Is this really Havana??
Cuba grows on you. It’s one of those places where, weeks after you’ve been home, you start to think “oh yea… Cuba!” The vibrancy of it all, the colors, the music... it is a country that grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Landing in Havana, you feel instantly encapsulated by it all. The airport is something from another time, another era. The effects of embargo displayed prominently at the small, 2-runway airport that services the city, the country. It’s as if you’ve stepped back in time, to a simpler era. And in many ways, you have. Cuba is perhaps one of the few places left on this planet untouched by the effects of time.
Maybe that’s a positive spin on decades of political and economic embargo. An embargo that prevented the free movement of food, music, ideas, people. And you notice it. You feel it. Everything, and I mean everything, is still done by hand. The old-school way, the real old way. Carpentry, cooking… you name it. Cuba has had to figure it out and get by using 1950s-era technology, while the entire rest of the world has advanced. But is that really such a bad thing? Is it better to live in a society where an entire generation of individuals have lost the ability to use their hands? Where texting is now more common than simply talking to one another? Goods and services imported from China, India, Malaysia… it seems, in the United States at least, that nothing comes from us. We are society of takers – taking material goods and services without producing much of anything. But in Cuba? Nope. Skilled carpenters, mechanics, cigar rollers… just about everything consumed in Cuba is produced in Cuba.
To walk the streets of Havana is privilege. To see that spectacularly beautiful architecture… architecture lost to time, to places, to people. The colors pop out at you with force. Vibrant yellows, ocean blues, pale pinks. Everything, from the doors to the shutters to the cupolas, made from scratch by hand. The details are stunning and difficult to miss. It is utterly enchanting.
There is no internet (aside from public wi-fi only available in specific public spaces), no cell phones, no credit cards (for U.S. travelers anyway). Beautiful cars from the 1950s roam the streets, lurking around corners, carburetor engines somehow maintained after all these decades. It’s as if you left present-day United States and entered Cuba in 1955. I can still hear the music as I sit here writing this, spilling out of every bar, every restaurant. Patrons sit outside drinking mojitos, dancing inside the bar and out. Cuban citizens are generally happy to see tourists, and there are few places in this world where I’ve felt safer than in Havana. Sure, the hustlers are everywhere, but for those of us fortunate enough to have traveled in parts of Asia, Africa, even Europe, that should come as no surprise. And can you blame them? As far as Cuba has progressed, their economy still remains one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, although this is rapidly improving with the influx of American tourist dollars and those omnipresent cruise ships docked in the harbor.
Will Cuba change with all this new tourism? Will this island untouched for decades finally modernize with new money? Will we see an influx of city planners, hotel tycoons, entrepreneurs – the people who make every place look exactly the same? Will they take Cuba, beautiful in its isolation from time, and turn it into some resort destination with American franchises and a McDonald’s on every street corner (aka Miami Beach)? I sincerely and utterly hope not.