I enabled Wi-Fi mode on my cell phone curious to see if, in a city of 2 million people, there were any wireless signals, even weak or locked ones. And nothing. My hunch to travel here was confirmed yet again. Perhaps this is one of the few places left on earth where one can be connected in the midst of vibrant city life while being disconnected from the ubiquity of the digital world. There’s a refreshing purity about it, like being able for the first time in a long time to taste a food on it’s own–an unadulterated dish on the side that hasn’t absorbed the meat juices, a country that’s somehow avoided the homogeneity created by the Internet but without being remote or rural. The half-dozen or so hotels in all of Havana that are wired to the web charge the equivalent of $10 US dollars per hour to connect, that is if it works that day. Learning how few Cubans have ever left the island only adds to that sense of seclusion. There are blaring novelties upon arriving here like finding yourself in an old Studebaker cab with it’s old engine rumbling, the needles on the old dashboard gauges bouncing frenetically from the bumps in the poorly asphalted roads, the way people stick their heads in a strangers window to see if they can hitch a ride in the same direction. But as an American, this country is so mysterious and farfetched that just having arrived at the Havana airport gave me a surreal feeling, as if I were a young child who’d just wandered out of a parent’s supervision at an amusement park.
My brother and I arrived in the evening at Casa Mer, our first digs in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. It’s not a hotel but a casa particular, a private home from which a family rent rooms to travellers. To deal with the lack of hotel infrastructure the government has recently issued thousands of licenses to run such operations to households all around the country, which charge a fixed rate of about $35 per night and usually serve breakfast. Our host was Wilfredo, a physician with four specialties who also serves as a professor at the University of Havana. The bizarre state of affairs that has a doctor with such accolades operating a Bn’B in his off time is one of the many contradictions in Cuba. When the country lost the subsidies and support from the Soviet Union after it’s collapse in 1991, the economy was utterly crippled and began to rely almost exclusively on tourism. During the next decade of destitution, known in Cuban history as the “Special Period”, the use of foreign currency was legalized and the economy was divided between those who had access to US dollars and those who didn’t. Eventually the government stepped in and created a tourist currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is roughly pegged to the dollar. But the inequity remains: those who work in industries that overlap with tourism rake in more than doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers and other professionals who are considered “human capital of the revolution”. A doctor makes about $75 CUC per month while taxi drivers, who work with less restriction, can make that amount in a day. In any case, there’s some comfort in staying with a doctor and Wilfredo was a tremendous host, not to mention his sweet elderly mother Mercedes who fed us and doted over us like an archetypal Latin grandmother.
The Vedado neighborhood cropped up in the later end of Spanish colonial times (1860’s) and had a boom during the era of American enterprise. Having a more suburban feel than Old Havana it was the barrio of choice for Cuban and American business people including mobsters like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. It’s a dizzying mixture of architectural styles: Colonial, Neo-Classical, Greco-Roman, Art Deco, Bauhaus and of-course Mid-century modern homes and buildings. Residential streets are much more heavily trafficked than in any American suburb. Walking down the streets you hear salsa beats blasting from people’s homes, loud voices, laughter from house parties in full swing, you hear people shouting at one another from across the street, backfires popping from the mufflers of half-century old cars kept running by Cuban ingenuity. Not long after we started our night-stroll we found ourselves at La Pachanga, a paladar nestled conspicuously in the middle of a residential street. A paladar is a restaurant that’s usually family-owned, another recent legal leap towards allowing small business. Until just a few years ago paladars were restricted to 10-12 guests and were only allowed to serve a limited items like rice, beans, chicken and pork. The menu was still quite limited and although the food was satisfying, there was something missing, a slight lack of freshness in the veggies, a bit of blandness – shortcomings that we found in most of the meal we ate in Cuba and that we intuited to be the results of supply-chain problems of a communist island.
We stuffed ourselves at dinner and then in true pre-smart-phone style, we asked around where we might find a good party. An hour later we were at a club that seemed to be the converted lobby of an apartment building where one of the biggest acts in Cuban pop music, Leoni Torres, was playing for $10 CUC at the door. We drank Havana Club rum as the place got packed and peak hour came at 1am, a surprise to us given that this was a Tuesday night in December. The intensity of the crowd’s involvement with the show was palpable and so was the absence of camera-phones. Some Cubans certainly have smart-phones but hardly anyone that night had them out. Why would they when no one can immediately Instagram their vantage point or brag on Facebook or Twitter? We had similar luck a few nights later when we stumbled into the renown Jazz joint La Zorra Y El Cuervo (the entrance of which is disguised as a London phone-booth) and were blown away by perhaps the most famous Afro-Cuban Jazz pianists, Roberto Fonseco. A Spotify search will explain him better than any words.
On more mellow nights we relaxed on the back porch of Casa Mer, lounging on wrought-iron rocking chairs, our Cuban coffee sitting on the colorful Eames-era side tables. We hear the syncopated Tumbao in distant salsa music. It gets later in the night and we can hear the volume get turned up a few notches. Sitting on the same porch in the daytime we take in the view of the homes embedded in the mountain across the valley behind the backyard. We catch a Caribbean breeze that turns the tropical heat and humidity into something heavenly.
It’s fascinating to imagine barely thirty year-old Che and Fidel parading victorious through the city, making the penthouse of the Havana Hilton in Vedado (now the Havana Libre) their headquarters but it’s the medieval plazas and cathedrals of Old Havana, the fortresses and cobblestone streets, the reminders that this was the most important city of the New World, that make the revolution seem like a true conquest. The streets in Havana Vieja have such an absurd amount of movement–kids playing soccer, people painting walls and fixing things, old ladies selling produce, old men wheeling carts of freshly butchered meat–that it feels as though it’s still in the middle ages. This area highlights the random inequalities of the country. On one block there are scenic plaza and old narrow walkways with art galleries embedded in the buildings and just a few paces away a row of buildings almost completely in ruins. But even with rubble on the streets and homes missing roofs, the crime rate, whether due to harsh penalties or the strong sense of community, is unexpectedly low. Old Havana has the tourist snares–there are restaurants in government-restored 16th century buildings with full salsa bands playing Buena Vista Social Club (with which they must be fed up), there’s El Floridita where Hemingway drank (and where the Daquiri was invented) and Hotel Ambos Mundos where he lived, various museums and even a small China town with Spanish-speaking Chinese-Cubans. The 3 to 5 piece bands at any given restaurant are incredibly talented and play a tight set, probably a nice side-effect of the fact that musicians get government salaries and must be licensed to play at venues. The government wants to show the world that Cuban musicians are talented, well-fed, well-dressed, and not mechanical clones à la North Korea, so if a musician is really talented he or she will likely have an easy time getting an exit visa and may have the opportunity to travel around the world.
We found our casa in Havana Vieja by knocking on doors, looking for the official symbol of casa particular licensure (it looks something like a sailing anchor) and were lucky enough to find Maria-Elena. Her apartment is just blocks away from Plaza Vieja and her twenty-something year-old sons Felipe and Luiz-Manuel were eager to show us the local nightlife. On at least a few nights we piled into old yanqui-tank cabs in groups of at least 10 and zoomed to clubs, jumping from one place to the next and partied until well into the following mornings. At night on the Malecon, the main road and boardwalk that runs along the whole northern edge of the city, young people lean on the seawall and hang out. And I wonder if they have intensity in their ‘just hanging-out’–without the distraction of cell-phones or apps, with nothing but interaction and introspection and no device to constantly check on–is fading away in the rest of the world.
The classic cars that swerve around Havana are an appropriate metaphor for life in the country, on the outside robust like the curves of a 50’s Chevy body, stylish, comfortably old fashion, even opulent. But from the inside one see’s that it’s held together precariously, rigged with carpet seats from an 80’s car, the original dashboard replaced with the plastic fake mahogany from a 90’s Lincoln dash, the engine and transmission swapped for Japanese parts, a patchwork of pragmatic late 21st century industry jammed together over the years out of necessity. Each car you step into has a slew of reminders of the need to always, as Cubans say, resolver (resolve). Twenty-somethings go out to bars and dress in brand names like in any other city but some of them don’t have e-mail addresses. They go out to nightclubs and occasionally order bottle service (which is $25 per bottle) but then struggle to figure out the $8 cab ride back home. Our hostess lamented to us over dinner that she was fifty-three years old and had never left the island: “They say you have everything you need here in this country, you have the beaches and the mountains, but even a trip to the beach, with the cab fare and everything, is expensive and difficult to do.” She was contented that her children would most likely see the outside world but conceded that it was too late for her. Yet in some aspects there’s a façade in the opposite direction–the poorest looking person walking barefoot in the streets has better healthcare, the country has a lower rate of AIDS than the United States, a lower infant mortality rate and a near 100% literacy rate.
During the day with the night energy gone, the scene is different. Even with all its movement and animated characters, Cuba is a place of waiting. Waiting in lines at the bank to exchange money, waiting for the Internet to work, waiting for el bloqueo (the embargo) to drop. The embargo has dire consequences on the Cuban people, increasing the scarcity and cost of goods and reducing American tourism immensely. At a bus stop I overheard a guy singing a song while he waited, its chorus grieved “bloqueo, bloqueo, bloqueo.” The disrepair is salient. Fallen tiles, peeling paint and black soot deposited on walls. Men fix their classic cars on the street, children play in the streets and sit on rooftops. People seem at times as if they’re waiting for everything to be turned on again. It’s as if the country exists in gap, in the time gap between the 1950’s and today, in the gap between what was expected of the revolution’s ideals and then the reality of it. And yet, I can’t tell what amount of the listlessness I perceive is from economic desolation, the apathy of Caribbean mugginess or just the old-timey village lifestyle seen through a millennial lens.
The occasional hints of enterprise, a cab driver handing you their business card, stragglers offering to be your tour-guide, the unsavory characters–jineteros (hustlers) and jineteras (prostitutes)–calling for you attention, all seem like contradictions in a socialist country. And yet it doesn’t feel any less contradictory than the seeing Che Guevarra on trendy t-shirts and posters that are sold in bulk to college kids in the United States. That same iconic pop-art Che portrait is plastered on propaganda all over Cuba, usually accompanying lofty slogans like “56 años de revolución,” “partria o muerte”, “todo para la Revolución”.
People we’d strike up conversations with were happy to learn we were Americans, maybe it confirmed all the talk from Raul Castro in recent years about reconciling with the US. Our arrival was coincidentally just a week after the December 17th announcement by both Obama and Raul that efforts would be made to normalize relations between the two countries. There was an optimistic excitement about this news but it was tainted with skepticism and wariness. No one we spoke with had the naivety to believe that all of their problems would be solved if the embargo was lifted and they weren’t afraid to say it. There certainly wasn’t the tyrannical repression of speech that we’d expected although one can tell that it was the case not long ago, the signal for Fidel (or any authority) is tapping ones own shoulder, suggesting epaulettes. But people spoke to us freely of their opinions and complaints, of the belief held by some that any improvement in US relations would only benefit those in places of political power, while the average Cuban’s life would remain unchanged. Still, the overall aura, with the recent economic reforms and announcements was positive and expectant. And even with the painful shortcomings that are the status quo, I couldn’t help the thought that Fidel, for all his criticisms and condemnations from the West, managed to build something that sidesteps the gang-torn, abject poverty of South America, the mass graves of cartel-owned Mexico, something that–in Latin American terms at least–is a triumph.
If there was once a complete polarity between the raging unfettered capitalism of the US and the Draconian socialism of Cuba, it now seems more like a pendulum trying to find the sweet spot. And if it’s swung the whole spectrum in the short ninety-mile distance of the straights of Florida, we had the feeling that we had arrived there just when it was reversing its course. Only time will tell what that change in course will bring. Lounging around on one of our last nights in Havana Vieja, the sounds of slow guitar strumming enter with the salty and warm island breeze through the open window of our 6th floor room, a different tempo than the Salsa that emanates constantly from the touristy plazas. We stick our heads out the window, along with others in the adjacent buildings and watch as three old men lean against their cars and croon out what must be old classics. It’s clearer than ever now that we’re really in a different place, a place that’s created in me yet another Cuban contradiction–that it’s a place I hope will change, a place that I hope will stay the same.
Note: I’ll try to follow up with some practical advice and logistics of Cuba travel.