Cuba isn’t exactly a holiday destination for a girl travelling alone. But the stories about its cigar, the old architecture in Havana town and its handsome revolutionist were too tempting for Arni Abdul Razak to resist
FAMILY and friends thought I was crazy to want to travel to Cuba alone. I don’t blame them. Hollywood movies have always depicted Latin America as a dangerous place to be; where drug lords rule the streets and guns are easier to obtain than food.
But I couldn’t ignore my desire to see Havana for myself. The images of the beautiful Caribbean sea, the famous Havana cigar, the old buildings and vintage cars and oh.. Che Guevara, the rugged revolutionist. Now how could I not want to go to Cuba?
About 25 hours of flying time from Kuala Lumpur, I arrive in Havana, home of Marxist Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The cute immigration officer smiles as he hands me back my passport, un-stamped. I want to ask why, but he obviously doesn’t speak English much. And that’s my first observation of Cuba - people smile a lot but most of them could only speak Spanish.
“Your passport isn’t stamped because it is a US-sanctioned country. They don’t want to make it difficult for you the next time you want to enter the US,” says David Toledo, my Cuban friend who has been trying to get me to come to Havana since I met him three years ago.
“Oh.. and it’s good if you can memorise this.. Ho no hablo Espanol, which means ‘I don’t speak Spanish’. You can easily pass off as a Latina (female Latin American), so it’s best to tell them that you don’t understand Spanish,” he adds.
From the airport, we look for a place to eat. “Dinner first, then straight to the club. We party a lot in Havana,” David says. I just nod. I may be tired but I definitely don’t want to be a party pooper.
We arrive at the club a little after 1am. A pajama party is going on and it’s quite a sight to see people dancing in their pajamas and chatting with friends. Another observation — Cubans are gorgeous people! Though David did say that a lot of them come from Colombia. “Yes, they are hot.. you will see more when you explore the town or stroll by the beach,” he adds.
But Cuba not only have beautiful people.. they have beautiful buildings and vintage cars too.
I could see rows of old buildings as we go for an early morning stroll in Centro Habana. Did I say that Cubans are a friendly bunch? Here, it is common for people on the benches to smile at the crowd and invite him or her to chat.
Among the crowd, I see two old men smoking big chunky cigars and grinning at me. “Click click for CUC 1,000,” says one of them. Woahhh.. US$1 for a picture of them? But how could I resist their charming smile? And so, click away I did.
“Check that out,” says Carlito Blanco, our Cuban driver. I turn to see a bright yellow Ford parked right outside the Parliament House. “Ford 1930 and it’s still running,” says Carlito proudly. Tourists can take a 30-minute ride around town in the yellow Ford for CUC10,000 (US$10).
The sights and colours of Old Habana are amazing. It’s like each building has its own character. I wish I had the time to explore each of the buildings. But apart from the restaurants and pubs, I realize that it is difficult to find shops in Havana. “Oh, advertising is not allowed here. So you’d have to know which doors to knock to get the things you need,” David says with a smile.
I don’t understand. How can people know where to get stuff? I mean, as I stroll along the rows of buildings, I can’t even spot a single pharmacy or grocery store. Not even a fashion house.. and yet, the people in Havana are stunningly dressed.
“It’s still very much a communist country. You need to know people to know how to get things. Most of the dresses come from Miami, by the way. Cubans fly in and out of Miami everyday,” David explains.
Cuba has got to be one of the most unique country I’ve ever been to. And a visit to Cuba isn’t complete if one doesn’t go to the Revolution Square. Dominated by the Jose Marti Memorial, one can also see the iron sculpture of handsome revolutionist Che Guevara.
“Okay beach time,” says David. I have already fallen in love with the view at Malecon, the waterfront boulevard, where I can sit by the sidewalk cafÈ and watch the sunset so do I actually need to go to a beach?
Carlito and David insist, and a 15-minutes drive from downtown Havana later, we arrive at Santa Maria where I stand before the most blueish-greenish ocean. The beach is definitely the nicest I’ve ever seen.
“I present you.. the Caribbean!” Carlito says. Despite the huge Sunday crowd frolicking in the waves, there’s a certain calmness that seems to sweep me off my feet. The summer July breeze brushing against my face, I close my eyes and feel blessed to be able to witness all these.
I have indeed, fallen in love with Cuba. I’m overwhelmed by it all — the beautiful people, the breathtaking view of the Caribbean, the infectious salsa music, the musky smell of the chunky cigar and the images of Che Guevara at little shops for tourists.
“Come back to Cuba okay.. you’ve not seen Guantanamo Bay yet. Now that’s another side of Cuba to explore,” says Carlito.
Yes Cuba.. I will return!