Joanna Lumley travels across two of the most enigmatic countries in the Caribbean – Cuba and Haiti – to explore, uncover and share the hidden gems that these countries have to offer in this brand-new ITV series.
The Absolutely Fabulous star will kick off her adventure in the back of a classic car in Havana, outlining her 1500-mile Caribbean adventure.
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.
There really is much more to both Haiti and Cuba than the headlines suggest – so much of it is thrillingly under-explored and this series is the perfect chance for Joanna to uncover and share the joy these countries have to offer.
Joanna speaks about her experience in the Carribean:
Have you visited the Caribbean before? What made you want to make this series?
Joanna: I’d been to Jamaica to make a film about Ian Fleming. 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 cars, 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. The whole of Cuba was once absolutely stunning, but it got stuck because the revolution meant that most of the world cut it off because it was Communist.
It had Russia as its powerful friend, until the USSR collapsed in1991. Then Russia withdrew its support and Cuba was stuck with no friends anywhere. America was hostile and there were all strict embargoes and the country got poorer and poorer.
I loved the idea of going somewhere that, for one reason or another, people don’t go to as a matter of course. Lots of people go to the Caribbean, but the revolution took the huge island of Cuba out of the running.
What did you notice about the poverty of the country?
Joanna: 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 send them, lease them out, as it were, to African countries. But the average pay is 25 dollars a month. Even doctors are only earning 45 dollars. Therefore, everyone has roughly the same income, which sounds kind of good, utopian.
This sounds marvellous, there’s no envy, no possible class system, no snobbery or snootery, but the downside is that anybody who’s got an idea, like an entrepreneur, can’t get ahead with it. Everything is kept flat.
I met a charming designer who had a shop in old town Havana, and it was adorable and she had very nice ideas. I asked her what she dreams of and she said material – she can’t get any cloth. She can’t make stuff to sell. There’s a lot of hardship, but it’s all spotlessly clean.
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.
Most of the cars are very ancient, and they are so poor they keep the cars preciously clean, they look beautiful. It’s like a heavenly dream of old America when you see these cars in pink and blue and mauve and orange and scarlet, vast cars as big as this room. But that’s because they can’t afford any new cars, and anyway nobody will sell them any new cars.
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.’
Was there anything in particular you saw which made a real impression on you?
Joanna: It’s all terribly beautiful. I loved Santiago de Cuba, which is where the revolution started, where Fidel came from the hills with this idea of over-throwing the top-heavy, over-rich government.
It is very beautiful. 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.
Anywhere Spanish like in Madrid or Barcelona, they have great splendour. The Spanish are very splendid people. I thought Santiago was heaven. 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.
Was there anyone in particular that you met that made a real impression on you?
Joanna: 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.
There was also the rumba band. 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.
Was there any moment that took you out of your comfort zone?
Joanna: It’s very safe. But 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 have 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, really, the sea between Cuba and Florida, and the heat made us want to cry. You couldn’t think how to get cool.
What was it like inside the Cuban villa which once was so grand?
Joanna: The woman who owned it had been left it by her husband, a man from a grand Cuban family. She was absolute heaven. The house is fabulously wrecked.
Outside Havana, talk about Millionaire’s Row! There are masses of huge, grand houses with vast gardens. Now they are embassies or owned by government officials, but they used to be private houses.
There was a great scene in Cuba. It was very, very top heavy, so the rich were very rich and the poor were very poor and it had all come on the back of slavery. But now this charming widow’s house is gloriously shabby-chic, and the plaster is coming off.
We’ve come to see this as a rather great stylish statement and the interior has been in magazines, and fashion pictures are taken in front of such places, but honestly, it’s falling down.
What was it like in Hershey? Could you get a feel for what it was like originally?
Joanna: The man I met there was delightful. He went everywhere by horse and wagon. On the front of his house, the front porch, was his wagon, and sitting on the wagon, fanning themselves in the heat of the day, were his mother and his wife. And they said, ‘Hello Joanna.’ Then they showed me around the house. He was so interesting.
And they loved it when the sugar mills were all working because it was a huge community. Everybody worked for the same place then when that suddenly goes, there was nothing else there. Now they’re poor as can be. The children go to school, and the people run small garages and mend things, but nevertheless the country is so poor, you can’t believe it.
What was the shopping like?
Joanna: 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 it must be the black market. The shoes I bought came from Italy. 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 see Guantanamo Bay?
Joanna: It’s got a ten-mile exclusion zone, so you can’t go into it. Through field glasses you can just make out the nefarious prison camp in the distance. Guantanamo itself is a picturesque small town, it is Guantanamo Bay where the big naval base is.
It has a deep sea harbour which the Americans rented off the Spaniards when they were running Cuba, and then they hung onto it. Even during the revolution when Fidel Castro said, ‘We want the Americans out.’ they said, ‘No, we have a deal and we’re going to hang onto this bit.’ So there is this small area of land which is still American property. And the US pays something like 4000 dollars a year for it… but Cuba is so proud they would never cash the cheque.
Joanna Lumley’s Hidden Caribbean: Havana to Haiti premieres on Wednesday, 8 April 2020, 9.00 pm on BBC Earth (StarHub Channel 407).
Available as catch up onBBC Player– relaunching in April with a new design, and the ability to watch it on a bigger screen with Chromecast and Airplay.