In this uncommon travel piece, Reif Larsen writes about Cuba’s contradictions, photogenic beauty, and daily ode to music. See full article at The New York Times.
[. . .] Yet this odd feeling of defeating space and time came as much from our destination as anything. Cuba, that elusive island unfurling across the Caribbean like a tangled flag, sits barely 100 miles south of Key West. 100 miles! And yet, in some respects, it might as well be 10,000 miles. The country’s complex identity is inherently bound up in the duality of this proximity, in its ability to feel both so close and yet so far away at the same time.
Our visit came at a strange time for Cuban-American relations, as the country languishes in a period of post-Fidel, post-Obama uncertainty. Many Cubans we talked to cited President Obama’s 2016 visit as a watershed moment, a critical first step in normalizing relations between the two countries. But such optimism has given way to a kind of stagnant waiting game, filled with more questions than answers: Is the sudden explosion of private businesses (like Airbnb) on the island a sign of things to come or merely window dressing on what remains a totalitarian regime? What will happen when Raul Castro finally steps down? In this age of Trump, are Americans even allowed to go to Cuba anymore? And if I did go to Cuba, would my capitalist mind be turned into mush?
[. . .] So then why go to Cuba and dive into the cross hairs of both diplomatic and acoustic uncertainty? Because this is why we travel. As José Martí, Cuba’s talismanic national poet and philosopher once wrote, “In a time of crisis, the peoples of the world must rush to get to know each other.” No one can predict what will happen to Cuba in the coming years, which is why you must rush there now. As in, right now. To visit is to witness a rare bird about to fly the coop.
[. . .] Much in Cuba resists measurement. Time becomes slippery. When we drove into the city from José Martí International Airport, we were instantly immersed in a whirlwind of ghostly history: American Plymouths from the 1950s, Soviet Ladas from the 1970s, Polski Fiats from the 1980s, donkey carts, the odd Peugeot. It was as if every moment that came before was also present now.
[. . .] I will not be the first to tell you that the streets of Havana are an intoxication. The city is ridiculously photogenic, no filters needed. Our Airbnb was in Vedado, a deceptively calm residential neighborhood of aging mansions which also features a few of the city’s most thumping night clubs and Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an old cooking oil factory turned into a sprawling multiuse arts complex with a terrific restaurant, El Cocinero, on its rooftop. The night we went, there was a fashion show, a concert, a gallery opening all wrapped up into one. Cubans are ingenious at adapting what they have into something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
From Vedado we walked. We walked without our kids, which meant we could actually get somewhere. We walked along the Malecón, the seafront avenue and promenade known as the “sofa of the city,” where young people come out to see and be seen as the ocean pounds the city’s sea wall. We strolled through the crumbling party of Centro Habana, the “real Havana,” as many people put it. Everyone was home for the holidays; the mood was festive. We dodged water flung from balconies. Men fixing cars. Cars fixing men. We drifted through the Callejón de Hamel, an alleyway covered in palimpsestic layers of Afro-Cuban street art by Salvador González — inscribed bathtubs embedded in walls, bright murals of bodies entangled in dance. We passed the joyous scrum of a rumba street festival.
Was there a rumba festival here everyday? I wouldn’t be surprised.
In fact, Habaneros are some of the more upbeat people I have ever met. Citizens in many of the Socialist and post-Socialist countries I’ve visited often radiate a carefully honed cynicism (see the perfect scowl of an escalator attendant in the Moscow Metro). Cubans are just the opposite. They are not blind to the problems in their country but there is no time to be down because … there’s a rumba street festival! (And a car to fix, an apartment to rent, eggs to track down …)
[. . .] The food was almost universally forgettable, but this is not why you come to Cuba. You come to be transported. To dance, to twirl your toes in the dust. To soak in the jaw-dropping collage of colonial and Art Deco architecture, to ponder the sad-alien street murals by Yulier Rodriguez, to hear stories of a parallel world, a world that begins to slowly merge with your own.
And you come for the sound. Havana is a land of sound. Never have I been to a place whose identity is so entangled in its auditory fingerprint. The guttural putt putt of eight cylinder Cadillacs built before my father was born; the ocean rising and slapping at the Malecón like a newborn babe; the dip and pull of the timbale’s bell chattering at a bar across the street, tin tin—tin tin tin; the shuffle of a man demonstrating salsa for you on the sidewalk; the swish and chop of a broom on a doorstep; the plush boom of the ceremonial cannons fired every evening from the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña; the clink of ice cubes in the most delicious mojito de piña you will ever taste. [. . .]
Jazz, when it is good, makes all possibilities seem possible. And yet whatever is played at the moment also feels perfect, intensely true. This is what was meant to be. When the song finally ended, the world came rushing back, changed, unchanged.
We were in Cuba, still.
We took a breath and began to applaud.
For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/12/travel/havana-cuba.html
[Photo above: El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building, is a majestic landmark in Havana.CreditRobert Rausch for The New York Times.]