The Unexpected Cuba

Every city has its own music. Havana’s is best characterised by the cacophony of beeps and honks (emitted from decades-old Fords, Buicks, and Moskvitchs/Москвич alike) that – strangely enough – melds into a fascinating symphony when paired with the salsa/samba/rumba music reverberating on every street and plaza corner. Havana’s music reflects its vibrancy: its vibrancy of people, and richness of culture. I hadn’t anticipated such a vibrancy when I first embarked on this trip. Havana’s diverse and open culture took me by surprise, and I fell deeply in love with the city – waking up to the morning vista of waves crashing down upon large sandstone blocks on the Malecón; walking out into masses of jineteros and well-intentioned Cubans alike, always ready to strike up a conversation; fretting and obsessing over every little patch in Habana Vieja, and being utterly overwhelmed by the complete sensory experience of sights and sounds and fumes and meaty wafts and beeps – olfactory, gustatory, tactile.

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Yet what I loved most of all were the people. Initially I had wanted to see Cuba’s old vintage cars and colonial architecture. I wanted to see a country still living in the 60s, frozen in time by the trade embargo imposed on it by its once-close neighbour to the north. But I was wrong to think that the allure of Cuba lay in those postcard-worthy picturesque snapshots: that is simply the surficial (and somewhat superficial) side of Cuba, the side that tourists come to ogle at from the other side of the pond. What Havana truly boasts is a diverse and energetic population; from the sun-tanned schoolchildren skipping in the streets in their mustard-yellow uniform, to the wrinkle-adorned aged men sitting in their crumbling doorways. The Cuban people live in a precarious state of limbo. Havana is a city constantly trying to reckon itself with its weighty Communist past (and present), but also yearning to propel itself into a future of globalisation. Havana’s beauty lies in its imperceptible but tense state of equilibrium: the constant pull at the two extremes of past and future. It is a struggle that manifests in its people; the Cuban people hold on the one hand traditional and steadfast values, but they wrestle on the other hand with the temptations and benefits of capitalism (more material in Cuba than ever before, now manifested in the form of Cuba’s dual economy), and all the virtues and vices the beginning of globalisation has brought.

One only has to walk out onto the streets to witness this tension. We were duly warned of jineteros in Cuba, or “street-hustlers” allegedly out to make money from tourists. I was naturally on my guard that first morning in Havana. Especially coming from the relatively deserted and serene environment of Stanford (campus is like a ghost town during school breaks!), plunging headfirst into throngs of Cubans and fume-emitting vehicles (and the occasional disconcerted European tourist) was overwhelming to say the least. Within minutes of emerging from our Airbnb – a beautiful apartment with a wonderful host, Teresa, who is a professor of medicine at the University of Habana – we were assaulted not only by the musky car fumes and gritty, sandy wind, but also by throngs of curious Cubans.

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“Where are you from?” A lanky, tanned Cuban man eagerly offered us his hand as we walked past the Hotel Nacional, one of the oldest and grandest hotels in Havana.

“Singapore.” I shook his hand tentatively, but felt the urge to press onwards.

“Ah, Singapore is a good country! Very, very good!” Like most of the Cubans we encountered in the following few days, his face lit up when he heard the word Singapore. Cubans have a special fascination with Singapore, which is somewhat heart-warming but surprising. This makes the average Havanaian more globally aware than the average American – it’s concerning how often I still get asked in America: “which part of China is Singapore in?” But the average Havanaian is no stranger to Singapore; the little island-country is an inspiration to them, a model of a conservative society that has successfully risen with modernisation in the short span of a few decades.

Our new Cuban friend kept pace with us for a good few hundred metres, leaving his post at the hotel entrance and telling us about the best place the buy cigars, what we should do when we’re in Havana, detailing the various people he’s met (“not many people from Singapore! You special, lady!”) He showed us all the different currencies he had from all over the world. I felt uneasy, and thought he was out to get us to spend money at a shop so that he could take a cut of the profits.

He tried to pass me some CUP (Cuban pesos – as Cuba is a dual economy, there are two currencies – CUP for locals, and CUC or Cuban convertible pesos for foreigners), but I declined, thinking he might ask for something in return. He turned to the friend I was travelling with, Niall, and handed him the note. And then he said goodbye and took his leave.

“Wait, did he not want anything from us?” Our good-natured friend was truly just that – a good-natured and curious person who wanted to get to know us. Embarrassment and guilt flooded my senses, and I vowed never to let my caution turn into brusqueness again.

Within seconds, another Cuban man in a dusty grey t-shirt and sporting a beer belly came up to us. He introduced himself as Julio, and walked with us through the old town, showing us its little nooks and crannies. I hadn’t abandoned all caution – and surely enough, he ended our unsolicited mini-tour with an invitation to a glass or two of basil-lime Negroni at a little artist’s corner. We ended up paying for his drink, and also wound up giving him an extra 5 CUC for him to buy food for his family. Perhaps it was a scam, and we were just unsavvy tourists that got tricked by a jineteros. But I think it was entirely worth it; he walked with us for a good half an hour, telling us about the daily rations and his day-to-day life in Havana. If 5 dollars was the price we had to pay to have a good conversation with a decent man trying to make some supplemental income to support his family’s nutritional needs, then so be it. It was a price I was willing to pay. People will tell you to avoid jineteros at all costs. I beg to differ. For the most part, jineteros are neither dangerous nor bad-intentioned. They aren’t even swindlers. They’re humans, each grappling with a need to make ends meet, but also each harbouring a friendly curiousity and willingness to interact with anyone that crosses their path.

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Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the Cold War-esque American attitude towards Communist countries (or ex-Communist, in the case of countries like Russia) that many people I’d told back in Stanford reacted with astonishment to my plans to travel to Cuba. Cuba was perceived as dilapidated and hostile at worst; it was grossly exoticised at best. I’m not sure what I had expected – definitely not a dilapidated and hostile country, given that I had friends and family who had visited a couple years prior to raving review. But I had not expected the open-mindedness and tolerance that greeted us the moment we stepped off the plane into the basic, no-frills José Martí airport.

We musn’t jump to conclusions about the Cuban system. A brief spell of four days in Havana only exposed my ignorance about Cuban politics and social life. I hardly know enough to comment on the country’s situation, and I hope to return for a longer stretch (this time to visit other cities and the Cuban countryside, and equipped with a better grasp of the Spanish language) to better understand the fascinating country.

Yet if there’s anything I’m sure of, it is this: there is so much potential here. Despite the negative image the country has unfairly borne since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuba exhibits many unique qualities that we can learn from. Yes, it is true that many of the Cuban people live from day to day, trying to scrape together some money to try to supplement their rations and basic income. Our tour-guide-o-jinetero Julio is testament to that struggle. It is true that there are many people who live in poverty. But it is not true that people are unhappier here than anywhere else in the world, and it is not true that it is a country closed off from the outside world.

There is one thing present in Cuba that is sorely lacking from the rest of the modern, developed world, especially in light of the events that have taken place this past year. What Cuba has is an open-minded, tolerant, and utterly encompassing sense of community that I have not seen anywhere else in the world, whether in my travels or in the countries I have lived in. The nature of Cuban society is incredibly communal (well, as my mum pointed over Facetime, Cuba is a communist country after all.) There is nary a Cuban citizen that wouldn’t help out a fellow Cuban in need (or even a foreign tourist in need!) There is very little racial discrimination. Despite being a petite Asian woman in a country of darker-skinned Cubans and predominantly white European tourists – I hardly felt any extra or unwanted attention. Nor did I feel like I was treated differently, which is more than can be said for my experience here in the United States, or even back home in Singapore. We often don’t realise how hyper-aware our societies are about race until we have the chance to step out of them. Racial differences are always prominent, whether spoken or unspoken. A well-meaning Singaporean friend once commented that he didn’t like the idea of me dating my (ex)boyfriend just because he was American and white. Even – or perhaps especially – in the politically correct, socially liberal microhabitat of Stanford, protests and discussions about race bring these problems to the forefront every day. I don’t mean to say that these problems shouldn’t be discussed; racial tensions are a problem in the United States, and it should be brought to attention. After all, Trump won the election in large part by building his campaign on divisive anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. But my point is, this isn’t a problem in Cuba, so no one really has to talk about it. And it is so, so refreshing.

In our modern day prejudice against Communist countries, we tend to overlook some of their greatest achievements. Fidel Castro passed away during my flight back from Havana to San Francisco (a relief for my concerned parents, but unfortunate given that it would’ve been very interesting to be in Cuba in the immediate aftermath of Castro’s passing), and in his wake there has been a torrent of articles online about Castro’s atrocities and legacies. As some noticeably un-American news sites point out, there are things to be admired in Cuba. I do not mean to praise a totalitarian that has surely committed many wrongdoings against human rights and free speech – having made a few Cuban-American friends here in California, I now know second-hand how Castro’s regime oppressed some of their families; but I also do not wish to discredit the achievements the country has achieved. Cuba’s literacy rate stands at an incredible 99.8%. Healthcare and education is free, and it’s not exactly terrible either. There is much room for improvement, as there always is – but there is also much to praise.

When it came to our last evening in Cuba, it seemed surreal to think that our time here had gone by so quickly. But Havana shattered our expectations once again. It was 8pm on Thursday night, and we made our way to Fábrica de Arte Cubano – art gallery, techno-jazz-tango club, bar, and even opera concert venue all in one. Even before walking in, the building’s purple-and-blue-lit industrial exterior struck an imposing and cutting-edge exterior, reminiscent of Berlin’s edgy and underground nightlife. I felt like I had been transported back to Berlin. The entire space is housed in an old factory, but the interior is anything but monotonous and grey; upon walking in, visitors are greeted by an eclectic mix of artwork (some outwardly anti-Communist, see below), wooden-panelled rooftop terraces, vinyl-decorated tango spaces… It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is no place on earth quite like F.A.C. We climbed some creaky wooden steps up to another section of the factory, and exchanged confused looks. Was that Mozart’s opera arias playing in the background? It was. We walked into a vast hall of people milling about, enjoying Mozart’s grand pieces and sipping on Mojitos and 2CUC Piña Coladas. Above the huge space was an open exhibition showcasing the residents of an abandoned Cuban village. It was a confusing, fascinating, and utterly astounding mix of Western and Cuban influences, and I loved it. Later, we sat in on amazing live soprano concert, before heading back downstairs to watch a couple of Cuban dancers dance the Argentine tango to the electric music of the Gotan Project.

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It was 10:30pm, and we were loath to leave. But we hopped into a taxi and made our way to La Zorra y el Cuervo – we couldn’t possibly leave Cuba without visiting a jazz club. It was an out-of-this-world, synesthetic music experience – with each resounding sound of the trumpet we were drawn deeper and deeper into the immersive Cuban jazz scene. Enough words, I leave you with a video to tell the story.

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My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.  – Ernest Hemingway

In the spirit of Hemingway, I have penned down my thoughts on Havana in one of my longest blog posts yet. 2000 words were hardly enough to describe all that I saw and felt in those few days. There are countless experiences I’ve yet to share – watching pinkish and purplish tinges diffuse across the sky as the sun set over the Malecón, reading a Hemingway novel in the courtyard nestled away in the lush greenery of his idyllic home of Finca Vigia (a literary enthusiast’s haven and heaven 20 minutes out of Havana), feasting on succulent whole grilled lobsters for USD$10… Havana has truly been a dream.

Adiós, Cuba, pero no por mucho tiempo.

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Pictures mostly courtesy of Niall Sohan, so lucky to have such a great friend, travel buddy, and photographer in you!

Published by ruruhoong

Part-time economist, writer, tanguera. Full time glutton.

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