As Sunday was my first full day off with nothing horticultural planned at all I took a trip into Havana with Marisol and her son Roberto. We left INIFAT about half nine and picked up one of the many taxis that runs between Santiago and Havana – a journey of about 20km. These taxis are totally different to what we’re used to here in the UK. Firstly, most of them are glorious classic cars that inventive and ingenious Cubans have kept on the road. Secondly they operate almost like mini buses with strangers sharing the journey and jumping in and out along the route when the get close to where they need to go. The cost of the journey to Havana was 20NP per person working out about 50p. If you made the same journey on the very crowed, hot, slow bus it would only cost you 1NP (2.5p!) showing why this kind of taxi journey is still a luxury for the average Cuban who earns around 1360NP per month. It is certainly the busy busy buses that most Santiago commuters are using to get to work.
The drive into Havana took about half an hour and when we arrived we were dropped right in the centre outside the Capitolio Nacional that is at the heart of the city. It was built as a result of money earned from sugar by Cuba’s US-backed dictator Gerardo Machado between 1926 and 1930 and still remains one of the grandest buildings in the city. It cost around US$17 million to build and was made in similar style to the American Capitol Building in Washington DC. Originally the home of the Cuban Congress, it became the home of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology in 1959, and still reamins their home today. From there we walked down into Havana Vieja which is the beautifully, if a little clinically, restored historical heart of the city.
This part of the city is one the best-preserved Spanish colonial centres in the Caribbean and Americas and is jam packed with over 900 buildings of historical importance in an astonishing variety of different architectural styles. Full of cobbled streets, shaded alleyways, 16th Century buildings and leafy courtyards, the whole area was left virtually untouched from the 1960s to the 1990s. This meant that although it fell into serious disrepair and decay it also retained its historical integrity intact. We began our exploration of the area by heading down Calle Obispo that is one of the main ways of getting through the neighbourhood, and that was already packed with lots and lots of tourists by the time we got there. From there we headed to the Camera Obscura on the corner of Plaza Vieja that is one of the oldest and most beautiful squares in Havana. This was Marisol’s idea and it was a very good one because the camera and its tower gave amazing views and an excellent introduction to the geography of this part of the city.
View of the city from the Camera Obscura
After this we carried on walking, passing through the gorgeous Plaza de Armas where we sat a bit to admire the architecture, before carrying on through Havana Vieja to Centro Havana. This is a part of the city that many visitors ignore but it certainly gives a more realistic, less sterile view of what life is like for Cubans who live in Havana. It’s a much more residential neighbourhood than Havana Vieja and much less beautiful in many ways, but it’s got amazing energy and is the place you’re more likely to see children playing in the streets and people out on their doorstep chatting to their neighbours. Here we found a basic NP cafeteria to eat lunch. And where Roberto discovered much to his amusement that in me he had met his first vegetarian – a great rarity in Cuba so it seems! It was whilst we were eating this meal that the enquiries and questions started- something I was learning quickly was that as soon as Cubans feel relaxed with you and comfortable they also feel happy to start asking questions. Today it was Roberto’s turn…
“What is the average salary in the UK?... How do taxes work?... How much tax do you pay?... How much does a house cost?”
The questions are never rude or pushy, normally just genuinely curious. And sometimes with a melancholy undertone that life would have so many more possibilities if they lived somewhere else. As Roberto interrogated me I was happy to answer his questions because I have nothing to hide and no embarrassment about my country, but also because I felt it was important to reinforce my own belief that every country and every way of life had positive and negative aspects that have to be taken into consideration. Nothing is ever as simple as black and white. For example, of course it is true that Cubans earn a very low wage compared to people in the UK, but they do also have access to some of the best health care in the world. Cubans also have fluctuating access to basic things like electricity, and access to many consumer goods is limited and expensive, but their education system is top class with an adult literacy rate on the island of 100% - impressive by anyone’s standards. Of course, Cuba is the only place that Roberto has any experience of so it is hard for him to make an informed decision about whether the way of life there is the one that he wants to live. And this lack of information seemed to make this bright young man who wanted his own independence feel that he was being hindered making the decisions about his own life that he wanted to make.
Glimpse into Centro Havana
So that’s another part of the Cuban dilemma, a highly educated knowledgeable population who are hungry to know more but who aren’t able to due to lack of access to information. Almost the polar opposite to many situations in the UK where people have the knowledge of the world at their fingertips, a great privilege, but they decide to turn their back upon it. And the reason for doing this seems to be almost as though their capacity to act and react has been almost entirely deadened by the world that they live in.
As José had said the day before;
“Cuba – a country of contradictions.”
And here was another one for me to try and get my head around. Only a couple of days in and I could already see that my trip to Cuba was going to give me a lot of food for thought, and this was before my learning proper had even started at the Ministry. I couldn’t even imagine what that may hold when I started properly the following day.
PS For those of you who tune into this blog to learn more about organic growing and who have been bored to death learning about Cuba instead I promise that the next installment of the Cuban adventure will really start to get to the bottom of how they grow food in their cities. I promise it'll be worth the wait!