As a child going through my parent’s black and white high school pictures, I assumed that’s how life was back in the day: colorless. Regardless of 10-year-old Zahra’s imagination being shattered when her mom told her she was an idiot for thinking so, reality finally settled in in Cuba. I never thought time travel would be possible in my lifetime but here I am today, totally jaw-dropped at how history, politics, and structures have been preserved through time in a country like no other.
Cuba is a cliche when it comes to tourism as it receives over 4 million arrivals annually which is one of the main sources of revenue for the island. If a resort in Varadero is not your calling, Havana is a must for a more Cuban experience.
Due to the lack of accessibility of internet in the country (communism, remember?), it was surreal to see people NOT on their phones when walking down the streets. The only technology seen out was the occasional camera in a tourist’s neck. Restaurants and clubs didn’t have any lavish social media handles advertised nor were websites to check reservations a thing.
At the same time, I found myself pushing to sharpen my Spanish listening skills and genuinely enjoyed every moment because I didn’t have to worry about constantly using the translation app. We did, however, download an offline map to help but navigation consisted of us asking kind strangers on the streets for help (and always getting it).
In order to use the internet in Cuba, we had to buy an “hour card” for 3 CUC at certain squares in the city which activated the wifi. We made friends with a local who led us to the bicycle boys at the corner of our street who as a “side business” sold wifi for 1 CUC!
I can’t even drive but I often found myself fangirling over the shiny Ford models from the 50s. It felt like I was in a movie. Imagine any color, Havana had it (yes, even white with pink polka dots). We’d planned to rent a convertible and go around the city but we quickly realized how much of an expense that could be.
Tourists doing that looked totally douchey in their golf shirts and sun hats with orbits the size of Saturn’s rings. Instead, we posed next to parked cars for pictures (which was equally douchey).
I’ve always been a SUCKER for sexy graffiti and when you add poetry to that, it really gets me going. I remember signing out poetry books by Ernest Hemingway and trying to learn Spanish from Pablo Neruda. What I’d learned from literature and history courses finally presented itself in real life. Everywhere we went, there were quotes and drawings of writers and painters.
The neighborhood we lived in particularly loved Salvador and his work was plastered all over the walls. These were some of my favs.
“I’d die with you, but not for you.” – Salvador
“I can wait longer than you because I am the time.” – Salvador
“Life is a step, death is a career”
The first day, we rushed over to La Bodeguita Del Medio, the place that lays claim to giving birth to the Mojito.
Numerous writers, artists, and celebrities were regulars of the Bodeguita: personalities like Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nat King Cole, Julio Cortázar, Joan Manuel Serrat, Ernest Hemingway, and Salvador Allende patronized it. The rooms were full of curious objects, frames, photos, and the walls covered by signatures of famous or unknown customers, recounting the island’s past.
Not going to lie, the Bodeguita was SUPER touristy and the mojito wasn’t the best but being in the presence of literary geniuses felt magical.
I’ve been a fan of Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) since I started dancing salsa. Our Airbnb hosts insisted we go to the BVSC concert, it was 60 CUC and a complete tourist trap. Though I enjoyed the show, it was not worth the amount we paid and the attendance solely consisted of rich retired European couples.
Nonetheless, Cuban music is so much more. The streets of Centro and Old Havana are bouncing with tunes of reggaeton at any time of the day. There would seldom be a restaurant that did not have a live band playing. Street musicians sang at the sea side of Malecon and everyone jumped at the opportunity to teach us a couple of salsa moves.
We did end up going to an underground salsa club with local friends to recover from the first night of the tourist trap. It was muy caliente.
Lack of Globalization
Perhaps one of the biggest sensors of time travel was this. There were no name brands aside from clothes which once in awhile featured a Nike or Adidas logo here or there. I’m talking no McDonalds or KFC or Gucci or Prada stores. What was sold in Cuba, was made in Cuba.
It wasn’t weird after a while to be refused a dish on the menu because the restaurant did not have certain ingredients. We’d been eating pizza for several meals in a row because it catered simple ingredients and was sometimes the only thing we knew on the board. However, we did find this whole in the wall cafe we went to 5 days in a row. The waiters and bartenders at Cafe Brown became such lovely friends, 5/5, would surely recommend, and when we were offered a chance to indulge in rice and beans with plantain, there was no hesitation.
After the revolution, a lot of the bungalows owned by high Cuban society were abandoned as they fled for Florida. The same structures live on as embassies and hotels now.
There aren’t many high rises which make it extremely gratifying to look onto your balcony and not have the view blocked by a concrete jungle. What I love most about Latin and Caribbean cultures is that, even in poverty, homes are as inviting as ever. Most walls have a fresh coat of a bright paint which instantly brings positivity into your heart.
Viva la Revolution
The Cuban revolution took place over half a century ago but the spirit is very much alive. Flags are painted on every wall and pictures of Che and Fidel are proudly hung in some homes and businesses.
Many people in the West aren’t the fondest of tourists but Cubans greeted us with smiles anywhere we went. Even if there wasn’t an English speaker around, people invited us in for coffee and pizza. When we asked, locals gave us directions to places we’d enjoy that weren’t just tourist hubs. Cuba is not only alluring due to its ability to stop the clock, but it’s people make it what it is.
Check out my Cuba vlog here: