The past three months have been total but beautiful chaos for me (more on that later). Because of this, it has been almost impossible to give myself the ounce of time and creativity needed to write a meaningful post about the complexity and sheer beauty that is Cuba.
But I’m going to try now.
For the past few years, my colleagues in the Student Affairs department have been awarded a 3-4 day international trip of our choosing (within budget and reason) from the President of our company. It is such an incredible perk and is always great spending uninterrupted time with the wonderfully, weird and fun ladies I work closely with. This year when choosing our trip there was no competition or second thought on where we wanted to go, Cuba.
As of December 17, 2014, Cuba was finally open to American tourists again after 56 years of embargo. I honestly never thought I’d make it to this country in my lifetime and when it became a possibility and was happening, I devoured every bit of information that I could about Cuba before we left (although sadly I’ve already forgotten most of the historical details). I read two books: Waiting for Snow in Havana and Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba. I watched the entire documentary series on Netflix. I really wanted to try and understand as best as possible; Cuba and America’s complex history and how Cubans viewed these politics. And, what did Cubans really think of the Castros? As much as I learned ahead of time, it does not compare to the experiences and information I encountered while we were there.
Although this trip happened a few months ago and some of my memories are already fading, I’m going to try my best to highlight some of the things we did, saw, and learned in our short four days in this beautiful country.
First, it is no secret that the internet and WiFi in Cuba is lacking. I was excited about this prospect to completely disconnect from the outside world and enjoy my surroundings and the people I was with. However, there are small ways to find access to Wifi and through this thankfully, we were able to book this gorgeous Airbnb in the Vedado neighborhood (which was very quiet, safe and local – highly recommended!) We quickly observed that many of the buildings and homes in Cuba were similar to this one in that they have high ceilings and are very ornate. You can find the smallest details in the paneling or in the columns in the homes.
Our first day in Havana was filled with a lot of exploration and learning about Cuba’s history. Our Airbnb host was able to set up a “Classic Car Tour” of Havana and a guide who spoke English, Andy! The classic cars in Havana are everywhere and it’s impossible not to be constantly impressed and taking pictures of all of them. The chauffeur who took us in his car, bought his classic car from his father who purchased it in the 1950’s. Some owners take great care of their cars, restoring them and giving them new paint jobs. While others look like junkers and start to reek of fuel.
The very first stop on our tour was this amazing village called Jaimanitas. The artist Jose Fuster has been working and creating a community art project for over 10 years. The entire community is filled with these beautiful pieces of art covered in Spain’s Gaudi style ceramics. I could have spent the entire day wandering around here.
The next stop was the dream-like Parque Almendares. Located in the center of Havana, this park was jaw dropping. The beautiful vines and vegetation was like nothing I’d ever seen before. What is also fascinating about this park, is that many locals who practice the religion, Santeria, use this park to make sacrifices and worship. We definitely saw some bones and bottles on the ground that seemed to be left from these practices. Apparently most Cubans who are religious are either Catholic or practice Santeria.
Street views. On the left is one of the biggest cemeteries in Havana.
After the park, we visited the Plaza de la Revolucion. This square is a very important place in Cuba and Havana. This is where Fidel Castro has addressed millions of Cubans on numerous occasions and holds the memorial to Cuba’s beloved poet and national hero Jose Marti, the National Library, the Palace of the Revolution, Ministries of the Interior and Communications (seen below with the revolutionary Che Guevara’s facade).
This part of the tour was very eye opening for me because I never really understood how most Cubans felt about Castro and the Revolution. What we learned, based on what Andy told us, is that the Cubans who still live in Cuba revere and respect the Castros. Those who fled in the 1960s mostly to the United States, were the rich who despise the Castros and the Communist Party.
I love this scene below snapped from the moving car.
After our classic car tour with Andy, we really wanted to explore Old Havana which is full of history, color, and locals. Here are some of my favorite shots from Old Havana below.
Street dominoes is huge. You can find people with pop up tables like this on just about every street in Old Havana playing and betting against each other. A couple of my colleagues even tried their hand at it one night!
One of my very favorite things and memories from Cuba, was going out at night. The night scene in Havana is a blast and it seems like you can find some kind of party, live music, and dancing every night of the week.
I wish I could remember the name of this bar below (I know it was something Russian). But these guys were amazing and they decided to pull me up in front of everyone to do this dance “To the left.. to the right..” (see name of this post for a taste of it in Spanish). Thankfully two of my coworkers saved me and didn’t make me do this alone in front of everyone.
The next night, which was a Sunday, we went to this huge open air bar with a stage. On the stage were live singers, dancers, and everyone in the crowd was following along with the dance moves. Although I attempted, I couldn’t follow along unless they were just carelessly waving their hands in the air but it was still SO much fun.
On Sunday we decided to check out one of the touristy spots in the city, La Bodeguita del Medio, which is where Ernest Hemingway frequented and enjoyed mojitos while he was living in Havana. The ambiance was cool inside but it was really crowded and the mojitos definitely weren’t the best that we had (and more expensive).
Our final day in Cuba was spent here: Plaza Mirazul. Only about a 30 minute drive from central Havana this beach was everything. Landy, our server, served us fresh pina coladas and rum drinks in coconuts and a fresh lunch of shrimp and rice directly on the beach while we got to fully enjoy the people behind us flopping around in the waves taking selfies for an hour.
On one of the final days we were in Cuba, I got into a lengthy conversation (all in Spanish so some of my understanding could be slightly off) with one of the women who works in the kitchen and cleans the Airbnb we stayed in. She explained to me the beginnings of the good, the bad, and the ugly of living in Cuba and living in a fascist country – something I didn’t really grasp or understand fully until she explained to me what her life is like. Something a tourist maybe wouldn’t see directly on the surface behind the cigars, delicious rum drinks, and salsa dancing.
No matter what schooling or training received, a typical Cuban earns approximately $12 USD in Cuba (unless someone is a doctor or engineer who maybe make $30 USD a month). The people are given from the government a house, healthcare, free education, and a stipend for food. However, if you need a new shirt it’s about $7 USD. Or if to buy extra meat for the month to feed your family, that can be $5 USD. Either of these simple purchases can cut into half of a monthly salary. Then, if you need to take public transportation every day to get to your job (which this women did), then that adds up. Therefore, the people really don’t have much opportunity to save money or move upwards. You have to be okay with things pretty much staying the same. She told me she will never leave Cuba. She will never own a car.
However, because everyone has the same things, Cuba is very safe. Yes, the men are pretty aggressive towards women (at least they were to us) but you don’t see much violent crime or theft. Anyone who is homeless in Cuba typically chooses to be. And, the people pretty much have all of their basic needs taken care of. Which would you choose?
My stay in Cuba was many things – informative, confusing, fun, interesting and definitely not long enough. I don’t think I did the best job explaining the complexity of the place because I don’t think I got a chance to fully understand it myself. What I did learn is that it is absolutely a country that I want to re-visit. I would love to go back to Cuba and explore so much more of the country and try to understand it better. But in the meantime, I’ll be dreaming of this most perfect Cuban daiquiri.