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The Cuba Diaries

Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been intrigued by the Latin American culture. The first time I got introduced to the culture vividly, was when my father’s PhD mentor who later became a very good family friend made a three-week-trip through Latin America with his family back in the 1980s. The wonderful stories, accompanied by beautiful photographies left a lifelong mark on me, always having in the back of my head, that one day I would make this journey myself. I traveled. First with my parents as a child, than later as an adult, through the countries of Europe, Africa, Asia. But to the other side of the pond I would get for the first time in 1994, at the age of 12 with my parents to the USA. Latin America, still stayed in the far away lands. And it would remain so, until the New Year’s Day in the year of 2017.

Since their independence the Latin American countries have been in all kinds of turmoil. Either it’s drug cartels, or poverty, or political instability. Unfortunately.

All these countries have so much to offer after all. Natural resources, cultural diversity, inherent natural beauty. Cuba is no exception, only that in contrast to the other countries, Cuba is thanks to the isolation since 1959, one of the safest, if not the safest country on the continent.

Cuba has a rich colonial history. Conquered by the Spanish Crown in the 15th century, the Spanish lost their colony in 1898 and Cuba became a US protectorate until 1902. The following decades proved to be tumultuous, culminating into a dictatorship under Fulgencio Batista which got overthrown by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1959. The country then became a communist state with Castro as lifelong president, leaning on the Soviets. Since 2008, due to ill health of Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl took over as ruler of the country. In November 2016 Fidel Castro died.

So much to a short history introduction.

When you arrive to Havana after an 11 hour flight from Paris, you see a shabby, humid and chaotic place that serves as the Havana airport. You get some forms to fill out, but no pen. Then you wait at least for 45 minutes until you get your luggage, in the meantime you find the pen, fill out the forms, take your luggage and get to the border control, where you must pose for a photo (my first in Cuba :)) and finally get to go. Outside, someone is waiting with your name to drive you to your accommodation, but first you need to exchange money and guess what, there is only ONE counter open. And guess what else, the line is miles long. It’s almost one in the morning, we are tired and our driver shows mercy upon us and offers that we pay him in Euros. Lucky us, we are finally ready to get settled. First impression is disappointing and I am thinking, uff this will be TWO. VERY. LONG. WEEKS.

Turned out, it would be two very lovely weeks. Havana.

But fortunately I am proven wrong the very next morning. Our accommodation is a lovely Spanish colonial mansion. Our landlords wonderfully friendly and helpful. We start the morning with a tasty but simple breakfast, made by the landlords. At the table another couple, who just got to Havana, had no reserved accommodation, but still ended up at the same house that we booked weeks before. They are super simpatico, she is Dutch, he is German, they live in the UK, and work as researchers at the University of Cambridge. Our paths will cross throughout the trip, planned or not. When we get out of the house, the landlord, gives us his business card, with the exact address of the house, so that we know where we are. I am thinking I know where we are, I emailed throughout the last three weeks regularly with his wife. When I saw their names on the card, I realized this is not the place I booked, we are at another house. And only if I could access my email now I could prove it. But, we are in Cuba, there is no internet access unless you buy a card that provides you with an hour of wifi, at a wifi spot. And we don’t have it, we have no idea where to get the wifi card, it is our first morning in Cuba after all. In that moment I know, in this country, you can’t plan ahead. It’s chaotic and unorganized, and God knows, so s l o w but in a perplexed way, everything still works, just not the way, you thought it would.

Our accommodation for the time being in Havana.

The first thing you notice in Cuba is the time, or the lack there of it. Not only is everything slow, it also is as if you traveled back in time. It could be the 1950s or 1960s. Perfectly preserved. The classic American cars, the lack of technology, everywhere you look there is an antique shop and you find old Time Magazine papers with Jackie Kennedy on the title page, or an old vinyl record. People are interacting with each other, by talking to one another. Cell phones have no meaning, you can’t access Facebook or Instagram. At the restaurants the waiters are dressed 1950s style. Often I thought I am at the set of Mad Men and was just waiting for Don Draper to say hello.

University of Havana.

Classic American cruising in the neighborhood of Vedado.

The next thing you notice is the immense liveliness. Cuba is alive. There is music, there is chatter, there is color, there is dance, there is art. That all happens in places with beautiful colonial buildings, plazas, perfectly kept in the original state, in other words, falling apart. And there lies the beauty. Everything around you is falling apart, and still everything goes on. Life goes on.

This gentleman pulled a Sinatra. It was lovely. Havana.

An ensemble playing in the streets of Trinidad.

What makes Cuba special are the people. Poor, patriotic, happy and sad, all at the same time. They LOVE Fidel Castro. And it makes sense why. Communism made sure that there is equality. Equality in race, equality in gender. Before Castro, there was a rule of the white race. Afro-Cubans or the multiethnic race had no rights, they were second class citizens, descendants of former slaves, who were forbidden of most things, one needed in life. From education to living situation. The part of Havana where we lived, is called Vedado, which means forbidden, in Spanish. Forbidden were the Afro-Cubans and the multiethnic race to enter that part of town, where there is a high concentration of opulent mansions, inhabited by the white race, who are the former slaveholders.
With Castro, the class system got abolished, everybody obtained the right to education, to work, and to live in a dignified way. Slums were in the past. From now on everyone was human and had the same chances. What the African Americans were fighting for in the Civil Right Fight, the Cubans of Afro or multiethnic race practically got as a present.
I loved the diversity that I saw on the streets of Havana. People of all races interacting with one another, there were no limits. You could see a group of girls from the lightest to the darkest skin color walking and laughing together. A Caucasian grandfather holding his darker skinned grandchild. I was delighted. It seemed so unreal, and yet, there it was.

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are still heroes and always will be. They fought for the right of everyone and wanted to make a better world. There are songs, poetically sung to Che, book stores are full of his and Fidel’s books. Art galleries are full of their portraits. In towns and in the country side you will find larger than life posters of both with their quotes. It is as if both of them were still alive. There you go, back to the 1950s and 1960s.

Plaza de la Revolucion. Che Guevara.

I mentioned chaotic, unorganized, and slow before. We would learn that very same lesson over and over again. There was no transportation when we needed it. So our plans were changing regularly in terms of what is our next destination. We would stay hungry, especially in the first couple of days, because there was no food. The restaurants offered maybe three meals from the whole menu and supermarkets were proud owners of five articles at most. Much later would we find hidden gems where we could eat as much of shrimp and lobster as we wanted. The hygiene was questionable in most places, exempt a few exceptions, which is why I am most thankful for Lysoform. If you relax and take all of this as part of an adventure, your adventure, then you are in for the best time of your life. Because, the beauty everywhere around you, the music, the colors, the wonderful people, who make sure that you feel comfortable and ask for more. Tranquilo is a word, you will hear very often from the Cubans, which we could understand as “take it easy” and that we did. That the country is safe, only added to the comfort of the trip.

These two photos, are the first ones taken in Havana.

In the next posts, I will tell you all about the trip. One town and one post at a time. It has been almost a week since I came back, but the impressions will take more time to settle. Until the next post, tranquilo and enjoy your Sunday.

Swedish Avenue January 22, 2017