It doesn't take long to be sharply aware we are in a Communist country. The only advertising signs along the featureless road between Havana airport and the city exhort the success of the 52-year-old revolution and hail those who brought it about - Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Then comes the abrupt contrast as, checking into Havana's five-star Nacional de Cuba Hotel, the uneasy alliance between Communism and capitalism becomes evident.
The elegant Colonial hotel, which has welcomed an impressive list of celebrities from Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra, has been preserved. But in Old Havana, the city that captivated and inspired Ernest Hemingway, it's a sad sight to see the once beautiful buildings crumbling quietly to oblivion. Grand homes with ornate facades echo the faded grandeur of Havana's heyday during the 1930s, when the city was vibrant and prosperous, buzzing with a hedonistic nightlife fueled by an excess of drink and drugs. Now the sculpted verandas are propped up with wooden beams, themselves bowing beneath the crushing weight of several stories above them. In these, families still live in precarious rooms threatening collapse at any moment.
"The Cuban people are afraid of nothing," says our guide proudly.
He omits to say that the people have little choice but to live anywhere they can find a roof still covering four walls. A renovation program was started 17 years ago to save some of the ancient architecture which is now embraced by a spider's web of scaffolding. In between, there are gaps where salvation came too late, like a once grand old lady ignominiously losing her teeth and unable to hide her shame.
Despite their poverty, the Cubans are good-humoured and welcoming, ready with a smile and a salsa, for music is everywhere.
Driving south, you see oxen hauling plows across the fields of sugar cane, mango, and citrus fruit. In wayside bars, ranchers in wide-brimmed hats lean on rails, nonchalantly rolling thin cigarettes and sucking on cans of beer while their horses stand like statues. It's scenery frozen in time, untouched by progress. There is no sense of hurry here, just an air of stillness that speaks of generations.
The government allows families to open their homes as restaurants, or paladares, though the amount they earn is severely restricted -- no free enterprise here. In the delightful southern town of Trinidad, our genial hosts, Maria and Juan, offered a lobster dinner for a mere 10 CUCs (the currency used by tourists), about £8 each.
When we returned to their home that evening, the buxom Maria had changed into a floral print frock stretched tight across her broad beam, a white frill of petticoat showing below the just-a-bit-too short hem. Two langoustine tails as big as a man's hand were put in front of each of us, with steaming bowls of rice and black beans, and a tomato salad.
As we struggled to finish the enormous meal, we were serenaded by the family musicians who quickly produced the ubiquitous CD -- every group has one -- and how could we resist? Maria hugged us farewell and we promised to send friends to eat in their home.
If America normalises relations with Cuba, and the US-Cuban floodgates open, it will change the face of this colourful and endearing island. It will undoubtedly save it from slow disintegration and lift the people out of poverty. But how long will it be before Starbucks arrives and nudges out the street corner café serving coffee as black as treacle, before burger and fries seem more appealing than black beans and rice?
View gallery: Cuba: For Now, A Country of Contrasts