When I first arrived in Cuba I felt as though I had made the wrong decision. After waiting for my luggage for two hours in an airport that was unwelcoming and frankly quite dodgy I couldn’t help but feel a little disheartened. Where was all the colour and beauty I had read about in the guidebooks?
Despite my disappointment so far my feelings towards Cuba grew a little warmer once I reached my hotel. I stayed in the Hotel Nacional de Cuba which is a national monument and architectural emblem due to its eclectic art deco and neoclassical style. The Moorish design of the lobby is reminiscent of some of the older homes you’d find in Gibraltar and the floor tiles feature the same castle as the Gibraltar flag. Most of the hotel’s design and decoration remains the same as it was back in its day and although the casino is no longer open the original machines are still there along with many other objects the hotel has restored.
On the first day my family decided they wanted to be proper tourists and we hired a guide to take us on a walking tour of Havana. This was absolutely dreadful. It began at 11AM when the sun was at its peak and there were way too many tourists to fully appreciate the sights. I was once again disappointed and got back to my hotel room feeling even more dissatisfied.
Sitting next to my parents as they flipped through the guided tours list in the hotel lobby I was about to classify my trip as most boring holiday ever until I saw this woman walking our direction. She was American with blonde hair as crazy as she was, rushing to the desk holding the hand of her young daughter. She was looking for traditional Cuban dance classes and very loudly and energetically explained she wanted to try all the Cuban styles and didn’t care how many hours it would take. Everyone thought she was hilarious she couldn’t even sit down from how breathless she was from running and making her requests. The lady at the desk called this person known as Vadim who was apparently an ex Tropicana dancer and the crazy American lady was so overjoyed she snatched the phone off the woman at the desk and blurted out to this man how excited she was to meet him. Vadim must have been writing something down or doing something because she was getting a little impatient and she looked at me and said: “Hey do you want to dance too?” (Imagine it in a really excited and loud American accent). It was so spontaneous and out of the blue I really did want to do it and so this crazy American woman very excitedly arranged it all for me as her daughter sat joyfully observing the scene and the woman behind the desk sat laughing at the whole situation. I was finally doing something exciting and I left that desk feeling one hundred times more satisfied with the trip than I was when I first arrived.
At 9AM the next morning my mother and I got ourselves into a taxi and made our way to the dance class that was so kindly organised by this crazy American woman. We were an eager fifteen minutes early so we stood outside his massive house that stood out amongst the old and ruined buildings on his street. Upon entry we were guided up a stone spiral staircase into this room with huge french style doors that lead to the terrace. “Lets dance!” he said as he greeted us with a kiss and shimmied across the beautifully tiled floor. He began with a brief introduction to Cuban dance and its origins which was really interesting and then put on some music to demonstrate. He was incredible. It was extremely obvious that he was a professional dancer and he was so passionate about it. He was also really patient with us knowing full well that we weren’t used to the styles of dance he was teaching us. It was this experience, dancing traditional Cuban dance in a Cuban’s home, that made my trip worthwhile.
Whilst dancing in Vadim’s home I realised that to properly see Cuba in its true colours you can’t follow the guidebooks and tours; you need to immerse yourself in Cuban life and go with it. I remembered how on the first day whilst following my guide past La Bodeguita del Medio in old Havana I could hear laughter and happiness above me and I spotted a man most certainly not from Cuba sitting on a balcony with a family who were most certainly locals. They were drinking mojitos and telling each other stories with tears in their eyes from laughter. I stood there watching them as my guide shouted “seguir, seguir!” (“follow, follow”). My experience was restricted by tourists and a guide. She wanted to make sure I didn’t get lost but all I wanted to do was get lost. The people on that balcony were seeing Cuba in its true light and that is how I believe Cuba should be seen.