Our First Impressions of Cuba
When we (Ruby and our friend Anthony) landed at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport (Jose Marti was the greatest figure in the drive for Cuban Independence), it was about 10:30 in the morning on a beautiful, warm Saturday. We couldn’t have picked a better time for a first visit to Cuba. Any anxieties about potential delays at the airport were eased away as we more or less got through immigration in 30 minutes. We stepped outside, got into a taxi, and began a 30-minute drive to the city center of Havana, which is by far Cuba’s biggest city, as well as its capital.
Cars, Cars, Cars
As soon as we rolled out into the road, we began spotting the famous “Old American Cars” that everyone loves to see in action. They were everywhere and in all shapes, sizes and colors. The ones that were used for tourist purposes in the city center were, understandably, remarkably polished and refined, while the ones driven by the locals were usually dirtier. No surprise there, because I don’t think many tourists would step inside those cars for a tour of the Malecon. Seeing old Chevys was great, though the fact that almost all cars and buses lacked catalytic converters meant that you better be ready for the fumes spewing from all directions. At one point, we took a city bus (five pesos, which is incredibly cheap; if you convert to USD, it’s about 20 cents) on the way to one of Havana’s numerous forts, and we got stuck inside a tunnel for a few minutes because of traffic. I don’t think you need much imagination to understand the feeling of all that exhaust swirling all around you, during 90-degree heat.
What I found curious is that it wasn’t just American cars on the roads. I saw a lot of old crappy Russian Ladas and also some French (Peugeot) and Czech (Skoda). In truth, while we did see a lot of old cars, we also saw plenty of new (by new I mean post-2000) cars, so it appears that the Havana economic boom is already happening for a good number of people.
City Center – Habana Vieja
After we checked in to our accomodations (as per our visa’s “support for the Cuban people”, we stayed with a local Cuban family in their house, and it was a great stay), we went into the town and got our first good glimpse of local life. Every once in a while, you’d come to a street with a large pile of garbage (not food garbage, just things like bricks, wood, old furniture) and sometimes people would throw stuff out of the 2nd or 3rd-story windows right into that pile. There were also a lot of stray dogs running around, but they were very friendly and not aggressive. In fact, we even saw a few stray, tiny Pekingese running around, which is not something you usually see.
Habana Vieja is the Old Havana. It contains all the major landmarks in Havana, including the above pictured Capitolio (the capitol building, which actually looks like the Capitol in Washington, D.C.), the stunning Grand Theater of Havana, the Malecon by the Havana Bay, El Morro and La Cabana fortresses, the Museum of the Revolution (Fidel’s Revolution, to be more exact), the Havana Cathedral, as well as numerous public squares and other historic buildings.
In short, there is a lot to see. We saw all of the above except for the two main fortresses. We missed those because on the day we went (Sunday), was the last day of an international book fair event. We underestimated how many people would actually come to that, because it was basically a giant street party. Thousands upon thousands of people crammed into both forts, with food trucks everywhere, and it was basically like sardines in a can. If we waited in line, it’d probably take all day to get in, and it was so blazing hot that we decided to leave and explore other sights. We wanted to take the bus back to town, but there were long lines for buses as well, so we decided to haggle with a taxi driver on the price to get back. It was amusing, because as he kept insisting that no other taxis would arrive in that spot, I saw probably 10 taxis drive by in like 3 minutes. He eventually lowered his price.
Sights and Sounds
When I travel, I don’t get too caught up in visiting one particular sight over another. To me, the best part about travel is to walk around town and try to see and feel how the people there live every day. I loved walking around Plaza Armas and Plaza Vieja, which are squares that would not sit out of place in any major European capital. They are historic, very well maintained, and have lively nightlife. One of the most striking things about Havana is that you’d walk in a nice street and see a freshly painted and restored house, and then right next to it would be a building that looked like it was recently bombed: broken windows, empty rooms, cables sticking out, crumbling facade. It’s a bewildering sight, and shows that while Cuba will improve over the next 5 years, it still has a long way to go.
One night, when we were walking back to our house, I saw a cable running down from a 2nd-floor balcony to the ground on the street. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except for the fact that it was lying perhaps a half inch (or 1 cm) above a puddle of water. There were people walking around and no one seemed to care. Just one of those things.
One of the things I wanted to learn more about on this trip was how people perceived Fidel Castro and his legacy of communism during his rule of almost 50 years. We went to the proudly nationalistic Museum of the Revolution and ended up spending nearly 3 hours there, because of the vast amount of information, photographs, and materials on display. The museum described the revolution in great detail, from the humble beginnings (a failed coup in 1953 which put Fidel and his brother Raul, the current president, in jail) to the eventual two major successes (1959 overthrow of Batista and 1961 victory in the Bay of Pigs against the CIA).
It was a lot of information to take in, but detail by painstaking detail, it illuminated the labors and pains of Fidel’s band of guerrillas as it grew and eventually overthrew Batista’s tyrannical government. Some of the more interesting items on display were blood-stained shirts of some of the fallen revolutionaries as well as torture materials used by the Batista regime, and random items such as a soldier’s matches. The museum is predictably reverential when it describes Fidel’s journey and his victories, and as the story moves into the early 60s, it becomes more aggressive at the descriptions of U.S. interference and Fidel’s heroic attempts to fight for all Cubans.
The museum focused on two other main figures besides Fidel: the world-famous Che Guevara as well as the lesser known but equally admired Camilo Cienfuegos. I won’t go into too much detail, but both depictions were interesting and showed a glimpse into the minds of both men without whom the revolution would have never happened (both were brilliant military strategists). Guevara was Fidel’s right-hand man and though he became a high Minister in Fidel’s new government after the revolution, he eventually resigned, wrote a goodbye letter to Fidel (which is on show in the museum, though it’s not translated), and left to Bolivia to attempt another communist rebellion. That attempt was unsuccessful and he was killed by CIA-assisted Bolivian soldiers. Cienfuegos won some big battles as part of the revolution, and continued to serve under Fidel until a tragic airplane crash ended his life in 1959.
After the information part, we stepped outside to the other part of the exhibition, which was a collection of vehicles as well as the Granma Yacht used by Fidel to cruise from Mexico and into Cuba on his first attempt at a coup against Batista. Perhaps the most interesting part was a food-delivery truck riddled with bullet holes as well. This truck carried 42 of Fidel’s soldiers on its way through Havana, as part of a surprise attack.
See It Now Before It’s Too Late…
Havana is nearly 500 years old, so it has seen many cultures and invaders come and go. To my eyes, it looks like a mix of Spanish, South American and Creole cultures. The streets are safe, the people friendly (even though some will ask you for money or your shirt or whatever else it is you’re wearing), and we rarely, if ever, saw any drunk locals. They love their music (salsa/rumba) and a few are very smooth street hustlers that you have to admire. On our last day in Havana, I got sick from a meal the previous night (this probably has to do with my weak stomach more than anything else because Ruby and Anthony ate the same meal and were completely fine) and therefore spent the entire day in hellish pain. However, it got a little better as night approached, so me and Anthony went outside, pulled up some chairs and just sat there for two hours and people-watched. For me, it was a great way to cap off our last night in Havana, to watch people cycle through our street trying to sell sandwiches, people going off to parties, kids running home, dogs running around, cars going too fast, etc. One family even opened their doors to let a breeze in, and we watched them eat a nice family meal.
Cuba is slowly opening up to the world, after many years of mostly silence. It’s great to see that there is a booming spirit in the country, at least in Havana, and the tourists are flooding in to give the country much-needed revenue. Of course, eventually the foreign developers will build lavish resorts and fancy hotels and Old Havana will become one of those rushed day-trips organized by big resorts for foreign tourists who aren’t all that interested in Cuban culture (something similar to what has already happened in Jamaica, Mexico, Dominican Republic, basically the entire Caribbean). But before that happens, I would definitely recommend visiting this fascinating slice of the world and seeing it in the state it is now. Once you see that first McDonald’s on the street, the tide will have turned.