Everyone’s talking about Cuba these days, and I am thrown 20 years back to when I first visited this special island, and left it with mixed feelings about its future. I was 20 years old back then.
During a summer internship in Caracas (that’s a whole other blog post!), I remember meeting a beautiful Venezuelan woman – a testament to the country’s many miss world. She told me how she had been involved in a romantic relationship with Che Guevara in her youth, growing up on the island with her diplomatic father. I was already fascinated by the story of Cuba, and the many myths surrounding its history. This encounter sparked a thrill to explore it. I found 2 travel companions and we bought a roundtrip ticket Caracas-Curacao-Havana, just because it was cheaper using that route and it gave us a chance to spend a night in Curaçao and drink some…curaçao.
We stayed in La Habana for 4 days, what an impression it made on me! It was the summer of 1995 and Cuba was very much closed to Western tourists. Cubans were not keen to interact openly with foreigners for fear of being spied on. Guest-houses were forbidden. Privately-owned restaurants, called paladar (they had existed for years illegally) had just been allowed to open to customers selectively. They were all the rage among the few foreign tourists as they gave us a rare chance to interact with the locals behind curtains.
A few photos that I digged from my archives. There were no digital cameras back then, and that’s all I have left…
It’s in one of those paladares that I remember eating turtle. To this day, I regret the bite. I am not sure what were the Cuban rules about hunting endangered species, and regardless, I was a bit stupid to fall in the trap of trying out something I knew was illegal to eat elsewhere. But it does say something about life in Cuba back then. Everything was done behind closed doors. And the locals would do anything they could to earn hard cash, i.e. dollars. Similarly, I don’t remember how we came across the friendly couple who hosted us in their apartment in La Habana Vieja, but I do recall that he was a dancer, and they told us to keep it low if asked where we were staying. The taxis we took would never leave us in front of our house, we had to ask them to stop around the corner, just in case.
I loved my days in La Habana, I loved doing all sorts of things I was not supposed to. I was just twenty.
I was mesmerised by the atmosphere, the salsa and rumba playing on old radios, the faded colours of the decaying buildings, the graffiti displaying Hasta La Victoria Siempre, the old American cars of course. I felt I was privileged to have managed to come early to the party.
These are some of the books that I bought in front of the cathedral. I was fascinated by the life of Che Guevara. I’ve kept the postcard in my special drawer all these years!
One day, we took a day trip to a sleepy fishing village called Cojimar, on the northern coast. We had heard of a delicious fish restaurant there, La Teraza. And what a special place it was! Ernest Hemingway’s presence could be felt everywhere, and he was one my favorite authors. Que suerte. Hemingway was featured on the many black and white photos adorning the walls and his soul filled the restaurant. We had a feast in that same room where he had many drinks and meals with Gregorio Fuentes, the first mate of his boat Pilar, and with the local fishermen of Cojimar. We might have been the only customers that day and after a long meal and a few mojitos, our waiter told us that Gregorio Fuentes was actually still alive, smoking cigars quietly in his little house down the road. We could not believe our ears. The old man. From the Old Man and the Sea. We walked to his house and knocked at the door, he greeted us with ease and class. I recall that he was really old and we chatted with him for a bit. The room was obscure, perhaps to keep it cool. The shutters were closed and he was seating in an armchair, exchanging a few words with a big sonrisa. This moment stayed with me ever since.
I stumbled upon this very pretty sketch above when researching for this post (I could not remember the name of the fisherman village and the restaurant!). The artist is James Richards. Sadly, it seems that La Teraza has become quite a tourist-trap too.
There’s something else that I remember from that trip, and it’s not nearly as romantic. One night, we heard of a salsa concert in one of the big hotels on the Varadero, the sea front of La Habana. It was crowded, loud and sweaty-smelling. It was lots of fun and I danced and danced to the sound of the live band, but then I started understanding the dynamics. Many young Cuban women were out for the night in the hope of bringing some dollars home after meeting the gringos. It broke my heart, they were my age, perhaps even younger.
And that is the other side of La Habana as I remember it. The queue in front of the only supermarket supplying basic goods from abroad, accessible only to those able to make some dollars, the taxi drivers, the paladar owners, the waiters in the fancy big hotels, the girls at the salsa party. On one hand, the fact that everything was pristine, untouched by the Western world, picture-perfect. No ATMs, just dirty peso bills. No McDonalds, just Moros y Cristianos (rice & black beans). Education and health care for everyone! And on the other hand, that craving for dollars, for freedom of speech, for pencils to draw with, because the most basic things were so hard to find.
I went back to Cuba a few years later. I was working and living in NYC then and the embargo with the US was still strictly enforced. So we travelled via Jamaica with a girlfriend. It was only 5 years later but I noticed slight changes. Or maybe my eye had become more used to travel? I remember that some teenagers were wearing Tommy Hilfiger tee shirts and asking us if we had spare clothes with the Ralph Lauren logo on. Oh why, but why, I asked them. They were not asking us for pencils anymore, they were asking us for branded clothes and dollars.
In the following years, I started hearing about the European smarty-pants who’d go partying in La Habana for their stag nights (Oh why, but why, I asked myself). I started hearing how Spanish and Italian hotel chains were opening left and right – and I wondered if their beaches were still forbidden to locals, unless they’d be accompanied by a foreigner. I started hearing how La Bodeguita del Medio, the famous bar where Hemingway liked to hang out, had become a tourist trap. (Check this out: La Bodeguita has a franchise business now. Who’s up for opening La Bodeguita in Soho?!?). How Floridita’s daiquiri had become really overpriced.. And I thought to myself: I am glad I went there early to see it all.
I wonder what Hemingway would think of Cuba today.
Above, some vintage books that I bought at the flea market near the cathedral, including a copy of A Farewell to Arms in Spanish.
Further reads & watch:
Jayne Gorman’s Colours of Cuba
This comprehensive guide about Cuba with Kids
This short but visually enlightening documentary about a skater in today’s Havana.
And The Old Man and the Sea, of course, by Ernest Hemingway. Here is an excerpt, from the very end of the book:
That afternoon there was a party of tourists at the Terrace (La Terraza) and looking down in the water among the empty beer cans and dead barracudas a woman saw a great long white spine with a huge tail at the end that lifted and swung with the tide while the east wind blew a heavy steady sea outside the entrance to the harbour.
‘What’s that?’ she asked a waiter and pointed to the long backbone of the great fish that was now just garbage waiting to go out with the tide.
‘Tiburon,’ the waiter said, ‘Eshark.’ he was meaning to explain what had happened.
‘ I didn’t know sharks had such handsome, beautiful formed tails.’
‘I didn’t either,’ her male companion said.
Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.
This is my old copy of the Old Man and the Sea. I’ve treasured it all these years and was so happy when Marcelo read it recently, and enjoyed it.
Ps: I’ve lost contact with my two traveling companions on this first epic Cuban trip. We had fun, and also enjoyed sharing this eye-opening experience. None of the social networks existed back then (now, I really do sound old!!) and I barely remember their names. But hey, guys, if you read this one day, drop me a line and let’s get together for a mojito!
Have you been to Cuba recently? Will you say a few words about it?