“Beautiful” and “dilapidated” are the words that come to mind when I describe Havana, Cuba. The paint on the buildings is crumbling and exteriors are falling due to years of neglect, but somehow the streets of this densely populated coastal town warrant a kind of romantic notion of chaos and community.
The vibe in Havana is pretty much unrivaled from anything I’ve seen before. Life is in the streets. Men, women and children stand in the sidewalk, catching up with passersby, all of whom they seem to know. They’re a friendly bunch, willing to talk to anyone who’s willing to stop. Though sometimes the approach is a bit off-putting (whistling, cat calling, lip smacking), I found it to be harmless and cultural.
And then, of course, there are the cars. A strong sign of the embargo I wrote about in my last post, Havana and the rest of Cuba is dotted with 1950s American cars, in all their glory of yesteryear. They’re amazingly well kept, and a sure sign of great mechanics around the country.
Buying a new car is expensive, if not impossible, given the tight limitations on foreign trade. It’s hard to get a straight answer from anyone in Cuba, but the one I got most consistently when I asked how much a doctor earns is $25 USD per month. I also met the manager of the Havana train station who told me he earns $10 USD a month, but he likes his job and goes willingly five days a week. I visited the studio apartment he shares with his brother where we drank a beer on the balcony overlooking a seven-story building that has a small forest growing inside, so long it’s been since anything has been maintained. Luckily, housing has been passed down from generation to generation, so most Cubans don’t need to buy property, and nobody is homeless.
During the week I spent in Havana, there was a local art festival. The famous malecon, which runs five miles along the sea, was decorated with varying art from the creations shown in the featured image above, to ladders reaching into the sky, to a manmade beach complete with umbrellas and chairs. The malecon is where fisherman fish during the day, and locals converge when the sun goes down, sharing bottles of rum, smoking, playing music or just hanging out. After dark, almost the entire strip is covered in bodies, and it’s a fantastic sight to see.
The Prado, or main walking street in Old Town, is lined with glowing yellow street lamps and those crumbling building facades line the way to the ocean. During the art festival, artists were set up along the promenade between the bustling streets on either side, practicing their craft and selling the fruits of their labor.
And despite all the negativity the country sometimes earns (on behalf of the government), they do have a few things working well for them, like free quality education and healthcare. The literacy rate is 99.8% (slightly higher than the U.S.), and because of the free education and some of the best medical schools around, the country has the most doctors per capita than any other. They also have a top-notch medical school that accepts scholarship students from other countries, trains them, and then sends them to areas of need around the world.
In short, Cuba is so much more than cigars, rum and palm trees, though all of the above are there in ample quantities (a bottle of rum for $4, anyone?). Havana, in particular, is a resilient city that demonstrates just how resourceful people can be. While most will tell you life is hard in Cuba, and that they are eager for change, they appear happy and relaxed. Change is coming soon, but it might be on island time.
Where I stayed in Havana:
Casa Caribe Havana Hostel operates more like a casa particular, or homestay, than a large hostel. It’s an apartment with two amazing hosts, Rodolfo and Carlos, where one bedroom is a shared space with several bunk beds and the other is a private room for rent. There is a rooftop patio overlooking Central Havana, and breakfast is included in the price. The location is also great, just a few blocks from the malecon (pictured above) and a 10-minute walk to Old Town. I highly recommend staying there.
Havana, Cuba in Images