Havana days – a personal account of a three-day journey in Cuba

Before I start, I should state that this article is by no means a political or social study, but rather a collection of impression gathered throughout a three day visit to old Havana. I also want to thank my friend, who generously devoted her time and energy to show me around, sharing her knowledge and wisdom about the island, its history and its people. The appreciation, the sense of belonging and pride that Cubans have for their land was perhaps what stood out the most to me of the whole trip.

Bote to Regla. Right across the bay, facing the Old Havana port, it’s the fishermen town of Regla. There is a very simple boat that crosses people over several times per day. It’s an opportunity to experience a more ‘local’ and genuine Cuba, further from the tourists and it’s innate infrastructure.

There is an inherent simplicity of life in Cuba that is very attractive and refreshing. Life revolves around the street and the neighborhood. Kids play with a simple ball, or create games out of a smashed can and two rocks – in a way, much closer to the way I used to have fun when growing up, and certainly, very different to what kids do nowadays. Adults spend hours simply sitting down in front of their houses or in the balcony. Doors are usually open, and with it, comes a much greater integration between people’s lives and their environment. As you walk down the street, you can peak into any of the open doors, and see families together, watching TV, cooking or simply eating together.

And the world wide web?
Only here I became aware of how much I depend on the internet, and I feel what could only be described as withdrawal symptoms. I feel good just walking and wondering, but at the end of the day I have a strong desire to connect to my world, and here that’s unusually hard.

In the island, internet seems to be a privilege of few. Either for those who have access to CUCs (the parallel currency used for tourists), or the even fewer who have merit, and have access granted by the government, on very limited basis, between 40 and 80 hours per month. And even then, many of the services, like chat, are blocked. It seems the government has not yet discovered or decided to act on Facebook, and locals use it mainly as a vehicle to chat with friends and family abroad.

We are family!

This, like many other apartment complex, have evolved to accomodate many families over the years, and in the process, the need for separate electricity bills has created a mess out of the unplanned electrical wiring. A pretty common site in old Havana.

In this economical paradigm, the possibility to trade (without direct government involvement), that is to purchase and sell goods, or real state, does not exist. Of course this sounds obvious given the political and economical regimen in Cuba. Yet, it feels very different when you get there and somehow ‘live it’.

Even though rare, some houses are sold, and when they do, it’s an illegal act, like many others that take place in this society. This creates a situation, that even the most ‘pro’ regimen dislike and feel the urge for change. Families have no other option but to share the same roof, usually grouping many generations, and certainly a lot of people in the same space. This creates an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia that is shared across all levels of society, probably more evenly distributed than anything else in the system.

If having your own space is a sufficient priority, you can quit your job and join the ‘micro-brigade’ (microbrigada), a cooperative group that is devoted to construction. The government will maintain your salary at the time you joined, and it’s expected that six to ten years later, the cooperative will assign you your own space, though possibly not anywhere near your preferences, since most of the housing projects keep moving further away from Havana. Most people I talked to feel that the required investment of time and work is way to high and your own place is not worth it.

So for many, the only practical choice is to wait to inherit a place, assuming that your parents or your in-laws have one, and even then, by the time you get it, most likely your kids will be thinking about getting married and starting their own families sharing your long awaited roof.

Why I could not live in Cuba…
Perhaps you are expecting some sort of philosophical or at least deeper line of thought. But way before that comes the harsh reality that salads in the island are quite poor. For someone whose diet is so strongly based on greens, this is a deal breaker (at least for me)!

The malecon, that spans for over 4.5 kms along the coast of Havana, it’s a gathering place for people as the sun sets down. The breeze (which combats the otherwise overwhelming heat of the city), the fishing and not least important the people watching make up fro a great afternoon activity.

On a prior trip to Bimini, an island in the Bahamas, I had experience the same issue; so I am not sure if the lack of abundant, varied and fresh vegetables is an inherent problem of being an island, or if it is somehow more closely tied to the blockage and thus has a more political root. Perhaps a bit off topic, but also caught my attention how strong the diet it’s based on pork – same as Bimini. I would have thought that in a place where weather gets this hot, people would naturally tend to eat a lighter kind of meal, but experience seems to prove the contrary. [After sharing this article with people who helped me edited, I’ve learned the historical, sociological and economic reason for this].

Nonetheless, I did attempted to eat my usual intake of vegetables. In La Torre Vega restaurant, I had the ‘complete salad’:
-White cabbage.
-1/4 of a slightly green tomato.
-Cooked carrot.
-A few pieces of pumpkin.
-String beans.
-1/2 a radish.
-3 Slices of cucumber.
-A few green leaves that to this day I am not sure what they were. Certainly not lettuce, perhaps beet.

Except for a few items, most of the ingredients of this salad are closer to what we eat as a soup in Uruguay, than a salad. You can understand, as I said before, that this is indeed a deal breaker. I have to say though, that I had wonderful seafood, and a delicious ‘ropa vieja’.

Baseball – the national sport

Beisball it’s the national sport of Cuba. You see a lot more people playing it on the street, than you will see a soccer ball. They have come up with many interpretations of how to play beisball in close counters. In this case, with a small bat and a plastic cover as the ball. Pitching consists of a sophisticated technique using the thumb and the index finger. Not much running involve in this version of the sport.

Much is said and seen about boxing in Cuba. I don’t know if it is the most important sport, but even though I did not see a single baseball field during my stay, I can assure you that walking the streets, you’ll come across several groups of kids, teenagers and even adults, playing baseball in the most confined spaces and using the most imaginative instruments to play it.

With a wooden stick and a bottle cap, requiring a sophisticated and unusual technique of pitching – flicking the cap between your index and thumb -, they throw it at high speed and with incredibly precise direction. The field, reduced to the few meters – wall to wall – that defines the narrow streets of old Havana, confined by the window of ‘señora’ Aurora and the fender bender of the old car a few meters down the road.

There were more traditional versions played at the many plazas that make up the landscape of the town. With the arm and hand replacing the bat, and a light rubber ball emulating the baseball, kids of all ages play and exercise by running the few meters that separate each base.

The image of the revolution

A 360 degree turn in any part of the city will most likely yield at least one image of the ‘Che’. The most important symbol of the revolution and far more present that any other – including Fidel -, el Che it’s present from government advertising promoting the values of the revolutions, to the walls of homes, bakeries and of course in almost every single souvenir for for the visiting tourist.

One of the things that first caught my attention as I wandered through the streets of the island, was the omnipresence of the image of ‘Che’ – as the most significant symbol of the revolution. A distant second would be Camilo Cienfuegos and only then Fidel.

As you can image, I asked around – I had to know why – and what I most often got for a response, is that Fidel does not like his image to be publicly displayed, feeling that it’s a form of veneration, which supposedly, in his opinion, it is something that should be reserved for the dead.

Judged by the personal tone in which every souvenir shop attendant speaks about the matter, you could easily think that it was Fidel himself who dropped by and told them in person. In any case, each poster, stamp, t-shirt or hat that you will come across, most likely will bear the famous iconic image of Che which we have all probably seen. As a side comment, that image was made by Korda, and even though he did fight at that time for legal usage of the image (I assume outside the island), if he had gotten one US dollar for every time that image has been used, I am quite sure he would rank high in the Forbes millionaire list.

When the city sleeps

Havana at dawn. It’s about the only time of day where the streets are quiet.

On my last working day I woke up early. Committed to my photographic duties, and in search of beautiful light, at 5.30am I briefly opened one eye to check my iPhone Photocalc application which generously shares with me the twilight and sunrise time in every place in the world. At 6.20am the sun should be rising on the other side of the bay, behind the mellow hills that host the Christ that Batista’s wife left before fleeing off as her contribution to the city.

Sunrise was less interesting than I anticipated (this tends to happen to me, I like a lot better the light and colors at sunset). It was interesting though, to walk the dark streets of Havana in a rare silence, only interrupted by the sound of steps against the cobble stones of the occasional police tourist on their way to work.

It’s now 7.00am. I am sitting down on the bench of one of the plazas. I wait for a restaurant, bar or bakery to open. I am unusually hungry. Flies are clearly early risers, and by this time they are hard at work. A few meters away from where I sit, there is a particularly active group of them together with another breed of smaller flies. They are flying around a garbage can, and between sleepiness and illumination I wonder, ‘how is it possible they fly so fast and close to each other and never crash?’ I am sure Clara will have an answer for this. I have to remember to ask her…

From food to God knows where
As they would say in my country, ‘me zarpé’ (it’s kind of like ‘I lost it’). Today I decide I deserve a grandiose breakfast. I am homesick, and I know good food makes me feel home. I decide to go into El Bar Globo, in the lobby of the Hotel Santa Isabel in the Plaza de Armas, searching for soul-filling food and a more ‘western’ (or should I say Capitalist) experience.

Encarnito it’s a character I met as I was walking down Obrapia. I picked through the window and liked the picture. He invited me in, and we talked for a long time. He faught in the second squadron during the revolution, under Raul Castro.

When I say ‘me zarpé’, I am actually referring to a 15 CUC breakfast (equivalent to USDs 15 of the tourist currency in Cuba). For more usual destinations, this would be a fairly reasonable price, but in the island, if you are outside the beaten path and wanting to get a more ‘local’ experience, this is actually a whole bunch of money. I cannot avoid thinking I am eating the equivalent to and average monthly salary for most people in Cuba.

It’s been hard to deal with the strong economic disparities. I guess it’s no different than my prior trips to Asia, but this realization does not make it any easier. How do you decide who will you give to and who you will not. How can there be a good criteria to make such decision? And then, it’s not sustainable to give to everyone, no matter how much I would like to.

Throughout our long walks, my Cuban friend continues to shed light into the many questions revolving around my head. She confesses that even though she has a somewhat higher income than the average, and both her and her husband work, a beer (CUC 1.50) is totally out of her reach; it’s a privilege reserved for when she has visiting friends that can treat her.

This poses another of the many enigmas of this place and this system. How is it possible that some locals, right there in old Havana, can afford to drink not one, but several beers, or sit down and dine in a CUC’s place aimed at tourists? I understand that some, who are lucky enough to work closely related to tourism, have easier access to the tourist currency, but, is it only this? Or is this just another of the unavoidable signs of inequality in the island? Wasn’t this system supposed to ensure a greater level of equality? And what does it mean if it’s not actually happening? Is it simply that the ideals behind socialism, and the expectation that this is the system that should provide this are a mere utopia?

Or is it perhaps that the emphasis, that all of our energies and focus, should be placed in searching for ‘a way out’, for the proper vehicle to drive greater awareness and consciousness, and trust that eventually, a more just, equal and responsible society will emerge, even if it is just because a few fortunate with access and power have the selfish desire to create a society where they themselves and their loved ones, can live in a more secure and fulfilling environment?

As you can see, I started with food, I am now God knows where. Going back to food. I had a harder time than I though connecting with food. This is usually a non-issue for me. I loved the food in Guatemala, and even more in Mexico. But here… To start, there seems to be a concerted effort to package the food into standardized menus that include an array of courses. That in itself it’s a turn off for me. I love to pick and choose from a variety of dishes, many times just the starters, so I can enjoy a variety of dishes. Then, as I said before, it’s the lack of greens, a totally deal breaker for me. And finally the offer is very limited, at least in the places I manage to eat. I wonder if I missed the ‘local’ spots, where they eat the ‘more local’ stuff. The only places I found that seemed to match this criteria, only offered heavy loaded sandwiches that had little appeal to me. I have to acknowledge though, that my friend treated me to a hot dog (not very local I guess) that was amazing.

What you’ll find the most while walking around are bakeries (I assumed it’s because it’s probably one of the cheapest things you can eat). The ‘bakery’ title might be somewhat misleading if not further clarified. I am basically thinking of a place that makes bread and a minor assortment of other related items. Don’t think on your French place full of assorted breads and sweets, because you’ll be disappointed. Another thing I noticed, is that bread it’s very yellow here, not all of them, but definitely many.

Then there are the ‘supermarkets’. Again, contextualization it’s important here. Think of them rather small, like they used to be before the super and mega markets trend, usually in beautiful old houses (at least in the old city), and with a very limited assortment, both in variety and quantity. The groceries shopping experience here has nothing to do with impulse purchase, and it’s on the contrary a very purposeful and deliberate experience for the buyer. The most common items I found were oil, mayonnaise, yogurt and alike, and generally speaking, very expensive for the locals to acquire. As a reference, a bottle of cooking oil can cost you 2 CUCs, in comparison with the basic basket estimated in 5 CUCs, and a month of electricity costing you 1 CUC.

A dog’s life…

What you see it’s pretty much way of life for dogs in Havana. Who can blame them? It’s so hot that they spent most of the time laying down, cooling off in the shade and waiting for the cooler time of day to show up.

After a detailed and meticulous analysis of the situation, my verdict is that dogs have a challenging life in Cuba. It’s not the food, they actually don’t seem that hungry. It’s the heat. Dogs in Cuba are so very much hot. If it was not for the permanent panting, you would think they are petrified. They spend hours without moving, inert until the sun comes down, and only then you see them moving around the city. Beyond this, they seem happy.

The great majority of dogs in Havana are stray dogs, or otherwise dachshunds; I’m not sure why, but there is a disproportionate share of dachshunds. Perhaps it’s a Darwinian thing, and all along we have ignored that the dachshund is the king of the dogs!

If you pay attention, sporadically you will see other dogs that are popular where I come from, a pit-bull, a boxer and a cocker spaniel. Yes, I refer to them in singular because that’s all I saw, one of each. I am unsure if it is because they are scarce, but somehow they seemed luxurious and more sophisticated than usual.

Coppelia – ice cream with a taste of revolution
Today my friend took me for a tour of Vedado (another part of the city outside the small quarters of old Havana). From guagua (bus) to guagua we ended up in Coppelia – the best ice cream place that sells in cuban currency (for the locals). The experience of eating ice creams in Havana is very different from what I am used to. You seat down at the table, and a waiter takes your order and brings back your ice cream, which you are supposed to eat while seating down.

Girl waiting in line of Coppelia, the ice cream place for the locals where they can pay in local currency.

The line was extraordinarily long, yet it moved with great agility. We probably did not spend much more time than I would have on a busy days in Las Delicias (my local ice cream parlor). It seems that many years ago, the Math department of the University did a study on the subject, and to this day, this very efficient system works based on the conclusions of this study. I bet few ice cream places can boast this kind of pedigree.

The place consists of six or seven round rooms, organized around a central circular space, which holds the wide stairs that take us into the second floor. There we are invited to move into one of the spaces that has been emptied out. I now understand why the line would move in discrete units of a large amount of people, and then stop for a while. It seems that the people assigned to organizing this flow, work it such that they bring people in only after a room has been emptied out, and they effectively time and rotate the different rooms to have a more or less constant flow of people.
Not sure if by chance or by design we end up sharing a table with a young couple who is obviously on a date. I cannot avoid an overwhelming sense that I am interrupting love in the making. My friend in her usual engaging and talkative style, asks them several questions and requests some pictures to be taken.

Soon enough the waiter drops by and informs us that today they only have chocolate, chocolate swirl and orange-pineapple. Taking a conservative approach, I go for chocolate and chocolate swirl. The ice cream delivery model does not allow for tastings like I would have done back home.

Eusebio taking a break. He is responsible of cleaning and maintaining the church of San Francisco de Asis. .A quick scan of the map of Old Havana, will show you that there are at least 30 churches in a town than has few square kilometers.

Ice cream was reasonable; low proportion of milk and cream in the overall mix; nonetheless, the cold feeling down my throat in the midst of that overwhelming heat felt like I was having a meal of the gods. The ice cream place is state-owned and run. Perhaps due to the crisis or to the high demand, the connoisseurs let me know that today it’s not nearly as good as usual.

I am told that the Coppelia project was led by one of Fidel’s right hand person at the time. Decoration is as unusual as the whole experience. As in many other places, it has many pictures of the Revolution’s leaders, once again with Che leading by far. There’re also large size styrofoam five point stars with the colors of the flag and banners across the room that promote the values and ideas of the revolution.

Dammed heat!
Today is my last day. It’s been brief and intense. I am now on my way to the airport.

Yesterday I left a while before the sun was out, and except for a brief snack at noon, I did not leave my room until sunset. The heat broke my will and tolerance, and four showers later I have surrendered to the blessed air conditioning in the guest house where I am staying. This feature is only available in the rooms that are for rent, the rest of house operates under normal heat conditions in the island.

During the most sunny and heat intensive hours of the day, I devoted myself to watching some photography videos and processing my images. This is a rare experience, as usually I do not travel with a computer. But this time I tested the model of bringing an iPad as my travel companion, and coupled with the camera kit. I can say it’s a very decent combo. It certainly allowed me to preview and get a good sense of the work I was doing while on the field. [Check this article that I wrote for the Steve Huff Photo site, if you want to learn more about travel photography and the iPad].

Back to the heat. Despite my recently acquired Guayabera (a typical Cuban shirt, all white with 4 pockets in front – two above and two below-, which is characterized by being quite cool), I have not stopped sweating since I got here, with dripping water down my legs the moment I step out of the room. I am sure that with time, my body would adjust and I would not feel the heat as much.

Even tough there’s general consensus that it’s been quite hot, this does not prevent the locals from wearing black t-shirts and long, dark jeans. I can assure you that it’s not that they are not sweating, but I guess that if you live there, at some point you want to move away from the shorts and the flip-flops, and bring out your more stylish wardrobe.

Judgement day…
I come to the end of this post, feeling I have to close with some sort of assessment, a point of view or a perspective about this experience in Cuba. And though I am not too keen on it, I’ll venture into it.

I spent the last three days in a state of awareness and active observation, with the clear intention to have an open mind, to listen, and most of all to appreciate what´s there to be appreciated, on ‘both sides of the coin’. Growing in a family where ‘left’ is always the option, and where Fidel is an idol, it was not easy for me to participate in a neutral state of mind, in the beginning I was more inclined to questioning and highlighting what does not work in the system. Yet, in the end, I feel at peace and that I’ve been able to participate within a reasonable balance.

Many homes in Cuva have flags and other symbols of the revolution. In this door, right next the flag of Cuba, it’s the flag of the revolution with the inscription of ‘July 26th’, the anniversary of the revolution.

Then, the remaining question is what is my ‘verdict’. In full awareness of the risk of generalization, I believe that the socialist system proposed by Cuba is not the answer, just like the capitalist system, in it’s purest form, is not the answer either.

But more important than my opinion, is my assessment of what I think ‘the people’ in the island feel, based on my direct contact with a non-representative sample of approximately fifteen people with whom I talked during those three days.

There are people on both sides of the spectrum, the ones who would literally give their lives for the system, and those who if able to change it, would not think twice. Given my very limited understanding of reality, based on that minuscule slice of the population that I had the chance to personally interact with, I feel that the ‘line that divides the court’ is generational.

The elder, perhaps because they can remember, and compare the present with life before the revolution, feel that beyond what they acknowledge as a very tough situation in Cuba, they are now better than they used to be. Most in this group (pro), were more fundamentalist and in my opinion, less articulate and clear to justify their position. On the other hand, the younger crowd, possibly because all they can compare reality with is what they feel they are missing, maybe because beyond the stories, they only know the current harshness of daily life in Cuba, can very clearly articulate the aspects of the system that from within, seem more like a utopia than a reality.

I cannot avoid thinking about how Cuba will evolve as generational changes take place, and beyond the proactive and structured efforts from the government to promote the ideas and values of the revolution, the memory and the link become weaker every day. Will the youth emigrate? Or will the high patriotic sense that abounds in the island make them stay? And then, how will all this influence the system?

Beyond this, a few things stand out in my mind, with somewhat more clarity. The system is far from ideal. Unrestricted and universal access to health for example, is not experienced there like it might be portrayed and perceived from the outside. What money buys in one system, connections and relationships buy in the other. A great number of people seem to live in the gray area of the ‘illegalities’. Perhaps because there are few things that can be done without falling in one of them, or maybe because it seems very hard for a system to repress the natural entrepreneurial spirit of human beings, or simply because the apparent reward of breaking the rules is too high. From the ones who decide to sell without the involvement of the government, to the ones who offer their body for money, there is in the island a tacit and restricted ‘capitalist‘ movement.

Some of the more typical capitalist social behaviors – like shopping – also exist in the island, of course in a very subdued fashion. But on Sunday, you can see small groups of girls, all dressed up with high heals, golden purses, looking at the few store windows and eating ice creams paid in CUCs.

One thing it’s certain, the Cuban people are magnificent, warm, joyful and strong. I have no doubt in my mind that they will find in their destiny the right social and economical model that best works for them. As for me, I continue to search for a working system by which I feel more fully represented. Hopefully one that will combine the best of both worlds, one where I will feel more enthusiastic and committed, in a more explicit and direct way.

You can see additional images of this trip here:

Cuba, Havana (Latin America) – Images by Martin Herrera