Incredible beauty, a little sadness, immense possibilities, resilient; Havana, Cuba is in transition, probably unlike anyplace ever before.
I, unfortunately, am not a historian, and in particular, I know very little about this country; so please take what I say as only my feelings at this moment.
Imagine it; endless color, crumbling relics, infectious smiles, fear, the scent of gasoline mixed with tobacco fumes and a hint of cheap perfume, the sound of bongos combined with passionate conversations. It’s all here and makes you wonder, how does it work? It just does. The answer is revealed in an elderly person’s wrinkled face, written in a young adult’s tattoos, and seen in every child’s eyes; this is Cuban life. They just make it work. There are many lessons to be learned here, and I can tell you first hand; the Cuban people are eagerly waiting for you to hear their stories.
“Oportunidad” is here, as the facelift begins. There are so many reminders that Havana was once a world class city (on par with Paris or Rome in my opinion), and I am certain it will be again. It won’t come fast by any stretch of the imagination, but it will happen. The sense of knowledge, history, and intelligence is evident in the landmarks. Culture, creativity, and imagination are obvious on every street corner. There is a lot of construction, many renovations, and in some cases, just a fresh coat of paint for now, as the people of this tropical (SO HOT HERE IN JULY!) nation prepare for us to join them here in a conversation over a mojito or cafe con leche.
Almost everybody asked me “de donde eres?” (where are you from) and when I say “Estados Unidos” a look comes over their face of pure joy, and I hear again and again, “I love America”, “My brother lives in Cleveland”, “Welcome”, “Oh my God”, “My cousin is in Miami”, “The past is the past, we are family again”.. and my favorite is “What do you think of Cuba”; when I can finally use the word “fantastico” (I don’t think I have ever had the need to use the English equivalent “fantastic” in a conversation, but here is seems like the only choice). I have traveled quite a bit in my days, and in recent years it is rare for people to go out of their way to make me feel welcomed. Here I get nostalgic, the feeling of being unique, like I did traveling to Eastern Europe in the 90’s to places like Romania and Bulgaria, where most people weren’t used to seeing a tall American with a camera walking around.
So, to answer my own questions about Cuba; yes, young lovers stroll the famous Malecon hand in hand kissing, yes, the streets of Old Havana are crumbling (but rebuilding), yes, the people are beautiful, yes, the classic cars are everywhere (and they are in perfect condition), yes, people really say “dale” like Pitbull, and YES, the coffee is strong as hell.
This is what I’ve learned on my first day which was amazing, enlightening and perfect. I’m off to hit the streets for day two. Please check back here for updates on my travels and eventually the full post-trip post.