A lover of history, music, colourful buildings and of course rum, visiting Cuba seemed like a logical conclusion. Fresh to the tourism by comparison to other countries i have visited, Cuba is currently recovering from the longest Cold War hangover. It feels as though Cuba is now playing catchup, from a position decades behind trying quickly to leap into the future and tap into the modern age. While some countries debate the complexities of stem cell research, Cuba has just been christened with WiFi and is awaiting infrastructure like constant water supply and sewage services.
Cuba is changing. Well, trying to change. Like a plumber using sticky tape to mend a pipe, I have found Cuba is faking it til they make it. Literally! I have powerpoints in my room with no electricity, toilets with no seats and restaurants with no food supply. Every restaurant and accommodation that opens is a valiant effort to show that they can provide the luxuries to support the tourist trade. However, it is all finish and little function. Though progress is progress. But is this progress enough? Sadly, I find that these efforts are just a thin vail to cover up the extreme poverty and corruption that is the foundation of this place. Ultimately, the results of tourism could be to widen the already extensive class gap. Like the buildings that line the broken streets, Cuba is beautiful in its raw state but on the brink of crumbling, and my fear is that tourism is the final straw.
It isn't all doom and gloom. The new freedom of private enterprise in Cuba has enabled Hostels, taxi drivers and tour operators to experience a win as tourists search to adventure this once exclusive and elusive land. Many hostels and restaurants have opened to meet the demand, or maybe to just get their slice of the pie. Cubans have opened up their casa to a thoroughfare of curious foreigner, like myself, and not only provided some funding but and opportunity to network beyond the Cuban boarder. Friends, business partners and opportunities have been made this way.
My time in Havana started with sunshine and unfortunately a humidity that made you 'glisten' in the light. It did make it difficult to roam the streets, as shelter from the sunlight were hard to come by. I took refuge at the Hotel Inglaterra (1856), the oldest hotel in Cuba, to have some lunch and people watch. There was also a band of musicians that were serenading the lunchtime crowd. It was hard to resist. My enjoyment of the music must have been evident as it wasn't long before i had been befriended by Xiomara, the very talented vocal lead. She shared with me the hardships that are faced by performing artists. Not dissimilar to musicians worldwide, but her and her fellow musicians struggle to support their families with their salary composed of 100% tips. I had witnessed this in other venues earlier in the day. Despite this, her deep seeded love of music, which is evident in every performance, compels her to continue singing. But with every performance, the enjoyment is chipped away by the need to beg for tips. Beg to survive.
The people of Cuba are the heart and soul of the country, but like so many countries who have opened their borders, will this drive commerce to the point of sacrificing culture, or will the strength of the Cuba culture and people sustain?
Sitting here in Bar Monserrate, in the shadows of Hemingway, you can feel the passion of the people. The fedora clad band of elderly men, smoking cigars, creates a mood and sound that leaves the crowd in awe are the iconic Cuba. The pulse of the arts is palpable. Walking the cobblestone streets, past the dilapidated facades of the vibrant and colourful buildings, at every corner you can hear the musical stylings of an artist. The familiar syncopated beat that is the cornerstone of Cuban music is a constant hum, combined with the sorrowful vocals telling a harrowing tale of love and loss.
Havana gives the illusion that of lack of touch with the modern age. However, hipster hideouts are hidden within the dilapidated facades of Havanas steeetscapes. Yes, hipsters have managed to penetrate the Castro defence line. Close to Central Parque is Sià Kará. A quirky restaurant and bar that pokes fun at the political establishment whilst also serving a mean cocktail with a smile. This is one of a number of bars that echo a rebellion sentiment through political satire that was once seen in the propaganda for the Cuban revolution and is also a reflection of the next generation of Cuban youth and their drive to unite with the rest of the world.
The complexities of this place aside, walking through the time-warped colonial metropolis, I found myself quickly falling in love with Havana.