The thunderclouds hung low for hours over Havana, Cuba before my friend Louise and I decided enough was enough–if the rain was going to play a game of chicken with us then we were going to spend the afternoon exploring the city instead of hiding indoors in anticipation of the thick sheets of rain that had, for six long and cold days, followed us around the island like a lost puppy.
We bundled ourselves tight into our rain jackets, twisted our cameras safely into zip-lock baggies, and set out on foot to walk Old-Town Havana (la Habana Vieja) and Cuba’s famous Malecón. The Malecón being a place that has always elicited evocative images seared into my memory from Hollywood films…
You know that idyllic image of American life in the 1950s? You know the one I mean: pretty little suburbs with neat yards, low white picket fences and neighbors pruning their roses while tossing friendly hellos to their neighbors?
I wasn’t alive back then so I don’t know how much of that image was the peachy-keen, wholesome advertising of the era and how much was true, but I do know it’s not a part of our culture any more. Neighbors don’t bring you a fresh apple pie to welcome you to the neighborhood and huge porch swings and late afternoon conversations with your neighbors are the exception, not the rule.
We lost that sense of community somewhere along the way and we replaced it with other forms of community. Global transportation and easy communication like Facebook means I have never given up my close friends when I moved across the country — and then left the country altogether for other continents.
Over the past years of travel I’ve been surprised to see many cultures maintaining their local communities in addition to the global connectedness the internet fosters.
Bosnia’s Sidewalk Cafe Culture
Traveling through Bosnia was my first exposure to a full sidewalk café culture. The outdoor evenings in Bosnia are suffused with a low buzz of voices; locals socialize at their nearby café, people-watching and enjoying the company of friends — it was like a warm hug when I went out for my evening meals.
Six o’clock is the social hour in Bosnia, time spent gossiping over the clink of beer glasses. By evening, I was surprised to see the sidewalks and streets of Sarajevo and Mostar overflow with tables full of chattering locals, not just those tourists forced to hunt down their nighttime food.
Cuba’s Neighborhood Communities
Cuba’s sidewalk culture is different but channels a similar essence. Instead of cafes lining the streets, the actual structure of the houses facilitates a friendly and open community. Like in Bosnia, late afternoons are prime gossiping time and I watched neighbors walk the streets, stopping at the long barred widows of their friends to share news and conversation.
Throughout the day the elders sit in rocking chairs in their windows, the grandmothers quietly knitting while keeping close tabs on every single thing happening in their territory.
The parks are filled to the brim — and not just with children! The elderly are a part of the action too, lining the benches, sitting around games of chess, keeping tabs on the grandchildren.
The family units are still intact, and even beyond that, it’s as though the entire neighborhood is in this life together – they’re on the same team, friends. Children have more freedom to roam because the neighborhood acts almost as one organism, a unit of solidarity.
I loved Cuba for that; the sense of community is palpable even walking through as the obvious gringo (no doubt because some of the chatter was about me as I walked by!).
So, What Happened in the US?
My culture lost the togetherness somewhere along the way; our family units are smaller in the US, and communities less of, well, a community. On the other hand, we have often embraced a larger network of friends who act as our families. I’m not sure what to think of this shift — it’s certainly not inherently good or bad, but rather an observation.
What I’ve taken away from all of this though, through traveling and observation, is that I linger longer at dinner with friends, look at my watch less, and enjoy the experience of being a part of that social group. Experiencing these cultural differences over the past several years, in Cuba, Bosnia, Italy and Ireland — all of these countries have taught me to be more invested in my friends, family and experiences when I’m there with them than I was in my more self-absorbed pre-travel days.
Thoughts on sidewalk cultures elsewhere in the world? Am I way off in thinking that America just doesn’t quite have that togetherness anymore?
I have a confession to make about why I rarely mention the eight days I spent in Cuba a year ago … I stayed mum because much of it’s lukewarm. And I steer clear of overtly negative posts on a country or city because travel is so very personal, and I’d hate to steer someone away from visiting Cuba because of a mediocre review from me. So hear me out, because a lot of people might not agree with this, but I will probably not travel back to Cuba—and definitely not while the US embargo is in place.
Earlier in the year I met my travel buddy, Louise, in Cuba for a week of fun—it was totally legit for her to go, she’s South African. For me, an American, it was a bit trickier and I felt some general malaise and anxiety for the several weeks leading up to my trip.
But that was all just the fear of my government, repercussions, fines, lying, people being angry with me. I’m a tiny bit of a goody-goody deep inside.
I abide by the rules, so Cuba was huge for me.
And I’d love to say government restrictions is the reason I don’t plan to go back to Cuba, but that’s only part of it.
I didn’t absolutely love sum total whole of my experiences as I sorted through the memories on the flight out of Cuba. I was sitting in the cramped, nearly antique airplane with a mere foot of legroom, my head cocked sideways because of the planes curvature, and it struck me that I felt relatively ho-hum about it all.
I had just dropped nearly a thousand dollars in Cuba and yet never felt like I was able to get under the country’s superficial tourist exterior. And I really thought I would before I left.
I wasn’t going to a resort so Louise and I stayed at casa particulares, family run guesthouses, throughout our stay. We were there with the locals, and yet so clearly on the tourist path controlled by the government.
At times I felt like the experience was a well orchestrated government-run show where so many of the locals were smiling and friendly but they were cautious too, watching their words and keeping a physical distance.
They were very friendly but not always open.
And that’s out of fear. The touristy areas of Havana and other city centers are closely monitored and all of my interactions were, well, orchestrated. The police keep tabs on the tourists, the tourist restaurants, the tourist taxis and the locals fear getting overly friendly because of the possible harsh repercussions.
I feel like I could have done Cuba better, that there is another side to this country that I just couldn’t see and touch because I was a CUC-carrying tourist. The CUC, the convertible peso, is the tourist currency in Cuba and main currency non-Cubans are encouraged to use; it’s stronger than the US dollar and the vast majority of tourist transactions and money exchanges use the CUC. On the beaten path tourist travel in Cuba is tightly controlled by the government and when you hand a local a CUC it is then given back to the government in the way of hefty licensing fees to operate a tourist-centric business (cabbies, busses, guesthouses, restaurants).
The local currency, on the other hand, the Cuban peso, is remarkably cheaper and works outside the tourist channels.
Which we got our hands on some pesos a few days into traveling within the country. With my passable Spanish, (much better now but merely passable at the time) I convinced a pizza vendor at one of the street-side hole-in-the-wall shops (literally a hole in the wall looking out over the cobblestone street) to deliver my change in pesos instead of the initial CUC he had handed to me.
Cuba got a whole lot cheaper on the peso, and a lot more fun.
I wish we had changed some money into the peso on the very first day because we were welcomed a bit more warmly at the establishments that dealt in pesos. The peso was our ticket into the other side of Cuba, and on the other side of Cuba the interactions were less constrained. Less fear perhaps?
I just wish more of the experience had been like that.
The “ish” side of this comes from the fact that I felt like there were few opportunities for me to really set off and explore. The government controls were effective in keeping me right on the line all the other travelers frequent.
A fellow traveler rented a car and drove the length of Cuba over several weeks and thus stayed in the tiny towns and ate at small local spots—surely she saw an intriguingly different side of Cuba from my experiences.
I would love to go back one day in the hopes of perhaps finding a less sanitized version.
Here’s the thing, this isn’t necessarily a post on “is it ethical to travel to Cuba?” though I didn’t love the fear and caution exhibited by the locals. Moreso this has to do with my lasting impression leaving. I went with the expectation that I could give money into the hands of the locals since I wasn’t staying at a resort and instead traveling through several Cuban cities albeit via the tourist bus/tourist taxis. That expectation never materialized and I ask myself, “how do I overlook the fact that I spent a huge sum of money and most of it went through the tourist channels to support the current government?” I have traveled in other communist countries and it just wasn’t the same experience, I was able to go local and not feel like Big Brother was watching me every moment.
I guess more than anything I’m confused. Though I may go back some day in the future, I can’t wholly explain why I didn’t enjoy traveling in Cuba. I loved the salsa dancing (even though watching me dance salsa is akin to witnessing a spasming fish gasp for one last breath on land), the people were friendly and welcoming, the country is beautiful. There are many elements of my trip that I loved and enjoyed, just not what it all added up too.
Does that make any sense? What are your experiences in Cuba and would you ever travel there?
I haven’t talked much about traveling through Cuba but this image is pretty iconic Cuba in my memories. The cities in Cuba are filled with crumbling houses once painted with an array of blues, yellows, and oranges but the wealth that built most of Cuba decades ago has simply faded over the years—zero maintenance and little money an equalizer in the city. In this “equalization,” there was also a standardization of sorts that added a uniform element to the houses and the streets in the city. Houses that once might have stood out with unique architecture, colors, or styling blended into a state of disrepair evident throughout the grids of streets in Trinidad and Havana—the two cities I visited.
Why does this sum up my time then? Every house has these huge floor length windows looking onto the streets and it’s completely common to glimpse grandmothers perched in the windows rocking gently—or friends chatting through the bars. Children play in the windows and dogs poke out their heads. Business takes plays through the wire bars too, with food and cash exchanging hands between neighbors and friends.
It has taken me a while to look through the photos I took in Cuba as I was traveling through the region, but the wire-frame windows are a lasting travel memory of my time there.
More Cuba stories coming this summer; I was antsy about posting them for a while, but I think it’s generally in the clear now as the US government has gotten a lot more lenient in recent years.
Ok Central America, you win. I lay prostrate at your feet and am willing to surrender to your charm, your eccentricities, and even the downright annoyingly ridiculous phrase mas o menos which, in translation means “more or less,” but in Mexico (and Cuba) actually means “I-can-tell-you-whatever-I-want-even-if-I-know-I’m-wrong-as-long-as-I-slap-on-a-mas-o-menos.
I fought Central America for the longest time…and that’s just not like me. I’m an “experienced” traveler right? I love new cultures, I know not to judge new places solely through the eyes of my Western upbringing, but yet, sometimes, there’s just something in me that rebels.
Like the fact that I wear a watch. I like things to run on time. Call me anal, call me what you will, if you say 20 minutes, I’ll be there waiting in 20 minutes. And so, if that estimation of a two hour cab ride is really just a product of an fantastically imaginative guess…five and a half hours later…I’m justified in being frustrated right?
At least not here.
I think I went a bit soft on my several months home in the US over the holidays, because somehow I forgot the pivotal lesson that India taught me: just surrender to the experience. Other travelers are often fascinated by the fact that I’ve traveled to India…for those who haven’t been yet, I tell them they’ll hate the country if they’re not willing to just let go of control and preconceived notions and just surrender to the country, the people, and the total experience.
Each new country I encounter has its own little quirk – and it’s often this quirk, be it a phrase, a food, or a mentality that I most love and remember once I leave.
And for me, Mexico (and Cuba, although obviously I never went there ;-) it’s the mas o menos phrase that I’ve actually come to love.
In fact, I really love it, and here’s why – precision is not important, rather it’s the quality of the tale, the gist of the conversation, or your best guess that’s perfectly acceptable. Now, when telling a story here I have the freedom to either grossly exaggerate or massively deadpan my tale. And as long as I end it with a big grin and a mas o menos, it’s really not a lie right? Because I’m telling the truth…more or less ;-)