Joanna Lumley takes on Cuba

Joanna Lumley has completed another adventure.

But forget tourist hot spots – the much-loved actress travelled across two of the most enigmatic islands in the Caribbean (Cuba and Haiti) to explore and share the hidden gems that both have to offer.

The two-part documentary series ran on ITV this past March. She kicked off her journey in the back of a classic car in Havana, outlining her 2400-kilometre Caribbean exploit.

She goes on to explore the back streets of Cuba’s capital city, meet a rising female boxing star, watch a cabaret, and read to factory workers as they roll cigars.

The twists and turns of history have seen these two Caribbean neighbours be colonised, populated by slaves, blighted by natural disaster and suffering sanctions and international isolation.

Both countries are undoubtedly poor in monetary terms, but are abundantly rich in other ways, with cities full of colourful streets bursting with the rhythm of life, which then give way to unspoiled coastlines, pristine beaches, majestic mountains and lush forests.

We’ll watch as Joanna Lumley uncovers the beauty of these countries, travelling to tranquil beaches loved by writer Ernest Hemingway, to “infamous revolutionary cities” and the “troubled present” of these places.

At the beginning of the trailer, Ms Lumley explains: “I’m going on an adventure through two of the most intoxicating countries in the world. This unique journey will glimpse the hidden side of these fascinating places – why don’t you tag along?”

What else? Tagging along for the ride, we find out more about the first leg.

Have you visited the Caribbean before?
“I’d been to Jamaica to make a film about Ian Fleming [but] I don’t know what I expected from Cuba. I’ve met lots of people who’ve been there, mostly to Havana, and they all said, ‘Oh, the old-fashioned cars. Hurry, because it’s going to change, and you’ll lose that beauty of old Havana.’ Well, I don’t think that Cuba is moving fast enough for old Havana to change for a long time.

“They might put up a couple of new hotels but all the old splendour of the streets, and the beauty, it’s a stunning city. I loved the idea of going somewhere that, for one reason or another, people don’t go to as a matter of course.”

And you found that in Cuba?
“Lots of people go to the Caribbean, but the revolution took the huge island of Cuba out of the running. Obama went there, when he was in power, and they were too thrilled almost to speak. He said they were going to open it up, and cruise ships were going to go there again from Florida. He said the USA would trade with them again. But Obama’s term of office came to an end, Trump got in and shut everything again.

“Cuba is popular, but I think we went off the beaten track; and very few tourists have been to Haiti as it is still on the Foreign Office list as a country unwise to visit.”

What can you tell us about poverty there?
“In Cuba everybody’s poor. They have a brilliant education system; everyone is literate and educated. They train more doctors and dentists than almost anywhere in the world and lease them out, as it were, to African countries. But the average pay is $25 a month. Even doctors are only earning $45.

“Therefore, everyone has roughly the same income, which sounds Utopian – no envy, no class system, no snobbery – but the downside is that anybody who’s got an idea, like an entrepreneur, can’t get ahead with it. Everything is kept flat.”

You said you felt very safe travelling there, too
“It’s as safe as houses. You can walk out on your own in the middle of Havana, or any of the cities in Cuba, and nobody would ever touch you. Immensely courteous, sweet, kind, honest people. But they are stuck in a time bubble of 1959. In all the villages, throughout the countryside, travel is by horse and cart, or bicycle: they can’t afford the petrol. But it’s an astonishing place and I would say, ‘Do go there.’”

Did you find some time to shop?
“I went and bought some shoes. In a back street there was a door open, and I looked in and they said, ‘Hello, do you want to come and buy?’ And you go in, and you think, ‘Is this a shop?’ You climb up steep steps into somebody’s house, where they have a rail with a few things hanging up. It’s extraordinary.

“I think this has to be the way for people to exist. What you must do as a visitor is tip lavishly wherever you go, because the people who clean your room and serve you tea, the people in shops, desperately need money. Five dollars is nothing to us, but to them, it’s a fifth of what they get a month.”

Did you ever feel out of your comfort zone?
“What was out of my comfort zone was the heat. I wish you could feel the heat on television. I wish you could have a heat button. It was baking. I’ve been in hot places before, but it was just so humid. It was unbelievably, drainingly hot. In the place where they built the luxury resort, you’re in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, the sea between Cuba and Florida, and the heat made us want to cry. You couldn’t think how to get cool.”

Did you meet anyone in particular who made a lasting impression on you?
“I was terribly taken by two young girls in Guantanamo Bay, one a singer and one studying to be a doctor. Incidentally, Guantanamo is a beautiful town. What touched me was that with all of their performances, it was like an offering from them. They have ceremonies beforehand with honey and candles and prayers and blessings and drumming and dancing, to sanctify what they do, and then they go do their dancing and music. And it is so good.”

Finally, do you have a stand-out trip highlight?
“I loved Santiago de Cuba, which is where the revolution started, where Fidel [Castro] came from the hills with this idea of overthrowing the top-heavy, over-rich government. Because most of Cuba was settled by the Spanish, it was built in a Spanish way around squares. Every square had a cathedral, a grand hotel, maybe something like a huge library, possibly a university. It’s terribly grand.

“It’s also very hilly, which makes for a beautiful city, so you’re always looking over to something. And it has a harbour; it used to be a great port with sugar going in and out, cruise ships coming in. It’s got a very lovely, buzzy feeling.”

Have you ever been to Cuba or is it on your travel list?

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