When people ask me how a recent trip to Havana, Cuba went, I reply with a single word: Interesting. At the very least, it has given me fodder for several blog posts.
In its hey day, Old Havana would have been the equivalent of a world class European city, one lapped by the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. Having grown up on a British West Indian island, and visited quite a few other Caribbean islands in my lifetime, I never saw anything in the Commonwealth islands to rival Havana. Expecting a handful of modest historic buildings, instead I found a sizeable 500-year-old city filled with narrow, winding streets and stunning architecture, with many of the older buildings made from local coral limestone blocks, giving the city a unique Caribbean feel. The sense of history in Havana is palpable and one could almost be forgiven for thinking you had been transported to a city in Spain … almost.
The Bad: Havana is a prime example of how communism as a political ideal struggles to work. Unless the state is prepared to pay for the upkeep of the ‘cheap’ housing parceled out to their populace, you end up with buildings that literally start to crumble to the point where you have people living in world heritage buildings with no access to basic amenities such as electricity and running water. It was sad to peek into buildings with marble staircases leading up to apartments once as quaint or as grand as anything in cities like Paris or Madrid, but which were now piled with refuse or where multiple families live in a space that would once have housed a single family. While some buildings have been beautifully renovated, it would take billions of dollars and many decades to bring Havana back to even a shade of its former glory. One thing for sure, it would be an architect’s dream to remodel these gracious old buildings and would provide employment for thousands of trade professionals for years to come.
The Ugly: It was quite clear that Cuba is in a state of transition, with our tour guides speaking quite openly to us about the realities of life on the communist island, something they said they could not have done a few years ago. We were lucky to have tour guides who were younger Cubans and quite willing to talk about their hopes and dreams for the future, while staying grounded in the realities of life in what some may have once called a tropical paradise. With one a qualified engineer and the other a journalist, they choose to leave their professions, with the pay equivalent of $20 US a month, to join the growing number of people working in the tourist industries, where someone working as a cleaner in a hotel can make in tips in one day, what a bank teller would make in a month. Not only is this employment migration expected to create a crisis as more young people choose to work in the tourism industry instead of studying 5-7 years to become a doctor to earn $20 US a month, it has created a sentiment of open season on tourists, a situation I was assured by a regular traveller to the island, did not exist 3-4 years ago. I had been told that the Cuban people were very friendly, more so in the countryside than in the hotels. With this maxim in mind, there seemed to be any number of people in Havana ready to ‘help’ you, with the congenial opening gambit of “Where are you from?’, which as it turns out, is the first step in the shakedown. Our stories could have been worse than paying double for a bicycle taxi ride because we did not set the price ahead of time, silly us; or being taken by some friendly natives to a ‘local’ bar where we ended up paying twice as much for drinks than in the more expensive ‘tourist’ bars. But it was more the fact that the doorman at our hotel sided with the bicycle man, and that the friendly tour guide merely shrugged her shoulders when we told her about the drinks incident, that I came to the realization that this was an all for one and one for all society. You as the tourist are the target and they will get as much from you as they can by ‘legal’ means. While Havana is still a safe city to walk around any time of day or night, most likely due to very punitive jail terms for minor misdemeanors and no gun ownership laws, the seasoned Cuba traveller I spoke to said he has seen a big change in Havana and not for the better, with a prediction that it will only get worse before it gets better, ending with saying that this was likely his last trip to the island.
In addition, Havana has a unique aroma that is a blend of leaded gas car fumes, urine, open sewers and tobacco smoke. Being fairly well travelled, including time spent in cities such as Hong Kong, Istanbul and Dar es Salaam, Havana is the only place I felt compelled to wash the grime of the city off the soles of my shoes before placing them in my suitcase.
I do know however, that when all other memories fade, when I think of Havana, I will always think of music. Whether it be the Cubano bands, with their vibrant combination of Spanish guitar and percussion instruments, or a more melodious classical guitar paired with flute or violin, a Capella singing or lively salsa dancing, the city’s bars and hotel lobbies hummed with live music, day and night. But perhaps most poignant of all, will be the memory of the strains of classical music drifting over on a tropical breeze from the world renowned Cuban National Ballet School, located directly opposite our hotel. From 7:30 in the morning to as late as 9:00 at night, young ballet dancers were put through their paces, at the end of which the lights gradually went out in one of Havana’s more beautifully restored heritage buildings.