Destination

Havana and Cienfuegos, Cuba

Cuba…a land frozen in time

The time machine rumbles almost violently, but in a rhythmic way that makes you think it’s controlled – even man made. It continues pulsating to the point that your leg starts to go a bit numb. And then without warning, it stops. You survey the cabin around you and after a few moments of silence, you reach for the metallic door handle and bring one fierce clockwise turn of the steel bar. The door unlocks with a loud clank and swings outward, releasing a flood of scalding sunshine into the cabin. You take off your 1920’s style aviator goggles and the visual in front of you goes from a sepia tint to full color in one sweeping bottom to top motion…and you gasp in disbelief.

In front of you is a building that looks strikingly similar to the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. covered in scaffolding. After you step down the metal stepladder, you’re nearly run over by a shiny 1952 Chevrolet convertible sporting a flashy red color and white accented seat covers. The old man driving the car waves to you with his right hand to apologize for nearly maiming you, and you throw him a nod out of resigned acceptance – after all, you are the foreigner here.

Upon reaching the earth beneath the ladder, you take another half dozen more steps before you realize you’re in the Parque Central, a green and vibrant place surrounded by gorgeous European themed hotels with the kind of ornate marble exteriors reserved for luxurious guests of the state or from classic American office buildings of the early 20th century. You know the kind – the ones with a brass plaque by the entrance which details the historic nature of the building and which large corporation that no longer exists used to be headquartered there a half century ago.

You blink your eyes and finally start visually processing all of the shapes and colors around you. The air smells faintly of a nearby forest fire. You take a breath of musty coal, but that’s not what makes you cough – rather it’s the humidity of the Caribbean.

But this is no HG Wells novel. It is any morning in Havana today.

Despite the geographic reality that Cuba sits a mere 90 miles off the shore of the United States, it truly has been a land lost to time for many Americans, whose only knowledge of Cuba might include assumptions about Fidel and Che, Cuba Libres, and Cohibas.

In spite of this, it is my hope that my words will illuminate the stunning beauty of Cuban culture and society, and that you will feel as compelled to visit this island nation when general tourism is permitted.

Please note that this article will be more of a narrative on my experience in the country, the things I did, the places I went and the people I met.

Current Country Count: 31

With my four days in Cuba, I now stand at 31 countries. The rest of 2016 will allow me the opportunity to see Austria (Vienna), the Czech Republic (Prague), and Hungary (Budapest) as well as a bunch of American cities (notably New Orleans for the first time).

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Country Count: September 2015

Trip BackgroundA year or so ago, I plotted to visit Cuba with a friend of mine since she was also eager to see the country before the throngs of American tourists landed. Unfortunately, timing was the sole factor that prevented me from making the trip happen. This past spring, when my mother, the inspiration for my travel blog, passed away, I found myself remembering her sagely advice. “There may come a day when you cannot travel and you’ll wish you could.” A few days later, American Airlines announced that they would begin service to the island. I’d been wanting to write a piece on Cuba, and this was nothing less than a sign that my time had come. With that, I bought a ticket from New York (where I planned to go for Labor Day) and we were off!

Day 1: Transit/Cienfuegos

I arrived in Miami on the morning of Wednesday, September 7, 2016, and I knew immediately this was a different kind trip. A woman from American Airlines was there to greet us and escort us personally to our gate. When we arrived, there was the makings of a press conference, a party, and a huge breakfast. Cuban treats, coffee, and a band were all there to inaugurate the first non-charter commercial trip between Miami and Cuba in six decades.

Once I got my visa and my ticket was stamped, the bigwigs from American made their speeches, they let us board and gave each us some gifts – a cool certificate honoring this inaugural flight, some chocolates, and a Cuban-American flag pin. And then we were off!

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The nifty certificate I received

I was really lucky to get upgraded on this flight and I wound up sitting next to an American Airlines mechanic named Jorge – which is pretty common, as I understand it, because American doesn’t have mechanics down in country yet. The two American execs who cut the ribbon and gave speeches sat in my row, and there were two other service and maintenance employees in the front row as well.

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Our initial glimpse of Cuban soil

It’s hard to underscore how big of a deal this was. Both when we left Miami and when we landed in Cienfuegos, we were greeted with a fire truck spraying a ceremonial fire cannon salute, and upon pulling up to the two gates of the Cienfuegos airport, we were greeted by a ceremony of American Airlines employees.

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Deplaning in Cienfuegos

Upon disembarking, I passed through customs/immigration. You are required to fly under one of the 12 categories set forth by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and because I was writing this post and also gathering content for an article I’ll be publishing for Stride Travel, I was cleared under category #3, “Journalistic Activities (Section 515.563(a)).” While the regulations are loosening, I’d advise you to not fly for tourism as I’d imagine the consequences of flying for non-qualified reasons could be unpleasant!

I set out to exchange some cash before I continued with my sightseeing and this brings up an important rule: make sure you bring British pounds, Euros or Canadian dollars to exchange, since using US Dollars will incur a 10% penalty. Thankfully I had non-dollar currencies, but I met several people who complained bitterly about receiving $0.87 on the dollar (10% penalty plus a 3% exchange fee is standard at most exchange shops called Cadecas). See my forthcoming article on “How to Travel to Cuba” to better understand how to change your money without losing 13% in fees and how to understand the two-currency system used in Cuba.

After changing some money at the Cadeca inside the airport, I asked the group of taxi drivers outside how much it would cost to get to my Airbnb. The first guy I spoke to told me it would cost 5 CUC, I nodded, and off we went!

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The first sign of propaganda

A quick 10-15 minutes later, we arrived near the city center so I could check into my Airbnb. Cienfuegos is a small town and is known for being a laidback place to escape, relax, and live a non-harried life. If you come to this town, you’ll find two major points of interest: the Punta Gorda, a small peninsula with a variety of beautiful historic buildings and the downtown area consisting of the Plaza de Armas and a small shopping corridor.

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“Cienfuegos es la ciudad que mas me gusta a mi”

And in case you were wondering, “Cienfuegos es la ciudad que mas me gusta a mi” is a line from the famed singer Benny More, who hails from Cienfuegos.

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Natural…beauty?

If you elect to see the Punta Gorda, begin by walking or take a pedi-cab south along the Paseo del Prado (the main road in Cienfuegos). It’s not a short walk and there are patches of rocky, broken pavement amidst grocery stores, houses, and the Malecón (a nice promenade to strong along), but there are lovely water views throughout and when you reach what appears to be a Moroccan palace (Palacio de Valle), you’ll know you’re near the end.

The rest of downtown Cienfuegos is a smattering of restaurants, small shops, and businesses that all are easily accessible and give off a charming small-town feel.

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One block on Paseo el Prado

I decided that following several hours of walking in the scorching sunshine and withering humidity that I would return to my Airbnb for dinner and an easy night in and I discovered two striking things: I am terribly addicted to technology/access to information and that simple pleasures in life require you to remove most of the distractions.

I arrived at my flat and after cleaning up, I sat at the table in the dining room unable to search on the internet for the latest news or watch some pointless video with cats or memes. I stayed at that table perplexed at my inability to be connected to the outside world and for the first time in years, I felt genuinely disconnected from the world. And for at least a half hour, I was terrified at how on my own I was…until my Airbnb host came into the flat, carrying a tray of delicious dinner.

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Homemade Cuban Dinner

This is the true beauty of Cuba. The warmth of a generous host who shares their family home. And there is no greater format to receive this warmth than through one’s stomach. Black beans and rice (congri), a fresh tomato and avocado salad, and fried pork and plantains (platanos) made for a hearty, traditional Cuban meal. If you’ve spent a long day walking and sweating under the Cuban sun, this is how you should end your day – with a satisfying meal of home cooked goodness. This is why I will advocate staying in someone’s house vs. going to a hotel when in Cuba.

Upon finishing most of my dinner, the happy lull of a food coma overtook me and I retreated to my bedroom for a night of rest.

Day 2: Taking the Bus to Havana

Sleeping during a humid night in Cuba is not always easy for a few reasons… first, air conditioning is not always available and even when it is, it doesn’t always function as it’s supposed to. Second, humidity that makes you sweat during the night doesn’t lend itself to a night of idyllic slumber. And third, you’re about as likely to find a Westin sweet sleeper bed in Cuba as you are to find a snowball sitting on a New York street corner on a summer day. So keep that in mind as you prepare for your own Cuban adventure.

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Signs like this are commonplace across Cuba (“The heroes don’t have an age, they have history, they make history, they are history.”)

But thankfully you can sleep when you’re retired. To ensure I could see more than just Cienfuegos, I ordered a ticket on the Viazul bus line to take me from Cienfuegos to Havana. It’s $40 roundtrip and you can purchase it in advance of your arrival in country – just make sure you print out your confirmation and present it upon arrival. The ride to Havana is a mere four hours and riding in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus is definitely the easy way to go. Although I would be remiss if I did not share that the AC broke about an hour before we arrived to we had to sit in stifling heat until the attendant opened the roof vents and two windows.

Arriving in Havana is like stepping into that time machine that I mentioned at the outset of this post. There are large propaganda-like advertisements on street corners that stand like guardians as the fleets of old cars roll on by. Buildings that in the United States might be on the verge of disrepair function normally as if nothing was wrong, but the exterior is crumbling and dirty.

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A Municipal Hospital

And here is where the culture of Cuba begins to reveal its true, beautiful self. I arrive at my Airbnb, a small apartment on the third floor of an old walk-up in old Havana (Habana Vieja). I arrive with my bags, ascend the three flights and knock on the door for about 5-10 minutes. My anxiety begins to grow with each minute as I worry about what I’ll need to do if this place is inaccessible. I start thinking, “how am I going to find a room?” and “how long is it going to take?” when I step outside the building.

A woman on the street is unloading her car when she notices how exasperated I am and asks me what I am looking for. When I tell her I am in apartment #7, she tells me she is the owner of #8 and invites me to sit in her living room until my Airbnb host returns. I delightfully accept and while I cool down on her couch, she tells me stories about life in Havana.

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Me and Rosalma

Her name is Rosalma and she lives around the corner and rents this apartment to foreign tourists like myself. She offers to let me stay while she prepares the bedroom for her next guests and about 20 minutes later, my host returns to the Airbnb and I take my leave of her. But not before she gives me a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and an offer to help me with anything I might need in future.

Agenda-less generosity and kindness, it seems, has not died. It just lives in places unspoiled by cynicism and selfishness.

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My host Thompson checks me in using a paper log (get used to that)

I walked next door and met Thompson, my Airbnb host. A delightfully charming man of 75 years young, Thompson was quite possibly one of the most genuinely inviting people I’ve ever met. He lives across the street from the apartment but the place he rents out is like a bohemian dream. It’s the kind of place that, just based on its look, puts you at ease. And I’m not talking the island feel of the living room, the strong air conditioning in the bedroom or even the gorgeous outdoor terrace on which you can drink a rum cocktail and/or smoke a cigar. All of it combined to make this place an ideal home base from which to explore Havana.

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The interior of the apartment

After getting settled, I decided to begin exploring Old Havana. The neighborhood is not terribly large so you can get from place to place rather quickly, but the alleys and streets are a patchwork of cracked pavement, cobblestones, and slightly dangerous traffic lanes upon which pedi-taxis and trucks bear down on you with the momentum of an asteroid.

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The Plaza Vieja

But for every 5-10 crusty, decrepit buildings, there are one or two which take your breath away with their grand, almost regal splendor. The Plaza Vieja is one of those sites in which you feel transported to a world of elegance. It’s not totally jam-packed with tourists but it presents plenty of options for dining, drinks, or shopping.

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Cuban Street Corner

As you continue walking though Old Havana, the reality of Cuban life continues to flash around you. From architectural elegance nestled amidst dumpsters attracting waves of flies and mosquitoes, the contrasts are many – and sometimes jarring.

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A Mural of Che Guevara

An especially interesting facet is the public depiction of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. I did not much about Cuban history before this trip, but now I understand better why the people admire these two so much. Their legacies as leaders loom large over the people but their iconic status as heroes is what seems to prop up their memories in the minds of so many people. Just mentioning Che to a Cuban person has a way of eliciting tremendous pride in their eyes.

My afternoon ended with a tour of the Havana Club Rum museum. It’s clearly marketed towards tourists, but considering my past travels have taken me to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Tennessee, the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky, the Bacardi plant in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and to the Jameson Distillery in central Ireland (Midleton, County Cork), this was not a hard sell for me. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this place, although I will note the tour guide’s ability to spit out words in nearly a dozen languages was quite impressive.

From here, I decided to continue walking to the Plaza de San Francisco de Asís and the Havana Cathedral, where you’ll find two of the most beautiful buildings in all of Havana.

From here, I decided to walk along the Malecón, the famed Havana promenade by the water, and this is where my tourist experience took a slight detour – one which illuminated the challenges that everyday Cubans face.

I stood on the Malecón snapping photos of the shipping traffic when a young man approached me and engaged me in some small talk. He was surprised to find out that I spoke Spanish and he introduced me to his girlfriend, young son, and sister. We continued walking for 15-20 minutes as I suspected what his agenda was and eventually he offered to take me to a local bar for a drink.

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Enrique, a Cuban local, and myself

We’d had a fairly innocuous conversation around cultural understanding and what life was like for Cuban youth, so I accepted. Upon arrival, he asked me to pay for a round of mojitos for him and his family and I acquiesced. To be fair, the conversation was actually quite informative and interesting, but during our chat, it became clear that it was challenging for Cuban youth to find a good job. He talked about how the two-currency system put locals like him at a disadvantage, since 1 CUC (the foreign convertible peso) is equal to 25 monedas nacionales (local currency) and he gets paid in the latter. He worked in construction and wanted more for himself, his children, and the rest of his family. I eventually left after the one drink because I wanted to continue exploring the city, but the experience underscored how difficult it is to make a life for yourself in spite of a great education and healthcare system in Cuba.

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Locals playing soccer near the Malecón

After finishing up my exploration of Old Havana, I returned to the Plaza Vieja for dinner at Factoria Plaza Vieja, which has earned a reputation as a decent microbrewery (look for the monstrous tubes of beer sitting at customers’ tables). I decided to partake of a seafood medley. The beer and seafood were tasty, but if you come here, prepare yourself for some four-legged companions.

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Begging

This cute little guy/gal stopped by my table and gave me the saddest look I’ve ever gotten from a dog. I gave him some fish and he stuck around for a while, but apparently he wasn’t a fan of seafood. He probably wished I’d ordered a steak and after awhile, he gave up on me and moved to another table. After finishing my second beer, I paid my bill and returned back to my Airbnb.

Day 3: Havana in all its glory

The advantage of staying in an Airbnb is that the odds of you being able to have a home cooked meal is quite high. Thompson asked me when I checked in what I’d like and gave me a substantial menu to work from. I opted for fruit, an omelet, a salad, and fresh squeezed guava juice with coffee. It was hearty and delicious and it had this wonderful, unprocessed flavor to it which is seemingly difficult to find back home in the U.S.

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Delicious Breakfast in Havana

Walking northwest from my apartment, my first destination was the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolución), which documents some of the noteworthy historical figures and events of the last 100 years. Inside the museum, the first thing you’ll notice are bullet holes in the foyer walls which have been left since the attack by students on March 13, 1957. As you proceed to the top floor and work our way down, you’ll come across a number of impressive busts of famous leaders (try spotting Abraham Lincoln…he’s there), photos of leading revolutionary figures, and dramatically colorful and vibrant artwork that captures the patriotic fervor and tumultuous nature of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

From there, I proceeded south along the Paseo de Marti until I reached Central Park (Parque Central) and the Hotel Ingleterra across the street. If you’re lost, just look for the two stately, elegant buildings that looks like it was pulled from Madrid or from a lost time of gorgeous design, that also happens to be surrounded by tons of beautifully restored antique cars. One will be the Hotel Ingleterra, but its more opulent neighbor will be the Gran Teatro de Habana.

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Gran Teatro de Habana

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Gran Teatro de Habana

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El Capitolio

As I continued down the Paseo de Marti, I quickly reached El Capitolio (the capital building). Its columns and dome may bring back memories of your 7th grade field trip to Washington DC. You know – the one where you went to the Smithsonian and bought that useless bottle opener that still sits in your drawer which you refuse to throw away because it was the first thing you ever bought with your own money?

Anyway, that’s the kind of impression I got when I first saw it.

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The Gates to Chinatown

Usually passing through Chinese gates means you’re about to be surrounded by a thousand Chinese folks who live in that area, but in what I can only describe as a surreal experience, I walked through el Barrio Chino (Chinatown) only to see no Chinese people.

That was, until I reached small Cuchillo Street where there are a throng of Chinese restaurants. It’s literally one block of a small alley and the only restaurant that captured my attention was Tien Tan, whose hawker outside claimed was the only one with a real Chinese chef (whom I saw…he does exist!). I have a habit of trying Chinese food in every country I go to see how the flavors, ingredients, and preparation are different. I’d love to tell you my meal was the best I’d ever had but chicken chow mein is not exactly worth a Michelin star these days. Besides, the food was secondary to the people in the restaurant. A pair of Asian American women were conversing with the waiters in Spanish when I arrived and shortly after I ordered, a Chinese tour group of about 15 people showed up and began peppering their tour guide not about Cuban culture but rather about how American tourists are unable to visit Cuba.

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A Zhongshan Society is now a middle school

The rest of Chinatown provided an eerie feeling. Everywhere around me stood buildings with the original signage of Tongs (Chinese family societies) or businesses that are long gone, but the buildings are now occupied by other organizations and businesses. The building above has a middle school now and another place has a modern bakery with tasty guava pastries. The history of this community is one rich in transition. Many Chinese came to Havana from the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong (Canton) in the mid to late nineteenth century to work but as the strife of the mid-twentieth century began to rattle Cuban society, many of them left. Since Cuba has seemingly been able to preserve its cars and buildings as they were decades ago, these buildings stand as both reminders of the past and the ability of modern day Cubans to work with what they have.

From here I began what I can only describe as an unintentionally long day of walking. One can easily flag a cab on the street, negotiate the price, and go – but instead I chose to explore by foot, and I think it was one of the best reasons I enjoyed this trip so much. Walking north from Chinatown to the Malecón, I saw three things: cars, fishermen, and tourists.

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A Cuban man looks out on the water at his catch

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Classy old cars are ubiquitous

But if you’re moving too fast, you might just miss some of the culture tucked into the Malecón. I walked by a shop that had its sign in English: “Open Art Studio.” I continued walking past and then stopped and thought to myself…what do I have to lose? As I headed into the studio, I stumbled on a collective of six artists who pool all of their artwork and display it in this gorgeous, half-dark, half-lit space right by the water.

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Open Art Studio on the Malecón

Some of their work is definitely surrealist but there are stories behind each that make you nod as you begin to understand their artistic intentions. The one piece that grabbed my attention first made me think of stories of fantasy and otherworldly adventures. The guy I met there then pointed out it’s actually about being on drugs (now do you notice the shrooms floating from light to dark?).

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Open Art Studio

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Me and one of the artists (I think his name was Carlos) at the Open Air Studio

Ahh and now we get to one of the most popular reasons to travel to Cuba: old school cars.

The open air ride down the Malecón is a cliché but one well worth taking. I would wind up taking one on my last day but on this day for 20 minutes, I decided to capture the experience of riding in a convertible that was built a half century (or more) ago. People craned their heads toward the water line or the skyline and each time they’d pass a crumbling building, they’d fixate on it before their head would snap back toward the horizon.

After continuing down the Malecón, I finally arrived at my first major destination of the afternoon: the Hotel Nacional. If you’re looking to stay in luxury, this might be right place for you. It’s a gorgeous hotel built in 1930 and has seen everything from mobster summits to gun battles. It went through a major renovation in 1992 but it has retained all of its art deco splendor.

If you walk out back, there’s a lovely terrace upon which you can order a drink. Or if you’re so inclined, keep walking along the path until you see the first cannon, and then turn right. Continue along the path until you see a small mound and stairs that descend into a lookout battery. Inside, you’ll find a history museum chronicling some of the elements of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and if you can take confined spaces, go either left or right and keep going until you come back to this museum. You’ll be taken through a network of tunnels that run underground and were very likely involved in the defense of Cuba back in 1962.

My journey by foot continued for a couple miles as I walked to the Jose Marti Memorial and the Plaza de la Revolución. What struck me on this part of the journey was the contrasts I got from each block.

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A home in Vedado

The neighborhood of Vedado (where Cuban elites and wealthy live) provides some examples of stunning homes, but walk a few blocks and you get gas stations and small markets on one block, a grade school on the next, and then a leveled block on the next with spires of concrete and rebar sticking out of the debris.

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99%

And then there was this interesting piece of art. It appears that even in places that seem removed from the world’s brutal capitalism, perceptions of injustice and have vs. have not’s continues to permeate society.

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The Jose Marti Memorial

You’ll know very quickly when you arrive at the Jose Marti Memorial. It’s tall, imposing, and then there’s a small statue of the man himself sitting directly in front of it, casting his protective gaze out over the Plaza de la Revolución.

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Plaza de la Revolución

The plaza itself is massive. Nestled between the monument and two portraits of Che and Fidel, it is a place that has seen many protests, public gatherings, and visits from foreign dignitaries. On the day I was here, it was relatively empty, save a few tourists who were taking their pictures with the portraits.

As I began walking back to my Airbnb, I had the fortune of continuing to see Cuban life firsthand.

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Bloqueo

It began with this billboard, which calls out the embargo placed upon Cuba by the American government as the “Longest genocide in history.” I arrived after relations had begun to improve but it’s clear there are lingering effects of the economic isolation that Cuba endured at the hands of the United States.

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Street side musician

As I walked past this man playing the trumpet on the side of the road, my feet began to ache. I attempted to negotiate with a pedi-taxi driver to take me back to Old Havana, but he wanted to use the meter and told me it would cost 12-15 CUC to make the journey. I had been told it should only be 5-10. When we could not come to an agreement, I heard the driver commiserating to his peers saying, “Damn, that Chinese guy is almost Cuban!” Laughing to myself in amusement, I continued my three mile walk home and came across a small shop with CD’s and tapes on tables. Then something caught my eye: a rack of photographs. Photography is my favorite medium (as you can tell from the images on this post) and his pictures were so genuine that I knew I had to have one.

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One of many art shops in Havana

The one that is not on this rack is the one I took home. And though my pic below doesn’t do it justice, let me assure you that it is sums up my views of Cuba in one image.

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A photo of the Malecón

This is the Malecón, the seaside walkway and driving lane that tourists and fisherman alike use when they want an idyllic image of the city or they want to catch their dinner. It shows the waves lapping upon the road and it has this wonderful sepia tone which makes me wonder if it was taken 30 years or 30 minutes ago.

And the answer would be, it doesn’t matter.

That’s how little this place has changed. That’s how much this place has retained its character in spite of the waves of change. That may not be the case in five years, but for now, that’s the lovely spirit of Cuba.

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The Photographer

As I continued my walk home, more public art and contrasts in buildings made themselves apparent.

With that, I arrived home, went to a Japanese-Cuban café on the corner for a tonkatsu bowl (made by a lovely Japanese woman), and after one rum cocktail on my patio, I decided to turn in early.

Day 4: Last Day in Havana and Return to Cienfuegos

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My host Thompson and me

For my last morning, Thompson and his wife of 44 years decided to come over to cook me breakfast. We had an illuminating conversation about tourism, life in Cuba, and how different experiences can be when you can meet locals. For a man of 75, his spritely energy is more what you’d expect of a young man of 25, and if you wind up going to Havana, I strongly recommend you stay at Casa Thompson.

I took a walk back to the Plaza de Armas, where I’d wandered through a couple days before. Every day, the plaza features a variety of booksellers and vendors peddling everything from cigar boxes to Che pins and posters to antique books. Of all of the items I purchased on this trip, the two I bought here were my favorites: a Che print in one of the photos below and a comic book that detailed what happened during the revolution with trading card-like cut outs.

I returned to my apartment and as I packed my gear and prepared to go to the bus station, I knew it was time for one last Havana experience.

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Riding in Style!

The open air convertible ride along the Malecón may be the equivalent of riding the Cable Car in San Francisco but it is well worth it for the experience of being in a car that was around during the Eisenhower administration. This particular car was a 1952 Chevrolet and it ran like a gem, powering along with a rumble that seemingly no cars today can replicate. When I finally reached the Viazul bus station, this was their lovely marketing poster:

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Viazul…keeping it classy

Apparently the cat with melon helmet meme is supposed to reassure me of the safety and security of their service. All jokes aside, it is a remarkably easy (and cheap) way to traverse the country.

Four hours later, I arrived back in Cienfuegos and my Airbnb host was there at the bus station to meet me and walk me back to their home. Actually it was their nephew,Luis Enrique, but he was super friendly and staying with Marelys and Bertico was like staying with my aunt and uncle. Berto and Marelys are two locals who work in the tourism industry and with their son Victor and their nephew, they all run this lovely home. My private room was a dark, nearly windowless room but it had air conditioning and cable tv – two luxuries I didn’t always find in Cuba!

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Cienfuegos Street Art

I took a walk with Luis Enrique to the Plaza de Armas in downtown Cienfuegos so I could use the internet (most homes are not equipped with wifi) to check into my flight. When I came home from the square, I asked Marelys to make me dinner and she did not disappoint.

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Dinner at Berto and Marelys’ house

Clockwise from the top left:

  • A plate of sliced mangoes and guava
  • A salad of green peppers, avocado, and tomatoes
  • Cheese and sweetened papayas
  • Yucca (on the side plate), congri (the black beans and rice), and fried pork

I nearly ate all of it because I didn’t have lunch and it was a delightfully satisfying, hearty meal. Carbs and fat and protein…and nothing but happiness. I took the rest of the evening to enjoy a Cuban cigar and some Havana Club rum on the patio and spent the last hour engaging in some cross-cultural lessons.

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Teaching my hosts’ son how to play poker

My hosts’ son, Victor, came out to show me a magic trick. He actually showed me three and I was impressed at his ability to lay them out. So I taught him something in return – the magic of poker. We played five-card draw because it’s easier to learn than hold em and using fictional money, I was soon down 160,000 pesos. I complained bitterly that I would need to spend the next five years working that debt off, to which the 12-year-old grinned and laughed. His parents did not seem too pleased that I was teaching their son about a dangerous game but appreciated the lesson when I turned the tables on the kid and suddenly, he owed me 200,000 pesos. Berto and Marelys laughed knowing their son had learned a stern lesson about the realities of gambling: never gamble what you don’t have to lose!

Day 5: Coming Home

My last morning could not have been any more picture perfect. I arose to coffee and breakfast and my host family made me a ham and cheese sandwich for the road so I wouldn’t have to eat that lousy airport food.

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Me with my hosts on my last morning

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Farewell!

With that, I bid my hosts adieu and took a taxi to the airport. I got there two and a half hours ahead of my departure, but the early arrival was totally unnecessary. Cienfuegos has two gates, one café, and two gift shops. There were more security personnel and staff than passengers when I first arrived!

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The 737 that would take me back to Miami

As soon as our plane arrived from Miami, releasing a new wave of visitors onto the island, we boarded, got settled into our seats, and with that, my adventure in Cuba was over.

Although one last memory will always stick with me. And no, it was not the Bud Light I drank with my sandwich – although both were delicious.

It was the poor airport guard whose responsibility was to stand by the runway to make sure no one interferes with the take off. As I said in the video, “that’s a lonely post right there.” But that image shows what Cuba is going through. Cienfuegos is a small airport that doesn’t see a lot of activity right now…but that’s going to change very quickly.

Closing Thoughts

Now that I have been to Cuba, been part of an historic event of re-establishing connections between Cuba and the United States, and made it back through customs, I can take stock of what I’ve learned about Cuban culture.

To say that doors and windows are intentionally left open all day and night would be both literally and figuratively accurate. But more importantly, it also describes a wonderful facet of Cuban culture: the openness and generosity with which people welcome foreigners into their homes.

That applies for just about all homes. As I walked through the streets of Cienfuegos, virtually every home had either the window or door wide open. You could see a flat screen tv, old wooden rocking chairs or a picture of Jesus Christ framed on the corner table of each house. When you book an Airbnb, you are literally welcomed into someone’s home and Cuban people take a great deal of pride in their homes and ensuring you have a positive experience.

I attribute this to the fact that for so long, Cubans have not had much exposure to Americans. Plenty of French, Canadian, or German tourists have long had access without having to fly through Mexico or Toronto to avoid being subject to interrogation by American immigration officials, but for the three hosts I spoke to, they’d only recently started hosting Americans at their homes.

As I walked through the streets of Havana and Cienfuegos, it struck me how litter free their alleys and walkways are. Like any city, there will be some dust, broken roads, and muddy puddles, but Cubans do not treat their streets as dumps. When I checked in for my bus tickets, the Via Azul representative printed one ticket on a dot matrix print, turned the paper around, and printed another ticket on the other half before using a ruler to tear the two tickets off and then returned the unused paper to the printer. The idea of malgastar (the Spanish word for waste) is a concept people just don’t have. They don’t have excess of most things, so they don’t waste what they have.

They do however have some wonderful Spanglish signs with simply horrific translations. I thought I’d seen some bad translations while living in China, but this one below takes the cake:

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A Sign inside the Museo de la Revolución

For context, this should say “Restoration actions are happening on the Granma Yacht” – not Yatch. But it’s just another endearing quality of a country slowly opening to outsiders.

Back in my youth, I was a high school actor whose highlight role was Big Jule, the gruff gangster in Guys and Dolls. In that Broadway classic, gambler-turned-hero Sky Masterson takes Mission leader Sarah Brown to Havana for dinner in an attempt to both win a bet and in the process begins to fall in love with her. It is a scenario so implausible by today’s standards that it endears us to the story and to the possibility of true love, and it aptly describes this American’s experience with the country.

For years, my only associations with the mysterious island of Cuba were dulce de leches, which Sky presents to Sarah as a “Cuban milkshake,” cigars and rum, and images of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara usually presented without a great deal of context. So to be able to share with you the fact that I was in Cuba now is a not only a testament to progress – it is a sight that I did not imagine I would get to see in my lifetime.

I am eagerly awaiting a return trip to Cuba. And not to have a Cuban sandwich or drink a mojito – but to continue what I believe will be a lifelong love with a soon-to-be less mysterious island neighbor to the south.

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