KOCHI: THE chunky man sitting behind the immigration counter at the Jose Marti International airport smiled broadly while stamping the seal on my passport. La Bienvenida a Cuba (Welcome to Cuba). Gracias senor (Thank you sir). Formalities were over swiftly and I was free to roam around my dream destination. Cuba: The holy land of revolution.
The land of Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Havana, Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad topped my must-see-places list. As I set out to script my own ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ my mind was filled with the usual images - old cars, cigar-chomping folks, smoke-tasting rum and imprints of a generation that revolted against colonialism. However, they were made only for the Cuban ink. The golden relics of revolution that I was so eager to pick up from across the country were reduced to sepia-toned nuggets. Those who had a first-hand knowledge of the pre-revolution Cuba and the grand struggle itself were few and far between. The younger generation rely on those stories to attract the ever- swelling visitors. Juan, then a 35-year-old cabbie/guide, spoke about Cuba’s resistance of the ‘forces from the West’. For him, Fidel was the ‘great camarada’ (Comrade) and Guevara, the El Che.
He took me through the streets and cellars of Cuba where Castro, Che and others marched or according to Juan, held a secret meeting. The Cuban Government’s deliberate attempts to keep the flames of revolution burning was so evident. Government buildings adorned the images from the era of fight. There were spontaneous gestures like people naming their shops as ‘Guerrilla.’ A one-day trip to Biran, the birth place of Castro helped me gain some insight into the leader. Some old folks recalled Castro’s quick visit to his place of origin many years back. “He came to several of our houses.
He still remembered many of his old friends. He’s a tough leader. But he has a human side too. We had kept a bundle of cigars for him. He had quit cigars by then. But he accepted our token of love,” recollected Antonio, a septuagenarian. Some will brand him a brave fighter and some a dictator. But in Cuba, he remained the El Comandante. Forever.