I’ve never seen a place like this. From the air, it seemed a little like the sprawling Midwestern fields I’ve seen so many times. If it wasn’t for the ocean, sand, palm trees, and lack of many massive highways, I might of thought I was going home.
Even though the customs officer welcomed me to her country, I had a hard time believing I was really here. After leaving the airport we passed dilapidated buildings complimented by billboards sporting nationalistic or socialist propaganda, and along side old cars pumping out plumes of black smoke. In the US when a truck coughs out its diesel refuse the odor can be overpowerfully sickening, but here in Habana the mix of ocean air and cloudy pollutants is refreshing and serves as a constant reminder that I really am not in my own country any more.
The view from our apartment further bolsters this fact. From the front, we look over the Caribbean, with only the Malecón sea wall separating us from the water. Although I know that Florida is under 100 miles to the north, it seems as if the ocean never ends. I can’t even begin to imagine how thousands upon thousands of people since the Revolution have taken to that daunting, endless horizon. However, the view from the back of the residence gives a clue. From there I can look over much of Cuba’s capital city, and all of our neighborhood, El Vedado. Vedado is often considered the best and most beautiful parts of Habana, and rightly so. It boasts numerous towering edifices and homes that if not for fading paint and rusty gates, would certainly be considered some of the most beautiful in the world. Upon driving down Paseo, one of the larger streets in Vedado, it becomes immediately obvious that many of these houses were once mansions, and likely served some of the wealthiest Cubans of years past. However, from our American enclave on the 13th floor of one of these tall Vedado residences, the years of neglect, degradation, and economic stagnation have taken its toll on this magnificent city.
This became more obvious on our first trips to Habana Vieja, the old colonial center of the capital. Habana Vieja is the most obvious example of Havana’s deep contradictions. The oldest part of the city, with its colonial structures, numerous monuments, and amazing museums is predictably a hub for tourism. But it is also one of the most economically devastated areas of the capital. Many of its roads and buildings sit in a state of nearly complete disrepair. And it seems as though there are an endless number of Cubans selling various trinkets and services. However, maybe most striking is the way that socialism is sold as an exotic treat for tourists. There must be hundreds of places just in this neighborhood where one can buy Che Guevara regalia or a book on Fidel Castro. This is a contradiction about which I’ve read so often, but I obviously was not ready for. Despite this, Habana Vieja still has a magical feel. Even while the side alleys are full of wrecked concrete, it’s plazas boast colonial buildings full of color and during the day its vivacity is palpable. And maybe that’s why it appears so magical, because the city does not hide is faults and fissures. Because its glory and its failures stand side by side, and for this it seems more authentic, more real. And after flying across the Florida Straits, away from the superficiality of Miami, this authenticity is much needed.
To wrap up my first post, I’ll recount one anecdote that brought me face to face with the difference in cultural norms and attitudes. On the way to Habana Vieja, we took a maquina (a kind of informal taxi system run mostly by men with the old American cars the city is famous for). I couldn’t make out much from the driver’s rapid Cuban spanish but once he found out I’m American he slowed down a bit and commented on the corruption of my government, run by the war-mongering puta negra Barack Obama; no hard feelings though , he reassured me. Even better, he went on to let me know that nobody in the streets of Habana will bother with me because I’m black, and people of my color are seen as delinquents and much feared. And from his point of view, this is good news for me. Even though I was prepared for this abrasiveness on issues of race, I can’t help be flustered and feel the effect of culture shock. On further reflection, though, I might prefer the candor of the Cubans to the behind the back gossip so rampant in the United States.