Ever since Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba in December 2014, there have been countless articles written about the (supposedly) isolated island nation. After visiting Cuba in January 2016, I’ve realized that most of the articles are factually incorrect, and I am disturbed by the homogeneous image they present of Cuba. However, my intent in this piece is not to correct the description of Cuba created by other writers, nor to offer an alternative and factual image of Cuba. As the aforementioned articles prove, it is impossible to capture an entire country in one piece of writing. Instead, what follows are images, events, tastes, and feelings I experienced during my two weeks in Cuba.
Though European influence is evident in the architecture, the vast majority of the buildings in Havana are painted vibrant Caribbean colors. Some buildings are painted a variety of hues, all of which have faded together with age. As pleasing as the island-y colors are to the northeasterner’s eye, upon closer examination, even the most vibrant of paint jobs do not cover Havana’s decay.
2. White rice.
I don’t think I went more than eight hours without ingesting rice while in Cuba. The vegetarian options consisted of carb-overloads. At one meal, Liz was served a mound of white rice so large and round, it looked like an igloo.
If there’s one flavor I couldn’t get out of my mouth in Cuba, it was sugar. At the bottom of every mojito (and there were a lot of mojitos) was a mountain-sized pile of pure granulated sugar.
Many stereotypes Americans have about Cuba are unfounded; therefore, I was surprised to see just how many 1950s cars there are driving around Havana. In fact, one of my favorite memories from the trip is of riding along the Malecón in an old car with broken windows and a back seat upholstered in brocade.
Back to the subject of food: I can’t think about Cuba without being reminded of the identical, bright-white, oval-shaped, bland rolls served at every restaurant, café, and hotel in Havana.
5. Young Fidel.
The same image of a youthful Fidel Castro sporting a long pointy beard appears on murals, government-sponsored billboards, and banners around the city, making me wonder: has Fidel had his photo taken since the Revolution?
6. Old Raúl.
Sadly, unlike his brother Fidel, the current Cuban president, Raúl, is not immortalized as a young man. Next to nearly every rendering of the youthful Fidel is a picture of Raúl in his later years—a strange sight, especially considering that Raul is the younger brother.
7. José Martí.
While on the subject of illustrious (male) Cubans, it would be remiss not to mention José Martí. Undoubtedly the most adored man in Cuba, Martí’s face is equally—if not more—unavoidable as Fidel’s. There are countless statues of Martí, and the airport in Havana is named after the national hero, too. After spending two weeks in the land of Martí, I was shocked to return home and find out that the poet-turned-revolutionary is not a household name in the U.S.
8. The Gulf of Mexico.
The most notable feature of the sea in Cuba is one of lack. Specifically, there are so few boats allowed off the coast of Cuba that the sea often seems entirely empty. However, cruise ships have recently begun docking in Havana’s port. One day our taxi driver stopped the car to take a picture of the ships, saying it was a new sight in Cuba.
9. John Lennon.
Why is there a John Lennon Park in Havana? Who knows! In said park sits a statue of the celebrated Beatle, and by said statue stands a woman whose job it is to be the keeper of John Lennon-the-Statue’s glasses: when a tourist bus arrives, she places the glasses on the statue, and she removes them once the visitors depart. Across the street from the park is the Yellow Submarine Bar, where we watched a pretty decent Beatles cover band.
There are two currencies in Cuba. One is worth far less than the other, and it’s not for tourists. Sometimes both currencies are referred to as pesos. Too confusing to explain.
11. Three-hour lunches.
I cannot say with certainty that Cubans partake in lengthy lunches, but as a tourist, I never ate a lunch that took less than two hours. Unfortunately, the food was rarely worth waiting for.
12. The scar on my palm.
My biggest expense in Cuba was, without doubt, was bottled water; the tap water is entirely undrinkable, and even the most well adjusted traveler would not dare risk drinking from the sink. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that we can learn a lot about Cuba through the water situation. There is one brand (whose slogan is “the best water in Cuba”) and even the smaller of its two sizes costs a good .50 CUC more than an alcoholic beverage. Oh, and the scar? That’s from the impossible-to-open water bottle tops that are certainly made out of the world’s sharpest plastic.
13. The Marxist wearing an Apple watch.
Cuba is full of contradictions. For example, when we talked politics with a community-building group, one man self-identified as a Marxist but wore an ultra-expensive Apple watch.
14. Knee-deep rainwater.
One night, after hours of torrential rain, we returned to our hotel to find that the sea had overflowed and flooded the street. We walked through water that was at least a foot deep or more in some areas.
15. Crazy campuses.
We visited two colleges in Havana. The University of Havana, located in the city, is grand, with its large marble steps and massive banyan trees inside bench-lined courtyards. ISA, the art institute, is located on an old country club with sprawling lawns that were previously a golf course.