The Road Less Traveled: A Week In Havana, Cuba
So right off the bat, I'll admit that the title of this post is misleading. Since travel restrictions have been relaxed, Americans have been pouring into the island nation of Cuba at a rate that is sometimes overwhelming to the locals. But the road less traveled doesn't refer to getting to Cuba since booking a flight is as easy as it's ever been, but to the path you take when you get there. It's easy to buy $3 Mojitos (really) and $2 Cervezas Nacionales (they are quite good), but if you just do that, then you'll miss out on the deep history of the Cuban people and the richness of their culture. After nearly 60 years of separation, we have a lot of catching up to do.
Our journey began on a Sunday morning in Newark, where my girlfriend, Ali, and I were waiting online with an interesting collection of old and young travelers some bearing gifts for the Cuban people. Cubans are known for their generosity and their appreciation of gifts. Ali herself was traveling with a backpack filled with notebooks, pencils, and pencil sharpeners to drop off at a school in the Cuban countryside along with letters written by American first graders to their Cuban counterparts in the hopes of creating a cultural exchange opportunity for both.
After landing at Jose Marti International Airport and a day or so of trying to navigate Central Havana's winding streets, deafening noise, beautifully maintained classic American cars and general frenetic energy, we took a guided tour of Cuba's contemporary art scene, which brought us into contact with several of Cuba's most important and cutting edge artists. They invited us into their homes and showed their past and current work to us. Since Cuba fully subsidizes education, artists and musicians are allowed to go to school for free (with the exception of masters and PhD programs) and they receive a salary just like any other profession. This system allows for a support of the arts unlike anything I've ever seen in our country, but it does come with the unfortunate drawback of not producing anything that goes against government ideals, something that our First Amendment allows us to do quite freely. Despite this, what we found in their art and a common theme we encountered among the many musicians, artists, and young people we encountered is an intense pride for their heritage and the longing for a better Cuba, that is more connected to the outside world and more accepting of new ideas.
Over the course of the week, we got to meet with many more artists, musicians, and average everyday Cubans. One thing we were always told prior to this trip was to go now, before everything there changes. In a way, much has already changed. Predominantly state-run restaurants are giving way to privately owned places, taxi services have expanded to allow Cubans to use their own personal vehicles as cabs (and it certainly seems like EVERYONE has a taxi and wants to offer you a ride), and a general softening of attitudes to things once considered taboo are beginning to take hold. However, the one thing the Cubans refuse to compromise on is pride in their heritage and their culture. The famous fleet of classic American cars, heirlooms that have been passed down from generation to generation and meticulously and innovativley maintained through the course of the embargo, have been barred from being sold outside of the country to maintain Cuba's unique style of transportation. Historic resorts like the hundred year old Hotel Nacional, which has hosted world leaders, celebrities, and crime lords over the course of its 100+ years of existence, are very much here to stay in favor of new, shiny all-inclusive resorts that other Caribbean islands have. Also, while current American pop music is pretty popular with some young people in Cuba, the radio usually defaults to Reggaeton and a type of Cuban folk called trova music.
Despite the very stark differences in our governments and our interpretations of history, American travelers to Cuba will be met by people who are willing and ready to make a connection. A new generation in both of our countries is coming on strong, one that doesn't look at that sins of our past as reasons to stop moving forward. We're 90 miles away from each other and we should at least be friendly, even if our way of life is different. While President Obama's historic 2014 visit to Havana didn't result in the full lifting of the embargo like he had hoped, by loosening the travel restrictions, what he did do was allow us to bring our "American-ness" to Cuba to show that there is much more to the world and life than a small island nation. But in the process, we also have the opportunity to learn about a society that is different than ours and a new perspective to bring back to the United States. So if you choose to visit Cuba, take the path less traveled because that can make all the difference.
A quick word here about the fascinating and turbulent history of Cuba because it is important to understand before going. Cuba was settled initially by the Spanish and Christopher Columbus. The Spanish established Havana as the capital building out forts, churches, and plazas in what is now known as Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The city expanded overtime and continued to be under Spanish rule until the late 1800s, when the poet Jose Marti led a revolution, which was inspired, in part, by the ideals of President Abraham Lincoln (a bust of Lincoln can be found in the old presidential palace, which is now the Revolution Museum, and in the park just outside the Capital Building in Central Havana). Marti is something a George Washington figure in Cuban history. He is considered one of their greatest national heroes and his likeness can be found in art, parks, state buildings, and schools all over the cities and countryside. Unlike Washington, however, Marti did not live to see his dream of a Cuba Libre realized as he was killed in battle. Cuba won its independence with the assistance of the United States in what we know as the Spanish American War. Despite being heavily involved in the war at large, Cuba was not invited to the ensuing peace settlements and as a result, the United States somewhat underhandedly took control of land in the south eastern part of the island called Guantanamo Bay. This is still something of a sore spot for many Cubans as they view it as an infringement on their sovereignty. After the war, a democratic republic was established and flourished on the island for years until ardent anti-communist President Fulgencia Bautista was elected to his second term in a hotly debated election that many believed to be rigged. Bautista swiftly removed free speech and freedom of assembly rights from Cuban citizens, which spurred a young lawyer named Fidel Castro, to lead a revolution with former tailor apprentice turned political activist Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentinian doctor turned soldier, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, leading us right up to present day Cuba.