Those were my first thoughts upon landing in Havana against the wishes and the law of the United States government. Using a friend’s wedding in Mexico as the perfect cover and jumping-off point, Laura and I decided to steal a surreptitious look into that “inner sanctum” they call Cuba.
While the cars and prices may not have changed much, Cuba no longer represents the warm and vibrant party-like atmosphere that attracted so many Americans to these parts in the 40’s and 50’s. Cuba, I soon learned, can be a depressing place. But to describe it solely in those terms would be a terrible injustice. No, the Cuba that I found was too pregnant with contradictions to be summed up in a neat little package with a bow around it. Ideologically isolated, yet geographically close, Cuba can best be described as a forbidden fruit, possessing multiple layers and begging to be explored.
What I, like many Americans, failed to consider is that Cuba is much more exotic to us than it is to the many others free to travel there. For tourists coming in from Europe for their Cuba holiday, the island is full of sun and sand and a place to relax for a long weekend to escape the winter doldrums. That I was not one of a few very brave foreigners that dare enter Castro’s domain immediately gave me a feeling of disappointment.My vision of Cuba had been a movie set: filled with beautiful colors, beautiful people and beautiful food. But I arrived to find a more subdued reality, one of darkness amid crumbling buildings and a depressed people. It was neither the rum-soaked roving beach party the movies insisted it was, nor the classy, Latin version of today’s Vegas. What I initially experienced was a daily struggle and constant grind for the people trying to get by on insufficient rations. Most human innovation seemed wasted upon trying to exploit the system in an effort to purchase goods on the black market not provided by the government. This was necessitated by a need to supplement their meager government salaries, all the while fearing and trying to avoid the wrath of “La Barba” (the Bearded One).
But, this is not to disparage travel to Cuba. No, in fact, I highly recommend it! Surprised? Cuba is a truly unique place, and not only for notorious reasons. My earliest observation is also the most memorable in my mind. Driving into the city from the airport, I was struck by nature’s primacy on the island. The lush vegetation we saw everywhere was not simply a result of tropical temperatures taking course; instead, it was a conscious effort on the part of the government not to be conquered by capitalist interests. There are no Cancun-style high-rise condos, no copycat T-shirt stores or souvenir shops lining every street and no unctuous sales types trying to lure you into their Carlos O’Something Irish bar, quite refreshing for incoming tourists.
In that same vein, save a few Che or Fidel pictorials, there are no billboards, no advertisements and no marketing materials constantly fighting for your attention. Given that Laura and I were both employed in the marketing field, this struck another chord – our jobs, our entire industries rather, did not even exist here. Disappointing perhaps, but on a base level, I think this is again refreshing.
Music continues to play an integral role in Cuban society. Because the musical arts is one of Fidel’s pet projects, musicians are encouraged through state patronage. It seems every which way I turned, there was live music flowing out of dilapidated music halls and into the streets, giving credence to the belief that Buena Vista Social Club is not even the best musical outfit Cuba has to offer. In this way, Cuba, and particularly the cultural and political capital of Havana, still maintains the Latin musical flair and history that it has long been synonymous with.
Along with great music comes great dancing. One of our favorite nights in Cuba took place in a neighborhood square in the colonial town of Trinidad, home to the plantation mansions of the the 18th and 19th century sugar barons past. Mojito in one hand and a cigar in the other, I watched as the square filled with locals of all ages coming to dance, beginning with live music at 10pm and continuing on until the early hours of the morning. This is how the locals escape, so to speak, and forget about the difficulties in their lives, taking pleasure in something so simple. Our last night brought us to one of Havana’s most popular music clubs where a spectacularly entertaining band created a blend of jazz, rumba, mambo and salsa using a variety of African and Caribbean beats and instruments.
Cuba is now, in its own way, creating a new style of communism – state-run capitalism, not too dissimilar to that of China. The government now uses 50% of tourist revenue to rehab crumbling colonial edifices, many being turned into hip cafes, art houses and restaurants in the Old Town area of “La Habana Vieja.” The other 50% of tourist revenue is then pumped back into schools, hospitals and other resources the citizens need. This is long overdue, in my opinion, and sadly still benefits tourists more than locals. But, it’s a step in the right direction.
So, after reading this, you might be confused as to how I feel about Cuba. For that, you are forgiven, because in many ways, I am, too. With Cuba, you can’t peel away a layer and see or feel the soul of it. I realize now that finding the unique core of this place takes time, patience and persistence. As an explorer, I haven’t met a destination yet that I haven’t longed to discover more of or get to know on a deeper level. I guess in this way, Cuba presents a hefty challenge. I’m up for it.