Though half a world apart in geography, history, language and just about anything else you could name, Cuba and Japan are not entirely without similarities.
Both are island countries, albeit in different stages of development, and both are in the throes of full-on tourist drives, which got me thinking: After 12 years of Japan’s culture of omotenashi, which aims to scratch itches you don’t yet know you have, maybe it’s time to try a different kind of hospitality.
The draws of Havana are, of course, many and well documented: The capital is famous for being a time capsule, with its gleaming 1950s automobiles, authentic live music houses and stunning array of architectural styles and landmarks. But each year FITCuba, a government-sponsored tour, puts Cuba’s best foot forward by showing off one of the island’s many diverse regions to foreign media. In early May, the 37th FITCuba tour brought me to Cuba’s eastern extremes: the provinces of Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo.
In a way, you can learn a lot about Cuba at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. The people are relaxed, kind and straightforward, and there’s a feeling in the air quite apart from the humidity. It isn’t chaos, exactly, but a relaxed attitude toward order that, after the clockwork of Tokyo, is actually exciting. We learned quickly that the way lines form in busy places in Japan is not at all the same for Cuba. Our small group made an overbooked flight by the skin of our teeth and we headed southeast.
After touchdown in Holguin, the bus ride to the resort revealed a lush and hilly countryside overseen by the majestic calm of Cuban Royal Palms, the national tree. As roadside residences of all kinds slipped by, it was concerting to see Cuban people leaning in door frames or reclining on steps. As we watched each other pass, a taste for the pace of the place began to come through.
Our base in the region, Blau Costa Verde Beach Resort, is an all-inclusive world unto itself, with a network of pools, bars, restaurants, nighttime entertainment and more nestled into an idyllic beach straight out of a salaryman’s daydream. While a far cry from quotidian Cuba, it’s easy to see how anyone seeking refuge from modern life could scratch out a little peace of mind at this resort.
The next day, in the center of Holguin, the flavor of the real Cuba was waiting in the teeming form of Romerias de Mayo, an annual festival from May 2 to 8 that mixes elements of Christianity, Afro-Caribbean Santeria and Cuban nationalism. Crowds thronged the streets on the way to la Periquera, a historic building that was the former seat of the city government and a site central to the wars that saw Cuba gain independence from Spain. There, a parade of people on stilts, karate clubs, Chinese dragon dancers, live music and representatives from Mexico and Quebec wowed the audience under a punishing sun.
A man and a woman, half naked and painted entirely blue, stalked the fringes of the crowd, and our guide Lisandra later explained: “Here they mix the Catholic virgins and saints with the African gods. The people you saw were representing those saints and gods.” As the sun set, our group climbed a small hill to overlook Holguin at dusk. While at times the day’s festivities were wild, I realized that at no point did I feel unsafe.
Sisi Scholten, an interpreter and editor from China who studied Spanish in Havana and traveled the country widely, insists that in five years of adventures, not a single bad thing happened to her: “I don’t think I’m just lucky — Cuba is a very safe country in general.” It was common, she said, for strangers to guide her to her destination when she was lost, only to simply say goodbye. “Of course, speaking Spanish helped a lot. But there is no problem for a woman to walk alone at night. That was my impression,” she says.
Cuba is acutely aware that it has both a lot going for it and no small number of hurdles. People come for the music, the history and architecture — the spirit of the people — and while they do find these things, they also find that fluent English speakers are few and Wi-Fi oases can be hard to come by.
But Cuban experts speak the language of modern tourism fluently. In presentations from ministers and academics it became clear that the government is conscious of growing its capacity for many kinds of sustainable tourism while attempting to minimize the environmental and social impact of that growth. High on its list are the construction of more high-quality hotels and infrastructure, facilitating seamless travel between neighboring Caribbean countries, and perfecting so-called circuit tourism, in which people visit a different curated attraction or experience each time they make a stop. For many, this means cultural events such as Romerias de Mayo, but still more come for Cuba’s natural beauty.
On a day of almost stultifying sun and 35 C heat, our group boarded two catamarans and made an hourlong rum-soaked voyage to Cayo Saetia, a paradisiacal beach in a national park. The beach itself was of fine sand and rounded coral and flanked by open cliff faces and water the definition of blue. Pigs were roasting and the incredible spread included meat and salad of every kind and sculptures made of tropical fruit. It began to seem that everywhere we were greeted by music, almost always live, which of course leads to dancing.
On another day we headed south, stopping to tour the childhood home of Fidel Castro in Biran, which is now a kind of museum, as well as his final resting place in Santiago de Cuba’s Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, where we saw the changing of the guard.
Santiago de Cuba boasts the most African influence amid Cuba’s blend of cultures, and one of the trip’s highlights was undoubtedly the Tumba Francesa dance of La Caridad de Oriente, a group now in its eighth generation that was given Oral and Intangible World Heritage status in 2003. As the shadows drew long atop San Pedro de la Roca castle (completed in 1700), the fully costumed group began to beat their drums and dance. They are custodians of an Afro-Cuban cultural artifact mixing African, French and Spanish styles that originally came to Cuba via Haitian slaves. The polyrhythmic pulse of the drums and the smooth movements of the dancers were nothing short of entrancing. We returned to the Melia Santiago Hotel, one of Cuba’s finer lodgings, which overlooks the city of Santiago de Cuba.
It was a small irony that, in a country famous for taking its time, our tour group rushed from place to place, seeing as much of this photogenic country as we could. When I return, I’ll be sure to slow things down and take advantage of casas particulares, or bed-and-breakfast homestays, which cost the rough equivalent of ¥3,000 per night and afford an authentic Cuban experience.
Our final stop, in the province of Guantanamo, was Baracoa, which was visited by none other than Christopher Columbus in November of 1492 and was founded as a city in 1511. Baracoa has its share of poverty, and although it’s still rebuilding from the damage wrought by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, it is achingly picturesque. Wandering its colorful streets, I wished I had two weeks to spend, not a single afternoon. We stayed in the Porto Santo Hotel, and looking across the bay at the city after waking up on my last day made me pine for more time there, even just a day.
At one point, I asked our guide Lisandra about Cuban sayings and proverbs, and among those she gave was one that goes a long way toward summing up the country: “No por mucho madrugar amanece mas temprano,” which translates roughly as “You can’t rush the dawn by waking up early.”
The hospitalities and temperaments of Cuba and Japan, I realized, are like convex and concave — while Japan focuses on ritual form, making the act of giving a gift, for example, an intricate performance, the beating heart of Cuba is a spontaneity, directness, honesty and lack of pretension that, for all the heat, felt incredibly refreshing.
Things to know: Visas are required for most foreign nationals to enter Cuba, so it’s best to inquire with your nearest consulate or embassy. Be sure to only drink bottled water. Cash is king, and be sure to exchange your yen for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) at the airport, as most hotels will not support the conversion. For more information, visit www.cubatravel.cu/en
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