"It’s the best place on earth but be warned: you may leave a piece of your heart behind."Posted on 8th Feb 2017 in The Leap, Cuba, Volunteering Abroad, My Gap-Year Tweet
Michaela tells us about her new favourite country, Cuba – the land of salsa, cigars and Cuba libres.
Touching down in Havana was like going back in time, amazing brightly coloured cars from the 50’s filling the roads with all sorts of weird and wonderful additions inside, the steering wheels are nearly as big as the car itself and one car featured Jesus on the hand break, reggae pumping out the window. Welcome to Cuba.
The streets are electric with music and dancing, if anything can get under your skin and really make you feel alive, its this place.
When Fidel Castro took over and introduced his communist ideas, it quite literally put food on people’s plates and in their bellies. Before I went there I thought that the people perhaps would be quite oppressed and trapped but generally that wasn’t the feeling I got at all. Of course they have a lot of challenges to face and a lot of things they’d like to change but education is free for everyone, everyone receives free healthcare and Cuba is home to a huge amount of highly skilled healthcare professionals. Cuban’s also still receive their monthly rations which are subsidized by the government. They take their book to their local La Libre store each month and each person receives a certain amount of rice, beans, eggs, sugar and meat for the month. Kids under 7 also have free milk.
Everyone in Cuba is paid the same wage, weather you be a doctor, lawyer, bar tender or dance teacher and its about £14 a month. From a young age these people learn to share with their friends and neighbours and Cubans still have such a community atmosphere that’s been long lost in many places across the UK. If your friend is short of something and you have it, you learn to share what you have with them, knowing that when you are short your friend will always do the same for you. This is how they live.
Some of my highlights:
Let me tell you the Cuban’s dance Salsa like no other nation on the planet. There is a saying in Cuba ‘we learn to dance before we learn how to walk’ and I believe them. As I was put through my paces during an hour long lesson which can only be described as sex with clothes on, I quickly learned as I was told many times 'the woman always follows the man, you’re not to use your brain, the man will put you where you need to go' sounds like a funny concept but funnily enough I switched off my brain and it worked.
A tour of Havana will show you how friendly and open the local people are. I was told before I came that Cuba is one of the safest places on earth and they weren’t kidding. Cuban’s are proud of who they are, they have no issues with self esteem and they have a real thirst for life. They’re quick thinkers and if there’s a solution to any ‘problemo’, a Cuban will find it.
Journeying further inland to Vinales, we were separated into different casa’s – basically a home stay where you live with a local family. My family were so lovely. They didn’t speak any English so we communicated mostly through waving hand motions, which is always fun.
We rode out cowboy style into the countryside and visited a local tobacco farm and tried some locally made honey cigars – not bad but I think if I’d smoked the whole thing it would have taken me hours. On the way back we stopped at a cave in the hills. Swimming inside a cave with only torches hung up to guide us, it was pretty special.
Back in Havana we took a tour of each of the volunteer programs that we could contribute to: boxing gyms, community centers and local sports facilities which could use our help. I met 2 time boxing Olympic gold medalist and couldn’t resist a picture! The facilities these guys have are shocking and yet they produce so many incredible athletes. We helped to provide the funds and man power to give the place a face lift and make it a safer environment for the kids, and I managed to squeeze in a couple of hours on the beach just outside the city: turquoise water and swaying palms, and of course a little Havana club in a coconut. Nice.
I feel so lucky to have had the chance to visit such a truly incredible country and to have done it in such a way that I’ve not been stuck in a fancy hotel full our honeymooning tourists. What a nightmare that would have been, I’d have missed out on so much! This is the real Cuba, raw, electric, alive, open and true.
As soon as my bank balance permits, I’m going back and if you haven’t been the only advice I can give you is to change it now, it’s the best place on earth but be warned: you may leave a piece of your heart behind.
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