My first post is dedicated to Detroit's own Local 4 News, who I ran into on the streets of Havana last night after they recognized my U of M and U of D Jesuit clothes. They are doing a special on classic Detroit cars in Cuba, as well as covering the opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana on Friday morning, which I was invited to attend with them. I sat down for an interview with Devin Scillian in Centro Havana with a backdrop of the sunset over El Capitolio. He gave me a Wi-Fi card that is good for thirty minutes, which I am using now. These are pretty expensive and hard to find, as Internet just arrived in Cuba two months ago, and only barely. I'm very grateful for running into them.
Now, onto my eventful start in Cuba. To set the stage, this country is absolutely beautiful. Looking down from my plane window, I could see an endless sea of green palms and farmland. It is incredibly hot all the time (90+), and it tends to rain heavily for an hour or two in the early evening. Upon walking out the airport, I immediately began to see classic American cars, which are often times used as taxis. I hailed one, and set off for Miramar, which is a wealthier residential neighborhood. I thought I'd ease into the trip by staying my first few nights in a nicer place, but the old lady I was staying with told me that there was some miscommunication, and that I only had one night.
For the past four months, I have been training my body for inline skating in heat, which I came equipped for as my form of alternative transportation. After settling in (kinda), I set off around 1PM to explore on blades. Miramar is a solid 7 miles from Habana Vieja, where all the action is, and I couldn't have made it without skating or taking a taxi. I peeked at a map that I had printed before I left so that I had a general idea of where I was going, and decided to check out the famous Malecon: a wide sidewalk that runs along the entire coast of Habana. I spent a few hours exploring this area of the city, which I thought was downtown, but wasn't. The street across from the Malecon was packed with people eating and walking around the countless food vendors along the road. After getting a bite to eat of chicken and brown rice, which is pretty typical, I decided to head back. I crashed early, knowing that I could not sustain this much physical exertion without more water, food, and rest on a daily basis.
The next morning, I packed a water bottle and full water-blatter in my backpack, and set off again, but not before referring to the cached GoogleMap of Havana that I set up while in Michigan. I realized that I had missed most of everything the day before, but was only about a mile away from my furthest point. I took a different route, which allowed me to not only spend a couple of hours at the famous cemetery Necropolis Cristobal Colon, but also get to Habana Vieja more directly. On the way, I saw a sign for a room for rent, and stepped inside to ask about the price, which turned out to be much more in my budget. I took their number and continued, only to be hit by the heavy rain. I waited it out with the locals, seeking shelter underneath covered sidewalks. Eventually, the rain stopped, and I walked around the city center for a couple hours, grabbing an espresso and ice cream to keep me going. Eventually, the rain evaporated form the streets, and I made my way back.
After returning to Miramar around 7, I packed my bags and showered. By 9, I had taken a taxi, and was at my new place, which is much closer to downtown (10 minutes walk). My host family is pretty good at English, which is uncommon here in Cuba, and very convenient for me.
Totally beat, I didn't do much moving the next day. I slept in late, grabbed a bite to eat, and did some reading in the park. Life without Internet has actually been pretty relaxing, though I wish I could at least let my family and friends know that I'm okay more regularly.
On day 4, Victor, one of my hosts, took me to the beach with his girlfriend and 6 other friends. Everyone in Cuba has been extremely kind and welcoming from the very start, and his friends were no exception. With that said, Cubans speak an incredibly difficult dialect of Spanish, and I honestly don't know what the heck people are telling me half the time, so it can be hard to communicate at times. Halfway through the rum, we were more comfortable attempting to speak each other’s languages, and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking about sports, video games, women, and religion, among other things. The beach itself was truly incredibly, with soft white sand and warm, clear water; though I'm told it was "just okay."
Overall, I have really enjoyed my short stay in Cuba thus far. The people are exceptionally generous, and are always willing to help if you're willing to smile and reciprocate kindness. Crime is nearly nonexistent here, and there is a heavy military presence. Police officers are stationed in small tollbooths every couple blocks, and you can see them joyfully chatting with locals. While very few go hungry here, most people are very poor, making an average of $10 per month. You can see gorgeous colonial-style buildings and homes at every turn, but most are in extreme disrepair, many even abandoned, which can be jarring at times. It has been strange to walk downtown and see a magnificent municipal building of stone, and a shanty home of aluminum sheets next to it.
I hope that the general welfare of these people is able to improve now that the U.S. embargo slowly evaporates. Since Raul took the reins from Fidel, the Cuban people have had greater freedom to own small businesses, but these changes are coming very slowly still. Freedom of speech remains very limited, and I once heard someone say to a friend, "Watch what you saw around that guy [me], I think he's a spy". People here are very well informed on the politics of their country, and that of others, including the United States. With that said, people don't expect things to really change for another decade.
I leave for Santiago de Cuba on the 29th, which is on the opposite side of the island, and is a major cultural center of Cuba. In the meantime, I will continue to explore Havana, and I hope to go to Pinar del Rio and Trinidad. When in Santiago, I will also visit Baracoa.
I apologize if this post is a bit disjointed, as I'm still getting used to blogging, and I had to write this rather quickly. I hope that you enjoy my photos of Havana, and feel free to contact me with questions, comments, etc. - I promise to respond as soon as I can, and will upload more photos when possible.