Waves crash sporadically with a thundering sound against the five-mile seawall, reaching foamy heights and spilling over onto the Malecon—Havana’s popular promenade. Couples and habaneros (locals) continue to amble along, while men casually cast their fishing lines. Families relax upon the wall engaged in conversation, as they peer out into the distance. Others joyously listen to Afro-Cuban beats pulsating past the lull of the water. These vibrant rhythms are the overriding sounds that permeate throughout most of Havana’s neighborhoods, restaurants, street corners, and historic squares.
As I continue along the waterside, I experience an ebb and flow of time—shifting back and forth from past to present. The cars and taxis passing me on my right are brightly colored 1950 Buicks and Chevys— reminiscent of my childhood days in New York. With the absence of cell phones and IPads in the hands of the youth, life could have been just as it was some 50 or 60 years ago, except for the array of architecture surrounding me—ranging from Spanish colonial and baroque to neo-classical, Art Nouveau, and ultra-modern.
Thanks to Obama opening up doors in 2008, U.S. Cuban residents can visit their families. Americans, such as myself, in conjunction with humanitarian and educational organizations, are able to have this unique travel opportunity. I didn’t realize that during my 10-day sojourn with U.S. Global Exchange, in partnership with Cuba’s ICAP (Cuban Institute of Friendship with Peoples) that I would develop an increased knowledge and appreciation for the Cuban people and their sense of sustainability and community.
One of the major attractions for me was that Cuba is considered the salsa capital of the world, and dance happens to be my passion. However, it was this contagious human spirit and vibrant arts scene that became the prominent lure.
An interesting day began with an informative lecture by a noted filmmaker and an urban planner, followed by a visit to a museum, and then a viewing a local arts group with lunch at a popular establishment. Also, the tour afforded me the opportunity to have several hours free at times to explore and observe the sights, sounds, and colors around me.
It was easier and more enjoyable to walk, when not on our tour bus, because of the lack of availability of public transportation throughout the different districts of Havana. I only noticed two major bus lines. A taxi or Coco taxi (a three-wheeled yellow bubble powered by the driver on a moped) from the residential districts to Old Havana cost 6 to 10 Cuban dollars. Note that it is approximately 90 U.S. cents to the Cuban CUC or dollar.
Nearby our hotel in the Vedado District, just below the more manicured Miramar, sits Havana’s residential area. Off the Avenida de Paseo are more mansions than imaginable, with many behind the main boulevard sadly dilapidated and decaying. I envision what grandeur and aristocracy embraced this area in its heyday during the 1930s and 40s. Many of these buildings have been converted into casas particulares (private houses) for tourists to stay overnight as well as privately-owned restaurants or restaurante paladare. Decameron was one such restaurant. This was once the house of a prominent doctor. The generous fresh fish entrees served with a rice pilaf and squash was a great deal for around 10 U.S. dollars.
I was taken further back in time, as I entered Havana’s grand, well-preserved Hotel National (circa 1930) off La Rampa (23rd Street) on the edge of Vedado toward the Central District. A visit to the Hall of Fame, featured a massive mural of international stars, dignitaries, and the infamous: including actress Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and mobster Meyer Lansky.
Finally, I arrived at Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), coined the Corner of Europe in the Caribbean. Our tour group had visited the day before to familiarize ourselves with this highly touristy area. I was surrounded by an array of artists, musicians, never-ending outdoor cafes, and a slew of shops selling local crafts, books, and jewelry. Restoration signs showing the before and after were apparent throughout the main squares.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Old Havana is the pulse and heart of the city. Life flourishes here day and night with bursts of colorful costumed locals and entertainers.
It wasn’t odd to get up while eating in a restaurant or café and start dancing to the musicians playing for diners. At Havana’s oldest hotel, Hotel Inglaterra built in 1875, I savored salsa dancing and my café con leche (coffee with milk) on several occasions.
At the main square, Plaza de la Catedral, sits the baroque Catedral de San Cristobal where once Christopher Columbus was buried. Our group lunched one day at Hemingway’s hangout, the famed bar/restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio—a fun place of photos and signatures of worldwide American and European celebrities covering every inch of wall space.
Not far away stands Plaza de Armas, the oldest square dating back to the Spanish explorers of the 1500s, which breeds a bohemian feel, with artist and book stalls shaded by towering palms.
Cuba sets itself apart with its vibrant communities of muralists and artists in and around the old town and Havana’s outskirts. We visited several, such as Callejon de Hamel and Muraleando, which artfully beautifies the distressed neighborhoods. Most memorable was our day trip to Callejon de Tradiciones Community Project in the city of Matanzas, then going eastward to Varadero—the site of Cuba’s pristine beaches.
The creatively painted murals became a backdrop for a young Afro-Cuban dance troupe, who offered us local fruit to take back after their engaging performance.
Cuba today, since the throes of the revolution in 1959 when Fidel Castro created a socialist state, is a country of approximately 11 million people (2.2 in Havana alone) with constant internal and external struggles, intense social consciousness, and a continual movement toward change. Some 2.5 million tourists from around the world frequented the country last year. Tourism from Europe and Latin America accounts for 51 percent of the Cuba’s GNP. Some 10 percent more Americans visited this past year.
Much has changed for Brooklyn, NY, resident Dr. Juan Emilio Carrillo, who returned to Cuba after living in America for more than 40 years to share with his son and wife his heartfelt roots. Emilio was part of the Peter Pan program where young Cuban children were sent out of the country to the United States—separated from their mothers and fathers because of the fear of the Fidel takeover and being sent to fight for communism in Russia. Emilio was one of the lucky ones to be reunited with his parents in America in less than a year.
According to Emilio, who had last visited Havana in 1987 and was now with our tour group, the city has undergone much advancement in restoration, development of businesses, and general sense of close community among the habaneros.
“I am witnessing more business activity and less overt signs of poverty on the streets in this country than before—especially since 1990 when the Soviet Union dropped out of the picture here. Even the farmer’s lifestyle has exhibited improvement,” states Emilio.
This was further evident in our group’s side trip on our final day to Alamar’s Urban Gardens, a sustainable organic farm developed in 1997 from an empty lot. We donned plastic bags over our feet as we carefully stepped amid the softened earth of greenery on 25 acres of fertile land.
Presently, 400 tons of produce are farmed here by 162 workers each year. Though the average Cuban income is $20 per month, the farmers outside the city earn around $400 per month.
Many people speak of poverty when they think of the Cuban lifestyle, which is rich is many other ways. Yes, there is a lack of resources and buildings are crumbling because they can’t be renovated quickly enough. Though, foreign investors and local businessmen have influenced some of the country’s recent growth and prosperity, approximately 99 percent of reconstruction is performed by Cuban architects. People are educated, healthcare is provided, and one doesn’t notice homelessness on the street.
Most impressive are the hundreds of people who collaborate in supportive community circles to address preventative social and educational issues. After a tasteful four-course meal at the 1830 Restaurant (also offering nightly entertainment) our group met with the community members of the CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution). Children and adults graciously greeted us while explaining that they were one of 19 principalities to help raise standards of education and health within the community.
At our final morning lecture, respected Cuban architect and planner Miguel Coyula stated, “Of course, we need a new kind of housing system to be initiated with approximately three houses collapsing daily. We need to move forward with a model that is economically feasible and ecologically friendly.”
I realized on this day how many diverse perspectives of Cuba that Global Exchange afforded me, from the eyes of the artist and architect to the community leader and farmer. As the doors of Cuba widen and its economy improves, hopefully more of this vibrancy, creative expression, and human spirit will be further nurtured and revealed for Americans and other foreigners to experience first-hand.
One thing is for sure, though, Cuba is much more than salsa.
Getting There: Global Exchange’s Reality Tours for 10 days to Cuba organizes the visas and charter plane from Miami to Havana. (www.globalexchange.org, www.realitytours.org)
Cost: Approximately $2,800 to $3,000 double occupancy, $300 single room supplement depending upon the time of year and amount of people traveling. This includes lectures, most lunches, and several dinners; visits to local artists and museums; tour of Old Havana, side trips to Matanza, Las Terrazas, and Alamar (ecological and farming communities). Note that this package doesn’t include: airfare to Miami, cancellation and emergency health and flight insurance, and $25 departure tax from Cuba. It’s recommended to bring $1,000 in cash to exchange to Cuban dollars (CUCs). Cuba doesn’t accept U.S. credit cards.
A visit to Hemingway’s home in San Francisco de Paula, nine miles from Havana, includes the seaside town of Cojimar, where Hemingway docked his boat and socialized with locals. Cost: $40
Pros: As part of the tour, there was an Interesting mix of professionals from all over the country, which added further intellectual and cultural stimulation during the travels.
Cons: Charters can be unreliable, so you may have a long wait before arrival to and departure from Havana.