Havana is a beautiful old city which has been in a steady state of decay since the 1959 revolution. It is full of warm, friendly people living in what are often squalid conditions amidst crumbling buildings.
We traveled to Havana on a short flight from Mexico City. Under President Obama’s new rules, travel to Cuba became much easier for Americans. A trip to Cuba still needed to qualify for one of 12 designated purposes, such as humanitarian aid or a family visit, but no longer required advance approval by the State Department. We checked the box for “Journalism” (thanks, blog readers!), and boarded the plane.
Traveling to Cuba is an exercise in simplicity, or rather a throwback to a less enabled time of tourism. U.S. cell phones do not function here. Internet is only available in a handful of public plazas or hotel lobbies. (You will find clusters of people huddling around their cell phones at these locations.) But the biggest throwback of all is that U.S. credit and debit cards are not accepted anywhere in Cuba. So, cash must be brought in to Cuba and exchanged for Cuban Pesos. Oh, and as retribution for the U.S. embargo, official Cuban money changing offices take an extra 10% fee when exchanging U.S. Dollars. To avoid the penalty, it is possible to find black market money changers. We eventually located one in the handicraft arcade.
Our Havana landlord met us at the Havana airport and took us on the 20 minute drive into the city center.
Immediately, two iconic images of Cuba take shape — 1950’s cars and revolution propaganda.
First, the Cars!
Havana is full of 50’s American cars. The finely restored cars are pretty much exclusively hired by tourists. The less-glamorous workhorses will pack in many locals at a peso a head for a ride across town. You will see locals standing on street corners waiving money in the air hoping to pull one over.
One evening, for $40, we hired a 1954 Buick for an hour-long sunset drive. Alain, our driver, was trained as a computer programmer, but he makes more money as a taxi driver now that he has his own car. The ability for someone to buy a car and start his own business is relatively new in Cuba, only started by Raul Castro after Fidel’s death. Alain was a true entrepreneur. He seemed pretty upbeat about Cuba, and said that Raul also promised to have open elections in a few years when he is ready to step down.
The smell of exhaust from a 1950’s car is a distant memory in the U.S., but it comes roaring back quickly in Cuba. Riding in a convertible at sunset, our eyes watered up from the clouds of exhaust spewed by the cars around us, as well as the occasional plume from the exhaust pipe of our own car when we drew to a stop.
¿Viva La Revolución?
Reminders of the 1959 revolution are everywhere in Havana.
In addition to seeing propaganda billboards and posters all over town, we also visited the Revolution Museum. It covered the prior Batista government, which really was very corrupt, brutal and U.S.-friendly. Displays then continued through the first unsuccessful attempts at a revolution and eventual success.
Outside, among a variety of military artifacts, the small boat used by Castro and his men to stage a raid from Mexico, the Granma, is on display.
Fidel Castro is idolized in all this propaganda. He is made to appear as a benevolent, father-like figure. His image is that of a philosopher-king, spouting words of wisdom and encouragement, and a courageous fighter against the wicked, imperialist Americans.
Of course, there is an underbelly to all of this hero worship. Listen to the whispers of the people and Castro emerges as a ruthless dictator. Like Stalin, he heartlessly eliminated potential rivals and imposed upon his country a severely autocratic rule. Castro made sure there would be no revolution against his government.
A huge portion of Cuba’s population was dispersed abroad — one in ten Cubans, according to one person we spoke to — a true diaspora.
Okay, but on the other hand Cuba under Castro all but eliminated illiteracy, which had been widespread under Batista. The communist government instituted universal, free public education. Every neighborhood we visited in Havana had a tidy school and the children seemed well disciplined, happy, and engaged in their studies.
Medical care in Cuba is excellent and affordable. We walked by the medical school at the University of Havana and it was alive with busy young students.
In these respects, Castro delivered on his promises.
But life in this socialist country is rough. It is extremely poor. Amidst the crumbling buildings, the streets are filthy; trash accumulates everywhere; one night we stepped over a cooked pig’s head in the gutter.
But whatever your opinion on politics, the key impressions that emerge upon a visit to Cuba is that the people are resilient and exceedingly good natured, and the culture is vibrant and enchanting, a unique combination of Spanish and Caribbean.
A Great Port
On our first full day in Havana, we toured the waterfront and visited the ancient fortifications at the inlet of the harbor.
A museum housed inside the stone walls really brought to life for us Havana’s historical role as a strategically located and naturally protected harbor between the New World and Spain during the early Spanish Colonial period.
Here, the Spanish galleons, loaded with precious metals from Mexico and South America, could stop for provisions before embarking on the long journey across the Atlantic to the Mother Country. Off the coast lurked pirates, ready to seize the precious treasure. Storms, too, threatened the great ships, and many were lost beneath the waves. Some of the wrecks have been discovered in recent years and their treasures — silver and gold — are on display. It was a most impressive exhibit housed in a picturesque, historical old fortress.
We were so glad we began our visit to Havana here, on the old waterfront.
Contagious Cuban Rhythms
How can anyone not dance when live Cuban music is being played? And it is played in many, many restaurants and bars. The usual shtick was for the band to play a few great numbers and then come around with a tip hat and CD’s to sell. We left Cuba with a handful of CD’s and maybe just a bit more swing.
One evening we made our way out to the Hotel Nacionál de Cuba, a famous landmark for celebrities and hoity-toity’s in Havana’s pre-revolution days. It is still a very elegant place for a drink on a cliff overlooking the ocean at sunset
As we walked back through the main lobby to leave, a bellman told us that the Buena Vista Social Club was going to be doing a show in 10 minutes, and that we could get dinner, two drinks each, and the show, all for only $50. The iconic Cuban musical group is world-famous so we said, “Absolutely”.
The show was fantastic. Among the dozen or so entertainers were two singers in their 80’s, a man and a woman, both of whom still had it going on. Toward the end of the show the audience hit the dance floor, and we were among them. How could we not?
In Havana, we felt as if we had been transported back to America in the 1930’s. Horse-drawn wagons are still occasionally used to transport goods. The streets are much less congested by traffic because most people simply can’t afford to buy a car. Major streets are relatively easy to cross on foot. The lack of motor vehicles on the wide boulevards seemed uncanny to us. Smaller streets are full of pedestrians who occasionally need to move onto the sidewalk at the honk of an approaching car or peddled tricycle taxi.
If one still waxes nostalgic for a simpler, romantic time in America, then Cuba is the place to visit. If one is offended by poverty and decrepitude, then Europe is probably the better option.
Life in Havana is jarring for someone spoiled by capitalism, convenience, and comfort. The few food markets have long lines and very limited selection.
Most neighborhoods have butchers working in the open on plain counters fronting right on the street. They have no refrigeration in these local butcheries. Sides of meat hang from hooks and the cut-up pieces are piled up in the open on wooden counter tops.
Individuals are allowed to sell a small amount of miscellaneous goods from their front doors. The lack of decipherable grocery stores made it impractical to purchase food and cook our meals at home, as is our custom.
We eventually found a market where we could buy bottled water and yogurt.
We also discovered the San Rafael produce market, an open-air market with wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables at bargain prices.
At the famous Café Escorial on the Plaza Vieja in the historic center, we purchased a pound of fresh roasted coffee (still hot from the roaster).
Although there were only a few people in line, we waited for almost an hour for the coffee; the pace of production was painfully slow; finally consummating the purchase felt like winning a lottery.
Ah, but the coffee itself was delicious.
These provisions allowed us to enjoy idyllic breakfasts at home, featuring beautiful fresh pineapple, mango, yogurt and flavorful coffee. Other than that, we ate all of our meals out.
Walking the neighborhoods of Havana at night is like wandering around a campground. People typically leave their front doors open to cool their apartments, allowing passersby to peer directly into their lives. Almost always the TV was on. On warm nights, the men are shirtless. Often one or two in the family would be sitting on the stoop on the street greeting passing neighbors.
Most tourists from North America or Europe stay in Old Havana, a small section of the city that was walled in the 1500’s to discourage pirate attacks. Sections of the original wall still exist.
Our apartment was a little bit farther afield, about a thirty-minute walk, or fifteen-minute ride by bicycle taxi, outside the old Centro Historico. There were few tourists in our neighborhood. We enjoyed the immersion aspect of the experience.
Most days we would venture into the touristic Old Havana section so that we could find restaurants and museums, but we were happy at night to return to the more authentic atmosphere of our own barrio. We were a novelty, the two of us, a pair of California Yankees, and people in our building were curious and welcoming.
We always felt safe on the street. Perhaps there is less crime in Cuba because nobody seems to have more than anyone else. Or perhaps the Cuban authorities and jails are best avoided. Daily we would encounter some police activity in some park or street corner. Some man or group of men would stand as police wrote in their books. Only once did we see handcuffs being used.
The worst we encountered was constantly being approached by aggressive cigar sellers who would begin by saying, “where you from?” We learned to wave them off rather than give false hope by attempting to engage in conversation. We are not cigar smokers and we did not purchase any cigars.
One distinctive aspect of Havana is the presence of grand old homes once owned by the gentry that were confiscated by the government after the revolution and “given” to poor people. Today they are dilapidated tenements, their former grandeur fading beneath peeling paint and crumbling ceilings.
Our Own Cozy Casa
We booked a nice little two-bedroom apartment using the Airbnb website. The owners were warm and wonderful hosts. They had really spruced up their old family home to make it accommodating for visitors.
Our hosts seemed especially glad to welcome a couple of Americans. It was very touching, this experience of a rapprochement between two nations, on a personal, one-on-one basis, after more than 50 years of estrangement.
In its original configuration, perhaps 70 or 80 years ago, our building had tall, 16 foot ceilings. At some point, a new story was wedged in, dividing the interior into two floors, upstairs and downstairs, with eight-foot ceilings downstairs for the living room, dining room and kitchen. The two resulting bedrooms upstairs had seven-foot ceilings. A steep, ,narrow metal staircase connected the upstairs and downstairs.
It was only upon awaking in the middle of the night after our first day or two that we realized what a fire trap the entire apartment was, especially the upstairs bedrooms. The few windows in the apartment opened into a central light shaft. All of the windows were fitted with security bars, meaning that there was no way out of the bedrooms except down the metal staircase, through the front door, and down the corridor toward the front entrance on the ground floor.
We took some comfort in knowing it was a concrete building, not particularly combustible, but that was not quite enough to deter bad thoughts if one is having difficulty sleeping or is otherwise prone toward anxiety.
The apartment was equipped with air conditioners in the two upstairs bedrooms. Pretty much every day during our week in Havana we retreated to the cool comfort of our bed for an afternoon siesta.
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Most of our worldwide travel has been rather comfortable. Cuba was a bit more gritty, but alive with music and warm people.
We wish the Cubans a brighter future as the government opens up economic opportunities and the U.S. ends its punitive embargo.