Ramblers Worldwide Holidays and the Cuban guides had organised packed daily programmes. We were shown tobacco and cocoa growing, cigars being made, bird sanctuaries by boat, botanical gardens, churches, museums, waterfalls, caves, salsa clubs (Casa de la Trova’s) and had a salsa lesson, even saw a synchronised swimming display but far too many statues of heroes on horseback. We swam in the Caribbean at the Bay of Pigs and near Guantanamo in the Atlantic – after which our guides had arranged for us to be served grapefruits, coconut juice and coffee on the beach.
But the visit which made the deepest impression on me was a trip to see a widow, living alone in a shack in the jungle half an hour away from any neighbours. Her water supply came from a spring higher up and ran along halved bamboo trunks, linked together and held up by bamboo supports. We arrived at her home after a long mountain walk through muddy jungle and she lit a fire with coconut shells, made coffee, cut up grapefruits from a nearby tree and fried delicious plantain chips in coconut oil. Surprisingly she had made two seat covers, each consisting of a circle of small quilted triangles of different colours, stitched together to look like the scales of a fish. They must have taken a long time to make, yet she wanted 2 pesos (£1.40) for them. The tourist peso is 24 times the value of the local currency that the Cubans use.
It was not only hot every day, but humid – I washed some pants and socks and they were even wetter four days later. The hotels were mostly good and apart from the one in Havana, all had pools. Much of the scenery is idyllic. In the country people live in beach huts surrounded by flowering trees and bushes (bourgainvillea, hibiscus, datura and dozens more) with corrugated iron roofs, and either a hole for a window or wooden louvers. Brown skinned people sitting in rocking chairs on their verandas shouted ‘Hola’ as we passed. Beautiful chickens, and pigs the colour of dust grub in the undergrowth and mango, plantain, grapefruit, orange, pineapples, guava, coconut, coffee and bananas grow everywhere. The sun and humidity encourage rapid growth. A cucumber had wrapped itself around an electricity pole and 12 of its fruit hung down from the wires. Little children sit in the dust, playing with baby tree rats but all those who are school age are pristine in their school uniforms, the colour denoting whether they are junior or secondary.
The poverty in Baracoa was heart breaking, every shack or old building in desperate need of repair. Many had no windows or doors, the streets had huge holes and everything dusty and grindingly poor. Going to Cuba has made me grateful and profoundly thankful for my way of life and all its privileges and possession. It was a brilliant holiday and couldn’t have been better organised. We were lucky to have a highly charismatic, informative and fun Cuban guide and to be with 21 exceptionally nice, and interesting other ramblers. I’m not sure that I’ll ever go again, but wish I’d known how much all my old tennis balls, clothes and of course soap and pens would have been appreciated…..