As most of you have probably surmised, I am a United States passport holder. Just after Thanksgiving, this is something I’m immensely grateful for – and my passport is something that I consider among my most valued possessions. Fortunately, USA passport holders are welcome nearly everywhere in the world – and often times, met with relative disregard from border security. When I studied abroad, we took a bus to Germany from the Czech Republic, and the border guard just passed over me, while my Nepalese friend and her intricately hand-touched passport were verified with multiple checks. That being said, there are a couple places most USA passport holders won’t have the opportunity to go – and when given a chance to visit Cuba, I took it.
I won’t get into the politics of this place in this blog, although I do acknowledge that understanding and being mindful of the country’s political history with the United States is a great prerequisite to travel there. I went in March 2015, on a cultural exchange visa as part of a touring choir. I greatly enjoyed hearing Cuba’s incredible youth musicians singing and performing. The country is a musical powerhouse, and I hope these students succeed, as they are incredible performers.
As we learned, much of our perception of the country is propaganda told to Americans; Cuba has healthy trade relationships with several countries, including China, which supply it with all of the modern amenities it might need. In fact, the “50s cars” are so limited that we actually had to seek out a taxi bank of tourist 50s mobiles to get our classic “riding in the old times Cuban car” pictures (I won’t embarrass myself by showing those here, although I tried to take photos of them when they were in the street for the novelty of it). That being said, it is still a socialist country. Many of the beautiful houses are filled with multiple families struggling to pay for the rent, the food is still rationed (see the egg distribution truck below), and when you get outside of downtown Havana, you can see the income inequality quite visibly. Much of what we were told was also clearly propaganda – and we were closely monitored to ensure we didn’t stray too far from the defined attractions we had paid to see.
Entering Cuba was an interesting experience – instead of the usual line of customs booths, you undergo a biometric recording procedure, step into a small, dark room, and then pass out to the other side. It was definitely one visible impression of a government carefully monitoring the situation. We were met by our guides, who were required to be with us wherever we were, and who clearly had scripted answers to questions. We started with a drive from the airport in Veradero to Havana to spend the night.
We had a great view of downtown Havana from the hotel.
We then took a day trip to Matanzas, Cuba, a small town near a craggy outcropping where escaped slaves used to hide out in. I’m sure there is much more to this story, but the answers we got were limited unfortunately.
I had the opportunity to ride a water buffalo, one of the slower and more lumbering four-legged creatures I’ve had the chance to spend time with (others being llamas, camels, horses, donkeys, and a sad mule one time in elementary school).
We spent the rest of our 8 day trip in Havana, the capital of Cuba, performing and attending various concerts. We did have a little time to explore the city (again, with our guides). Havana itself is incredibly polished, and honestly feels as though it could belong anywhere in Europe (or a little bit like San Juan, if you’ve been to Puerto Rico).
There’s a beautiful fort, a gorgeous town square with picturesque buildings, and a grand plaza that looks a lot like San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
Wandering the downtown is amazing – the sun bakes down on you, and the architecture has a stately, regal feel to it. The cathedral is also beautiful.
As with the music, the art is incredible. Having been to incredible museums worldwide, I can honesty say Havana’s Museo de Bellas Artes is one of the most prestigious museums I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been looking for a print of a work called “columna humana” for about a year now to no avail.
After wandering for a while, we stopped to see a couple of historic features of the city. The first is a machine used to press the sugar cane into liqueur, which we had the chance to use (and clearly, got a free beverage out of it). The second were bells forged by slaves of the island, which are incredible and sit outside of the churches as a legacy to slavery in Cuba.
While most of the Caribbean cities I’ve seen have used vibrant pinks, reds, and oranges as the paint colors, Cuba tends to go for a vibrant blue color.
There are some signs of the government and of the daily struggles that the people living in Cuba face. The town center has a prominent nationalist statue, while religion is largely banned with the exception of a couple memorable, historical churches.
The food, although renowned worldwide, is also a little bit lackluster in Cuba itself. I have a strong suspicion this is the result of the fact that everything is rationed – in comparing notes with other folks who have been to Cuba, we’ve all been similarly surprised by the food. My guess is refugees brought their recipes with them to the United States and other countries, and with vibrant, fresh ingredients, are able to showcase the mastery that can be Cuban cuisine. It could also be that these folks and myself were only able to go to “tourist approved” restaurants, and therefore missed out on the best. If that’s the case, I apologize for the misinformation here.
Of course, some things are relatively funny when taken lightly – such as Super Burger, the Premier McDonald’s of Cuba.
Pasttimes, like baseball, are also quite common and visible.
After spending nearly a week there, some cracks in the facade became visible. The internet service – 30 minutes for about $20 – told us that modern commodities are available, if you want to pay. The buildings which from ground level look polished, from above are aged and desperately seeking repairs. The population is using a local currency in addition to using USD as a comparable currency, and it’s entirely a cash economy.
At one point, our guides took us to an art fair to buy souvenirs for our last day. I didn’t want to purchase any art, but instead got a coconut to carry around and drink from. When the purveyor offered to add rum for $1, I figured, why not? Well, a 30-second pour and about 3 people in the group later, the rum was still going strong in the coconut. Emblazoned and a little fed up by all of the bureaucracy to this point, we finally walked off into a couple side streets. Our sights there piqued my interest, and I snapped a few, very simple photos before we were caught and summoned back to the bus.
My guess is that the real story of Havana starts about two blocks beyond where that photo was taken.
We also went to the cigar factory, where you can buy Havana Club rum (for about 5x what you’ll pay in the average Cuban grocery store, where most of us stocked up on gifts for folks at home). It was amazing seeing the cigar rolling process – it is about three floors, organized by “learning” cigar rollers, up to the people who are experts. They all legitimately roll the cigars by hand, with very little machinery involved. The process was unlike anything I’ve seen, and clearly a craft.
As for our exit, it was about as tedious as our entry into the country. I had organized the tour, and out of gratitude, members of the choir bought me a small painting at the market. It turns out that it was not carrying an official “stamp” and that to exit with it, I needed to pay a substantial “fine” (aka “customs fee” aka probably “bribe”). Well, all of my remaining cash had been stolen at the bar the night before we left, with the exception of the Canadian dollars I’d picked up when we had a layover in Toronto. After several rounds of explanations, I gave him my remaining $5.65 CAD and headed up to the terminal, thinking this was the worst part of the day.
However, when we arrived in Toronto for our flight home, someone had the bright idea of telling the customs officials we’d just gotten off of a flight from Cuba, rather than just letting us go individually through customs. I don’t encourage breaking customs rules, but there had been a clear miscommunication – you’re allowed to bring back rum and cigars on flights direct to the US, but not through Canada. Chaos ensued, with the twenty or so people who had purchased significant gifts being detained in customs to the point where we held the flight at the gate, despite the several hour layover. It turned out that many of them just chugged as much rum as they could before getting on the flight, so as to not waste their purchases. Let’s just say it was a long trip from Toronto to Boston to our little town in nestled in the Northeast…
Overall, Cuba was an incredible experience and a testament to people, resilience, and the power of propaganda. I would love to go back in ten, twenty years to see how the country changes.
2 thoughts on “Havana, Cuba”
Wow great write up and very interesting. Did you see many other tourists there?
We really didn’t – despite being in fairly “touristy” areas, there were few that were noticeable to us (and definitely no groups as large as ours). We did see several Canadians when we were in the public square/open market area, the fort, and at the beach (I suspect many folks visit Havana and then head to the beautiful beaches for the rest of their vacation). We also went just before the US opened up travel to Cuba, so I’m sure there were many more tourists in the months after we visited.