“My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita” – Ernest Hemingway
Cuba is everything and nothing like I imagined. The minute I step out of the airport into the currency exchange line I see the old cars, and gasp in surprise, as if I didn’t really believe they existed. It feels so cliché, so stereotypical- the kind of thing everyone tells you to look out for; like kangaroos in Australia. But here they are. 1950s Chevys and Buicks painted bright pinks, purples and greens. Cars my grandparents would have owned. I am delighted by this. Delight followed by a slight twinge of…guilt? Discomfort? It is the first time I feel this in Cuba, but I know it won’t be the last. I quickly shake it off as Adam, my travelling partner, and I get our first Cuban beer, a Cristal, and hop into a taxi heading towards Havana.
Downtown Havana consists of three main neighborhoods: Habana Vieja (Old Havana), Centro Habana and Vedado, with Centro Habana sandwiched in between Old Havana and Vedado like a piece of ham.
Our taxi driver talks to us in a Spanish accent that is hard for me to understand. As if the words have gotten stuck in the back of his throat and are having trouble escaping.
He tells us there is no crime in Cuba, everyone has a free education, even a university education, and there are no guns.
He’s wrong, though. There’s crime in Cuba, of course. The only problem is the Cuban government doesn’t release crime statistics. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Department of Bureaucratic Security:
“The U.S. Embassy continues to receive several reports per month of non-violent crimes against tourists. These numbers are increasing slightly and are consistent with reporting from other diplomatic missions in Cuba. Most crime can be associated with pickpocketing, purse snatching, fraud schemes, and thefts from unoccupied cars, hotel rooms, and/or dwellings.”
There were also a small number of violent crimes reported against Americans in 2015. So, while it seems like crime is relatively low, it’s actually quite hard to tell. I lock the door to my AirBnb just in case. It has five different locks on it and a hole where there must have been a lock, but now a piece of cotton is stuffed in it.
We are staying on the third floor of a building that looks like it has been abandoned for years- as most buildings in Habana look. There is no elevator and at least one window on each floor landing is broken. But the view of the Malecón, Cuba’s historic esplanade, is magnificent from our balcony.
If you want to really see Havana, the Malecón is the best place to post up. At night people stroll, fish, drink, fight, make out, play dominoes, and dance along this 5 mile roadway and accompanying seawall. It is constantly alive and has been nicknamed “the world’s longest sofa.” Along this roadway you can always see the Buicks, Cadillacs, and Chevrolets (Tsch-eyv-vro-lets as Cubans call them) roll up and down looking for tourists.
“Taxi, taxi taxi?” They yell out the window at us, honking a horn that sounds like a mix between a clown car and an ice cream truck.
Our AirBnb is in Vedado, and as we explore the neighborhood have to be careful not to trip on the crumbling sidewalks while staring in awe at the neoclassical homes, once built for rich families now occupied by multiple, partitioning off the rooms. Laundry hangs in the yard or out windows. A little girl pees in the street as another one, maybe 12-years-old skips down the road in a red school uniform. Half dead dogs, ribs poking out, lie in the shade and cats beg for food at tourists’ feet on restaurant patios.
One of the first things we come to is a Wi-Fi park. Really, it is just a park, but it is one of the few places you can connect to the Internet in Cuba. Everyone’s heads are bent down staring at their phones. Wi-fi does exist here, contrary to what we’d heard- you just have to work a little bit harder to get it. You know, like stand outside of a hotel, or in a park and get a pre-paid Internet card to access it. In 2015, the nation’s government owned telecommunications provider ETECSA started hosting Wi-Fi hotspots around the country. We had stumbled upon one, complete with locals already hustling us to buy a card.
I want to tell them there is a whole world out there- HBO and smartphone options and Internet in your house. Cuba is like that guy you know who still has a flip phone.
Looking at the Wi-Fi park invokes that feeling again, the same one from the airport. It stays with me when I discover an abandoned park just down the street from it, complete with an almost empty pool, except the putrid brown water at the bottom and concrete diving platforms crumbling into the deep end. Men playing dominoes on a cracked plastic table in the street eye us warily as Adam snaps photos of them in front of partially collapsed houses.
In Havana, they say, 3-4 collapse each day- either partially or completely. The BBC reports that:
Seven out of every 10 houses need major repairs, according to official statistics. Some 7% of housing in Havana has formally been declared uninhabitable. The province around the capital needs some 300,000 more properties.
But despite the disrepair and less than stellar food (pork, beans and rice for almost every meal), tourists are flocking to Havana. At night in Old Havana the bars are full and you can hear Buena Vista Social Club covers almost everywhere.
I start to worry it might all be tourists, but then we take a side street and see a crowd outside of a bar called La Bodeguita del Medio- one of Hemingway’s (many) favorite bars in Cuba.
This bar is full of Cubans, something I take as a promising sign.
The dichotomy of bar life and street life is jarring. One minute you’re staring at a toothless old woman in a doorway or a half dead dog in the street and the next you are in a well-lit bar with flamenco music and pleather couches.
We meet a group of Americans who whisk us off to more bars and we hand money to taxi drivers and bartenders and don’t think twice. Cubans sit in doorways and on porches and stare, or try to tell us about their friend the taxi driver or lure us into a restaurant. It is easy to spot tourists in Havana. And almost every Cuban we come across in the nightlife world tries to sell us something. They know we can pay it.
At 4 in the morning we come across a man with a drink cooler and a bar outside of a house and he asks us if we want pizza. After huge plates of pork and beans, we absolutely want pizza.
I sip more Cristal as I wait for the pizza and people shuffle in and out of the house and stare at us and we speak in English and it is at this moment I finally recognize the feeling I have at the airport. After a full first day in Cuba, and more than a few mojitos, I am starting to realize that in this particular world I have found myself in, not only am I an “other” in nationality and skin-tone, but I am an “other” in every sense of socio-economic status as well. I can bar hop in Cuba and think what I am paying is a steal, when really what I have paid in food and drinks and cab rides this first night is most likely someone’s salary for an entire month, maybe two.
I have taken photos of old cars, of dilapidated houses and children playing with broken toys, and these details are fascinating. But what I have to keep reminding myself for most of the trip is the reason there are old cars and cracked sidewalks is because of a US embargo, an oppressive communist government and years of poverty. It’s literally almost impossible to get a new car.
It means when drinks or supplies run out at a store, they’re just out. ‘Til when, you ask? Cubans shrug. A shrug that says, why would you even ask that? A shrug that says as a collective society we have stopped asking why to these kinds of questions.
We take our pizza wrapped in a paper towel and wander back towards the AirBnb and sit on the wall of the Malecón.
This is the worst pizza I’ve ever had in my life, Adam says.
Yes, yes it is, I agree, washing it down with a crisp, cold Cristal, while staring out at the waves.
This is Cuba though. It is a mix of cold beer and terrible pizza, dirt streets and grand hotels, flickering streetlights and gas station stores almost out of everything. Russian engines in American cars, well dressed women hanging laundry off their back porch, and the Atlantic Ocean pounding against the wall of the Malecón as it patiently tries to hold back the tide of what may come.