Leaving the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, my young cab driver listed out loud the American presidents, which he was able to do all the way back to the Nixon Administration – in order. For him, my new Cuban-born and raised compadre, it was beyond exciting that I was from America, and for that reason he wanted to tell me everything he knew about the U.S. He spoke in stuttering English about politics, baseball, and most enthusiastically- rock n’ roll. Did I like Elvis? Yes. Did I like Chuck Berry? Of course! We were instantly friends, laughing at our commonalities as we drove through the quiet night, zooming down the streets of Cuba, which until that moment had been one of the most mysterious places to me in the world.
I had signed up to visit Cuba as a cultural exchange student- I would be taking Spanish classes, and getting to know the culture of a country that although only 90 miles away from Miami, is mostly unknown to Americans. My lively ride to my casa particular, my home within a home during my stay, was a great start to my trip, but I couldn’t wait to learn more about the Cuba I didn’t know – I wanted to find out what rumors would be shattered and what ideas of this seemingly untouched nation I would find to be completely true, or utterly false.
My kind driver dropped me on a dimly lit street in Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), politely said goodnight, and drove off. He would be one of many incredibly helpful, friendly, and outgoing Cubans I would meet during my trip, and like I would feel over and over, I missed him a little even though we had only met for a short time. I rang the bell to the home address I had been given, and a moment later the door opened, drawn ajar from the third floor of the building by a string dangling down the stairwell. I walked up old stairs and was greeted by a sleepy, yet welcoming teenager, who invited me into the home of his family, and showed me to my modest and accommodating single room.
The next morning, I woke up early for breakfast. Coffee, eggs, and toast were served to me as though I had always lived there, and I had a chance to meet my host family, as well as a few other guest, some from the U.S., and other from Europe- Sweden, Germany, France; students who were taking Spanish classes or dance classes in Cuba for a longer duration than my visit would allow. Without even having the chance to experience any of the city for myself yet, I listened to their plans, wishing I could stay longer than the allotted time I had. I had a feeling without even having seen much of the country, that I loved Cuba without really knowing why.
After breakfast, I attended Spanish class, held in the living area of our casa, taught by a local, energetic Cuban man who encourage all the students to see as much of the city as possible. Daily homework requirement: to adventure as much as we can? No problem. I was ready. Immediately after class ended, I was out on the street and ready to explore. Even early in the day, the city was already busy with locals and tourists flooding the streets. The warm, tropical sun was a perfect compliment to the Salsa music I could hear in the background, flowing out of restaurants and bars that were in full swing before noon. As I made my way down the sidewalk, travelers in bike “Bici Taxis” flew by, offering a cheap and easy way to get around Havana’s narrow cobbled stone roads. One common misperception that I had- Havana would not be crowded with tourist because American’s had certain restrictions on traveling to the country. This could not be more untrue- Havana is bustling with adventurers eager to soak in the rich culture and music scene, the temperate weather, the mojitos, and the incredible architecture. I barely walked a few feet before I was approached by a native who wanted to know where I was from, and what I would like to do while I was in Cuba, only having the motive to suggest their families’ own restaurant or their friends’ bar, and this continued to happen throughout my visit. I was delighted by how helpful everyone was, and safe I felt- a feeling that would stay with me for the duration of my visit.
As I continued on my walk, I found the Plaza de la Revolucion, the Museo de la Revolucion, and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, all breathtaking and within minutes of my casa. Only a few short blocks away, the Malecon lined the ocean- the famous street was continuously pounded by waves as an endless stream of vintage cars that pass by. By the time the evening settled in, I was ready to take a break from walking and I made a visit to the Floridita, a bar made famous as Hemingway’s old stomping grounds, serving the best daiquiri in town. The bar was crowded, but I managed to get a seat right next to the life size bronze statue of Hemingway, where I had a full view of the bartenders blending the night away. I wasn’t sure at first, but after my fourth daiquiri, I was also sure it was the best that Havana had to offer. After a long day, I walked back to my room, taking time to stop watching tourist dance into the late hours of the night in smoky bars.
The next day after class, I continued my Hemingway buzz and visited the famous and stunning Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the writer made his home for seven years in the 1930s. After, I took advantage of one of the many classic car taxi’s available, and ask to be taken to Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s former home, only a 16 kilometer ride outside of the city, and now a pristine museum complete with his personal library, and his boat Pilar, all located on incredibly lush grounds in the hills over looking the city. Along the way, I saw for the first time the poverty that I had expected to see in Cuba- many low income housing projects lined the streets, feeling reminiscent of other underdeveloped Caribbean nations who have struggled in the past, and continue to do so. The night took me back La Habana Vieja, where restaurants are plentiful. I chose a spot in the plaza, and ordered delicious servings of seafood stew and ceviche.
After a few days in Havana, it was time to head to the beach. I made my way to Santa Maria del Mar, a beautiful stretch of ocean about 20 minutes outside of Havana, and one of the most untouched beach I have ever seen- no billboards or fast food restaurants lined the roads leading to the ocean. The only store I found was one small convenient store on the main road, a short walk from the entrance to the sand- anything else I wanted while there I would get form one of the many vendor who set up right on the sand, selling rum in whole coconuts or grilled fish sandwiches right on the beach. The following day, I continued my adventure outside of the city, venturing a little further to Las Terrazas – a one hour drive away, this eco-artist colony was a perfect quite get away from the busy scene of Havana, and we spent the afternoon enjoying Cuban grown coffee and walking the grounds, as we saw zip liners and horse back riders enjoying their adventures. After making my way back, I stopped at the historic Nacional Hotel for a drink on the patio – a perfect ending to my visit to Havana.
Cuban was so much like I expected it to be (old, run down buildings, rum and cigars at ever turn, lively night life that doesn’t end), and more that what I ever thought it could be- it is a country immensely kind people who know how to take care of their guests. Although not as untouched by the outside world as I previously had believed, I wouldn’t change anything about how the Cubans treat foreigners in every way. From the cab drivers, to the bartenders, to the owners of the casa particulars, everyone I met made me feel at home. And in the end, my premonition was right, thanks to the lovely people I had met- I did love Cuba.