We were looking for an adventure, my girlfriend and I. As we all do at certain times in our lives. Some place new, and different, and exciting. A country where we could get lost in the unique qualities of a native land and culture without having the shadow of McDonald's and Starbucks haunting every corner. We were looking for the unknown. Because, it's important, you know, to step into the darkness every once in a while. To see what lives in reality and what is lying to you in your imagination. To get to that edge of what is comfortable and cross it, beyond the perceived safety of the resort and all they have to offer. That is, of course, when an adventure begins- standing ankle-deep in the well of uncertainty. This is what we were searching for. And we found it, just a mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida, in Cuba.
Our plan to fly down to this little island sitting quietly in the Atlantic came at a strange time- a time of post-Fidel and post-Obama. When the former president visited the island in 2016, in what most Cubans we talked to pointed towards as a watershed moment to normalize relations, it seemed as though long-brewing tensions between the United States and Cuba were beginning to cool. Tourism spiked from American citizens to a new yearly high and more businesses began to find their way onto the sandy shores, most notably, AirBnB. Wifi was also starting to become more prominent and fears of a socialist state living so closely to the America's booming capitalism began to fade. But with the election of Trump and the dialing back of friendly relations, more questions began to pop up, rather than answers.
Would we be safe going to Cuba? Would it be easy to get into the country? And more importantly, out of it? Are we even allowed to visit there now? Despite these concerns, we decided to follow the advice of Cuba's most famous poet, Jose Marti, who once stated, “In a time of crisis, the peoples of the world must rush to get to know each other.” With that in our hearts, we were in.
After some initial research it seemed to us, the way to enter the country was to declare a reason for traveling there. It is still not permissible to travel to Cuba for tourist reasons alone. However, the prescribed reasons for traveling were listed as follows:
1. Family visits
2. Official business of the U.S. Government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
3. Journalistic activity
4. Professional research and professional meetings
5. Educational activities 6. Religious activities
7. Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions 8. Support for the Cuban people
9. Humanitarian projects
10. Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes 11. Exportation, importantion, or transmission of information or information materials 12. Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
The most obvious one, and the choice declared most prominently for our purposes of traveling was, “support for the Cuban people.” This loosely entailed certain activities we were required to engage in during our stay which included: meeting with local businessmen, artists, tobacco manufacturers and people who own their own businesses, exploring independent museums, meeting and engaging with musicians at a show, attending art shows, and discussing Cuban society with locals. With our reasons for traveling to Cuba detailed, the only other requirement was purchasing a visa from Delta airlines for $50 USD (prices vary depending on the airline) in order to enter the country.
On the day of our departure, we left BWI in the morning, flew down to Atlanta and then after a short 2 hour flight, landed at the Havana airport around 1:00 pm. A quick trip through customs put us on the buzzing, hot pavement surrounded by taxi drivers desperately asking for fares and sign holders greeting travelers. Our Airbnb host arranged a taxi for us at the airport and before we even had a chance to take in the fact that we were in Cuba, we were looking out the window of the rattling car at the tropical landscape of a land drenched in a rich history of defiance and self-reliance. By the time we passed through the Plaza de Revolucion, a wide-open square adorned with the faces of Che Guevarra and Camilo Cienfuegos, the realization of the place we had traveled to set in. This square was the center of many national meetings for the people of Cuba. It was where Fidel Castro would speak in order to rally support, and try to strengthen the nationalistic fervor running through his population's veins. Even from behind the glass of the taxi, it was obvious, this place held an air of importance.
Shooting through the traffic circles we landed at our Airbnb in Vedado, a suburb of Havana, where we stayed in an apartment overlooking the ocean and the sea wall keeping the water from plunging onto the streets. Our host, Judith, met us with smiles and kisses of welcome, taking us up into the small one room we rented and running us through maps of Havana, pointing out places of interest such as the capital building, Old Havana and Ernest Hemingway's local hangouts. After she left, we found ourselves watching the sun set through our window as the muffled noises of a soccer game from underneath us floated through the glass. The night was warm, and quiet and strangely...we felt at home here.
The next day we took the advice of our host and hopped on a tour bus (10 CUC per person, hop on, hop off all day rides) located near our apartment and sat on the second deck underneath the sun and shade from low-hanging trees. We effortlessly glided our way through the streets stopping only for other tourists looking to join the ride and at major points of interest. Following our original intent we decided to get off at Jose Marti Central Park located in Old Havana. From the moment we stepped onto the street, it became clear, Havana is a city swimming in a symphony of sound. From the swinging music to the loud chatter on the streets to the rumbling of old American made V-8's, it is impossible to escape. Taxi drivers sporting American Plymouths, Chevy's and Ford's from the 1950s, Soviet Ladas from the 1970s, and Polski Fiats from the 1980s constantly talk in your ear, offering you scenic rides of the city from the comfort of their plush leather seats. Bus drivers confidently pose in front of their vehicles, guiding you to a quick trip to picturesque beaches just 30 mins outside the city and restaurant workers showcase their menus to lure travelers in for an afternoon snack and mixed drink. Here, the city and its people are alive, and colorful, and they are well.
Dealing from past experiences, the best way to understand a city is to find a direction and walk. And so walk, we did. We spent the day exploring the streets of the old city. Wandering inside and out of alleyways, getting lost, stumbling upon gift shops and live music. We saw major landmarks- Morro Castle, the Gran Teatro de La Habana, El Capitolio- the National Capital Building, and more colorful buildings and cars than can be counted. Finding both in either complete disrepair or pristine order. But among all of that, there stood the solitary voice of the Cuban people.
Stalwart in their pride of their country, their music, and their city, they were there to continually welcome travelers eager to see the parts of the city they had only read about in books and seen on TV. The farther we walked the more it became clear- the city took on their attitude. Despite their hardships, or maybe because of them, Cuba and its people, have a certain strength to them, a will to survive. Turning onto a side street we passed two young men with their heads stuffed into the hood of their rusty car. Pulling parts out of a recycled bag and ratcheting them into the broken down engine they turned the key and fired up the jalopy by the time it took us to reach the end of the cracked road. Staring at us was an apartment building, burnt by the sun and torn by the wind. No doubt, it's last construction was handled during the height of the Soviet Union and left to crumble since then. But within it's walls echoed the cries and laughter of life breathing in its hallways. Families congregated outside, sharing shade and cool drinks. Children played soccer and baseball and whatever game they could conjure in their imaginations. The park in the distance housed the only viable Wifi signal, easily noticeable by the crowd of people buried head-first into their phones. They were connected to the world now, and were not looking back. But underneath every interaction, every sign of communal life, every family gathering, and tourist destination was a sense of welcome and ease.
After an early dinner and a few mojitos we continued our sojourn underneath the stars and the street lights. If Havana was alive during the day it burst with ecstasy at night. The streets filled with music from almost every corner and dancing to match. Salsa is the movement of choice in Cuba, and there are plenty of volunteers to dance with or for the shy, to spectate. As we walked past a line of souvenir shops a friendly man with a shaved head and neatly trimmed beard stood in the middle of the street holding a menu. We had gotten quite practiced at the art of saying, “No gracias,” and so before he had a chance to speak that is what I said.
“No gracias? I haven't asked you anything yet!” He said in English as his smile turned into laughter.
I chuckled along with him and replied, “I'm anticipating! I knew it was coming!”
“Where are you from my friend?”
“United States. I'm sorry, Estados Unidos.”
“Oh, United States. Yes, we love it there. You know, Yohn Lennon, Michael Yackson,” he said in his accent while mimicking a moonwalk.
I shook his hand and wished him a good evening.
“Have fun!” He yelled after us.
We had walked a block ahead and heard the running waves of a flute player and tight rhythm section from a corner bar. The music burst into our lungs as we breathed in the beats that persuaded us to move along with its pace. Taking a seat inside we ordered two more mojitos and smiled along with the crowd as two women traded the lead between vocals and wandering flute solos. Occasionally patrons would abandon their seats at the bar or their drinks and wander out into the street in order to dance, in order to move. The manager stood closely to the band, nodding his head in approval and offering a menu and seat to anyone else attracted to the flame like the moths we so helplessly were. Beyond politics, and history, and war, and deceit, this was the Cuba we found- smiles, laughter, dance, and music.
The long day combined with a few drinks wearied our traveled bodies earlier than what we would have liked. As we paid our bill we took one last look at the swinging band and headed back out onto the streets. We made our way to a small, cobblestone plaza and waved down an old taxi thumping along the road. The model of the car was indistinguishable in the dark street lights but from the sound of the creaking door and the smell of burning fuel we had found a car, and possibly a driver, that had endured the roughest of times on these shores. The soft seats enveloped our bodies as we fumbled with our Spanish in order to point our way home for the night. After illuminating the directions provided by our host on my phone we decided to look out the windows as a light rain softened the glow of the city. Despite distance between us and the source of music, it decided to live on- in our bodies and in our hearts. We didn't need to tell each other at that moment. It was a silent salutary agreement, this moment and the cerebral sounds of Havana would probably reside in us for the rest of our lives. We rumbled to a stop outside our gate and paid our driver with a loud smile. This was our first night in Havana. And already, we had found our adventure.