Aventuras en Habana: A Diary of Cuba, Part 2

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Recently, I visited Cuba to celebrate my 27 th birthday. Join me as I share what that
experience was like and what I learned while I was there. Read the first part here.
Going into my trip, I knew that music and sports were intricately woven into the
fabric of Cuban society. The time I spent in Havana allowed me to experience how.

Like I mentioned in the first installment, I spent my first night in Cuba getting a taste
of the Havana nightlife. At Cha Cha Cha’s, a saxophonist performed throughout
dinner, filling the restaurant with jazzy covers of classic hits. The live music really
punctuated what was already such a cool and unique atmosphere.

But it wasn’t just Cha Cha Cha’s.

At Cha Cha Cha’s, they use old records as placemats.
How cool is that?!

Every restaurant at which we dined – and I do mean every single one – featured live
entertainment of sorts. Whether it was a solo saxophonist or guitarist, a salsa band
or just singers, the music was everywhere in Havana.

Every afternoon, a different salsa band performed on
the veranda of our Hotel Inglaterra, while guests dined, sipped mojitos and smoked
Cuban cigars. The life.

To me, the live music was so remarkable for how normal it was. Here in the states,
that just isn’t a thing anymore, unless for a special occasion. And even then, you pay
a premium for that extra bit of entertainment. But that’s not the case in Cuba. It’s as
common in restaurants as having ropa vieja on the menu. And I loved everything
about it.

Honestly, it seemed like literally every single person in
Cuba is musically gifted.

As an American, the live music – and particularly, jazz – really underscored once
again the realities of daily life and the culture of Cuba. It suggests an era of time long
ago, of the days when Cuba and the United States were on friendly terms.

To reinforce this, in many restaurants and hotel verandas – another place where live
bands performed – photos from the Jazz era adorned the walls, capturing the
American gangsters, singers and actors who partied in Havana when it was the Las
Vegas of the Caribbean.

Additionally, the clubs in Cuba have live bands, and you don’t need to give up your
left kidney to see them. And I mean, a band; not just a singer, and a handful of

musicians. We’re talking a full-scale, 20-person deep ensemble. The kind of band
you see depicted in movies set before the 1960s.

And another thing – people go to nightclubs in Cuba to, you know, dance. And have a
good time with their friends. This is obviously because they have to – while most
Cubans have cell phones, their access to social media apps is still limited. As a result,
the culture of “stunting for the Gram” isn’t there, yet. People go out for themselves,
not to impress others on the Internet.

It was a refreshing change of pace, speaking as someone who is always strategizing
social media posts. I had to just be in the moment, like the locals were. Oh, did I
mention how seemingly everyone in Cuba is a fantastic dancer? It’s as if the rhythm
and form of salsa music are just another extension of what makes the people who
they are.

So each night we were treated to beautiful, lively music and incredible dancing that,
to me was such, a departure from the closed nature of society in Cuba. The other
avenue through which you see this dichotomy is sports.

It’s no secret that baseball is king in Latin islands such as Cuba and the Dominican
Republic, with athletes like Yasiel Puig and Jose Bautista headlining Major League
Baseball teams. What I didn’t know was just how important boxing is to Cuba, too.

Like the live music, boxing kind of represents a thing of the past. I mean, sure –
Floyd Mayweather is about to make an ungodly amount of money when he faces
UFC fighter Conor McGregor in the ring in August.

But for myriad reasons, boxing
doesn’t carry the clout and esteem in the U.S. anymore than it used to. In Cuba,
boxing is still popular, both for athletes and spectators.

During our day tour of Vieja Habana, we had the opportunity to visit Cuba’s oldest,
active boxing gym. Man, if the walls of that place could tell stories of the things they
have seen! We lucked out that there were a handful of teenage boys getting prepped
for sparring practice, and they happened to be local champions from their
respective providences. Over the summer, the guys spend time training – in the heat
of the day, mind you – for fights that take place later in the year.

I kid you not, the heat index was upwards of 100 degrees
while these guys were having practice. And it didn’t even seem to phase them.

What’s unique about the boxing gym that we visited is that it’s completely open to
the public. Anyone can drop in and use the gym at any time. It also has bleacher
seats so that locals can take in all the action whenever they want. The gym serves as
both entertainment and a fitness center for those who live in Vieja Habana.

Also, fun fact: actor Idris Elba trained at this particular gym for a month, while he
was preparing for a role in a kickboxing documentary by the Discovery Channel.
How cool is that?!

So we stayed for a while and watched the guys spar. For most of them, they will
likely never compete for more than anything but local pride (the opportunities to
competing in boxing at higher levels, such as representing Cuba in the Olympics, are
few and far between). But another thing I noticed in Havana is just how deep and
powerful that pride is.

They may only box for pride in their community, but
sometimes, that’s enough.

In the U.S., pride can be a problematic thing. Often times, our pride in being
American is tied to subjugating others, to a belief that being American makes us
intrinsically better and more than. In Cuba, I found that the people are proud to be
Cuban just for the sake of being proud. They just love who they are.

The political landscape of Cuban may not allow for open displays of individual pride
or for free expression of opinions. But when you listen to the music that is seemingly
carried through the breeze and when you see just how much heart is poured into
Cuban sports, you start to see that pride bubble to the surface.

It may be subtle at times, but it’s strong. In spite of the undeniably challenging circumstances, the pride
they have never seems to fade.

But please don’t misunderstand me: the day-to- day life for the average person living
in Havana is quite challenging. From food rations to a heavy military police presence
to a press that isn’t exactly free, the realities of authoritarian rule cannot be glossed
over.

In the final entry into Aventuras en Habana, I explore what it meant for me to
be an American in that space, especially now.