Perspective is the key to an optimistic outlook, and hindsight often relies heavily on internal retrospect. Having the opportunity to spend a few days in Havana, Cuba, I had the pleasure of experiencing a culture that allowed me to reflect on the modern conveniences that I was privileged to having back in New York. Havana, although laden with rich culture and plethora of institutionalised benefits making it a destination embedded in charm and mesmerising allure, falls short of some foundational essentials, mainly things we often take for granted. The country made me appreciate the simple pleasures of a culture that are testaments to resistance in an ever so changing landscape of time, technology and culture. By and large, my travels to Cuba resulted in me having a greater sense of awareness of certain luxuries, and left me realising the road less travelled is often the one that gives the greatest reward.
Havana has only recently become a travel destination and for many adventurous travellers, has become a key hot spot to cross off the bucket list. I found myself intrigued by its art, architecture, music and the colourful sultry Caribbean cityscape, which both confounded and exceeded expectations. The trip was planned with my friend Munjal who lives in London and we were to meet in Havana for the first time in years. We chose to stay at a “Casa Particular”, a private home with a Cuban family which provided a realistic perspective to the local life. At US$8 a night, the experience left us curious for more. Like the lives of the people, the food, the cost of living, and above all, the price of happiness. Our accommodation was very modest yet the hospitality surpassed everything. We soon realised that despite the lack of conveniences, like Internet connectivity, a fancy breakfast, or a 24-hour concierge, this was far superior an experience.
When you travel to someplace new, there is always something new to learn, like the fact only five per cent of Cubans have access to the Internet yet Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, at 99.8 per cent. With the average monthly wage of US$20 or 471 pesos, it was hard to imagine life devoid of materialistic pleasures. A beer or a pizza would typically cost us US$1. Despite being advised to not encourage conversations with locals that would lead to potential scamming, we found ourselves enchanted by the whole experience. On our first day, we met a young couple by the esplanade on The Malecón. After several drinks and interesting stories, we realised we had to pick up their tab. How do you put a price on something that costs you so little yet makes somewhat of a difference to someone else? Overall, we were fascinated by how people seemed to get by with the basic essentials of life with the least fuss, and the best times savoured over music and dance.
Another day led us to Calle Obispo and parts of old Havana; bustling streets full of popular restaurants, handicraft shops, bookstores, bars and live music filling the air with a carnival vibe. We felt like we were at centre stage in a city that inspired poets, writers and singers like Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Celia Cruz. Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral and other attractions kept us on our feet for hours. Fresh coconut water and pineapple were our best friends to escape the midday heat. We stumbled upon private restaurants tucked away in backstreets with finer dining experiences – although food wasn't our priority on this trip – and there never seemed to be a shortage of basic staple choices. A healthy dose of eggs and toast alongside a big glass of papaya juice and fresh fruits were our best bet to a scrumptious breakfast. It was a nice convenience to be able to use US dollars for CUC (Convertible Peso), not having to worry about tedious conversions. The locals, however, used Cuban Peso which was not a favourable currency amongst tourists. Either way, with breakfast costing only a dollar, we felt like royalty.
The westernisation that has influenced many other countries seems to be slowly inching into the edifice of economy and Cuban commerce is finally awakening from a long hibernation: private taxi services and tour companies, boutique restaurants, homestays and more are booming – and becoming increasingly competitive – yet the city is practically sealed in a time capsule with an eclectic combination of the old and new. Every street corner is a testament to a different time – a photographer’s paradise. I was particularly drawn to Habana Vieja – a fortified city centre with large plazas, baroque and neoclassical buildings with Art Deco accents notable between the crumbling mansions. Even though the architecture was the highlight of the trip for me, Havana feels incomplete without the mention of the beauty of classic cars from the 1950s, Jazz notes filling the air, the smell of world-class cocktails and Cuban cigars. With everything being a novelty, I felt a desire to embrace it all, disengaged from the rush of my daily life back home.
Our short four days in Havana by no means were adequate for a fully immersed cultural indulgence yet it was unique, raw and personable to create a lasting impression, leaving us craving for more. More than anything, we felt safe, even in the wee hours of the morning when we walked along on the esplanade soaking in the melody of the sea. With minimal addictions to modern necessities, and strides apart in healthcare, education or equality, Cuba seems like the resurgent country teeming with opportunities. Raul Castro’s words, “we reform, or we sink”, if anything, is a nod to the reformation that embraces the advent of free-market economy sooner than we know it.
Often, it's not the most convenient trip that brings about the most impactful experience. One needs to experience some resistance in order to understand new and challenging ideals. And only when we welcome such changes will we be drawn to newer and richer experiences.
Photos & Words by Saunak Shah