Dropping into Havana is like entering into some bizarre time warp of cultural clashes. Chevy’s and Fords from the 40’s and 50’s, Russian Lada’s, Chinese compacts, horse drawn carts, overflowing buses spewing diesel, brave darting pedestrians, all moving together doing the dance of the city through crumbling buildings and loud city streets from the last 500 years.
Downtown are forts from the 1600’s, churches from the 1800’s. There is classic european beauty with ancient Spanish stone architecture, gorgeous courtyards in downtown buildings that house art, sculpture, old wooden furniture, beautiful tropical plants. Then signs of the architectural push of the Americans through the early to mid 1900’s, and on to the USSR, with it’s stark strait lines and strange Soviet era towers dotting the coastline, keeping a watchful eye on the waters.
Cuba was “discovered” by Columbus, and was mostly built and settled by the Spanish. In the early 1900’s the Cubans fought for their independence, got help from the US, and so opened themselves up to an ongoing American influence and an infinite American presence in Guantanamo Bay. As Cuba prospered along came lots of mob ties and sugar money which helped to line the pockets of Batista, making the rich richer, and the poor poorer. This situation provided a breeding ground for Fidel and Raul and Che and the revolution, with hopes of medicine and schooling for all and a turn to the Soviets for backing. When the USSR crumbled in the early 90’s, over $4 billion in yearly payments stopped and things went to hell.
In downtown Havana they have decided that the path forward is through tourism, and that the best way to attract the ATM machine that is the foreign tourist is by making downtown shine. Some areas have been brought back to their former glory with brightly painted walls, refreshed wooden doors, shutters, and quaint cobblestone streets. Others are in process, being readied behind 15 foot high corrugated metal walls that give a promise of things to come. For much of the 1900’s Cuba was the most prosperous nation in the Caribbean. It has good bones.
Warm and friendly people were everywhere we went. Downtown and in the small towns all are out walking the streets during the daytime, plastic shopping bags in hand as they return with the days groceries. All feeling very safe with lots of kids around, women walking alone, no need to be fearful. And then dinner time comes and the streets are empty and silent with everyone together inside. Our new buddy Andre takes me to his friends house to change some american money into CUC’s. “Will he be home?” I ask. “Of course, it’s dinner time in Cuba”.
There is a conflicting combination of pride and anger from the people. They love the country. They hate the government. They get the free medicine, free school but are paid hardly anything to work in the office jobs that they were schooled for. So they work in the black and semi black market. Doctors driving taxi’s, changing money. “I can get anything for you. What do you need?”
The downtown central squares have been designated as WiFi hotspots, where people young and old congregate not to interact, but to stare at their phones under the Banyan trees. $1.50 gets you an hour of decent service. Just buy a card and plugin the code. Strange twist on the use of public spaces, bringing everyone together in isolation. The internet is open but there is no access for American money. Credit cards issued from American banks won’t work. Can’t go on pay pal or even the Apple store to pay for something while in Cuba. Bring your stack of cash.
The retail stores are bizarre. They are run by the government and seem to get a truckload of whatever it is they are selling at a time and put it all out on the shelves at once, with no seeming rhyme or reason as to what any store might have. There are stacks and stacks of exactly the same dishwashing soap in yellow, and then in green, and then red. We saw one pile of about 100 dustpans and little brooms in a little market. But then we went shopping for vegetables and it was great, as long as you wanted what they had. Most are sold in little carts on the side of the road, or in somebodies front yard with a table outside. We found huge cabbages, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, and more all at way less than they would at home. Or possible of course to get a fresh chunk of pork or chicken, cut from the pig and hanging out in the hot Cuban sun. We weren’t that brave.
And then there are the cars. There are old american classics from the 40’s, 50’s, and early 60’s everywhere you look. Most of the engines have been replaced by diesels, but the bodies and the interiors on many are cherry. Pink, lime green, shining chrome, beginnings of tail fins. They cost more than a house would cost in Havana because the drivers use them to make a real wage as taxi’s and tour guides. Many europeans off the cruise ships are seen sitting in the back seat of the pink convertibles with their selfie stick extending the phone to document their ride through downtown Havana.
Musicians on many corners. Mostly one guy with a guitar playing Chan Chan and his buddy scraping the gourd for rhythm. Heard that song at least a dozen times a day. But then as we dug a little deeper found an excellent Cuban Jazz quartet. Intricate conga player with the wood block on the foot pedal. Acoustic bass turned backward to reverberate the sound off the stone pillar behind. Acoustic steel string guitar player with wild eyes and a lifetimes worth of Cuban sounds in his fingers. And through the cuban melodies I heard the jamming sounds that I know so well. At some point they dropped into Tequila, and it could have been us in Glenn’s shop in Jamestown. Elsewhere a young, small, sad eyed earnest teenager moved into a space near an outside dining area and started belting out Cuban ballads. Sang a half dozen songs, and passed the hat. They do all pass the hat. Caught his eye later counting the bills and he gave me a thumbs up sign. Could have been Ethan. Elia and I joined a pair in a bar, sharing blues riff’s, she harmonizing, me tapping out rhythm with a spoon on the coffee cup. Impromptu song of American’s from Colorado. Our gifts were guitar strings from America.
The only place to bring a sailboat is into Marina Hemmingway, about 15 miles west of downtown. When it was built in the 50’s it would have been impressive with 5 rows of canals for boats, tennis courts, restaurants, and a bowling alley ,built for the affluent and to lure the american yachts. But now it is crumbling and tired. Word is a few years ago it was quite full with Americans finally getting to bring their boats to Cuba. But then he who shall not be named seems to have decided that since Obama had opened the door he should close it back up and has made it much harder for American boaters to visit. Cuba could really use the dollars from the American tourists. It doesn’t need the KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks strip mall bullshit that seems to come with American “investment”, but it could sure use some sailors coming in, drinking some beers and eating in the restaurants.
As we left the city to sail west the landscaped turned into mountains and greenery. Gorgeous empty land. We ended up at a bay where they were recycling ships. Then into another where there is an “eco tourist” lodge on a tucked away island. Endless sand beach, little palapas, a ferry comes to drop people twice a day from the mainland. Tourist’s from many countries other than the US milling about. Nice to get out of the city and back to bare feet, white sand, and a book enjoyed under a palm tree.