The human spirit can be a fragile thing.
There’s something that draws an explorer to a place that perfectly showcases the ruins of its glorious past. Last year I headed out to Vietnam, specifically seeking out Hanoi to walk the streets of its Old Quarter with the intention of experiencing the collision of new and old. To view with my own eyes the decay of the frivolity of days gone by and to see how things were changing.
A few weeks ago I boarded a plane headed to Havana with the exact same intentions. For a long time Cuba has enchanted me, a forbidden land locked in time. I landed with high expectations. Met my cabby at the airport and jumped into his Soviet Lada with high hopes, careening through Cuban traffic with a fresh Cuban cigarette hanging from my lips. How else are you expected to explore this new territory?
Freshly dropped off at the new apartment it as time to hit the streets, even though it was late and I was feeling tired. One can’t just fly to another country and be expected to go to bed. So I started off down the Prado until I ran into a nice gentleman who spoke English quite well. He informed me that this weekend was Carnival and extra specially, tonight was the one night a month that members of the cigar Colectivos were allowed to bring cigars home to sell themselves. A sort of bonus day.
Cuba is an exercise in dispensing with predispositions. One walks down streets that would instigate near panic in the US without fear in Cuba, and one learns this quickly. And this is how I found myself in a random kitchen on my first night in Cuba. Surrounded my large men insisting that I purchase cigars of questionable provenience for an apparent discount.
I do wish I could tell you an anecdote here, like from my trip to Thailand where I threw money into the face of a bar manager who was attempting to cheat me. I do. But I don’t. No, I negotiated poorly figuring that whatever I got, it was still Cuban tobacco and got out of there with my shoddily crafted box filled with mystery cigars. Hours into the country it was Cuba: 1 and Me:0.
But travel isn’t about keeping score.
The next few days rolled by with me walking about the city, doing my best to get a feel for the place. I like nice things but I am also quite curious about what life is like for the average citizen, and so I set out to find out.
By the third day I was burdened by a weight. I did not understand this weight, I only knew that I was plagued my a feeling of claustrophobia and I was looking forward to changing locations to the laid back town of Trinidad.
Hanoi is an achingly beautiful city. It is full of crumbling 18th century architecture, harkening to days gone by. An homage, if you will, to its colonial past. It’s also a thriving city full of life and excitement. Vietnam is pulsing with life. With hope. With progress.
It wasn’t until several days later that I realized the difference. Havana is stunning city, almost impossible to take a bad picture of. But the average person, I could not detect much hope from them. Things were dire and they had been for awhile. As opposed to Hanoi, a beehive of a city. Everyone working towards something bigger. Havana felt more like every man for himself. Things were not going well and I could detect little hope for a better life in the near future. As an American, I couldn’t help but feel a bit responsible for this. Compounding this fact was that every single Cuban I met on the street would immediately upon finding out I was an American insist that the average Cuban loved America. That we were all welcome there, and that this diplomatic situation we found ourselves in was merely some misunderstanding between our countries.
I completely agree, but at the same time, I know that it is my country that is almost directly responsible for their current economic situation. I know it’s not be personally, but still, that kind of weight adds up.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized the dire situation that Cuba was in, and has been in for many years. It as the sort of realization that makes one take a step back and question everything that they have been told.