A very insightful, and indeed, very enjoyable evening was put together yesterday by the Royal Geography Society, on a topic that interests and puzzles many inquisitive British travellers; mystical Cuba, so close to all the other Caribbean islands, just a stone’s throw from North America, yet so far ideologically and culturally.
With the riveting presentations of two Cuba experts who shared their extensive first-hand knowledge of the island and afterwards held a Q&A session, the sometimes cloudy and puzzling Cuba was unveiled and de-mystified to the eyes of many curious travellers attending the event.
The Holiday Place was there with a team of three exhibitors to help further promote the island, inform travellers of its many cultural, natural and historical riches, as well as to advise them of which kind of trips to the island were available or which Cuba experiences were best suited to their interests. Read on to find out more about how the evening unfolded.
The name of the event was aptly named “Discovering Cuba” and is part of a series entitled “Discovering Places”, of which the Royal Geographic hosts three annual evenings a year, to promote understanding of many of the world’s most remote cultures, peoples, places and environments. Each of these organised evenings hosts a panel of experts that talk about their own experiences of visiting and studying the chosen destination, as well as answering guests’ questions and clarifying many of people’s most common doubts, concerns and misconceptions about the destination being explored.
The role of exhibitors attending the event, such as The Holiday Place in this case, was to inspire and help engage visitors to the travel destination discussed, which in this case was Cuba, of course. Our team of two Cuba experts included me, a colleague from the Reservations Department, Gareth Howells, and our official photographer, Jana Crowne, who covered the event with a series of snapshots.
Things kicked off at 6:30 p.m. as visitors started pouring in and browsing exhibitor stands. Considering The Holiday Place was given a very short notice, last-minute call to attend, as 21-year-old Cuba specialists we were still able to work our magic and entice a number of travellers to visit the island, open their eyes to the many possibilities the destination offered as well as enlighten them with Cuba’s many virtues and attractions.
Claire Boobbyer and Dr Stephen Wilkinson – the perfect team
After 30 minutes of visitors interacting with exhibitors, asking questions, browsing through brochures and exchanging details, it was time to step into the conference rooms for the presentations, given by freelance travel writer and self-declared Cubaphile, Claire Boobbyer (also a highly-esteemed member of our team of bloggers at The Holiday Place) and Dr Stephen Wilkinson, Chairman of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba and Editor of the International Journal of Cuban Studies.
Both speakers had travelled repeatedly and extensively to the island and had many different insights to share with the audience.
They excelled at the fact that their motivations to travel to Cuba and their fascination with the island stemmed from very different traits in their personalities; one as an academic was more interested in uncovering the history, the much-talked-about political and economical conundrums, while the other, as a writer and solo female traveller, was more moved by the island’s unique landscapes, the amazing rural encounters, the little villages and towns and the renowned warmth of the Cuban people; so ultimately hers was a more emotional and personal portrayal of the island while his was decidedly more factual and backed up by solid historic events and statistics.
Both were so different that their views perfectly complemented each other’s, with comments angled differently so that everyone got an answer and opinion on the subject they asked from two very distinct perspectives. As well-rounded as it could get.
Exploring Cuba’s romantic side
Appealing to the crowd of hopeless romantics, culture enthusiasts and solo travellers in search of off-the-beaten-track, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, Claire’s speech gave a moving and captivating depiction of Cuba as the island that time forgot but people that visited it couldn’t.
She started off describing Cuba’s least known (by the average tourist) little gem that is Baracoa, the first city to be founded by the Spanish conquerors after their arrival in 1492 and one that boasts an overwhelming concentration of unique attractions. From wild lush nature and incredible fauna that includes the island’s smallest bird and rarest, most colourful snail: the Polymita, she described Baracoa as the wildlife fantasy it is. The city responsible for producing Cuba’s artisan chocolate, Guama, clearly left a mark on Claire’s travel diaries and I’m sure also on every member of the audience's mind.
She moved on to describe yet another rare Cuban gem – Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) - a completely unspoilt archipelago home to what has been officially declared by a marine biologist from National Geographic, the last pristine coral reef system in the world.
Then she spoke of Santiago de Cuba’s unique charm, in sharp contrast to Havana’s more urbanised colonial beauty. Much less developed, yet beating with an intoxicating intensity that’s difficult to find anywhere else, this was a city that moved to the sounds of conga, and where you simply must join in the carnival. Every festivity and carnival here, she said, was much bigger and better than any similar event in Havana; the experience all the more dramatic and rawer.
Hers was a very evocative, vivid illustration of the island, filled with personal anecdotes and pieces of advice. As a Cuban myself, I nodded to all of her words with a nudge of nostalgia-ridden approval and clapped vigorously when her speech ended. I’m sure everyone in that room felt inspired afterwards.
The facts – Past, present and future for Cuba
Dr Stephen Wilkinson, on the other hand, gave a much more factual, yet still compelling, overview of Cuba, starting from its key geographical location and how it had made the island a highly desirable strategic port of call; the most favoured colony by the Spaniards first (to the point that they were ready to trade it for Florida when the British took hold of it in 1762), and the most coveted island by Americans later.
He explained how Cuba had moved from being the world’s number one sugar producer to a highly dependent economy that sustained itself solely on the trade relations established with the Soviet Union. He then elaborated on how as a result of the Soviet collapse in the late 1980s, the island suffered badly with no means of self-sustaining its economy and had to turn to tourism.
Nowadays, there are even more changes taking place in Cuba’s economic model, which is being transformed to allow private businesses, with many of these now springing up all over the country.
He spoke of the United States’ centuries' old desire for the island with a few exemplary quotes from former U.S. presidents clearly declaring their intentions of annexing Cuba to their nation and thus explained how the animosity between the two countries didn’t really stem from Fidel Castro’s communist revolution, but from the North American giant’s strong belief that the island because of its location should naturally belong to them.
Dr Wilkinson then spoke of how upon his first travel to Cuba, back in 1986, he had gotten bitten by the "Cuba bug" (now the title of his personal Cuba blog) and how after many subsequent travels to the island and an undying thirst to get to know it more and more, he hadn’t been able to shake it off.
Questions, Answers and Recommendations
After both presentations were finished and warmly met with enthusiastic applauses, questions were asked by the audience on topics that included the future of Cuba’s dual-currency system, the quality of the food throughout the island, the safety of domestic flights and the prospect of Americans ever being able to legally visit the island as tourists.
When it came to the issue of Cuba’s dual-currency system, which confused many, Dr Wilkinson was quick to explain its nature and how it worked, while Claire added that some savvy tourists could use the national currency (pesos) for things like paying private Cuban taxis and cinema tickets if they could muster a little Spanish, although it could prove a challenging feat for some not to pass as tourists (in which case locals might demand to be paid in the stronger currency – CUC). Finally, Dr Wilkinson added that the government aims to simplify and eventually replace this system for a single currency, for the benefit of all, especially Cuban themselves.
When it came to the safety of domestic flights, Claire gave her input by saying she had always travelled around the island by bus or car, highly recommending car hiring a mode of transport to be able to go more off-the-beaten-path and see things one would otherwise miss. Dr Wilkinson’s point of view on the matter was that, although the planes used for internal flights in Cuba might look scary or somewhat suspicious (as many of these planes had been of military use originally and then adapted for commercial use) they were perfectly safe, adding that he himself had flown on them on a few ocassions. He also added that the government had recently acquired new Russian planes, and replaced the aircraft for domestic flights. Dr Wilkinson further explained the challenges the island faced as they weren’t able to purchase Airbus or Boeing planes due to the embargo law, which doesn’t allow any product or service with over 10% American ownership to be sold or leased to Cuba.
To whether the prospect of Americans being able to freely visit the island one day looked likely, Dr Wilkinson responded that there was much pressure already for the laws to change in congress, with the tables shifting in Florida by a new, influential generation of Cuban-Americans voting for relations between the two countries to be normalised. Obama has already lifted restrictions with the People-to-People scheme now allowing Americans to visit the island on specialised, licensed educational tours and it is expected for subsequent governments to completely lift the embargo, which Hillary Clinton had claimed to do if she was to become elected.
If you had one spare day in Cuba what would you do?
This was one of the last questions someone in the audience asked before the session was over. As can be expected, answers to these questions varied hugely from speaker to speaker. While Claire declared that without a doubt she would be found salsa-dancing, Dr Wilkinson said he’d spend his whole spare day burying his head in the books of Cuba’s National Library, researching deeper and deeper into the island’s past to find more answers to its many current enigmas.
Claire had already said during her presentation in the beginning that the more you travel to the island, the more questions you have and the less answers you find – and therein lies the beauty of the unsolved riddle that Cuba represents for many.