Cuba and other things.

A couple of nights before our trip to Cuba, my wife and I decided to watch two very important shows to prepare ourselves: Parts Unknown and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. No, these two shows couldn’t be more different, but yes, they both, in some way, revolve around food and, for lack of a better term, culture. The DDD episode, prophetically, showed the somewhat uninspiring food tourists should expect to encounter, but there was one passage in Parts Unknown that stuck with me throughout the entire trip. Bourdain, in his Bourdain way, is chatting with a couple of local Habaneros about how everything is about to change for them. The episode is from 2015, not long after American travel restrictions to Cuba were relaxed, and Bourdain makes a offhand comment about how Cubans should get ready for “cruise ships full of tourists” that are about to land in Havana. His Cuban hosts look at him strangely, say something to the effect of “yeah, you think so?” but Bourdain emphasizes again how much things are about to change.

Two days later, I’d find myself on the maiden voyage of the Norwegian Sky to Havana, Cuba. The ship, which holds around 2,000 passengers and 900 crew, was the largest cruise ship to ever (EVER) port in Havana.

Attending school as an American kid in the 1990s and 2000s, we weren’t generally taught a lot about Cuba. We hear about the USS Maine, dabble in the Missile Crisis, and move on. Teachers would joke about how the CIA tried to kill Fidel but we just couldn’t outsmart the guy. My parents vividly remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and always equated anything Cuban with something sinister. The only real point of contact most of us had growing up was what happened with Elian Gonzalez and the occasional Cuban baseball player. We’d learn bits and pieces of our complicated history with Cuba, but there was always that point in the history books when Cuba would stop appearing. Cuba was the island 90 miles away that no American had any hopes to visit or really learn about. It was virtually erased from our maps.

However, in 2015, the US eased restrictions (but not before Jay-Z and Beyonce caused a minor crisis by visiting in 2013) regarding travel to Cuba. All of a sudden, Cuba popped back on the map (just like Civ!).

Erica and I have had friends tell us about visiting Cuba in the past few years. Many of them went the typical Millennial way — backpacking — but, for better or worse, that’s not our style anymore. I had reservations about “just going” because I don’t speak Spanish and Cuba is still truly foreign in a lot of ways. As I would eventually learn, tourism to Cuba is a relatively new thing, starting in the 1990s after the fall of Soviet Russia, so the tourist infrastructure is still being developed. All that being said, cruises normally aren’t my speed, either. But the prospect of mixing the two — a place that isn’t touristy and means of travel meant almost exclusively for tourists — was appealing.

The ship left out of Miami, an obvious, yet interesting, choice given the relationship many Cubans have with Miami. We sailed overnight to Havana and I woke up to a truly incredible sight out of our port hole:

The Morro Castle and Lighthouse have been protecting Havana for over 400 years, but they were little more than sleeping guard dogs while a 2,000 passenger cruise ship full of well-heeled (mostly) American tourists entered the harbor.

Docking in Havana took some time, as you might expect, but eventually passengers made their way on land. We started off with a bus tour — the buses are new and were sold to Cuba by China — and our guide spoke more freely about Cuba and the Castros than I had expected. We drove around to see the main sights and get a lay of the land, but our guide was more valuable than that. He spent a lot of time talking about Cuban culture during The Revolution (a term that is still used and represents the current situation). Things like education and healthcare being free and enforced (local hospitals literally go looking for people they haven't heard from in a while) are major points of pride.

Western/Capitalist ideas have definitely seeped into the Cuban psyche, mostly concerning work incentives (if you get paid the same to do something well or not at all, why bother?) and privatizing certain businesses or industries (most restaurants, hotels, and other tourist-friendly establishments are now accepting outside investment). However, more than anything, our guide talked about how Cubans value things other than work, like family, music, art, writing, etc. We saw this first hand with things like Fusterlandia:

And truly outstanding musicians:

It’s important to remember that even though the average monthly wage can hover around $50-$200, many aspects of the average Cuban economy are heavily subsidized. This helps make it attractive for tourists because in a lot of cases the savings is passed on. But, with the influx of American dollars, the fear is that Cuba will experience wealth disparity, something it hasn’t had to deal with on a major level in almost 60 years. We started to see signs of this with beggars in the streets, something that many Cubans report simply wasn’t a thing for a long, long time. I’ll vividly remember handing the young woman working the bag check area at The Museum of the Revolution a 1CUC coin and her holding it like a Communion wafer while saying a quick prayer.

During the trip, I thought a lot about what our guide had to say about Cubans being invested in things other than work. “Find a hobby” is advice you often hear as you get older, but this seems to be harder and harder for my generation. As the technology of work (email, instant messages, video, etc) and work “campuses” become the norm, hobbies not related to work seem to become more and more rare. I don’t encounter many people my age who have a hobby complete disengaged from their work life — instead, they usually spend free time making themselves better members of the workforce (software developers who work on software side-projects come to mind). As we’ve seen over the past thirty or so years, the economy ebbs and flows, the social safety net is lowering, we accept we’re entitled to less and less, and work becomes more specialized. It’s no wonder that my generation is worried about staying sharp. But there’s got to be more to this chance at life than just working, right? Or, to put it another way:

Anyway. Here are some pictures.

Havana Club is the national rum. It is the best rum I have ever had. It was also 94 degrees and sunny the entire time.

Old cars in Havana and Cuba in general are not an exaggeration. They’re everywhere.

Ministerio de Comunicaciones in Revolution Square. That’s Camilo Cienfuegos on the facade. Did I mention it was really hot?

Old Havana

Old Havana reminds me of a bigger, older version of New Orleans. But hotter. And falling apart more.

Havana is actually a huge city. Over two million people live there and it spans 281 sq miles. NYC is 304. San Francisco is 47. Los Angeles is 503.

Overall, Cuba was underwhelming as a place (sorry!) but it left me with a lot to think about. I’ve been back a few weeks and I’ve taken a dive into learning about US-Cuba relations and history. Here’s a good place to start if you’re curious. TL;DR: it’s complicated and America is a big asshole.

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