Cuba. A country highly on my list, especially since change is coming and already happening. Never thought I would make it on time, before the market opens and a stream of tourists from the U, S and A floods the country, changing this authentic and charming country forever. Luckily, I met M. – remember, I was traveling with her through Nicaragua and Costa Rica – and she planned to finish her 5-month trip in Cuba. Since backpacking in Cuba isn’t evident and traveling with two people is definitely cheaper over there, the choice was already made for me: M. and I were going to Cuba.
My culture shock couldn’t be bigger. After arriving in an almost empty airport with few shops, driving on an almost empty road – from time to time an iron coffin dating from the 50’s zoomed by – I realized: no advertising. Nothing. Sometimes a big propaganda-board supporting Fidel Castro or the government dominated the view, but otherwise only palm trees and colorful houses along the highway. Sometimes a cyclist on the road. Sometimes a pink car, sometimes a blue one. Or green or yellow. This view – while the sun started to set – made us both energetic and excited for Havana. Cruising past the Plaza de la Revolución – Ché Guevara saw it was good – on to the area of Vedado in modern Havana. Luckily, we could go and eat at a restaurant close by. Probably the only one in a radius of 5 kilometers. Imagine walking around in streets dating back from colonial times, paint started flaking off years ago, music coming from everywhere and no cars on desolated streets. People walking, people dancing, people singing or with a dog. Or a dog alone. People watching you, because you’re white and people who decide to whistle. People eating, sitting in a chair in the doorway. A few streetlights light up the whole street. No shops, no visible bars, no restaurants. Except for the only one we visited, with tiles from a century ago and little tables in a courtyard. A waiter who thinks you can’t speak spanish – I can’t say its perfect, but in the rest of Central America they were able to understand me – because it’s hard to get a hold of his accent and half of the dishes on the menu not available. – we don’t have chicken anymore, or fish or pork. Depends on the day or the place, but we heard this a lot during this trip, together with the sentence: we’re only allowed to have a certain amount – Together with the old cars and motorcycles, the empty roads – empty as in big lanes with a few cars –, badly-cared-for buildings, the strange accent and the lack of advertising or visible shops, the least you can say is that we were a little bit culture shocked.
And then we didn’t visit Old Havana yet. Since Havana – and Cuba in general – doesn’t provide a decent public transport system, we started to walk through Central Havana to the most beautiful part of the capital, Habana Vieja. Taxi’s aren’t too expensive – everybody in Cuba is a taxi driver, just try: stick your hand out, somebody will stop and drive you where you want to be. For a little bit of money of course. – but still, we wanted to discover the city. Architecture dating back from colonial times, painted in the brightest colors you can imagine, flanked the road. A hospital housed in a neoclassicistic temple. Bike-taxis everywhere. Together with the old chevrolets and cadillacs – sometimes stranded along the way – you fancy yourself sixty years back in time. Count with that the lack of smartphones in people’s hands, you definitely left the year 2015.
After our walk through the residential – well, at least the middleclass to poor Cubans live there – area of Havana, we reached the Capitol. Exactly like his twin brother in Washington DC, this Capitol was also wrapped in scaffolding. Just like the National Theatre and the museum of the Revolution. Just like other important buildings throughout the old – and touristic – city. Cuba is going to change soon, and you can already see it.
How to describe Habana Vieja? How to describe the feeling like I stranded in a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie, but I’m not wearing the right costume? How to describe the people, a mixture of all colors and forms, beautiful skin and light eyes? How to describe the old cars spreading the worst emission gasses, and still you’re hoping they’ll never disappear from the city? How to describe the search for food that doesn’t cost you 20 CUC – equivalent of 20 dollars – and is still healthy and tasteful ? How to describe the amazement about the architectural pearls you discover behind every street corner? How to describe the dancing, the salsa, the guys that drag you onto the dance floor until you can’t stand on your feet anymore? How to describe the atmosphere, the music, the happiness sipping through doors on a chink? How to describe the discontent and resentment on people’s faces when they see you walking down the street, knowing they have nothing and you everything? How to describe the way hustlers react when you let them know you realize there’s no festival of salsa, cigars or rum whatsoever? How to describe the hustle of going back to your casa – no hostels, only hotels and rooms in a casa- three times before you have all your papers, so you can withdraw money, because your card doesn’t work in any of the ATM’s in the city? How to describe the pure joy of children sliding through corridors of fancy hotels when rain is pouring down? How to describe the wind blowing through your hair when driving in a pink chevrolet convertible along the Malecon and the caribbean sea, waving at other tourists in a yellow chevrolet convertible? How to describe the catcalls, the whistles, the ‘guapas’, ‘hermosas’, ‘novio, chica’ and the stares in every. single. street ? How to describe the friendliness of your ‘casa-lady’? How to describe the taste of Cuba libre’s in Cuba? How to describe the liveliness and buzzing feeling even though half the streets are desolated at night? How to describe the mixture of all these feelings together? How to describe how much I loved and loathed this city at the same time? How to describe the feeling that this is one of the most intriguing and fascinating cities I’ve ever been to?