Suzanne Al Houby, Founder and CEO & the First Arab Woman to Summit Everest takes us into a detailed journey on why she fell in love with Cuba!
Cuba had been a bucket list destination for years. Despite my frequent travels to the nearby American continent, this island country, perched in the corner of the Caribbean, kept eluding me until last February, when I finally landed in Havana, fulfilling my dream.
There is an ongoing whisper that the ideal time to explore Cuba has already passed, as the country is changing fast and gradually loses its authenticity. So, I was worried I was too late to get a genuine taste of the local culture. However, I soon realized that the contrasts between the old and the new – a combination of visible and indiscernible details that define the dawning era – have a charm of their own. Having the opportunity to witness the unfolding of the inevitable change is a gift in itself, a memory to be respected and deeply appreciated. Besides, the Cuban identity and culture are so vibrant and captivating that there is no doubt they will keep enchanting all visitors for the years to come.
I loved everything about this island, even those details that I would never have chosen but, there, they became an integral part of an authentic experience. When I reminisce my Cuban adventure, I think only of colors, sensuality, joy, resilience, resourcefulness, defiance, pride, vividness, and tenderness – a blend that defines the locals, and composes priceless memories out of scraps.
The landscape is undeniably exotic, with the green fields stretching leisurely and the Caribbean Sea shimmering at the background in various shades of blue. However, the natural beauty comes in contrast to the everyday limitations a traveler has to face, even on simple things like meal options, snacks, or toiletries. I found the plantains delicious, but the local cuisine plain due to the scarcity of ingredients. The wafting aroma of the cigars was sensational even for a non-smoker like me; yet, the local coffee was too sweet, and, given the lack of alternatives, I felt deprived for a few days of a necessary morning ritual. All challenges, though, are soon forgotten as one gets bewitched by music and colors and immerses in the spirit of Cuba. Ultimately, what the country lacks in options due to the embargo, it compensates abundantly in essence, energy, and character.
Let me share with you the seven, most precious memories I collected: an assortment of intrinsic details that make Cuba a destination worthy of being in everyone’s bucket list.
- Defiance: a typical trait of the Cubans
It is difficult to describe to someone who has not visited Cuba the defiant quality that characterizes these beautiful islanders. Perhaps, the best example can be given through the picture of one of the most iconic landmarks in Havana: the Morro Castle (or, for the locals, el Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro), that guards the entrance to the capital’s namesake bay. Despite its protective role, the fortress is usually associated with crashing waves that bring debris to the shoreline and cause havoc and damage. The contrast between the primary function and the actual contribution somehow illustrates the rebellious nature of the Cubans and makes the photo below meaningful and substantial.
- The extraordinary identity of the Cubans
Perhaps I should have started with this point since the DNA of a place is defined by the identity of its people, and Cubans have much more to offer than what initially meets the eye. In the cities, one savors the joy of casual encounters, observing the resourcefulness of the locals, and the unparalleled creativity with which they continuously improvise to overcome the shortages, making ends meet. Instead of surrendering to the pressure, they manage to maintain their vintage cars, using scraps and pieces from who knows where, ultimately turning them, among other things, into a popular tourist attraction that can bring food on the table. Electrical appliances which, in other parts of the world would have been thrown away, remain operational, giving to all of us a lesson on sustainability. Itinerant peanut sellers dress extravagantly and sing with a stunning voice, or fortune-tellers wear their national dress so that they can attract a bit of extra revenue. Still, there is no feeling of misery, no pestering for money. Instead, there is dignity, self-respect, and joy in the work – elements that, ultimately, can inspire us all.
During my trip, and while exploring the countryside, I was fortunate enough to spend more time with the locals in an even more authentic setting. We were hiking around Cienfuegos when we met a middle-aged man working in his coffee plantation. This has been his occupation for more than 45 years, helping him to sustain his family and raise his children. He invited us to his humble, tiny, yet immaculately clean and artistic house, where he and his wife offered us food, coffee, even takeaway of the leftovers. They added in the bag banana bundles for the road, nuts to keep us energetic, and more coffee to take home. Their generosity, humbleness, gratitude and warmth were so contagious and touching that brought tears to our eyes. All the Cubans that I met were genuine, kind, proud, dignified, hardworking, humble and welcoming, turning into the most heartwarming and uplifting memory I have taken from this island.
- Abundance of colors
It sounds like an inevitable cliché, but so what: an abundance of colors is what defines Cuba to the core. The country’s urban and natural landscapes are nothing less than palettes carrying creative combinations of shades and hues, all of them destined to bestow joy on the hearts of locals and visitors alike. Colors in Cuba become tangible, they have identity and character, and they stand out – much like the proud locals – in both sunny and cloudy days.
- It’s all about the music
Cuba is almost synonymous with music. After all, it has given birth to legendary singers like Celia Cruz, Benny More and Ibrahim Ferrer. In every street, nook or corner, melodies await to embrace the passers-by, even those who are not Salsa enthusiasts, engaging them in rhythmic steps and irresistible sensations. The music, emanating from balconies, households invisible to the eye, alleys, or vendors, seeps through the skin and reaches the soul, becoming part of everyone’s daily presence. The sun is shining in the heart, even on a gloomy day, for life thrives on music.
- Inspiring pride
Political beliefs aside, the patriotism and pride that radiates from every local when recounting the history of Cuba and the contribution of its legendary leaders, Che and Castro, is heartwarming, even inspiring. Despite the massive impact of years-long embargos and blockades that resulted in suffering and shortage of goods or opportunities, all Cubans feel proud of their resilience as a nation, and the (inner) freedom they attained. Their courage and durability are the bonds that hold them together, helping them endure with patience and perseverance the challenges of each day.
- No one smokes a cigar like a Cuban
I am an avid non-smoker, and, yet, I could not but adore the way Cuban cigars have turned into a fashionable accessory for all locals, regardless of gender or age. It feels as if this rolled bundle of tobacco leaves, associated in the West with affluence and prestige, loses its illustriousness amid these colorful islanders but gains in dignity and esteem. Ultimately, cigars suit the Cubans like no other, and it is a joy to watch or become, even for a second, part of the picture.
- Joyrides in vintage cars
A drive through the streets of Havana in a shiny, classic car of the 60s is not exactly a joyride; it feels more like crossing a time gate to another dimension. Although the activity has become a tourist cliché, it preserves its authenticity, offering incredible joy, and remaining one of the top things every visitor should try while in Cuba.
Written by: Suzanne Al Houby, Founder and CEO & First Arab Woman To Summit Everest.