If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time now, you know how I write. You know that I use profanity sometimes and yes, I can be a bit reactionary and opinionated. Isn’t that what a personal blog is for? Your opinions about something? Your firsthand experience?
This post is purely emotional with a dash of politics thrown in. How can you not glance at the political aspect of Cuba? But… mostly, it’s about Cuba’s sights and sounds. Its food and its people.
For the last 57 years or so, Americans have been “banned” from Cuba. Yes, there have been ways to get there via a third country or by some special exemption to the embargo, but legally, traveling to Cuba as an American tourist has been a no-go.
In January of 2016, former president Obama had the good sense to reduce the restrictions and basically open Cuba up to Americans. Thanks, Obama!
Yes, Cuba nationalized American financial interests without compensation, but that was in 1958. Castro — Fidel, anyway — is gone. The island of Cuba is ninety miles from the American coast. Does it make better sense for a terrorist organization or a hostile regime like Russia to get a foot-hold there?
I know Russia is a “sensitive” topic at the moment. But in my humble opinion, it’s far wiser for the United States of America to step up and use the diplomacy it’s been famous for to resolve a difficult issue. Maybe nothing will ever be fully resolved, but to make the effort means more to me than anything.
I, for one, am thrilled. I don’t give a single shit about the oil refineries that were seized in 1958. The U.S. oil industry has done just fine in spite of it. The minute I heard that U.S. citizens were able to travel to Cuba on their own vessel, I was in. I (selfishly) wanted to meet and talk with the Cubans first-hand. I didn’t want my impressions to be filtered through another journalist’s interpretations or blog posts, much like this one.
When we arrived in Marina Hemingway, Melody and I were riding a special sort of adrenaline rush. We had planned for so long to do something like this, arriving actually made me a bit weepy. Once we got checked in and safely parked on the dock, we had one beer at the Tiki Hut and the adrenaline disappeared. We promptly went to bed.
The next morning, we awoke refreshed and eager to explore. We took a right out of the marina and walked a couple of miles to the small village of Sante Fe where we stumbled upon a small cafe. A line of locals blocked a portion of the sidewalk where a guy served up delicious pork sandwiches. For a total of 5 pesos each (about $0.20), we devoured those things, then hopped in a crowded cab for a ride into Havana.
What struck me immediately was exactly what strikes most first-timers to Cuba: the automobiles. The streets of Cuba are bustling with the hum of 1950s American cars. Chevy, Ford, DeSoto, Oldsmobile, and Jeep. But the “hum” is a little different than one would expect.
This, our first Cuban cab ride, was in a 1952 DeSoto. What I never knew about these cool old cars is that most, if not all, have replaced their original American V8s with Russian diesel engines. That familiar Detroit “hum” was now a chugging, clunky, smoke-spewing shell of itself. A crime, right!? I know.
But gas is extremely expensive. None of the locals could ever afford to keep those thirsty American V8s. One driver told me buying a new engine was cheaper. Seeing these old convertible Chevys and Fords chug black smoke from their oily Russian power plants makes my head spin, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
When we got to Havana, scooters buzzed close. The streets were alive. Crowded and vibrant with activity. We walked around with wide eyes and an eagerness to eat something. Anything. Street food, sandwich shop, bread… anything!
The first place we found was on the corner of M17, just down the hill from the Hotel Nacional. La Baliza was a small, very local place that served hamburgesas. Basically it’s a hamburger, but since beef is nonexistent in Cuba (as far as we could tell) it’s made with ground pork mashed into a hamburger patty and served with cabbage and other spices. Along with that, they served pina frappes (frozen pureed pineapple) that looked delicious. We each had a hamburgesa and drank enough of those frappes to give us brain freeze. Our entire bill was equal to about 3 bucks.
With bellies full, we braved the heat and stumbled upon a local outdoor market where we ate another pork product and marveled at the pig heads propped up on tables. Other tables were stacked high with peppers, cabbage, potatoes, and tomatoes. Eggs were yet to be seen, as was bread. Beef was nowhere to be found. But pork? Lots of pork and chicken.
The people were incredibly welcoming and willing to engage us gringos with our sub-par Spanish and they were too polite to correct us when we completely flubbed their language.
Mostly, we just walked and walked… and walked. Mel took a stroll through the Panamerican Market and scored some Gouda cheese and fabulous bread. I would have joined her, but carrying a backpack through the market was not allowed. I waited outside and had almost as much fun people-watching.
We ended the afternoon in a place called the California Cafe, which we knew was a pricey gringo hut, but we did it anyway. The young waiter promised his mojito would be best we’d ever tasted or he’d give us our money back. He didn’t disappoint. It was perfect.
A 1956 Buick Riviera was our chariot back to the marina. We talked for a good long while with our driver Jorge and he was pretty candid about things in his country. Rarely will you find a Cuban willing to openly discuss politics. Although no one will say it directly, you are encouraged to refrain from engaging in open political discussions with the locals (so they don’t get in trouble). The reminders are subtle, but they’re there. This is still a communist nation.
Our conversation skipped quickly from politics to cars. In particular, his 56′ Buick. He was incredibly curious about our lifestyle. I invited him to come aboard for a cold beer, but he declined. Jorge wasn’t allowed to visit our boat. We met several people who I wanted to invite to the boat, but they aren’t allowed on board. Cab drivers have to basically “check in” with the marina security when they come to get you or drop you off.
One thing we had heard and read was that the food in Cuba is terrible. I have no idea what they’re talking about. We found a small “restaurant” in the tiny town of Jaimanitas, just east of the marina gates, that rivaled any meal I’ve ever had.
Granted, it’s simple. There’s little in the way of presentation and you may not get a napkin. We ate chicken, rice, black bean soup, and cabbage salad. All cooked to perfection and fresh as it’s ever gonna be.
Up to that point, we had been unable to find eggs anywhere. With the help from a local to communicate our request, the restaurant was gracious enough to sell us a flat of thirty! Real, unrefrigerated eggs with blazing orange yokes that tasted like heaven to me.
I’ve been ranting about the eggs in America since Melody met me. They taste like cardboard. Washed, sanitized, and chilled to their bland, crappy best… ye-ha. No thanks. Give me eggs with placenta still on the shell. Don’t wash ’em, and don’t you dare get those beauties anywhere near a refrigerator.
In our first few days in Cuba, we also had the pleasure of getting to know Victor and his wife Cathy on board s/v Kisma. Victor is a native Columbian with duel citizenship. Cathy is from Mississippi. They’ve been married for 42 years and they’re the cutest damn couple I’ve ever met.
Victor’s Spanish is impeccable of course, so traveling to the market with him was awesome. Passing local fishermen on the bridge, I’d ask him, “Victor, how do I say, ‘Did you catch anything?'” And he’d tell me. I’d ask, “Victor, how do I ask where the bakery is?” And… he’d tell me. Melody and I learned so much from him and loved every minute we got to spend with him and Cathy.
The thing that captivated me most about Cuba was the people. They smiled at us. They tried their best to understand my gringo Spanish. And they never once asked for a handout or gave us the wrong change.
I will be honest. When we first arrived, I expected to be hassled and hustled the minute I dared to escape the confines of the marina gates. The exact opposite occurred.
One night, Melody and I found ourselves lost deep in a neighborhood after the sun went down. I got nervous as two men approached us in the street. I expected the worst. Instead, one of the young men, knowing we were lost, tried his best to direct us back to the marina. When I said we were actually looking for a particular restaurant we thought was close, his eyes lit up and he said, “Ah… Si. Si!” Then he walked us to the door of the place.
In another trip to Havana, we met Ariel, a man with one leg, who walked with old aluminum crutches. He spoke incredible English and insisted on hobbling along with us to show us the neighborhoods Americans rarely venture into. With tour guide precision, he showed us Callejon de Hamel, the Afro-Cuban art district near the Hotel Nacional. He said Americans don’t often visit because the neighborhood looks sketchy. It did look sketchy but don’t let that stop you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the reception.
He introduced us to the artists that created the work we were seeing. He took us to the bar where the Rolling Stones hung out. He was sweating his ass off trying to keep up, but insisted on continuing. He told us about the hospitals (and how there were separate, nicer hospitals for the tourists than the ones reserved for the locals), showed us the food lines and explained the government rationing and the ways of the Cubans that we might not otherwise see.
Then he needed a rest. As we stood together on the street, he said to me, “Governments will always be governments, my friend. But we are people. And people must always be people. We must be friends.”
That exchange will never leave me.
On another occasion, Mel and I wandered into a small house in Jaimanitas that had some artwork for sale on display. It was around the corner from the famous artist Fuster’s house that we were heading to see.
The homeowners invited us in and we spent an hour talking with Nelson and his wife Marianella. Their twin boys were the artists and they were magnificent, each in their own way.
We bought a piece of art but Nelson wouldn’t let us leave just yet. He insisted on showing us photos of himself as a young man in the military. He took my hand and said, “I spent many years in Russia learning how to make war. Efficient ways to wreak havoc and I’m glad we are friends. America and Cuba need to be friends now. It’s been too long.” I couldn’t keep the welling in my eyes a secret. I could only smile and nod. It was a fantastic moment.
This was our experience with Cuba. We didn’t seek these conversations out. We were advised not to engage in political discussions with the locals and frankly, I couldn’t give a shit about politics anymore. I wanted to see Cuba. I didn’t want to discuss how they felt about Americans coming to Cuba. I just wanted to immerse myself and be an observer. It was impossible to be invisible. The people draw you in.
The rest of the world has been visiting and enjoying this country for years. Cuba doesn’t need saving. They aren’t clamoring for the American hand of prosperity to drop dollars from the sky. What they need is an infrastructure that doesn’t collapse on their heads when a hurricane hits them. They need drinking water. They need their streets paved, and if you asked them, they’d tell you they could do it themselves.
I’m torn about Cuba. I know its people don’t have it easy, and I don’t understand the communist economy structure well enough to have a position on how it all might change for them. I do know that the day Starbucks and McDonald’s enter the picture, the Cuban people will be less healthy and probably less happy.
Their reefs, mountains, and inland areas have been unmolested. They have some of the last remaining species of birds and wildlife on the planet. I hope they value that and keep a tight grasp on mining rights and resort construction along their shores.
I’m not sure what this administration will do. Personally, I think Trump is the most dangerous man on the planet. If he decides to retract what Obama put in place, I’m not sure it will change too much for the Cuban people. For me, I would still go to Cuba with my middle finger raised as high as humanly possible so as to be visible from the Kremlin West (our White House).
I’m not a political writer. This is a travel blog. A sailing blog, and some of you get quite perturbed when I even tip a toe in the political theater. But, it’s impossible to talk about Cuba and not talk about the politics of Cuba. The politics of America’s relationship to Cuba.
Please don’t take this as an opportunity to post your political diatribes or tirades in the comments. I’ll delete them. I’m simply stating my opinions and my hope that the USA keeps the relations with Cuba moving forward and not backwards.
What I hope you take away from this post is what I hope you take away from every single post I ever write. Inspiration. If you’ve been dreaming about something, do it. Life is short. People get sick. And, whether you’re married to a supermodel or you have a trust fund of epic proportions, you never know when either one will run out.
If you’re thinking of Cuba, I would say book your flight. Stay one night in the fabulous historic Hotel National and take in Havana. Then, get the hell out and go stay in a Casa Particular — Cuban style. They’re about 25 bucks a night! You can’t beat that.
Engage. Try speaking your crappy Spanish. It’s okay. Mess it up. But make the effort.
If you go to all the Hemingway sites, be prepared to stand next to a hundred of your closest friends who also want an overpriced mojito at the Floridita. Go anyway. Drink the good rum. Buy a Cuban cigar and smoke the shit out of it. I’m not a big fan, but do it anyway. After all, you gotta go to know!
Much love, people.