Note: I wrote another article on FAQ, best and worst, reviews, and tips here.
It’s a lot like small-town Central America. It’s like the places your bus stops to refuel on the way from Belize to Quintana Roo. It’s a little like that city in Mexico where I bought (or think I bought; perhaps only thought about buying) a bag of clementines for something like a dime.
And it is nothing like the rest of the Caribbean.
Think sick-skinny stray dogs trotting along the edges of streets, head and tail in low-carriage. Think streets that are paved but also dusty; think also cobblestone alleys and other unpaved side streets, narrow and pothole-riddled, entirely dust and mud. Think people walking, people driving classic cars, people waiting listlessly at bus stops, people leaning against door jambs of decrepit architecture wonders. Think the delirious deliciousness of humidity and heat.
Think the smell of diesel and dust, as well as the subtle sweetness of humidity and fresh sweat.
But, even all this considered, it’s already becoming not the place we think of.
They still have classic cars and cigars. But they also know we want them.
They’re gearing up for tourism – have already figured out some of the ways they can make a buck or two off of visitors as we pass through. But, on the other hand, have not yet developed the finesse and ease of hospitality. They have self-awareness, but don’t yet have a broad tourism benchmark.
The tarmac is like something out of my grandparent’s era, something vintage – 1970’s – but very real. There, in old-school lettering, “La Habana,” and I’m already excited. There’s something very special about landing in places you’ve longed for or love.
There’s a driver pick-up, and in the backseat of his classic car on the way to Havana, I’m all but hanging my head out the window like a dog, lapping at the air and rejoicing in my sheer happiness for it all. I’m happy even for the refreshing authenticity of sweat that lines the entire length of my back and thighs against the pleather seat.
We pass through these incredible areas, originally built up in awe-inducing architectural splendor (seriously, if you’re into turn of the century showcases, you might die) and now reduced to little more than empire ruins.
And within them, these little shops set up behind barred windows or back alleys. Women hand-washing glassware next to hand-written signs and the occasional lonely, faded gesticulation of spray paint. Like “this is what a bar might look like” or “this is what graffiti might look like.” In another era; another world.
And it’s all like having cake smashed in your face. Stale cake, but still beautifully decorated. You go to take a bite but find yourself overwhelmed by it, and it’s impossible to take it all in.
Once there, the driver helps with bags. “Enjoy your stay,” he says. “And let me know if you want a ride back to the airport. I left my number.” He goes to leave.
“Oh, be careful,” he warns, turning back in the doorway. “This is a safe area. People are nice. But not everyone should be trusted.”
That first night:
We went for a walk. We learned that you can buy a bottled beer from any bar for about a dollar and then walk out with it to roam the streets with beer in hand.
Because Cuba, she just does not care.
This was henceforth known as “walking beer” (lovingly appendaged from a Dutch woman I met in Turkey who expressed jealously of the US for our “walking coffee.” Meaning, merely: “coffee to go”) and became the backbone of our trip.
I also found a dog. There’s always a dog.
There were tons of stray dogs – there always are – but this one had a hurt leg and was limping so severely he would only go a few steps before curling up into another tiny ball and so of course, like any person emboldened with the romanticism of being in a foreign place for the first time, we strode over to the nearest bar and, despite the kitchen being closed, negotiated the best dog-appropriate-food:dollar ratio order we could, and took it back out to offer to him.
He refused it. I urged myself to pretend it was because he wasn’t hungry.
I went back to the bar and ordered a beer.
That first morning:
I’d wanted to go to Cuba for so long that after I’d booked the trip, I told people that I was so happy to actually be going, I wouldn’t care if it rained while I was there.
And then it did.
And, true to my word, I didn’t. He wasn’t too perturbed, either.
It rained pretty much the whole time, to varying degrees – from light mist to downpour. And there was never a moment I didn’t grant Havana the space to be a real place that exists outside of my desire to be there.
I woke up to the sound of an actual rooster.
And it was only mildly adulterated by the hum of the air conditioning unit, set on high.
I got up to write, because I do that sometimes and I do it even more when traveling, but first went out onto one of the two balconies – the one facing the ocean.
There are little droplets hanging along the underside of the railing. It’s not pouring, but the light is a white-gray. It’s a delicate rain; something only discernible when you set your gaze against something dark. But it’s raining nonetheless and we’ll be out in it and we don’t care.
First on the agenda: coffee.
At some point after that? Beer.
And then mostly a lot of walking around.
And also the need for food.
Being (i.e., the answer to “what did you do?”)
Walk around. Don’t sight-see.
I mean, I guess go ahead and sight-see if you want to sight-see, because there’s probably plenty to see if you do, but if you’re willing to, just walk around.
You get yourself a bottled “walking beer” and you walk yourself around. When that one’s done, you find another bar and get yourself another.
It’s like being a local but better. Because you get to be there, on the streets, but you get to see it for the first time. And you also have the special privileges afforded with that, like feeding stray dogs leftover egg yolks rationed off your breakfast, wrapped up in a napkin.
When you get tired of walking, sit for a bit. When you get hungry, eat. Rinse. Repeat.
Eating (i.e., vegetables in Cuba):
I read, before going to Cuba, that it was particularly un-veg-friendly. And I’m not about to tell you that it wasn’t, because it definitely is.
But I will tell you that it wasn’t as bad as some say, because it isn’t.
Did I eat over-oiled fried rice? Yes. Canned green beans served as salad? Sure did.
But I knew about these things before I even got there, and by the time I was there and being served, found it entirely too easy to overlook this discrepancy between their idea of salad and mine; to forgive a country for serving – god forbid – different food than I might serve myself, and for not having Luna bars (or spin class) to sell me.
So I go, eat what they have, and still have a good time.
Pretty much all of the things I ate and some the things I drank in Cuba:
- A lot of a dish simply called: “fresh vegetables.” Iceberg, tomatoes, canned green beans.
- Also available fried
- Eggs, scrambled and fried
- Cheese cubes
- The saltiest pickles you’ll ever taste in your life
- Fruit – pineapple, banana, guava, papaya, etc. All sorts.
- Toast and other breads
- Black beans, often served too deliciously to be vegetarian
Riding in cars with boys:
So. When you go, tons of drivers will try to sell you on an “hour-long” classic car tour.
Some people have come back from Cuba saying this was their favorite part.
This part nearly put a damper on things for me.
Here’s the trick, I think: make sure you negotiate. Make sure every time things change, you re-negotiate. If you strike up a conversation (and you will) and they take you somewhere else based on the dialogue, make sure you clarify the charge. If you explicitly ask to go elsewhere, make sure you clarify the charge. If you mention being hungry and let them recommend their favorite restaurant and drop you off and then wait, make sure you clarify whether or not they’re charging you by the hour as you eat.
(Looking at you, Abraham. With your entirely-too-seductive hot pink Hello Kitty car.)
Reading and Writing:
I read B.J. Novak’s “One More Thing” on the way to Cuba, because I guess I figured it’d make a good vacation read, of the books the airport carried.
I didn’t really underline anything, which is atypical. And I pressed two flowers between different pages, which was also atypical, but in a better way.
I didn’t take a notebook with me, so I jotted tiny notes on the only piece of paper I had, which was the back of some official-looking form we’d gotten from the flight attendant, field-less but printed entirely in Spanish.
I also went completely offline. Mostly because I had to.
But also because that was largely the point.
Want more on Cuba? here.