Cuba; how La Habana stole my heart
I’m not going to go over the details of how we got to Cuba because I see them as irrelevant to the bigger picture of the circumstances that came to be. It would also be unpatriotic to reveal the ease of purchasing a ticket with cash money from any one of the dozens of travel agencies throughout Cancun, all selling discrete backdoor entrances into the infamous Pearl of the South. Nor will I divulge deeper in the fact that we found ourselves on a plane full of Americans doing the exact same thing for the exact same reason; to see the “surreality” of existence in this mythical, fabled land before the carpet rolls out for capitalism to get it’s hands onto one of the last places on earth that not only hasn’t welcomed it with open arms, but exclusively blocked it with a socialized shield. For some it was our very first sweet taste of the former capital of the sugar cane industry, for others it was a return back to appease their sweet tooth with another fix. I noticed that for a large percentage of the plane it was a trip back to the homeland to visit family, or that time ran out on their visitor visas and they were bound back for reality. But for whatever reasons aside we were all flying through the air on a heavily used 2nd hand 747 purchased from another airline upgrading their fleet. The seats were broken in like a retired catchers mitt, slightly faded from the sun with padding so thin you could almost feel the grain of the wood it covered. It would come to light that recycling and reusing things until they could no longer function was going to be a common theme in this excursion. Cuban’s are known for their creative ingenuity, for making the best of the situation what’s available, which is not much in modern day Cuba. But all of this does not cross your mind while you are illegally crossing into a completely unique, surreal, and unknown territory with a gigantic wad of Mexican Pesos in your bag and your heartbeat providing the soundtrack to the movie you are about to step into. The other passenger seated in our row was a man that will be known as Reverend Rum to protect his identity. The Reverend, aside from being able to legally wed couples, was an entrepreneur from California about to celebrate his 65th birthday in Cuba, a plan hatched years ago finally coming to fruition. His wife was cutting him loose for 2 days and flying in on his actual birthday, leaving him to explore Habana on his own accords. Seeing as how we all did not have accommodations it was decided that we would split a cab into Habana Vieja after landing to see what we could procure. With the image of three Americanos blazing into the forbidden land in an antique classic American land yatch we touched down onto Cuban soil, instantly teleporting into a strange new world.
If the immigration process went down as smoothly as the on flight beverage it would have surely broken my streak. As we lined up in neat, single file lines in front of a row of about 15 pale green windowed booths something eerie crept over me and a slight discomfort began to stir within. When entering Cuba you should have documentation declaring where you are staying, although I heard that a verbal statement is all that is usually necessary. I stepped up to the plate anyway and struck out on the first three pitches. I had all my answers previously prepared in my version of Spanish but fumbled them the second I was looking into the most intimidating Cuban eyes that life could possibly create in a woman, who also could read the fear that was stamped onto mine. It seemed like my charm was absent from the entire conversation and uneasy mannerisms most likely dominated the exchange. It also could have been partly due to the fact that my passport photo, taken when I was 20, looks absolutely nothing like me. When looking at the face of the young, short haired Polish American inside my passport compared to my present day appearance of a mildly seasoned traveller donning a poncho villa mustache, hand-sewn jean shorts, shoes adorned with a gigantic rip in the heel, and hair approaching shoulder length. I probably looked as if I was trying to pull a quick one on a sleepy officer. I was instantly pulled aside in an imaginary problem line while I watched others breeze through the exit doors and into the world on the other side. I was a man of mystery, an enemy of immigration.
After 30 minutes of incessant questioning and a very thorough inspection of our checked baggage and we were finally off. After changing some peso’s for what would become our confusingly new foe we sought out a state run taxi with CUC’s in tow. Our driver gave us the very first dose of Cuban humor and their genuinely magnetic personalities as he carried us through the time warp. He told us it was much more “seguridad” taking a professional taxi service because illegal taxis were unreliable and sometimes drunk. Moments later he almost came to a stop in the fast lane looking at our map trying to figure out where our destination was. “Seguridad?” we chimed in as cars were flew by blaring their horns. “Mas o menos” he said with big Cuban grin. And after 20 more minutes of turning back the hands of time, our chauffeur pulled onto our road and drove us right into a Polaroid picture. The scene was drenched in a yellowish orange light framing a retired school bus surrounded by kids playing either shirtless or shoeless on crumbly, dusty ancient roads riddled with potholes.
Casa Particulares are cozy hotels set up by families offering a clean room in their house to be able to reach the infamous CUC’s that foreigners are supposed use exclusively. CUC’s are worth about 24 times what a Peso Nacional is worth and are the only way to get access to luxury items that the moneda nacional can’t touch, mainly imported items. Once these were legally allowed it gave Cuban families a chance to stretch away from poverty and into more of a very low middle class. Casas also get tourists out of the hotel bubble and right into the rhythm of the neighborhoods that Cubans live in. When Lidea opened the door we met our momma in La Habana for the very first time. She was one of the most pleasant women I’ve ever encountered and she guided us right into our big, simple rooms with a 20 foot high ceilings. We then were introduced to Lidea’s husband, Argelio, who turned out to be a retired Cuban geologist. It seemed somewhat fateful to end up in their house and we soon found ourselves getting lost in the world Cuban geology, hydrology, and geotechnical engineering projects he’s worked on. Argelio took us up to the roof upon finding out that we were into photography to show us our first Cuban panoramic of the old town. Not wanting this ride to end we soon ventured out exploring to get a drink and some food in this dreamscape city of the past.
Going on some crude directions from our new parents we were kicking pebbles along dark, empty streets of late night Habana. There were very few cars driving around but tons of Cubans strewn about, lying around on benches, chit chatting the night away while us wide-eyed Americans were approached by touts trying to swindle some of our money. Aside: Touts are very friendly, usually speak enough English to draw you into a conversation, and eventually reveal in some form of another that there is a money interest rooted into this interaction. The black market in Cuba is the only outlet to get ahead of the game touts and street hustlers can be very suave and persuading in their ways. Anyway, we soon found ourselves in La Floridita, an almost 200 year old bar that is the “Cradle of the Daiquiri” and infamous for being Ernest Hemingway’s old haunt. After going out for just 1 drink, we were quickly absorbed in the live Cuban Son playing from the finely tuned house band. We soon began to count the straws on the mahogany bar staffed by clean cut Cubans donning red sports jackets. Cigars rolled out, mojitos went down, and new memories were being created as the unbelievably smooth Havana Club Rum ran past our gums. Completely forgetting about dinner we closed down the bar and followed the sound of music about 1 block away. A massive bouncer was guarding the door to a dive bar with soulful Cuban music blasting out of the open windows. We were soon swept into the saloon style doors and into a room full of bright white fluorescent lighting, salsa dancing, and a live band of about 12 musicians creating beauty on beaten down instruments. They say that music flows like a river through us in Cuba and by the end of the night I felt like I had figured out exactly how the universe worked in this unbelievable corner of the world. All questions immediately had answers and I felt absorbed into the frequency this city was creating. The rum probably had a lot to do with this. I remember feeling something more than just being, that I somehow found a secret grass covered door and tapped into the power grid of the planet and began existing within it’s flow. When the music stopped we found our way back to our Casa, with the help of my internal GPS system and about 8 mojitos . We slept hard that night, and didn’t wake till nearly 11AM. The whole understanding of Cuba in it’s entirety had faded away into the brutal reality of a hangover in Habana.
Our first Cuban friend turned out to be a man coined Super Mario. Super Mario convinced us to take his horse drawn tour for the low low price of 15$, which eventually turned into 20$ because he didn’t have change (like everyone else in Cuba). Mario went through the in’s and out’s of life in Cuba (according to him) and shed a little light on how the socialist housing worked in Habana. When Fidel took the reigns of Cuba he abolished all big foreign enterprises and placed people in need of housing into former swanky hotels, banks, casinos, and high end real estate ultimately creating a surreal and unique atmosphere about the town. Just take one look around the Capitolio building, which is an exact replica of the United States’ State House except 1 meter taller, and you will see families hanging their clothes on the balconies of heavily aged formerly high-end real estate amidst a sea of pedestrians, giant city buses, and tourists equipped with cameras. Doors and windows are barely holding onto their hinges while paint is curling up and away from the exterior walls of these ancient edificios. Mario explained that when housing becomes too unlivable for Cuban standards (meaning the floor collapses or the roof caves in) families are relocated outside of the city center. Reconstruction occurs solely for tourism purposes, which is kind of the opposite of what Fidel’s original ideas for socialism where born from.
The next few days we spent walking into different neighborhoods in Habana, getting hassled by touts, and figuring out just where we could spend the peso nacionales while also figuring out exactly what was available (spoiler; not much). A trip to Chinatown had us indulging deep fried mystery treats for about 4 cents a piece. Wandering near the Capitolio we discovered pork fried rice complete with eggs, a few carrots, and pork with the hair still on the skin. Up on Obispo we found one of our favorite window paladars serving up piping hot pizzas with a barely noticeable cheese layer and toppings such as hot dogs and pineapple. Ice cream was cheap and delicious and always seem to capture the attention of Cubans throughout the day. We took our stab at finding cheap peso paladars and found ourselves in someone’s incredibly hot living room eating beef sandwiches (steak and bread) and spaghetti especial (hot dogs and ketchup sauce) with a 5 foot tall picture of Jesus looming above us. It’s amazing the strange places you find yourself in when you let wonder preside over self preservation.
After purchasing our bus tickets in advance (necessary for foreigners in Cuba) we walked forever until we finally found ourselves in Vedado. We killed the afternoon wandering the formerly upscale suburbs that were heavily influenced by the mob scene from the 20’s to late 50’s. Hotels that looked like they had been cut out of a 40’s magazine were still bearing the exact same outside shell, but what lies within their walls will always be a mystery to tourists. After seeing the old Riviera we stumbled upon Coppelia, a state run ice cream establishment that can be as confusing for an outsider as trying to read Hieroglyphics for the first time. There is a center dome-like structure with a huge line and small outdoor cafe-like areas along it’s perimeter. The trick is to wait in the line and get herded into one of the 5 rooms upstairs and hear what kind of ice cream is available. Three scoops of ice cream seems like enough until you look around and notice that people of all shapes, sizes, and ages are ordering between 6 and 9 scoops just for themselves. A stroll along the malecon at night made us late for our date with the Reverend to meet his wife and their friend that flew in with them. This also inevitably made us too late to convert money at the change house to pay our Casa Particulare in the morning. But I somehow knew our wrinkles would smooth out in Cuba and everything would fall into place.
The plan was to wake up early in order get to the bank by 8 AM, which was approximately 14 blocks away, in order to catch our 9:10 AM bus to Vinales. If we messed this plan up we were going to push our whole schedule back a day and also be out 24$. This may seem like an easy write off to most but to long term travellers is a dire mistake, and for a normal Cuban is a whole months salary. I took a stroll through another part of town we hadn’t seen yet and was casually brought back to down town America in the 50’s with big wide roads, signs of the businesses of yesteryear hanging across the road, and a general hum drum of people getting their day started. Peering into an open door I found myself looking at a butcher shop with three massive dead pigs on the floor being inspected by potential buyers. The day before I saw a man put a live pig into a bag, hoist it up over his shoulder, and then casually walk away. It’s strange how normal scenes like this have become. After reaching the bank the guard informed me it would not be open until 8:30. This was a big problem. I quickly walked to the next nearest change house, which supposedly was open at 8, to take a stab at fate. Upon arrival I was informed that this bank opened at 8:30 and the only other bank in town kept the same hours. Frustrated I waited by the door and witnessed the magic of the Cuban line system’s birth. In Cuba there is never a normal waiting line for anything. There are people hanging around, chatting on the sidewalk, or even grabbing a beer to kill a few minutes before it’s their turn to step in. When a person arrives at a bus stop, bank, or the movies they ask “el ultimo?” and see who the last person waiting in line is. Little by little Cubans came and the invisible line was formed. When the bank finally opened the que magically fell into place behind me. After quickly exchanging money I started sprinting on the route I had mapped out in my head. Children, Men, and women were popping out of their doorways to hear the sound of two feet slapping the ancient pavement as I was taking strides at full speed back to our Casa. I could read the confusion in their eyes because running is absolutely void in this city. Nobody is ever rushing to be somewhere and the quality of the air less than favorable due to the black smoke that the piecemeal diesel engines are constantly belching out. I could feel all eyes on me while my heart was pounding and my legs were carrying me closer and closer to our ancient Casa’s door. Upon reaching home we had about 15 minutes to get to the station. Our cabby initially brought us to the wrong bus station, against our requests and questions, and we had to dash to get back in his cab before he disappeared. We passed our bus on the way to the right bus station and sprinted the moment we hopped out of the 57 Ford. Somehow luck managed to get us on the bus, or maybe it was a bit of the Cuban magic that we were becoming more and more aware of.