One of the trendiest vacation destinations for Americans completely underwhelmed me. Perhaps expectations of Cuban cigars, classic cars and a laid-back atmosphere poisoned me to the reality I immediately perceived of deep economic and social problems masked with a tourist-friendly facade; the entire impression felt as though I was watching a performance with a simultaneous eye on the happenings behind the curtain.
There are a few places I never need to return to and Havana is one of them. I knew going into it that it was a place for European and American tourists and “the real Cuba” existed in the rural areas not the capital. Nevertheless I was looking forward to a four day reconnaissance trip to scope it out to see if I wanted to come back to explore the rest further. I anticipated that I would see lots of touristy stuff – vendors, solicitors, “authentic Cuban X” for display and sale; none of that was a surprise. Nor was the highly curated 4-block radius of Old Town Havana — which is delightfully cute and very clean. Musicians playing in cafes and bars, asking you for tips. The classic old American cars from the 1940s and 1950s really are a thing and they are pretty cool. It’s illegal to buy a new car in Cuba someone told us — so all of the existing cars are upkept very well. Owners take pride in keeping them bright and shiny in order to charge a premium on taxi driving to visiting tourists in an auto classic who are given guided tours of the city. You can find great deals on very high quality Cuban cigars. A statue of Ernest Hemingway at the end of a bar that helped popularize the daiquiri. All photogenic and charming scenes for a post cards back to the states or an Instagram post telling everyone “hey look I’m in Cuba!”
The first three nights we stayed 3km away, on the outskirts of Havana, outside of the touristic downtown; what a dump. Houses and buildings that hadn’t seen a fresh coat of paint for 50 years — litter and garbage piled on sidewalks. No landscaping or gardening. Local neighborhood parks and playgrounds more resembling post-apocalyptic slums. This seemed to match more the red-scare propaganda instilled into little would-be-Socialist brains in my country just as Old Town’s curated Cuban nirvana seemed to play upon the optimism of every hipster wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt. The dichotomy was hard to conceptualize and foremost among it the disparity between perceived success and failure of its inherent economic system. What’s the real story here?
The weather didn’t help my attempts to rationalize the appeal of Cuba. It was hot, muggy and overcast without a breeze for much of our visit — add in people trying to sell me stuff and trying really hard to be my best friend and show me around — yeah I really hate that stuff. It would be hard to leave with positive impressions; but I really wanted to. The day before our departure we took a day trip to what we learned was the best beach in Cuba — about 4 hours drive east of Havana in Varadero. The beach was immaculate and the water that pristine azul you’d think you have to be in south-east Asia to experience. The weather was ideal – clear blue skies, warm weather and a light breeze. I got incredibly sunburned (the stores nearby did not selling sunscreen and the beach umbrella I hid under all day in retrospect was slightly sheer). Our friendly taxi driver brought us to a restaurant for lunch — a restaurant whose prices were four times more expensive than they really should have been; we left before ordering and presumably before our taxi driver got a kick-back, on account of me feeling a little fed up with the whole there’s-a-white-guy-visiting dynamic. I pridefully forced us to eat at the $2 hamburger stand with the other locals, instead.
But my favorite memory of Cuba came one sticky afternoon in Havana — a 5 minute taxi trip back to the hotel we were staying at. We debarked at our destination paying the taxi driver and his co-pilot the same $10 we had paid others twice before for the same journey. Imagine the surprise when hearing that no — the fare was $50 because we rode in an auto classico. In fact — he wore a wry smile in relating this to me and his delivery was so well rehearsed there is no doubt he had delivered these lines to a hundred others before — hot and sticky, acquiescing to a taxi ride back to their hotel only to be stuck with a $50 ride on account of being driven in a car that happened to be older than them. No way – I gave him his $10 and took with me a disgust and vitriol for the established perception that this country is more than a big, phony paper moon in the eyes of enamored Europeans. Our hotel was gracious in defending our annoyance — apparently after we retired to our room he entered and threatened to call the police. Hustling tourists; fleas upon a capitalist dog. No thanks.