Cuba: A step back in time

Photo by Thibault Dambrine

Photo by Thibault Dambrine

THIBAULT DAMBRINE -- Special to Canoe Travel

, Last Updated: 4:20 PM ET

We were in Cuba from November 29 to December 13, 2004 and stayed in an all-inclusive resort on the Varadero Peninsula.

The weather was wonderfully warm and the soft, sandy beach gave into a beautiful, blue ocean. On the beach, we had a view of a small island, Cayo Piedra, which was home only to a lighthouse. This was the base from which we radiated on several tours inland.

Our first trip inland was to the port of Trinidad, a picturesque port on the South side of the island. This little fishing village gave us the impression of going back in time. The narrow streets were paved with stones and the houses painted in bright pastel colours.

On our way, we drove through Santa Clara where Ernesto (Che) Guevara is buried in a crypt next to a huge monument in his honour. His picture is all over the island. Like a Cuban version of Elvis, so omnipresent is his portrait that it nearly seems he is still alive, looking over every Cuban's shoulder.

On the road to Trinidad, we also noticed that all the children wore uniforms. Schooling is compulsory in Cuba and the entire country has standardized education -- a point of pride for Cubans in general.

With time, we figured out that education is one of the great successes of the Cuban revolution. However, it wasn't always put to good use.

Our chamber-maid for example, boasted two university degrees. She was better off cleaning rooms in the resort than doing some engineering job because of the foreign currency tips. One of our tour-guides was a former university professor, also making more money catering to the tourists.

Our other noteworthy tour was also our best; we went to the capital city, Havana. From what we could observe, this must have been a prosperous city before the communist revolution.

It is full of history and one can only imagine how vibrant and alive it must have been at some point. Havana -- and a good portion of the country -- appears to be frozen in time, like a living museum.

It has a wide variety of palaces and grand houses with arches and columns, sculptures and embellishments. Most of the grander palaces were either re-developed as hotels and museums or they were sub-divided for several families, most of which usually fell into disrepair.

In Cuba, you can buy land from the State to build a house, but you cannot resell it once it is built.

One of the good surprises in Cuba was the low crime rate. We walked with hungry eyes in a number of cities and felt safe everywhere.

Cars are expensive for locals. Some of the more noticeable markers of the time-gone-by are the old American cars that still circulate, sometimes even without a windshield. We came across historic Edsels, De Sotos and Packards -- strange bedfellows for the Moscovichs and Ladas assembled in what was once deemed "the Evil Empire" by Ronald Reagan.

One of our tour guides told us he did not have a vehicle, preferring to spend his money on education. "Education?" I asked. "Yes," he said, "Education, as in extra tutoring, since the base education only gave the base, and the better educated people could do more."

He described the education system in Cuba as "even, even uneven," much like all the other systems in the country.

All over Cuba, slogans reminiscent of George Orwell's novels cover public buildings, bridges and overpasses, and remind The People: "victory in the revolution;" "nation or death;" or "your example still leads us, Che Guevara." Pictures of revolutionary chiefs Che, Fidel Castro and Camillio Cienfuegos are omnipresent.

As time went by, conversations and our tours gave us more insight into Cuba's unique way of being. For example, we learned that the State recently turned the entire country into a giant intranet. This means that the internet traffic originating in Cuba is now literally fenced in. Ordinary Cubans can no longer surf sites outside the country.

Cuba is mostly a rural country. Approximately 50 per cent of sugar cane harvested in Cuba is now cut by hand, as the machinery supply dried up with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

People in Cuba are only allowed three rations of beef a year. Cows in Cuba are State property. As such, each cow is registered like a regular person and killing one for profit is a crime against the State which carries a ten-year prison penalty.

Our resort in many ways was a place of contradictions. Well-educated people serviced our basic needs. Cubans were obviously proud to survive despite the American embargo which they clearly resent, but our rooms were all connected to CNN and HBO satellite signals.

At night, the dancers made their best impressions of Charlie Chaplin, Beauty and the Beast and other American classics. In the hotel, we could smell wafts of Cohibas and MonteCristos in the lobby, but we did not meet or see a single local smoking cigars in all our travels.

We had a great time in Cuba. Beyond Varadero's wonderful beaches and inviting seaside, we met candid, gracious and honest people.

Cuba seems stuck in a time warp, but its peoples' determination to keep a collective brave face was endearing.