“So how was Cuba?”

In Meanderings, Travel, Uncategorized by Liana Lozada

 

“So how was Cuba?”

Everyone asked, and I never truly answered.

Cuba is complicated. Cuba is complex despite its daily simplicities. Cuba stays with you like an aftertaste you can’t seem to pinpoint.

I never felt I had a place to have a true opinion on Cuba. I grew up around Miami Cubans, many with opposing opinions about whether or not we Americans, or anyone, should travel there. I decided I needed to see it and feel it for myself: I acknowledged both sides. As a Puerto Rican, I knew that “they” could have very well been “us” (see The Spanish-American War), and it was important for me to digest that fact. I’ve been back home in Miami for a bit (I visited Havana in July 2018), but my feelings towards Cuba might be muddier now than before I went.

I will preface the below with this: I didn’t go to Cuba for a cultural awakening or a spiritual journey. I went for a friend’s birthday, complete with all the celebratory touristic expectations and willing disconnections from home that came with that. I didn’t go for work, so there was no safety net media guide, no tight-knit press trip itineraries or “must-see” accommodations. And I didn’t go with any locals. This trip was a complete deep dive into a place new to all of us. The five of us each tapped into our resources for months to try to give the birthday girl the trip she wanted: I was just along for the ride.

And it was a ride.

cuba music sidewalk havana band

We arrived in Havana on a Friday morning. I was on four hours of sleep, somehow pushing through the aftershocks of a tough week. My work, health, and relationship all of felt unsteady when we landed. The silence of my phone and the absence of a laptop satisfied the detachment I was desperately craving. The irony of being in a place so behind in technological advances while I wanted to strip myself of those obligations and privileges didn’t escape me, either.

Part of Cuba’s allure is how it functions within a stagnant timestamp. This timestamp served my purpose, my longing, but my privilege of having the choice to turn myself off from the world versus the reality of not having that choice weighed on me the entire trip. I thought about how many times people said: “go to Cuba before Americans ruin it.” The statement, however well intended it might be (and merited, given how America’s capitalistic prowess seems to ruin anything pure) is hard to mutter after you’ve looked beyond the decaying romance of the island and started letting the reality of daily life there sink in. Do they want to be behind the world? Is there a place for autonomy here?

I’ve been to many third world countries under a corrupt rule but what struck me about Cuba more than anywhere else I’ve been was the people’s inability to do anything without permission and how the messaging is etched into their psyche. It didn’t take long to etch on me, either.

me in cuba hands up plaza walking havana flag

That first day was full of enthusiasm fueled by amazing first impressions: A sunny summer day, a large AirBnB in Miramar, an amazing first meal, and a birthday bringing us all together. Despite being surrounded by propaganda, our first lunch was so delicious and inviting that we were high on adrenaline and downing rums in the process. We took smiling pictures overlooking the city and breezed down the sidewalks looking for art to take home.

It still hadn’t kicked in.

Back at the apartment, I took out my portable steamer to remove some wrinkles on a dress I had brought. Our host stopped me in amazement at my contraption, asking me questions about what a steamer was and how it worked. Then in Spanish, half laughing, she said, “You know what they say, the Americans are bad, but they make good things.” I think that was the first moment the reality of daily Cuba started to seep in. I ended up giving her the steamer at the end of the trip.

That night we were headed to the world-famous Tropicana show. This was to be the highlight of our trip. Our Airbnb host handled the taxi reservation as we dolled up head to toe in white. We looked slick. We felt stellar. And then we walked outside…

Our Airbnb had booked us a convertible red classic car: The type of thing vintage dreams are made of. And as we strolled out, dressed in all white, the whole neighborhood just stopped and watched us. One person even took out their phone out to take photos. The weight of that moment, the embarrassment of us “showing out” as we were surrounded by dilapidation made us cower.

red convertible all white group photo

The idea of old glamourous Havana is romantic, even intoxicating, but it isn’t here anymore. It’s long gone, and we were just reminding them of that (in case they forgot.) We just wanted to get out of that moment, so we kept our heads down until the car rode out of sight.

At Tropicana, our dinner became a heavy reminder of the island’s lack of resources. Mystery meats and canned vegetables were arranged on plates to mimic the strokes and drizzles of fine dining. Textures were unrecognizable. This was far from the hearty, warming Cuban food in Miami. It was terrible.

But they were trying.

The Tropicana show was a spectacle of color, sound, and movement. A bolt of energy and rhythm. The moon rose as the show progressed and my mind started to wander, wondering about who these dancers were, what this show meant to them, where they lived…

tropicana show havana cuba 2018

We were at arm’s length from the dancers on stage. Their vivid skirts and costumes swooping over our table so closely you could see the fabric quality: These dancers were giving us their all despite the crushing humidity and their thick clothing. Performance after performance, the Tropicana see-sawed me from emotion to emotion: Elation, curiosity, empathy…

I thought back to a show I saw on a cruise a few months ago. It was inspired by old Cuba, and the production hired famous designers to create the costumes; they were masterpieces of intricacy, the type of handwork seen on runways and Broadway shows. But those were not the type of pieces in front of us now; not the pieces in Cuba now.  

But they were trying.

I woke up the next day to find out my four travel companions had gotten sick to their stomachs overnight and were unable to hold anything down. I was the only one who had ordered differently from them the night before, opting for pork instead of the strange “filet mignon” on the menu. Despite their rampant illness, everyone rallied to get going and see the rest of the Havana.

We packed ourselves into the day’s taxi to peruse the go-to sights. Once again, the propaganda script played like clockwork. The new driver even took us to places we had already seen the day before and didn’t ask to revisit. They recommended communist monuments and museums and continuously offered to take our pictures in front of them: It was like they were on a loop. We had heard all these tales the day before: How Cuba is so safe, how they would never live elsewhere, how happy they were here and taken care of…

Even the museums seemed to bypass anything that happened before the revolution: It was as though history, life as Cuba knew it, began there.

The mental and emotional loop, the heat (I may have suffered a bit of heat exhaustion), the constant street peddling, and everyone’s increasing queasiness made walking the old city that day unbearable. There were four people with some sort of stomach virus navigating a place with no public restrooms and no toilet paper: The day was an intense, disillusioning mess. So we cut our losses midday and went home to nap before Saturday night’s dinner.

Thankfully, our final dinner exceeded all expectations because it wasn’t necessarily a “local” spot. It was a gorgeous, two-story, waterside Miramar home converted into a restaurant that plated succulent lobsters and chilled wines. A magazine editor had recommended the place to me a few months back: I hate to admit it, but it felt like a safe space.

the final dinner house miramar havana cuba

On Sunday, we got one last little nerve-wrecker when I was chosen to be searched and asked a few questions at the airport. While I knew I had nothing to hide, I still thought ‘shit, am I going to be one of those writers who gets stuck in Cuba?’ When they let me go, I breathed a very deep sigh of relief. My desire to be home has never made me feel so American–for better or for worse.

My friends were sick for several days after the trip, with one having to go to the hospital and get IV fluids and meds. I came back from my vacation in need of a vacation.

I personally have no desire to go back to Cuba and see more, but I also don’t have personal ties to the island. My experience there feels so far gone from the other stories I’ve heard, especially from people who have been to Cuba multiple times. Now, six months later, I still can’t conclude my feelings on Cuba. So I’ll go back to the beginning…

Cuba is complicated. Cuba is complex despite its daily simplicities. Cuba stays with you like an aftertaste you can’t seem to pinpoint.