Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


Revolutionary zeal


Havana from the “other” side of the harbour. 


Old Spanish fort protecting Havana Harbour. 


These are what had us scared in 1962. 


Ousted President Batista’s answer to Rio’s Christ the Redeemer looks across to Havana. 

Revolutions are the locomotives of history – Karl Marx. 

For my generation the Cuban Revolution epitomised the Cold War. Burned into our memories is the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We waited with bated breath for President Kennedy to push that button but, phew! he backed off at the last minute.  Only recently in some fascinating documentaries have we learned how close it all came to a nuclear conflagration and how gung-ho the American generals were about getting Kennedy to act. One presidential historian described President Kennedy’s success in fending  off the generals as being his “most consequential victory”.  It certainly would have put paid to Cuba’s survival and its current  resurrection.

So it was with bemusement that we viewed, after crossing under Havana’s impressive ( except for the oil slicks) harbour by tunnel to visit the old Spanish fortifications built in the late 1500s, a collection of decidedly bedraggled and unthreatening-looking rusting missiles and old war planes. These,  we were advised, were some of THE nukes. Hard to believe but I managed to find a reference in a 2012 American television news report from an equally surprised reporter.”Across the harbor from Havana, behind a bluff that once protected a USSR installation, we found what is left of one of the Russian nuclear rockets; an R-12 medium ballistic missile that still contains what appears to be some of the original wiring.” he reported.

Back across the harbour in the old city the essence of Cuba’s revolution, which propelled this tiny American neighbour into the centre of Cold War anti-Communist sentiment, is preserved at the Museo de la Revolucion, housed in the old Presidential Palace, home to a string of big-spending former presidents the last of whom was the deposed dictator Fulgenico Batista who was overthrown in the revolution. It’s a museum not only for the heroes but also for the language of the revolution. I’d almost forgotten wonderful phrases such as “imperialist aggressors” and “forces of capitalism”.



Still bearing the revolutionary bullet holes.


Revolutionary brothers-in-arms – “Che” Guevera, Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos.

SAU-100 tank used by Castro in 1961 Bay of Pigs battle; fund raising for the revolution. 

Ernesto “Che” Guevera holds a special place in the hearts of Cubans to this day for his role not only in achieving the revolution but the charitable work his did in his role as a trained doctor.  Monuments and remembrances to him are found across the country with the most significant at Santa Clara where a impressive memorial and statue commemorates his death and that of revolutionaries killed with him in the jungles of Bolivia by the CIA in 1967. Santa Clara is not far from the Bay of Pigs whose sparkling Caribbean  waters are today being invaded by snorkelling tourists rather than Cuban exiles. A nearby cenote, or sinkhole, said to be 60 metres deep, is also popular with snorklers.  Revolution11

“Che” standing guard at his Santa Clara memorial. 


A new type of invader at the Bay of Pigs. 

For Cubans the locomotive is just developing a head of steam.



Going down to Cuba..

…down where the music never ends.. – Jackson Browne.


The tourists are coming. 

For a small island Cuba has managed to create a huge reputation for itself. This little country of 11 million with a big heart has paid the price for standing up to the world’s tough guys.  Now after almost six decades of US-embargo-enforced isolation new beginnings with the Western world beckon.



The impact of Cuba’s embargo hits you the moment you arrive at Jose Marti International Airport, named for their national hero, the late-19th-century poet and revolutionary. Cuba’s dearth of IT infrastructure makes for chaotic immigration, security and health queues as an international tourists tsunami engulfs this “world’s biggest museum”. Too many for a country still using ration cards – over 3 million last year, almost 20 percent on 2014. And that’s before US cruise ships and  charter flights get serious this year, not to mention the rest of the world. The arrival of the first cruise ship coincided with our visit.


Faded glory. 

For tourists, an inconvenient byproduct of the embargo is the antiquated monetary system.  Cash takes precedence over plastic with “putting it on the card” an impossibility.  US dollar aren’t accepted.  ATMs are few and far between and with Amex a no-no and MasterCard not commonly accepted ensuring a ready supply of currency is a common pre-trip dilemma for visitors.  The most popular solutions are to take Visa cards or adequate supplies of Euros or Canadian dollars in cash. Those with MasterCards can get ATM-type service by queuing in banks. But first you have to find the bank. Not so difficult in Havana but much harder on the road. Tourists must use a special local currency called CUCs (convertible pesos). On the bright side the lifting of the embargo is slowly changing this.

Incremental improvements are also being made to internet access. Those who visited 12 months ago could not get online at all. When we visited the system involved lining up at Telstra-type outlets for cards which would give two hours access – if you were lucky. The queues could take hours and the supply of cards could run out before you reached the counter. A more reliable and pleasant method was to go to a major hotel and order a drink – we recommend the daquiris – and buy a card. Then sit in the foyer or courtyard and go like crazy before the card runs out or the connection crashes. The trick was to draft emails so they were ready to go as soon as you got online. Even with the limited access available Cubans are showing as much enthusiasm as the rest of the online world for laptops and smart phones, and social media, and wifi hotspots around parks and hotels attract crowds of hopefuls looking to make a connection.




Lining up for internet access cards (top); remember public telephones?

The price Cuba has paid for its revolutionary resoluteness is a non-existent manufacturing sector. Shopping malls and supermarkets? Forget it! Locally produced fruit, vegetables and meats are in reasonable supply in simple markets or street carts but ration books determine quotas on staples such as milk, cheese, flour and sugar. The only industries of note are tobacco and sugar for Cuba’s famous rum and cigar brands – government-owned of course. Ironically the embargo is what has produced the very museum quality the world wants to experience “before it’s too late”.  Tourists queue to cruise Havana in colourful “Yank tanks”, held together virtually by sticky tape, past dilapidated but elegant old Spanish colonial buildings for which repair materials are almost impossible to acquire. Tourist infrastructure is in painfully short supply.



Well stocked street fruit and vege cart; Havana market. 


Typical Cuban car – an ancient Lada minus door winders and various other mod cons. 

Ration card.

On the plus side, the Communist regime has delivered a universal health system superior to those in many developed countries; free education to university level; and a fierce self-sufficiency. Checking into lodgings in Havana we were delayed while the public health authority sprayed to protect against the Zika virus. We did wonder given the clouds of repellant if the cure might be worse than the ailment. The country boasts a life expectancy of  78 as well as one of the world’s highest literacy rates. The standout positive is Cuba’s strong social cohesion. In the absence of retail therapy options, watchable films and television, and internet, Cubans talk to each other. Life happens in the neighbourhood streets and music and dance is the lifeblood.


Waging war against the Zika virus. 

On our first night in Cuba we stepped out the front door of our charming old colonial terrace Casa Particular onto the narrow, dusty pot-holed streets of La Habana Vieja to the sound of Buena-Vista-Social-Club-style salsa rhythms from the dance clubs  pulsing through the neighbourhood.  For us the music was just beginning…



The music never ends.