In the few years that I’ve been fortunate to travel abroad, I’ve been to several countries that I’ve liked, some that I’ve really loved, and couple that I want to – and hopefully will, although right now I don’t see practically how – go back to. No other place has touched my heart like Cuba has (or like Ladakh did few years ago), so this one calls for a blog entry. And what better way to spend a four and half hour train ride to Aberystwyth (with the noisiest British kids and a bunch of Spice Girls (of Wales?)) than write about the most charming country I have travelled to, one that I have missed very fondly every single day since my return few weeks ago.
It all started couple of years ago, when we were planning our next group holiday with friends from London. Fear of risking my student status in the US, especially in light of my consistent poor track record with US Immigrations despite being a citizen of the friendly neighbour up north, kept us from planning this trip back in 2009. However, after reading a detailed email regarding things to do from our friends, Tarun and Shilpa, we were convinced we’d go there some day. It wasn’t until Hitesh consistently brought up Cuba as a potential holiday destination that I realized he’s serious about going there. So “a trip to Cuba before the country’s completely out of Fidel Castro’s hands” it was!
We flew Virgin Atlantic – the only major airline that flies direct from London – to Havana, the country’s capital. After a night in the Miramar area of Havana, we then took an early morning Air Cubana flight to Santiago de Cuba in the east of the country, and spent the next 10 days discovering the country and driving all the way back west to Havana.
Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Ignorant as this may sound, all I knew was that the US had imposed an embargo against Cuba, a Caribbean island, in the 1960s, primarily to express its opposition of Cuban human rights violation and communist policies of the government led by Fidel Castro. “So Fidel Castro is a dictator, and Cuba must be at least as unsafe as I was made to believe Russia is before I went there. What’s more, it’s still communist, unlike Russia and most of the Eastern European countries I’ve been to, so the people must be quite suppressed and it must be quite an eerie country too”. And then there was the whole Guantanamo factor. “God forbid, if anything goes wrong they will just put us in the Guantanamo Bay prison” (Very very ignorant, I know!). I don’t know where I got that from, but I do faintly remember reading somewhere that if the police stop you even for a minor driving offence they will just put you in prison and you can’t fight your way out because they don’t speak English”. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive before I landed in the country, and any mention of Cuba just conjured up images of us arguing fruitlessly with the Cuban police. Not least ‘cause we were going to be driving around the country and didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Add to that, as far as we knew, no mobile service provider with any US ties could partner with mobile networks in Cuba, so Vodafone would likely not work (and we don’t count much on O2 anyway), and use of GPS was illegal. It promised to be quite an adventure! Oh, and I knew about Cuban cigars – not so much about Cuban rum, which, by the way, was invented there (rum in general, not Cuban rum).
And an adventure it was, but as they say, little knowledge is dangerous.