This was it. I’d flown over it before in the darkness, excited to simply be hovering over it, wondering what about the island was so simultaneously amazing and awful. This time I would actually be landing there. After a strange and unnerving entry process, I was welcomed into the country with a smile. An arm motioned toward the door and urged me to go on and explore.
In the airport, I saw the jineteros and jineteras I expected to see, hanging all over their unlikely foreign significant others. I saw the bored female staff with hiked-up skirts, attempting to look as appealing as possible in hopelessly unflattering uniforms.
But what I didn’t expect to see as I left the airport and headed into the city was how though it was far from affluent, it wasn’t as poor as I thought it would be. Since I didn’t know what to expect, I’d projected images and ideas of other countries that I thought were similar on my hidden expectations of Cuba. The people I saw were “modern” looking and well-dressed. People seemed to have enough to eat. There was a lot of simple housing, but no slums. Everyone seemed to be out and about on the street or packed into buses, but there were no vendors. What struck me the most was that in general, aside from people who had money flowing in through expat relatives or jineterismo, the colorful array of residents seemed to be living their lives fairly equally.
In my mind, I’d thought, “Cuba will be like this country or that country and I will love it immediately.” Though Cuba might share a similar early history with other places I’ve visited, it’s relatively recent history makes it dissimilar from anywhere else in the world. And though I was impressed with what I saw, at the time, it seemed like there was an impenetrable reservedness about the country that would keep me from really getting into the culture.
When I arrived at my hotel, my room was not available yet. I went to the hotel restaurant to wait and have lunch. As I carefully browsed the list of sandwiches on the menu, the waiter came by and rolled his eyes at my audacity to think that there were options. He pointed at the ham and cheese sandwich listed on the menu and told me it was the only meal available. So I ordered it. Out came a ham sandwich, dripping with American “cheese” and a side of fries—an ironic first meal.
A few hours later, my room was ready. The peeling paint revealed the many layers that had been applied in an effort to cover up the previous peeling layer. The window air-conditioner blew warm air around the room. The pillows were the thinnest I’d ever seen. But it was fairly clean and it was manageable.
My tiredness and the weather kept me from exploring too much that afternoon and evening. The humidity level was so high that I barely had to move to feel like I was loosing bucket loads of fluids with each step. I showered and got organized with the idea that as evening approached, I would go out in cooler weather. The thick and moist Caribbean air’s ability to retain heat prevented that from happening.
But it was then it set in that I was in Havana, and there was no way I was going to hang around my hotel because I was sleepy and hot and in a bit of a funk. So I walked, slowly and aimlessly and stumbled upon a bit of Havana’s character for the first time. Across the street, I noticed a man painting to salsa music. I liked the way people seemed to be genuinely interested in watching this man create art or were simply enjoying the music he was playing. Everyone who walked by stopped to watch and looked happy to have a bit of free entertainment. An old man felt inspired enough to break out his salsa moves as a cigar hung out of the corner of his mouth.
I saw that there was a restaurant behind the guy painting and decided to eat there. Of the many dishes listed on the menu, just two were available. Pork cooked this way, or pork cooked that way. The waitress looked annoyed, but more forgiving than the previous waiter of the silly tourist who didn’t know better than to think that everything on the menu would be available. I had a mojito to wash down another pork product meal and renewed resolve to get to know as much as I could of Cuba as it is, not as it was, not as a place that is similar to another place, not as an inanely forbidden place, not through the idealistic eyes of others… just as it is, or at least how I saw it based on what I would see, hear, or do.
Back in my room, I opened the curtain to see what dusk in Havana looks like. Why bother painting the decrepit buildings when if even just for several minutes a day, you have the sun to illuminate them with rose-colored light?
I wanted to see what Cuban TV looked like. I watched silly short cartoons. A volleyball match. Bands playing wonderful music. But what stood out most of all was a public service announcement commercial: A woman goes to a park with her dog and lets the dog run wild. Some people are scared of the dog and jump on top of tables to avoid it. The verdict on the dog owner’s actions? WRONG. Then we see the same woman going to the same park, but this time, she keeps her dog on a leash. The people who were scared before are now happy and enjoying the park. CORRECT.
And with that message in mind, I went to bed.