By Aaron Smith, Contributing Reporter
CUBA – “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita,” was Hemingway’s famous quote about his two favorite watering holes during the twenty years he lived in Havana. La Bodeguita is reputed to make the world’s best mojito and El Floridita was the cradle of the world’s first daiquiri.
Once the pearl of the Spanish crown, then squabbled over by America and Mexico, until Castro’s revolution in 1959, Cuba, the world’s sixteenth largest island, is something to behold. Spellbound by Havana, we didn’t leave town for the whole week we spent in the country. Time has stood still in Havana since the revolution. Both ‘New Havana’ with its paint peeling Art Deco architecture, Chevy Bellaire, Ford Fairlane, Buick and Cadillac collective taxis, nothing dates a day after 1959 – not to mention the crumbling, yet majestic, classic Spanish influence in old Havana.
Before the revolution, Cuba was a playground for playboys, millionaires and mafioso, where the likes of Errol Flynn, Irenee Dupont and Al Capone frequented the famous Sevilla Hotel. After Fidel’s revolution, Chinese buses transported the masses while the trusty Russian jalopy, the Lada, replaced the bourgeoisie Bellaires and Buicks as the common communist commuter.
Ironically the widely available and cheap national dish of lobster is technically illegal, presumably because of its capitalistic symbolism. With a refreshing absence of advertising, the street billboards instead sloganeered socialist values, such as ‘Revolution forever’, ‘We will never fail our youth’ and ‘Murderer’ framing a picture of Hitler alongside Bush Senior.
Cuba’s culture is rich and thriving. There’s music everywhere, art galleries on every second street and an impressive collection of Cuban contributors in the Museum of Modern Art. We enjoyed a breathtaking rendition of Cinderella by the Cuban Ballet in the Grand Theatre, and a night of Cuban Salsa with one of the last surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club.
OK, so it was Vivi, herself once a ballerina, who dragged me to the high art Havana had to offer. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but I would’ve been just as happy drinking mojitos in Hemingway’s haunts and smoking my way through a box of normally prohibitively expensive Cohiba cigars.
Not only one of communism’s, but also smokers’ last stands, Cuba is a big social experiment. Despite tobacco smoke perpetually scenting the air and everyone everywhere of all ages happily puffing away, many Cubanos live to a ripe old age.
Maybe it’s the free healthcare and education, or low crime rate, or absence of drug problems and favelas. Or maybe it’s just the slow pace of life, free from the treadmill of the capitalist rat race. However as the family we stayed with explained, there’s a downside. No Cuban can ever own a house, or leave the country – they aren’t even allowed to stay in a hotel or have an email address. But Cubans are ambivalent about things, happy in one sense and wistful in the next.
As our 70s Cubana Air, Russian-made plane left the tarmac, creaking, groaning and bellowing smoke into the cabin from under the floor, I wondered if history really would absolve Castro and his bloody revolution of half a century ago – as he’s been quoted to have said. Only time will tell.
Senhor and Senhora Smith are from different worlds; he, Aaron Smith, an Australian travel writer, still idolizes his childhood idol, Indiana Jones, and she, Viviane Silva, is a sassy Carioca ‘Sex in the City’ girl. They have decided to embark upon a trans-continental four-month honeymoon BEFORE they get married, from Bogota to New York, the Far East and Australia by bus, boat and donkey. Follow them along the Gringo Trail – it’s an epic Clash of the Titans journey to (hopefully) marital bliss at the end of the road.