Cuban Scents

Monday, October 4, 2010

Cuban Scents

By Rebecca Tompkins

Cuba smells of cigar smoke and guava. The rich, earthy smell of cigars assails you when you step off the plane as portly airport officials smoke Cuba’s finest. The guava takes longer to place. Its juicy, pink flesh and tart taste accompanying almost every meal.

But Cuba also smells like history, like revolution — hardship and triumph. Its past, present and hope for the future is reflected in the booming voices and frequent laughter of its residents who remain cheerful and appear genuinely happy despite the constant restrictions of ration books, rules and regulations.

Arriving in Havana leaves even my cynical and spoiled travel mind agape. I am staying in Casco Viejo, Havana’s old town, once home to rich sugar barons and real American gangsters. The elaborate mansions built by these former residents of Havana remain. They are dilapidated and crumbling, but nonetheless majestic, echoing their former glory, like grand old dames whose jewelery has lost its gemstones and once fine clothing has become threadbare and moth-eaten.

These regal remnants of a bygone era of wealth stand guard along Casco Viejo’s many streets, but don’t let their rundown appearance fool you, the decrepit buildings and ramshackle sidewalks of Havana are alive.

Washing hangs from every balcony, a multitude of colored flags flying high above the street, and music and families pour out of every doorway. Women sit and gossip on the steps, calling out to one another and laughing heartily. Men sit playing checkers on the pavement corners, and children play baseball in the street, overcoming their lack of sporting equipment by using sticks as bats and bottle tops as balls.

Now and again the baseball players part as a ’50s-style American Dodge, Ford or Chevy rattles past. These aging automobiles are everywhere in Havana, their smooth running and excellent condition testament to the skill and ingenuity of Cuban mechanical engineering. Unable to import any car parts from the U.S., Cubans fashion their own replacement pieces out of scrap metal.

I stay in the heart of old Havana, in one of those grand old buildings, a home owned by a large Cuban extended family. These government-regulated homestays are known simply as Casas, and offer a room in the home of a Cuban family. For travelers on a budget, Casas are the cheapest way to accommodate yourself while in Cuba, but even if your budget allows you to stay in one of the many government-owned hotels or all inclusive resorts, spending a few nights in a Casa is a must. Casas mean staying in the homes of ordinary Cuban people, giving you a glimpse into their lives and allowing you to appreciate their warm and unyielding spirit.

Through my Casa experience I meet Roberto and Mariella, a smiling, effervescent couple who constantly attempt to engage in conversation with me despite my halting Spanish and who envelope me with hugs and kisses like a long lost relative when I leave. Roberto and Mariella run a popular Casa and seem to be doing fairly well for themselves. However, as I find to be the case with almost everything in Havana, the specter of the communist government hovers overhead. Casas are heavily regulated and Roberto and Mariella lose a large proportion of their earnings to government taxes.

Mariella does all the cooking, with the exception of lobster — lobster is Roberto’s domain, and he proudly tells me, his specialty. Each day he hopefully asks me if I will have the lobster for dinner and his eagerness is so endearing that eventually I give in. It’s delicious, and Roberto’s obvious pride and delight in my praise for his cooking makes the experience all the more pleasurable.

I ask Roberto if he eats lobster often?

“No. It is not possible. Only for tourists.”

The consumption of lobster and beef is government regulated. Roberto and Mariella can procure both for their Casa guests, but they are not permitted to eat it. Roberto does not seem bothered by this, and his rotund belly and twinkling eyes make me wonder if his eagerness for me to sample the lobster was somewhat motivated by his desire to eat it for himself. I suspect that under the guise of cooking it for me, his whole family can enjoy a forbidden lobster dinner.

As it is in Roberto and Mariella’s Casa, undertones of the communist regime run throughout Havana. Some are obvious: the lines of people waiting outside the bakery to have their ration cards filled, the women approaching you on the street asking for soap or lip balm and the bare-as-a-baby’s-bottom supermarket shelves. Others you have to delve a little deeper to find: the restrictions placed on television programming, internet usage and travel for Cuban citizens, and the complete absence of any form of advertising (a fact that you may not notice until you return to a capitalist country and are assaulted with advertising virtually everywhere you look).

Most Cubans are loathe to talk about the government regime or to pass any judgment on it. It is as if they fear that their comments will be overheard and reported back to a faceless higher power who will ensure that they are reprimanded.

By chance, I meet one Cuban who is willing to discuss the communist regime. Eduardo, a 30-something, gold-toothed Cuban who offers to help me back to my Casa when I become lost in Casco Viejo’s rambling streets. Eduardo is the youngest of 13 children and still lives at home along with his father, most of his siblings and many of their spouses and children. His mama, he tells me sadly, making the sign of the cross and offering a quick prayer, has recently passed. Eduardo, his tongue loosened by some fine 30-year-old Havana Club rum, also whispers furtively that he does not like the government, and that “everything is their fault.”

With this comment, the guards who previously stood firmly outside the doorway to Eduardo’s true feelings about his government seem to have gone off duty, and all of a sudden he is willing to talk. So, against the strains of jazz music coming from the piano bar next door, surrounded by cigar smoke, enclosed by the gleaming surfaces of the dark mahogany bar and just out of ear shot of the impeccably dressed old man turned out in what I’m sure is a genuine 1930’s cream suit and matching hat, Eduardo and I talk politics.

Chief amongst Eduardo’s criticisms is the government’s implementation of a dual currency — Pesos for locals and Convertibles for tourists, with one Convertible being worth approximately 20 Pesos. The reason for Eduardo’s disapproval of this system is simple: it creates a division between those who can access Convertibles and those who cannot. If one Convertible can be converted into twenty Pesos, the Cuban who can access even a small amount of Convertibles will always be much wealthier than the Cuban who cannot. Eduardo illustrates this problem through the example of his older brother, a fully qualified doctor who earns less than a taxi driver as taxi drivers can transport tourists and get paid in Convertibles. This division, in essence, seems to undermine the very ideals behind communism itself.

I ask Eduardo about the supposedly imminent death of Fidel Castro. Will Cuba change once their infamous leader is gone? Eduardo is nonplussed. Nothing will change. Raoul (Castro’s younger brother) will take over, and nothing will change. Does Eduardo like Raoul? No. Do most Cubans like Raoul? Eduardo doesn’t think so.

I meet Eduardo the following day and the guards are securely back at their posts. So I tell him how I would like to visit Trinidad. Eduardo’s eyes shine at the mention of Trinidad and he tells me of an amazingly beautiful colonial city, with cobbled streets and picturesque buildings colored faded pastel pink, yellow, blue and green.

I ask him when he visited Trinidad. “Only in my dreams,” he says wistfully.

He would love to go there but is unable to leave Havana. Another government regulation, Cubans are only allowed to leave their district for work purposes. Eduardo doesn’t have to verbalize his feelings about this government policy, the faraway look in his eyes speaks volumes.

Eduardo clearly feels that the government is holding Cuba, and its citizens, back — both literally and figuratively — and is saddened by the hardships and restrictions Cubans face as a result of government policies. However, these feelings are tempered by an obvious pride in his country, a contentment and a resigned yet not unhappy acceptance of the way things are.

Government regulations may restrict the Cuban people in many ways, but they do not prevent them from living their lives to the fullest. They are not restricted or restrained in their passions, their love of family, their baseball, their music and their fiery salsa dancing. They have a warm, buoyant and strong spirit which has carried them through much adversity, and prevails in spite, or perhaps because of, the constant intrusion of the communist regime in their lives.

Just as the magic of Havana has been enhanced by the city’s checkered past, and just as Havana has retained its charm and grandeur despite the ravages of politics and time, the people of Cuba have been shaped by their history, and by the hardships and restrictions which they face. And it has enhanced their magic and their charm. It has left them with a strength of character and a zest for life that is well suited to their exceptional and enthralling capital city.

Havana wears her heart on her sleeve. Her political situation, her music, her colorful past, her vibrant present and her uncertain future. I cannot help but be absorbed by her. But it is her dynamic inhabitants that really bring her to life.

My days in Havana pass much too quickly. I enjoy Cuba Libres and Mojitos in smoky jazz bars; I am amazed by the quick feet of the dancers in Havana’s many salsa clubs. I delve into Cuba’s fascinating history in the city’s revolutionary museums, I eat churros by a roadside stall and watch the world go by, and I simply lose myself time and time again in the magical streets of Casco Viejo. Havana, and her colorful residents, delight, confuse, fascinate, frustrate and captivate me. It proves to be a truly unique and essential travel experience.


[“Street in Centro” by Robin Thom/Flickr; “Basball Rules” by Hugo van Tilborg/Flickr; “Che, Fidel and Camilo Havana Day 2” by Steven Mileham/Flickr]

© 2021