Vivacious: The word I keep coming back to when people ask me how my trip to Cuba was. I have traveled my fair share in the past 2 years, but never have I missed a place so deeply once I’ve left. Maybe it was because Cuba has been locked away like a secret to Americans for so many years that I didn’t really have any expectations for what Havana would be like, except for bad (?), since the only time you learn about Cuba in the US public school system is via the Bay of Pigs Invasion or the Cuban Missile Crisis. My original desire to travel to this country, like many other trips I aspire to take, came from one of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway made a home in Cuba for over 30 years, something I didn’t quite understand before visiting, since he had spent previous years gallivanting around the likes of Italy, France and Switzerland; glamorous and culturally rich places that I could only dream of calling home. But after only a few days in the city, I understood why Havana had lasted much longer for Hemingway than the luxuries of Europe. The city blew me away, and has found a permanent place in my heart.
Our first full day in Havana was a cloudy, cold and rainy Sunday, so we spent most of it indoors in museums helping to fulfill the “educational” requirements of the trip (more on that in later posts!). Looking back, I am glad that our first day was spent like this, because it allowed the city to show its true colors (literally!) the next day when the sun was shining and all businesses were bustling. When I opened the doors to the balcony attached to our casa particular on Monday morning, the city came alive. It was 7:30 AM and already I could hear a distant radio bumping out the synonymous reggaetone beats of Latin America. The sounds of life spilled up from the street; the clanking of pans as people prepared breakfast, the scraping of a garbage pail as someone took out the trash and the clucking of some stray roosters below. Sunlight beamed down and illuminated the bright colors of the city’s architecture and even though I hadn’t yet stepped a foot outside, the energy of the city had already captivated me. I couldn’t help but have a huge smile on my face while getting ready for the day. My spirits were so bright I even chose a colorful outfit to wear, something that rarely happens in my all-neutral wardrobe.
I am convinced that Havana’s beauty stems from how perfectly imperfect it is. A large part of what shapes Cuba is the communist government that runs it. Part of this is that it operates on a two currency system using the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUC was created in response to the number of remittances pouring into Cuba and is tied 1 to 1 with the American dollar. It is the currency tourists visiting the island are given to use. The Cuban Peso is the Cuban citizens’ currency, and what the Cuban government deals in. One CUC is equal to roughly 25 CUPs. This currency system has inadvertently built two separate countries in one. The first is built around the CUC and is accessible mostly to tourists. This includes hotels, most restaurants, and shops. The second is built on the CUP and includes smaller eating stalls, state-owned “supermarkets” and other stores and services provided by the government. The discrepancy in currency makes it almost impossible for the two consumerism worlds to cross, as tourist are priced out of experiencing true authentic Cuban life because they have a currency too valuable for locals to make change, and Cuban citizens are priced out of any of the businesses/luxuries geared towards tourists because the exchange rate makes it much too expensive to access. The only crossover is in the locally owned tourist industry that is rapidly springing up in the country. Here, tour guides get tipped in CUC and casa and paladar owners charge and get paid by tourists in CUC. Throughout our trip we only stayed in casa particulars and tried our best to only dine at family own paladares in order to make sure our pesos were going directly to the people of Cuba.
The actual physical aspects of Havana also make it seem like multiple eras were colliding into one. The city is made of three distinct periods of architecture. Most of the buildings, especially in Havana Vieja (Old Havana), are Colonial in style.They reminded me a lot of Charleston, SC, only with a Caribbean flare. This part of the city is made up of narrow cobblestone roads, and the houses are tall and imposing and built right up against the street. Many have high ceilings and large windows, most of which are kept open during the day.This meant that if you peered inside, you could catch a glimpse of authentic Cuban family life as you walk down the street. The state of these buildings range from dilapidated and falling down to newly repaired and painted in charming pastel colors. As you move to the more residential areas of the city, such as Vedado, the architecture jumps to a new decade, the 1960’s. This area had a lot of one story buildings, slanting roofs and restaurant signs that look like they were straight from an early episode of Mad Men. Add to that the occasional unsightly Soviet era apartment housing block and a sprinkling of beautiful Art Deco buildings like the Bacardi Rum tower, and I felt like you could tell the history of the city through the architecture alone!
The city’s transportation follows in close suit,with many decades represented. My favorite was seeing the famous classic 1950’s cars regularly lumbering along down the streets. One of our tour guides described them perfectly as “old ladies with make- up” because years of Cuban ingenuity has kept them running and a fresh coat of brightly colored paint has kept them intriguing to the eye. And as beautiful as these cars are to look at, it was funny to see the ungainly Russian Lada just as frequently! There were also a smattering of newer foreign imports, government- issued Cuban taxis, diesel buses and comically small Fiats that made up the majority of cars on the roadways of Cuba. Something I noticed most immediately upon arrival was the smell of diesel in the air. It made me curious if this was what it smelled like living in the 60’s!
The final, major amalgamation I noticed in the city was its people, and this was perhaps my most favorite part. When I travel, I usually try my best to look like a local (getting asked for directions in a foreign city is the biggest compliment you can give me). The first thing I learned in Havana was that it would be absolutely impossible to try and blend in There were the obvious reasons, like the separate currency systems and the fact that I am tall and blond and extremely pale and only know how to count to 10 in Spanish (a talent that was surprisingly useless on this trip). But I also learned that the fashion trends and beauty ideals in Cuba are much different (and probably much better!) than the rigid ideals we have set up in western society. What made me feel much better about not being able to blend in was the realization that no one else could either, even the fashion-forward French!
Perhaps it was because it was impossible to hide the fact that you were a tourist (no internet access means that almost every non-native was carrying around a guidebook ) and the separate currency systems mean tourists often move in the same circles, but I don’t think I have ever been to a place where I was surrounded with so many different people from so many different places speaking so many different languages on a regular basis. There were people from Canada, Russia, Italy, France, people speaking Spanish from other South American Countries and Spain. We even met and made friends with a group of girls traveling from Denver, CO! The thing that we often forget about Cuba is that it has been open to other countries for many years, and so, though it still may be a rare coincidence to run into a fellow American traveler, the sight of tourists on the island is not rare at all. I am always most content when surrounded by interesting people different from myself. I spent a lot of time people-watching in Cuba and learned so much about how people from different cultures travel.
Looking back and trying to describe this trip, there are just so many facets and colors and cultures and flavors all coexisting to create one the of the most charmingly imperfect cities in the entire world. Havana blew me away, the people were incredibly kind and warm, the history was fascinating, the sights were jaw dropping and the cocktails were delicious. My final verdict is that Hemingway got it right, I have never been anywhere else in the world where time passes so easily, where I’ve been inspired so creatively, and where I have felt so alive. This first post was meant to be a brief overview of the city, but I have found I have so much to say about my trip, the island and especially Havana. So make sure to check back for future posts on specific details of my trip, reading recommendations before you go and travel tips if you are planning your own trip to Cuba!