A January 2003 trip
to Havana by cheryl morris
Quote: Perceptions of this island vary depending on the visitor's background. Here's what one 'former Argentine' thought.
Driving from the airport into Havana, something seemed strange. I felt a certain inner calm, a lack of frenzy that was even greater than that I usually experienced on holiday. Then it occurred to me--I had not seen a single advertisement, a single billboard, since I left Heathrow! What freedom to be lost in my own thoughts, with no corporate sponsored messages shouting at me! I realised that it is not for nothing that in Spanish, the word for "advertisement" is "propaganda."
Waking up in my European-style room at the Hotel Seville, I decided to spend my first day in Havana exploring markets and taking in the sights. I had heard about jinteros, or street hustlers who chat up tourists and try to get a few dollars or a free meal, and they certainly were abundant! It seemed impossible to walk a block without someone asking where I was from in about seven different languages. Some just wanted to chat, some were more persistent, but a smile and an "I just want to walk in peace, thanks," was an effective deterrent to most--but not Juan Carlos. He followed me with jokes and offers to show me around and was so charming, I couldn’t resist. He took me round to the markets and bookshops of the Plaza de Armas and negotiated better prices for me. We went together to the Museum of the Revolution, where he supplemented each display with interesting anecdotes about his country’s history. He advised me to be careful of scams (don’t buy cigars in the street as they are not genuine; don’t change money on the black market, as it may be counterfeit), and at the end of the day, I happily gave him five dollars and accepted to pay for a meal of chicken, potatoes, and salad at his family home just outside Havana vieja. There were other foreign guests there, chatting with this Cuban family, and the conversation we all had over dinner was, of course, political. Our Cuban hosts complained openly about certain problems the country was facing, as I frequently do about England, but their problems were different--while we have terrible health care, weather, schools, and transport, but low unemployment, cheap food, and travel opportunities, the opposite was true for them!
I suppose the rest of my days passed typically--wandering through markets, visiting historical sites, jogging on the malecon. There is little to be said about Havana that has not been said before: the fading beauty of the glamour that had once been; the people whose love of music constantly keeps them smiling, humming, dancing, or all three at once; the charm of the museum pieces on the roads have all become travel-writing clichés. There was something, though, that I had not ever read before.
Perhaps this is because most travel websites are written in English, by English-speaking people (usually Americans), for others like them, but as a writer who considers herself to be half-Latina, I have a different contribution to make regarding Cuba.
The country impressed me greatly with its cleanliness, safety, and the culture and education of its people. Compared to the rest of South and Central America, and even Mexico, Cuba is a paradise of sorts. Many American and Canadian tourists enjoyed the friendliness and culture of the Cubans while tsk-tsking the poverty and "oppression" that they believe so oppresses them, connecting this to the "Communist regime" there. Certainly, Cuba is not exactly Sweden, but I am certain these tourists would never make such comments if they only traveled to the rest of Latin America.
Had these people ventured out a little further south, they would have realized that in ALL of the rest of the continent, there are problems that the Cubans have not seen since the revolution; problems like: an abundant drug trade destroying the lives of millions; rife child labor and prostitution; homelessness; illiteracy; organized crime; death squads that make people "disappear" by dragging them from their beds at night; no health care for the disabled or sick; shantytowns that even the police dare not enter; gangs of children living in the streets; and the list, depressingly, goes on. And all of these countries are not communist regimes; rather, they are American allies, free-market capitalist states plugged in to globalization.
I came to Cuba expecting to get a taste of the Latin America I knew and missed; what I got was all that, plus an education. Cuba is a special place, unique and delicate and beautiful, that shows us how the rest of Latin America could have been, if only . . . Despite what rich and privileged North Americans may say, it is a place that should not only be visited, but admired as well.
london, United Kingdom