Being back in Cuba was like being home again; remembering a place that seems so ingrained in your mind and heart and soul that you know it like the back of your hand, yet at the same time seeming like a dream world; unfocused and somewhat topsy-turvy.
The streets of Old Havana reminded me of Casco Viejo in Panama City (well, I guess it was the reverse since I’ve been to Cuba first, but you know what I mean): decadent architecture with details that we just don’t see in todays’ structures, a sense of community surrounding you at the local markets, gutted buildings waiting for someone with time, money, patience and MONEY to revamp them to their former glory, a heat that can be beyond oppressive, and an immersion in the past that makes every footstep feel like you are getting farther away from the 21st century.
Cubans have always amazed me with their generosity. These are people that earn a very low living wage – approximately U$D15/month – yet are so open, friendly and willing to share. Never will you be invited into a Cuban household without being offered fresh juice and/or fresh coffee. They will break out their “best china” oftentimes – old, chipped and mismatching – to make you feel truly special and welcome in their home. If you stay long or are visiting a friend, you never know when you will be offered a bowl of freshly fried yucca or malanga chips to accompany your mojito while smoking your freshly-rolled cigar on their balcony.
Why is it that this tiny island is still cut off from the “western world”? Are they better off because of this distance? Or are they being taught a false sense of what the world away from Cuba is really like? I see it both ways: on the one hand, Cuba is still a completely sovereign nation with history, customs, culture and PRIDE like you don’t see elsewhere. It’s different in Guatemala or Cuzco with women in their traditional dress, but you are never quite sure if they’re doing it for tradition’s sake or for tourism, and that’s always tugging at the back of your mind. In Cuba, however, the dancing in the streets, the rum drinking on the Malecon, the openness and eagerness in peoples’ eyes, the salsa and rumba and offerings to the Orishas are all authentic, and it’s so incredibly refreshing to snap out of your tourist-inflicted cynicism and relax! On the other hand, there is indeed a skewed idea of how we live in America. On TV, most Cubans see 1) Hollywood movies, where everyone has money, plastic surgery and nice cars, or 2) sitcoms, where everyone has money, nice houses and manicured lawns. Not to say that there isn’t 1% of Americans that live like this, but capitalism definitely rears its head and there is poverty, the inability to advance in the workplace, janky cars on the road and the like. So when Cubans watch TV, they are lulled into a false sense of belief that it will be easy to acquire all of these big-ticket items, just by getting a job as a dishwasher at the local diner. True, they will probably earn more at that job in 3 hours than they normally do in a month, but they don’t realize the lack of subsidies and the higher cost of living involved in higher earning power.
All frustration at bad service, useless menus, uncertain drinks and lack of thinking-outside-the-box aside, however, Cuba is a diamond in the rough. It’s the forgotten playground of the mafia, with remnants sticking out of the sand like discarded toy shovels. When you take a good look at the country, you want to change into your dirty clothes, grab a power washer and some whitewash and get to it, making it sparkle in no time. I could go on and on about how much I love this country and the people there, the café con leche in the morning while writing in my journal and listening to a live salsa band, and I could also get into my thoughts on the future of the country, what Obama’s role should be in opening the doors (and closing Gitmo) to open travel and trade and what we, as tourists, can do to preserve the atmosphere of the country, but that’s all easier to discuss in person. Anyone interested in grabbing a beer and talking “Cuba”, just let me know.
Hasta la victoria siempre,