“Both for Havana’s beauty and decay, it’s very hard to restrain yourself from staring everywhere you go”– Brin Jonathan Butler
I visited Cuba a lifetime ago. It was in the days of Fidel’s reign and rules were strict and supplies were limited. We stayed in Holguin area, on the opposite side of the island from Havana and although I was in Cuba and we had a great time, I never felt I experienced the real Cuba. The visit to the beautiful city of Trinidad, offered me a glimpse of that Cuba and after reading a couple of books and stories about Havana, I knew I had to go back to Cuba. I wanted to walk the streets of old Havana, see the sunset on the Malecon, drink in the history, the culture and the people. Food, art and music are the heartbeat of Havana and I wanted to feel that rhythm and hear that beat.
A unique blend of old and new
After clearing customs in Havana, our guide and driver are waiting to drive us in a beautiful 52 Chevy to our private residence in Nuevo Vedado, a neighborhood with mostly locals. We notice the first example of how old and new blend in Cuba: the Chevy is from the previous century, but the LED headlights and the Microsoft tablet mounted on the dash are latest technology.
Over the next couple of days, while exploring the city, we see many more examples of how old and new blend in Havana. Cuba is still ruled by the same regime after Fidel’s dead, but there are signs of relaxation that started when Raul Castro released some of the restrictions on private businesses and basically legitimizing the “black-market”. Small businesses are now allowed: little stores and private restaurants (paladars) and private accommodations (casa particulares – the Airbnb of Cuba) have created some sort of middle class. We visit the Plaza de la Revolucion, one of the main squares in Havana where Fidel used to address more than a million Cubans on many occasions. The square is dominated on one side by the memorial and statue of Jose Marti, the hero of all Cubans, the other side by big steel sculptures of Che Guavara and Camilo Cienfuegos, revolutionaries and friends of Fidel.
We walk the cobblestone streets and plazas of old Havana. Many of the old buildings are in a state of decay with pieces of plaster missing from their facades and gaps in the walls, but if you look closely, you see the most wonderful pieces of architecture. Many of them have been or are being restored and repainted in their original vibrant colors. Havana’s 500-year celebration is coming up on November 16, 2019 and the city is trying to bring back its old glory as much as possible for this day. Walking in the old town, it is easy to imagine the city in the roaring fifties: beautiful cars and well-dressed people, parties and debutante balls, casinos, jazz and salsa clubs.
We stop at Capitol Hill, a copy of the American White House, in the downtown area of Havana named “Central Park”. This is another example of the old meeting the new, with the old hotels like L’Inglaterre and Telegrafo opposite the newly built high end Kempinski and Parque Central. At night the city comes alive: people walking and watching the sunset on the famous El Malecon (the seawall), hanging out in the parks and streets with music everywhere, artists playing inside little bars and on street corners.
Visiting Bodeguita del Medio, Hemingway’s favorite watering hole for mojitos and the theater to hear the Buena Vista Social Club perform old brass band music, I picture myself in Cuba of the old days. I want to go to a salsa club, but apparently salsa has turned into reggaeton, a mixture of rap, reggae and afro-Cuban. Aniel, our driver plays some for us and we realize this is the new Cuba.
Art, food and music
I enjoy visiting all the historical and traditional sights, but what I enjoy most is the more unique experiences and Havana’s more local areas.
On our first day, we have an opportunity to visit the famous Lizt Alfonso Dance School. This school is one of the top dance schools in the world. Children start as young as six and hope to make it as a professional. The professional dance group has only 49 dancers and danced on 5 continents last year. We are invited to a private performance where both the elementary school age group and the older more advanced group perform several dances. It is very special to watch them perform just for us. They are phenomenal and their dancing and performance is simply breathtaking.
We join a cooking class in a paladar in Cojimar, the little village of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”. The chef takes us first to a local herb and vegetable garden and shows us how they have created a completely organic and self-sustainable gardening system. We take some of the herbs and vegetables with us and use them for our cooking class. We make tomato-rum lobster and lamb with peppers, onion and garlic. We are also shown how to make a real Cuban Mojito, using honey instead of sugar and brown rum instead of white.
We eat a real Cuban sandwich from a local corner shop. Not the ones you buy in the US with too much of everything, but the original one: simple – fresh bread with just pork and a pickle. You can buy these “pan con lechon” everywhere in Cuba in little local restaurants and snackbars (cafeterias).
One day, our guide Duni invites us over to his house. His mom runs a little coffee business and he wants us to taste her coffee and meet his family. When he told us she makes the best coffee in the world he didn’t exaggerate; it is delicious: strong, thick, sweet with a hint of chocolate. We joke that it is more like a dessert than a coffee.
We explore a wide variety of art: we visit Fusterlandia, the Gaudi like village created by local artist Jose Fuster, and the Fabrica de Arte Cubana (FAC), an old factory turned into an art gallery, bar and music hall, a very unique place and concept. We pay a visit to Hemingway’s estate, Finca Vigia, now turned into a museum.
We look for and find beautiful street art all over Havana.
We stroll the little back streets and alleys of old Havana and watch the people, the little markets, the streets stalls and vegetable carts. We stumble upon the museum de la farmacia, a beautiful old building founded in 1598 and still operating as a pharmacy today. Every street, every corner there is something interesting to explore.
The heart of Havana
I read about Batista’s Cuba, the era when Cuba was thriving, parties were lavish but so was the corruption. I read about and experienced (although very limited) Fidel’s Cuba, after the revolution, when the economy tanked, people were poor, but everybody had free education and medical. For Cubans there are two times: there is before the revolution and after the revolution.
Everywhere in the old city, you see glimpses of “before the revolution”, the spirit and some of the glamour of those days: the old colonial houses, the beautiful squares and beautiful buildings like the majestic Hotel National, where sitting in the gardens, it is easy to envision how life in Cuba was in the forties and fifties. The city is full of colorful and beautifully maintained American cars from before the revolution – Fords, Chevy’s, Buicks – that make you feel as if you are part of a nineteen twenties or thirties movie.
Then there is an overwhelming “after the revolution”: the run- down buildings, the poverty, the pictures of Castro, Chez Guavara and other heroes from the revolution prominently displayed on many street corners, buildings and souvenirs in the little shops, signs that say “Viva La Republica”, “Gracias por todos, Fidel” and “Victoria”. Fidel initially tried to ban catholic religion and nationalized catholic schools. This caused an increase of Santeria, a religion based on “worship of saints”, and there is still a strong Santeria following in Cuba today. In the past under Batista, the American mafia and Hollywood ran Cuba with Americans filling the hotels beaches and casinos that most Cubans could not. Under Fidel and today’s regime, tourists from Europe, Canada and South America, have taken their place and average Cubans can still not afford to stay and eat in any of them.
This week I see Havana through its people’s eyes and I see a Cuba from before and after the revolution and so much more. Underneath it is the people’s Cuba: people who love their country and are trying to create a better tomorrow for their children. Life is far from easy in Cuba today. There are a lot of things average Cuban people have no access to. Food is still rationed, and everybody receives stamps for the basic food and supplies. There are government stores to supplement this with additional goods. Those that are lucky to have access to CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos) will be able to afford a little more luxury items than those that only have Cuban pesos. Petrol is in short supply right now after gas from Venezuela dried up and people are lined up at every bus-stop and street corner in the hope to get a ride from a bus or a government car. It sounds grim, but the opposite is true. All the Cuban people we meet are friendly, positive and seem to have a zest for life. We notice that a lot of the young Cubans have tattoos and we learn that this is the latest rage in Cuba. For some it’s is just fashion, others believe it underscores Cubans’ deep yearning for broader individual rights and greater basic freedom. The city vibrates with art and music, showing a spirit that seems to be the core of the Cuban people and something that nobody can take away. Not the Spaniards, not the Americans, not Batista, not Fidel.
In Havana, I found the Cuba I had hoped for, the before, after and beyond: it’s raw, it’s real, It’s old and it’s new, it’s warm, it’s exciting and it’s full of life, it’s controversial and it’s complicated. I can only hope that one day I will be back, and it will be in a new Cuba, a Cuba of and for the Cubans.