So there I am, feeling seasick, bitter and desperate to get off this rusting piece of recycled steel which they call a boat. Having a six ton tank strapped to my back and duck’s feet to replace my own isn’t exactly pleasurable either. But, it’s hard not to smile when there’s a deliciously warm, glass-like ocean surrounding you, and Cuban dive masters using their English catch phase such as, “dive fun”, or, “big snapper, yes”, followed by a hand gesture towards the water. Except, just as you have forgotten how bad you feel, the boat stops. Its wake catches up with you and then this rusting hulk bobbles furiously (an experience more welcome in a water park, thank you very much). Alas, the fun is not over as there is just time to swallow the retched fumes that have hitherto billowed merrily from the stern, before sinking into the midst of something altogether more relaxing.
Now, it may not strike you as relaxing, this scuba business: fearing your air supply will be cut off thirty-five metres below the surface, or being anxious of a shark attack. But if you can ignore the little snag of your more than inadequate Cuban equipment, it really is. It’s like walking out of your door, finding that there is zero gravity so you can move in three dimensions, and at the same time being bombarded with a million colours and landscapes that are so vastly different to anything you have ever seen. Imagine that you have the freedom to move where you like, to swim around people’s houses which happen to be caves or reef shelves and look into their windows to see how they live, all the while a soup of the most vibrant fish will be swimming around you. It is also the plant life that is so fascinating. The best way to describe it would be something out of a sci-fi movie, where everyday objects such as barrels or string have been transformed into conscience beings with rainbow colours. That’s it. The reef is more alive than any plant above surface: maybe because they sway in the current and reach out for you. Maybe it is their complex and layered texture that seduces touch. Maybe I am becoming all too sexual in my description!
Anyway, diving in Cuba is renowned for the bigger sea creatures (turtles, rays and sharks), and it was on this particular dive I spotted my first shark. I was swimming peacefully when an eccentric Italian began to shake his rattle wildly as if he were having a heart attack. I took this as a minor annoyance, dismissing him as the unreliable type, if you get my meaning. I carried on chasing various fish unaware of anything amiss until I saw her myself. Why her? I was told afterwards that she was pregnant. A grey outline of a nurse shark on the edge of my vision speared out of sight. It was not exactly what I was hoping for, to be honest, but all the same I had seen a shark. That’s impressive, right?
Shortly after my first encounter we got a little more personal with a second nurse shark. This time it was as still as a ray on the sandy bottom amongst the reef. This type of shark you can probably describe as one of the less intimidating varieties. Its smooth grey body was somewhat reminiscent of an overgrown slug with front whiskers very much like a weasel. Nevertheless, the shark was still extremely impressive: its long body ran down to a slender powerful tail and finally to a sharp fin. With keen eyes and a flat intimidating jaw this was obviously no creature to mess with, but at the same time seemed friendly enough to approach. After a long pause we finally let it be and made our way to the surface; on the way encountering a rather small turtle, practising doggy paddle furiously near the surface.
The thing about Cuba is that even above the surface there’s barely time to breath. Havana is submerged in a culture and politics so vastly different from our own. Whether it is the museum of the revolution (blatant propaganda) or the next busking Spanish guitar with its sweet tune rippling through the maze of streets, I feel drowned.
Shoals of Cubans swim past in waves as we make our way through the alleyways overlooked by old Spanish Kings, where children play baseball and hunched grannies smoke huge cigars. It’s funny to peek inside this dilapidated colonial grandeur to see tattered armchairs, black and white TVs and wrinkled Cubans singing along to their radios. Such buildings elsewhere would be considered historical monuments, with “do not touch” signs on them. Yet here they’re lived in.
Regrettably we are washed away by a plump woman selling tourist memorabilia; then the currents change and we float into a food market guided by a tall, kindly-faced man, unsurprisingly, smoking a cigar. It’s not exactly appetising to see the remains of a banana clinging to his nostril hair, while the distinct aroma of putrid fruit lingers in the air. Nonetheless we buy a handful of blackened bananas and even get a couple of free flies thrown in. Bargain.
What gives Havana its own unique and distinguished charm is that, wherever you go, you’re never far from the next square. They’re quaint little things really. Under canopies of silver lined trees in the searing mid-day sun they make the perfect place to emerge from the sea of bustle. It just so happens that we wander into Parque Central, Cuba’s central park surrounded by some of the most famous buildings in Cuba: the national theatre, described by the rough guide to Cuba as ‘an explosion of balustrade balconies, colonnaded cornices and sculpted stone figures striking classical poses.’ And the Capitolio Nacional, the old parliament building ironically modelled on the Capitol in Washington. But, I am left with a sour taste. Mulling over a cool can of cola I imagine that once Havana must have all been like this. But now, deprived of its former glory, the unique, equisetic grandeur has been violated. You would only have to walk down Paseo de Marti to see hideous nineteen sixties concrete tower blocks literally dumped on top of colonial masterpieces.
Cuba is a marvellous country steeped in history, culture and cigars, full of happy faces, laughter and music. Above and below water it’s a vibrant country, but is it also living proof that communism doesn’t work? You can’t help but feel that Cuba will soon follow in the footsteps of Russia and Eastern Europe. It seems crazy that every Cuban aspires to raise enough money to emigrate from free health care; one of the highest literacy rates in the world; a better life expediency than either Britain or American! Its Human nature to think that the ‘grass is always greener on the other side’. The truth is: I have to go back to rainy, boring, old England in fear of capitalism collapsing.