That Time I Went to Cuba

When people find out I went to Cuba, they naturally ask me how it was. I feel remiss answering in any of the polite, normal ways – Oh, it was great, it was awesome, so much fun! Not because it wasn’t any of these things, but rather because these words seem to fall short of inadequate. My friend coined a phrase I like. “It was a trip, not a vacation.”

While this one-liner is pithy, it doesn’t quite quench the thirst of the eager listener. Well, my friends, never fear. It only took me two weeks (or three), but I’ve actually followed through and written a blog post about my trip to Cuba.

Arrival

Hot, but not humid hot. I expected something sweltering when I stepped off the plane. I had gone all in on my perception of Cuba as semi-tropical and literally packed myself zero tops with sleeves. But the weather was a mild, agreeable, I’m-going-to-get-a-killer-tan-without-even-sweating-too-hard-and-everyone-back-home-will-be-cold-and-more-importantly-jealous – kind of hot. What a pleasant surprise.

The three of us gathered in the baggage claim. After waiting around the carousel for hours and to no avail, we sought help. “East or West?” we asked, wondering if we had made a mistake on where we were waiting. He smirked, shook his head, and kept on walking.

Now, in the moment my high school Spanish had deserted me and I was mute to pursue him further. It wasn’t until later that I realized his response couldn’t be explained by a simple language barrier. The airport monitors read “este” and “oeste;” the Spanish words were far too close to “east” and “west” to mistake. It was clear that he had simply chosen not to talk to us.

The baggage claim overflowed with unhappy tourists who had lost their luggage, grumbling and gaining Braveheart-worthy righteousness with every story retold, as unhappy tourists do. The employees barely watched. They stood, indifferent, as tens of twenties of people ran from east wing to west wing over the span of two hours, eventually amassing themselves to one confused woman to write down their luggage information and return the next day.

To be honest, complaining in airports is a pastime I’ve never enjoyed. It does nothing for me psychologically, and does even less to rectify the given sordid travel situation. But it’s an epidemic rampant wherever you go. People love to bond over their injustices. We ran into a woman from our flight on the sidewalk outside the National Hotel later that trip. She proceeded to recount the rest of her lost luggage story in epic form, ending with the triumphant, accusatory conclusion that the Cuban airport had withheld her luggage for no other reason but pure laziness and spite! I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was entirely within the realm of possibility a different type of incompetence had occurred; that the luggage had been lost in the U.S., found, and shipped to Cuba a day later. Instead I silently pondered, Would I want to help her? Would I want to help me? With this running through my mind, I assured myself that at the very least, I’d choose to help me before I’d choose to help her – I mean who wouldn’t with this smile – and I walked on.

By the time we sorted out the luggage situation, our plane tickets had generously included a complimentary four-hour tour of the Jose Marti airport. I was more than ready for a change of scenery. So when the lady employee by the exit tried to stop me from leaving because I didn’t have the right paperwork, I politely but firmly explained that someone had mistakenly collected it earlier, and refused to return to the end of the line. I was stanch about this. I had already waited in line twice to get my money exchanged. The first man had taken one look at my wad of 20 dollar bills and gruffly refused me, insisting he only accepted 100’s. I proceeded to wait another forty minutes in line, determined not to resort to busking on my grand Cuban adventure; I shamefully but openly admit that I lack the skills – but not the charm! – required for the art of street performance. The second woman made a face and accepted my very valid tender. I concluded that the first man had turned me away because he hadn’t wanted to count my mass of 20 dollar bills.

Dinner was a relief and a celebration. Food disappeared off our plates with no pause for words. Mango mojitos were generously spiked with Cuban rum, and tasted of the nectar of gods.

Now you may point out that I’ve spent three long paragraphs recounting airport mishaps. I do it not to gain your indignation, to paint anyone in negative light, nor because these incidents have been keeping me up at night. I make every attempt to stay true to the facts. I do this because I want you to experience it as I did. From the very start, Cuba introduced itself as a swirl of ill-built infrastructure, laughably creative obstacles, and fascinating, beautiful contradiction. One thing was clear. We were tolerated and perhaps even passably acknowledged, but we were not welcome.

Dawn

Havana likes to sleep in late. Morning is gloriously quiet, save a rooster or two cooing off the roof of the building across the street. Because this is a place where roosters coo off the roof of buildings across the street. When the sun yawns and peeks above the horizon to stretch lazily around buildings and shine through your window, it is beautiful.

I open the heavy slatted wooden door and step onto the balcony. In most of Old Havana, the streets are so narrow, the sun strains to illuminate all their nooks and crannies. The beautiful colonial house to my left looks up hopefully. The wrought iron balcony to my right sidles up next to mine. They all clamor for the sun. I close my eyes and bask in that quiet morning moment. All I see is orange glow. All I am is warm, simple, happy.

I go for a stroll. When your surroundings are this beautiful, and the morning is bright and quiet, you go for a stroll, not a walk. I stop to arch my back and gaze up at the building before me. Murals crawl across the wall and concrete changes from pink to yellow to green and blue. The streets aren’t wide enough to take it all in without stretching for the view of a seven-foot man. So you have to stop to arch your back and gaze up at the building until you’re dizzy and you stare and admire some more.

Hemingway lived here. He walked these streets for over twenty years. Did he touch this brick? I know this is where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea! He even made friends with Fidel at a fishing tournament! Oh, and more importantly he drank at this bar! El Floridita, the home of the daiquiri. He favorited this one! La Bodeguita del Medio, but it’s too crowded to have a proper drink. Did I get off topic and start talking about bars? But oh the rum!

As I stroll down the street, because at this point I’m still strolling, I forget to wonder if it’s made of cement, stone, or dirt. I see things for the whole they make and forget about the pieces. I see a barrel fatter than I am tall, resting in the middle of the street. I see a woman with her hand on her hip, laughing into a pay phone. I see a man holding 8 rolls of bread, cradled in his bare hands. I feel Cuba. It is overflowing with sights and smells and noises, unbeknownst to the rest of the world.

Taxi

The streets of Cuba echo with the slick purrs of high performance German cars and the deep roars of 1950s American muscle. When the embargo was set in the mid-1900s, American cars were off-limits. By the time the embargo was lifted, classic American muscle had become part of their identity. Just imagine the creative lengths taken to be able to proudly parade these hot pink Elvis cadillacs and old school Fords not-so-fresh off the assembly line, hanging out right next to your brand new Audi.

In Cuba, you have to be careful to carry exact change when you call a taxi. Our friend haggled with a cab driver until he was blue in the face, triumphantly cutting the price from 10 CUCs to 5. He even called on the tried-and-true classic, walking away as if we’d find another driver willing to take our offer. The cab driver chased us down, huffily agreeing to 5 CUCs. It wasn’t until we got all the way to the bar that we realized the smallest bill we had amongst us was a 10. Predictably, our cab driver’s wallet was empty of change, and we ended up paying 10 CUCs for the ride. I laughed very hard. Our friend was not amused.

In Cuba, rum seems to run clear and plentiful everywhere you go. You aren’t supposed to drink water straight from the tap there. You might say that rum runs thicker than water. (It’s my blog, don’t fight it.) In Cuba, you order a mojito, and over half of it is rum. The other half is mint. By your fifth drink you wonder how you haven’t drunk the herb into extinction. Oh, and a sprinkling of all natural sugar.

In Cuba, people really know how to salsa. Head to Club 1830 and you’ll see what I mean. Hang out on the streets and every other guy’s got reggaeton blasting from his back pocket. Suddenly you get why it’s called Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.

Guava

One morning I woke up with a mission. Today, I will find a fresh guava!

Cuba has a subtropical climate. I had built high expectations of what the fruit would be like. Like a fantastical novel you read where fruit hangs heavy and plentiful from trees, is of gargantuan proportions, and tastes of apple while looking like banana. (There is a species of banana that does just that, by the way.) A cornucopia of mango, guava, and starfruit piled as high as the sky could see. Admittedly, perhaps those expectations were unfair.

I had downloaded an offline map app before I left the states, but it hadn’t proved very helpful to finding a fresh fruit market. All the markets I had found were sad and small, scattered with dirty sour pineapples and fly-ridden cuts of pork.

The supermarkets were even stranger. They had glass windows and glass doors, just like you’d expect in a supermarket. Then you walk in and realize there weren’t aisles of food and goods for you to choose from. Instead, there are counters separating you, and food sits in singular quantities on lonely depleted shelving. The woman behind the counter takes requests and picks items down for you. Apparently this isn’t uncommon in countries struck by poverty.

Today, I will find fresh guava! My plan to complete this mission was to wander the streets in a vague westward direction until success was had. It was a solid plan.

The day before, Havana was romance and sunlight and the inspiration for my first great American novel. Today, Havana was tireless wind who threw thundering waves onto the highway, whipped dirt into my eyes, and ruined my hair. The roads were slick even though the skies were clear. Unidentified liquids spewed from stories above onto my head. Walking on the road was a perpetual game of hopscotch. If you lost, you twisted your ankle by falling into a gaping pothole, tripped over mounds of rubble piled in the middle of the street, or submerged your foot in a pile of trash being peed on by a dog.

Luckily I wasn’t wearing my nice shoes. I revised my mental fact that New York City is the dirtiest city I’d ever encountered. The funny part is, the people in Havana keep their houses absolutely spotless. You constantly see people mopping or sweeping their houses when you walk by on the street. But the streets? The streets are filthy, and no one seems to care.

I looked this up later. Batista, the dictator who controlled Cuba before Fidel and before the revolution, was all about building big beautiful city centers. He cultivated the colonial homes, the art deco, the modern buildings, and the town squares with great green trees and glorious statues. When Fidel took over, he made an effort to be “of the people.” He nationalized Cuba and transformed its economy and society. He did good things and also he also did not-so-good things. Healthcare was phenomenal. He invested in research that developed a cure to lung cancer – an interesting approach to mitigating the health impacts of smoking cigars – that is now being tested for use in the United States. He refused to pour money into cities, and they fell into disrepair. The difference between the rich and the poor grew ever wider, and the majority of Cuba fell into poverty. A woman we met told us it wasn’t too long ago that people struggled to put food on the table. This is the five-minute version of what I learned was behind these filthy beautiful streets of Havana.

I came across a nice-looking Panaria on my walk. The smell of the freshly baked bread and pastry was sweet and simple. Before I knew it I was standing inside. Scrutinizing the selection as I stood in line, I watched carefully to see what people were buying.

Just the other day, we had excitedly piled into a bakery and ordered some bread, starving for breakfast. I bought a small cake and my friend pointed at a roll of bread. When the baker placed the roll on the table, I heard a loud and distinct “klunk!” That’s when I knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. About half of the innocuous looking, plain white bread in Cuba is purposefully baked to be rock hard. It’s what they like there. Or, what I assume they like if it’s sold in all the bakeries. There’s no chew. It’s all crunch.

So, I stood in line. I watched very carefully to see what people were buying, and I zoomed in as the tongs picked up each piece of bread. I reasoned that if the tongs indented the bread when they squeezed, it was soft and delicious. If not, it was dry rock bread. Tongs clenched, picked, dropped. Customers held out their bare hands, and the bread was placed directly into them. No napkin, no packaging. I shrugged; not wanting to be that bougie tourist, I did as locals did. I’m OK with it. Most times I don’t wash my produce before I eat it. I’m no germaphobe.

My observations paid off! The roll I bought was so sweet and good – like a cinnamon roll without the cinnamon – that I went straight back in line to buy more and take home to my friends. For your bread-loving reference, the cinnamon roll was called Pan de Gloria, and the hard rock roll was Pan de Manzana.

As you may have already ascertained, Cuba really isn’t the place for the avid foodie – especially one who enjoys posting meals to Instagram real time. This is for a couple reasons.

First, as we may know, Fidel has passed and Raul has come to power. Under Fidel, a vast majority of restaurants were government-run, with very little incentive to provide great service or great food. A small movement began, called “paladars.” Paladars are private restaurants, which Fidel only allowed if they were literally run out of your home. Now, Raul is inviting more capitalism and foreign money to enter Cuba, and things are on the brink of change. Tourists are not yet welcome as a key piece of the economy. Good food is growing, but remains in paladars. The best ones are inevitably booked for days with poorly listed information; as with finding a mate, the chase is by far the most exhilarating part of finding a meal. Pop-up restaurants will lurk around the best paladars, with hustling hosts dressed in cool clothes, charmingly guiding you to a table when you’re rejected because the paladar you attempted to go to was full. They will serve you a perfectly mediocre plate of food for a laughably exorbitant price.

Second, Cuba has very little access to internet. And thus, analogous in my mind, the outside world. Most homes do not have an internet connection. Pay phones are still highly prevalent. Every now and then you’ll find a crowd of people clustered in one spot, hunched over their phones. Over half of them will be tourists. The best way to get internet access in Cuba is to purchase it by the hour from a guy selling it on the street, who changes the password every hour or so. Even then, internet speed is slow at best.  Without multiple screens to devour their time, you find people gathered in groups on the street, laughing and talking, playing a spontaneous game of dominoes. When did the pure enjoyment of each other’s company cease to be an accepted activity?

Our relationship with food on this trip was shaky. As you might imagine, this was the last day, and I was all the more determined to find this guava, eat it, and be happy. Needless to say, when my mind is set it’s set! I found the best fruit market in town, bought my guava, chilled it in the fridge, and ate it with great satisfaction. I knew it was the best fruit market because it was ten times the size of anything I’d seen thus far, and because the fruit vendor didn’t know how much to charge me in tourist currency. Did I mention that Cuba has two currencies, pesos for locals and CUCs for tourists? As a tourist you end up paying 25-50x for the exact same goods and services. It’s not a cheap trip but I don’t mind. Why do we go if not to invest in their economy?

Ron (Rum)

I thought about what I might bring home from Cuba and I came up with three things. Art, rum, and of course, cigars.

I hunted all over for art that caught my eye. I was in search of inspiration, and I came across it in the most unlikely of places. A small art stand in the Jose Marti airport.

It was good that I’d come to the airport so unnecessarily early; I had seen how arriving had gone, and I was determined that no obstacle prevent my grand return to America. I spent at least one agonizing hour at this art stand, where an angelically patient art curator kept me company as I shifted from side to side and broke a sweat deciding which piece of art to bring home.

Now normally, I’m not one to deny myself. But you need to know something about Cuba. If you are an American, your plastic is no good in Cuba. American debit and credit cards are the equivalent of worthless pieces of paper in Cuba. The cash you carry on your person when you enter the country, that is the cash you have to work with. I said a tearless but heartfelt goodbye to my little painting of two little men standing on two separate planets, one looking longingly at the other through a set of binoculars.

If you see the word “Ron” printed anywhere, know that Ron is not the name of a large surly man. Ron is Spanish for rum. I bought seven bottles of Ron at the airport duty free, and I had two more bottles of him stashed in my checked bag. I was ready. I carried those bottles through Havana’s airport, Atlanta’s airport, all the way back to my cozy apartment in Arlington, Virginia. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized the girl sitting next to me on the plane had accidentally stolen my Ron.

She was young and Indian. From looks alone, I was inclined to think she was a student. But that was before I saw her do the crossword in the airplane magazine. She absolutely destroyed the crossword in the airplane magazine. It was like she was the Terminator and the crossword was Sarah Connor. I watched her swiftly and methodically fill out word after word, starting from the upper left, working her way down. I mean, what sort of human does a crossword in order!? It was made all the worse by the fact that I had just given up on that same airplane magazine, having attempted the crossword and filled out a measly 5 or 6 answers.

I begrudgingly gave her some respect. I also silently justified that she must have been an English major.

When I got all the way home and I realized Crossword Girl had accidentally stolen my rum, I gleefully took back my respect and instead shook my imaginary mental fist in righteous indignation. What good are crossword smarts if you can’t look into a bag, count the number of bottles, and identify the brands of rum you bought just hours before!? Admittedly, the thought had crossed my mind to dual-validate the bag she took as she left the plane. I clearly remember assuring myself to assume good intentions and common sense. Shame on me. She got a couple hundred dollar upgrade to her haul of rum, but I got a good story.

Lastly, I brought home 5 Cuban cigars. If you ever do get to Cuba, I highly recommend a trip to tobacco country to experience their tobacco farms and cigar production. Cuban cigars are every bit as fragrant and delicious as one would hope. Of course, they are also the only cigars I have ever smoked.

There was the romance of it all. There was my rejection of it. There are alternate universes, lying in wait closer than we think.

P.S. If you are one of few who has made it to the end… Congratulations! Although for some reason, what made this post are a relatively mundane set of observations from wandering the streets of Havana, I was a proper tourist and I did spend time sight seeing. If you’re staying in Havana, some things worth going to: Callejon de Hammel, Hotel Ambos Mundos, Camara Oscura, Bar 303, Club 1830, Mercado San Rafael, La Guarida, Malecon, and Vinales and Playa de Santa Maria a few hours outside the city. My photos of Cuba at your leisure on Instagram @dinglyy. Dingster signing off.

 

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