I’m sitting in a taxi. Loud music is coming out of the soundsystem. I stare at the women with their almost non-existent clothes dancing in the videos on the flatscreens. There is three flatscreens. Three flatscreens, in the taxi that takes me from the Cuban Mallorca and my 5-star-hatred-world to the real Cuba. Before I ordered a taxi at the reception of my 5-star-hotel. My initial plan of taking the workers’ bus, has been rejected with a pathetic smile from the receptionist and the barkeeper. I could see the ‘why?’ in their faces. Why does a little German girl with curly brown hair want to take the workers’ bus?
Well, I guess I know their reasoning. Tourists, who arrive in Cayo Coco often simply move between pool and beach bar. Doing so, the only properly Cuban experience they gain is the Havanna Club in their Mojito glasses. I want to escape this world. I want to see how the people here live. How they dance and how they escape their limited world through salsa rhythms. This is what I want to see and this is why I leave this staged 5-star-mojito-world behind me.
“Workers’ bus” sounds like a bus that takes people to a training camp. It sounds like just a different word for a chicken bus, or a livestock. With the only difference that we are not talking about animals here, but about human beings. About Cubans, that daily lose themselves in the Mallorca world in their own home country. The workers’ bus (I just hate this word) takes employees daily from their villages into a world, which is completely unaccustomed to the life they are used to. Still, this world represents the sole source of financial income for the majority of them. At five o’clock in the morning hotel employees are taken home, after a long shift at work. The new once arrive at the same time. Another round of chicken busses arrives at 7pm.
For me, there was no other choice. A brown-haired, freckled German with a massive backpack cannot just hide in a bus full of Cubans. If the police caught me, the bus driver would have lost his licence. Within seconds he would lose the only equity he has. I do not want to risk that. I do not want to ruin a life, simply out of my own curiousity.
And here I am. In a taxi. Goose pimples on my skin. The aircon distributes cold air. Too cold. I could not feel anything from the 40 degrees outside. My stomach ached, my head felt like a car just rolled over it. All inclusive? No, that is nothing I would prioritise on one of my next trips again.
I listen to Cuban pop music, stare at the women and their dance moves. How will this work? 14 days of backpacking through Cuba. It is my first time in Central America. It is my first time in the Caribbean. It is my first time in a socialist country. It is my first time in a country, where Spanish is much more helpful than my German, English or, even better, my rusty French skills. On top, my Salsa skills remind of a robot dancing to the sounds of Prodigy but not of a salsa queen. I am excited and look at the taxi driver and the Cuban flag that is moving to the beats of the music, as it hangs down the front mirror. We leave Cayo Coco’s staged authenticity behind us and enter the, in my eyes, real Cuba.
A Cuba, where the peoples’ skin colours are as varied as the walls on the houses. A Cuba, where, despite financial scarcity, the joy of life prevails. A Cuba, from which I can and will learn a lot.
My Lonely Planet guide takes me to my first accommodation, which neither has a pool nor a 24-hour-bar. It takes me to my first Casa Particulares in Ciego de Avila. The house is located at a corner leading to the one and only main road in the “city”. It is pink and beautiful. My casa Mama greets me with a big and loving hug. We never met before. She takes me to my room and proudly introduces me to her castle. She shows me the TV, the aircon and the fan with a big grin on her face. There is also hot water. Things I do not need. But things, that are highly valuable to a lot of Cubans as the majority of them cannot afford a slightest bit of them. She hands me over my keys and, well, here I am. Sitting on my bed, keys and the Lonely Planet in my hand. And now? I am on my own and do not have a clue about where to go, what to do, how to communicate. I grab my stuff and go. Despite my fairly normal clothes I am surrounded by whistles, shouts and hear the name “Linda” all over the place. A nice compliment, I thought, in the very beginning. Still, an hour later I am highly annoyed by the attention I receive from every single corner of the city and it puts me into a position, I do not want to be in. A position where I find respect and a little bit of fear right next to my normal high level of curiosity.
Cuban cities have one thing in common: they all have a central plaza, where their daily life takes place and this is where I want to go. The alleys of Ciego de Avila are not the most beautiful once I have ever seen, but they fascinate me. Most windows are open, giving me the opportunity of taking a glance into Cuban families’ private life. Some families sit in front of their TV, children are playing in the living room. On another corner I notice a large queue of people standing in line for something I cannot see. Once I get closer I recognise a large pork lying in the window, whose pieces are distributed, piece after piece, to the local population. I feel like I am not welcome here and continue my walk through the alleys of Ciego de Avila until I hear some English calls behind me. A rare thing happening in Ciego de Avila, as you hardly hear any other language than Spanish in the city. As I turn around I see a horse carriage with four men on it. One of them, dressed in a skinny, actually far too skinny, shirt, shouts at me. „Ey girl! What ya doin?!“ Hardly can I ignore his apparent American accent and, still, this is what makes me curious. I tell him that I am walking towards the central plaza. “Ur on ya own? Why don’t ya come and join us?” He turns around, his Cuban friends laugh and I take the next alley to the left and disappear, shaking my head. Asshole.
I can hear salsa sounds already and smile as I realise that I finally get closer to the central plaza. I see a market, poster and little stalls everywhere I look. Quickly I try to get in touch with the locals and ask a stall owner about what is happening today. “Nothing particular, chica. We were just in the mood to dance and to party”. I arrived. I arrived at the real Cuba. Suddenly my first and truly happy smile disappears as I hear a familiar accent right next to me. Skinny shirt is back. So, apparently the skinny shirt cowboy followed me. Double asshole. Still, I try to look as interested as I possibly can and listen to the bullshit coming out of his mouth. He tells me that he is Cuban, but that he lives in Florida right now and that, from time to time, he just wants to visit his family in Ciego de Avila. I do not believe him a single word. I also reject his not so charming offer to go and have lunch with him. I put on my sunglasses, turn around and disappear in the crowd as I follow the salsa music.
Right in the middle of one of the main shopping alleys I notice couples dancing. All of them are in their young 60s, 70s, maybe even older. They dance and laugh. One after the other of the enthusiastic and ambitious Cubans with their hats ask the shy ladies sitting around the dance floor and offer them a dance. After seconds of thinking the ladies, a shy smile on their faces, enter the dancefloor, which is a simple part of the shopping street. I get goose pimples. Cuban seniors dance to salsa music. Something, I always wanted to learn but never was able to. I have to sit down and watch the event, as, suddenly, I get an offer as well. Obviously, a white girl with a camera does not remain unseen. George is interested in me and tries to talk to me. George resembles the Cuban I always imagined. He wears a white suit, salsa shoes and a white hat, his face is covered in wrinkles from the sunlight and he has a cigar in his mouth, probably in his late 70s. “Hola chica, que tal?”, he asks. “Muy bien, y tu?”, I answer and this is also the only thing I can potentially say in Spanish. George does talk bits of French too, but it is not enough to have a proper conversation. Still, I am learning a lot from him already. He asks whether we Germans dance as well. Whether we are happy in Germany and why I am in Cuba, alone as a girl. No, we do not dance like Cubans in Germany. And no, we are only happy once we have a million Euros on our bank account. And why I am here? Because of people like you, George. I look at him, as he drags his dancing partner to the dancefloor and shakes his hips enthusiastically. When I am 70, I want to dance in the streets of Ciego de Avila. Just like George.
I’m on my own for a short period of time, when another man starts talking to me. It is a proper challenge to stay on your own once you walk around the alleys of Cuban cities. John starts talking to me. He must be in the same age like George. His English is really good, which, after my skinny shirt experience, gives me some doubts. Still, John is neither American nor does he have a hidden fetish for too skinny skinny shirts. He simply wants to talk to me to practice his English. “You know, I did learn English early because I always wanted to talk to the tourists that came to my country. But now, there are only few tourists that come to Ciego de Avila and every time I see a white person, I immediately start talking to him or her”, John says. We walk around the alleys together and get some drinks. He wants to know every single detail of my life. What am I doing, what do I study, am I married, how many kids do I have? I am sure that I kept on disappointing him one question after the other. We sit down on one of the benches at the central plaza. In the shade, of course, as Cubans do not like the sun too much. I ask him how he feels in Cuba. “You know, we do not have an easy life here in Cuba, but look around. The people here do not like to be stressed. We sit down and enjoy life. There is a lot f things here that are wrong, and that do not happen in the right way. Do you understand?” No, I do not understand. There is no such thing in my German head. In my head there is either things that go wrong or things that go right and if things go wrong, I correct them. We just sit there, next to each other, thinking about things. Me and the, probably, 75 year old Cuban. John stops the silence, he has to leave. “But Anne, I see, that you do try hard to understand us Cubans, I appreciate that”. I am sorry, but I am far away from understanding Cubans and thanks to my good faith, I am not using naivity here on purpose, I meet the exact same people, just like John, all around the world. “Anne,”, he asks in a shy tone, “do you maybe have a dollar for me?”. If John is a good or bad person, if he just used me or not, I do not know and I will never find out. But, I do not care at all. He taught me something valuable. Something about life and this is all I need.
I give him the dollar and he disappears in the alleys of Ciego de Avila.