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The Beautiful Chaos of Havana, Part I

In front of Havana's El Capitolio...

Boarding the plane from Panama City to Havana, I felt an almost kiddie-ish excitement about the trip I was about to take. It was a long time coming. Something that had to finally happen. Finally, all the pieces of the puzzle were together, Something that had always been so elusive was finally becoming real.

For most Americans like me, going to Cuba always seemed a pipe dream. For as long as I can remember, it always seemed to be a strange, forbidden place so far away while yet being so ridiculously close. Particularly since I grew up in Florida. I remember how odd it seemed then that a place that so much closer to Florida than New York or Chicago could seem so distant, so out of this world.

Around the time before I bought Andiamo, I remember being excited that things were starting to loosen up regarding all the travel restriction bullshit and trading with Cuba. Particularly during the Clinton years, when it was pretty clear that Clinton owed nothing to the Miami Cuban exiles who tried to perpetuate their resistance against the Castro government by prolonging the US’s efforts to isolate Cuba. The US had loosened up so much on its ridiculous decades-long embargo, that people started taking their boats to Havana again for long weekends. There were even benefit regattas from Miami and Key West.

I was so excited at the possibility of taking Andiamo to Cuba as her first foreign port of call after finally leaving Florida. It was not to be. Thanks to the arrival of the Bush regime in 2001, and Bush’s eternal debt to the Miami Cubans for stealing… er… rigging… er… winning him the most crucial state of Florida during the 2000 election, the embargo was quickly ratcheted back up to practically Cold War status. It didn’t take long before I started hearing stories about how the US Coast Guard started hassling boats suspected of going to or coming from Cuba. Made even more bizarre by the fact that just a few months earlier, they were responding to radio alerts by Cuba-bound US boats and yachts, with a tongue-in-cheek caveat to not bring back cigars, rum, or refugees.

Bring 9/11 into the equation, along with the Patriot Act, which was created in knee-jerk response, and the trouble soon brewed. Stories about boats being seized by Coast Guard and other Federal and State agencies soon became all too common.

None of that mattered anymore. Even though I wasn’t going with Andiamo, I was going to Cuba. Turns out Karen, a good British friend of mine from my Cartagena days, took a job teaching at Havana’s international school. She invited me to come visit anytime. Being that she had a large apartment in the most prestigious part of Havana, a suburb called Miramar, as part of her many job perks, and that she would be able to fully ‘sponsor’ me into Cuba, the offer was too hard to resist. For me, it just became a matter of when I would take her up on her invite. After a couple of timing and airfare misfires, I finally got the time window and the ticket to go.

Landing at Jose Marti Airport in Havana seemed like landing in almost any other latin american country, at least for me. All impressions, however, would change once getting past immigration and into the hands of customs. A customs agent asked me for my passport, and then asked me to put my backpack through an x-ray machine. I walked over to the other side, got my bag, and headed over the agent who had my passport. Strangely, he wouldn’t give my passport back. I asked him twice for it, and he just said “momento, por favor”, without any other explanation.

A few minutes pass, and he waves me to follow him. He walks me to what appears to be a checkpoint and goes over to another officer. He gives him my passport, along with another guy’s that was on my flight and walks away. After what I considered to be a rather in-depth inspection of my passport by customs agent #2, he starts asking me questions.

Most of the initial questions revolved around the nature of my trip, where I was planning on going, where I was going to be staying, etc. All standard travel questions asked by officials in most airports around the world. But then, the odd questions started getting asked. Where did I go to high school? Name of the high school? What other languages do I speak? Do I have any pets? Do I own any weapons? Did I serve in the military? When and where? Did I ever take drugs? Which ones? Have I ever been imprisoned, or considered a political exile in my country? The questions just seemed to go on and on with no apparent rhyme or reason.

It didn’t help that the agent who was asking me all these questions was speaking in an almost completely unintelligible Spanish. It literally sounded like he was talking with marbles in his mouth. I asked him a couple of times to please slow down and enunciate because I was having a lot of trouble understanding him. He would then switch to his even more unintelligible English when comprehension really got tough. That didn’t help at all.

After what I call the initial interrogation, and a prolonged sniffing session of my bag with what appeared to be a poorly-trained but overly cuddly drug dog, he walked me over to a row of doors all the way in the back of the large customs area. I admit I started to get nervous because I didn’t like the idea of being brought to a door with a huge lock on it, accompanied by two customs agents, in an airport. Being in Havana this particular time didn’t add to the attractiveness of the situation. As he fumbled through his keys trying to unlock the door, I tried to keep my imagination from running too wild. Thought clouds started popping around my head as I visualized different scenarios that included an unpleasant strip search session, as well as a forced interrogation that included the use of electrodes and wood paddles, among others. I just kept my cool, and my face as expressionless as possible.

He finally finds the right key and opens the door. To my relief, the room contained a scanning machine with a massive air conditioner on that’s set to max. It’s FREEZING. The machine is the kind that they use by running sample pads all around your bag, then examining the pads to see if there’s any residue of illegal or dangerous substances. He was very thorough, checking my bag for at least 20 minutes before deciding that there was probably nothing illegal in it.

When we come back out, I see Karen waiting for me in the customs area. Apparently she started getting concerned as to why she hadn’t seen me come out into the arrivals terminal yet, so she talked her way in. I tell her about the ordeal I’m still going through with customs. Which I thought was over, but apparently I was wrong about that. The customs guy calls me over and asks me to put my bag on a table so he can do a visual inspection. He once again asks me if I have any drugs in the bag, to which I answer yet again with a stern no. I’m starting to lose patience with this whole process now. He proceeds to unpack my bag and remove all the contents. I’m starting to wonder why he just didn’t do this in the first place, it would have saved us both a lot of time.

After the elaborate packing and unpacking of my bag, I’m FINALLY allowed to leave the customs area, and the airport. My Cuba adventure was ready to begin in earnest.

The next day, Karen and I roamed out into the old city for my first foray. She explained to me how the taxis and buses work to get around the city. The “official” taxis, are the ones that are painted and marked. And they would cost me around 7 CUC’s (Cuba’s convertible peso, which is the only currency that foreigners can use. Cuban nationals can use both the CUC and their domestic peso). The ‘maquina” taxis are basically old 50’s era cars that had been cobbled back to life by using extra junk parts imaginatively. For example, many of the maquinas have old soviet-era truck engines powering them. The driver of one old Buick maquina told me his engine came out of an old Soviet-made jeep. Which to me, has got to be the oddest and most ironic pairing of auto components I’d ever witnessed first hand. Those were the better deal because they only cost around .50 to 1 CUC.

The maquinas were only supposed to pick up Cubans, and tourists and
foreigners were supposed to use official taxis. But apparently this rule was widely bent, as I had little trouble hailing maquinas anywhere in the city. Along the way, Karen showed me how the city was laid out and its various districts. We spent the next few hours roaming around the old city, first by El Capitolio, which is Cuba’s version of Washington’s Capitol building, and is the point where most taxis and maquinas call the end of the line when doing collective trips into Old Havana. Then onward, deeper into Havana’s oldest districts, ending up at Plaza Vieja, where she knew a good spot for lunch. At Plaza Vieja, I was impressed at how revitalized the square was in comparison to other parts of the old city I’d just walked through. I could have just as easily been in Cartagena.

Plaza Vieja...

To say that Havana is in a state of disrepair is to say the utimate understatement. Some parts of the city are literally crumbling to pieces. So much so that on many streets people elect to walk in the middle of the streets rather than the sidewalks because they know that there’s good enough of a chance of having a chunk of brick, a section of a balcony, or even a whole facade wall can fall on them. In fact, many people have been killed over recent years by collapsing buildings all over the city. Karen explained that within her first couple of months of being there, she too developed the habit of walking in the streets whenever she saw locals doing it. She also catches herself looking up at the buildings as she walks through the narrower city streets. I noticed this happen several times during my time in Havana. And by the end of my week there, I was looking up a lot too.

Despite all the contradiction between the mostly neglected, crumbling and collapsing parts of the city and the faded yet posh, almost Coral Gables-ish flavor and atmosphere of Miramar, and its embassy-lined streets, Havana was fascinating from the word go. I tried to think of another world city I’ve been to that was trapped in time in so many ways like Havana. A place where there is NO advertising of any kind, most of its residents did not even own cell phones, a place where the internet is pretty much out of the reach of its average citizen. A place where the modern world was slowly but surely drilling its way into the isolated and controlled environment that the supposed revolution brought to this country. I couldn’t. Being here was going to be damn interesting.

My second night fell on a Saturday. Karen decided we should head out around town. As if I was going to have a problem with that. We started out in old Havana, where we walked down El Prado, a classic pedestrian street. If it wasn’t modeled to emulate La Rambla in Barcelona, then it was at the very least a shameless imitation. The tree-lined Prado was full of people walking, lounging and talking. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was so dark. Though there were streetlights everywhere, they didn’t seem to be on. I asked Karen about this. Apparently, it was pretty commonplace.

The lights work, they just seem to be off all the time, all over town. So much so that she said she only remembers seeing them on once or twice the whole time she’s been living there. Going on almost two years now. This made crossing busy streets and intersections a dicey proposition if not worse, considering that many if not most of the cars didn’t have working headlights either.

Walking through the narrow streets of Old Havana, I noticed that despite the fact that it was still pretty early in the evening, there was already live music emanating from almost every bar or cafe on every street corner. And unlike most of the typical latin pop and local music that I had grown tired of over the last few years in Central America, this was different. This music was amazingly good. And it was mostly being played by sharp, talented bands. The quality of the average Cuban bar musician was something that surprised me from the very start. Particularly since I’ve heard some pretty hideously bad music playing in my almost seven years in Latin America. This was a refreshing change.

One of Havana's many live bands I got to check out while in town...

These were passionate musicians who played their hearts out for what amounted to essentially pennies per hour plus whatever tips they got from the tourists. Soaking in all the musical styles, whether it was classic Cuban Salsa, Rumba, Merengue, Tradicional, and its newest genre, Trova. All amazingly bred in Cuba. The awe of the music that I was immediately hit with was something I don’t think I can ever really put into words. To watch and hear young, yet incredibly talented musicians jamming alongside seasoned old-timers who made their playing look as easy as child’s play was something really special. It’s almost true what they say about musicians in Cuba, you have to pay them to NOT play, as the old local joke goes.

Any synopsis of my experience with the music in Cuba wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the incredibly beautiful and talented women I saw holding their own against their male counterparts in most of the rhythm sections. Something about a sleek, beautiful morena with a lion’s mane of hair, commanding a full bass as one example. Probably one of the sexiest things I’ve ever witnessed when it came to girls and music. After being hit by the proverbial truck of Cuba’s dynamic and lively music scene, I made sure that I would experience it as much as possible during my stay. It would be one of the high points, no doubt.

Back to the Saturday night with Karen. We proceeded to walk down El Malecon, Havana’s notorious waterfront street. Its wide sidewalk was lined with a seawall whose height and width was perfect for sitting, lounging and fishing. This time of the night, groups and cliques of people were lined up along the seawall. Couples trying to find privacy sat on the rocks and jetties outside the wall. The name of the game was people watching and being watched. So if you didn’t want to be watched, you had to be off the wall, so to speak.

Walking along as we made our way to meet Karen’s Cuban boyfriend, there was quite a bit of attention coming our way. Girls hooted and hollered at me, while guys catcalled and snickered at Karen. Strangely, most of the hooters and hollerers appeared to be attached at least on a superficial level to somebody else in their group. I found this to be rather odd. Especially for this kind of attention to be happening simultaneously to Karen and me at the same time, no less. I asked her how did they know that we weren’t an “item” while walking by? She answered dryly, “Oh, here that doesn’t matter, even if we looked like the most loving couple walking down the street, they would still do it. There is no subtlety or restraint here when it comes to that kind of stuff, and there’s no fear of offending your significant other.” I’ve seen this happen in other places in latin america, but never to the blatant degree that I saw it happen in Havana.

A few blocks off the Malecon, by a part of town called La Rampa, we met up with Karen’s boyfriend Alfredo. He seemed like an affable, easy-going guy. He works as a girls’ high school phys-ed teacher and basketball coach. He mentioned a couple of different hot spots we can hit that night. Karen asked me what I was up for, and I told her that whatever they thought was cool, was cool with me. We walked up a few blocks to a basement disco bar. It looked big from the outside but was rather small once inside. Nonetheless, it was packed with people. We hung out, had a few Cuba Libres (or “mentiras” as they jokingly call them in Cuba, since there is nothing “free” about Cuba). But it didn’t take long before getting the urge to dance to the pumping reggae, hip-hop, and club music that was being spun by the DJ.

I strangely found myself dancing with two very cute girls who were standing next to us. The girls each took turns dancing with me for set after set. I don’t think I’ve danced non-stop like that in years. After a few solid sets of rocking out with the Cubanitas, Alfredo suggests we go check out another bar down the street. The girls walked out with us so we can talk about where we were going, because they thought they might want to come along.

Revolutionary Art on La Rampa...

When we got outside, things got a bit strange. The girls started getting nervous and looking at each other, then across the street. They whispered to me to not talk or look at them because there were police standing not too far from them. I didn’t really quite get what was going on. Karen then leaned over to me and said that they were nervous because if the police caught them talking to a foreigner they would be in trouble. So we stood a good few feet away from them, in our own little circle. The girls, who were now talking with one of their brothers were close by but not too close. They kept looking over at us, then the police. In the meantime, we were trying to decide where we wanted to go next.

In the end, the girls decided that they couldn’t take the risk of being seen walking with us and went a different direction after a quick goodbye and a quick delivery of their phone number to Karen. They told her to call them when we knew what we were doing the next night. They noticed the police looking at them and started walking fast before the police can say or do anything. It was a very awkward and strange experience. I had no idea how much of a “police state” Cuba actually was until that chain of events occurred. After that, we opted for some late night pizza and called it a night.

I went back into the city later in the day after Karen, Alfredo and I had a nice lunch at a hotel close by her place. It was more of me just walking the streets of Havana and getting to absorb more and more of its strangeness, and its awkward chaotic beauty. Walking along the Malecon was one of my favorite things about Havana. The city is in its crumbling state right up to where it meets up with the blue Atlantic. Here and there, you can see little bits of progress popping up. Only to find it surrounded by more decay and neglect. The ultimate contradiction in urban development.

I particularly liked seeing the rather washed-out and poorly maintained Maine monument on the Malecon. It commemorates the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor, which was the prelude to the Spanish-American War. That war ultimately gave the US possession of Cuba, and later Cuba its independence, albeit via a US-sanctioned puppet government. Oddly, the US’s “Interests Section”, which is essentially its embassy in Cuba, sits close by the Maine monument. Apparently, this is no accident. Between them lies a field of tall flagpoles and a large area with a tall permanent stage. Here, events and concerts are held regularly, or at least used to be. I remember reading that this was all set up by the Cuban government to block the view of what used to be a huge lighted sign placed on the front of the US building. It often displayed news and “imperialist propaganda” as Castro called it, ala Voice of America. To see all this upclose and personal now, just made it all the more surreal.

Karen and Alfredo had the idea to go to a harborfront hotel and bar/restaurant called El Colonial that night. On Sunday nights, they have a lively salsa night which sounded like a good thing. We got there a bit early, but the dancing started not long after, and by 10 pm the place was blasting. There was some of the best salsa dancing I’ve ever seen to date, and some of the worst. The worst being mostly tourists.

Karen and Alfredo on a crowded dance floor at El Colonial...


I danced a bit, but preferred to watch. And it wasn’t just the dancing I was watching. I was also fascinated by the interaction of the people who were there. It was an atypical mix of locals and foreigners. According to Karen, only certain Cuban nationals approved by the government’s tourism commission are allowed to openly interact with tourists and foreigners. They must have an ID badge on them at all times when doing so. So you had these locals who were permitted to interact, and then you had these other locals who were trying to, but under the radar because they were not legally allowed to do so. There were some strange dynamics in action because of this. Particularly when I took into account the inordinate number of older European women (even a tad older than ‘cougar age’) walking around with Cuban 20-something boy toys in tow. Sex tourism in Cuba, but in reverse? The thought entered my mind more than once. Didn’t necessarily find it shocking, just odd that there were so many cases.

After a good dose of cuban salsa by the waterfront, Alfredo suggested we head to another club. Karen warned me that this club would be “very black”. I wasn’t sure what kind of response she was expecting from me, but I think my slightly enthusiastic “yes” to the idea confused her a bit. We got to the bar a bit early from the hotel. It was all about rap, hip hop and reggaeton. Not necessarily my favorite music types, but interesting to be in a club jamming it out in Havana nonetheless. I found myself being a bit curious about what the urban scene of a place Havana was like.

We got to the club right when it was hitting full swing. Karen mentioned that she wanted to just stay a short while because she had school the next day. I told them I would be ready to leave whenever they were. We went in and got a table by the mezzanine of the club. At least those were a bit away from the blasting speakers around the dance floor. By the time we finished our first round of drinks, the place was packed. The only thing strange to me about this was it was a Sunday night.

With the crowd building up on the mezzanine, a very attractive girl came up to me and asked me if I had a cigarette. After telling her I didn’t, she asked me if I’d buy her a pack. I asked her how much cigarettes were, to which she answered one CUC (equal to a dollar). I gave her a CUC and said enjoy. She thanked me, kissed me on the cheek and walked away.

About ten minutes later, she shows back up with two other girls, neither of whom were any less attractive than the first one. They all introduced themselves to me, and asked me if I wanted to dance. All three of them. I looked over at Karen and with my eyes asked her what was up. She just shrugged and smiled. Within a minute or two, all three girls started dancing very… er… suggestively (being polite) around me. They took turns with me, asking me if I was having a good time. As if I wasn’t. That was probably the closest I’d ever get to being a rollin’ pimp daddy. ๐Ÿ˜› Though they made it difficult, extremely difficult, I kept my cool. They kept asking me which one of them I liked better, to which I said I liked them all. I wasn’t about to get in the middle of any territorial battles. The girls didn’t ask me for anything but the occasional beer or a bottle of water, all of which were ridiculously cheap anyway. It was a very strange setting to say the least, and in the end pretty harmless, but I can’t say that it wasn’t fun. ๐Ÿ™‚

Karen started giving me the signal she and Alfredo had to go. I turned to my harem of Cuban hotties with the news, and thanked them for a fun, somewhat flattering, and totally bizarre night. Two of them followed me outside and persuasively tried to get me to stay or at least agree to go see them where they lived the next day. I told them that I probably wouldn’t make it. Considering that by their description, it was quite a good way out of the city. They gave me their info anyway, and told me they hoped to hear from me.

Once again, the police showed up outside the club. As before, the girls got really skittish about talking to me. After some quick goodbyes, they ran back into the club. The overbearing “police state” of Cuba reared its ugly head yet again. Leave it to the cops to mess up the party mojo.

Next day, I woke up a little late. The craziness of the whirlwind past couple of Havana days and nights demanded that I get some rest…

To be continued… Part 2 can be found here.

3 Comments

  1. Daniela Ricciuti says:

    anche ioooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Lynn Langdon says:

    Great writing as usual. Interesting insight into Cuba.

  3. […] from the Archives of my time in Havana. I can’t wait to get back there. Category: Archives / Tags: archives, Cuba, travel […]