Preconceptions of Cuba
The pictures of Cuba highlighted in the glossy pages of my guide book show a vibrant world of flamenco dancers and multicolored 1950s cars, and yet the blisteringly hot cement building my small plane touches down outside seemed to have little in common with the “La Bella Tierra” described by tourism websites. The elderly lady in the plane seat next to me had joyfully sobbed the entire hour long journey from Fort Lauderdale to Havana in anticipation of her first homecoming in over twenty five years.
The dirt streaked floors of the Havana airport seemed a universe away from the sparkling Starbucks I had left only 103 miles behind in Florida. But even more shocking was the lack of resemblance between these dimly lit airport halls and their impossibly slow moving lines and the colorful nation of music, dancing, and generous portions of seafood and mojitos I was expecting. I waited by the baggage claim for almost two hours with mounting anxiety as the lurching conveyer belt slowly spat out suitcase after suitcase, all of which were wrapped in layer after layer of saran wrap. When I asked a young man from my flight standing nearby about the saran wrapped bags he gave me a sympathetic look that I interpreted as concern for my ignorance, and informed me that it protects against theft. I asked if theft is common and he shrugged and raises an eyebrow.
“Common enough that I hope my cameras made it through”.
My welcome to Cuba
I found out that he was a photographer, originally from Cuba but living in Miami. Two of his suitcases already lay at his feet, but despite the fact that his trip was only three weeks, he informed me that he had four more bags that are yet to make it through, all stuffed with an assortment of “American” gifts requested by his large Cuban family. “In Miami,” he said, “there is opportunity to make money. Here, not so much.” He smiled slightly and continued dryly, “My family thinks I must be very rich. Bringing the presents is my duty.”
Yet despite his life of opportunity in contrast to his family’s lives of apparent struggle, when I asked him if he liked Miami he answered simply but confidently: “No.”
“In Cuba,” he continued, “everything is slow. Money? Slow. Business? Slow. Internet? Slow. Airport?” He gestured towards the baggage claim that was, sure enough, barely jolting along. A slow life is difficult, and life in Miami is fast. It’s a race.” He paused as if searching for words, but then finished simply. “In Miami, everyone is always in a rush. Cuba is my home.” The conveyer belt lurched forward a few more inches, and his final bag popped out. He picked it up, and I enviously watched him walk to the exit; turning back briefly only to say, “Enjoy Cuba. Bienvenido.”
My own bag eventually did appear, and as I heaved it through the large double doors that separated airport from street the eerily quiet and dark airport halls melted away into a land that far more closely mirrored my mind’s image of Cuba.
My tour guide was named Armando, and from the windows of his pastel blue Chevrolet, I watched Havana materialize before my eyes. Other equally old and equally colorful chariots raced by us on the highway. The ocean in the distance shimmered blue against the horizon of the city. A tall star shaped monument rising out of a field, which Armando identifies as the José Martí Statue, whirred past my line of vision. Gradually, the airport highway narrowed into a wide street, and then smaller streets, and then a network of narrow roads twisting through lanes of bright stucco buildings that must once have been luxurious.
This was Vedado. Armando told me it was once the land of the very rich, but in modern day Cuba, a land without much of a population of very rich to speak of, it was, while not poor, relatively stripped of its former extravagance. Hotels in Cuba were few and far between, expensive, big, and generally pretty isolated both from the physical center of the city. So instead I pulled into the gravel driveway of a casa particular, the cozier, cheaper, and smaller “Cubanized” version of Airbnb. It was an old house off a narrow road on a hill, ordained with elaborate shutters and window panes and bright paint that had begun to peel, giving it a slightly dilapidated facade.
My arrival was met by the house’s owner, a middle aged playwright who swung open a heavy wooden door that led into a dimly lit stairway. Making my way up the stairway, I came to a far brighter hallway lined with a mosaic of tiles and open windows through which a warm breeze filtered in, causing the potted plants suspended from the low wooden ceiling to swing slightly. At the end of that hall was the kitchen; a small room composed of shelves lined with a carefully organized array of decades old cooking supplies that filled with the sound of the host family’s grandmother’s rapid Spanish chatter and the aroma of papaya juice, coffee, and egg tortillas every morning promptly at 7 am. My room was off the kitchen, and at first it appeared to be a clean but unremarkable space of yellow tiled floor, two twin beds, a large full length mirror, and one window drawn with heavy brown curtains. Exhausted, I was tempted to collapse into one of the beds, but a slight rustle of the curtains caused me to pause, and instead, I pulled back the drapes.
Havana by Day
Havana from above was a world within itself. The first thing I was struck by was the colors. Red brick meeting white paint meeting green gardens and tan pigeon coops that collided on the horizon with a distant azure ocean. Only an instant later I noticed the life, because Cuba from above was, if nothing else, alive.
As far as the eye can see, children crawled across the flat roof surfaces, shimmering in and out of sight as they moved between miles of heat waves, causing them to at times appear to be nothing more than a mirage. Clothing lines were strung between the wiring of chicken coops that crisscrossed from building to building, tended by groups of laughing woman. The roofs of Havana were so alive within themselves that if I didn’t know better, it wouldn’t have been hard to believe that the entire city existed solely in this world of glimmering sky and expansive surfaces.
However, underneath the roofs were the streets, and seemingly only instants after I tore myself away from the window for a quick nap I was awoken to a room awash in the orange glow of sunset, and, in the fading light, decided to forge into the city myself.
The street off my casa was loud and local and busy, and as I walked down the gently sloping road in the general direction of the ocean, the dim light and flash of colors made the whole scene appear relatively dreamlike.
Most Cuban restaurants are state run and accept local currency, serving simple food in simple buildings, and while I grabbed lunch at a few of these over the next week my first night I was drawn towards the warm glow of a church like building that I later learned was one of the privately owned restaurant referred to as “paladars”. This particular place was called “Burrito Habanero”, and while there was no indoor seating and instead merely a small patio lined with about seven tables, I felt an attraction to the way the lush garden that surrounded the patio provides an oasis of green in the urban jungle, and even more so by the family of kittens that darted between tables, grabbing a bite of leftovers where they could. I ordered something at random off the fully Spanish menu, and the burrito-like dish I receive contradicted everything I had heard about Cuba’s culinary mediocrity.
Havana by Night
It was 10 pm by the time I finished my meal, but as I continued down the street the night seemed to have barely begun. I passed the fabled ice cream store Coppelia’s, but when I asked a girl at the end of the line that snaked down the street how long I would expect to wait if I jumped in, she responded cheerfully that it shouldn’t be more than two hours and so I continued on my way.
Yet as I continued past the rest of the line, there was an air of satisfaction in the smiling faces. A sense of a general understanding that no one is remotely annoyed, or would even think they had reason to be remotely annoyed by the fact that they would not be receiving their ice cream till past midnight. No one cut the line, no one rushed the line, no one left the line, no one even complained about the fact that the line appeared to be at a complete standstill. The lucky ones who had already claimed their ice cream meandered down the sidewalk towards the Malacón; the sea barrier that runs the length of Havana, lined on one side by the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by what seems to be the entire population of Cuba materializing around dusk and remaining until sunrise. Those left behind in line were unconcerned, confident in their knowledge that as the night went on they too would join the others on the “largest bench in the world”, and equally assured in their knowledge that there was no rush. As I continued past Coppelia’s and it disappeared behind me, I found myself not admiring so much their patience, but their apparent unwavering happiness.
The remainder of my trip passed in a whirlwind that, without a doubt, was magic in a way that only a place that is entirely unintentionally magical can be. A stop for Wi-Fi at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba turned into a slow meander first down the grandiose halls, and then out onto an expansive ocean view patio where I was immediately served a mojito, and then ushered towards a ticket booth for a flamenco show that ended up going on well past two in the morning. Dinner at La Guardia started in what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse-like building and ended at the top of a long stairway, sipping Pina Coladas on a fancy barstool with the best views in the city. A lunch stop in Old Havana turned into hours wandering the streets, utterly lost but equally without destination, completely content with hour upon hour of exploring. Seconds are minutes here, and minutes are hours, and hours turn into days and by the time I found myself back at the airport I was unsure if I have barely just touched down, or if I had been in Havana a lifetime.
A Changing Cuba
It is this slow pace of life that defines Cuba. The myriad of candy apple red, pastel orange, pink, blue, and green cars from the 1950s, the cobblestone streets of Old Havana lined with open air restaurants that fill with the sound of loud music, the families that line the Malacon sipping orange soda, seemingly oblivious to the clock that strikes first midnight, then one AM, then two. Cuba appears to be entirely untouched by the passing of time, entirely unmoved by day’s fading into nights and years fading into decades, entirely unchanged by the rush of life that has sprouted high rises out of cobblestones in so much of the rest of the world. Buildings here are not marked with signs detailing their historical significance, cars don’t bear inscriptions proudly proclaiming their genuine antiqueness, a block of quaint cafes is not met with a McDonald’s merely two blocks down. The past of Cuba is not preserved, as, at least to an outsider’s eye, there has been no deliberate act of preservation. The past simply is the present, and the present is unconcerned by the impending future.
Cubans love for Cuba was radiant in everyone I talked to, and yet their love for the unchanged world they had known and loved for decades intermingled with a longing for growth. The same man who treasured his century old family artifacts in our Casa Particular shrugged almost disdainfully when I commented on the architecture of an old and exquisite, if slightly decrepit, mansion across the street, and proudly turned my gaze towards a distant cement skyscraper, which to me appeared simply as an eyesore in an otherwise magnificent landscape.
When I asked about what inspired his love for the skyscraper, he responded in broken English, telling me that “The world is always changing. Buildings like that show Cuba changes too.”
“And this change is good?” I asked.
This gave him pause. “Change is inevitable,” he said, and then hesitated, gesturing down the street. “Cuba won’t be like this forever. You’re lucky you came when you did.”
And change is inevitable. Even as I floated down the streets of Havana in what appeared to be a dream of a world preserved in the past, I encountered the occasional gray modern car amidst the technicolor blur of old ones, offering me a glimpse of what a changed Cuba would look like in contrast to the country I found. Change in Cuba brings growth to it’s people, but it also brings loss to a past that has become its culture. As I roam the endless maze of cobblestones and slowly eat ice cream to the sound of waves crashing against the Malacon, I am glad I came when I did.
Written by: Chloe Pingeon
Chloe Pingeon is a 17 year old student based in Boston with a love for travel, and has recently adventured throughout Latin America, Europe, and India, and is currently in Peru. You can follow her adventures on her YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/channel/UCgeZiv86ecxmS5o77oXP08A .
Preconceptions of Cuba photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Havana by Night photo: Flickr Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)
All other photos by: Chloe Pingeon
For more ITKT travel stories about Cuba
For more ITKT travel stories about Caribbean