When you think of Cuba, what immediately comes to mind? I must confess that before visiting last week, I had a rather limited knowledge of the country beyond the obvious. Classic American cars, crumbling colonial architecture, colors, textures, cigars, coffee, music and white sand beaches all converge to create a certain version of Cuba in our imaginations, which as outsiders we assume to be its reality. Perhaps we’ve heard of that one pesky dictator who had a little run-in with JFK over some missiles, or maybe we’re aware that there’s an embargo which has made traveling there tricky for US citizens over the last few decades. The truth is that we probably don’t know much about our close Caribbean neighbor, just an hour’s flight from Miami.
Now that travel restrictions have eased slightly between Cuba and the US, awareness of the country is starting to broaden, and Americans are flocking to this contentious island in larger numbers. For many, there’s an urgency to see Cuba before it transforms into a modern travel destination, overrun with tourists and hotel chains. I have to admit that one of the reasons I was drawn to visit Cuba was the decaying charm of the place, imagining it as an ideal backdrop for creating beautiful images (it is) while giving visitors the sensation of being catapulted back in time (it does).
As the all-too-familiar story goes for many countries with a colonial past, Cuba has a somewhat checkered history not too dissimilar from our own. From decimating native populations to slavery and racial disparities, and more recently the intense political strife of the last half-century or so, it’s a wonder to witness the resilience and vivacity of the Cuban people in the face of these struggles. We were swept away by the lively attitude of the city and its inhabitants the moment we stepped out of our taxi onto Calle Damas in Old Havana, where we rented an apartment for our first few days. La Dama Teresa is situated on the second floor of a century-old building, with a sprawling balcony that runs the entire length of the home and overlooks a raucous street in one of the oldest areas of the city, which is seemingly unaffected by modernity and the plodding forth of time. While the rest of Havana seems to be disintegrating around it, the apartment itself has been painstakingly kept through the years, with its confusingly high ceilings and gorgeous vintage furniture that truly made us feel like we had stepped through a time portal and landed right in the 40’s. It was everything I’d envisioned a glamorous old flat in Havana to be.
Exhausted from a too-short-to-sleep red-eye to Miami, we changed out of our airport clothes and (in broken Spanish) asked our local host Zaida where to find our first lunch – and mojito – of the trip. We subsequently found ourselves in Plaza Vieja, which is both a historical center and tourist trap, with many restaurants and cafes full of gringos like us looking for something ‘Cuban’ to eat and drink. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fangirl over all the vintage cars parked on nearly every street, stopping to take one thousand photos, at the expense of an eye roll or two from an onlooking local no less. As you stroll through Havana, you notice that every corner of the city is bursting with sound. The laughter of children, the blaring of telenovelas out of old TV sets, impassioned conversations, the jackhammering of construction, and way-too-loud music ranging from reggaeton to Taylor Swift. It’s an assault on the senses which reminds you that you’re alive, and maybe just a little too tired or hungover to handle it.
Living up to its Instagram personality, Cuba is no doubt full of opportunities to take a great photo. From the bustling streets of Old Havana to the sleepier towns nearer the beach (like Trinidad de Cuba, which I’ll be posting about later this week, along with Central Havana), the Cubans seem to have a different standard of color and aesthetics that is done both perfectly and completely by accident. I stuck out like a sore thumb wearing each of the elaborate outfits I had planned, with most locals wearing not much beyond what would keep them comfortable and sweat-free. I imagine there’s both a practicality and a sense of nonchalance that comes with living on a humid, (mostly) social media-free island, which makes Cubans turn their eyes toward more important concerns besides photographing oneself with the most colorful car or doorway. It admittedly feels a little ridiculous doing so, but when you’ve taken the flight and find yourself all dressed up in such a beautiful place, you certainly can’t NOT do it.
Though dazzling and festive as it is, Cuba straddles a number of strange dualities: past and present, opulence and poverty, captivity and freedom. Many travelers accurately describe Cuba as being a ‘time capsule’, taking delight in the ways it has been frozen in time, most notably the cars and architecture. For those that may not be too familiar with Cuba’s history (I wasn’t), it’s been living under an embargo by the US since 1962, following the Cuban Revolution and the seizing of power by notorious rebel-turned-dictator Fidel Castro. Fidel then nationalized nearly $1 billion of American assets on the island, sparking the embargo. The Castro family has been in power ever since, Fidel’s face still ever-present across government propaganda, lovingly depicted as ‘comandante’ on signs and billboards where you won’t find any traditional ads. When you only have 1 or 2 brands of everything from shampoo to coffee, who really needs marketing anyway? Consumer choice isn’t exactly an issue. The US embargo coupled with Castro’s restrictive, communist regime is generally considered to be the reasons behind many of Cuba’s economic plights and for the creation of said time capsule, with very few comforts of modern life making their way to the Cuban people.
While the vintage cars serve as entertainment for foreigners, Cubans themselves do not find them so amusing. They’re old, making parts extremely expensive or impossible to replace, they break down often and are highly consumptive of gas. Newer Asian models can be seen on the island, but are much rarer and often far too expensive for the average Cuban to drive. The same can be said for the beautiful (if not rotting) buildings, many of which have not been touched since the years following the Revolution. Reliable access to electricity, running/hot water, and other modern touches like WiFi are sometimes elusive (though thankfully, improving). Upon planning this trip, I looked forward to being forcibly cut off from my normal media consumption, thoughtlessly seeing it as a novelty for myself rather than the unfortunate daily reality it has been for Cubans until recent years. Access to the internet and free information has been no easy feat for Cubans, though most of them somehow seem to be more current and politically aware than the average American these days.
If it seems hypocritical to post these pretty photos of myself while lamenting the current situation of Cubans – it is. And unfortunately, this hypocrisy hard to escape as a westerner visiting Cuba. Financial support for its citizens through tourism is both welcome and needed, but visitors could do well with a broader understanding of the Cuban reality while enjoying their convertible rides and freshly rolled cigars. To complain about the food, the lack of English spoken, or the spotty access to WiFi (of which I admittedly did all three) is to exist in privilege and ignorance. If you expect Cuba to be up to par with modern destinations in terms of 5-star resorts and Starbucks on every corner, I suggest going somewhere else entirely. Instead, relish its unique history and immersive beauty while being sensitive to its current climate, and also understanding that it may (and probably should) change in the coming decades in order for the Cuban people to have more freedom and prosperity. In the meantime, go ahead and pose with that car and sip that Cuba Libre. ¡Salud!
Look 3: Top and Skirt by Lucy Paris, Hoops by ASOS, Bag by Free People, Sandals by Urban Outfitters
Photos by Gabriel Bienczycki and myself