Stepping out into Havana from the sterile atmosphere of the little airport is akin to stepping back in time. Brightly colored and well kept Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets zip past with three or four people hanging out the window calling greetings to those passing by. I felt as though I should have been wearing a fitted frock and plucky little heels from the 1950s instead of a maxi dress.
One of our first stops was the Hotel Nactional de Cuba, the famed hangout of Frank Sinatra, Mickey Mantle, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando and Ernest Hemingway. We sat in whicker chairs on the expansive, plantation-styled patio overlooking the lush lawn, sipping coffee while surrounded by chatty men in fedoras and cigar smoke. That’s another thing about Cuba—you’ll learn to love the scent of cigar smoke!
William, our guide, was an extremely opinionate Communist who loved to tell terribly dirty jokes and was the life of our party. Everywhere we went Cubans were eager to talk, learn about our lives, and share their views on politics, science fiction movies, jazz, and The Daily Show. While many in America may not agree with some, all, or parts of the Cuban Revolution, Cubans are eager to share their achievements. They have the highest literacy rate in the world, everyone has a place to live, everyone has access to medical care and food, and their biggest export is knowledge.
In walking the streets of Havana one realizes two things very quickly: the first is that reverence for Ché Guevara is still high (his visage is everywhere you look), and the second is that there is an opulence of life among the crumbling buildings. Because of the embargo, Cubans have had a rough time repairing and restoring their architecture. But there’s something almost romantic about the crumbling Spanish style buildings, a faded glamour that I’ve only ever seen in fashion spreads. In America most of those gorgeous buildings would be deemed uninhabitable and promptly abandoned, but not in Cuba.
A woman is carrying on a conversation from a third floor balcony to her friend on the second floor; an old man sits in a doorway smoking his cigar and waving hello to everyone who walks by; a young lady holding a baby steps inside and comes back out again with a tiny cup of coffee and hands it to her mother; a young man pedaling a bicycle cart filled with garlic stops to sell to an elderly woman; and a group of fashionable twenty-something’s are playing jazz riffs on the corner while another couple dances in the streets. No one is talking on their cell phone or tweeting or updating their Facebook status, and the flicker of a TV screen flashes from maybe one in a thousand windows. All the radios are tuned to music.
If there is one thing to take away from visiting Cuba, it’s the attitude of the place. The sense of community and life and love among the people and the feeling that we’re all in this together.
Enjoy a drink on the front porch of the historic Hotel Nactional de Cuba.