Why I love Havana

Falling in love with Cuba

If you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive and yet almost transcendent travel experience, head to Havana, Cuba. We visited Havana not long ago, and fell madly in love with the soul of the place – it’s like no other.

The juxtaposition of good and bad, light and dark in Havana is on display everywhere: on one hand, there’s the seductive music in the streets, cute 1950s cars, and beguiling, friendly, playful people. And on the other hand – in the same hand – is Cuba’s abject poverty and poignant past, now in crumbling ruins.

Havana’s history dates back to the 1500s, and has been variously taken over by the Spanish, French and British – and the gorgeous blend of architecture shows this exotic mix. It reminds me of a crumbling Paris, France or Barcelona, Spain. Indeed, in its heyday, Havana was called the Paris of the Antilles.

Walk around old Havana and you can see the original gorgeous city planning – wide European-style boulevards, pedestrian promenades, grand buildings, and palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze. The bones are absolutely breathtakingly stunning. But what makes this city so haunting is that since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the ensuing American embargo, the place has not been maintained – there has been no money.

The once stately deco and colonial style buildings are for the most part, in utter disrepair with plaster falling off the outer facades and interior walls, and in most of those old buildings, there are long ago broken elevators and raw wiring hanging out of ceilings.

We were shocked to see people living in crumbling buildings

We were shocked to walk down a Havana street past one of these buildings that looked absolutely condemned, but then we thought we heard people’s voices coming from inside. The building – once beautiful for sure – was absolutely decrepit and looked abandoned. But we followed the voices and entered the open foyer. We looked up the staircase (also once grand), and could see people on the top floor – maybe six or so flights of stairs up.  We realized that Cuban families lived in this building. And when we saw this scene repeated over and over again throughout old Havana, we understood that this is how people live. They have no money.

Yet at the same time, there were loads of children playing in the narrow streets, and adults hung out chatting with each other. Musicians played on the sidewalks. To us, we saw what seemed a real, bustling, lively joy in these street scenes.

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But we were acutely aware that we were tourists and because of that – we saw only a glimpse of real life in Havana.

If you go to old Havana, take time to visit the plethora of fascinating museums. That way, even as a tourist, you can get a broader picture of how things have come to be there. As for the restaurants – don’t go expecting great food. At least, that was the case when we visited. The food is pretty basic and there are some, but not a lot of restaurants. We found one great, local coffee shop, but there were very few stores. You don’t go to Cuba to shop – you go to soak up the ambience, which, as I’ve said – is unlike just about anywhere else I’ve ever seen.

Havana is like going to a ghost town only people are living there, and the ghost town has stunningly beautiful bones. The Mob ran Havana before Castro took over and it was literally a den of iniquity. Crime and corruption were rampant, and at the same time, there was much more material comfort then. Those stately buildings were kept in good repair, and the city glistened.

Now, thanks to Castro, crime is pretty much gone and the streets are safe, but the people are dirt poor, the City is tired, and there is extremely little opportunity. Most families live on $20 pesos per month plus food ration coupons. That’s poor.

Things are changing though. We could see some buildings being renovated. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 1982 and is slowly – very slowly – repairing many of the buildings.

What happens in the future remains a mystery. Will there be a renaissance? Will Cuba hang on to Communism? In five or ten years will it be papered over with McDonald’s and Starbucks?

Can Cuba find a way to offer better wages for their citizens, while also maintaining their cultural integrity? Can they improve their status, without turning into working, spending, shopping, stressed out people who lose their vibrancy and heritage? Is there a middle way?

I hope so, and what I find most incredibly interesting to watch is how this new social experiment plays out – in real time – and in our lifetimes.

A great guide book with a terrific history lesson is, Insight Guides, Cuba.

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Oh – and even though the Mojito is the Cuban national drink – here’s a recipe for my favorite cocktail – called Havana Special. Hasta la vista!

Ingredients

  • 1 ounce light rum
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 2 ounces unsweetened pineapple juice
  • Twist of lemon peel

Instructions

Shake the rum, lemon juice, and pineapple juice with ice; then strain over ice into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon peel.

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5 comments

  1. Found your blog and was excited about learning from others who have chosen to consciously lie a simpler life….until….I came across your blog about your trip to Havana. As a Cuban who fled, along with her family, the repressive Castro Communist regime, seeking freedom, I was so saddened by your comments. Cuba used to have a large middle class; now everyone is living in poverty. Bad internet? That’s because the government controls all media and doesn’t allow its citizens access to the internet. How can you say that if the Cuban people were truly unhappy they wouldn’t be so “smiley” and engaging with tourists? What choice do they have when there are government informants in every neighborhood? Those very same people who (by their nature/culture) are warm and friendly (we’ve never met a stranger) are the very same ones risking their lives on rafts trying to reach US shores. That’s 3 days (and nights) at sea. Tell me those aren’t desperately unhappy people. It’s not US materialism they seek, but the freedom that Americans take for granted. Living simply is a beautiful thing – but your choice to live that way is predicated on your ability to HAVE a choice. The trip you went on, be assured, was carefully constructed and managed by a repressive government well known for violating the human rights of those very people you found to be so friendly. I am shocked that you would write such a blog without any consideration as to WHY there is so little to be had – not just material things but food as well. I know you said you didn’t want to come across as an arrogant American, but frankly, how else should your comments be taken?

    1. Hi Elia – I am so glad you wrote to me, and I want you to know that I am deeply humbled by your letter. I would love to know more about Cuba from your point of view, because I and many other Americans are truly confused. During and after our visit, I became enthralled with the history of Cuba, and began reading. I read that the Batista government was very corrupt and that some people benefitted, but many others were left poor and illiterate and did not have access to healthcare. I read that under Castro, the literacy rate has skyrocketed and that everyone has access to healthcare. In addition, I read and experienced that Cuba is very safe. However, as you say and as I saw, everyone is very poor now and from our two visits to a government “grocery store,” we saw that the shelves were nearly empty. And I did read about the government informants who were put in place when Castro took over, and still exist today.

      But from my admittedly very inexperienced and naive viewpoint, it seems a good thing that Obama and Raul Castro are talking and opening things up. I would think that with the doors opening, there would begin to be more transparency and more open and free flow of information – thus making it harder for the government to maintain such control over its citizens.

      However, perhaps you feel differently about this and if so, I would love to hear more. Believe me Elia, I truly am humbled by your letter and I fully admit that I have a lot to learn. All I can say is we loved Havana and the Cuban people and I hope for the very, very best.

      Janet Luhrs

      1. Thank you for taking the time to respond so graciously to my comments. As you can tell, emotions run deep. Cuba is a beautiful country with a rich history and wonderful people; all the more reason it is so heartbreaking to see it in ruins. While I do not profess to be any sort of expert on the country or it’s politics, I’m happy to share some of my family’s experiences. Let me preface that by saying that my family was “average” – middle class, fairly well educated, professional people (mother was a secretary, father was an accountant). They were not political or in any way associated with the Batista government. Their story (as strange as it will seem) is actually typical of the large middle class that left the country in droves in the early 1960s.

        Given it’s proximity to the US, Cuban society used to closely mirror American society – meaning a predominantly middle class, with a small segment of extremely wealthy, as well as a small segment of extremely poor (mostly in the countryside/agricultural areas). Public education, at least through high school level, was free. The Batista government was corrupt; however, the average person could go about their daily life without being affected by it. When Castro first came on the scene, he was pushing an agenda of social democracy. Young people such as my parents were attracted to the idea of greater fairness and justice for all, and they initially supported Castro. However, time would prove that Castro really wanted to institute a communist regime. Those who had supported him in the concept of social democracy felt betrayed. Soon all Cubans were experiencing significant changes in ther daily lives, with significant loss of freedom and control over their own destinies, including having your children indoctrinated into communism at school, being required to send your children to “Pioneer Schools” out in the countryside where children were also put to work in the fields as part of the “new” indoctrination. Of equality. The practice of religion, in particular Catholicism, was no longer allowed. It is my understanding that the Cuban constitution was re-written and a clause added that children are the wards of the state; as such the government determines where and what they will study – and the parents do not have rights. My parents chose to leave their homeland, and their family, so that their children might have freedom.

        As to my family’s experiences, here goes:
        1. My Uncle Luis initially fought with the guerrillas; we are not sure exactly what happened, but he and another man were subjected to a mock trial and accused of being traitors. He, along with his friend, were forced by some of Castro’s fighters to dig their own graves at the foot of a hill, and were then shot. My family learned of his murder from a farming neighbor who knew my grandfather and had seen what happened.
        2. Another Uncle (Salvador) was subsequently arrested by Castro and accused of trying to solicit funds to raise arms against the guerrillas. In actuality, he was trying to get neighbors to chip in and provide money to a widow whose husband had been killed. Here is where the neighborhood “Comite”/informant played a role. It was this person who falsely accused my uncle. He was given a 25-year sentence. He served 18 years as a political prisoner, being one of 5 political prisoners released in a deal brokered by then president Jimmy Carter. He ended up living the last few years of his life in Florida, a man whose spirit was strong but whose health had been broken by the ordeal.
        3. Another Uncle (Kiko) tried to escape on a boat with my aunt and a friend; they encountered trouble with the boat the first day out and thought they would sink and drown. They were thrilled when they were rescued by a frigate; unfortunately it was a Russian Ship and he was jailed for 3 years when they returned them to Cuba for his transgression of attempting to flee.
        4. My parents managed to get Visas to leave the country – they were lucky, although my father ended up forging papers to allow me to accompany them, as the government told them they could leave but their child would have to be left behind. He risked imprisonment, if not his life, to get me out. They separated the men from the women at the airport; it wasn’t until you boarded the plane that you knew if your spouse was coming with you. As she boarded the flight, they stripped my mother of her wedding ring as one final insult; you see under Communism, everything belongs to the state.
        We literally came to this country with the clothes on our backs – no money, no jewelry. When you applied for a Visa, the Cuban government would inventory all your possessions. If so much as a fork was missing, your Visa would be denied. Again, the concept beig that you owned nothing – everything was the property of the government. They also immediately suspended your food ration coupons, requiring you to rely on other family members to stretch their rations to feed you until yor Visa came through and you were able to leave. My mother didn’t see her parents again for almost 10 years, when we finally managed to sponsor them and get them to the US.
        This experience is typical – the majority of those Cubans who left, now aging in the country they have come to love and appreciate as only as those who have lost and then experienced freedom again can, have similar stories to tell. After 5 decades, they still remain heartbroken to have had to leave their homeland and loved ones behind.
        So you see, it’s impossible for me to engage in a philosophical or sterile political discussion about Cuba and the Castro regime. Having had family members killed, jailed, and separated from loved ones by the actions of Fidel Castro, it’s personal and 50 years later it still goes deep. There is no getting past that. Like you (and I very much appreciate your sentiments) all I can do is pray for Cuba and it’s people – that they find peace and freedom. But much as I want to, I can’t in good conscience visit my homeland and spend one dime there, when doing so essentially supports the same government that caused all that pain. Thank you for your interest in my family’s story; I know it’s not all black and white, but I wanted you to hear another perspective than the carefully constructed one you would have been shown on your trip. Continued blessings and success with your blog. – Elia

  2. “When you don’t have it, you don’t need it. Ditto with everything else like clothes and shoes and designer handbags and – I get exhausted just thinking about all of the stuff we think we need. None of this is in Cuba, and it’s downright refreshing. We got to focus on other things.”

    The Cuban people do focus on other things. SURVIVING and trying to maintain some dignity in the process. You would do well to explore the real reasons why 8 out of 10 Cubans would prefer to leave the country to live somewhere else and why so many risk their lives in the trying. Did you also notice that there are no PEOPLE swimming in the ocean? Open your eyes to the truth. You are buying in to the propaganda and doing the Cuban people an incredible disservice. There is NO freedom for these lovely people. Do you even know what that means? Americans take their liberties for granted. How simple would your life be if you had no freedom of speech, religion, or ability to make decisions regarding your children? Please do further research before you post to your blog.

    1. Wow – yours is the second thoughtful and provocative response to my Cuba post. I really, really appreciate that both of you took the time to enlighten me on the part of Cuba that most Americans don’t understand. I sincerely hope that the new opening of relations between Cuba and the US will be the beginning of a better life for the Cuban people. As I wrote to the first person who took the time to comment on my blog post, I am grateful and humbled. Thank you.

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