Initial Impressions of Candy Cuba
Enormous cars punctuated the soft grey blanket of weather coating Havana the afternoon we arrived. Like enormous pastel marshmallows and shiny boiled sweets, they chugged alongside our aging airport taxi turning the road into a fantasy river à la Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Our Havana hostel, Casa de Ania, was like a staying with a very international family. As soon as we arrived we started drinking and the next day we explored a beach with our new gang: Nico and Mattius a sweet couple from Germany, Jenny the well to do English girl, up-for-anything Akin again from Germany, Pierre the bear from Italy and then Bronson and I. We all squeezed into a giant fifties glamour monster of a car on the way, so why not on the way back?
We dive into the ‘taxi’, seven of us in a sunkissed, sand-glittered troup. Five on the back bench – Jenny perches on the side edge with a pensive gaze out the window, I’m squeezed behind. Mattius sits in sweaty centre with Nico between his legs. When we see police, she shimmies to the floor at our feet. Akin breathes in sitting beyond Mattius, while Bronson and Pierre have scored the front bench next to our friendly driver. The R&B reggae island music croons us bouncing beach bodies as the sun sets through the car.
At night Havana lies in pools of light as if lit by orange flamed candles. But somehow the dark streets feel safe. On our first night we visited a beer house with round tables flowing into the cobbled square. Pillars of dark foamy beer rose from each table, ice in a tube at the centre of the cylindar, tap at the bottom, happy drinkers encircling each genius contraption.
Havana is very romantic to wander through. You don’t need to talk, there’s too much to wonder at, to absorb. In fact, holding hands is useful because sometimes you just stop and stare, forgetting everyone around you, transported back in time. The ornate city looks like Miss Haversham’s wedding cake, it’s incredibly beautiful in its swirling detail, but crumbling in front of your eyes.
Despite the fantastical visual overload, my favourite thing about Cuba is the people. They are the friendliest race I have ever met bar none. They welcome eye-contact and when they do catch your eye their faces explode into smiles. They will do anything to make you happier and your life easier. At our casa in Vinales, Casa Estaban y Margarita, Margarita organised a guy to come to the house to talk to us about the horse-riding excursion we went on, booked our casa in Havana, booked our table at the balcony restaurant, called the restaurant owner to pick us up for free, organised a cheap taxi back to Havana, listened to me butchering her language all with smiles on her face. She literally could not have been kinder. And that’s just one example. I love the way if a casa is full, they’ll ring their friends until they find you another equally charming casa to stay in.
But I haven’t mentioned this – you don’t stay in hotels or even hostels (Casa de Ania is a bit of an exception and rather like living in a shared apartment), you stay in people’s homes. They cook for you at night if you’d like to eat in, which I recommend. There’s plenty of avocado, rice, beans and either lobster, chicken or fish. So so good. Once you’ve found a good casa, ask them to recommend you one in the next town you visit.
And now I’m steering far away from “initial” impressions… you need to go to get your own.