Cuba, La Isla Bella. Words that resonated through my mind when boarding the United Airlines flight from Newark Airport direct to Havana, Cuba. Caught in a daydream, it was finally time to see the land where my grandparents were born.
There are many ways to welcome a first-time visitor to a country, after the turbulence and strong winds; it was a rather comforting feeling to finally touch done on the ground after the bumpy ride. Walking out onto the runway, the words Jose Martí International Airport were in plain sight. The Cuban people stepped out and welcomed me to their beloved island.
“Have you been to Africa in the last 15 days”, asked the clerk at the customs window. Looking around, assuming it had something to do with my straw hat I responded, “Is it because of the hat?” She laughed and then got serious, stating that everyone entering Cuba is asked the same question due to the Ebola cases that have impacted parts of Africa.
After saying I had not been to Africa, I had a new stamp in my passport and I was off to the next checkpoint, which was baggage check. The security officers greeted me and noticed my funny Cuban-American accent. “First time in Cuba?” they asked.
“Yes, I can’t believe I’m here, this all feels like a dream come true.”
Exiting the airport, our driver Roenis was waiting for my friend Leandro and myself. We got into his 1950s Chevrolet and began the half an hour journey to Vedado, a district in Havana, Cuba, where we would be staying.
On the way there, the driver pointed out some murals on the wall. He started chuckling and mentioned how the one mural was of Fidel Castro and the other was of Camilo Cienfuegos. Laughing, he said that many visitors comment to him that the mural looks like Osama Bin Laden, and they curiously ask him, ‘What in the world is Osama doing on a building in Havana, Cuba?” Roenis reminded me of my barber back home who was born in Cuba. The Cuban humor, it never gets old.
After pulling onto Calle 11 (11th Street), the driver told us we were at our destination. We were greeted by the owner of our AirBNB and she showed us around her building. Explaining the keys, touring the two-bedroom apartment, and seeing the beautiful view from her balcony, we felt at home, all for $40 a night. Peering over the balcony the image we saw spoke a thousand words. The colors were bright, the people were out, the energy was incredible, this is Havana, and it’s alive.
It wasn’t hard to notice shortly after looming over the balcony how run down the buildings were, noting the ones that were freshly painted and well kept belonged to the military or government.
It was time to explore Havana.
Walking around the city, we got a chance to see a little bit of everything. You could see the old cars, the people in the streets, the smell of freshly cooked meals with garlic and onions overwhelming the smell from the exhaust pipes.
We were now at the Malecón. The fresh scent of the sea breeze gracefully welcomed me, after only being able to see this breathtaking place in pictures and movies throughout the years.
It was finally in front of me, an arm’s length away. Locals gathered on the ledge, perched on top of the wall, smoking their cigars, drinking native Cuban beers and playing music, filled with singing and laughing.
Then we saw people gathered on street corners by the dozen, using their smartphones. It was time to investigate.
As we got closer and asked, people explained how they got access to the Internet by buying WIFI cards, but in order to access them, they had to be in a hot spot area. We happened to be staying right above one, so we got to see what we thought was a strange sight at first, though it became something we adjusted to seeing.
Roaming around, we asked young and old, men and women, what they normally use their WIFI cards for? “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter” were three of the most common answers.
Others mentioned how they have most of their family living in the United States, so they sit and join the community at the corner to get in touch with their families and most importantly, to see their children and grandchildren over video chat. In that corner, they were forging their ties outside of Cuba.
We asked an older gentleman in his late 60s what he thought about this new phenomenon. He started off with saying that this behavior was “raro” (strange) because seeing the millennials glued to their phones was something he never saw before.
He told us he looks to the younger generations to educate him and explain to him what’s new and changing in today’s world.
“Los viejos tienen que ver que ahora los cosas están cambiando,” which translates to “the old have to see that things are changing.” Young people, he added, will be the ones to bring change and progress to Cuba.
“Es necesario.” Cuba, he said, needs this.
He touched upon some political topics as well but asked us not to mention them. We observed that older generations are still more cautious about what they say and who they say it to.
Continuing on with our journey, we were introduced to a second form of currency that we were unaware of. When we arrived in Cuba, we exchanged money in the airport and received about 85 CUC for every 100 American dollars we exchanged. The other currency is known as CUP. Although it’s not common for a tourist to see this currency, we were given the ability to use it because of where we were staying; local businesses used it.
The difference is drastic. Unlike the strong CUC, the CUP was very weak; 100 American dollars was around 2400 CUP. After asking about the currencies, we noticed a trend. Anything government owned or run by the military, (ex. hotels, airports, government taxi’s, restaurants, and tours) accepted the CUC currency. But in the more modest areas, if we ate food from a window shop or bought groceries, we could use the CUP.
Some residents told us they had an impossible task trying to make it out poverty because of the extreme difference in money. We noticed this when we were using the taxis. A 15-minute ride in a government taxi was 10 CUC, about $11 American dollars. The same ride in a local Cuban person owned taxi would be 10 CUP, about .8 cents American.
The majority of tourists spend their time in Old Havana. Visiting this section, we caught different scenes — the vast collection of 1950s antique cars, tons of children playing soccer in the streets and the unique way locals used Cuban-owned taxis.
Noticing how locals used the taxis was fascinating. Local Cuban-owned taxis operate differently than government owned ones. The local cabs come in a variety of colors, collectivos antiguos, what a native would call them. These cabs run up and down certain avenues where users hop into the ones that are traveling in their direction. Depending on how many seats are filled, open seats are filled by other passengers traveling in the same direction. This system reminded me of UberPool.
We also saw quite a number of interracial couples. We asked how people felt about race disparities and racism. We asked the same questions to different people, but the answer was clear. “Here in Cuba there is no color, we’re all Cubans, “y no hay un color de piel para ser eso” (“there’s no skin color for Cuban.”)
Wrapping up the trip that was indeed a short one, the Cuban people welcomed me with open arms and allowed me take part in their culture. Until next time, thank you for sharing your special island with me.
Darek Michael Wajda, NBC News
July 13. 2017