A mix of prior advice left me more than open in terms of what to expect when the plane touched down at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba. Stepping out on the tarmac, the air was thick from a recent rainfall and walking on Cuban soil felt surreal. Moving through the airport to customs, anxiety ran high as conversations faded to silence. Visas in hand we had one last barrier to cross.
Growing up, Cuba had been an elusive destination. A history lesson taught in schools. Only films and documentaries gleaming light into what life was like on the other side of the infamous past. Our grandparents remembered the lavish hotels and spectacular entertainment Havana offered from the 1920s to the 1950s. Famous visitors like Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Ernest Hemingway romanticizing and glorifying the city at the same time. All memorialized in a great deal of nostalgia which have fixated the imaginations of every generation to come after them. Myself included. To be there didn’t even feel possible.
Outside of the airport stood a weathered middle aged man holding a sign with my name. He waited patiently as we exchanged the small amount of Mexican pesos and US dollars we had in our possession. We had been unable to take out money in Mexico as originally planned and trouble with our bank left us dependent on my younger brother to withdraw cash from his not so grown up bank account. Altogether we had a few hundred dollars. Yet, there was a small shred of hope we would be able to come by more, somehow. Our driver informed us it would be $30 CUC to get to central Havana and we jumped in the car.
There are two currencies in Cuba, Convertible Pesos (CUC) and Cuban Pesos (CUP). For all intents and purposes, 1 USD is equivalent to 1 Convertible Peso or CUC. However, in Cuban Pesos, 1 USD is equivalent to 26 CUP. CUP is the currency of the Cuban people and most tourists don’t ever use it during their visit.
In my head I ran over everything we had previously committed to that required money — classic car tour around the city (60 CUC), homemade breakfast every morning in our casa particular (5 CUC per person, per day, totaling 45 CUC), and plans to take a trip to Cienfuegos or Trinidad (120 CUC). Every activity drastically reducing our daily allowance for necessities such as food (and alcohol). The stress and anxiety was overwhelming, yet fleeting. As we made our way into the city my mind refused to stay occupied on anything other than the visually stimulating culture outside my window.
The main thoroughfare we took cut through neighborhoods ranging in levels of dilapidation — some quite charming, others struggling to stand. Ready to crumble to the ground without a moment’s notice. Our car slowed to an idle pace as we drew closer to central Havana. The people seemed to do the same. Perhaps it is the sweltering heat, but everything moves in slow motion there. Children pass a soccer ball between one another across a torn up street while women stand guard in front of every doorway, unsuccessfully fanning themselves from the dense air drenching them in a layer of sweat and dust. Looking out the window, you could tell what the city use to be. The romance turned quite literally into dust — preserved only in the nostalgia of what use to be.
That 45 minutes in the back seat stretched on indefinitely as I was consumed by the disparate reality of my surroundings. All the while, our cab driver enlightened us with a history lesson. “Growing up we were taught English is the language of the enemy,” he remarked nonchalantly. “You could get thrown in jail for even speaking it.” Those words were as jarring as they were uncomfortably real. Never before had we visited a place where the US had been so recently considered an enemy and so we asked more questions to clarify the current school of thought.
He expressed how grateful the Cuban people were for the free housing, education and healthcare the 1959 revolution provided. But in the same breath, how limiting the political structure could be when it came to earning a living on individual goals and ambitions. And how much the younger generation is ready for a change.
Meeting our host family, they expressed similar feelings. The ability to be self-employed and rent a casa particular, like the one we were staying in, has only been available since 2011 and comes with a hefty tax from the government for doing so. They shared interests in visiting the US and other destinations, but the idea of travel was improbable. The money they had was used to serve basic and necessary living requirements. Not to mention, the restrictions by the government are hard to overcome even if money wasn’t an issue.
With a newfound understanding and perspective, we set out to explore more of the town. Indulging in delicious Cuban fare and too many mojitos, talking to everyone who could understand our broken Spanish.
The following morning was when reality hit and our fears were confirmed — we had absolutely no access to money. Laying on the bed pinching together our last remaining bits of cash, we reexamined our priorities for the next three days.
A fateful encounter with a young Australian traveler changed the course of our visit dramatically. Our new friend had spent some time studying in Havana the year prior and was back to master the Spanish language. We exchanged home phone numbers and prayed our schedules would align. Which, thankfully, they did. Having little money, we leaned on him for advice and he showed us just how easy it was to live on a few CUC a day.
We exchanged our CUC to CUP and stopped overpaying at tourist locations. Instead we had more interesting and questionable meals for roughly 20 CUP (less than 1 USD). We indulged in an 80 CUP bottle of rum and made Cubra Libres at home on the patio. We watched the sun set and the people go by. Some stopping to chat in the street or engage in a game of dominos until the sun rose back into the sky. We attended a free concert at the University and learned which hand signals flagged the taxi collectivo, or shared cabs, to take us to local clubs. People cram in beside you as you make your way down pre-determined routes in hollowed out vintage American cars. Our day trip out of the city took us to the local beach, instead of a new city as originally planned. Every experience more authentic than the previous as we became more comfortable.
I had never planned on simply existing in a place. Typically a well-organized individual, I make sure that trips are set up for success. A balance of organized activities and free time to explore candidly. The management comes from fear. I am terrified to pick the wrong attraction, miss something important and not have the perfect experience. But looking back on my previous travels, those things never radically changed the way I saw the world.
What truly moved me was experiencing the lives of others. Walking as they walk. Talking (or at least attempting to) talk as they talk. Doing as they do. I didn’t just think about what they worried about, what made them happy, I asked them. I tried to understand. Typically I make assumptions and hypothesizes about places on a lot less information.
Cuba is now more than ever an evanescent destination. Americans come to see the vintage cars and decaying Spanish colonial edifices. They want to see Cuba while it is still frozen in time, before it changes into something else, something more familiar. But the fascination of it all obscures the reality of the situation, made only somewhat clear by our own limited access to money and resources. With an average monthly salary from the state equivalent to $20 USD and restricted freedoms, the country is craving growth. The goal of the American tourist seems to be quite opposite of the Cuban people, who yearn for the influx of American investment, and the change it will bring to the country.
Sitting in the now familiar chair on our conversant patio, I asked myself, what is the right approach to travel? Does it need to be easy, lavish, original, or insightful? I don’t intend to have such a well-orchestrated experience that I control the outcome and restrict the natural process traveling and exploration provides. I definitely enjoy the finer things in life and indulge in them quite often, but this time I had prepared so little that it left me to truly experience something based on feel, thought, vibe, and instinct. It led me to the organic moments I crave with every trip. By getting it so wrong, it finally felt right.
And then just like that my Cuban life was over.