The full title of this book is ‘The Island that Dared – Journeys in Cuba‘ indicating the political angle that Dervla brings to her many travel books.
Although in her mid-70s when she made the three trips to Cuba described in this book, she is no package tourist; rather she seems to seek out the most basic ways to travel and spend the night, as this, she believes, enables her better to tune in to the local people and their surroundings and culture. But she is no puritan and when not travelling or writing, she could be found in the nearest bar knocking back the local beer – although drinking the local beer, as distinct from the tourist beer, was sometimes illegal in Cuba!
This is certainly not the way that most Seniors would choose to travel. However this book does illustrate in an informed and often amusing way the possibilities open to anyone who wishes to avoid the restrictions of mass tourism. She sometimes used her age and apparent harmlessness to do things and get to places that Cuban officialdom would ban for younger travellers.
The first of the three journeys involved travelling with her daughter and three young grandchildren, who seemed happy to accept the deprivations of the non-tourist transport system and accommodation in local homes or sleeping rough under the stars. After a brief stay in Havana, they travel to Santiago de Cuba and trek around the coastal area below the Sierra Maestra range, before moving on to the Guantanamo Bay area (taking care to avoid the military zone) and the easterly town of Baracoa.
Her second journey again starts in Havana where she meets a range of people, including a group of university students, and attends a ti’ chi session with a wide mix of Cuban participants. She notes that:
“ … a most agreeable feature of Cuban social life, the mingling of generations. This has a two-way civilising effect, helping older people to remain sympathetically interested in youthful concerns while the young benefit from what their elders learned the hard way.”
She moves on to Santa Clara the hub of the central plain of Cuba and treks down to Trinidad. This is a favourite tourist town on the south coast with some attractive colonial buildings, although Dervla prefers the noisy, colourful localities ten minutes walk from the colonial splendours.
After a brief visit to the eastern town of Bayamo, she travels to the west of Cuba to the tobacco growing Pinar del Rio province. She notes that:
“My abrupt transition from one end of Cuba to the other spotlit the ‘two Cubas’ image: the allegedly more Caribbean-flavoured Oriente and the more (let it be said in a whisper) US-flavoured Occidente.”
She was impressed by the splendid scenery in this region including the Vinales Valley with its conical limestone outcrops known as ‘mogotes’.
Her final journey is to the area around Camaguey in eastern central Cuba and then further east to Mayari, the village where Fidel was born and bred. The final stage of this journey took her through canefields to the southern coastal town of Manzanillo, where she succumbed to heat stroke and had to curtail her trip and return to Havana.
Dervla is self-opinionated and proud of it. This book can’t really be described as a tourist guide in that if she had her way there would be no tourist s other than herself (and family). However I can forgive her for this and for some of her other more extreme views because of the depth of knowledge imparted in her writings and the rich descriptions she provides of people and places.
Although initially Dervla suggests that Cuba is relatively crime-free, she later states that central Havana is becoming less safe, explaining that this has resulted from an increase in tourism. Whatever the cause, my personal experience suggests that you should take great care in Havana. It is the only place in the world where I, or rather my wife, has been successfully mugged, and that was with a policeman looking on!
Dervla does not try to disguise her enthusiasm for Fidel Castro’s style of government, including its excellent healthcare, which she sampled when affected by heat stroke. Nevertheless, she provides many examples in this book of the failings of the system and her descriptions of rail journeys in dilapidated trains with no indication of when they would set off or arrive is enough to persuade anyone to opt for the tourist Viazul buses. Even she had to admit at one stage, when the tourist bus was the only option, that:
“On the half-full Viazul bus I rescinded all scornful references to ‘air-conditioned luxury’; in that cool coach I could feel myself coming back to life.”
If you intend to travel to Cuba, then I strongly recommend you read this first! You may not visit, or even want to visit, many of the places she describes, but it will provide well-researched background to whatever type of holiday you take in Cuba, and who knows, it may persuade you to move off the normal tourist tracks and see more of the real Cuba.