Enter: the 24 hour dance party that is Havana. No matter the corner I turned or the hour of day, from street-level to the rooftops, I heard music playing that made me want to break out into a poor attempt at a cha-cha. The music alternated between the Rihanna and Despacito of today, to the Cuban jazz trills of yesterday.
This soundtrack still lingers in the background of every scene from my trip to Havana last December. My brother and I eeked out booking just before our country’s leadership (eye roll) changed the rules, so we managed to fly, stay, and venture around completely on our own. That’s not to say we didn’t interact with locals (I see you, people-to-people visa): from sumptuous breakfasts prepared each morning by our hosts at our casa particular to a cooking class with a mother-daughter duo, we mingled with the locals–not because we were told to, but because that’s the best way to experience a place.
... And experience it, we did. Huddled around an uncomfortably large gas container (no further details were provided or available), we connected to Wi-Fi. Each night, at a consistently inconsistent hour, we accessed a consistently inconsistent internet connection. On the street. Thanks to a man we paid 1 CUC to, handed our phones to so he could punch his Wi-Fi password into, we returned to the First World for a while. With us, 10 or 15 locals did the same. Each buried in the blue light of their devices: chatting or texting or tweeting. “Where there’s a will, there’s (a) Wi-Fi,” I thought. And in Cuba, I’d learn during my short visit, there is a will–for everything. Though it’s often expressed in whispers, after looking over your shoulder.
What many Americans have at the tap of an app, we found behind a veil of inconvenience in Cuba. Would you like to enter a state-run grocery store? Sure, but please check your purse or bag-of-any-kind beforehand. Would my ‘valuables’ be safer in my hands, or in the bag check? I took my chances on myself and carried my phone and wallet with me. Would you like to purchase some cheese? Sure, but you’ll have to wait in line, pray your Spanish is sufficient, and make a request with the employee manning the locked display case. Also located behind said display case: six meats (no, not six types of meat–just six packages of meat), one bunch of grapes, all of the store’s sweets (I looked), and all of the store’s crackers (to go with my cheese). In plentitude on the shelves? Rum. Dark rum; clear rum. Shelves and shelves of rum. Also: wine, pasta, water, ketchup, and hot dogs. Josh chose the hot dogs–and I’ll give him credit, he ate every last one. Upon collecting our supplies, and retrieving my perfectly-guarded purse, we returned to our Airbnb and immediately, thoughtfully, replayed what we’d just seen.
“So, that’s Communism,” we mused. Plentitude for some, bare shelves for others. To the music of a song you smile and tap your foot to.
Like many cities, Havana offers stark contrasts; violent juxtapositions. Crumbling buildings next to opulence. Eye-catching colorsplashes side-by-side with abandoned concrete ruins. Rich, and poor. Happy, and hesitant.
So what did we learn from our first foray into a Communist country? Number one, don’t drink cocktails with ice (*cringe*). Second, the Cuban people are still very much enamored with ‘their President Fidel.’ His presence and power lingers–from billboards and graffiti to the minds and lips of his people. Third, and most importantly, the pursuit of happiness is a universal endeavor. Despite governments, geographies, and modern amenities, in travel, you’ll be constantly reminded that we have more in common with one another than we have at odds. And despite visa restrictions, any travel experience was–and always will be–about connections made, people-to-people.