Armed with an amateur travel blog and prepared to brag about plans to publish, I boarded a flight to Havana as a “journalist” - one of a handful of exceptions that permit Americans to enter Cuba legally. Without authorization, however, traveling there is still illegal, and felt a bit like crossing enemy lines until a friendly immigrations officer offered to eschew passport stamps.
Fittingly, the first thing we did on Cuban soil was to wait two hours for the last bags from flight AM453 to reach baggage claim, and to realize that neither of ours had made the trip. It struck midnight as we explained our circumstances to the woman at the Lost and Found desk. Our claim checks had been attached to our first-leg boarding passes and discarded in Mexico City, we’d be without internet, so we had no contact information, and a friend that reserved our lodging had only provided us with the name of the bar at which to meet him. So, it was a telegraph to the world of airports: “Two lost backpacks. Gray and black. Please return to Daniel and Brad in downtown Havana.”
Within minutes, however, we were under Cuba’s spell, and our lost bags were something of a memory. Consistent with our plan not to plan, I entered Cuba knowing almost nothing about it. There had been vague warnings that our credit cards wouldn’t work, our access to the internet would be limited, and that the outdated trade embargo had created something of a time capsule. Indeed, we climbed into a 50 year old taxi - somewhat modern by local standards - and drove into the past. Yasmany, our very friendly driver and first tour guide, introduced us to the city and pointed out towering monuments to Che and Fidel along the way.
Centro Habana is a forest of dilapidated buildings, cracked concrete, and palm trees swaying in the Caribbean breeze. Music echoes through narrow alleys and classic cars dodge aimless pedestrians, leaving gasoline fumes and cigar smoke in their wakes. The bright colors and the classic lines of an opulent past contrast a ghetto’s grit. For us it was rougher than usual; a mess of wet paint and concrete as the city prepared itself for a historic visit from one Barak Obama.
At night the city is a specter of darkness in which the occasional street light serves only to cast an ominous shadow. We were frightened at first, until Yasmany reassured us. “No pasa nada,” he said, as silhouettes started to converge on our parked taxi. On cue, the strangers offered to help us find our way, which was the moment I started to fall in love with Cuba. Friendly people light up the darkest of streets, which are safe to wander at any hour. And wander we did.
We spent five days exploring the distinct neighborhoods of Havana. Eventually, we discovered that the derelict center is the exception, not the rule; a belated realization that came with equal parts relief and disappointment. The center is unique and captivating, but it was nice to find a fledgling middle class and a smattering of art galleries, restaurants, and bars appealing to locals and tourists alike. Danny and I agreed that it was a great time to visit Cuba. A softened stance on capitalism has made life a bit easier on travelers without sacrificing what makes Cuba unique - the world’s friendliest people, a sense of community and collective effort, and virtually no homelessness or crime.
But there are still some obvious problems, and it’s hard to say a bit more private enterprise won’t help. The average employee earns $20 monthly and is eager to earn money on the side. Prostitution is rampant - we met one tourist who insisted that no woman in Cuba was above turning the occasional trick. A doctor might earn $30 per month, which is hundreds less than an “entrepreneur” who manages to buy a classic car and rent it to tourists. Capital is valuable here, too.
Only occasionally did these shortcomings snag us. When performance isn’t rewarded, customer service suffers, so tracking down our luggage was a frustrating challenge. The two phone numbers we’d been given for lost and found never yielded so much as a recorded message, so we burned significant time and money being driven to and from the airport. First, we learned that our bags had been found in Lima, but they could not tell us when they would arrive or if they would be delivered to our apartment. By the time we finally recovered them at lost and found on our fourth day, it seemed something of a miracle - but the saga wasn’t over. On the drive home, the corpulent biologist who’d agreed to drive us to the airport was pulled over and ticketed for running an unauthorized taxi business. The officer hailed us an official cab, thereby obligating us to pay twice for our third trip into the city.
Reunited with our luggage, we were able to take an excursion to the nearby town of Viñales the next day. It was a beautiful escape from Havana, in which we rode horses through a national park, learned about the cigar industry, and relaxed by a pair of pools overlooking the stunning valley below. By the time we returned to the big city two days later, we only had time for a quick stop at Ernest Hemingway’s beautifully preserved estate, dinner, a few drinks, and one last stroll along the Malecón - Havana’s picturesque waterfront. It was all over in two strokes of a ’57 chevy.
My head is swirling with thoughts about Cuba. It is a photographer’s dream - although it was awkward to see so many devices at work documenting a city whose charm lay largely in its rejection of consumerism - and a philosopher’s playground. I won’t bore you with my political and ethical musings, except to say that Cuba was a perfect reminder of why I travel - for the thrill of finding common ground with people whose lives are starkly different. It sits atop a long list of highlights over the past year.