Alright, so I just got back from Cuba. One lesson learned: never go there during Hurricane Season (September-October). Just our luck, Hurricane Irma, the largest recorded hurricane in history had decided to make a stopover at around the same time. We’d bought our plane tickets in May of 2017 for the first two weeks of September, and then ordered a Lonely Planet a little while later to start researching places to visit, apartments to stay in etc. We did remember reading that September can be the rainiest month of the year in this area of the Caribbean, and that it is also Hurricane Season. Meh, we thought: ain’t gonna happen. Fortune favors the bold, right?
This was a trip my wife and I had wanted to do for around 10 years or so, but other trips and family commitments had somehow always gotten in the way. Finally, we thought- we’re gonna make this happen. Havana: that ancient, decaying city just off the coast of Miami, perched precariously on a mysterious, forbidden island full of cigars, classic American cars, dangerously strong cocktails, fried plantains and the Buena Vista Social Club: Communist Paradise, here we come! Its gonna be great: just like North Korea, but with white sand beaches and better music.
Well, I’ll start with the good. Cuba is all these things and more. Its a fascinating, historical and beautiful country. I’d indeed like to go back and see more of it. It’s also quite a unique place. Not just because of its form of government and relative isolation from the rest of the world, but also because of the challenges that one faces as a tourist in just trying to understand how Cubans do things (I’ll cover these logistics in another post). Let’s face it, Cubans are a fiercely independent people, and they’ve chosen to do things their own way without the interference of the United States. You can agree with that or not.
Some friends of mine have been to Cuba a lot, and they say it takes multiple trips before you even start to see the reality of how the economy really works, the carefully constructed facade you see as a tourist, and how the majority of Cubans live day to day. I decided that although I am no lover of non-democratic governments, I’d go there first and see for myself what it’s really like before I made up my own mind.
Our trip started off great. We had reserved a simple apartment in Centro Havana for the first 5 nights. Centro Havana is the working-class barrio that a huge number of Habaneros live in. It’s bordered in the East by Old Havana, in the North by the famous Malecon seawall, and in the West by the more upscale Vedado neighborhood.
Centro Havana is probably the densest neighborhood I’ve ever stayed in. All those photographs and images you have in your mind of how Havana looks: it’s probably Central Havana. And it represents probably the reality of daily life for the vast majority of Cubans, not one that I would romanticize in the slightest. The 19th Century buildings are collapsing, paint is peeling in the humid tropical sun, shoeless kids playing football in the street, stray dogs, piles of fragrant garbage piled up in the streets. It’s also LOUD. At 8am on a Sunday, Reggaeton is already blasting from a neighbor’s 3rd story balcony, somebody is hammering on his car engine, motorcycles are roaring down the street, people are laughing, talking, singing, shouting, screaming. This symphony of madness seems to go on 24 hours a day.
However, how amazing to see a city entirely devoid of Americanized fast food chains, billboards, obnoxious corporate coffeehouses and bland international banking centers. Havana is unapologetically Havana, in all its ruinous grandeur. It’s probably unlike any other place on Earth.
It was also hot. Remember, this is 106 miles South of the tip of Florida at the end of summer; even my Brazilian wife found the heat debilitating. I remember sitting down at a restaurant midday, and the waiter brought us some bread and a refrigerated pat of butter to start. After about 10 minutes, I looked at the butter, and it had completely liquified. As had my brain…
Our apartment homestay hosts would serve us breakfast every morning at 9am on our balcony. By that point, sweat was already starting to drip off the tip of my nose as we tucked into our breakfast of eggs, tropical fruit, bread, ham, cheese and coffee. Thank God, every casa particular we stayed in had an air conditioning unit installed in every bedroom. I don’t think we could’ve hacked it otherwise. Just spending the day walking around in the streets wears you out after a few hours. The tropical sun, combined with the noise and black clouds of soot being spewed out from the cars, makes for a withering experience.
Havana (and the rest of Cuba) is also extremely safe. I’ve traveled and lived extensively in Latin America, and I’ve never been to a place where I felt so secure from street crime. I lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil for 4 years and just about every single one of my co-workers and in-laws became victims of either an armed robbery, an assault, a carjacking- even a few kidnappings. How refreshing it was to walk semi-drunk at night in downtown Havana, in streets as dark as squid ink, with not a care in the world.
Yes, there’s poor people sitting on their front stoops, and groups of young guys talking and gesticulating wildly on the corners at 1am, but nobody bothers you. Nobody. The worst thing that you had to look out for was the alarmingly large potholes you could fall into and break your ankle in in the darkness. Who can say that they could walk unmolested in any other big city at night in Europe, the US or the rest of Latin America? Even Police States have their plus sides…
One thing that was hard was the amount of Jineteros (“Jockeys”/Hustlers) on the streets of Cuba, and not just in Havana. They’re not too aggressive, but they just have to come up to you wherever you go. Indeed, it was hard to find genuine interactions with most Cuban people we met that did not have an ulterior economic motive as the end game. Cuban people are friendly and warm, as in most tropical countries, but when you’re only earning $20 per month, the lure of the tourist dollar becomes too hard for many to turn down.
They usually try to get you to buy a fake cigar at a cooperativa, direct you to a casa particular, or give them $5 for baby formula. I was sadly getting cynical to all this “friendliness”, so it was always a surprise when a Cuban simply said good morning to me, wanted to know where I was from, commented on the weather etc. and that was it: just being friendly to a stranger.
Another thing I did notice was Smartphones everywhere. Sad to say, but Cuba is changing and changing fast. Every Cuban under the age of 20 could be found sitting out on the dark streets at night, their faces illuminated by the pallid glow of a tiny telephone screen. No salsa dancing, flirting or shooting the shit with their neighbors, just staring vacantly into the screen of their telephones, texting away or surfing God knows whatever websites the Cuban government actually permits them them to read. In some ways, Cuba is not that unique anymore: most people listen to Reggaeton, wear American sports clothes and baseball caps, and probably welcome the influx of international shopping chains. I’m sure in a few years, Havana will be the next party down Spring Break destination for drunken frat boys from Ft. Lauderdale. See it now while you can.