Dreaming of Cuba

“I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met.”

As someone who’s struck by an incurable case of wanderlust and has a never ending travel wish list, I can relate to the words of John Green. Of all the places that my heart longs for, some it does with a particularly deep sense of hopeless romanticism. Cuba is one of those places, one that I fell in love with before I even got to know it, drawn in by its old world charms, musicality and most of all Salsa.

As an entry to the Cuban Adventures Contest, this post describes ten reasons why I should go to Cuba.

1. Salsa like a Cuban

My introduction to this joyous, carefree celebration of the human spirit took place three years ago when I stepped into a studio in Dubai for my first lesson in Cuban Salsa. Even as the other students trickled in, somewhat sporadically, Del Piero, my instructor seemed to be slipping into an unfettered state of joy as his feet danced to the rhythm. He had asked us to close our eyes and listen to the music, so we could better ‘feel’ the rhythm before we started to learn the footwork. Always eager to learn quickly, I watched him as his feet tapped, whispering to myself, “One, two, three…one, two, three”.  Then, I closed my eyes and my feet followed along to the beat.

Oh, how I wished my hips would sway as gracefully as Del Piero’s partner’s did. Over the next month, he taught us how to let go, to rid our postures of the stiffness and our minds of the dullness that results from an entire day of sitting at a desk, eyes glued to a computer screen. He taught us to feel the music and dance with pride.  At the end of every class, he would gather us around him and share with us stories of his days spent learning Salsa in Havana, how the old ladies danced on happy occasions, how the work day ended at 5p.m with a glass of fine rum, how the lives of people were fuelled by the pursuit of love and happiness in relationships rather than materialistic gains and how young lovers bonded over the flirtatious dance. We sat around him in a circle, wide eyed and lapping up these tales of a place whose culture was so different from the city life we had known. The dance, he told us, was more than just a thing people enjoyed at leisure; it was a way of life, danced in homes to celebrate birthdays and weddings and on the streets to celebrate life and the community itself.

As I learnt to let go, I looked forward to the four evenings every week that I would end my day dancing to the happy rhythms. On my way to work on the metro, I listened to the music, falling in love with the beats and the lyrics that I didn’t understand. I got better at the dance and like a child, I beamed with pride every time Del Piero acknowledged my improvement. Then, before I knew it the first level of the course was over and the next one would begin the following month. As it often does, life happened and my work load became heavier, leaving no time to do what I had begun to love and enjoy for four hours a week. But that experience had me hooked on to the music and the Cuban way of Salsa.

salsa dancers
photo credit: Gerry Balding

Since that experience, my ultimate travel wish has been to spend some time in Cuba, learning Salsa and dancing as the Cubans do, so I can experience in all its glory the sheer sense of happiness and community bonding it can bring. The most important thing on my bucket list is to ‘Salsa like a Cuban’.

2. Experience Havana

la habana
photo credit: Nick Kenrick., off to Rome/one week

The streets of Old Havana are often described as a place that are stuck in a time of their own, untouched by the effects of modern times that have stolen the essence of many a city in the world. Not Havana, they say. It remains as true to itself and its colourful history as it always has, with its undeniable energetic vibe, Art Deco structures, pastel buildings, decadent ruins plastered with revolutionary messages, vintage American cars and cigar smoking easy going locals with an interesting story to tell to the odd curious passer by looking for one.

It’s in these neighborhoods of Habana Vieja and Centro Habana that I want to lose my way, wandering around colonial edifices and crumbling structures, listening to the rhythms of street musicians and watching the people as they go about their daily business of life.

blue car
photo credit: Diego Carannante
 3. Local Immersion

Old Man
photo credit: [ Greg ]

What makes a journey or a place particularly special is its people.  I’ve come to realize that in order to truly get to know a culture, one has to find a way to connect with the locals; to listen to them reminisce about the good old days, their hopes and aspirations, share meals and make merry, sometimes be an observer and at others swap life stories. To me, the appreciation of foreign cultures that results from these exchanges is priceless.

I would love to live in homestays in the country for it is a great way to immense oneself in the culture, enjoy home-cooked meals and have more insight into the lives of the people than the average tourist.

cycle
photo credit: Fredo_photo
 4. New Culture in Santa Clara

santa clara
photo credit: lezumbalaberenjena

The university town of Santa Clara is said to be the place where new culture thrives. It would be interesting to experience the quirky and carefree vibe that is said to be unmistakable in this city that is home to alternative entertainment such as heavy metal rock festivals and Cuba’s official drag show at Club Mejunje.

5. Musical Santiago

santiago 1
photo credit: dogpong

The city of Santiago has been a nurturing ground for local literature, music, art and architecture. Deeply influenced by Afro-Caribbean heritage, Santiago has an innate sense of musicality built into its culture, unlike any found in other cities of the world.  The vibrant chaos of cars, motorbikes and people in this city could rival that of Asian cities like Ho Chi Minh or Kathmandu.

I love the idea of more music and more Salsa dancing in Santiago!

6. The Charms of Trinidad

trinidad beach
photo credit: bernachoc

I would love to explore the coastal town of Trinidad with its picture perfect backdrop of the Escambray mountains and the azure water of the Caribbean. The town played an important role in the history of Cuba and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not only is the city of interest to history buffs but it’s also popular for its strong musical culture with many bands playing Salsa music and locals dancing in the evenings close to the main plaza. Beach paradise is not too far away; the white sand beach of Playa Ancon is easily accessible from the town.

7. Snorkeling in Maria la Gorda

snorkel 1
photo credit: lombok22

snorkel 2
photo credit: lombok22

Maria la Gorda, home to 40 shipwreck sites and the largest formation of black coral is said to be not-to-miss experience for lovers of diving and snorkeling. Though I’m not a diver, I would love to snorkel here and have my mind blown by the rich marine life.

 8. Learn a Little Spanish

I love to learn new languages, having learnt a little bit of Mandarin in the past and now learning to speak Arabic. There isn’t a better way to learn a new language than in a country where it’s spoken.  I’ve always wanted to learn to speak at least a little Spanish and if given the chance, I’d take basic lessons in Cuba where I would have many chances to practice.

9. Cuban Cuisine

cuba food 1
photo credit: roboppy

Introducing my taste buds to new flavours and culinary traditions is one of the real reasons why I travel. I cannot wait into delve into local cuisine in the country, whether it’s in homestays, restaurants or on the streets.

Cuba’s colourful past has resulted in Spanish, French, African, Latin, Caribbean and Middle Eastern influences on its food. Meats are marinated in citrus juices and slow roasted.  The use of spices such as garlic, cumin, bay leaves and peppers is judicious making the flavours in some parts of the country quite fiery. Rice and beans are important constituents of many meals.

10. Enjoy the outdoors in Vinales

Valle de vinales
photo credit: lorenzoridi

Vinales is one of the most beautifully set regions in Cuba, with vast tobacco plantations, lush green fields, traditional farms, karst scenery of limestone cliffs and mountain scenery. It is also home to the largest cave network in the country. The town is ideal for exploring the great outdoors with activities such as trekking and horse-riding and taking a tobacco tour, something I’m very interested in.

Update: Thank you to everyone who voted for me and sent messages of support. I did not win but intend to make it to Cuba nonetheless!

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