This past July I returned to visit the wonderful sights, smells and spirit of Havana.
It was the first time I'd travelled on my own for a long time (12+ years), and it made for thoroughly different experience than the last time I visited. Plus, Cuba is a different place than the last time I visited. Or maybe it's more that I'm different...
This time I stayed outside Old Havana, but still made the time to wander through. The fact that I was there during peak European Summer, combined with an increase in American tourism made this tourist magnet feel completely different than the last time we visited.
This time, I felt guilty getting my camera out, for the shame of feeling like all the German and American tourists who are here for the pretty colours, vintage cars and cheap rum. Despite the fact that my urge to document this beautiful place came from the same place of wonder and curiosity as the last time I visited, I was putting myself in the same category as those sitting on the roof of the newly instituted double decker bus for a whistle-stop tour of all the major photo spots of Havana. Because, really, who is to say I am all that different from them.
Arriving without a map and of course without internet, it was easier to make my way back to the area we became familiar with on our first trip. But even so, to some degree I judged myself for making a beeline for the familiar streets, where my very rusty spanish poses less of a challenge, and I know how to find my way around. Again, I was eternally grateful for the beautiful public parks and plazas throughout the city, where life happens, and the spaces seem perfectly designed for people watching.
But things didn't feel quite the same. I found it a little unnerving as a solo female traveller to constantly have (mostly male) spruikers trying to hustle me. The ban on advertising in Cuba means signage is minimal and people actively sell to passers by in the tourist hot spots instead. With not much confidence in my spanish, it was hard to shake people off, and it seems like the locals have lifted their hustling game since 3 years ago. Even if they are harmless, the "hola, where you from?" or "hello beautiful" quickly becomes exhausting. Mostly because it is a reminder of how separate we are as travellers from the locals who's home we're borrowing for our leisure time and discretionary spending. Experiencing any place is a completely different proposition when you can throw some money at any inconveniences in urban planning to ease the pain. And it is completely uncomfortable to be constantly reminded that your privileged whiteness means you're essentially someone's meal ticket. But I guess regardless of how much you love or hate a place, at least you can leave at the end of the trip. This is a particularly strange thing to have in mind when locals will likely never leave their whole lives...
Old Havana is beautiful, there's no denying it. The mix of old architectural wealth and unavoidable ruin looks as though it has been put there for perfect contrast and contradiction. But the number of (let's be honest, mostly women) tourists I saw waltzing through the city in perfectly styled "Caribbean flavoured" outfits for the benefit of their Instagram feed was a shock this trip... And the number of local women I saw in "old-style" Cuban costumes for the sake of a 5 CUC photo op for the benefit of a tourist Instagram feed wasn't something I remembered from last visit either... Honestly, it makes me feel a little ill to think of us white people treating these people and their home as a backdrop for our personal branding. But again, who is to say I'm any different...
It feels oh, so, strange to realise that the vast majority of "restoration" throughout this pocket of Havana is in areas that few locals (beyond those working in tourism) see on a daily basis - while the residential areas of the city mostly haven't had the same treatment. Homes of locals come with no guarantee of hot water. It is also perverse to realise that in a very well educated country, where the state regulated income is only 17 CUC a month (equivalent to approximately US$20), the smartest people (especially those with some english under their belts) turn to tourism for some supplementary income. In a country with world class doctors, teachers, and other highly skilled professionals, taxi drivers are the ones earning good money.
Once again, I was annoyed at myself for not having put more work into my spanish before I left, because I know this would have made it so much easier to get under the skin of this magical city. It really is the epitome of white arrogance to expect people in your destination country to speak english, but yet that's the exact situation I was in. I remember feeling in Vietnam that much of what I was seeing was perfectly constructed for the white tourist, and Old Havana felt more like that this visit - or perhaps I was just more aware this time around. I know enough to know that a lot of the great hospitality available to tourists isn't available to locals - at least not on a local salary... To say nothing of the architecturally beautiful but entirely inappropriate luxury mall right in the middle of Old Havana.
Centro Habana instantly feels more like the Havana the locals know. Its like as soon as you cross the threshold away from the grand hotels you're able to see Havana life at street level rather than a constructed approximation of Havana life. We saw so many groups of young people gathered - and not for the benefit of the tourist hoards. It feels quieter, and like life is lived more at the pace that suits cubans.
Sunset by El Malécon
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Cuban night life happens in the bars and paladares of Old Havana, and this may well be true. But it looked to me like the night life of the locals happens along the water - with dancing, pop up street food, cheeky drinks and socialising happening as the sun sets behind...
I stayed in a private home just off the main streets of Vedado. My host was incredible, and persisted with me despite my broken Spanish and her limited English. I'm amazed by how these people open their modest homes to (mostly) rich westerners, giving them the best of what they've got, and never complaining that they've found themselves in a life of servitude purely by circumstance.
Walking anywhere was busy with locals, but the kinds of locals who were happy to let you mind your own business, rather than those who wanted to sell you something. Wandering through Vedado I was constantly mystified by how locals knew what was sold at each shop or restaurant, with minimal signage but often long queues - particularly at the places selling "helados" in the very humid summer weather - at all times of the day or night, or the spots for fresh crusty bread in the morning.
The caribbean colour and the gentle discolouration of the buildings mean that texture and personality are in abundance, but it is in the people that you see this absolutely overflowing. Even after all these years, I can't bring myself to photograph people like they're displays in a shop window, so I avoid doing this, but the cuban people are so friendly, respectful, and joyful that you definitely take a little bit of this attitude away with you when you leave...
Viñales and the Pinar Valley
I was so pleased that I managed to fit in a day trip to Viñales this visit, complete with vintage taxi and the suspension to match. My driver was lovely, but had limited English, so it made for an interesting adventure with no doubt a great deal lost in translation.
The highlight though was something I'd heard much about - no doubt constructed perfectly for tourist spending, but still managing to feel like a peek into Cuba's complex history - and present. I was lucky enough to visit a local who hand rolled cigars, showed me where they dried their tobacco and their home grown coffee, and assumed I understood his Spanish explanations for the processes involved. He told me he had begun smoking cigars at 16 and had smoked 10 a day for 60 years. He was wearing a t-shirt which read "Actually I'm in Havana". I want to be him forever.
Viñales is ridiculously beautiful. I was surprised how big the tourism obviously is in the area, with guest houses a plenty - all painted a riot of Caribbean colours. I guess that's the benefit of being only 2 or so hours drive from Havana. But it seems they've managed to keep the World Heritage farming region happily coexisting with the influx of visitors, complete with horse-and-carriages often competing for road space with the vintage corvettes and bikes.
I left feeling a little conflicted by this trip to Cuba. I still feel disappointed in myself that after 2 trips I've hardly managed to scratch the surface of this mysterious place. I'm disappointed because I know it will be unlikely that I can return again soon, and I know the place is likely to be very much a different place next time I visit - although perhaps people were saying that in the 80s and 90s...
More than anything I think I still feel conflicted about life in Cuba. I know life would likely be a lot more comfortable for Cubans should a free market system be allowed to flourish in this long protected economy. And I know many Cubans very much want to be allowed access to the opportunities for wealth building that seem to come with being more active participants in the global marketplace. But I still feel strange about the fact that most of their opportunities are likely to come in the shape of tourism. And then it becomes yet another country curated for the benefit of wealthy westerners...
But as as global capitalism seems to be unravelling at an ever increasing rate, I still think there are a great number of things that Cuba has right that the rest of the world simply doesn't. As an outsider looking in, the social, family and community lives of Cubans seem enviable. Their wellbeing seems to have benefitted from far less of a presence of the "digital universe" and I definitely felt calmer after 5 days without "promotional messages" interrupting the public space I moved through. Cuba is renowned for it's health care and education systems, but there's no denying there are fewer opportunities for young people to "forge their own path". For me, there really seems a lot of sense to socialism - even if it means less of a sense of individual freedom. Even though it is an inaccurate representation - if the two poles we have to choose from are the US, where on paper, complete personal freedom is the ultimate goal, but the collateral damage for many are any sense of equality, community and quality of life - and Cuba, where a sense of community, shared endeavour and curbed freedom are daily reality, I think I know what I'd choose. But that's easy enough for me to say after 5 days visiting, from many hundreds of miles away, sitting on my comfy couch while typing on my internet enabled laptop.
I really do believe Cubans have a right to self determine, and it seems undeniable that their "democratic" system isn't necessarily enabling that at the moment. But I don't know that the American ideal they've been kept away from for 60 years is as great for them as they might have been led to believe. The sweets you've been told you're not allowed to have are rarely good for you.
Cuba is far too complex a place for me to get my head around in 2 visits totalling 10 days. I think this place will continue to mystify me for many years to come... And no doubt I will continue to think of it as my spiritual home, long after their political ideology I naively idealise has been consumed into the global mess.
- How Havana has changed with Wifi - Alice Driver for Citylab
- New Mall in Socialist Cuba - The Guardian
- Only governments can stem the tide of tourism - Elizabeth Becker for The Guardian
- Cuban tourists keeping food of locals' plates - Azam Ahmed for NYT
- The Cuba tourists never see - Matt WIlson for The Guardian
- Cuba is poor, but who's to blame - Helen Yaffe for The Conversation
- Social care in Cuba - Castro's legacy - Sam Jones for The Guardian
- Stale bread with ham and rum - Alice Driver for Vice
- Cuba for Sale - Oliver Wainwright for The Guardian
- One family, myriad views of Castro's revolution - Damien Cave for NYT
- Talented Cuban photographer and clever local for an insider's look - Mari Daniella
- Havana: A Subtropical Delirium - Mark Kurlansky - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED