Memories of my recent trip to Cuba are divided into several segments, including the journey, the people, the buildings, the landscape, the sounds, and the food.
One of the major aspects of this trip was the actual logistics of getting there. When you live in Miami and fly to Cuba via Toronto, the first odd thing you notice is that the plane starts its decent over the Everglades. The old platitude “so close and yet so far” never seemed more apt.
Because we only had one week, we focused entirely on Havana and its neighborhoods. We regretted that we didn’t have more time to go into the countryside and see more of the island, but we were fully occupied with Havana.
Our hotel was in Miramar, a lovely neighborhood filled with foreign embassies. Our tour company provided shuttle bus service into the city every day. From the shuttle stop, we always wended our way through narrow streets and, and, whether we planned it or not, we usually wound up on Obispo Street, which teems with shops, restaurants, cheap food stands and people — tourists and locals alike. It is a rough equivalent of a pedestrian mall. We never saw another American tourist.
There are parts of Havana that look like war zones. The majority of the apartment buildings are crumbling. As you walk through the streets of Havana, you observe people standing in the decayed doorways of their buildings; there is no air-conditioning; the shutters are falling apart. Sometimes you see restored buildings in their midst, making the others look even more shabby. I wondered about this decrepitude and why there has been no concerted effort to remedy the problem. I was deeply disturbed and puzzled by the dilapidated state of Havana. There were pretty parts as well, of course, such as the Plaza de Armas (where the booksellers congregate) and other parks and squares, with statues, flowers and loungers. And of course, there is the Prado, a wonderful oasis for walking, people watching, resting and enjoying the children at play. The Malecon, a wide sidewalk running along the seawall, is a special gem, where people stroll along the waterfront, vendors selling rolled up cones of peanuts costing – well, peanuts. The kids dive for fun, and if the opportunity presents itself, for coins. What opportunity? Why just start taking pictures, and you will see.
The children of Cuba looked cheerful and well taken care of. I loved watching the school children in their uniforms walking hand-in-hand along the streets. Kids played on the Prado. There didn’t seem to be distinction based on color, nor malnutrition of any kind.
These days in Cuba, there is a growing movement of private enterprise (at least in the food department), Every day, as we walked in various neighborhoods, we were asked if we were looking for a restaurant. It is now permitted to set up a small restaurant in your home, with a specified number of seats. We did go into a couple of these “paladors.” Richard in particular enjoyed the cheap burgers and pizza on Obispo Street. They cost 40 cents, and he said they were good. He ate one or two every day. Lest you think he is indiscriminate in his taste, one day I ordered what I am told was a ham and cheese empanada. It sure looked good, but after a couple of bites, I couldn’t continue. I offered it to Richard, and after one bite, he threw it away without swallowing. My observation is that they should have cooked that pig a little more before putting it in the empanada. Some of the street food was good, however. On our last day, even I had a couple of delicious shredded pork sandwiches. In defense of my normally moderate eating habits, the sandwiches were very small.
My most pleasant evening was with Montoto and Mercedes, Maria’s cousins. Their warm hospitality made us feel very welcome; we feasted with soup, salad, pork, morro rice and flan for dessert. And of course, Cuban rum and even Cuban wine, which we thought was very good – a new product. It is a rare opportunity under any circumstances to eat a meal in someone’s home, while travelling. To do this in Cuba was unbelievable.
The most emotionally wrenching experiences for me were at the Museum of the Revolution. The pictures of the revolutionaries and the struggles they endured, were compelling. I wondered what I would have done if I had lived there at the time. Revolutions occur for many reasons. The U.S. has stuck its nose into the business of so many countries, Cuba being just one of many, and as far as I could tell, the state of Cuba is distinguished by our interference over decades (pre and post-revolution), our neglect, and our failed policies. It made me sad and ashamed. There were so many occasions when, upon telling someone we were from Miami, their face softened. They smiled. They had uncles, aunts, parents, cousins in various cities. One person after another told us they prayed for better relations. One man said his dream was to come to Miami and see a baseball game. Why can’t we normalize relations?
The people are poor by our standards. I didn’t get to see all of the neighborhoods, but there were many that were of a higher standard. I do not know who got to live in these neighborhoods, if they were in some way privileged, if they were family homes from before the revolution or what their particular stories were. I did not see air-conditioning in any of these regular homes, although there might have been some room air-conditioners for some. I believe that the “casa particulars” (private hotel rooms) provide room air-conditioners for their clients.
But the people do not seem wretched. True, they have a low standard of living. There were some beggars, and scores of “hustlers” who wanted to give us a ride on a bicycle cab, a regular cab, or horse and buggy ride. Even in some of the museums, we felt obligated to give a cuc or two to the attendants who paid us particular attention. We figured it out after awhile. It was not out of concern for us but for our money. It was not always the case with attendants. However, at the Decorative Arts Museum, formerly the home of a wealthy family, we were shown into each room by a female attendant. It was almost like a guided tour. If only we spoke Spanish! The guides were so happy to share their museum with us — a really pleasurable experience. The thing is, the hallways were not air conditioned, but each individual room was. Maybe that was why they were so eager. But really, there were too many precious items to leave guests alone to wander about.
Leaving Havana was a bit harrowing. When I got into the immigration booth, the officer took a very long time. Computer problems, she said. Richard was waiting behind me. When I was let out on the other side of the wall, he entered. I waited and waited. No Richard. I was getting scared. At one point, the officer opened the door and said that my husband was OK, but that there were computer problems. I thanked her for letting me know. I waited and waited some more, while people kept coming out of the booths. I was upset and asked the security people what they think happened. They saw how agitated I was and got me a chair to sit on. Finally, Richard left by one of the immigration doors, and told me that the so-called computer problems wound up with him sitting in a small room with a group of people poring over his passport.