I have to start off my saying I had some apprehensions about this visit. Having lived in post-socialist Nicaragua and having heard lots of stories from the pre-democratic years from family, I thought I had an idea of what to expect and I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to like it. The trip offered me the opportunity to learn more about a very complex situation and made me reflect our my expectations and notions of Cuba.
Arriving at the airport, we quickly realized (perhaps ominously!) that a healthy dose of patience would be a prerequisite for our stay. Maintenance of equipment such as escalators and elevators take a backseat sometimes to other priorities. The ride to the city was done in an old school Russian lada, which I remembered riding in the early 90s in Managua. I was amazed at how it was possible for those cars to continue running and my westernised notion of safety was a bit shocked at the lack of such “modern day frivolities” as safety belts or airbags…
We arrived at Hotel Inglaterra which is located in Centro Habana, in front of a beautiful tree-lined plaza and were impressed by the barroque facade, spacious lobby and intricate railings inside. The check-in experience was mixed and a very tired room awaited us… not all was lost though as the bathroom had been recently renovated, water pressure was strong and we could take a warm shower and start our exploration – we were back in business 🙂
As per the food… As some of you know, I am perhaps a tad obsessive about my meals, planning trips around specific restaurants and the adjective “hangry” has been known to apply at times (a detox trip to Thailand last year made this all perfectly clear to me and my disciplined russian friend!). I had read about how the growth in tourism had increased food scarcity for the average cuban (shortage of staples such as onions and peppers) but was relieved to see small carts selling these items throughout old Havana. You see, supermarkets as we know it, do not seem to really exist in Cuba. In fact, the almost non-existence of stores of any kind is a startling fact for someone visiting from NY. Containing the urge to just “buy things” was an interesting one made easier by the sheer difficulty of finding things to buy! Average cubans obtain basic food items (rice, sugar) from specialized state-run shops where often only a handful of items are for sale. Fresh vegetables and fruit are more commonly sold in small carts located around the city though you will notice that one day, everyone seems to have lettuce for sale, where on another day, onions are most abundant.
Making the most of what you have and adapting to what’s available is a connecting thread in Havana. At the restaurant El Chanchullero, the introduction to the menu is written in the fashion of the official communications of the government, and states ironically that the items described below have been selected by the “High Ranks” of the restaurant administration among the limited available ingredients. A truly NY/Brooklyn vibe and a not-so-subtle voice of protest is felt in this tiny restaurant, where servers wear denim overalls akin to auto mechanics, cool music is playing, and the word “censuradus” is scribbled on the painting of a brain that decorates one of the walls. Restaurants like these have only been in existence for 5yrs or less, as the Raul-led government allowed for a small number of private businesses to open – those that decide to be entrepreneurs have to acquire several authorisations and pay hefty taxes/permits to be in existence. At all the best ones, you should expect long lines and practice your mantra of patience… At El Chanchullero the food is simple and generously served, service is quick and attentive and I have no complains about my guava daiquiri (kind of interesting side note, I learned that “guayaba=guava” is another word for tall stories/lies)
An intriguing feature in the food world is that in some of the “fine dining” restaurants in Havana like Atelier, the cuisine leans towards the French which seemed an anatopism. I tend to enjoy French food, and in fact, Atelier did a really nice job of a confit duck leg, but I’d rather eat a well-executed plate of rice and beans and plantains given the context – which leads me to talk about Dona Eutimia, a very small paladar (or privately owned “restaurant”) where service was head and shoulders above the norm and the home cooked dishes of ropa vieja and picadillo were memorable. It makes me think that there is a lot of room for a revival of Cuban cooking such as the “botecos” of Rio and Sao Paulo where caipirinhas and croquetes are still firmly rooted in tradition but where basic ingredients are lovingly elevated to better versions of its former selves. When my frustrated food critic wanted to come out and make a cameo, I had to remind myself that having a private business is a achievement in and of itself in Cuba, and with that in mind, the satisfaction of seeing those businesses in operation far outweighed any qualms about the food.
Following on the restaurant experiences, we quickly found out that there is typically not much in the way of interaction between servers and patrons and you will most definitely not be met with the: “Hi, I am X and I will be your server today”… The ones were met were slow to open up but after having the best mojitos of our trip at Chacon 162 (a Harley Davidson-themed bar/restaurant opened only 6 months ago), we had to strike conversation with the young man behind the bar. He told us he’d been a bartender for 8 years including at the infamous Bodeguita del Medio (which I urge you to avoid for a plethora of reasons). As we continued talking, he told me that in future, he planned to either a) leave Cuba or b) open his own restaurant/dance hall where the focus would be solely on expertly-prepared cuban food and drinks where he wanted his clients to leave with the feeling of “having fully experienced Cuba”. I agreed with him wholeheartedly and wished him luck in achieving his dream. In retrospect, the fact that he even cogitated option b) as a plausible course of auction seems already a big step forward.
Since the Obama’s historic visit to Cuba in March 2016, several important things have happened – there are now more than 6 direct daily flights leaving the US for Havana alone (that’s around 1000 new visitors to Havana per day), the “official interests office” of the US in Cuba has now graduated to a full Embassy as relations start to unfreeze, Chanel set up a fashion show there in May and oh, Fidel has also died.
While I was there, I had to remind myself that Cuba had only been “off limits” to Americans, while Europeans and Canadians had continued to travel there without hindrances and Spanish hotel chains such as Melia and NH have operated there for decades. Having said that, the proximity to the US and the spending power of americans make this new opening remarkable and I have anecdotal experience corroborated by many taxi drivers who described it as the busiest high season that they had ever seen. Being a taxi driver in Havana in December 2016 was like “fishing with dynamite” we said and they all agreed…
Given its location in the Caribbean and impressive historical legacy (UNESCO designated old town, etc), Cuba’s future is intrinsically linked to the surge in tourism. A local tour guide we met was in fact a physical therapist and spoke passionately about finishing his thesis and graduating soon. He also told us that the USD20 monthly salary he received at the hospital would not be enough to purchase the USD22 shirt he was wearing or the USD30 pair of jeans he had on that day. Being a local tour guide is how he supplements his salary at the hospital which pales in comparison to the tips he can earn in a day’s work.
Digging below the surface, you realise that the opportunity for more private enterprise in tourism is opening the door to a very rich business class in Havana – a tour in a convertible classic car revealed that the owner of the cars is an individual who owns a fleet of 25 – and at USD25K each, the fortune quickly adds up. Touring in the back of these vehicles was one of the highlights of the trip, especially when driving on the scenic Malecon and when visiting the old Fort. Speaking of the old cars, I had read many times that Havana seems to be stuck in time but after visiting the old commercial street where large department stores and theaters are abandoned or underused and in desperate need of TLC, my impression is that Havana is not stuck in TIME but in a different DIMENSION.
Out of curiosity, we walked into several general stores and Havana club rum and other liquor dominated nearly half of the shelf space (where items remains behind the counter and not DYI like the markets we are used to) and the other half is composed of a hodge-podge of canned goods (almonds and pistachios, anyone?) and some household items like toothbrushes and toothpaste. Where is all the stuff? is what was going through my mind and a tinge of guilt pulsed inside me thinking of all the online shopping (sometimes mindless!) I have done and the packages I am sometimes surprised to find waiting for me at home. Though clothing is hard to come by or its prices are out of reach for the average cuban, you will find young people expressing themselves in whatever way possible and young men’s hairstyles are particularly impressive. An array of cuts, colors, and shapes, sustained with generous amounts of gel and hairspray that would make Neymar Jr embarrassed for his lack of originality.
Certainly the most interesting part of the whole experience was in the exchanges we had with the people we met – a young artist, the bartender, the tour guides and drivers. The topic of politics is very much taboo as CDRs (Comite de Defensa de la Revolucion, i.e. effective centers of surveillance) are still in existence (though much weaker than at their peak) and the language used by some seems to belong in a different world: “Comandante jefe”, “tierra de Sandino” to describe Nicaragua. I sensed an obvious awareness of their own isolated reality which was often protected under a layer of apparent defensiveness. We were asked many times (rhetorically) if children were free and safe to run and play in the streets of Peru or Nicaragua as they are in Cuba. More commonly, the low level of drug usage and crime were cited as obvious Cuban achievements and spheres where they fared better than most of the world. Often, these were mentioned pre-emptively, I guess at the inkling of any contest or critique and I assume are probably initiated and disseminated by the state propaganda machine. A talkative caretaker at Teatro America graciously showed us around the old empty art-deco theater which is still used for “variety shows” and fits more than 1000 people in its worn-out but still red chairs. In addition to being a caretaker, he also performed in shows as an actor. He offered that all of us had a little bit of an actor inside us, it’s just that in Cuba you had to have a little bit more…