Story and Photos by Margaret Saunders
The plan ride from Miami, Florida to La Habana, Cuba takes less than an hour. It’s a short enough trip that the plane will fly close to the water, pure blue with white foam, and if you look out of the window, you might not be able to distinguish the ocean from the sky. When I arrived at Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Martí, I felt dazed, like I’d traveled through dimensions in 45 minutes time.
People like to revel in feelings of nostalgia when it comes to Cuba, especially people my age from America who grew up with access to computers. Those I met had no idea what a car made before 1990 looked like before seeing the 1950s era models that dominate the potholed roads of Vieja Habana, or Old Havana, one of the 15 districts that makes up the city. “This has been like a hiatus,” a fellow American student told me, echoing other travelers I met. A German couple who had traveled the whole island for three weeks noted, “Look how the children still play in the streets. And people still talk.”
It was true. The world was different; Cuba was a living relic. I stayed for only a week, visiting with the purpose of conducting interviews and attending concerts as part of research for my senior thesis on Cuban rap. The trip had become necessary after I was unable to find many artists’ work online. Your average Cuban citizen does not have access to wifi and if they do, it is, as my tour guide, spoken word artist Elier “El Brujo” told me, Cuban wifi, five minutes slower than what foreigners have access to in hotels. He accompanied me to one such hotel, but with his braided hair and dirty old crocs, he was obviously not a tourist. I had to vouch for him with the concierge in my American English so they would let him stay.
I stayed in a casa particular, the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast, generally consisting of one room for rent in a family home. My first two nights, I hardly slept because of the drifting noise of neighbors having conversations across their balconies and music playing all night long. I washed in an electric shower that would give me a little jolt every time I tried to adjust it, whose water pressure ranged from light sprinkle to strong drip. Buses came only every 30 minutes or so, so I would push in with the crowds and hang out of the doors just like they did. On late nights and a student budget, I opted for the less expensive carpool cabs that cost the equivalent of about one USD. On my third day, I spent three hours looking for water bottles. On my fourth day, an artist who wanted to share his music with me was unable to after we searched fruitlessly, from afternoon to night, for a store selling blank CDs. I loved it all. I thought it was exhilarating, that all of these daily inconveniences were special. They were part of what made Cuba what it was, and I appreciated it without frustration or impatience. Then again, I was only there for a week. One of my interviews was in one of the most impoverished slums of the old part of the city, with a rapera who was 59 years old. When I asked what she thought the end of the embargo would mean for her and her music, she said, sarcastically, “Oh, is the embargo going to end? And what about the other blockade and the other? There will always be one for people like me.”
Another interview I had was with a radio personality in the former Hilton Hotel. After the revolution it was renamed Hotel Habana Libre, but it still caters to the same caliber of tourists, selling them wifi cards for $10 an hour. At the end of the interview, I asked the radio personality if he wanted to tell me about anything I hadn’t asked. He didn’t speak for a while, and turned away from me to the window, looking at the homeless, sitting with bare, blackened feet against a decaying building across the way. When he spoke, it was in English and his voice was broken. He said, “I want you to understand…that the story here is of a people who have never been happy.”
In Cuba, the people will tell you, everything is political. Buying fruit that isn’t fresh. Selling a painting to a foreigner who will take it with them to a country where you will never go. All political. The lives of Cubans have been dictated for almost half a century under a sanction first enacted by the American government in the 1960s. The embargo was meant to hurt the Cuban government, but the government is still intact. Instead, the sanction has hurt the people of Cuba.
Yet at the same time, the end of the embargo may not mean a thing for the Cuban people who are most in need of a revolution. Among the poorest citizens, there is little faith in American companies who have terrible track records in Latin America. Flocks of American tourists, who will want to experience the country as I did, will overwhelm an island unprepared for such an influx of visitors, demanding services that your average Cuban citizen would never even dream of having access to.
The trip from La Habana, Cuba to Miami, Florida is less than hour. On the day that I made my way back to the States, we traveled on good winds, landing after only 30 minutes. Enough time to travel back between dimensions. But I felt somewhat shell-shocked when I arrived in Miami International, all shiny and metallic and new. Beautiful, well cared for, and an entirely different world than the country only an hour away. I thought about the week and about my goodbye with El Brujo at the airport. “Crazy girl,” he said. “I am so proud of the way you integrated. You lived as a Cuban. But you didn’t suffer as a Cuban. And now, the reality is that you’ll go and I’ll stay.”
This story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Baedeker.