Cuba was always on the list. Flying from Montreal this summer seemed like a good time to go. So we went! Three weeks and we barely scratched the surface. While the last 60 years Cuba spent stuck in the 50′s, things are quickly changing.
We have traveled in third world and communist countries. Cuba is not a typical example of either. There is an unsettling feeling in Cuba that something went terribly wrong. We couldn’t shake the sense of stopped time, aborted progress, a split in the fabric of history that led to the alternate reality of crumbling palaces and ancient cars. This stagnation is a backdrop to a vibrant and easy going culture. A culture that takes solace in music, art, dancing and simple social interactions. Such crumbling vibrancy overwhelms your first impressions, but once you get a bit acclimated you start to notices the changes. There are lots of newer cars on the roads. Soviet cars that used to be a contrast to 50′s Chevys are being replaced by modern european and korean models. People are doing business in the streets, selling american products and promoting private restaurants. Flat screen TVs and computers can be seen through the windows of many homes. Old town Havana is being renovated with Unesco money. German, French and Russian tourists are eating in cafe’s and strolling along the waterfront. There is an impression of a pent up energy that doesn’t know its own power.
These changes are in stark contrast to streets outside of touristy old Havana. Within 5 or 10 blocks the streets are bleak, the 19th century apartments are crumbling and people pass the time sitting in their doorways. A large percent do not have a job. All the jobs went away with the loss of Soviet Union’s support. The ones who can hustle for a living, the rest scrape by on government pensions and subsidies. The parallel universe exists on the back streets too, the most dangerous looking neighborhoods are not dangerous. We walked through some of the worst areas, drank rum with locals on the street, talked politics with beggars, economics with engineers not much richer than the beggars, photographed empty butcher shops and pharmacies. Their genuine curiosity was not twisted by greed or hate. How long is this going to last?
Three weeks in Cuba, three cities: Havana, Trinidad, Cienfuegos. Just long enough to get a taste for the discrepancies, the beauty and contrasts of a culture on the precipice of major changes. We didn’t fall in love with the country, like some who visit Cuba profess to experience. There is a strong intrigue that we feel, a desire to learn and participate in more of the real Cuba, to hear their stories and plans for the future. There is a magic that is just under the surface of the peeling exteriors and hopeless circumstances. The magic of a people who have an uncertain but hopeful future.
We have some stories to share, stories of our stumbles and explorations of the streets filled with beautiful light and rotting trash, playing children and gas fumes, happiness and grief living next to each other…..
Roma and Natalia are world travelers, photographers, and an all around fun couple. When they are not travelling far away continents or driving around USA in their trusted Highlander, they can be found in San Francisco, California.