Colour, camaraderie and celebrations call upon you in Cuba, as our Journey of A Thousand Miles couple on wheels discover along the way on their adventurous global tour.
After 13 months’ of their motorcycle tour across Canada, the US and Mexico, the self-funded team “Journey of a 100,000 Thousand Smiles” couple Alex Wong and Allyson Yik finally decided to visit Cuba – a country frozen in time and coloured by camaraderie.
“The option available to us was either we tour Cuba on our motorcycle or without it. In the end, we chose to go without the motorcycle as the cost to transport our motorcycle to Cuba was too expensive and time restrictive,” shares Wong.
“Flying in from Aeropuerto Internacional de Cancun, Cancun in Mexico, we landed at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba on what comprised a short flight of just one hour and 10 minutes. As Malaysians, we do not need a Visa to travel to Cuba and are allowed to remain in Cuba’s territory for up to three months,” he recalls of this “Moment In Time” journey of the couple’s record 100,000 Smiles expedition that took place in Havana from August 2 – 14, 2014.
In Cuba, tourists use a close currency called the Cuban Convertible Currency or CUC which can only be exchanged at the airport and at the local banks in Havana city. The exchange rate then was at USD1 to CUC0.90 and this currency is used in exchange for luxury items. The locals use Cuban Pecos and the exchange rate for Cuban Pecos is 25 to CUC 1.00.
A friend of the couple who hail from Cancun in Mexico had arranged for the couple to stay at a local guesthouse in the heart of old Havana so in order that they may enjoy a Cuban experience. Upon arrival, they were picked up at the airport by a taxi which took them directly to the guesthouse.
“We got on very well with Raini who is the owner of the two-room guesthouse. Raini knows only a little English and whole we have a limited smattering of Spanish but we managed to communicate and luckily, his house keeper Yeneley and her husband Eric both speak fairly good English,”relates Wong further.
Checking in at Raini house the same day as us was Oscar, our co-tenant. Oscar who hails from Canada was in Havana visiting his friend, Gloria. Oscar has an interesting heritage as a first generation Canadian who also has an interesting heritage – hailing from British Guyana with his forefathers coming from India.
Wong learnt that their housekeeper – Yenely, receives a monthly salary of USD15 (RM62.10) from Raini as the payment for her salary which is supplemented by the Cuban government’s monthly ration.
“All Cubans are given a monthly ration of rice, cooking oil, meat, sugar, salt and a kilo of meat. The ration is just above enough and for more, Cubans have to take up a second job, which is also scarce,” he adds.
Hence, dining out is considered a rare treat and privilege for the majority of Cubans, with Gloria being no exception, even though she works as a senior officer at the Ministry of Information in Cuba. In fact, she shared with us that in all her 50 years, she had only seen the outside of a Chinese restaurant and always wondered what lies behind the closed doors. She finally could see what is inside a Chinese restaurant and taste a Chinese meal when Oscar treated her to lunch to celebrated her birthday at a Chinese restaurant in Barrio Chino (Chinatown).
“After the lunch celebration which we also joined in, we headed over to Raini’s house. Everyone got on very well and we celebrated with our new friends over dinner with Oscar cooking Canadian curry chicken for dinner while we cooked Malaysiannasi lemak. Not to be outdone, Raini whipped up some Cuban Boriche dishes which is a meal usually prepared during Christmas. This was a wonderful meal comprising pot roast with white rice, black beans, avocados and cucumbers,” continues Wong. Rumba, The Rumbling Music Pulsating In Havana [rml_read_more]
The streets of Havana are filled with Rumba strains. This secular genre of Cuban music originating from the northern regions of Cuba, and mainly in urban Habana and Matanzas during the late 19th century involves dance, percussion and song.
Our biker couple managed to immerse themselves in the beautiful music at a concert performance specially for visiting Africans artist and watch the colourful dancers in action moving to the beat of the music live. “Music is in all Cuban souls and everyone move and dance dances as soon as once the beat the music fills the air,” as the saying goes .
Interestingly too, Cuba which was once the biggest exporter of sugar in the world because of the shortage of labour due to the ending of slave trade of labor from Africa attracted many Chinese coming from China and the US to fill up the shortage of labour.
In fact, Havana has one of the biggest El Barrio Chino or Chinatowns in the Americas, earning the nameEl Barrio Chino or “Chinatown” which grew from its humble beginnings into 44 square blocks which at one time, constituted the largest of such a community in Latin America. Besides working in the fields, the Chinese migrant workers opened shops, restaurants and laundries as well as worked in factories. As a result, a unique fusion of Chinese-Cuban cuisine combining Caribbean and Chinese flavours emerged while variants of community organisations and social clubs also sprung up including the Casino Chung Wah founded in 1893. Its legacy sees this community association continuing to assist the Chinese in Cuba today with education and cultural programmes as repatriation to their homeland.
In fact, Havana’s Chinatown, also known among locals as El Barrio Chinode la Habana, is one of the oldest and largest Chinatowns in Latin America. Today, Chinese Cubans comprise Cubans of either full or mixed Chinese ancestry who were born in or have migrated to Cuba – comprising part of the ethnic Chinese diaspora or overseas Chinese.
The couple were thrilled to therefore visit the unique Chinatown here – with its mix of Chinese restaurants peppering the Chinese Food Street.
Another interesting feature of this island nation according to Wong, is the fact that it is essentially a living museum of sorts for classic cars. Forming an iconic part of the culture there, the old American auto mobiles including motorcycles – provide a unique charm to the Carribbean country’s city streets.
In fact, the former are often kept running with parts and pieces that were never intended for them. And, of the cars imported since 1959, Russian-made Ladas make up the majority, most common make around with this ubiquitous small, boxy cars being seen everywhere one visits. These cars from the 1940s and 1950s today make up a significant form of transportation for the island nation while adding colour and spectacle to the usual daily whereabouts of common living.
In terms of buildings, due to the US embargo enforced since 1960, many buildings are have left in disarray. However, because many were well designed and built with high quality construction material which was the norm earlier, being used before the embargo by the US, the building structures are still strong and only need a coat of paint to bring back its glory days to remain strong and reliable.
Among the many interesting and palatial buildings they visited, the National Capitol Building – also known as El Capitolio particularly stood out. As Wong remarks, “Cuba is a colourful country filled with colourful people – and, even with the cloak of night – nightime is still colourful!”