In the era of Instagram stories and Facebook feeds, texting a photo to a friend felt like mailing a good old-fashioned postcard.
But so goes time spent in Cuba, an escape back to analog and slowness, rich with human warmth and sensual heat. Meet here at this time, OK? Punching buttons on T9 mobile keyboards. Extended families congregating on fold-out chairs, kids playing fútbol while classic salsa music echoes down from apartments above. A time capsule of different decades all in one swirling, sweltering package.
I made it a point to forego my social media life in Cuba. From candy-colored classic cars to romantic plazas and swaying palms, it was stuff of Instagram legends. But I let myself have an unlisted slice of journey to myself. Living and thriving in the present moment, the Cuban way of life.
Havana was an explosion of color and sound. The city center, Habana Vieja, was stuff of old Las Vegas elegance. But on other alleyways, gorgeous colonial housing looked close to collapsing. Doorless homes revealed live wires dangling just above your head. At a contrast, old legendary bars like El Floridita boast the birthplace of daiquiris and regulars like Hemingway. It’s somewhere Frank Sinatra might have reclined with a cigar (and some alleged he had, as part of the mafia) but shined his shoes carefully after.
By nighttime, streets were alive with boombox Latin pop and random salsa partners stepping quickly on dimly lit street corners. Pigtailed kids sauntered down the alley alone at all hours in their flip flops, a testament to safety and ease of life. A community thrives here, where neighbors call out to each-other personally and warmly.
Socialism — and a distinct separation from western culture — could be felt. Cubanos wore mostly vibrant athleisure: comfy brandless clothing, sometimes donning an English word like New York or a nameless, beautiful face. Old men wore fedoras, young men wore baseball caps. Almost all men hollered Linda! Beautiful! “Mamacíta, wow, be my girlfriend?” Smooching sounds were hurled liberally at passing women, especially tourists. (Walking ATMs, as one of our Cuban hosts described us.) But in Cuba, catcalling is seen as compliment. And despite the leering, safety in Havana — notwithstanding the constant dance around crumbling unpaved streets, or tripping on the odd stray dog — is hardly a concern here.
Taxi, taxi! was shouted from all angles in the city center, though “taxi” as a concept could describe any number of things — from electric-pink classic convertible, modern yellow NYC-style sedans, horse-drawn carriages jangling with bells, or welded metal carts with a cushion slapped on top. Ríco, quipped the locals to us, equal parts snideness and fascination. Rich.
Old Havana had no clear neighborhood lines dividing any semblance of rich and poor. The country is multi-ethnic, but mostly everyone lives a similar material life, clean clothes and dusty sandals, with the same bouncing step and sauntering pace. “We know you’re American,” said one of our hosts. “It’s in the way you walk.”
Mentions of Fidel and la revolución hard-won by 1959 were rampant: painted on buildings, hanging in tapestries, sitting on bookstore shelves. Revered as much a historic victory as a pop culture phenomenon. Che’s likeness is as prolific as a modern-day icon, a streetwear-like symbol you’d graffiti on the wall. Cubans love smiling, candid photos of Guevara, wearing their socialism like a badge of honor.
Mentions of Fidel and la revolución hard-won by 1959 were rampant: painted on buildings, hanging in tapestries, sitting on bookstore shelves. Revered as much a historic victory as a pop culture phenomenon.
One warm night in Havana we visited Fábrica de Arte, or FAC, an expansive warehouse-like art installation. It bursts at the seams with hip foreigners and politically charged galleries. FAC’s big, bold artworks reflect on the Cuban cultural identity. Local artists sensually and boldly consider progressive social issues under an authentically Caribbean framework — like artful portraits of transgender men next to their younger selves in quinceañara dresses.
From the maze of stages boomed Afro-Cuban jazz as beautiful people bobbed and salsa’d and grabbed one other in the technicolor light. Behind the stage, the gaze of a dark-skinned Cuban woman looked on, a two-story-tall mural with her afro rendered in colorful records.
We ran into a recently made friend, nicknamed Ella, a Spanish woman in a deep love affair with Cuba. She swished her floral skirt and introduced us to her Cuban boyfriend, tight-shirted and moving in an easy ritmo. Together we splashed back three-dollar mojitos and wove our way through the rhythmic, electrified crowd.
In some galleries, Western favorites like Adele or Ariana Grande music videos looped intermittently with stranger displays, like YouTube mashups of untimely Christmas carols. Havana seems to have a complicated relationship with its rare outside looks at consumerist cultures — admiring from a distance while artfully, almost satirically, making it their own.
Nowhere better signifies this than Clandestina, Cuba’s “first online clothing store.” Designers create high-end streetwear using up-cycle materials and methods — strips of different clothing, some donated, some handmade, fashionably pieced together into a trendy yet political calico. When we visited the pastel-painted shop, many hands were busy on sewing machines in the back room. A mounted TV played clips from a fashion show with edgier pieces, a runway collaboration with Google. A tiny pixelated dinosaur icon bounced across the store’s many bandanas and posters and stickers: A tongue-in-cheek reference to the “no internet connection” load page game from Google search.
It was refreshing taking a breath from the ad-filled, flashy consumerist culture of New York City. Havana is the anti-Times Square. No one tells you what to buy. Nothing advertises trend or sale. Cubans holding ration booklets waited in long lines for essentials like potatoes and pan, “Not enough to live on, but enough to survive,” as our guide told us.
And the sense abounding was not one of scarcity but one of just enough. The very few store shelves stocked many products of the same brand. One pink bar of soap. One type of saltine cracker. But alas, dozens and dozens of liquors. So seems to go life in Cuba.
One pink bar of soap. One type of saltine cracker. But alas, dozens and dozens of liquors. So seems to go life in Cuba.
An economics professor from the Universidad gave us three hours of private discussion on Cuba’s political and economic history. We sipped on espresso in a local place where he eagerly explained how our bill was only about 5 cents in American dollars, a far cry from the tourist-catering shops just round the bend. He earns 60 CUC from our session, the equivalent to two months’ salary in local Cuban pesos, of CUP, for his academic job. His opinion on socialism was one of distinct pride: “We value different things than you,” he said matter-of-factly. “Why do I need ten kinds of yogurt if I have healthcare when I’m sick, and if my kids go to school for free?”
Just in time for a much-needed quieter pace, we wound down with a day trip to Viñales, two hours of travel through lush green tierra and sky-high grand palms, Cubans hitchhiking on the sweltering roadsides. We rode in a 1950s Chevy with a slick purple paint job that rattled like a salsa dancer’s hips.
We rode in a 1950s Chevy with a slick purple paint job that rattled like a salsa dancer’s hips.
But every so often our driver veered off-road to crack open the rounded hood and cool off the engine. An engineering masterpiece, this country, I thought as I pictured decades of Cubanos sharing the same green leather seat for 70 years. Some of these ghost riders long gone — What was their ride like? I wondered. Did they tap their toes, crank down the windows? Were they anxious, alone, with friends, in love?
Las calles in Viñales were painted every shade, hot pink to sea-foam green and canary yellow. As a growing tourist destination since the 90s, many homes were converted to casas particulares, rented out homes identified with a blue anchor sign. Every Cuban was given their own home after the revolution, but some decide to shack up with family to rent their space for spare change — and in tourist currency, spare change adds up to a lot.
Locales and turistas alike stretched in the hot sun, waiting in long sometimes irritated lines for WiFi cards from ETECSA, the sole government-owned telecommunications provider in Cuba. Internet hopefuls congregated in various city parks, designated WiFi zones with weak signals, phones lighting their faces at night as they Skype loved ones across the world. We asked our Cuban friends and hosts about their view of the world beyond the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean Sea — have you seen another country? Will you ever leave? Solo Cuba, many said. Only Cuba.
One morning we set out on a family-run horseback riding tour in the mountains. While we waited for our guide, the family matriarch rocked in a chair outside her beautiful home, bordered in potted cacti and the sounds of a Spanish-language telenovela drifting from inside. My caballo was called Coco Loco, namesake of a common local drink: freshly cracked coconut water with local rum and a lemon splash. “Los caballos are semi-automatic, but beso, beso, like this,” instructed our young guide, demonstrating smooching sounds to increase the horse’s pace. Kiss kiss, hurry up.
The red-earth dust caked our sneakers on the windy path up. Sometimes we sauntered through standing water, or climbed rocky hillsides. After 30 minutes of riding, the path opened wide like a painting reveal: the Valley of Silence, filled up with sound. I closed my eyes to soak in the bellows of big-horned cattle, chirping bugs, and the steady clop clop of horse hooves.
We stopped at a local tobacco farm full of rancheros, cowboy-hatted with dusty work pants and wide smiles. We slurped up pure honey, miel, poured between our thumb and forefinger, tossed back with shots of Havana Club. Four rum-infused guavas floated in the bottom of the bottle. “My second wife!” cracked the farmer as he rubbed the glass tenderly with his thumb.
He explained how the government owns some of the crops, but those locally owned in a rare sample of Cuban capitalism are taxed. The farmer let us stick our noses in a recycled bottle filled with freshly roasted Arabica beans, the kind of warm chocolate coffee smell you’d expect to fall in love over. But best of all were los cigarros, unforgettable.
Our crew of tourists sat in dusty hard-backed chairs pulled up to a table that was dripping in the smoky-sweet smell of tobacco leaves. In one corner of the open-air barn, hundreds of leaves were packed carefully in a weaved casing of palma fronds, later set into a hatched hut to dry and stretch and crunch for months, creating an aroma to knock you down for a while.
As the sunset melted into a dusky red over the farm, the ranchero tightly rolled a cigar with skillful fingers, layers on layers, then swiftly chopped the ends with a bottle-opener sized guillotine. He dipped the end of the cigar in pure honey, golden and swirling in its dusty plastic bottle. Dripping sweetly in Che Guevara’s signature style.
We leaned back and lit the tiny fuego, breathing in and out for a blissfully stretched-out Cuban minute.