What does visiting this mysterious slice of the Caribbean mean? What is Cuba really like, beyond the stereotypes? Writer Julia Cooke, who lived in Havana on and off for five years, paints an incomparable portrait of the country and the lives of its vibrant youth in her thought-provoking new non-fiction book, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba. We ask her what life is really like in the country.
Tell us about your relationship with Cuba.
I went to the country for the first time when I was around 20 and had the oddest feeling that I’d be back – even that Cuba would somehow be important for me – which sounds odd. But Havana in particular was a place that so engaged my senses, my intellect, and my ability to understand history and the present. I spent a college semester at the University of Havana, which was stimulating, challenging and fun, and I kept going back as I began to work as a journalist in Mexico City. Professionally, it’s such fruitful, engaging ground. A writer I know says that if you can’t write well about Cuba, you have no business writing at all, which I think is a good frame for the country’s general atmosphere, its richness. Writing a book was sort of an exorcism for me – I wanted to understand why it was that I loved Havana so much, and also to get it out of my system. I thought that if I lived there for a year, that’d be it; I’d be done with it. Which is, on some level, true – I don’t live there anymore and I certainly have great admiration for the people who do. It’s incredible, but it can be really tough. But I’ll never stop wanting to go to Cuba.
Do you think Cuba has been romanticised? There’s especially this attitude that we have to visit ‘before things change’.
Totally. The [American] travel ban has meant that the Cuba people read about or see in a movie, or the information students in Cuban studies courses read, isn’t often fact-checked against personal experience. Far more Americans visit Cuba than one would think, but still, the numbers aren’t high.
What were some of the most surprising discoveries you made living in Cuba?
Havana was much more sophisticated, exuberant and contemporary than I think it’s portrayed as being. One of the things that surprised me was the logistical complexity and richness of daily life there. Things as simple as going to the grocery store are complicated in Havana, but within that logistical difficulty, there’s serendipity and interconnectedness. You may meet someone really interesting in the collective cab from one store that was out of whatever you needed, to another that you’ve heard has it, or you may get the number of the black-market dude who can find it for you. I was also really surprised by Cuba’s privileged classes. People talk about Cuba feeling like a time capsule, or a time warp, which is mostly an aesthetic impression created by infrastructure and cars that haven’t changed much since 1959. But to me, the true time warp of Cuba is seen among its privileged classes, their old-school manners, their parties and their discretion.
Once and for all, Cuban espresso. Is it the best in the world?
Yep. Though I halve – quarter even – the normal amount of sugar that goes in it.
Do you have any plans to return to Cuba in the near future?
No firm plans, but many hopes.
Any recommendations for other recent travel writing you admire?
It’s not travel writing, but I’m currently reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I so admire her skill for characterisation and how she frames both foreignness and Americanness. Certain passages on leaving a much-loved homeland for more choice and opportunity elsewhere resonate with what I hear from Cubans. I’ve also been reading some Rebecca West travel writing, which is hardly recent, but is so fantastic. She writes about historical figures like she had lunch with them the day before. It’s amazing.
The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba by Julia Cooke is available for Dhs48 at www.amazon.com.
Need to know
KLM flies to Havana via Amsterdam from Dhs6,239 return.