18 May 2014
With Israel as a close second, this is by far the most fascinating country I have ever been to. The first thing that I noticed after getting off the plane is the cars. It literally looks like you are transported back in time to the 50s with vintage cars everywhere. I can already tell that this city will be unlike any other I have experienced. Our tour guide Alex also told us that we have to make sure that we have to be careful which bus we get on because the tour buses will all look the same no matter where we go. This is my first experience with socialism. There is no competition, so each tour bus is the same and produced by a company owned by the government. The most important rule we must follow is not to take pictures of the police officers. We were not given any explanation as to why this is not allowed, but it makes me wonder what we will see the police officers doing that we cannot record.
My first impression is that Havana is a faded ghost of a city. Everything looks as if it was one magnificent and was left to ruin. A friend on my trip put it best when she said it looks almost post-apocalyptic, as if the current residents found it and set up camp in the ruins. The architecture is a peculiar mix of European and Carribean styles. I feel like my eyes cannot take in enough. Cuba is blowing my mind more than I ever thought it would. I guess I didn't know what to expect coming in, but I never expected it to be like this. The first place we visited was Revolution Square. Our tour guide said that it was a lot like Paris and to think of where the Champs Elysee meets the Arc de Triomphe, but that only thing that I could think is that it was the perfect space to visually represent communism. The square is a huge empty expanse of pavement, surrounded by two huge buildings displaying the faces of national heroes, a national monument, and the ministry of defense. Each building is beige, so the only color in the square comes from the billboard talking about the revolution. All of the billboards here are political messages from the state since private advertising is not allowed.
We are staying at Hotel Presidente near the Malacon on the waterfront. My first impression of the hotel is that it reminds me of the Hollywood Tower Hotel on the Tower of Terror ride at Disney: old fashioned and beautiful but a facade. The whole country feels like a movie set that if you were to break down the surface there would be nothing behind it.
Hotel Presidente is a very very nice hotel, but just like the rest of Cuba it is the image that matters. We have a nice room, but the shower head is broken off the wall so the hand held shower head rests on the floor of the bathtub. The stairs look grand but as soon as you turn the corner out of site they turn into a tiny dirty stairwell. Outside of out window we have a beautiful view of the city and the water. It’s a sad sort of beautiful though because the brightest color is the orange of rusted roofs, and the buildings are cracked and crumbled.
For dinner we went to a restaurant belonging to our tour guide Alex’s friend. He used to run a government owned restaurant, but as soon as the state started issuing licenses for privately owned businesses he opened his own restaurant. The restaurant is very fancy and on the top floor of an apartment building. The owner converted his family’s old home into the restaurant, and he employs all of the people in the building. Because it is privately owned the people get paid in CUCs (convertable pesos). These are worth more than Cuban pesos, the currency that the state pays local citizens in. These are the two official currencies of the country. Having two separate currencies is designed to separate the elites from the rest. There are certain places where you can only pay on CUCs and if you don’t have any way of obtaining them you have no access to those places.
The meal was fantastic though, we had pureed vegetable soup, blue cheese pastry and fish croquettes, lobster and snapper, and strawberry ice cream with chocolate cake. It was the first moral dilemma of many I’m sure we will encounter in this country: eating a luxurious dinner in a fancy restaurant with the city crumbling around us, and people who I’m sure are starving just outside the door.