HAVANA – Stray dogs scurried in between bicicleta taxis as an elderly woman hung over the rail of her porch, looking down at the broken, narrow street below, waiting for her laundry to dry. Salsa music poured out of the passing antique taxis so frequently, that one could argue that the city of Havana has its own song that perpetually plays, every hour of every day and in every sun-soaked corner of the island.
Cuba was surreal. The air constantly smelled like a mix of exhaust and fried platanos, as we trucked through the inner-city local neighborhood of Centro Habana in the harsh and trying Caribbean heat. Soaked from sweat, numb and shaky from lack of proper meals, and slightly drunk off mojitos, we passed the smiling and curious children on the Malecon, or waterfront road.
“It’s hard here in Cuba. We are hungry, poor and we are not free,” said Alfredo, a local schoolteacher, to me and my friend when he learned we were periodistas de los Estados Unidos. “But we are free in the mind, free when we talk inside our homes with the doors closed. It’s important you know that. And you speak with the local people. What you’re doing is so important. Thank you.”
The entire city was littered with pro-revolution propaganda. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s faces were printed, pinned and posted throughout the city in graffiti and on billboards. The youth of Cuba nod in genuine respect to their revolutionary history, while holding their Wi-Fi-less cell phones and el paquete semanal, a weekly packet of imported music and movies from the black market.
With the first commercial flight heading to Cuba from the U.S. in over 55 years, landing in Santa Clara, the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba is definitely becoming more open and relaxed, politically, and soon maybe economically. Most people are trying to visit before private business embeds itself and the Cuban culture is ruined, but most Cubans are not afraid, rather they are welcoming, some even asking directly for help.
“Everybody always asks, ‘what will happen to my culture if Americans start coming here? How long until it will change?’” said Ivan, a history major at the University of Havana and a local jinetero, a Cuban slang for hustler. “Maybe it will change in one year, maybe in five years, maybe ten. But not right now. Right now we are just hungry.”
Now as I land feet on familiar soil again, the immense contrast between life as we know it and an entirely different world lies in only a 90 mile stretch of clear blue waters.
Havana, you are a beautiful and surreal swirl of cultural vibrancy, optimism and content being that is absolutely sun-soaked in poverty, desperation, and hunger. I’ve seen you as an entire city that smiles sincerely with a hungry mouth, focused on kindness and passion, but distracted by survival.
You hold dear to you the ideals of your revolutionary fathers in such a profound way, as if to say we got here not by means of just conflict, but by the divine hands of our ordinary countrymen. You are torn between your defiance of capitalism, pride of revolution and the very real fact that communism has failed you. Yet optimism is all that shows in your demeanor. Your decaying, colorful, beautifully architected buildings that literally crumble into your narrow, broken streets are a symbol of the contradiction and uncertainty in which Havana’s being itself resides.
You are astonishing and have changed my life. Speaking with you and living amongst you, sharing scarce meals and riding through your twisting and bumpy streets for even only a few moments has carved out a tiny corner in my heart. A corner that leaves me hungry to survive, hungry to learn, desperate to act on curiosity and most importantly to live deliberately, in between the pillars of hardship, where passionate ideals and uncertainty resides.
In that part of me, I will forever hold a piece of Havana. And until we meet again, adios.