by Alan Hartley, Molly Mason Jones Professor of Psychology
The single most important piece of advice I can give you about Havana is this: Go! Go now! Go before it changes! The second most important piece of advice is to leave your preconceptions at home. The experience that best captures the entire situation was the young man who asked me “¿Donde?” “Estados Unidos.” “Ah,” he said in English, “American. The Cuban people and the American people.” He clasped his hands and shook them, smiling broadly. “Your president and my president,” he gestured beside his ear and looked grim-“loco.”
The Cuban people-both professionals and people on the street-are enormously friendly. The music is everywhere, and it is infectious (just ignore the fact that they invariably break into Guantanamera when they see a gringo in the audience). Havana is a beautiful European city dropped down in the tropics (though crumbling under the weight of an economic embargo). And I have never felt as safe wandering through a major city anywhere as I did in Havana. Let’s not pretend. You will be offered cigars, rum, and personal services frequently and whatever your gender. The dollars in your pocket would go a long way! Each U.S. dollar in your pocket is about 15% of a month’s income. But when you say “No, gracias,” you won’t be hassled, and it’s rather likely the next question-reflecting genuine interest-will be “Where are you from?” When they learn it’s the U.S., expect the next line to be “Ah, my brother lives in Minneapolis” or the like. It helps, too, if you’re up on baseball.
How to Get There
Until I went, I didn’t even know one could legally go to Cuba. The U.S. does grant cultural exchange visas, although the Bush administration is doing it ever more grudgingly. That’s how I went this last May with a group of American Council on Education Fellows. I would suggest organizing your trip through an agency in the U.S. that specializes in travel to Cuba. Marazul is the largest, but we used, and very much liked, Common Ground Travel of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tell them what kinds of things you’d like to see and what kind of people you’d like to meet. They have excellent contacts with those few members of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington that haven’t been tossed out of the country.
Lodging and Restaurants
There’s only one place to stay, the magnificent old Hotel Nacional right on the Malecon, or sea wall, in the Vedado section of Havana. The rooms are simple and adequate, but sit on the veranda in a wicker chair sipping your daiquiri (pronounced diekey-ree) and you will fully expect that Clark Gable or Meyer Lansky will stroll by. The breakfasts are without comparison the most sybaritic experience one can have. When I get to heaven, I expect there to be mango smoothies and café con leche without limits! Other than that, don’t go to Cuba expecting Michelin three-star dining experiences. Most restaurants are state-run.Whatever one might say about socialism, it doesn’t seem to do restaurants well. Instead, ask-plead if you have to-to go to a paladar, a privately owned restaurant. And the very best of those is La Guarida.The movie Frais y Chocolat (Strawberry and Chocolate) was filmed in this building; see this movie before you go. Admire the auto mechanic on the ground floor, note the inspirational sayings from Fidel on the wall, go on past the decayed elegance of the first floor.The restaurant is on the second floor behind a hard-to-find door, in a truly wonderful state of deshabille.The food is wonderful.There’s one other reason to stay at the Hotel Nacional. When the members of the Buena Vista Social Club perform, this is where they perform. Performances are unpredictable, but be sure to ask the concierge. By the way, your cell phone almost certainly won’t work. Go to the telephone desk, have them place a call to the U.S. for you ($2.50/min), and get the other party to call you back in your room.
Sites of Interest
Do visit the Universidad de la Habana. Start with the grand steps that lead to the statue of Alma Mater. But once you’re inside and have admired the stately buildings surrounded by tropical foliage, look at the students. It could almost be Claremont. Then, think back to the rich mix of races surrounding you down on the streets of Havana. Ask yourself if racism survives, even here. Then talk with faculty. You’ll find a devotion to teaching and scholarship even in the face of desperate hardship that will restore your faith in higher education as a calling. Ask them about the “inverted pyramid” that has a professor or physician earning about $25 U.S. a month, but has waiters in the tourist restaurants making several times that.
You must find a way to visit La Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s estate south of Havana. Whether you like Hemingway’s writing or not, you will come away with a sense of the person qua person. You will also find yourself pondering his love affair with Cuba and Cuba’s persistent love affair with him. Be sure to climb the tower. Look at the spectacular tropical flowers around you. Ask sotto voce if you can go to the very top. Forbidden, but usually allowed if you are quiet. Here you can look out across the countryside to the city, and contemplate what it must have been like. By the way, don’t ask who actually lived in the tower.That’s been bowdlerized from the official story. If you have a chance, also visit Cojimar.This is where Hemingway docked his boat, Pilar, and where his captain-the model for the Old Man and the Sea-lived.
If you like spectacular beaches, visit Veradero, near what we call the Bay of Pigs. I found the Bay of Pigs a much more fascinating spot, but that’s just me.
In Havana, be sure to visit the Museum of the Revolution. Put aside all the interpretations of communist Cuba that you’ve learned over your lifetime. Instead, put it in the perspective of a bunch of smart-mouthed young hot heads who started a revolution against Britain over far less. Think how we revere those people.Then try to think about Fidel Castro Ruz and his fellow revolutionaries-men and women alike, most dead in the struggle.Think about Castro, the eloquent young law student who was willing to put his life on the line.Think about the effort to replace a string of repressive dictatorships with a socially equitable state. I found the issues far more complex than the simple assessments I brought with me. The country is poor, but I saw no poverty and no homelessness no matter where I wandered (and I wandered without restriction). Literacy is at about 97%. One hundred percent of the population has been tested for AIDS. Education, from preschool to Ph.D., is free.Agriculture is cleverly organic, because chemical pesticides cost hard dollars that are just not available. On the other hand, the country has been ruled by a two-man gerontocracy for 45 years; there is no apparent plan for a democratically determined succession. Professors are free to travel and study abroad, but students are not.With the collapse of Soviet support, the single largest portion of the economy is money sent from the U.S. by expatriate family members. Only the move to a tourist economy based on the U.S. dollar has saved the country from collapse.
Don’t go expecting to shop ’til you drop. There’s just not that much to buy. If you go with a legitimate visa, you are allowed to bring back $100 worth of Cuban cigars or rum. Yes, really. Curiously, no matter how much people in my group bought, the receipt said $100. and they weren’t questioned at Customs. Skip the cigar factory tours. Just go to the shop. If someone you know smokes cigars, the premier labels such as Cohiba will win you favors for years to come. You may find some interesting gifts in the craft market on Calle Tacon. But be sure to bargain. There are a hundred dealers with essentially the same crafts. There is some interesting art. My favorite is Joaquin Fuster. He’s an internationally exhibited artist who styles himself after his presumed acquaintance, Pablo Picasso, spending his days in Speedos and a rayon shirt. He has reformed his entire neighborhood in a whimsy of colorful and playful tile work. Oh, and your omnipresent, dependable credit cards? Of no use. Because of the embargo, U.S. banks won’t pay the merchant. Take currency. And when you get change, be sure that you get U.S. dollars, not the Cuban equivalent. Just ask for “real dollars”; it won’t be an issue.
Last Bits of Advice
And finally, take a camera and lots of film. What you see will be so new and unexpected that you’ll find a photo op every few minutes. Buying film there is extremely expensive. Each time you see an apparition like an Edsel or a 1946 Packard or a bicycle taxi, you won’t be able to resist, so come prepared.
For information about restrictions on U.S. travel to the Republic of Cuba, please contact the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control at (202) 622-2520, or check out www.destinationcuba.com, a website that both explains current travel restrictions and provides a link to Tico Travel, a U.S.-authorized trip service provider that can assist with air, hotel, and car rental reservations in Cuba and other Central American destinations.