In Cuba, the floodgates are now open. The first American cruise ship to Cuba in 50 years landed in Havana a week ago to great fanfare. The historic Fathom Adonia Cruise Ship pulled into port to the applause of ecstatic Cuban natives, hopeful for the future an open Cuba could bring.
The landing signified a major milestone in the thaw of Cuban-American relations, more than a year-and-a-half in the making. With airlines bidding for a spot amongst the 110 daily flights between Cuba and USA, set to come on stream this summer; and US companies champing at the bit to get in on what is sure to be a Cuban economic boom, there is no doubt that 2016 will see a deluge of American tourists in Cuba.
However, after the rush of excitement of the historic occasion, once they had passed the cheering crowds of Cubans and international media, I wonder if the passengers of the Adonia looked around the St. Francis De Assisi Square and were met with the mixed emotions that have struck many Americans who have discretely trickled in and out of Cuba since diplomatic ties were re-established in late 2014. I wonder if, like me, they felt a certain melancholy over the bitter-sweet state of Havana and its people.
I traveled to Cuba for 5 days in February of this year, a friend and I just squeaking in before the crowds. I had a typical itinerary planned including: Old Havana, tours of the intimidating Spanish colonial forts, lazy days at the beach, and of course literary and drinking legend Ernest Hemingway’s abode in San Francisco de Paula, ten miles out of Havana.
The forts were formidable and numerous, a reminder of why Cuba was a jewel in the Spanish empire, and well deserving of their designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And though I do consider myself a beach snob – splitting my time between my Miami home and my ventures in nearby Bahamas – I had to admit that Cuban beaches rival the best of them with endless white, soft sand and crystal clear turquoise water. Perfect for relaxing and soaking up the sun with a refreshing mojito – how can you turn that down?
La Finca Vigia, as Hemingway’s home is named, was like so much of Cuba; a trip through a time machine. A peek through the looking glass at how the famous American icon lived, and his love for his adopted country. The writer’s residence has been kept untouched, exactly as he left it. Tours were also offered to visit the cafes and restaurants Hemingway frequented, but we opted to get around on our own… in style.
I have always been a car-lover, especially American muscle. I have a ‘67 Chevy Camaro in my garage at home, so I enjoyed riding in the colorful 1950s cars in Havana, well-preserved from a golden age of American autos. It was too tempting not to get behind the wheel myself and I rented a beautiful red vintage Chevrolet De Luxe. She rode ok, but she photographed like a dream, and I had a blast catching her in different angles and filters.
All of Old Havana turned out to be a smorgasbord of photographic opportunities. The Spanish colonial architecture, regal and imposing, made a perfect juxtaposition with the lively scenes playing out on the streets. The vibrant colors of the homes and doorways and the striking graphics of the patriotic murals along the walls made it easy to capture on film the pulsating hope that characterizes the Cuban people, especially now.
There are few things more beautiful than a sunset drive along the Malecón, Cuba’s famous seaside esplanade and road – especially if you are doing it in a red vintage Chevy with a camera in hand. And looking down on the skyline from the vantage point of our rented Havana home was irreplaceable.
But on the other side of the camera lens, there is a stark truth. The fact is most Cubans are living in poverty, with the average paycheck at $20 a month. It is not a news flash, I know. However, the beauty of the city is tainted by the signs of poverty. Always in your peripheral vision, they are inescapable. If you are looking for a carefree Caribbean vacation, full of the luxuries you see on the commercials, you may want to stick your pin in another section of the map. The reality of it is your taxi driver, your waiter, and your hotel manager… everyone making your vacation possible are living what would be a tough life to us.
There are a few Americans living and working in Cuba, but it is not for the fainthearted and not many who have grown up in our society could live there as it is now. The downside of the time warp that is Cuba is that the technology gap is enormous. The communications infrastructure is decades behind, little to no internet and cellphone penetration at 22%, the lowest in the region. Though, that stands to change soon with Google in the early stages of building out broadband and the major mobile carriers negotiating partnerships with the nationalized Cuban telecoms company.
There are no modern banking systems to speak of. Everything operates like it did 60 years ago, essentially unchanged. And pro tip: do be sure to have cash on you all the time. Credit? Forget about it.
I had a thought, after making the mistake of eating from a state-owned restaurant where the subpar food made my travel companion sick, that working for myself, I love being able to take pride in my work. It was very evident that the chefs and servers at the establishment we were sitting in did not. We learnt our lesson; ate only at the privately owned restaurants – “paladares” – going forward and the difference was glaring.
This! This was the delicious, flavorful Cuban food we were used to in Cuban neighborhoods of Miami. Ropa Vieja, Pernil Relleno, Vaca Frita, Maduros…. Lists of fried, saucy, and succulent dishes for the culinary adventurer. What hardship there is in Cuba, it doesn’t show in the rich flavors of their food.
I think that this resilient vibrancy in the face of limited resources and freedoms sums up the Cuban spirit. I noticed that, faced with the bleak realities inside their often modest homes, Cubans spent all of their waking hours outdoors – playing music, chatting with neighbors on their doorsteps, children playing futsal in the narrow alleyways. And despite their situation, not one single person asked for money or begged, adult or child. That’s an experience I have not had yet in the developing world.
In the end though, I think I will hold off for a while before I hop the pond to Cuba again. A fan of the amenities of 21st century life, I will be waiting for the effects of an open Cuba to take hold; I am eager to see the changes that brings – for tourism and for the Cuban people. Apparently, the thaw has caused a boom in Air BnB listings and a surge in beer consumption. Paladares, along with other small private establishments are popping up across the city as the free market creeps its way in. Cuba is already changing. So for those of you who are interested in catching the last glimpses of pre-Americanized Cuba, your time is running out.