Part 5 On distant dirt – Viva Cuba
From Panama City to Havana. Once again, the airport set the tone. Once again, I stepped off the airplane into the confusion of the baggage, the customs and the theatre of the arrivals area. Same scene of somewhat rumpled anxious, happy, tired people disgorged from an airplane, looking for someone. And the mob awaiting the newly arrived, less rumpled, less tired, but anxious, happy and sometimes, relieved. There must be a book to be written about the stories of those arrivals.
This time I see an anxious face that is clearly looking for someone, and hey – that someone is me. I feel special. Lourdes is there to meet me. I’d been wearing a hoodie in the photo I’d sent her, so she was unsure of exactly what I looked like. We say each other’s name and I’m in the hands of a native.
I love being met at the airport. It’s a real comfort to be whisked away from the limbo of air travel, to avoid the awkward, vulnerable feeling of being a newbie in a strange land. Not familiar, but with someone who is familiar with the strangeness. I become childlike, agreeable, relaxed. And in this case, Lourdes did coddle me as much as she could throughout my stay in Cuba. She had a cabbie waiting for us. Lazaro told me Cubans were like stones – they could endure anything – being bashed about with regularity by hurricanes and the U.S. blockade, now into its fifth decade. Lazaro’s cab was a Lada jalopy, and he drove it with empathy, feelingevery cough and sputter as we lolled into Havana down the nearly deserted six-lane Avenida Boyeros, spewing black clouds of diesel in our wake. Very unlike the clogged traffic in Panama City.
Nearly empty streets in Havana
The buildings in Havana and other old cities in Cuba reflect the long history of the island. Architectural styles include Spanish Colonial, Baroque, Art Deco, American Modernist and Revolutionary.
Lourdes arranged that I stay in a casa privada in the Vedado area of Havana. It was old two-story house with a long narrow corridor running along one side of the house with a series of darkened bedrooms built from it, book-ended by a sitting room and dining room that had a small kitchen off the the side of it. My casita was across a tiny courtyard used for laundry mostly. I didn’t have to go through the family home to reach it, so I had complete privacy, should I want that.
Unlike Panama, where a boom time economy has launched a frenzied construction boom and resulted in shoddy workmanship, many of the old homes in Havana are collapsing for different reasons.
When wealthy Cubans left after the revolution in 1959, they left behind elegant estate houses, which people moved into. Some of them are now collapsing due to decades of neglect. It’s considered a constitutional right to have housing in Cuba, but the State has been slow to make repairs because of economic pressures.
In a Passionate Eye documentary, a woman showed the BBC reporter her home where here roof was being held up by posts for the past 16 years as she waits for the government to repair it. Elsewhere, old homes have been renovated beautifully, but never with the moneda nacional that most Cubans earn. And thankfully, Havana Viejo has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and some of the buildings have been restored. Which is great.
Cuba has two currencies: moneda nacional which everyone employed by the State earns – and most people are employed by the State, although that is changing. And it has the CUC, which is a peso that floats with the dollar that all tourists uses and that some Cubans receive for bonuses in their State jobs.
An insider’s Havana
No time to settle into my casita. Lourdes had plans. And so I followed her like an eager puppy to see what an insider’s Havana was like. We went to a dance party of oldsters who were paying homage to a cultural maven. A big band with strings, horns, piano, percussion and singers played traditional Cuban music while everyone danced. Even though this gang was mostly approaching or even well over retirement age, their energy, their walk, their talk made them seem oh so much younger.
Lourdes knew almost everyone and those she didn’t know, she introduced herself to and made connections. Where ever I went with Lourdes she met someone she knew. I was thrilled that she wanted to accompany me to her spots. I even got to go wait in line with her as she bought eggs, available to Cubans earning moneda nacional for the first time in two months. Cubans who catered to tourists, or who have access to CUCs could buy eggs, but at several times the price paid in moneda nacional.
“You can’t blame this on the blockade,” Lourdes fumed. “It’s the distribution system. The chickens haven’t quit laying eggs.” Still, she was delighted at finally getting eggs and bought extra for a woman with children who couldn’t easily wait in line for up to two hours, as Lourdes did.