“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing does not work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the Hand of Friendship to the Cuban people.”
January 20, 2015 — State of the Union Address
Many of us have a bucket list of places we would like go and things we would like to see before we die. Rarely though, there are locations on that list which have an expiration date. Sure, there are once-in-a-lifetime events like Halley’s Comet or seminal events like seeing Bob Dylan play his final tour, but what about the worldly people, places and things that are facing impending change? Or even impending doom? What about Cuba?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had debilitating Wanderlust. My daydreams consisted of visiting far away lands and experiencing life lived through the daily routines of people unlike myself. My list of foreign destinations run long and detailed. There are not enough pages in my passport to support my worldly fascinations.
Traveling to Cuba was always on the list. It wasn’t particularly high, but more realistically somewhere in the middle. So imagine my surprise when earlier this year during the State of the Union Address, Barack Obama announced that he wants to end the 50+ year embargo that was imposed in 1960 after the Cuban revolution. If this motion passes the U.S. Senate, everything about Cuban culture will be affected. The old-world charm and romanticism of Cuba’s communist resistance to the U.S. would crumble in the wake of capitalism, commercialism and excessive consumption. This made me feel anxious…very anxious.
The countdown began.
I felt the urgency to go as soon as possible. In a matter of hours since hearing the news, traveling to Cuba jumped straight to the top of my list. So I booked a flight, grabbed my girlfriend and headed to the social, political, economic and cultural capital of Cuba—Havana.
We stayed at the Atlantico Hotel, which is a microcosm of the country itself. It takes some time to get over how outdated everything is, but very soon you feel proudly attached to the place. It was very charming; especially the lime green state of the pool and our hotel handyman, Alexi, would try to sell you “authentic” Cuban cigars after fixing your toilet that “mysteriously” had the water shut off for a matter of minutes before his gracious arrival. Our favourite attraction was the family of stray dogs living on the hotel grounds. There was Klause, the father, who slept in the lobby all day and only woke for evening cigars and brandy; Lola, the mother, who hustled all day and night hunting for scraps and attention; and their cute puppy, Lolita, who lived behind the pool bar and was fed a diet of hot dogs and scraps from the breakfast buffet.
It wouldn’t be difficult to script a sitcom about the C+ state of the hotel and all the fascinating people we met along the way. There were many Canadians staying at the Atlantico and we all agreed that it was base camp for daily excursions into Havana. Most of our mornings were spent laying on the beach with a drink and a book. After lunch we would catch a 20 minute bus ride into the city to explore and be absorbed by the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the city.
Entering Havana for the first time was a trip (no pun intended). The most prominent thing I noticed was the overall state of decay. From a distance, the city had a beautiful old-world charisma built upon architecture beaten and weathered by time and struggle. However, up close the decay became very abrasive. There is garbage absolutely everywhere. I could count on my fingers and toes the amount of times I watched a local finish eating, and then throw the food wrapper over their shoulder and walk away. It makes you want to yell at them, but then you realize you are a guest in their country and it’s not your place to point fingers. It’s accurate to compare the amount of litter in the streets to the amount of fallen leaves on our streets during the fall. It’s uncomfortable at first, but becomes less so after a day or two.
Withstanding the litter—Havana is beautiful. There is an arresting appeal that exists due to the diversity of architecture. At any point walking the streets of Havana you can appreciate buildings or entire neighbourhoods modelled after Spanish, Moorish, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Russian Constructivist influence.
Everything is in a constant state of repair. This was one of the more definitive times I noticed how dedicated Cubans are to preserving their cultural heritage. There are very few “new” things within the city. As most can attest by experiencing the normality of antique cars rolling the streets.
Everything is set to a slow perpetual buzz. Nobody is running through crowds trying to catch the next train. There are no dummies in their cars absorbed by their cellphones. Don’t get me wrong, there are masses of people, but it’s unlike Toronto or New York. The narrow cobblestone streets are filed with people, darting in and out of their shops and homes. Most of them keeping to themselves, smoking a cigar and just keeping cool in the shade. There are locals hustling rum, cigars, taxis and tours; but if uninterested, all you need to do is smile and say, “no gracias.” Just mind the horse-drawn carriages and coco taxis and the entire city will become an inspiring walking tour for the old souls and historical romantics like myself. We experienced most of the tourist-traps, but also found some gems that are worth mentioning.
EL FLORIDITA BAR
The bar Hemingway built—home of the double frozen daiquiri. Unfortunately it has become a gimmicky tourist trap. For a better glimpse into its storied past read Ernest Hemingway’s semi-biographical novel Islands in the Stream.
LA BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO
Another bar Hemingway built. And also the Mecca for mojitos. To be honest, we didn’t order one here. The small restaurant/bar felt more like a shrine people would make a pilgrimage to. Above the bar, like the Shroud of Turin, there’s framed piece of Hemingway’s writing that reads, “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri at El Froridita.” Much too simulated for my likes. But for the sake of historical significance, drinking a mojito at La Bodeguita can be pretty special.
A beautiful winding sea-wall that spans the coastline from Old Havana to Vedado. The promenade is rich with monuments, artistic installations and weapons that once were used to defend the harbor. The Malecon is now home to hundreds of fisherman tossing lines into the ocean, while the children play in the tidal pools below.
HOTEL NACIONAL DE CUBA
The historic Hotel Nacional was the headquarters for Che Guevara and Fidel Castro during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the home of the infamous 1946 Mob Summit that inspired Francis Ford Coppola to write the Godfather II. The outdoor patio has an incredible elevated view of the Malecon and Old Havana; and, it’s completely worth time to sit down, order a mojito, and enjoy the sea breeze and listen to the sounds of the peacocks calling for each other from the emperor palm trees towering overhead.
ALMACENES SAN JOSÉ ARTISANS’ MARKET
This old train station turned tourist market is saturated beyond belief with Cuban trinkets and keepsakes. However, the over-saturation of artwork, carvings and jewelry makes it easy for the real gems to pop out. Be patient and something beautiful will present itself to you. And if that doesn’t work out, you can always grab some rum and cigars.
MUSEA NACIONAL DE BELLAS ARTES DE LA HABANA
I’m not ashamed to say that I wasn’t expecting too much from the Cuban National Museum of Fine Arts. I’ve experienced Caribbean artwork before and I thought I couldn’t get much more out of it. I was ignorant and I was wrong. Sorry Cuba.
The museum did not allow photography, so I made a short-list of artists which I found very talented and thought provoking: Ángel Acosta León, José Gómez Fresquet, Antonia Eiriz, Alejandro Aguilera, Emilio Rivero Merlín, Augusto Menocal, Umberto Peña, René Portocarrero and Tomas Sanchez.
Traveling to Havana was a great experience. We had a list of places we wanted to visit and things we wanted to do, but my strongest memories aren’t from any of these. The best memories happened in the moments between the plans we made. Stepping into El Floridita Bar was special, but it wasn’t as polarizing as beach combing after dinner and stumbling onto a gay Cuban beach party. There is absolutely no way I could have planned for that to happen.
Meeting other travelers and hearing their impressions of the country only reinforced my decision to visit Cuba before its impending “Americanization”. Before we left Canada, every person and their dog was telling us how poor the food is and how much better we’ll enjoy the beaches of Varadero.
Stop! Just…stop. That’s not why we’re traveling to Cuba.
Sure, Havana is not as sexy as Varadero, but it’s so much more authentic. We went on a mission to the capital and had a great introduction to Cuban culture.
I needed to experience it before I put to bed any preconceived notions I had about the place. So would I go back? Absolutely. Not right away though. And probably under a different context. As I mentioned earlier, my list of travel destinations runs long. I had a very positive experience and a lot had to do with the friends we made traveling and the incredibly hospitable Cuban people. From what I’ve been told of the Cuban locals is that they are very happy to be opening their gates to the U.S.. I suppose the silver lining to this new relationship is that the people will have a better chance to excel and live a life with more opportunities. Only time will tell how this situation will play out.
I’m just happy we beat the clock.