There have been many stories written already about La Habana. Mine probably isn’t all that different, except that I’ll start with the ending.
I remember it that way, because that was the moment I understood I was leaving behind so many beautiful things. Things I couldn’t bear to lose sight of.
On the way to the airport in our immaculate ‘54 Chevy Bel Air, I cried behind my sunglasses. The whole experience from our trip really hit me as I watched Havana pass by until it disappeared in the rear-view mirror. I’ve never had this happen before— I felt torn and conflicted. It wasn’t that I wanted to stay forever, but I also wasn’t so sure I wanted to go home.
Here’s a little more about what I learned during this humbling journey.
People are people, no matter what
“The Cuban people are so warm and beautiful.”
This is perhaps the first thing travelers say when they return home (especially to America), when curious family and friends interrogate them about what it was like in this exotic land they know very little about.
It was my knee-jerk response every time as well, and it was interesting to hear others I knew that visited say the exact same thing. To talk about the people more than the place is not common. But, Cuba is different.
A blanket statement about its people being warm and beautiful isn’t quite fair, is it? Like anywhere else, there will be a variety of humans. But of all the places my husband and I have visited, I can say truthfully that the people in Havana we were privileged to meet won us over.
The few restaurants we frequented in Habana Vieja treated us like regulars, giving us genuine high-fives and hugs then conversing in English that was light-years beyond our basic Spanish. In Portland, OR, getting this cozy with local businesses takes two years, easily. In Havana, it took less than four days.
Never before have we made so many friends on a trip, and we were treated like family at the casa we stayed at (the wife taught us salsa lessons on the roof one evening.)
In fact, despite being a travel writer there to document and explore, it turned out that the Cubans we met were very curious, and they grilled us more than we grilled them. The one question we did manage to squeeze in was this: Are you afraid all of this is going to change?
The answer was “no” from everyone we asked. They want to be more connected with the rest of the world and they are welcoming the changes that are happening.
Having a lot doesn’t mean you have everything
When I got home, I had reverse culture shock when I went to the grocery store. I was able to buy anything I wanted so easily, while the people in Havana certainly didn’t have that luxury.
When you first drive into La Habana in a taxi, you can’t help but look around. Much of it shocked me — the family dressed in rags selling reassembled furniture from a hole in the side of a dilapidated building. There are few grocery stores to pop into for a few things. When you see a retail store, the shelves are either empty or filled with appliances that cost more than they do back home.
The thing is, the absence of convenience isn’t everything. People sang and danced constantly, in the crumbling streets and outside the quaint cafes. Some did it for money, others did it out of habit as they went about their day.
It made me feel a little uncomfortable with my own life back home, where I had more creature comforts than I knew what to do with. I mean… when was the last time I sang and danced just for the hell of it? Me, the lifelong dancer that forgot how to move for nothing but pure joy. Me, the one who always loved music but now uses it as background noise while working.
You can’t help but think that these people are onto something.
After the first day of complete bewilderment, I got into the Havana spirit. I was filling up the back of the toilet with an intricate water bottle system, because there wasn’t enough in the tanks to go around the Casa at certain times of the day. But, I was smiling and moving my hips to the guy singing in the street while I did it.
Life is beautifully raw…can you handle it?
We didn’t go to Havana with a plan. We wanted to wander and get lost — let the city lead the way. Trouble is, we are so dependent on information at our fingertips that we’ve become soft. We’ve also become numb to real life happening around us.
Without a plan and without internet, there are many surprises. You meet someone you wouldn’t have met if you had an itinerary. You see street art that isn’t coralled in a museum. You listen to music so closely that it soaks into your skin, like the tar-scented rain in the Port of Havana.
While romantic, the wandering and getting lost idea was a challenge. Every afternoon, there was a torrential downpour that made everyone run to find shelter and stay there — or risk losing both Panama hat and sandals in the nearest overflowing gutter.
Taking shelter one afternoon for lunch and beers turned into a languid, four-hour affair. There were no screens to distract us from the moment. Instead we had our very own entertainment on the pier, a group of young boys jumping into the water after school in the pouring rain.
The owner of one of the stores kept chasing them off. As soon as he disappeared, they returned — tiptoeing along the ledge of the wall and setting up their makeshift ladder again. This happened over and over, with all of us watching from the restaurant patio, laughing and endlessly entertained.
It was a testament to the spirit of people all over Havana, no matter their age…We’re going to have fun, and good luck stopping us.
What is it about Havana that makes it so emotionally gripping? I think for many of us, it offers the type of escapism we need from the hyperactive world we live in — crowded with digital distractions and endless to-do lists.
It dares us to question the colorless routine we are used to and risk being blinded by the vibrant unknown.
Havana offers life, uncensored, and it is so beautifully raw that you’ll rethink the way you’ve been living yours.
Fancy experiencing a slice of authentic Havana life? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Cuba.
US citizen? This 9-day ‘Hola Cuba’ trip is designed just for you!
(Image credits from top to bottom: Britt Skrabanek, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, Britt Skrabanek, Intrepid Travel, Britt Skrabanek, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel)