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Welcome to Cuba

Between a rebel, cigars, and an art exposition

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CUBAN DELIGHTS: Vintage American cars such as Chevies are a common sight on Havana's roads. No visit is complete without a cigar factory tour while Che and Castro figures make the best mementos

Welcome to Cuba", said the immigration officer as she stamped my passport after taking a tad too long to scrutinise my papers. Hungry and dead tired after the 20-hour long haul, I was beginning to get anxious.

Immigration formalities done, I pushed through the exit door and out of the airport to join my fellow artists. And there we were, with a sense of triumph clearly written on our faces as though we had conquered the first stage in a battle to reach that mysterious island nation soaked in the aura of the celebrated rebel Che Guevara and shunned by the world for its political leanings towards socialist communism. Our group is visiting Cuba to see the 11th Havana Biennial, a biannual exposition of contemporary art from around the globe. Sightseeing in Havana is an added bonus to this purely cultural field trip.

Tucked between the south east of United States and the eastern coast of Mexico, Cuba is a tiny island state in the Caribbean Sea. The history of Cuba is a saga of repression and struggle for independence under various colonial rulers, culminating finally in its liberation through the people's revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevera in 1959.

With its emerald green landmass fringed by the tranquil sea, and its bright sunny air filled with sounds of Latin music and cha cha cha, Cuba obviously is an ideal global holiday destination. But Cuba in 2012 lives in dream time, untouched by global economic hustle and bustle, sans neon signs and electronic ringtones. As our coach approached old Havana city (Habana Vieja) we could feel the clock winding back to the sixties. Two hundredyear-old colonial buildings encrusted with the patina of time standing tall and proud welcomed us. Classic American Chevies from the '60s roll down the main avenue as people stroll leisurely (even on weekdays) in idyllic plazas. And with folk musicians strumming foot-tapping rhythms on the guitar, one gets the feeling that this is the set of some multimillion-dollar Hollywood period flick.

In 1982, UNESCO declared Havana city centre as a world heritage site. Marvelous colonial architectural styles ranging from Spanish colonial structures to art deco prove the point as we walk through alleys crisscrossing Plaza de Armes, Templete Palace of Generals, Cathedral Square, Plaza Vieja and Hemingway's famous watering hole 'Bodeguita'. Our English-speaking guide, a chirpy Cuban lady, Ms Miledes, insists on taking us to Hotel Ambos Mundos for a refreshing mojito. "American Nobel Laureate Earnest Hemingway stayed in this hotel overlooking the Malecon bay seeking inspiration for his writings, " she fills in the details for our touristy interest. Mojito, a cocktail made of chilled white Cuban rum with crushed fresh mint leaves and a shot of lime, works like a magic potion on a sweltering hot day. Later as we move through cathedral square, sounds of Latin drumbeats and dancers accompanied by flower girls and acrobats on stilts usher in a carnival mood. "Tourism is very important for us and that's why the government promotes cultural entertainment and crafts in these areas, " Ms Miledes explains.

Years of international embargo have left their imprint on the Cuban economy and tourism is an important money-grosser for the country. Strange as it may sound, Cuba has a dual currency system. There is a tourist currency called CUC. One CUC is equal to a US dollar and can only be transacted in Cuba. The local currency called peso is meant only for the inhabitants of Cuba for local transactions.

The Vedado region is the cultural heart of the city with hotels and contemporary art galleries and museums jostling for space along the cobbled streets. We take a quick look at Museo Capitanes Genrales built in 1791 and considered to be a perfect example of Cuban architecture under Spanish rule. Museo de la Revolucion, Museo Nacinal de Bella Artes and Museo de Artes Decoratives are among many museums in the city that give the visitor a peek into the cultural history of Cuba.

Life in Havana is incomplete without art, music, dance and its famous Havana Club rum. Song and dance are so much part of the Cuban DNA that in every nook and corner musicians and dancers will try to entertain you with their bouquet of songs. You intuitively hum to the tune of popular songs.

Ms Miledes had reserved a table at a 'paladar', one of many private restaurants famous for good food and ambience. We have been consuming more or less the standard Cuban diet of chicken, rice and potatoes for a while. By now some of us were beginning to yearn for other cuisines and flavours. Cuba is certainly not a place for hardcore foodies. Like everything, hotels and restaurants are also owned by the government. However, paladares are exceptions to this rule and these private restaurants take pride in serving their guests. The guava pudding with cheese served as dessert made us forget all the gastronomic deprivation we had suffered so far.

Visits to a cigar factory are mandatory to complete the Cuban experience. Here every cigar is carefully hand rolled, quality tested and labeled by workers. A poster of Che with a cigar clenched in his mouth looms over the workers who are busy grading the best tobacco leaves from the stacks piled next to them. Each cigar goes through as many as 15 quality checks before it is sent to the market.

Che Guevara, one of the principal architects of free Cuba, is synonymous with Cuba. His iconic likeness is popular among the youth in every part of the world through posters and tshirts and his final resting place is in Santa Clara, a central province of Cuba and a three-hour drive from Havana. The memorial has a massive statue of Che holding a gun leading the way and is an inspirational figure to every Cuban child. Che actually means "special friend", explains Miledes. A small museum to Che and the soldiers who fell along with him in the war in Bolivia lies beneath the memorial. By now we were familiar with areas like Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Plaza de Revolcion where most of the biennial art exhibits are installed. Centro de Arte Contemporaneo Wilfredo Lam is the centre which conducts this event biannually with a mission to integrate the ancient cultural heritage of Cuba with its contemporary art practice. Art from the biennial was displayed in public spaces like Gran Teatro la Habana, which is the most celebrated opera house in the city, and open spaces like the promenade of Malecon and Miramar beaches. Facades of buildings and museums are roped in to display art that raises questions about contemporary life and culture.

If you need a break from the fast track of modern urban life, then Cuba is a perfect destination. It transports you back to an era when there was no information overload, no conspicuous consumption, no junk food, and no technology tangles to stress you out. People are genuinely warm and friendly and live contented lives with simple basic amenities.

But one wonders how long this 'innocence' and the old world charm of Cuba will remain and live on? Things are changing slowly but surely. 'Progress' and 'development' are knocking on Cuban shores.

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