Eleanor Hughes paints a picture of a country where time has stood still, and wishes she could stay.

Insignias have gone and the paintwork has lost its gloss on the 1950s American cars in which three men can sit abreast on the front seat. They thud along potholed streets. They belch black smoke. It lingers like dry ice among once-grand buildings whose balconies have crumbled and marble stairways cracked and tilted.

Inside a dim, musty shop, women queue at dark, wooden, glass-top counters that are a barrier to the sparse goods on shelves behind.

A vintage car in Santiago de Cuba. Photo / Getty Images
A vintage car in Santiago de Cuba. Photo / Getty Images

I pass a wooden cart where a man sells onions plaited together. At a cobbled intersection, where leafy branches poke through facade windows, a vendor wheels a wooden stall displaying brown bananas, wrinkled tomatoes and sweet potato.

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Stark white sheets and shirts flap on a rooftop. Across the road from the Panaderia, from where freshly baked bread smells waft, two men wrestle a floral-covered armchair on to a wooden handcart. I turn a corner into a tree-lined plaza. Every person is heads down over a cellphone. Cuba.

Occasionally something modern shows up, but more often than not I feel like I've gone back in time.

Children play soccer or baseball on the dusty streets of Baracoa, Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad, and men enjoy dominoes at tables on pavements. On one-person-wide, cracked pavements I reply "Hola", to the greetings of women embroidering in rocking chairs on verandas in the dimming, muggy evening. Others natter, leaning out of their street-front windows. I glance through the open wooden shutters of unoccupied windows and narrow doors straight into front rooms. A couple of old-fashioned armchairs or rocking chairs, a 1930s-style mahogany china cabinet displaying glasses and patterned china, and a 14" TV showing a baseball game fill the small spaces in many homes. Family photos might grace a wall. I spot eggs for sale from a doorway, shoes from a stairway, a few cotton reels and used-looking items from a front window. Signs on walls advertise rooms for rent. Every home seems to have one in rural Vinales, where oxen plough the red earth and green-leafed tobacco grows.

Here, it appears, time has stood still since the early 1900s. I follow the aroma of roasting coffee beans wafting from a lean-to off a square, concrete home. They heat in a battered metal pan over a small fire on a bench-height, concrete slab — the "stove". Inside the home, a woman washes dishes out the glassless window in a sink built on to the outside wall. Water purifies, dripping through a basin-shaped stone sitting in a metal stand. Few cupboards hold few belongings. When the average monthly wage is 30CUC, ($43), I guess you can only afford essentials. Definitely not a throwaway society.

Eleanor Hughes finds life spills on to the streets in Cuba. Photo / Eleanor Hughes
Eleanor Hughes finds life spills on to the streets in Cuba. Photo / Eleanor Hughes

Few stores sell household appliances but while you wait, there are places where old ones are fixed.

Motorcycle motors are tinkered with on pavements. Treadle Singer sewing machines are still used. Old LPs make good table mats. I ride in a taxi in which patches of floor have rusted away, another where a seat wears a T-shirt, covering ripped upholstery.

In Santiago de Cuba's steep streets, where Fidel Castro declared victory for the revolution, faded signs still remain proclaiming "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Ever Onward to Victory). A spacious store has little inside but oils and vinegars sold in recycled bottles, juices in recycled cans. I wonder how long it takes locals to save for something at the nearby Reebok store.

A stark window display catches my eye in main street Camaguey, pedestrianised and psychedelic compared to the surrounding grey avenues. Bottles of shampoo, washing powder and toilet paper pyramids are decorated with tinsel — it's nearly Christmas. Basics I take for granted. My guide, Rayner, buys a gift for his girlfriend — a razor with disposable blades. Apples for his mum.

They're both expensive, the apples rare.

"Sorry, no cheese today," a casa particular's (a private homestay) owner says at breakfast. She shrugs.

"It happens in Cuba."

A street scene in Havana. Photo / Supplied
A street scene in Havana. Photo / Supplied

"Sorry, we no have", is common at restaurants. Only three dishes on a two-page menu might be available. Vegetables out of season — forget it. (But meals are good, especially ropa vieja and that coconut sauce in Baracoa.)

When Rayner shows me a ration book, I'm astonished. Columns for basic items like rice, tea, coffee, salt, sugar, beans, eggs and oil, show each month's allocated amount dependant on the age and gender of a household. Prices, heavily subsidised by the Government, are written on a blackboard in a creaky, wooden-floored store in Trinidad. (rice costs a couple of cents for a kilogram). Rusty, old-fashioned scales with weights sit on the wooden counter piled with dried beans being bought by a woman wearing Lycra. So-called supermarkets, consisting of maybe three aisles, stock a small range of imported groceries. In one, the majority of shelves are bare, the freezer empty. New Zealand equivalent prices are unaffordable to many. So are cars.

Outside Havana, horse wagons and bicycles outnumber motorised vehicles. In Baracoa, where turquoise water laps at the seawall, horses clip-clop along the weather-battered, dusty Malecon pulling tarp-covered wagons reminding me of 1800s American midwest prairie wagons. Number plates hang from the back, side benches seat eight — they're taxis. Trucks transport people like cattle, heads peering over the sides of open-box beds. Children, three abreast on the back of three-wheeled bikes, are ridden to school. On the potholed road to Trinidad we pass by fields of tall, straight sugar cane and blue road signs showing a horse and wagon silhouette. Carts piled high with long grass or milk vats on the back, wagons with large wheels seating cowboy-hatted men wearing white gumboots, or bicycle traffic keep our speed down.

My head swivels taking in the sights. A watchtower piercing the sky on a 19th-century sugar cane plantation, a man holding out a cheese wheel for sale on the highway, a sidecar — its rider wearing a helmet that looks straight from World War II.

I find myself wishing I could stay, back in time.

Cuban flag in Trinidad.
Cuban flag in Trinidad.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

United Airlines

flies from Auckland to Havana, with return Economy Class fares from $2510. New Zealand passengers can travel on a through ticket, however they must comply with the UA DOT regulations, which can be found

.