Cuba . . . Before The Change

The dichotomy of modern Cuba was captured on my second night in Havana during a nine-day visit to the country in late 2015. On a Sunday night, a handful of companions and I visited the Jazz Cafe in the city’s lively Vedado neighborhood, where our homestays were located. The musicianship was first-rate even if the music bounced loudly off of the hard walls, and the appreciative crowd sipped drinks until the wee hours. When we departed the club our group split up into two cabs. Two others and myself hailed a young driver in an old Lada, those small, boxy, post-1970 Russian cars that are just as prevelant––albeit less photogenic––as the Eisenhower-era American vehicles that are Cuba’s postcard image.

The backseat left-side passenger door opened by itself shortly after we took off and the driver reached out his window to shut and secure the door as he drove. Meanwhile, the window handle came off in the hand of the passenger in the right-side backseat, who proceeded to hand it off to the driver. The driver struggled with the balky stick shift of the manual-transmission vehicle whenever we came to a stop sign.

All the while, a Spanish-language pop song that played on the radio propelled us through the streets of Vedado and past whatever city life was still stirring on the streets in the early hours of the new day. I was buzzed after a daiquiri and two mojitos at the jazz club, which imbued me with a sort of levitating feel as we motored along on our roughly five-minute taxi ride. I sat in the seatbelt-less front seat, less worried about my personal safety than enthralled by the sheer adventure of it all.

The taxi ride might have been an “adventure” for me, but it spoke to the hard reality of life for the taxi driver and others like him in Cuba, a poor country where people carry on the best they can because they have no choice. Despite that, it’s a place that exudes a dynamic rhythm.

For Americans, Cuba has been so close yet so far. Only 90 miles from Key West, Florida, the island nation is more than a half-century removed from the U.S. as a result of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and subsequent decades filled with Cold War baggage, economic sanctions, travel restrictions and ill will between the nations’ governments.

For the most part, Cuba has been forbidden fruit for Americans. But now it’s fruit on the verge of ripening into a mass influx of American tourists following the Obama Administration’s efforts to improve diplomatic and economic ties, and to remove the travel barriers that have made visiting Cuba a hassle.

All of this has led to the biggest American invasion of Cuba since the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, propelled by the rallying cry of “See Cuba before it changes!” The thought is you better see Cuba now before all of those vintage ‘50s-era American cars are replaced by Ford Fusions, and before the island is carpeted by McDonalds and vacation condos owned by Yanks.

Cuba is different and worth exploring, and not just because of the smattering of painted murals with Che Guevara’s visage and revolution-era bromides, or the clichéd image of old cars with tail fins rolling down the highway. Sure, the murals are delightful Cuban kitsch and the old cars are nostalgic, but the island provides a deeper experience than that.

Cuba circa 2016––a country that sooner than later will likely experience profound changes on several fronts––is worth seeing on its own terms . . . for its people who’ve put up with a lot of crap with a sense of pride, pluck and a spirit of friendliness . . . for the country’s vitality amid crumbling infrastructure and a third-world economy . . . and yes, at least for now, its sense of being a place seemingly from another time.

Different Vibes
The rhythm of Cuban life and the feel of yesteryear took different forms during my travels through the western half of the country. In the fertile tobacco-growing region of Viñales in the country’s far west, I came upon a partially plowed field sprouting baby tobacco where a farmer in a straw hat walked behind a wooden plow attached to a pair of light-colored oxen as they plowed the rest of the field; the hooves of the ox made a muffled sound as they traversed the rich, brown earth while the plow and yoke contraption rattled gently as the farmer cut his furrowed rows. At the edge of the field near a barn, the oxen couldn’t navigate a tight turn and veered into a high clump of weeds, causing the farmer to apply extra whipping, muscle and cajoling to get the animals back on track.

Viñales sits in a valley punctuated by limestone mogotes, or pin-cushion hills that at dusk give the area an enchanted feel. The town itself is made up of small, brightly colored homes, and street-smart dogs and chickens roam around like they own the place. The valley’s natural beauty and outdoor recreation activities make Viñales a big tourist town where Chinese-built Transtur tour buses park on narrow residential streets where homestays are located, yet it maintains an oasis-like feel tucked away in a lush valley where black beans, maize, bananas, coffee and avocado grow, along with tobacco.

In Trinidad, a handsome 500-year-old colonial city with cobbled streets, well-preserved pastel-colored buildings and a UNESCO world heritage site designation, my homestay for two nights was about a half-mile from the main square, Plaza Mayor, with its cathedrals, museums and nearby outdoor market. Roosters crowed throughout the night in the neighborhood, and two seemed to be in competition to see who was the loudest. Evidently, they didn’t receive the memo that roosters are supposed to start crowing at sunrise. I awoke in the morning, looked out my window and saw a man on a bicycle with a big container strapped to the back, yelling out that he had fresh bread for sale.

Trinidad is a very short drive to the beach at Ancon, a tranquilo spot on a spit of sand where the rhythm of gentle Caribbean waves wash onto country’s south-central coast.

The coastal scene is much different along Havana’s El Malecón, the roughly five-mile long seawall and boulevard that fronts the Atlantic Ocean from the harbor entrance in Old Havana, past the scruffy waterfront apartment buildings in Central Havana, and up to the northwest neighborhood of Vedado.

El Malecón is Havana’s main artery, a place where the city’s denizens gather on the wide walkway that runs along the stone wall to meet with friends, drink, flirt, smooch, play music, and go fishing.

On weekends, El Malecón is packed. Late on a Saturday night I stopped by the grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Vedado, Havana’s signature hotel, for a Cuban cigar and a mojito. From the hotel’s garden seating area on Taganana Hill overlooking the sea and El Malecón, the collective voices of the crowd congregated on the walkway across the boulevard created a murmur and energy you’d experience walking into a sports stadium.

Two days later in the late afternoon, my final day in Cuba, I walked the length of El Malecón from the harbor entrance to the Hotel Nacional. It was a mellower scene. A crowd of fisherman cast their lines at the seawall opposite El Morro Castle and its tall lighthouse perched on a rocky promontory at the entrance of the canal leading to the harbor.

At times, waves crashed over the wall, and the salt water that sits on the pedestrian promenade has pockmarked and degraded the cement. The briny sea air mixed with the tailpipe effluvia from vehicles whizzing by on the six-lane roadway, which created a gauzy, atmospheric veil along El Malecón and the seafront skyline.

Very pretty young prostitutes wearing tight shirts and skirts sat along the wall in search of customers––a couple approached me and offered to take me for a go-round at a nearby casa particular (or private house, akin to the homestays that served as my lodging during my trip, though I suspect the private houses these women had in mind didn’t have anything to do with bed-and-breakfast, or at least the breakfast part).

El Malecón was built to keep the sea out of Havana’ streets, and construction began in 1901 under the auspices of the U.S. military, which was involved in Cuban affairs following the Spanish-American War in 1898. The architecture along El Malecón blends Moorish, Baroque, Art Deco and other styles, but the combined affects of time, automobile fumes, salt air and lack of money has left many apartment buildings along the road in Central Havana looking frayed and decayed.

It’s easy to imagine the beauty of these buildings in their prime, but today they resemble old society doyennes in need of serious cosmetic surgery. And indeed, some of the building are slowly being refurbished, as are some of the grand, old decayed buildings in the Old Havana neighborhood.

Another Taxi Story
It’s hard to write about––or photograph––Cuba without focusing on the vintage cars that make Cuba a living museum. But they are so much of the story because they tell a story about latter-day Cuba.

A New York Times article in 2004 pegged the number of pre-1960 American cars in Cuba at 60,000. The reason: U.S. automakers haven’t been able to sell their wares in Cuba since 1959, and for more than a half-century the only cars that could be legally bought and sold in the country were those already in Cuba before the 1959 revolution. Meanwhile, buying newer cars required a state-issued permit, and those generally went to “important” people such as government officials, athletes and doctors.

For the rest of the “unimportant” people who need to keep their old cars running, the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba has meant no spare parts for the American-made cars. In turn, Cubans have kept their old Chevys, Plymouths and Studebakers running with foreign parts, chicken wire and ingenuity.

Some pre-’59 automobiles––particularly those used to ferry tourists around Havana and other cities––are in beautiful shape. Most others, such as those used for the half-dozen rides I took in beat-up taxis during my final two days in Havana, aren’t. Yet those provide a gritty experience that’s more attuned to everyday life in Cuba.

On my final morning in Havana, I hailed a taxi for a ride from Vedado to Old Havana. The car that stopped for me was an old station wagon that fit eight people, excluding the guy riding shotgun who handled the financial transactions. The passenger seats were full, so I hopped in the back jump seat where I sat across from an older woman. As Vedado turned into Central Havana and approached the edge of Old Havana, the apartment buildings went from modern-ish and mostly well-maintained to a mix of decently maintained or flat-out ramshackle. No matter the neighborhood, laundry hung out to dry on balconies.

Many of the establishments we passed had long lines out front, and public spaces along the way were filled with people. From my rear-view vista in the back of the station wagon with the window down (did the window even work?) I drank in the hum of Havana at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning and breathed in, much to my chagrin, the god-awful black exhaust spewing from the tail pipes of the old vehicles. Unfortunately, those pre-1959 cars have pre-1959 exhaust systems that, combined with leaded gas and diesel fuel, produce serious pollution.

The day before, I caught a taxi ride with a friendly man named Mitchél, who drove a bright-green ‘50s-era Chevy. The car’s floor and doors were stripped to the base metal, the dashboard had neither gauges nor a radio, and the seats showed signs of having played host to countless fannies.

Despite my so-so Spanish, Mitchél and I had a chat about his life in Cuba. He has relatives in Miami (just about everybody I met in Cuba has relatives in Florida), but he can’t afford to visit them.

“You have to work hard in Cuba for little money,” he said.

Mitchél said he’d like to have a new car, but they’re way too expensive. As of early 2014 Cubans are now allowed to buy new cars without a permit. Problem is, they’re astronomically priced. One news report from early 2014 mentioned a new Peugeot 508 selling for $262,000 in Havana, and used VWs fetching more than $60,000. According to the Cuban News Agency, the country’s average monthly salary in 2014 was roughly US$24. Many people earn money on the side, but the bottom line is that it’ll probably be a long time before people like Mitchél can afford a new car.

He said despite the hard life in Cuba, he’s content because it’s a safe place thanks to the mano fuerte of the government and police.

A Change Is Gonna Come
Many other Cubans, of course, aren’t as sanguine about the strong hand of the authorities. The constant presence of police makes for a low crime rate and a safe place for tourists, but the looming specter of the communist police state is one reason why thousands of Cubans still try to enter the U.S. each year. That, and the lack of economic opportunity.

Regarding the latter, the Cuban government recently announced it would legalize thousands of small- to medium-sized businesses that operate around the country in hopes of bolstering private enterprise. It’s an admission from a communist regime that hey, maybe there’s something to free markets after all.

But the people of Cuba remain shackled in more ways than one. I met a barber named Abél in Trinidad, whose old-school shop looked to be the front room of his living quarters. From the walls of his shop hung a series of colorful abstract paintings that he said were his handiwork. They were spectacular!

He had a several works-in-progress in a side room adjacent to the shop, including one that was mostly done and which I fell in love with on the spot. I said I wanted to buy it when it was done and asked how much would it cost. He told me the price––I forget the amount but it was very low by American standards (a great bargain for me and maybe a nice payday for a Cuban, but not commensurate with the quality of the painting). I gave him my email and told him to let me know when it was completed, and that we would make payment arrangements then. He hesitated and said that won’t be possible. That’s because the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba has essentially cut off the U.S. financial system from the island.

It was a disappointing for me, and probably frustrating for Abél.

On a walk through the heart of Havana one early evening, I walked past residences with doors and windows opened to the warm air that revealed cramped, dingy, dimly-lit living quarters. Yet the streets were alive with activity––stores and street carts selling food, pedestrians hanging out on sidewalks, music coming from bars, the flow of traffic and the general flow of everyday life being lived give the city a sense of constant movement and verve.

The co-existence of hardscrabble and high energy, coupled with the city’s evocative feel from another era and its sense of being very much in the moment, was fascinating, if not intoxicating. I have visited 20 countries, and Havana is one of most compelling cities I’ve ever experienced.

Where Cuba goes from here is anyone’s guess. Can the current political and social order survive the passing of the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl? Will opening up the country to the U.S. (it’s already open to the rest of the world) open up a can of worms that compels Cubans––especially younger Cubans––to demand changes that can’t be denied, and if they are denied, will lead to upheaval? Expectations for economic and social––and political––reforms are building.

So yes, now is a good time to see Cuba before it changes . . . whatever form those changes take.

If You Go
The travel situation regarding Americans and Cuba is fluid, and by the time you read this could be on the way to complete normalization with no restrictions.

I visited Cuba on a people-to-people group tour, one of the 12 approved travel categories that lets Americans visit Cuba legally. I arrived via Miami on a charter flight, long the only sanctioned way to travel to Cuba from the U.S. Subsequent to my trip, the U.S. and Cuba agreed to resume scheduled commercial flights between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years, but as of this writing Americans still need to qualify for one of the 12 categories of authorized travel.

The first U.S.-to-Cuba cruise ship in decades arrived in Havana in May, and a steady flotilla of cruise ships is expected to start steaming into Cuban ports beginning this summer. Whether Cuba’s hospitality infrastructure can handle the expected wave of American visitors remains to be seen.

The tour company I went with was an Australian-based outfit called Cuban Adventures, which has a special unit for American travelers that provides legally sanctioned tours. The tour was well-organized and took us on a seven-day greatest hits package of Western Cuba, including the first day in Havana to kick it off, followed by a visit to the fertile tobacco-growing region of Viñales in the country’s far west.

The rest of the circuit included Cienfuegos, a port city of 150,000 people known as The Pearl of the South for its European flair and colonnaded buildings, as well as Trinidad, a handsome, 500-year-old colonial city near the Caribbean coast that came to prominence from the slave and sugar trades. There were also brief stops at the Bay of Pigs, as well as Che Guevara’s mausoleum and memorial in Santa Clara.

The people-to-people part of the tour was a basic primer on Cuban life that put us face-to-face with cigar makers, dancers, artisans, the Santeria religion and food, among other aspects.

Cuban food is, surprisingly, just so-so. It’s hearty, rustic and satisfactory, but it’s neither savory nor spicy. Foodies will be disappointed. Chicken and fish are staples, and beef is often served shreaded in an oily tomato-based sauce. Black beans and white rice are common side dishes, along with root vegetables. Fresh vegetables typically are tomatoes and cucumbers. Ice cream and flan are the big desserts. White bread and rolls ruled (didn’t see any whole-grain or multi-grain breadstuffs).

I had some good meals in Havana restaurants, though, with the best being a chicken dish with peanuts and veggies in a “Hong Kong” sauce at Tien Tan in the city’s tiny Chinatown section. No doubt the anticiapated tourist boom from Americans will lead to a thriving restaurant trade——particularly in Havana——in coming years. 

Our lodging consisted of homestays that included breakfast, which is a great slice-of-life way to experience Cuba. Note: due to Cuba’s serious shortcomings in plumbing infrastructure, in most places you can’t flush toilet paper down the drain and instead you deposit it in trash receptacles. But that’s part of the charm of Cuba, so to speak.

While I very much enjoyed the tour and my travel mates, who were a fun group who accentuated the overall experience, I also enjoyed escaping from the group when I could to wander solo and soak up Cuba on my own terms. That included two days of exploring in Havana after the tour ended.

A friend of mine who had visited Cuba several times in the past told me before my trip, “Dude, Cuba will change your life.” Well, not quite. In fact, while I was on the island I thought my visit there would be a one-and-done deal. But upon returning home I realized that I have unfinished business there, and want to return in the near-future to visit the eastern half of the country––and to spend more time in Havana––before Cuba changes too much.

Comment (1)

  1. Anonymous

    Awesome descriptions. The description of the conversations with ordinary Cubans are extremely interesting. I love the photographs that go with the trip. Especially interesting are the passages from locations other than Havana. It shows the true picture.

    Thanks for the trip—-

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