GET READY TO EX­PLORE CUBA

Beyond Cas­tro and Che

HI Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - STORY INDRANIL CHOWDHURI —HiWeek­end@time­so­fo­man.com Indranil Chowdhuri is based in Oman and is an avid trav­eller who has com­pleted foot print­ing in more than 100 coun­tries.

If you want to see white sand beaches, Amer­i­can clas­sic cars, his­tor­i­cal sites along with some lively cul­ture you need to visit Cuba this year.

It is not ev­ery day that one plans for a va­ca­tion in Cuba. Steeped in mys­tery and shrouded in his­tory, the coun­try re­mains an enigma and sends mixed sig­nals for hol­i­day­mak­ers. Geo-po­lit­i­cal is­sues apart, if one ven­tures out­side rou­tine tourist spots, Cuba qual­i­fies as a des­ti­na­tion, amaz­ingly dif­fer­ent.

Reach­ing Cuba is sim­ple if one is not fly­ing in from main­land US. Ha­vana, their main hub for in­ter­na­tional flights, is well con­nected with ma­jor Euro­pean ci­ties and very well con­nected within the Caribbean. Once im­mi­gra­tion is cleared, and snif­fer dogs done with, one is trans­ported to a world you thought no longer ex­isted.

The first thing that strikes you are the cars. Me­tal relics of the 50s nudge past, as if they came just out of batch pro­duc­tion from Detroit. Sparklingly clean, colour­ful, re­gal retro­fit­ted cars im­ported from the US be­fore the em­bargo. Lo­cally known as coches Amer­i­canos or máquinas, they are a hit, with the tourists for go­ing around.

Trav­el­ling in them is an ex­pe­ri­ence, as the driver more of­ten than not, fills you with lo­cal sto­ries and eu­lo­gises how de­vel­oped Cuba is in the fields of medicine, box­ing, and pos­si­bly of ev­ery­thing in the world.

Ha­vana, as a city, is his­toric and myr­iad in its spec­trum. The eco­nom­i­cally back­ward quar­ters are colour­ful as well. The his­toric build­ings even though di­lap­i­dated are re­s­plen­dent in their grandeur. Span­ish colo­nial build­ings stand strong, evok­ing rem­i­nis­cence of an era by­gone. Old Ha­vana is a vi­brant mix of the old and the new. A spec­i­men of splendid baroque ar­chi­tec­ture, Cathe­dral de San Cristóbal, and the neigh­bour­hood of Ha­bana Vieja, is an eclec­tic min­gle of vari­ant ar­chi­tec­tural styles. The nightlife is abun­dant and ranges from the es­o­teric to the erotic.

Lo­cal bars belt out Span­ish num­bers on their age­ing West­ing­house ra­dios. A pop­u­lar tourist spot, Plaza Vieja hosts the La Bode­guita Del Medio, the favourite wa­ter­ing hole of Ernest Hem­ming­way for drown­ing his Mo­ji­tos.

Not far rests the El Floridita, cred­ited for in­vent­ing the Daiquiri, where one can or­der a Papa Hem­ming­way Daiquiri and raise a toast to his statue.

Take out a cou­ple of days or slightly more for Ha­vana. Waltz through its lively squares, and en­rich your­self by try­ing to blend in with the literati. Visit the amaz­ing mu­se­ums for a slice of his­tory, speak to the pop­u­lace about

the revolutionaries, chat up the se­nior cit­i­zens for the his­tory of the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors, and soak up the city strolling along the Male­con, the pic­turesque seafac­ing prom­e­nade.

From vis­it­ing their bev­er­age dis­tillery, through tak­ing tours of the pre­mium cigar fac­to­ries, try­ing out the sen­su­al­ity of the salsa to vis­it­ing the art dé­cor neigh­bour­hoods for a slice of Afro-Cuban cul­ture, there is no dearth of ac­tiv­i­ties. More­over, one is never alone. Gi­ant mu­rals, bill­boards, mo­saics, and other artis­tic por­tray­als of Fidel and Che give com­pany, to all across the Ha­vana.

How­ever, it is not the city alone that draws the vis­i­tors. The beaches in Cuba are a big draw for all vis­i­tors. Strewn all over the is­land, they pro­vide for a lot of in­ward tourism and their rev­enue in gen­eral. The beaches of Va­radero and Cayo Coco are well known, and tourists come in for an ideal re­treat with an agenda of do­ing noth­ing.

Cuban beaches may not come with the bells and whis­tles that the ones in Caribbean usu­ally come with, nor are they hyper mar­keted like Can­cun in the Yu­catan, but they have their own un­de­ni­able charm and the co­ral reefs are fas­ci­nat­ing. Choose your beach. Lose your­self in it. The world can wait.

But what is Cuba without a dis­course on Fidel and Che? If you are in Cuba, can Che be far be­hind? The me­mo­rial of Che stands at Santa Clara, a small town about a 3-hour drive from Ha­vana. With an early start, an ex­cel­lent day trip can be de­signed, with an early re­turn.

A colos­sal 22-foot bronze statue of Che with his gun stands guard. On the pedestal is etched his motto. Hasta La Vic­to­ria Siem­pre. (Un­til the Eter­nal Vic­tory). The me­mo­rial was built to en­tomb the ex­humed re­mains of Che and his com­rades who were killed in Bo­livia. An eter­nal flame was lighted by Fidel Cas­tro in his mem­ory. The me­mo­rial also houses a small mu­seum, where many arte­facts con­nected with Che are on dis­play.

Cam­eras are al­lowed in­side, and one needs to just walk around the ex­hibits, and vi­su­alise his life and won­der at the mar­vel of an in­di­vid­ual, who sin­gle­hand­edly in­flu­enced the world at large.

Through a small sou­venir shop, one ex­its the mu­seum, and herein the irony shouts out loud and clear. Not much of his books are sold. Not much of his doc­trines, which are printed in easy to read book­lets gets picked up. But what gets sold are ac­ces­sories with his pic­ture printed. Not only in this small shop, but all over Cuba. T-shirts, lighters, cof­fee cups, mo­bile cases, you name it, they can fish it out.

Ir­re­spec­tive of his ide­ol­ogy, the aura of Che has mi­grated to a best­seller sou­venir ma­te­rial, and so shall he stay there, pos­si­bly till the end of time. A hol­i­day in Cuba, even if it is a week­long, is un­mis­tak­ably unique and ab­so­lutely ful­fill­ing.

It is a fact that Cuba is not ge­o­graph­i­cally close to Oman. Even though on the same lat­i­tude, but about eight lon­gi­tudes apart. Travel does take some time.

The eas­i­est way con­nec­tion from Mus­cat is with Turk­ish Air­lines. It is an overnight, 6 hours to flight to Istanbul, and pas­sen­gers are hosted for an en­tire day with free food and ac­com­mo­da­tion, with an Istanbul day tour thrown in as well.

Next day pre dawn Turk­ish Air­lines flies them di­rect to Ha­vana, which is a 13-hour flight. Swiss Air does a Mus­cat Ha­vana trip as well, di­rect through Lon­don, with an over­all fly­ing time of 27 hours. The ad­van­tage with Turk­ish Air­lines is even if a day is wasted, a free Istanbul tour is the saviour. How­ever, what­ever be the dis­tance, a trip to Cuba would be worth a life­time for the mem­o­ries.

Ha­vana as a city is his­toric and myr­iad in its spec­trum. The eco­nom­i­cally back­ward quar­ters are colour­ful as well. The his­toric build­ings even though di­lap­i­dated, are re­s­plen­dent in their grandeur. Span­ish colo­nial build­ings stand strong, evok­ing rem­i­nis­cence of an era by­gone.

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