It had long been a dream of mine to go to Cuba. I didn’t have a romantic vision of what I would find there, I purposely tried to avoid reading about Havana so I could discover it for myself. Of course I knew there would be old cars and crumbling buildings and perhaps the atmosphere of another era, but what would it really be like? What would the people be like?
I arrived in Havana at 1:10am on a flight from Panama. While I was a little nervous about arriving so late, the entry process was easy and the driver arranged by my Casa particular was waiting for me with a sign. It was a 30 minute drive into old Havana from the airport. For the most part the city was quiet, but the Malecón was still buzzing at nearly 2am with locals spilling out of bars and clubs.
My Casa particular was located about a block from the Museum of the Revolution which is housed in the old Presidential Palace. The room was fairly basic, but came with an attached bathroom. I have stayed in far worse. The family I was staying with was nice but distant. They didn’t speak any English and while my Spanish is alright, we never exchanged more than basic pleasantries.
After awaking the first morning I couldn’t wait to get out into the city. Since I was already staying in Old Havana, I was able to walk everywhere. Within a minute of stepping outside of my door the first tout approached me. He was selling a bicycle tour. He was very nice until it was clear I wasn’t buying. Then he simply went away.
At first I walked along the Malecón for awhile before getting lost in the maze of streets. I was there to wander and absorb. I walked by markets and small restaurants. Armies of men could be seen on the streets replacing parts on the fleet of old cars that cruises around Havana. I encountered the smell of fresh food on one block and then trash on the other. In many ways this felt like much of the developing world. I liked it.
As I made my way around Old Havana I checked off the list of so called “must see” sites. I walked along the Prado, visited the Plaza de Armas, saw a beautiful old cathedral and even walked in the shadows of Ernest Hemingway. It was quite nice except for the constant attention from touts. On every street and around every corner they were there. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?”
Touts in Havana are seemingly more pleasant than other places, but their goal is the same. I found that most spoke good English and tried to engage in a real conversation. For example, one man struck up a conversation with me as I was walking down the street. His accent was very understandable so we spoke primarily in Spanish. We talked about our families, life in America and travel. Eventually he “recommended” that I see the School of Salsa Dancing. We were close, so I agreed not knowing exactly what his angle was. Then we arrived at the “school” and he insisted that I buy a Mojito for $7. I declined and he disappeared without another word.
By the afternoon of my first day in Havana I was tired. The combination of a late flight the prior night and an early start meant I needed to slow down a bit. It was the perfect time to visit the Museum of the Revolution. I remember the first time I visited the war museum in Hanoi and read the Vietnamese account of the war. For me this was a similar experience. It is fascinating to see the other side. No political commentary here though.
After about 90 minutes at the Museum, I emerged to find a children’s dance competition taking place in the park. With loud salsa music, amazing dancing and a joyous energy from the crowd, it was probably the highlight of my day. The Cubans have an energy that is unique and fascinating.
My last task of the day was to ride the Hop On Hop Off bus. I normally avoid such tourist traps, but the price of $5 was right and it traveled to some areas I couldn’t see by foot. During the 90 minute ride we passed through the Plaza de la Revolucion, the 31st biggest square in the world. The square is dominated by images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos attached to buildings. The bus also went to the richer areas of Havana and even stopped briefly at some of the nicer resorts where European tourists tend to base themselves. I was glad I decided to stay in the old city.
My first day in Havana was exhausting and I was lonely. While I have been traveling solo more lately, from time to time I am overcome with loneliness. It doesn’t happen often and Havana was the worst case by far. I don’t know why, but something about Havana and Cuba made me sad. I don’t think it was the poverty and I rather enjoyed the culture (minus the touts), so I don’t know what it was. I just wasn’t in the mood to be there.
I awoke on the second day in slightly better spirits. While I could have gone to tour a cigar or rum factory, I decided to just walk. I found a semi-major street and set off. Before long there were no more tourists, just me and Cubans. Eventually I stumbled upon a grocery store and purchased some water. I was taken aback that they carried exactly one type of every product. A stark reminder of the sanctions imposed on the island nation.
As I continued on, I navigated through streets big and small. No one gave me a second look. Eventually I emerged near the national baseball stadium. It reminded me of the amazing time we had during the Beijing Olympics watching the USA vs. Cuba baseball game. That is still one of the highlights of my travels and one I was fortunate to share with my family. Unfortunately the stadium was locked, but I was able to peak in through a hole in the fence.
On the bus the day before, I had seen a small amusement park and wanted to get back to it. I was able to find my way there and immerse myself in the throwback culture. Playgrounds in Havana are out of another time and so are the amusement parks. Every ride felt as though it was ready to fall apart, but everyone was having a good time. Fun is universal.
Eventually I made my way back to Old Havana in order to try a Daiquiri at El Floridita, the bar where the drink was invented. In addition to being a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, the bar is mostly untouched from pre-Revolutionary times. Going inside is like walking back in time. The air is filled with a combination of loud chatter, the grinding of blenders and the amazing music of a local band. The drink was delicious, but slightly overpriced.
As my time in Cuba came to a close, I was starting to feel better. Something about El Floridita lifted my spirits. My final stop of the night was a local restaurant with a patio out near the water. I ordered a fish dish and a local beer. Both were refreshing. The highlight for me though was the band. They played an amazing selection of songs with great energy and vigor until they began playing Bésame Mucho. It is one of my favorite Spanish songs and was a reminder of how much my wife would have loved to be there listening to it.
The next morning I awoke at 5am and was driven to the airport in an old Russian Lada where the fumes of gasoline were a sidedish to the rough and loud driving experience. Engineering at its finest. I arrived at the very red airport before long and was ready to go back to Panama and then home. I really liked Havana and mostly hated my time there.
Do I regret making the trip to Havana? Absolutely not! That trip became a part of who I am. It is one journey of many and will shape who I am and who I become. If every travel experience was easy and joyous, then it wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful. As I have said often, the worst day doing what I love is better than the best day doing what I hate. I look forward to going back someday to see more.