Cuba: Hasta Siempre!

It was unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. Each place we passed had a story, memorable places where people fought for their independence, where every life was touched by leaders who made profound impact on the country and its citizens: on some for the better, but on others for the worse. From the taste of organic coffee or fresh juice each morning, to the refreshingly sharp yet syrupy taste of a mojito as the sun set, this was my first taste of Cuba.

We passed industry at every turn – from agricultural to craftsmanship. The heady, aromatic wander through the cigar factory was intriguing even for a non-smoker. The smell was intense, bitter yet sweet, watching deft fingers sorted through curled, grey-brown leaves to be rolled into swollen, fat cigars and stamped with little stickers and stacked in long cases on rough wooden work surfaces.

This wasn’t the smoky smell that lingers outside bars but a toasted, roasted smell that pleasantly surprised me. But it wasn’t just organised factories; we witnessed men in half unbuttoned shirts drying home-grown rice on the hot tarmac of the roads in an apparently accepted ritual, traffic passing along in the next lane like nothing was amiss.

But despite the charms of rural life, the impressive landscape dotted with beautiful caves and cool waterfalls, it wasn’t the countryside that stood out for me. It was Trinidad.

There was something indescribably special about Trinidad. The moment we arrived, I felt it. This perfectly preserved Spanish colonial settlement has a unique atmosphere, nothing like anywhere else on the island let alone the world. Not to mention that our arrival had been perfectly time to coincide with the last day of carnival. Even air tasted like celebration.

Right in the heart of the town, couples and families competed with each other on horseback, galloping right through the centre of the town. Through cobbled streets, past pastel painted houses with brightly coloured shutters and alongside the stylish old American cars, they raced onwards at full tilt. It felt as if the clock had stopped ticking many decades ago and I was taken back in time to experience it all.

The crowds were dressed in their national outfits, their big hats seemingly wider than the narrow streets where they congregated. Everyone was jolly, and welcoming. People had thrown open their doors so you could peek in, if you wished to, and everywhere the Spanish influence was strong.

Music seemed to come from every corner, and as day started to become night, we piled into a classic American car taxi and bumped along the cobbled streets to a private restaurant, where we ate in the basement of one Cuban lady’s house. She brought out plates piled high with delicious food, but it was being welcomed into her home which made everyone feel really special and privileged.

As we left with full stomachs, even more people emerged from their homes to take part in the parade, to dance salsa and sing along to songs like Carlos Puebla’s ‘Hasta Siempre’. Everywhere we turned we were being invited to join in and sample the happy moments with the locals. I didn’t feel like a traveller any more, I felt like a girl at the best party in the world.

By Exodus' Ella Meleka

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