During my junior year of high school, I was an A.P. History student learning for the first time about the United States’ relationship with Cuba. Like most naïve teenagers, what fascinated me most were the blockade and the impact it had on the island.
“You mean, there’s a place in the world that effectively exists in a time warp? Where people still drive classic cars and have limited technology? How cool!” I thought.
I just had to go to Cuba and know what the 1950s and ‘60s were like.
I remember telling my parents that I wanted to go to Cuba, “before everything changes,” because even if my motives were slightly ignorant at the time, I had the understanding that Western influence in Cuba would change everything that made the island unique. I was determined to get there, one day.
Recently, I came back from “one day” – I actually spent 5 days in Cuba, celebrating my 27th birthday. Since returning, pretty much everyone who I’ve talked to has asked the same question – “What was it like?”
Weeks later, I am still trying to come up with a concise answer.
Arriving in Cuba was like stepping back in time, but not necessarily for the technology. Pretty much everyone we came across had a cell phone, and some people even had iPhones. It was something else. The vibe of the island was reflective of a time where you didn’t have to be inherently suspicious of people, and where those in a community rely on and trust each other.
I sensed this immediately upon arrival, beginning with my very first cab ride.
Because I got there several hours before my friend who I was traveling with, I was a bit intimidated about trying to hail a cab by myself, as a woman. Would it be safe? Would they jack up the fare because I’m female? I exited the airport feeling pretty unsure – it didn’t help that my phone transformed into a brick as soon as I was off the plane – but I was immediately put at ease by the two cab drivers that greeted me warmly in the terminal.
They were very excited to learn I was visiting from the U.S. and had lots of questions about life in the states. Beyond that, they gave me a detailed tour of the surroundings from the airport into Habana and taught me some of the city’s history.
And it wasn’t just the cab drivers – every single person we interacted with, whether a tour guide or just a local we passed on the street, was so kind and welcoming.
This may sound like a minor thing – I mean, most people in the world are nice, particularly to tourists – but to me it was something more. Given the tense relationship between our two countries and the realities of how the U.S. government’s policies have impacted Cuba, I was really moved by their warmth to Americans. If the tables were turned I’m not so sure we would be so welcoming to the people of a country we believed oppressed us.
The beauty of the human spirit was on full display in Habana, and this was just one of the many ways.
I had some time to kill while I waited on my friend, so I decided to explore the streets of Vieja Habana. The first thing that struck me was how similar but altogether different Cuba felt from other islands. In fact, it didn’t feel like an island at all, but instead a Latin American country that just happens to be an island. You don’t go there to sit on the beach and drink cocktails out of coconuts; you go to fully immerse in the culture, to explore, to learn.
One of the things I learned on my walk was that kids in Cuba still spend time outside and find ways to entertain themselves. In one parque, I sat for a while and watched a group of teenagers skateboarding and rollerblading, attempting to do jumps and tricks off the benches and curbs.
Two other teen-aged boys sat across from each other on a bench under the shade of the trees, staring intently at the chessboard in between them. One carefully watched the other while he planned his next move. And further down, two little kids took turns pushing each other on a makeshift kart – a shipping crate with four wheels and some sort of steering device attached.
It was refreshing to see kids doing something other than sitting around, staring at their phones in their laps all day. It was equally refreshing to join them by not doing it either.
So, my friend finally arrived and we spent our first night in Cuba at Cha Cha Cha’s, a cute little local restaurant with live music. The venue – a two-level restaurant with lots of jazz-inspired art adorning the walls – was our first taste of the Cuban nightlife. Much like New York, Habana is a city that does not appear to sleep, albeit for different reasons.
There are always people outside. Always.
Small clusters of people populate public spaces, whether they’re just shooting the breeze or listening to music. While the city isn’t loud, it’s definitely alive and the constant presence of people really underscores the safety of the city.
Fun fact – Cuba has virtually no crime rate. Yeah, the constant presence of military police is a large part of that. But there’s also a constant, thriving pulse in Habana, which I didn’t expect, given the closed nature of the country.
The best example of this vibrancy came in experiencing the fabled Malecón, the five-mile long sea wall that runs from Vieja Habana to Vedado. It can be two in the afternoon or two in the morning – the Malecón comes to life with so much activity. While I was amazed at the social function of the sea wall, I was also struck by the poignant reality of it – the Malecón is the kick-it spot, not necessarily by choice but out of necessity. It provides an outlet for entertainment for poor Cubans, where they otherwise may not have many options.
One thing I really came away with about Cubans is their ingenuity and resourcefulness. They can make an ordinary sea wall into a hotbed of nightlife, can turn crumbling Spanish Colonial-style buildings into homes, can maintain relics and use them as functioning forms of transportation.
Speaking of, let’s talk about the classics and the architecture.
First of all, the fact that American rides that you can usually only see at car shows are ever present in Cuba is so cool. SO COOL! There was something absolutely mystical about waking up, stepping onto the balcony at my hotel and looking down on the rows of classics parked out front. One day, we took a two-hour drive to Varadero Beach (one of the most stunning beaches in the world, for the record) in a 1950-something Ford Mercury. The drive there was absolutely breathtaking, both for the scenery and the ride itself.
That was my first time riding in a car that’s all sharp edges and no seat belts. It didn’t feel unsafe, but at the same time I felt acutely aware of just how far car technology has come. That kept me rooted in realism instead of floating off to a fantasy where classic cars are romanticized.
I think it’s easy, as Americans, to fetishize the retro vibe of Cuba; to want to visit the island and pose in front of hot-pink cruisers and among the ruins of buildings. But there’s a sobering reality to them – Cubans don’t drive classics because they want to, they drive them because they have to. It truly is a marvel that they have found ways to keep 60-year-old cars on the road, but maintaining them must be the absolute struggle. They don’t even make parts for classics anymore. There’s no Pep Boys or AutoZone to go to for repairs. They just have to figure it out themselves.
I saw this first hand on our way back from the beach. Because gas stations aren’t available every few miles like they are here in the States, the locals have to carry water jugs with extra gasoline — just in case.
We needed to fill up before we hit the road, so our driver dropped a hose into the jug, inhaled to get the gas flowing into the hose, then connected it to the gas tank. We looked on, fascinated. He simply shrugged and said, “physics.”
For me, this was wild – I’d never seen anyone siphon gas before and it’s incredibly unsafe to inhale gasoline fumes. But for him, this was just another day in the life of driving a car that’s been on the road since before man went to the moon.
Later, we had to stop one more time so he could change the oil in the car. This intrigued me because I don’t even know where you put oil in my car. But when you have to know things, when you have to rely on what you can figure out, you do the best with what you have.
This extends to the buildings in Habana, which, for the most part, look as they did when the Spaniards colonized the island hundreds of years ago. The architecture – intricately carved columns and towers, open atriums, vaulted ceilings and sweeping windows – is absolutely magnificent. There’s no other word for it, really. Nowhere in the United States can you see buildings as beautiful and enchanting as those in Habana.
And it’s not just the capitol building, historic hotels or Gran Teatro de Havana that have this air. The majesty is extended to the buildings that line the streets of Vieja Habana and those that sit across from the Malecón. Instead of white marble, these buildings are the colors of the islands – turquoise, goldenrod, salmon pink, lime green, and reflect the fact that locals continue to make them their homes.
But save for those that are being restored, the buildings in the city are a hodgepodge of crumbling infrastructure. Where some just look abandoned, others are actively being reclaimed by nature. Habana is a city of ruins, which is incredible and sobering at the same time. In other countries, you have to go deep into the jungles to find remnants of older civilizations. But here, the past is the present.
The rich culture that courses through the ancient architecture, the classic cars and the social dynamics in Habana flows into other cornerstones of the Cuban identity – music and sports. In the next piece, I’ll share how these aspects, more than most, helped shape my perspective of the Cuban identity.