From the minute I arrived, I could feel the Cuban spirit. It’s an impervious soul of happiness that runs through the neighborhoods, streets, and people. Best discovered on foot, a random exploration leads you to the simplest of livelihoods.
It was this journey that enabled me to connect with strangers on a personal level that I have never experienced anywhere else. These are their stories.
The Central Havana Campoamor Theatre opened its doors on October 20th,1921 where it served as the country’s leading music and theatre venue. In 1965, six years after Fidel Castro took power, the locale closed it doors. It soon became a garage for pedicabs and taxis. Despite being a shell of its former self, Reinaldo has stayed behind with his dog, plants, and memories.
Only the state is allowed to slaughter cattle and sell beef in Cuba. A commodity that I can buy at my local grocery store, beef has become a taste of the past. It’s to the point that citizens who kill a cow, even if they raised it themselves, can get a 10-year prison sentence. And anyone who transports or sells a poached animal can get locked up for 8 years.
“It’s been years and years since I last ate beef. Not necessarily by choice but we Cubans don’t really enjoy it anymore…it taste too much like metal, hahaha” ~ Rodrigo
Today beef is found almost exclusively in state-run restaurants and markets that are financially beyond the reach of most citizens. It makes chicken, pork, and goat the default taste for an entire country.
If you stroll around Plaza de Armas, Havana’s oldest square, you’re likely to find Georgia. Nestled under a shady tree, she as photogenic as they comes. In her traditional attire she recognizing that her showmanship is a key aspect to her selling more second hand books. It’s a reminder as to the importance of history and survival here in Cuba.
Continuing your journey through Central Havana, you’ll invariably come across local vendors selling identical sets of fruit. Often a mixture of mangos, papaya, guava, bananas, coconut, and pineapple these selections are limited in quantity, while the individual stories of the fruit sellers are abundant.
Humbert is the owner of three of these very fruit carts. Having been a street vendor for 8 years, he is often stationed at the same stand every day. At the same time his brother and eldest son each run his other two stands along the busy Obispo St.
What stands out about Huberto is his charismatic approach. Through our conversation he mentioned… “Because you live in the United States, there probably isn’t a fruit in Cuba that you haven’t seen or tasted before. But I can tell you that at least here, the same person cutting this coconut is the same person that harvested it. And that my friend is special.”
I love boxing, especially cuban boxing. The combination of grace and survival produce some of the world’s most successful Olympic boxers. Their determination is equally inspiring when you consider that many Cuban boxers can barely make a living at their sport.
As a fan, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit one of the oldest gyms in Havana. It’s iron roof, thirty year old equipment, and aging bleachers remind you of the hours that have been labored at the opportunity to win. Hector Vincent, now a coach, was one of those boxers. A two-time Olympic champion, he who was forced to retire early due to retinal damage. His continuation in the sport would most likely had left him blind.
Oblivious to his accomplishments as a fighter we had an honest, simple conversation. Realizing his history after we talked, his humble approach never would have hinted at his Olympic success.
Felipe is a 41 year old employee at Variedades, an eatery located right along a main shopping street of Calle Obispo. Gradually being overtaken by souvenir shops this old road is a must visit. With its beautiful cobblestone path, restored colonial architecture, and local shops you get the sense that Havana is a city where the energy of life was once consumed the streets. Having worked at the local eatery for the last 7 years and has seen a lot of history pass through these avenidas.
“In Cuba, we’re not so much about what’s healthy. It’s more about what foods will sustain you throughout the day. Which is why you see a lot of bread.”
Elmer, 36, came highly recommended as a driver for our trip to Vinales. The nephew of our Airbnb host, he was willing to share why being a taxi driver is such a valuable profession.
“The reason why taxi drivers make so much more than doctors or engineers is because we have private licenses. Our salaries are not set by the state and so we can essentially charge tourist high prices. What I’m making on this tour today is more than triple than what an average Cuban makes in a month. I don’t miss being an engineer. This car right here is my version of the American Dream because I sacrificed a lot to even buy it in the first place.”
Bicitaxis is another form of the taxi trade. Restricted by the government to only carrying locals, this form of transportation is popular in Havana, where many of the narrow streets prevent traditional taxis. Occasionally you will see these taxis carrying tourists, a dangerous risk many must take in order to feed their families.
The bicitaxis may not have motors, but they do certainly stand out in the crowd. Some have blaring speakers with music, others have multicolored ribbons dangling from the handlebars, while other possess abstract paintings on the ceiling of the bicitaxi. It was this very appeal of one which explains how I met Fidel. Just in case I might have misheard his name, he reassured me, “Yes, it’s Fidel, hahaha…but no relation to the one you’re thinking of or else I wouldn’t be here.”
Fidel has been operating his privately owned bicitaxi business the past 5 years. Despite government limitations he has found a way to make a living.
Cuba is home to some of the most spectacular fishing. It’s variety of locations, from rivers to lagoons to the ocean, produces a wide array of seafood. This should result in an abundant fishing market, except the ability to obtain the right gear is incredibly limited. Antonio for example, recently picked up the craft and is relying on gear that is over 30 years old. The tools might be old, but his drive to continue is never-ending.
Just outside of the city limits is a countryside town called Viñales. If you’re into cigars, culture, and nature, consider this your place as it’s the perfect blend of natural beauty and traditional Cuban culture.
The interesting characteristic about Cuban lifestyle is that every person seemed to always be acquainted with someone who specializes in a specific trade. You need a taxi driver? Our casa particular host knew of one. Need a traditional Cuban place to eat and buy souvenirs? He knew someone as well. Have an interest in being edified as to how cigars are harvested and rolled? Our tour guide took us to visit Oneida. Her small home is connected to the tobacco factory that her father started many years ago. Following in her father’s footsteps, Oneida has been aging and rolling tobacco since she was 15.
As she shared, “If I don’t keep alive the practice, who will?”
In Cuba, each tobacco farmer is given a quota with 90% of the crops being bought by the government at a very low price. The final 10% remains with the farmer for personal use, local sales or captivating tourist like us as she showed us the process and leaving us with an enthusiasm to buy and support her craft.
El Paraiso is a beautiful family-run restaurant located on an organic farm in Viñales. The aroma of slow roasted pork will take your breath away in anticipation. Its casual backdrop and rich colorful food is something you won’t forget.
Much like the food at El Paraiso which is home-grown, so are the people that keep the essence and atmosphere of the place alive. Employees like Don Javier are locals and they were all proud in knowing that this is the first organic farm in the area and that the rest of the county looks to them as an example for what can be replicated throughout.
In 1997 the Cuban government passed a new law that enabled people to rent out their home to tourists. A change the government probably doesn’t fully understand as it has created an entire underground market for vacation rentals.
Cesar and Gloria have been renting their home out for 3 years. A delivery man and a bakery employee by day, the two of them find a way to rent out their own home by night. Due to a lack of personal internet they rely on handmade business cards, a building sign, and word of mouth to find new renter. Often sleeping at a friend’s house when renting their place, Cesar and Gloria have come to rely on this second source of income for mere survival.
In a country where the economy has in essence been paralyzed for more than half a century, it can be very difficult to distinguish between a present-day photo of a crumbling building in Cuba and one that is decades old. With so much to choose from and in spite of what I might have been tempted to shoot, it became very clear to me within the first day that it was Cuba’s people who are the main charm in this country. In my experience, Cubans seemed impervious to the preoccupations most people have with privacy anywhere else and as long as you expressed a willingness and eagerness to inquire about the simple things in people’s lives, they welcomed you as they did me for a brief moment into their lives.