When our cruise ship docked in Havana, Cuba on the morning of June 4th, we hurried up to the deck to get a glimpse of the city. I admit, part of the appeal was the forbidden nature of the place. Though Americans had been coming to Cuba for a few years now, it was still not a popular destination. At least, I had never met anyone else who had vacationed in Cuba, so it was a big mystery in my mind. What would it be like? Would they be happy to see American tourists, or would they resent our descending on their home?

The first thing we noticed was how run down everything was. Beautiful, as it was a mixture of Spanish Colonial style carved facades and Spanish Revival buildings designed to impress the American travellers in the 30s, when Havana was a popular hangout for gangsters and expatriots. But it looked like nothing new had been built since the 50s, and nothing had been kept up. Crumbling roofs and abandoned warehouses surrounded the port. Most buildings had large blue plastic jugs on the roof to collect rainwater, we were told later, for the days when the city didn’t pipe water to the houses. Another ship was parked beside us, so we didn’t see the Spanish fort across the bay, only the formerly glorious buildings and the road that ran along the shore with its never ending stream of classic American cars.

We lined up to disembark, our passports and visas ready, to head through customs. It was much less arduous than I expected. They collected our visas, took our picture, checked our passports and we were in. The security lines, metal detectors and x-ray machines for our bags were policed by women, busty women, in mini skirts, fishnet stockings, and tight fitting shirts, sometimes not even fully buttoned. I’m not sure what the reasoning behind this uniform was. I thought it an odd first impression to give tourists. Later that day I saw a nurse walking down the street in a similar uniform, all in white with a nurses cap on.

Che Guevara and other heroes of Cuba. “Faithful to our History”

Our tour guide the first day was polite, but cautious. Some passengers assumed a Castro was still in power, and she explained they had just gotten a new president earlier that year, appointed, or elected. I wasn’t sure if she had corrected herself because she misunderstood the language or to sound more democratic. Rather than give her opinion of the new president, she explained that he had a lot of changes that he wanted to make, had to deal with several hurricanes hitting the island, and had a lot of work ahead of him. When asked about the massive images of men’s faces that decorated public areas, she told us proudly about the revolution, and their main hero, Che Guevara, who defeated Bautista and freed Cuba. There were no images of Castro. It was part of his will to not build monuments to him or put his image around the country, preferring instead that the money go to the people. She was proud, you could hear it in the way she spoke about her country and her heritage. Cubans are reclaiming their African roots, and are proud to call both Africa and Spain part of their background. 

The wall of the patio of Fuster, the artist behind Fusterlandia

We stopped at the Plaza de la Revolucion, famous for all those speeches by Castro, drove through the wealthier parts of Havana where the embassies are, and then stopped at Fusterlandia. This is a community project, a neighborhood where an artist had spread his art all over, not just covering his own home in bright mosaic murals, but the whole street. He left his home open most mornings for tourists to take pictures and shop his art. We explored the place, I have a few parts to translate still as there were poems worked into the walls, and then bought some souvenirs at the stalls set up across from his home. This was the first time we realized something was going on. As we got back on the bus, a woman from the neighborhood was chewing out our tour guide. She shouted that Cuba is for the Cubans, and how dare they park these giant buses in front of their homes and what we were doing there. Our guide remained calm, mostly ignoring or only making small comments in reply. But it made us worry.

On one hand, I can understand the frustration of coming home to your neighborhood crawling with American tourists. We do tend to have the reputation of being loud and rude in other countries. But if you live in a neighborhood covered in creative art, where the artist invites people to come in and explore, you would think you would expect there to be tourists. Living in Philadelphia, I don’t have tourists in my immediate neighborhood, but if I lived on Elfreth’s Alley, I couldn’t complain about them coming by. It’s part of living there. I’d be out on the street giving tips on where to get the best cheesesteaks and what buses to take to get around town. It’s part of being proud of where you live. Of course, if those tourists were from somewhere like Russia while that country was making aggressive overtures to the US, I might feel much the same was as this woman did.

El Morro fortress and Faro Castillo, the lighthouse

We finished our tour at El Morro, the original Spanish fort that protected the bay from pirates for a few centuries, so well in fact that no one had ever taken Havana by sea. The British had to land in the east of the island and march on Havana, holding it hostage until Spain traded Florida for it. Cuba was the central hub of Spain’s operations in the Americas, being a perfect distance between the Yucatan and the Gulf Stream that took their galleons to Spain. T the fort we shopped for the things Cuba is famous for, and that Americans longed to get hold of: rum, cigars, and coffee. Well, OK, maybe that last one is just me. I purchased two large bags of cuban coffee, as I’m not a smoker, and I’m content with Puerto Rican rum. The tiny shop was mobbed. There were some more stalls outside the fort as well, where we picked up some more souvenirs for my nieces. Most of these were small wooden objects with Cuba burned onto it, little cars, fans, boxes with beaded flowers on top.

We debated exploring Cuba on our own, but we were hot and tired and just wanted to relax for the afternoon. When we returned to the ship we overheard some conversations about the new sanctions, so I immediately got back on my phone. That’s when we saw the announcement that Trump would be closing down American travel to Cuba. We were shocked and not quite sure what to think. Would we have to leave early? Would the Cubans ask us to leave, or refuse to take us on tours? We went to bed uneasy and sad.

Our tour guide the second day was different. He made jokes about more things. When asked about an ‘ugly’ tree in the parking lot, an old banyon tree that had been trimmed to keep from damaging nearby homes during storms, he shrugged and said, “Well, it is a socialist tree.” This tour involved riding in some of those amazing classic American cars through the streets of Havana. We rode in a hot pink 1951 Chevy with a young man who seemed to be new to this job. He was friendly, and funny, and with his spotty English and my spotty Spanish we managed to get along well enough. We saw the row of embassies again, as well as the Bosque, a large wild forest with some more ‘ugly’ trees and overgrown everything. They also took us down Neptune street, which was our first look at the real Havana, the kind of things we like to see when we visit other countries. This was what would be South Street in Philly, narrow, crowded, lined with cafes and banks and cell phone stores. Our driver knew several people along the road and fielded what sounded like a few friendly jibes.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba

We ended the tour at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. We were looking forward to this as a famous hangout of Hemingway, among other writers and notaries from the 30s and 40s. It’s a huge, beautiful building, still in very good repair, down to the Spanish American War era cannons facing the sea. We had mojitos, my first, and it was more refreshing than anything else. A small group of musicians serenaded the tourists and sold CDs. I found it curious, amazing even, to see how much American culture was part of their heritage too, how proud they were of their connection. A lot of our runaways spent their days in Cuba, getting away from prohibition, or crimes, or drafts or whatever American thing was pulling at them. We have shaped each other more than we know.

Back on the bus, as we drove back to the ship, our guide asked us if we knew what was going on politically. He was legitimately sad. He too was proud of his country, but had family in Miami, and had lived outside of Cuba for a time. He said he was sorry for the wrong decisions being made on both sides. He wanted people to be able to come and enjoy his beautiful country, he wanted tourist jobs to be available for the people there. He spoke more openly about how things were in Cuba. He pointed out that Cuba has classic American cars because those were the only cars people could get, other than the tiny Russian cars that the Soviet Union brought in. But those were expensive, and it was easier to fix up the old ones. He let us know why the cruise ship had warned us which version of Cuban currency to get when we exchanged our money. The federal government only pays their employees in the old currency, even though it isn’t worth much now and is only good for the subsidized services like education or health care. If a Cuban wants clothes, or a phone, or to eat out, they need the newer currency, which was worth a little more than the American dollar. ($1=.87CUC) He remarked that socialism is the longest road to capitalism. Now that the Soviet Union is no more, Cuba has few other income opportunities. It was sugar that they shipped to the USSR, and now mojitos to the Americans. Without that income, he seemed at a loss to say what would keep Cuba afloat now.

We had originally wanted to get to Cuba because we wanted to see it before it changed. We knew, after visiting Puerto Rico, what kinds of things would change as American culture flooded in. Cuba looks like a place not frozen in time, but left to decay. Cuba needs to become part of the world to keep from collapsing, but it shouldn’t have to become a copy of America to do so. Puerto Rico had no choice, becoming part of the US after a we won a war, and though they have hung onto their language and part of their unique character, it is very much American now. Cuba is for the Cubans, yes. But they are also a part of our world, one that is getting smaller all the time. It makes me sad that so many sweet, creative, lively people are cut off from us because of the choices of our respective governments, and I hope that soon we will all be able to put aside our squabbles and come to know each other as fellow citizens of that world.