Cuba on the Brink of Change

I brushed past a customs officer after a few brief questions about any recent travels in Africa. I imagine the officer was seeking to defend Cuba against that damn Ebola virus. Johnny, my tall white friend who exudes American stars and stripes, underwent a stiffer interrogation before being admitted into the country.

Cuba is one of the last remaining places on Earth untouched by American enterprises and its culture has been entirely formed without the influence of the U.S. It’s one of the only unknown places to U.S. citizens; Johnny and I needed to experience Cuba first-hand before it all changes when the embargo comes down.

Exiting the airport was almost like stepping into a time machine that transported me into a slightly adjusted version of the past. Johnny collected me and tossed me a beer before we sped off into the restricted land of Havana in a pea-green 1956 Plymouth taxi with a belly that roared like a bear. The thick Caribbean air warmed our winter bones and soothed our travel tension as we weaved through the old city’s streets.

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The streets may have resembled las calles de España during Cuba’s prime, but they no longer retained any of their previous honor. Holes punched through windows, walls stripped of color, buildings revealed crumbling guts, and to top it all off, the cement streets were ripped up in order to change the water piping.

We arrived at our casa particular (think AirBnB) and were warmly greeted by a middle-aged lady and her young son. She had just as many spaces as teeth in her mouth, so that when she spoke, her tongue slid through the gap in the shape of a taco. She dispensed her knowledge of Havana and we gladly accepted it.

We ventured out onto the streets in search of Torre Marfil, a restaurant favored by the locals. The place was completely empty except for a man in a silky purple kimono who welcomed us and sat us beside a small koi pond. The trickle of the pond was accompanied by the buzz of salsa music from afar. There was one waitress and one bartender and both of them provided good company while we feasted on our first Cuban meal. After dinner, the bartender called us over to the scarred ebony bar where he stood straight-faced behind his glossy black bow tie. He climbed a ladder to reach a bottle of rum sitting on the top shelf, lined up four shots of rum, then commanded each of us to propose a toast before we all indulged. The aged rum coated our insides with embers and its spicy flavors danced on the tips of our tongues. We all started smiling and speaking louder, filling up the vacant restaurant with laughter, as Johnny and I stretched out our dormant Spanish and ordered one more round. The waitress explained that she was a mulatta – a person with brown skin but with some black ancestry. She was all smiles, especially for Johnny, and invited us to her house to spend New Years Eve with her family.

Crushed by the weight of three flights, we retired to our casa particular where voices from people on the streets crept into our room and pried our eyes open the next morning. The symphony of sounds in the old city begins in the morning with a solo: a crowing rooster. Throughout the day other melodies join in with various tones and build upon each other, but in the morning, the rooster is a solo act.

The coat of sunlight did nothing to rejuvenate the streets that looked like war-torn remnants. We navigated to a bank to exchange money for the local currency: CUCs (pronounced ‘kooks’). The CUC is directly tied to the dollar, but the bank charges a 13% fee for exchanges. $800 became $700 in the blink of an eye.

Backpacks packed and loaded with CUCs, we were ready for Viñales, a town in the countryside two hours west of Havana. We ate a little breakfast – eggs, sausage, bread, a fruit smoothie, and coffee, in a 1950’s era café. We dropped a quarter in an original jukebox that stood next to our table, chose a song, and watched a mechanical arm retract a vinyl, spin it flat, and press the needle to it. Full-bodied salsa music filled the café and swelled into the surrounding plaza. This was the closest we would ever get to experiencing the lives of our grandparents.

Two tiny American flags poked out of the bread brought to us by our 25-year-old waiter who spoke better English than anyone else we came across in Cuba. He could hardly contain his excitement about the recent advancement in relations between our nations and talked confidently about methods to profit from the impending changes. Before we left for Viñales, he invited us to his house for New Years Eve.

Viñales

A taxi driver quoted us a price, we countered with half the amount, he accepted. The highway rested in decent condition and both sides of it were peppered with litter. We were parched after 30 minutes into the scenic drive so we pulled off the road to grab a couple Bucaneros, the local brew, at a hut that was blasting salsa music. Cuba’s natural beauty showed itself in full form, just palm trees, beach, and a mild breeze the entire journey. The taxi driver and his affable friend sitting in shotgun appreciated Johnny’s offline Spotify songs that played through the car stereo. We conversed about all sorts of topics and eventually slipped into talk about matters of the heart. The driver stated his affinity of mulatta women and his friend said that he favored black women – negras. That’s when I realized that race was non-discriminatory topic in their country.

After a couple pit stops egged on by the Bucaneros, we arrived in Viñales. We found our bright blue casa particular, Villa Benito, and were greeted by an affectionate family who brought us pineapple smoothies. Comfort was at an all-time high when a neighbor came over and offered to guide us through the countryside on horseback for $5 an hour. Well twist my arm.

Johnny mounted Caramelo and I hopped on Rocia and we trotted along a dirt path in the mid-afternoon sun. We took a break at a coffee plantation and ordered our first mojitos of the trip. Super sweet, made with honey. A bottle of clear rum was placed in front of us alongside our drinks. Were we being challenged or was this the Cuban way of serving drinks? With looks of confusion spread across our faces, Johnny and I went to work. Laughter poured out of us as we replenished our drinks after every sip.

After putting a sufficient dent in the bottle, we jumped back on the horses and pressed our steeds to quicken the pace. We made base camp at a lake to take a quick dip before continuing onwards to catch sunset at a tobacco farm. Strolling up to an outdoor deck that oversaw acres of tobacco plants, a couple gentlemen with big-brimmed cowboy hats poured four mojitos and presented us with two freshly rolled cigars dipped in honey. We puffed and sipped while watching the daylight diminish through scattered palm trees.

Cuban cigars are damn good. The farmer explained the creation process and it was apparent that he took great pride and enjoyment in his craft. He effortlessly spun the tobacco inside the leaf while his young daughters ran in and out of the kitchen behind him. By the time I smoked three quarters of my cigar and contently laid it down, the farmer had already inhaled through two and was working on his third while simultaneously rolling new ones. He smiled graciously through tiny tinted-black teeth.

The other gentleman, a boisterous fellow with a white smile that lit up the patio deck, brought out a bottle half-full of white rum. Already loopy from the haze of endless cigar smoke, Johnny and I held no reservations to polish off the bottle with him and our guide. When the last drop was poured and our roaring laughter could be heard at the deepest point of the valley below us, we said our goodbyes and saddled up under the dark night sky.

We charged home along the dirt path carrying ample liquid confidence in our guts. Under a blanket of stars, we flew through the darkness, breezing past illuminated leaves on trees that shimmered under the moonlight like a scattered assortment of bright white Christmas lights. “Rocia! Vamos! Caramlo! Vamos!” shouted our guide.

We returned to Villa Benito, washed the dirt off us, and continued to be in awe of the wonderful delights of Viñales. The dinner table awaited us, dressed with plates of freshly picked fruits, rice, plantain chips, sweet potatoes, Bucaneros, and a quantity of lobster that could feed an entire family. Johnny and I looked at each other comically, and devoured our dinner, not coming up for air until everything was gone.

Later that night, our guide and his wife took us down the street to have a look at the local nightspot, an energetic environment with plenty of salsa. Wiped from the day’s activities, we decided to turn in, but first, Johnny wanted to test out his salsa moves. He asked a local girl for a quick dance and she obliged without hesitation. All of a sudden, she broke away and fled outside without saying a word. Johnny isn’t a salsa master, but he’s not that bad. Our guide’s wife pursued her to inquire.

Ten minutes had passed when the guide’s wife returned to tell Johnny to meet the girl on a nearby bench where she was waiting for him. The two dance partners talked for more than 30 minutes and I only understood the situation after we returned to Villa Benito where Johnny briefed me. “She was a prostitute,” Johnny began. “She has a kid and no money to provide for him. That’s why she was out tonight, to find a guy for money. I felt so bad for her so I gave her 40 bucks before we left and she was so happy she almost cried.”

Havana

We snoozed past the call of the rooster, packed our bags after waking, ate our breakfast – eggs, sausage, bread, a fruit smoothie, and coffee, and then said farewell to the amiable family at Villa Benito. We hitched a ride back to Havana with the same cab driver and his friend; they stayed the night, most likely in their car, so that they could drive us again.

Arriving midday in Havana, we met with a friend of a friend named Sergio at a hotel. Sergio, a guide built like a baseball player, wore clean pressed clothes, suede shoes, a thick black watch, and a gold necklace. Like us, Sergio had a business mentality, so we spent the entire day discussing Cuba’s business climate and the impending changes.

Every Cuban was excited about the recent news from Obama, especially Sergio. He believed that the window of opportunity to profit once the embargo is lifted would only be open for a short period of time before the big fish companies seize control. Two keys to success: speed and connections for contracts, licenses, and insight.

We followed Sergio around old Havana while listening to his remarkably optimistic vision of the city’s future. We stopped at a handful of new cafes, restaurants, and bars recently opened by his friends who had eyes as glossy his own. The newfound establishments stood out from their deteriorating neighbors like grandparents at a frat party.

We came to our casa particular that we would call home for the next three nights, Casa Loretta, where we parted ways with Sergio. This house wasn’t the Ritz, but for a couple of travelers in their mid-20’s, the digs would do just fine.

Johnny and I showered up and got ready to seek out salsa. We walked to a corner store to buy some water and a bottle of rum to kick start our rusty dance moves. We met a pretty girl in a tiny dress on the way who walked with us for a while, then Johnny wisely mentioned that we wouldn’t be paying for any of her services and she stopped following us soon after.

Arriving back at Casa Loretta, we came across a girl finishing her dinner in the entry room of the house. She wore a white top displaying just about everything god gave her from the waist up. She asked, “Me invites?” essentially asking us for a glass of rum. We were happy to share so we poured three glasses and said cheers. I walked upstairs to our room and put down the water bottles with a sigh, but before I knew what was what, she walked in behind me with a cunning simper, shut the door behind her, and sat on my bed. She ran her hand up my thigh and asked how much I would pay. My body tightened as if I had been electrified and I jumped with anxiety surging from head to toe. I explained that paying for love is against my morals, but she repeatedly rebutted that it’s legal in Cuba and everyone does it. I became more and more nervous with each passing moment as my breath shortened, until finally, a knock at the door.

Johnny entered and scanned the room, quickly realizing that something was awry after studying my distraught appearance. The extremely tense situation practically made my heartbeat a subwoofer, so Johnny made some jokes and gifted the girl with a couple bottles of travel shampoo. We briskly escorted her back to the entry room and she continued walking out the house. At this point, I could barely speak because I was wound so tight. We sipped on rum to assuage anxiety and Johnny made conversation with the cleaning lady and the chef. They invited us to their house for New Years Eve.

The anxiety had passed by the time we arrived to the salsa club in Havana’s new city. We nabbed a table that faced center-stage and watched the maestro, a cross between Ricky Ricardo and Ricky Martin, sing and dance to fan favorites such as “Vivir Mi Vida”. The audience soon joined the performance and we salsa danced the night away alongside professionals that made us look like a couple of marionettes being pulled by our puppet strings to a haphazard rhythm.

The proprietary noise of the Havana streets is constant and louder than the clamor of any other city, and so, we inevitably awoke to yelling, music, and low-roaring cars. Enthusiastic to get to know Havana on a personal level, we skipped past breakfast and went straight for lunch at a hotel where we could finally use some spotty Internet for $10 an hour.

Seeing pictures and quotes of Castro, Che, and the other leaders of the revolution plastered everywhere, we headed to the Museum of the Revolution to get educated. Here, we began to connect the dots as we learned about everything that transpired in Cuba over the past 60 years. The revolution shaped the Cuban society that exists today.

After immersing ourselves neck-deep in Cuban history, we took a stroll along the Malecón – a walkway that stretches along the ocean for 8 kilometers. As we enjoyed the gorgeous view, Caribbean mist, and caressing sun, a man stumbled up to us and inquired about where we were from. He got excited when we replied, “California”. Switching to English, he mentioned that it was his birthday and then placed a coin in each of our hands. He said that the coins had Che’s face on them and were no longer in circulation. We were a bit confused at the man’s kindness and equally hesitant to accept the coins. Then everything was made clear as he took out his wallet and showed us a picture of his daughter. He said that he needed to buy milk for her and asked for our help. Realizing that this entire interaction was his ploy to get money from us, we returned his “gifts” and gave him whatever CUC coins we had in our pockets. He wasn’t satisfied but we walked away without remorse.

From the moment that we arrived in the old city, people had been striking up conversations with us, only to digress into asking for money. But this man on the beautiful Malecón was the culmination of them all and it was beyond annoying at this point.

We heard that Ernest Hemmingway lived in Havana and frequented two bars that became famous after receiving his seal of approval for their notable drinks: La Bodeguita del Medio, serving mojitos, and El Floridita, brewing daiquiris. So, we followed in the great writer’s footsteps and visited both bars, neither of which disappointed. Both drinks were phenomenal and of the caliber one would expect from Hemmingway. Not too sweet, made professionally.

Johnny was snapping shots of the classic run-down streets when a man walked up and politely handed us a wallet that he saw Johnny drop. It’s ironic that the people have such little money, yet they wouldn’t take money unethically. Havana may look like a dangerous ghetto but that’s entirely inaccurate, in fact, it may be the safest place I have ever visited.

The sky turned dark and the eve of 2015 was upon us. We cruised through the streets wearing white, per usual for New Years Eve, with Bucaneros in hand, talking to everyone and dancing to any music within earshot. For the most part, Cubans spend NYE with family at home, so we primarily crossed paths with travelers like us. A congregation of people gathered at an intersection by Café Paris thirty minutes before 12am. Johnny waited in line at a corner store to reload our empty paws with Bucaneros while I struck up a conversation with a new friend, Alexandra, who was from Germany.

We cheered when the clock struck 12, and Alexandra and I had to be wrestled apart by Johnny and her friend after talking for an hour. It troubled me that we could never meet again, so to prove our resolve in an internet-less city, we both agreed to meet right back where we stood the following evening at 7:30. The absence of Internet and archaic cell service adds an element of chance and faith that has been long lost in the U.S. It makes for completely human-centric interaction and provides a platform for serendipity to dance with romance.

The beautiful beach called to us the next day, and once there, we realized the paradise in America’s backyard that Americans will be able to access once tourism is permitted. 

Back at Casa Loretta, the two gals that cooked and cleaned again invited us to their house for dinner with their families. I gave my word to Alexandra to meet her, so I respectfully declined, but Johnny sympathetically accepted. And so for the first time on our trip, Johnny and I parted ways.

I hurried down the promenade towards Café Paris in a half-jog so that I wouldn’t be a minute late. I looked around the café to spot Alexandra’s golden locks in a sea of dark hair, but my search was in vain, so I grabbed a beer and waited impatiently without losing faith in our tryst. 15 long minutes had passed when she arrived and a wave of happiness splashed over me. We sauntered to El Floridita where we would eventually meet Johnny at 11pm. We enjoyed each other’s company while sipping daiquiris and listening to a live band with a female singer who had a powerful voice that cut through the chatter of the crowd. The band’s rendition of “Bailando” reverberated throughout the bar and filled people’s hearts as they emptied their glasses.

Johnny met us, punctual as usual, with an expression that was in stark contrast to ours, as if he had just visited Fidel on his deathbed. Joining our table with a fresh round of daiquiris, he began to enlighten us about how his night had unfolded. The gals from Casa Loretta lived with their entire families – sons, parents, and grandparents, in a part of town that screamed poverty. The entire house, built of cement, was the size of a one-bedroom apartment and had a kitchen that contained two cinder blocks with a fire between them, and a bathroom that consisted of a pile of dirt and a bucket of water. They all ate dinner and then danced in the same room all together – the kids, our cleaning lady and cook, their parents, and their grandparents.

All the people asking us for money on the streets, all the women who wanted to sleep with us in exchange for CUCs, all the negotiations where taxi drivers would try to squeeze the most juice out of us – it all made sense now. They lived on $30 a month and had to do whatever they could to ensure the necessities for their families.

The eye-opening evening took a toll on Johnny so he and his most trusted travel companion (his camera) went off to capture the essence of Havana’s zealous streets. Alexandra and I continued to talk and drink sweet rum until the night faded into day and the rooster took the stage to perform his solo act.

Varadero and Back

Johnny and I packed our bags for Varadero, the beach city east of Havana where tourists go to bask in Cuba’s finest natural beauty. We headed to Plaza de Armas where we made an agreement with our taxi driver the day before to meet and drive us. We waited for almost an hour, but he never showed, and the annoyance of not being able to call someone sunk into us. We negotiated with a driver in a glossy classic car who offered to drive us for almost twice the price of our original agreement. We had no leverage so we agreed with disheartenment.

I took a siesta for the first hour of the drive and awoke to a fantastic view of a lush valley juxtaposed with the ocean and some goofy clouds dancing above. The sight for our sore, red eyes was accompanied by a renowned piña colada served in a fresh pineapple.

We reached Varadero, dropped our bags at a new casa particular, and made a beeline for the treasure – Varadero’s charming white sand beaches. The beach stretched as far as the eye could see and patio decks serving drinks were set at intervals.

The next morning we were for scuba, and it was the simplest dive of our short scuba careers. I threw on a spring suit, strapped up with equipment, and walked out into the water. The visibility was much further than in my past dives, and the water was substantially warmer than California’s. Our guide broke off a piece of fire coral and cut it against my arm to give me a taste of the sting. He only pressed it against my skin momentarily, but it felt like a torch was searing my flesh for minutes while 100,000 needles pricked at my arm from the inside. It was an unwelcome souvenir that stayed with me for months.

We spent the rest of the day cruising the beach with a bottle of rum and made new friends (which isn’t hard to do with a bottle of rum in hand) until our final sunset in Cuba was in front of us. We would spend our last night in Havana to avoid any potential logistical issues with our flights, so we returned to our casa particular to meet our taxi driver. He showed up an hour and a half later than the time we had scheduled. While waiting, we followed our noses to the next-door neighbor’s house that was set up as a quaint restaurant with a brick oven in the backyard that cooked pizzas.

Back in Havana, we stayed in the new city for our last night in a casa particular that completely eclipsed all the others; a nicely decorated, large, clean house just steps from the beach with multiple rooms and a piping hot shower with great water pressure. Perhaps this was a preview of the change that we can expect from Cuba in the coming years.

In a moment of perfect synchronicity, two friendly girls were walking by us just as we arrived. One girl was an English translator and it happened to be her birthday. She invited us to join her party at a nearby club that night and we accepted her offer with pleasure. We went to our kitchen to prepare a couple Cuba libres and reflected on our experience in Cuba thus far.

We arrived at the club and immediately noticed that the crowd was full of young and beautiful people, a much different crowd than in the old city. A live band was playing traditional rock instruments while onlookers enjoyed themselves under the stars. We went to the bar and a gal held eye contact with me. She came up to us and asked me to buy her a drink while caressing my leg as her friend made her way to Johnny. I looked at Johnny nervously and we both knew the story that was now transpiring, so we slithered out of their clutches.

We easily found the two girls that invited us because they were shining with birthday delight. I told one about my situation with the girl at the bar and how uncomfortable I felt when so many other women in Havana asked me for money. She empathized and we had a nice conversation for a while. As we said goodbye, the girl said that she would meet me back at my place in one hour if I gave her some money…

The next morning we went to a café for some breakfast – eggs, sausage, bread, a fruit smoothie, and coffee. We spent our last CUCs on a couple Bucaneros at the airport and took off with no trouble or interrogation. On our flight back from our adventure I couldn’t help but think of the irony of Cuba. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara fought and spurred a revolution so that Cubans could live with justice, dignity, and health, and not be forced to endlessly pursue monetary gains like capitalistic pigs. But today, after 60 years of economic decline, Cubans are aggressively chasing after money just to put food on the table. The U.S. embargo may be lifted soon, and if that occurs, everything will change in Cuba. How so? Only time will tell.

Photos by: John Spiezia

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