The reason Cuba fast-tracked its way to the top of my priorities, bypassing much-longed-for trips to India, Peru and Mexico in one fell swoop, was embarrassingly based on hipster logic. “Get there before everyone else does!” Screamed the travel journalists, bloggers and guidebook authors. “Cuba’s about to change forever!”
With the gradual and inevitable decline of the president, Fidel Castro, there’s no escaping the fact that the country is teetering on the precipice and is headed for modernisation and – gulp – Americanisation. It’s only mere months since Beyoncé and Jay-Z rocked up on its shores for a holiday, with little Blue Ivy in tow, but already there’s a sense of urgency for people to follow in their footsteps.
Havana, most notably, is changing, with tourists wising up to the lure of casas particulares and hidden gems in the city streets. Nothing stays secret for long when it can be blogged and Instagrammed to an eager audience back home, albeit with limited internet access during the holiday itself.
My own holiday, however, is admittedly anti-hipster and way too commercial for independent Cuba. I’d already earmarked a few prospective hotels to consider booking, but then up popped Virgin Holidays with a deal including flights, transfers and seven nights at a hotel that I’d previously considered to be out of my price range: the iconic Hotel Nacional.
Yes, I could have been all fiercely individual and done everything on my own, skimping on the number of days in the country in order to save money and stick it to the man, but I knew that a seven day stretch would give me more of a chance to absorb the culture here. What’s more, I couldn’t afford to organise the trip for less myself (and no, I’m not being paid by them to say that).
What lured me to the Hotel Nacional was its crumbling beauty, but also its sniping Trip Advisor reviews from fussy customers demanding nothing but perfection – personally I love a few flaws and some signs of ageing to give a place character. I’d rather stay in a relic than a sterile and futuristic environment.
Furthermore, the incredible list of previous guests read like some brilliantly complicated joke (“Frank Sinatra, Winston Churchill, Johnny Depp, the Mafia and Mohammed Ali walk into a bar…”). Aside from trying to get the stardust to rub off on me, I’ll also be checking out the on-site nuclear bunker. That’s right, there’s a genuine nuclear bunker in the hotel. It pays to be prepared for all travel eventualities including nuclear warfare, no?
Anyway, accommodation aside, here’s what’s been on my culture radar in order to prepare for the big adventure.
What I’ve been reading:
Midnight in Havana by Peggy Blair – I raced through this book in no time at all, gripped by the multi-layered murder mystery that first-time novelist Blair has written. Whilst much of the novel focused on the harsh realities of living and surviving in Cuba, it did give me some good ideas for things to do on my trip (in between the bits about murder, which I’ll gloss over). I also realised just how little I knew about the country’s legal system and its regulations… all good to know, in case I inadvertently break the law on unauthorised internet usage or taking photos of police stations.
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene – Greene’s acid-sharp dialogue and pessimistic but wonderful characters drew me into the story. Like Blair’s book, much of this story is concerned with bureaucracy, but here it’s with a distinctive touch of humour, even when our very flawed hero’s life is in danger.
What I’ve been listening to:
Havana Affair by the Ramones – a tongue-in-cheek song by one of my favourite bands. A little context: it started life as a B-side to Blitzkrieg Bop, released as a single in 1976. The song is said to be based on the comic strip Spy vs. Spy, created by exiled Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohías.
Pepe by Ska Cubano – whilst my AS-Level Spanish is distinctly rusty, I can establish that this song is about a bloke called Pepe. There are tons of other Ska Cubano songs worth checking out; you’ll probably recognise Soy Campesino and Istanbul.
What I’ve added to my list of vocab:
- Chebi = Official state taxi. Probably needed after an evening of exploring the bars of Havana Viejo.
- Descarga = Jam session. I’d like to see a few of these during my visit.
- Me tienes hasta el último pelo = You’re driving me crazy (the literal translation is, rather sweetly, ‘you have me at the last hair’). Might be used if someone is hogging the swimming pool at the hotel.
- ¿Qué vola contigo? = What’s up? (The literal translation is ‘What flies with you?’). Hopefully I will not sound like a temba, or an over-40s person trying to be ‘down with the kids’, when saying this.
- Para de chevar! = Stop hassling! This may come in handy if I meet an over-enthusiastic street vendor. I may also use it on chuggers back in the UK.
- Radio bemba = A person who gossips (the literal translation is ‘lip radio’). Essentially, as a blogger, I feel a little bit like an authorised gossip, so this is an interesting phrase.
- Vamos a echar un pie! = Let’s dance until we drop. Or at least until I get told to stop embarrassing those around me.
- Ya eso esta liquidado = That’s done. To be used after I’ve just written up a blog post or polished off a drink.
- Yuma = Foreigner. In case my staggeringly bad Spanish doesn’t already alert locals to the fact that I’m not from round here.
Do you have any recommendations for things I should do during my trip? Have you been inspired by any Cuban literature? Leave a comment below – I’d love to hear your advice.