxi or suchlike to earn a living and make it pay its keep.
And that was it- my busy, busy first day. Then I was back in my room writing up my notes and diaries and hoping that the horrible, noisy air con wouldn’t turn itself back on and keep me awake for another night. (You’ll be pleased to know it didn’t)
Other things that I wanted to remember from my first day:
- Meeting Dr Nelso Companioni – the deputy director of the Cuban National Programme for Urban Agriculture.
- Seeing the plastic apple ice bowl on the table in Marisol’s flat that is exactly the same as the one that I have back home in the UK.
- NP shops and CUC shops – the confusing dual economy.
- Harry Potter's popularity in Cuba.
- Food stalls at the end of every street – fresh food for everybody.
- Crazy taxi buses.
- Computer students with 10 days internet access per month (or 3MB data!)
- The beautiful Cuban children in their immaculate school uniforms.