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Carribean, Culture, Destinations, History, North America

Havana Life – La Vida

June 21, 2015 • By

As I explore the streets of Havana block after block, the beauty of the dilapidated buildings strikes me. Most are still structurally in tact exhibiting bold design and images of glory and grandeur but in the shadows Havana is frozen in time – 1950 to be exact. UNESCO restored portions of Old Havana closer to the port and the Royal Force Castile (El Moro) but more money is required to revitalize the entire city along with an infrastructure overall for transportation, water and electricity. The potential is there and the world awaits the call.

Old Havana former Capitol before Communism

Old Havana former Capitol before Communism

When I spoke to locals either my guides or friends of my host family, I learned that Cubanos hunger for progress. Some are anxious and can’t wait for the Americans to arrive, while others fear the change could come with a price. It will. I agree. One guide claimed if the United States lifted the embargo the Cuban government would have nothing to blame for Cuba’s problems.

“Everything wrong in Cuba is a result of the hurricanes or the U.S. embargo.”

After a few days traversing the streets of Havana, I believed that to be true. It’s ironic because I assumed Cubans would dislike American people but they welcomed me with open arms and at every chance meeting wanted to learn more about my life. A life I suspect they cannot envision outside of movies. It’s possible the older generation still remembers the better days before Castro’s rule but today the people look to the future with hope and trepidation.

Architecture along the Malecon

Architecture along the Malecon

It’s hard not to argue that these people are poor and have nothing comparatively but my experiences in Havana make me question whether or not I am wrong and they indeed have everything. Cuba could be a great example of the grass is always greener across the Atlantic. They possess universal health care. An abundance of skilled doctors serve patients yet hospitals struggle to acquire enough medicine for treatment for the general population. With free education, their literacy rate is nearly 100 percent, the 10th highest globally, but jobs are scarce and pay modest. A doctor makes about $65 a month and the average employee $25. I spent a day with a taxi driver in a 1957 Chevy who explains he earns about $15 a month barely enough to support his wife and two daughters. He is learning English counting numbers and we practice on our drive but we rely on Spanish to communicate. To me, his life is difficult but does he have what he needs? Yes….maybe.

Most of the tour guides I met previously worked as teachers at the schools and universities. Since tourism pays double if not triple especially since 2000, many abandoned their posts for better opportunities. My one guide suggests open American tourism will completely change the entire industry because “Americans demand service and quality. It will make Cubans work.” He might be on to something since the service is lacking (average wait for a meal is an hour+) and the quality of food and drinks below par. My mojito tasted like a spoiled water and rum concoction and if I attempted to eat anything other than the traditional Cuban meal of plantains, black beans and rice (moros y cristianos) and pork I left disappointed and hungry.

Havana locals dancing

Life in Havana seems easier from afar. They value health, education and family. Crime and racism are not an issue and guns not available. Unlike Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations, Cuba is not a pass through for the drug trade. It feels like an open and safe society. People walk the streets at will, neighbor’s doors are unlocked and people come and go all day. However, Cubans are denied basic rights of free expression, association, assembly, privacy and due process of law. Again, Cuba is not always what it seems but the people keenly aware of the plight of neighboring countries (drugs, poor education) has no intention of suffering a similar fate.

Cuban buses and cars are Chinese and oil Venezuelan. They are an island functioning and surviving but living decades behind developed countries. They are dependent on what other communist countries provide although that has been changing and will continue to do so with modifications to U.S. policy. Cubans fix things….cars from the 50s, refrigerators, fans, air conditioners, televisions, radios, chairs and tables. They appreciate the clothing on their back and the shoes on their feet. Department stores and mega grocery places do not exist. They buy what they need and no more and no less. I commented to one of the neighbors innocently, “I like your Coach shoes.” She replied, “What Coach?” This woman was wearing shoes she had bought a few years ago and they would likely last her several more.   She didn’t care that they were not Nike or adidas or Gucci and there isn’t any importance placed on brands or advertising in Cuba. Locals cannot envision Starbucks and McDonald’s and Polo and Levi jeans. Today, they don’t have options of merchandise or competition between friends. That isn’t part of their daily lives and I worry this change will hurt them. Their clothing and gadget stores are sparse and resemble a U.S. Salvation Army more than a Woolworth or Target. I struggled to explain New York living with stores and restaurants on every corner.   Cubans rely heavily on stores for parts like nuts and bolts that they buy from Canada and even the United States. It reminds me of the saying, “It’s ok for now I’ll just put a Band-Aid on the situation.” Cubans need lots of Band-Aids and tape!

Cubans play baseball, soccer and box. They celebrate music and dance such as salsa, mambo and rumba but family and community guide their entertainment. The kids may play one sport but certainly not five. They are very close always hugging and in each other’s business. Privacy is certainly not an option in Cuban families.

While Marxism teaches that Communism and religion are incompatible, Cubans today practice Catholicism and Santeria (Way of the Saints), a type of African folk religion. Several ethnic groups comprise the Cuban population: Europeans such as the Spanish and French stemming from the days of colonialism, North and West African groups many descendants of slaves, Chinese brought over as farmers and Americans. It was not uncommon for me to see a darker skinned Cuban with bright blue green eyes. The people are truly beautiful inside and out and beaming with Cuban pride.

Fantasy Aisle

Middle school children playing in the plaza

To hold the forbidden fruit in my hand is one thing; but to taste it’s flavors, speak it’s language and enjoy it’s place in time and space is quite another. Guidebooks and tourist blogs give the impression that the world has visited Cuba and only Americans are left in the dark but my brief stay in Havana and Vinales (the countryside) suggests a land nearly forgotten by time. The absence of technology is obvious but it’s the innocence of the country that I most admire and respect. The children playing in the streets, the locals fishing along the sea and the joy on the people’s faces are the reasons I came to see and learn about Cuba.  Propaganda is self-serving to a respective nation but it’s the people and often the simple things in life that tell the real story.

I can’t wait to see Cuba under siege from Apple and Samsung but I hope for the people that the change is gradual.  If it’s too fast, I fear they will not be able to brace for the impact.

Important Dates in Cuba’s History

1898 – Spain and the United States went to war. Spain ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the US for $20 million.

1902 – Cuba gained independence from the U.S.

1958 – Fidel Castro comes to power

1960 – An embargo was first imposed by the United States on Cuba

1961 – U.S. launches an invasion known as the Bay of Pigs in an effort to overthrow Cuba

1991 – Communist Russia falls and Cuba enters hard times known as the Special Period

2008 – Fidel Castro rumored to be ill and near death declared his brother Raul Castro the President of Cuba

2013 – Raul Castro announced his resignation for 2018 that will end his current 5-year term. It is hoped that the permanent term limits including age limits will be implemented in the years to come.

*On December 17, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, pushing for Congress to put an end to the embargo

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Carribean, Destinations, North America

Arriving in Havana, Cuba

June 21, 2015 • By

In 2004, I lived life a bit more in the moment than I do today. A risk taker and not as restricted by burdens of job and family, I yearned to live like Hemingway on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean writing the days away. I convinced my boyfriend (and myself) at the time that the allure of Cuba was too great to refuse.   With only a Frommer’s guidebook (too afraid to search on the Internet), bright hues of red, yellow and green pulled me into the pages of what I imagined to be Trinidad.   I immediately rang up a Canadian travel agency and booked the seven-day adventure with only one pause for concern, “Is this trip refundable?”

A few months later as our departure date loomed, President George W. Bush announced further sanctions against the Castro regime and along with that enormous fines and possible convictions for any Americans disobeying the travel ban. I may like to live on the edge but I do try to abide by most rules so I cancelled the trip. Sometimes things are not meant to be – the boyfriend and I broke up and another 11 years passed by before I set foot on Cuban soil.

It was worth the wait.

I traveled from Mexico City to Havana on a sunny day in late January. A family friend had arranged for me to stay with her cousin near the University about a 20-minute walk from Old Havana.

Viva Cuba

When I first arrived at my casa particular (room for rent), I thought I stumbled into a community center. Friends and neighbors peeked in the door of the living room, while others sat on chairs and couches and chatted with my host mother. I introduced myself to everyone and I understood they were cousins, or second moms and aunts and definitely very involved in each other’s lives even if not related.

Living Room

I quickly discovered no one speaks English and after being up for many hours my concentration waned and I only noticed mouths moving presumably asking me about the United States and New York. Thankfully, Hans from Munich (not his real name) enters the house and grants me a Spanish language reprieve. He greets me, we make introductions and I learn (from him) that he is a famous Munich DJ to the soccer players and that he found Jesus four years ago. “I used to do a lot of drugs and sleep with lots of women and party. Now the “chief” guides my life.” Ok then I mean I don’t know why but I really want to hear more about him and I press the conversation. He was visiting Cuba a few years ago with a fellow German friend and spotted his now fiancé being solicited for sex. (The Cuban government has been cracking down on tourist sex /prostitution). When she refused, he was intrigued so he asked her for coffee. Apparently it’s that easy to find love in Cuba.

My host family lives in a converted house with three rooms on the main floor consisting of a living room, kitchen and a side room; a second floor with a bedroom and bath rented out to guests – my temporary gigs; a third floor with a room for the computer, and a divided area for the two children and parents to sleep; and a separated open roof floor with a kitchen and spare room. Currently, the roof is home to Hans.

Living Quarters

When Communism fell in Russia in 1991, Cuba went into a state of deep decline knows as the “Special Period” to Cubans. Russia had been the country’s lifeline for food and supplies and now the Cuban people suffered from a shortage of water and electricity and basic everyday needs. During this time, Fidel Castro opened up Cuba to tourism appealing to Canadians and Europeans and their pocketbooks. Many families like mine sold rooms in their homes to tourists as a means for income.

I paid $45 a night for my room and it included breakfast, dinner and guava smoothies throughout the day and the most hospitable, generous, welcoming people I have ever met. Keeping in mind Cubans have limited money and supplies, stores etc., I found my meager accommodations to be clean and my shower functioning with a trickle of water, which is more than I can say for the tourists who paid for 4-5star hotels. Killing hundreds of mosquitoes a day while trying to shower was just part of the experience. My family even bought me eggs with their rations after I mentioned that’s what I eat for breakfast. A humbling experience for me on day one when I learned every Cuban household maintains a Libreta (ration book) entitling the family to a monthly supply of basic goods like fruit and meat provided at a small cost.

Rationing Book

With a population of about 11 million, the Republic of Cuba is one of the world’s last remaining state-capitalist countries following the Marxist-Leninist approach /Communism. It’s an archipelago of islands located in the northern Caribbean Sea where the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Cuba is only about 90 miles off the coast of Florida but far enough to make it a metaphor for forbidden fruit to most Americans. Approximately 3 million tourists visited Cuba in 2014 up from 600,000 in 1991.