A Smiling Country
It seems that time here is stopped in the early sixties, creating a frozen and almost an illusory unity of oppositions. All prejudices and superstition of the modern man, based on western values, here are to be all forgotten. After a suspicious reception on ”José Marti” airport, the moment you step into the real life of Havana, you shall meet relaxed, simple and smiling people, of supple movements, in the rhythm of salsa, the Cuba of Hemingway and Márquez, of ”Buena Vista” and strong sensibility, of ”Cohiba” and ”Mojito”

By: Mišo Vujović
Photo by: S. Rajković, M. Vujović

When we landed to Havana, after a nine hour long flight from Amsterdam, flying over rectangular settlements, plants of sugarcane, green fields of tobacco, villages connected with roads of red soil, someone noticed that Cuba is the only country where happiness is not bought with money, but money people bring money to Cuba to buy a moment of happiness in one of the last non-polluted oasis.
”You come here with a fear, with uncertainty, filled with adrenalin, and you come back with sorrow and a fact that there is still a magic corner of the world of endless freedom. Even though it is ideologically defined, Cuba resists some other restraints, those of liberal democracy, global pseudo-humanism and prosperity” says my travelling companion, an expert for financial and legal tricks, a man in love with the Cuban way of life.
The airport halls, with corridors with weak lightning, reminded more of a praetorian airport from adventure and spy movies of the sixties. However, the sixties have settled here long ago, which you can notice the moment you arrive. However, the unpleasant police and customs control is then forgotten when appear the charming employees of ”José Marti” airport, who are very helpful, anytime.
After a very suspicious welcome on the airport, with the scent of stale Bolshevism, cheerful faces are welcoming us on the other side of the ”border”. Their murmur, filled with positive vibrations, fluttering in the tropical wind and mixing with melodies that come from all around. It is all inspired by the explosive life energy, which you shall not find in any other place in the world.


Thanks to Stevica, the manager for fire prevention, and the passionate admirer of ”Cohiba”, our first meeting with Cuba began with a charming welcome, in pure Serbian language, of Maria Sanchez, the daughter of the former ambassador of Cuba in Belgrade. The smile of this middle-aged woman with short hair, almost with a male haircut, uncovers teeth as white as snow, in strong contrast with her dark-skinned face.
Maria speaks Serbian almost perfectly, even though she never lived in the country where her father worked. She is cheerful and smiling, very helpful, as most of the Cuban residents. With her slow and supple movements, in the rhythm of salsa, she is escorting us to a minibus, comfortable, with air-conditioning, which differs from the old ”Fords”, ”Buicks”, ”Chevrolets”, ”Dodges”, ”Ladas” and a dark-green ”Volga”.
On big trucks, a group of peasants end one more working day with a song. The scenes replace quickly, like in a movie, they bring on the memories, and the time machine is taking the older ones to the epoch of socialism, renaissance, and physical labour, when people lived with great enthusiasm, with revolutionary songs, with slogans of the revolution and their beloved commander.
On a big billboard besides the way, stands the portrait of Che Guevara and a message: ”Your ideas are still alive, we shall follow you.”
The main roads on Cuba are in good condition; besides the second embargo, (our road maintenance workers still use it as an excuse, ten years later). Workers who ”steal” during construction works are punished with a long-term forced labour in the fields.
While we are driving to Santa Maria, a town about 20 kilometres away from Havana, we get the most important information on the money course, the legal and the black market of greatest cigars in the world. As wine is not always made from grapes, cigars are not always from tobacco. Dried banana leaves, mixed with tobacco, burn slower and only passionate smokers and Cuban cigar lovers can see the difference.
Cubans are not into fraud, but poverty, embargo and the fact that Cuba is not visited by poor people forces them to offer their goods for a much higher price. If it works, it makes them happy, and if not, bargaining is a ritual here and it connects people. Often, both sides have the feeling of mutual profit.
Besides the fact that Cuba is one of the safest countries, Maria advise us to leave money, passports and other valuable things in the hotel safe box, and to pay attention to the wide range of offers which can be seen on this island of happiness, passion, rum, ”Daiquiri”, ”Mojito”, cigars...


Besides its beauty, the greatest charm of this wonderful country is that time seems to be stopped somewhere in the sixties of the 20th century, creating a frozen and almost an illusory unity of oppositions. All prejudices and superstition of the modern man, based on western values, here are to be all forgotten. The slow rhythm, with the unique character of this world’s life, simplicity, music in the colours of passion, beautiful sea – this all gave the people of Cuba a kind of happiness which we see on their relaxed and smiling faces. Sceptics would say that they fill up their sad days with smiling. However, while I am looking at cheerful Cubans, I find very suitable the definition of one of the last bohemian poets, Ambrozije Marošević: ”Poets are like children: they do not give us a lot, but even in this poverty we are happy.”
The contrast of neglected exterior and inner harmony, the new and the old the young and the weak, the arranged and the neglected, the beautiful and the destroyed, is all best seen in the old part of Havana. One besides the other, a dilapidated building and a new one, painted in cheerful colours. In a neglected house, with a destroyed stairway you enter a luxurious ambient of one of the most prestigious restaurants. In the streets, with American old-timers of the fifties, polished in glowing colours, fiacres with perfectly trained and thoroughbred horses, popular scooters in yellow, also popular as Coco Taxi, bicycles with trailers for two, the newest models of western automobile industry. Besides older women who sell souvenirs, newspaper and revolutionary literature, wearing dresses of different colours, you shall see young dark-skinned beauties dressed in most modern branded clothes.
Besides old, museum, pieces, in which are engines of old Russian cars, there are not many American cars. ”Marlboro” and ”Coca-Cola” and some other American products are imported from Mexico. Even though there are no world brands in Cuban stores, the biggest part of Cubans are very well dressed.
That is why it is hard to believe that an average payment is about 30 convertible Pesos (one Euro is 1.3 Pesos).
The stories of great poverty are denied with the streets full of life, full of people who bring along their energy and who live in the spirit of the antique wisdom of bread and circuses, deprived of great materialistic goals, accepting all benefits given by this heavenly country. It seems that Cubans have become immune to the epidemics of frustrating and depressive, pessimistic and suicidal illness of the global materialistic ”prosperity”.


The international Labour Day in Cuba is the most important of all holidays. In Havana, there is a parade of many workers and people from all over the world. More than one million well-organized people, with no incidents, sing, dance, and celebrate the day of national joy. There were slogans: ”Viva la Revolución!”, ”Viva Presidente!”, ”Viva el Comandante Che Guevara!” Millions of voices were heard, like once from Vladivostok to Havana. Young Cubans dresses in clothes of their institutions, schools, faculties, academies, marched with workers, army and the police. Representatives of almost all institutions were present for this parade of May 1st.
The several kilometres long crowd was heading to one of the central squares, on which Fidel Castro held his speeches. Instead of Fidel there was his brother Raul, the fellow soldier of the great commander. Posters, signs posters with the image of Fidel, were not numerous. The icon of the revolution is still Che Guevara. His image, with a berretta and a red frog, is the most popular souvenir in Cuba, and the song ”Comandante Che Guevara” is in the beginning and in the end of every music program in bars and restaurants. The father of the nation, Fidel Castro is mentioned with great respect, among the older residents who remember Batista’s dictatorship, he is a hero, a Don Quixote, a global symbol of resistance towards American imperialism.

(Next: The Magic of Life Hidden in the Heart)


Numbers and towns
The Republic of Cuba lies on 111 thousand square kilometres and it is the biggest Caribbean island. After the revolution and the end of the dictatorship regime of General Batista, it was divided into 14 provinces. We should mention Varadero, Pinar del Rio, Santa Clara, Viñales, Guantánamo...


Agriculture and tourism
The main economic fields are agriculture and tourism. Cuba is the leader in the production of sugar and tobacco. The national drink is rum, which is made of sugarcane in three variants: old golden rum, extra old rum and light dry rum.
Rum is the main ingredient of Cuban cocktails: ”Daiquiri”, ”Cuba Libre”, ”Mojito”, ”Ernest Hemingway Special”. Until 1960, the famous Bacardi distillery was in Cuba, later moved to the Dominican Republic.
Besides Havana, the second biggest tourist place is Varadero, with white sand and beautiful beaches, almost 30 kilometres long.


Beautiful vegetation, white and big sandy beaches, clear and warm sea, cheerful people, many different architectural styles of the 17th, 18th and 19th century, buildings in cheerful colours all made Cuba one of the rare unpolluted heavenly gardens. In the last years, Cuba has been slowly opening its doors climbing to the top of the list of most attractive tourist destinations in the world. The old part of Havana, a small town called Trinidad, as well as the natural park Pinar del Rio, are under the protection of UNESCO.
It is no wonder that, in 1492, when discovering Cuba, Christopher Columbus said: ”This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my entire life!”

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