La Habana en Cuba

La Habana en Cuba

The trip ended with 10 hours of intense stress as on the last leg to return home, I checked-in the wrong suitcase at Miami Airport. The one with my laptop, camera gear, compact flash cards and backup drive. When I realized the suitcase I still had was the one I was supposed to check-in, it was too late to get the other one back. I started to stress about the fact that all my pictures (on top of my gear) was in that suitcase and that if it went missing I would have lost everything! Luckily, my husband had the bright idea to have me pack his backup drive and he had mine, so I was a little relieved when he reminded me of that fact. Well, my suitcase and all of its content made it but boy! Did I learn a lesson…

We were able to visit Cuba under a people-to-people license granted by the US government. This is a program that President Obama has extended to more companies in the past few years and that allows them to send American citizens and residents to Cuba. The company we chose was Santa Fe Workshop with the company of Syl Arena. We stayed for 7 days at the Hotel Parque Central at the door of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), overlooking the Prado, 10 min walk from the Malecón (officially Avenida de Maceo), a broad esplanade, roadway and seawall which stretches for 8 km (5 miles) along the coast in Havana.

I wish I could have spent another week in La Habana. For the first few days, I was just happy to be there, looking right, looking left, looking up and down. Clicking the camera pretty much randomly at what I thought La Habana was (like what I’ve seen in the pictures). Yet, I couldn’t figure out what made this place feel so special to me. This is another tropical island after all and I visited many. And I was distracted too. My husband was not feeling well to start with. Other people started to get sick as well so I was careful not to get sick myself. We had to follow our group schedule too, which was pretty intense as we added our own schedule to it (pre-sunrise and post-sunset walks).

The beauty is not found where I first thought it could be found when I think about tropical islands. There is no turquoise waters visible from La Habana Vieja. Half of downtown is under heavy renovation. Scaffolds are everywhere. Half-destroyed houses where people still live in could be seen every few houses. Balconies are supported by extra beams.

What was a shopping center next door to the Parque Central back in February when the first group was there, now was just a building surrounded by a fence with no windows and no crew working on it. We heard they were waiting for the construction materials to arrive. The saying goes “Es Cuba. No es facile” “It’s Cuba. It’s complicated” Even the Capitol has scaffolds up to its roof and a fence all around to prevent access. During our visit, we would walk in a street in Old Havana (that is mostly pedestrian) and the next day, the street would be a construction site with holes and cobblestones everywhere.

Small sheds made of recycled corrugated iron are seen in bigger buildings courtyards and used as workshops or stores. And to top it all, the air is polluted by all the fuel emissions from the old cars and busses and whatever has an engine.

Yet I was feeling that beauty was all around me. I realized why that was, about 2 days before the end. And that’s why I wished I could have stayed some more to finally take pictures and recordings of what makes it so beautiful. You could try to summarize it by saying it’s the people of Cuba that makes it beautiful and in part it starts there. But it is much more complex than that. It’s their smiles, it’s the children playing baseball or soccer in the streets. It’s teenagers diving in the sea on the Malecón. It’s the passion with which they talk about the “revolución”, it’s the tears building in their eyes when they tell you they love Fidel, it’s how proud they are of their education and health system. It’s the kiss sound they make to get your attention to get you to choose their restaurant or get into their taxi. It’s the clothes they wear. It’s the colors of their cars. It’s the 138 Cuban flags on display next to the Jose Marti platform.

It’s the walls displaying posters of Fidel or the Che or the Cuban flag.  It’s how fast they work with so few machinery to finish the street they just dug holes in the day before. It’s the Afro-Cuban festivals. It’s the mojitos and the special reserve rum.

It’s the cars that keep running even when the key jumps out of the ignition. It’s the smell and the color of ripe fruits at the market.  It’s how fast they will ride a BiCitaxi to get you ahead of your group even on the most bumpy streets. It’s the dad proud of his son as he wins the boxing fight.

It’s the smell of home cooking when you enter houses. It’s how well they dance. It’s that poor guy that crashed his car into a tree on a Sunday morning at sunrise. It’s how proud they are of the work they do. It’s the chicken they will buy with the money you gave them for their cigars. It’s the cook that gives you her recipe of pulled pork (the best I ever had). It’s the woman who breaks the quail egg to show you how fresh it is.

It’s the music always in the background.

It’s the sounds and colors of La Habana en Cuba. It’s the people of Cuba. And for that I put it on my list of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.