Fiona MacCarthy



A 2-week backpacking trip                           


Background to this journey


It was late 1997, and following the coup d’etat in Zaire, since renamed as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, my job there had been relocated to Johannesburg to assist in getting local SA merchandise up to Lubumbashi in the south east of the country. I was missing the excitement of Zaire but had not yet started looking for a new job.


A programme on the radio got me thinking. Castro will die soon and the country will never be the same. When I wrote this section in March 2009, he had handed over the reins of power to his brother but is still alive. But I went all the same and am glad I did.



Food, Alcohol and Cigars


For an island it had remarkably little seafood. Although with some thought its probably because all the fishing boats ended up in Florida. A big disappointment to the palate.


Omelettes were popular, red meat rare (the sight and not the cooking style). The markets in the various towns had remarkably little on offer. Nothing like even the poorer parts of South East Asia. Shops were also poorly stocked.


Restaurants as privately owned were being encouraged but without advertising were difficult to find and generally in converted homes. The food would be good, the menu limited in choices but gosh at least it was food and edible too. Service was also more pleasant in these places.


The state run places were different. One morning I went looking for breakfast with the Cubans in one of these state owned  places where there were no tourists. The menu and my Spanish was good enough for this part and officially the restaurant had 4 beverages, 4 small dishes and 8 main dishes. The reality differed as the only beverage was over sweetened coffee (tolerable) and the only food was a pizza base without the tomato paste spread but with a tasteless odourless cheese substance scattered. It was an experience and different but a sad reflection on the culinary opportunities.


Rum was good (verdict based on tour of rum manufacturer), many labels were available and cheap too but rum has never been to my personal taste. Beer was cold, drinkable and cheap. Like Africa keep the alcohol cheap and the natives will be unable to revolt.


Cigars were incredibly reasaonably priced at about $75-80 for a box of 25 such as Churchills or similar sized. London prices were about £14 each for the same, okay its due to tax but if you want a relatively cheap vice then the Cuban cigar is one I'd be quite happy to recommend.



Getting around Cuba.


At the start of my trip, I took an overnight train journey eastwards to Santiago de Cuba. The 12-hour journey took 18 hours in a very-very slow train of very-very old age. For the return journey I stopped off at 3 towns but the return train journey was even less reliable and ticketing a nightmare even with booking and paying and checking in. But it was an adventure in itself.


The Filipinos took the American jeep and modified it to something of an art form. Cubans took the 1950’s standard gigantic American gas-guzzler and maintain them as museum pieces. On hillsides many are kept stationery when parked by bricks against the wheels. Like African women who carefully and lovingly maintain their hair, Cuban men preserve these nice big cars. Please don’t get me wrong on this. If you like big old American cars then this IS the place. Getting in one taxi one day I put my rucksack along the back seat climbed in and there was still oodles of space on the seat.


I met a Cuban pilot in a bar one night. It was a lovely bar all in old style wood but his stories were worrying. He was a proud Cuban who was unhappy flying planes for which there were in his opinion inadequate spare parts. A few months later there was a spate of air crashes involving Cuban planes in the region. That was sad but reflective of what was happening in the country.





Is magically vibrant. Western bands like to get by with 4/5 musicians but Cuban bands, which seem to be nearly all male, are large in number of musicians with 8-10 frequently on a stage together. Musical instruments are old and carefully looked after. Evening time was never boring, never quiet but always most pleasant to the ears and the spirit.





Was a great writer and heavy drinker, who had many watering holes now advertising his former attendance. Not sure if there is some control on the use of his name. There just did not seem to be any other former celebrities of note such as painters. I got bored hearing about Hemingway.



The countryside


Underdeveloped in the extreme. Cannot say much more than that.



The towns


Spanish influence particularly the cool verandas and the use of shade but devoid of paint.



The people


Proud, happy when drunk, generally very well educated and frustrated as anything. Potential is there but severely constrained by the state.



Alternative Cuba


Many people go there on package deals to hotels where the food is flown in, the chefs are flown in and the rum is local. That’s not my style of holiday. I could not call that Cuba, more like a hotel with a beach and pool planted anywhere on the planet.



The future


Give people freedom and they will better themselves and their community. Castro may have done well to get rid of the prior corrupt regime and he himself showed no ostentatious displays of wealth when in power. But having created an independent country he then refused to allow it to grow. Its like giving birth to a child and keeping it as a child.