La Habana Vieja ... La Ciudad Que Capturó Mi Corazón
Leaning back in my chair, I reach over and set my cigar momentarily on the ashtray and gently close The Old Man and the Sea, a huge pit of ache in my chest as there usually is when I read Hemingway and feel the weight of the haunted man’s words. I reach for my rum, as a gulp is desperately needed, and it waits patiently in it’s Old Havana glass. My husband laughs sitting next to me, lost in his own world while reading a dark comedy of Christopher Moore’s, and I can’t help but smile, and then stare off of our humble deck, settling deeper into my old wooden chair. Though I have no indication of the time, I assume by the height of the sun it’s around four in the afternoon, and the ocean breeze pulls the hair from my face while I study the man two floors down and across the road. In only shorts and flip flops, he and a comrade have begun to cement the roof of a building – why so late on a Sunday I can’t be sure, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. Marc Anthony is blaring from their radio and unconsciously I find I am moving with the music. After consuming some rum, I go back for my cigar, and my attention turns toward the salsa lesson now occurring on another neighbor’s roof. It’s a show, to say the least, and in the best possible way: the woman being taught is not only a natural, but it’s clear this isn’t her first rodeo, and before I know it Dharma and I are both clapping after every one of their dances and saluting them from twenty yards away. Teacher and student love the applause, and soon enough, the two men cementing the roof are interested as well. Very rarely have I felt in more of a community with people so close, yet whom I have not met even once.
This is only a minuscule part of the beauty of Habana Vieja.
When President Barack Obama lifted the embargo on Cuba, the very first thing I wanted to do was find a way to get there, and Dharma was no different. The great fear for us, one that I think resides in many, was that this island might perhaps become like so many of the other Caribbean islands: monstrous, private resorts, a handful of boutique hotels, vacationer markets of worthless knick knacks, and an ignored culture whose only option to survive becomes tourism. So much culture is lost and so much of the island’s magnificence goes unseen by visitors, and I had the smallest glimmer of hope that perhaps Havana might not yet be corrupted without the American influence as a travel destination. With that in mind, I got to work.
2016 was disappointing in this regard for the first few months: I couldn’t even get ahold of a government official to obtain visas for us, and at that point, there was a very limited amount information about legally getting to and from Havana, so I sat on it. Friends told us we could get in and out through Mexico or another Caribbean island; however, my greatest fear was that I would be the one American who would get in serious trouble for doing this. One fateful afternoon, I got an email from my husband at work, in all caps, stating that in November Southwest Airlines was going to start flying to Cuba. That’s all it took. Through Southwest, I got our visas, medical insurance, and declared the ‘purpose’ behind our trip (because simply going for tourism won’t get you through the door). Of the twelve categories of options, I chose professional research. I am a writer, blogger, amateur photographer, and Hemingway fanatic…enough said. Hilariously, not once was either of us asked about this, by the way…not in the U.S. nor in Cuba, so I think it is safe to say the regulations are very lackadaisical.
With our flights and visas taken care of, I found us an Airbnb online for under $80 a night with an amazing woman named Dori, and our hostess (and her daughter-in-law Allie) went above and beyond to provide me with everything Dharma and I could need concerning travel to and from the airport, including what we should pay for a cab, etc. Using Dori’s advice, I will happily share that nothing blew my husband away more than when we finally found a cab after landing in Havana and I bartered with our driver in Spanish for a lower price…and managed to win. The look on Dharma’s face was priceless, and just like that, our trip had launched.
The key factors of preparing for Cuba are actually pretty basic. The first? Bottled water ONLY, unless you don’t want to leave the bathroom for a few days or want a total system detox.
Second, while you are at the airport, remember which terminal you land in, because the taxi drivers have zero idea which airline is at which terminal. When you do return to the airport to depart, be there at least three and a half hours early. There is typically only ONE kiosk per airline, and trust me when I say you do NOT want to be at the back of the line. I witnessed a few Canadians miss their flight, and the aftermath was as if someone told them that hockey season was cancelled.
Third and probably most notable is that there is almost no wifi anywhere, and no cell phone reception, with a few exceptions. There are a handful of hotels that do have wifi; nonetheless, it’s outrageously expensive to purchase, and often times the connection is so slow it is not worth the effort.
The fourth and one I had to remind my husband of is that nose blowing in public is like biting your thumb at a sir in Shakespearean Verona – it is a huge insult and considered extremely rude. You’ve been warned!
Five? Cuba is cash only EVERYWHERE. The currency of choice is typically CUCs, and I would suggest taking out around 100 CUC with you each day. You can do the exchange from American dollars to CUCs at the airport when you arrive. Between cabs, tickets to attractions, mojitos, ham sandwiches, and cigars, you’ll be cleaned out fast.
My sixth and final tip is to beware of the restrooms: always carry a little tissue paper with you, and always have a coin so that you can tip the bathroom attendant. I was without both on numerous occasions throughout our trip, and I was very, very sorry.
In order to plan a vacation within an area without wifi or cell service, I organized everything the same way my father still does: I printed out maps to every attraction (there were twenty-six of them I believe) from our Airbnb, made a list of what each attraction was, and…sigh…I even rated them from ‘must sees’ to ‘we can skip’. I also wrote down any tips I thought we might need and kept it with us at all times (see my list above), as well as our visa information, individual passport numbers, and our flight schedules. While I realize to some of you this may sound paranoid or a little extreme, I would like to emphasize that when you are entering and staying in a country you aren’t quite sure you’re actually authorized to be in and have no way of contacting home, be cautious enough to anticipate the worst and hope for the best. Then, if all hell does break loose, you at least have a bargaining chip.
The last way I equipped and educated myself for Cuba, aside from relentlessly working on my Spanish, was by reading an amazing book I recommend to all of you entitled Havana: A Subtropical Delirium, by Mark Kurlansky. This narrative on the history of Havana, the people of Cuba, and Kurlansky’s own perspective spanning over three decades of visiting the island as a journalist provided me with a far greater understanding of the city before we arrived. One of my favorite lines of the book comes from the second chapter, which delves into the history of uninvited guests from the ocean. Kurlansky states bluntly: “Havana’s misfortunes have always come from the sea” (28). Everything from the ceaseless pirate raids to storage of Spanish loot in it’s early years of ‘civilization’ wreaked havoc on the native people, and Havana constantly found itself rebuilding after being burnt to the ground by invaders searching for treasure. That didn’t change as years went on, either. Outsiders seem to be the constant curse of Havana, or Cuba in general for that matter.
I want to venture into Kurlansky’s in depth coverage of this city’s tragic history, highlighting some of the main points that struck me as a reader and a visitor of Havana.
A little way into the 18th century, “(Havana) was shipping sugar, leather, and tobacco – adding a new redolence to its famous smells – and there was tremendous demand for Cuban tropical hardwood” (36). These demands brought about an abundance of African slaves transported in by the Spanish, and the port of Havana transformed into a major ship building center. It wasn’t until 1886 that slavery was abolished in Cuba, and it was one of the last of the Americas to do so: slavery was an immense part of Havana’s identity. Strangely enough, “an oddity in Spanish law...that had a huge impact on Havana granted slaves the ability to buy their freedom” (45). This was a huge paradox in Cuba, as most of the plantation workers had no possibility of earning money. Slaves in the city of Havana, however, had the opportunity to sell anything they pleased, including themselves, to raise this bounty. Havana had an abnormally large number of slaves who had bought their freedom, and the majority of these were women, as they were roughly a third of the price of a male slave. Eventually, the tides did begin to change. In the 19th century, Haiti’s slaves revolted, and thus catalyzed a stir amongst the slave population in Cuba. This resulted in a series of uprisings that were violent, bloody, gruesome, and typically had appalling conclusions up until abolition was finally made official.
Alongside slave rebellions during the 1800s, revolutionaries began to birth a battle to overthrow Spain, and ultimately they did win out. Then the United States paraded in roughly around 1898, and very quickly, Cubans watched as their entire world transformed. “In 1900, private U.S. companies funded by the U.S. government began spending millions of dollars on major projects to make Havana more suitable for Americans” (91). As Prohibition took over, Americans flocked to Havana to drink, and gradually the city was designed in America’s own image (96). One of the most jaw dropping facts by Kurlansky? “By 1930, there were more cars per capita in Havana than in New York City” (93). Havana virtually became what Las Vegas is now: a safe haven for gambling, drinking, and prostitution, and where every luxury could be found at the right price. As years trickled by, American organized crime commenced it’s takeover of tourism in the 1950’s, and Havana was the prime vacationing spot for any American who could afford it.
And then Fidel and his communist revolution put an end to all that.
When the U.S. trade embargo was initiated after the revolution, it was a struggle for Cubans to replace American products because they were completely dependent on them, and this initiated a friendship with Russia. But I must say, after spending time in Havana, I found it peculiar that in spite of a thirty-year connection with the Soviet Union, there was very little nostalgia regarding Russia. Incredibly enough, there are actually way fewer old Russian cars than the older American models, and the Museum of the Revolution vaguely references Soviet weapons without any indication they were in a close partnership. On a handful of occasions, I nearly mustered enough courage to bring it up with a few of the locals, yet in the end, my courage failed, and so it remains a mystery.
On top of poverty, lack of construction, and limited imports and exports, Cuba started to fall apart with no future plans of renovation. Kurlansky references this while discussing family life after the revolution, as the majority of people did not move and still live where they did when the communist regime took over. Because there is no new building, children who grew up and married continue to live with their parents and families, because there is nowhere else for them to go. In addition, do keep in mind that “it is almost impossible to maintain a city in a tropical climate, which relentlessly composts everything and eats all human endeavor” (191). It is true: anyone who travels to a beach, ocean, or island town witnesses the destruction of hurricanes, fierce storms, salt water, and high winds over an extended time frame – add this into the equation of a poor communist state, and it is easy to grasp why La Habana Vieja is collapsing.
An interesting and notable point made by Kurlansky is that because Castro did not want Havana to fall victim and lose its identity like so many other Latin American cities had, “the argument can be made that the revolution saved Havana” (111). And while a small part of me appreciates the reasoning behind this statement, maybe at moments even agrees, I would argue in return that in my heart and in the aftermath of my stay, I am not sure that is the case. Like so many of the other Caribbean islands I have traveled to, Cuba now thrives on tourism. Kurlansky himself dictates that “since 2010, Cuba has been hosting more than one million visitors a year,” and let me assure you, there is an immense amount of tourist traps, and at most of the beautiful beaches you cannot find a local for miles. Nonetheless, as my reported experience continues, and if you find yourself in Havana one day and have the opportunity to soak up the history and the city, I would predict you will feel as confused and unsettled on this idea as I am today.
From the second we arrived, Dharma and I were completely immersed in Cuba. Despite our cab driver not knowing where our Airbnb’s street was and abandoning us about four blocks away, we made it to Dori’s with little incident other than desperately craving to get out into the loud, boisterous streets. We unpacked, dressed, and then did what we spent the next three days consumed by: wandering the streets of La Habana Vieja with abandon, taking pictures of everything we could, and relishing in the energy some of the nicest people I have ever encountered. The locals there are captivated by Americans. For decades we have been absent while the rest of the world has vacationed in Cuba, and we took pleasure in being stopped by Habaneros who considered us a novelty and welcomed us to Havana with hugs and advice on where to go next. Though I have no doubt our status as a special commodity will fade with the embargo lifted, I really enjoyed being quizzed about our country, and in turn, experiencing authentic Cuban hospitality and kindness. Not once did we face any sort of hostility from any of the locals, even on the two occasions when we were asked to go to a market and buy powdered milk for someone less fortunate – both times we declined, as we had been previously instructed to do so, and were instantly flooded with genuine apologies. This to me was a testament of the kind of heart Habaneros have – there seems to be no space for ill will or resentment among any of them no matter the type of interaction.
It’s almost impossible to describe what being on the narrow roadways of Havana is like. The buildings are no more than four or five stories, and each block varies in it’s size, color, and condition. On every block you can find a tiny place for food or drink, residences, loud music, and people are absolutely everywhere. On the larger streets, you have the bigger restaurants and bars that are mostly state run, yet this is also the place where you find ‘the handlers’, or at least that is what I took to calling them. A handler will take you to a paladar, or what is best defined as an independently run restaurant, which can be anything from a tiny dive with a handful of tables to sitting in someone’s kitchen while they cook for you. We did this on two occasions, and while you are in Cuba I highly recommend it – the food is outstanding, and far more delicious than you will find at any of the state run restaurants.
Dharma and I stopped into a local bar around noon on our second day, and instantly made friends with a man named Ignacio, who was working with a Comparativa to sell tobacco and cigars on the black market to visitors at a discounted price. The Comparativa industry is…pushy, to say the least. In short, a local will assure you that you will be given cigars at a third of the price you pay for them anywhere else, and this is absolutely true – you do get an incredible discount on cigars. The set up is the shady part. With an encouraging wave, you are taken through the winding streets and into a building that is someone’s home, past people you are never introduced to and into a back room where cigars are laid out on a fold out table. There, you are immediately given the run down on Cohibas, Romeo y Julietas, and the like. I won’t lie to you – when Dharma and I first got pulled into one of these, my gut was screaming that we were going to get robbed or worse. But…it didn’t happen, and I bartered down a price on Cohibas and we left with smiles on our faces, though a little astonished at what had just occurred.
When the business side of our relationship with Ignacio finished, he buddied up to us and told us his story, and it plays very much into the revolution and history of Havana. Ignacio’s father and three brothers are all in Philadelphia, and his father, who left in the 1980’s, will never be allowed to return to Cuba. This he told us in a hushed voice, and given the circumstances of his family’s relationship to the communist regime, it seemed like a legitimate wariness of being overheard. Taking this into account, I later noticed little things here and there which started to disturb me. There are cameras everywhere, police on every block, and from what I could grasp from rumors about the Cuban people, they tend to monitor one another as well.
While on our vacation, Dharma and I had only one encounter with the state police, and it was both over the top and a tad chilling. The following day, while drinking mojitos and enjoying a ham sandwich at a corner café, very suddenly sirens came from everywhere, and six police cars and an armored truck pulled directly in front of us. We were literally sitting on the curb of the restaurant’s patio, and the armored truck was less than six feet from us. Within seconds the police cars emptied, including about seven men armed with machine guns, and about half of the party broke off and went straight into the café. Dharma leaned over and whispered in my ear very softly: “Don’t freak out, but you see those holes in the tank? There are two guys with machine guns aimed at our heads right now.”
I stared, wide eyed that direction and probably appeared somewhat frightened. As if sensing the tension, one of the armed guards walked over and smiling, told me he loved one of my tattoos, and then posed for a picture at Dharma’s request, holding a thumb’s up sign. Minutes passed, and the guards who entered the café then exited, apparently collecting the money for the government from the state run restaurant, and as quickly as they appeared, the brigade was gone.
If I hadn’t already been two drinks deep, I probably would have panicked. Thank god for mojitos.
The one theme you absolutely cannot escape, and Kurlansky also discusses this for a brief few pages, is the presence of one of America’s literary icons: Hemingway. I, too, was a casualty of the obsession to drink where he drank, to see his plantation house, to want to understand what the author loved so much about Cuba and its people. Sadly, La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio have become complete and utter tourist traps. Dharma and I walked by both, saw the crowd, and moved on quickly, feeling no reason to wait in a pack of fifty or so people just to have a mojito. Still, I had hope for traveling to Finca Vigia, his home just ten miles outside of Havana, only to discover the day we had planned to go the museum was closed. As a writer, it was probably one of the more heartbreaking moments of travel I’ve had in quite some time. Except later that afternoon, as I concluded The Old Man and the Sea, I was able to perceive the tragedy behind what was really lost, because what was really lost was the Cuba and Havana Hemingway loved for much of his life. Hemingway experienced the island prior to Fidel’s revolution, and the culture he exquisitely depicts in The Old Man and the Sea has become a distant memory. Instead, in those minutes sitting on the deck after finishing the story, I believe I finally started to appreciate La Habana Vieja for what it truly was, and rather than seeing it through the lens of another, opened my own eyes to her glories.
So what was La Habana Vieja for me?
Upon returning home, it took a few days for my brain to process the trip, and I realized how the lack of connection to the outside world via my phone or computer was a blessing. Dharma and I were fully engulfed and present every moment of our stay, and because of that, I feel that I experienced this incredible Cuban city in the best way possible – by being consumed in it.
La Habana Vieja was a multifaceted, beautiful array of memories, overrun with the smell of cigars, the taste of rum, the sound of trumpets, maracas, and guitar, the vibrant colors of the old Chevy’s and Ford’s blazing down the street, and the heat of the sun on my skin.
It was the mangled Spanish I could piece together to hear Ignacio’s story of his lost family, to talk with our favorite bartender at Café Monserrate (our neighborhood stop), or to communicate with our hostess, Dori, that the pan she brought for us as a snack was the perfect addition to our rum soaked afternoon.
It was the splendor of our penthouse apartment, with it’s pink, white, and yellow floral tile, it’s great windows and doors that opened to a fresh ocean breeze, the old wood and woven chairs we sat in every day, the tiny balcony where the sounds of the streets carried up to us as we smoked cigars, the long hallway of pink walls from the front entryway to the kitchen, our warm shower that lacked any definitive water pressure, the tiny coffee pot that always produced a product far too granular, ciestas in the afternoon, music echoing through the apartment from the streets no mater the time, late nights on the rooftop dancing and discussing whatever subject we stumbled across, listening to the rain fall and the sensation of the evening air cooling with it, and last, the roosters next door who woke us up at daybreak every morning – no exceptions.
It was our neighbor’s diligence to keep her rooftop deck for salsa lessons and the paladar clean and picturesque for her guests, regardless of her lack of supplies to do so.
It was dancing with locals every day around our neighborhood in my Birkenstocks, to the point where people started recognizing me, literally, as “the American salsa-ing in sandals”.
It was the diverse degrees of transportation, everything from the old 1950’s cars, to horse drawn carriages or bugees, to scooters and, at most, 250cc motorcycles.
It was attending La Tropicana Cabaret with the eerie sensation of what that place had to have been before the revolution, leaving Dharma and I feeling somewhat bewildered after the night came to a conclusion.
It was ham, cheese, and pork sandwiches, with Cristal Cerveza and Lucky Strike cigarettes.
It was the hilarity I started to feel each time we passed a bar or restaurant with this slogan fiercely written out on a sign in it’s window: “Hemingway did not frequent here”.
It was witnessing el Museo de la Revolucion firsthand, learning about communism, the heroic fallacies broadcast about Castro and Che, and comprehending with a chill running down my spine that for the first time in my life, I was reading pure propaganda that claimed to be truth.
It was the old, cackling women in the street – real cackles, like they know something you don’t and never will.
It was the strange attention to my latest tattoo of the pines of the Northwest; Dharma and I were stopped over two dozen times by locals who wanted to look at my tattoo and complemented me on it, either because they thought it was well done, or because they’d never seen those types of trees previously.
It was the way the Habaneros would joke with us, saying “this is our winter….it is so cold…” as Dharma and I note it is a balmy eighty degrees and sunny – a very mild winter if you ask me.
It was noticing the lack of boats in the harbor, and that absence meant one of three things: that many of the boats were taken to escape the revolution, that there was a fear of the ocean in general, or perhaps that it is a bitterness of what the ocean symbolizes to a people so haunted by what it has brought to them.
La Habana Vieja, it’s people, and the culture as a whole left me with memories I will cherish for a lifetime. There is a tragic past behind this incredible city, and strangely I found its buildings, crumbling to the ground and overgrown with flora and fauna, to be striking and romantic, though sad. I continuously felt Kurlansky’s words echoing in my ears – did the revolution save Havana? And then with a small amount of hope, another idea struck me, one that I will hold onto until I return: we have yet to find out.
Gracias por su generosidad, su bienvenida y su hospitalidad.