by Lejda Toçi
It is early evening. The timeworn buildings of Centro Havana inside an empty frame at sunset seem like ghosts in contrast to the stylish rooftop bar at La Guarida and the dressed-up foreigners sipping mojitos. Everything feels like a scene from a movie. Ironically, “Wind of Change” by the Scorpions starts playing in the background. The song that became the soundtrack of the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in Europe now feels like the perfect soundtrack not just of that evening, but of the whole trip to Cuba, and is a strong reminder of the walls still to be torn down around the world. Ultimately, the Malecón seawall, an esplanade that stretches along the coast of Havana, is not just an ordinary wall, but one that has prohibited young and old dreamers from seeing what lies on the other side for decades. But now, the future is everywhere, and in Cuba, you can feel it in the air…
For many years, Cuba occupied the top spot on a long list of places I wanted to visit. I had always had the impression that it needed to be visited as soon as possible, and that very soon life in Cuba would be completely different to how it is now. Finally, in February of this year, after almost six months of planning, I arrived on a twelve-hour direct flight from Vienna to Varadero together with three friends, ready to begin my Cuban adventure. The plane was full of Austrian and German tourists, mostly retired couples escaping the cold to visit one of Varadero’s many all-inclusive resorts. Our plan was completely different. We did not want ours to be a classic holiday, we did not just want to see Cuba, we wanted to experience Cuba in the middle of a historic turning point.
The next day we started our five-hour drive to the city of Trinidad, which many claim is the most authentic and interesting city in Cuba, with very high expectations. The journeys in Cuba were long but unexpectedly not tiring, possibly because there were very few cars on the roads and the beautiful scenery made each trip pleasant. It felt like traveling through time. Most of the cars were the classic American cars of the 1950s that you see on every Cuban postcard. The drivers were excited and proud of foreign tourists, enjoying every bit of their experience and completely oblivious to the annoying smell of gasoline from the old engines. I remembered reading an article once about how the United States would help Cuba replace their outdated by cars with environmentally friendly alternatives. I wondered if many new cars would lower pollution much more than a few old classics, and how much this would take away from the country’s authenticity.
We arrived in Trinidad at sunset, which is also the time of day when the city is at its most beautiful. Our first impression was a mix between shock and disappointment, on the one hand, and enchantment and curiosity, on the other. The architecture was as colonialist as could be, and the small and colorful sunlit streets were in complete synchronization with the Buena Vista Social Club music being played everywhere. It was one of those places you either love or hate, touristy, yet genuine; beautiful, yet dirty and antiquated; quiet, yet full of life and music; cheerful, yet provocative and melancholic. Trinidad was a place where you could see Cuba in all its striking contrasts, just as it is, a perpetual paradox. There, in the middle of the mayhem of old cars, donkeys, tourists, postcard-like people sitting in every corner with their flamboyant outfits and cigars, street musicians singing to Che Guevara, billboards praising the Castro-Chávez friendship and kitschy revolution souvenirs, time ceased to exist and became as relative as everything else.
In Trinidad, more than anywhere else, I was able to stop thinking about how the city would look in a decade. Interestingly, I had mixed feelings about its future. Of course, the thaw in US-Cuban relations is a much-anticipated step for the Cuban people, who will finally have the opportunity to enjoy a free economy and entrepreneurship, allowing them to step out of the troubled economic situation of the past decades. There will be a great deal of foreign investment pouring into the country as well, making life much easier for both Cubans and tourists. While there, however, one cannot help but think of the negative side effects it will have. Will the modest casa particulars be replaced by luxurious chain hotels? Will authentic restaurants and cafés be replaced by McDonalds and Starbucks? Will Cuba become the next big Spring Break destination? These questions seemed to be at the center of every discussion we had with tourists from all parts of the world. Every foreigner had their own prediction, only the locals did not. They were simply excited for the future, as I suppose they have always been, no matter how many problems they faced.
After several unforgettable days in Trinidad, having already fallen in love with the country despite its challenges, we could not wait to get to Havana. As expected, all the contradictions became even more pronounced there. The city was full of a curious energy, as if something new was about to happen from one moment to the next. Old Havana offered a taste of how the city was in its golden days, and what it will eventually become in the future. Many objects had been wonderfully restored by UNESCO, and some others were still in the process of restoration. The new part of the city, Vedado, was full of big hotels that looked a lot less fancy than they had on TripAdvisor considering the high prices. Havana was anything but cheap, with prices the on par, if not higher, than many European capitals. State-owned restaurants were slowly being replaced by new private paladars, some of them offering great quality fusion cuisine far from the usual not-so-great meals offered elsewhere. There were also several alternative privately owned bars and clubs, which gave the impression that their design concepts had been influenced by Miami long before the first cruise ships and commercial flights.
Before it had even made it into international headlines, we learned that Obama would soon visit the country, becoming the first American president in Cuba in nearly a century. Locals were enthusiastic about the opening up of relations with the US. It seemed as if they had been waiting for it for a long time. The family with whom we stayed in Havana had two children working in Miami. They visited them often and were among the few privileged Cubans who had had the opportunity to see what lies beyond Malecón. They said they could not wait to visit more often but firmly excluded the possibility of going to live there. “America is not for us,” Maria said many times. “We are much happier here, we just want to be able to run our own business, travel to the US to visit our families and have more tourists coming in to help our economy.”
Carlos, an engineering student working as a taxi driver in Cienfuegos, driving a car almost ten years older than he was, was very excited about the opportunity to travel to the US but also excluded the possibility moving there. “I am doing well here,” he explained. “Our country is beautiful, I just need a job that pays me enough to not have to work as a taxi driver at night, or at least have a better car for the job.” Many of the people working in the service sector had university degrees and were engineers, lawyers and teachers. A fact that spoke highly of the country’s education system, but also revealed a dysfunctional economy that had forced them into all kinds of odd jobs. The high standard of education is one of the factors that distinguishes Cuba from many other countries in the region, and that will eventually allow for a faster and smoother transition. Ed, a young Canadian we met, was studying medicine there after first having studied in the US. According to many, he said, the university for medicine in Cuba is theoretically comparable, if not superior to many well-known universities in North America and Europe. For a country that exports tens of thousands doctors and nurses, currently working in some 100 countries across the globe, this is unsurprising.
Rob, a waiter at a bar in Plaza Vieja, who was soon moving to France to live with his fiancée, shared with us the secret of Cuban happiness. “We are poor and hungry,” he said, “but we know that crying makes you even more hungry. So we smile and sing all the time, to forget about the hunger and our problems.” He spoke with a contagious and genuine smile on his face, which I hoped so much he could spread on the other side of the Atlantic.
Another interesting part of our trip to Cuba was the absolute lack of internet connection. The only possibility to surf the web was through prepaid cards sold in post offices and big hotels. Until recently, hotels were the only places offering Wi-Fi hotspots. Now, the government has also provided public hotspots in a few parks in the main cities. Those parks were constantly buzzing with groups of cheerful teenagers checking their Facebook pages and Snapchat, often through a single phone. I imagined how they must save and collect their money for the internet cards, how excited they must be when the connection works and their disappointment when the home screen informs them their internet time is over. It was ironic, considering how much we as foreigners appreciated our “digital detox” while in the country, but then again everything about the country was a paradox.
In the end, we left Cuba, as sometimes you leave someone you love, unaware of what the future might bring but well aware that everything will be different the next time you will meet.