Hawaii to Havana
Discover the aloha spirit on this Caribbean island
By Gina Bailey
Although Cuba still remains the elusive “forbidden zone” for most U.S. citizens, there are currently 12 categories under which Americans may visit as individuals, including one exemption that allows adventurers to travel within a group known as “people-to-people.” Given the easing of travel restrictions and even direct flights, there is now an influx of tourists flocking to this frozen-in-time Caribbean island. So after three months of preparing the necessary paperwork, we, as first time sojourners to Cuba, finally arrived at José Martí International Airport; albeit bleary-eyed after a lengthy, multi-leg flight from Honolulu.
Aside from the humidity, Havana presents a dizzying array of political, economical, structural and generational contradictions. To walk the uneven cobbled streets of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is to experience the manifestations of those contradictions. Crumbling buildings abut restored facades; pock-marked side streets lead to well maintained avenues and boulevards; and bicis (bicycles) share the road with shiny new Mercedes Benzes. One of the more lively areas is Calle Obispo, a pedestrian-only artery that’s crowded with cafes, “cafeterias,” shops, bakeries, live music, art venues, museums and people — a lot people from all over the world.
Since the culmination of the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 when political dissent could land one in jail or worse, the people of Cuba are now eager to speak of politics and the consequences of a state-run economic model. They openly express their economic hardships due, in part, to the impact of the American embargo and the resulting decades of isolation. Mostly however, they are verbally bursting to talk of their unattained and dashed dreams they had for themselves and the insecurities for the future generations. Many of the older cohorts who once optimistically embraced the tenets of “Viva La Revolucion” have begun to question their sacrifices, even in light of the fact that Cuba remains near the top among nations for having the most educated people and the highest access to quality healthcare. Others, however, fervently defend the noble ideas that informed the socialist society as it developed throughout the decades. Nonetheless, the problematics with laissez-faire capitalism is certainly not lost in their political views. Hence, further contradictions and conundrums seemingly lay ahead for the future of Cuba.
Perhaps most illustrative of the current generational divide was captured during a conversation we had with a father, a 54-year-old professional and former aviation engineer, and his daughter, a 23-year-old economics student at the Universidad de La Habana. Given current reforms, the father echoed the now national rallying refrain, “We’ll see,” with trepidation but still in a hopeful manner. Conversely, his daughter stated that she respected the ideas of her parents’ generation but new ideas and new possibilities are now desperately needed.
Even though Cuba is slowly becoming more of a ‘mixed economy’ with certain private enterprises now allowed, the father and daughter we spoke with could both be considered part of the ‘Lost Generation(s),’ which is characterized by disillusionment about the possibilities of a better future. Years of university study and professional status do not necessarily equate to a comfortable lifestyle, as we later learned from a former English teacher and Olympian-turned city tour operators. However, despite economic challenges, all the Cubans we met possessed an effusive buoyancy that was irrepressible.
One of the most striking aspects of our stay was the resilience and conviviality of the Cuban people. As is often said in American lexicon, “necessity is the mother of invention.” In Cuba, it’s “inventamos y resolvemos,” which means we invent and resolve to survive. This trait is apparent in everything, from fixing the iconic almendróns (vintage U.S. cars) with borrowed parts from other models to the flourishing arts in music, dance, ceramics and painting, to name but a few. It appears as if the arts in Cuba — some of the most creative we have ever seen — was a productive survival mechanism that allowed for expression, which otherwise would have been suppressed. As a consequence, Cubans are some of the most joyful, open and giving people we have had the pleasure to meet. There is something to be said about “those who have the least tend to give the most.” So true among Cubans.
Home Sweet Home
Where to stay in Cuba is a highly personal choice. The options range from swanky, Wi-Fi-friendly hotels along The Malecon to budget-friendly casas particulares, privately owned homes in colorful Cuban neighborhoods. We chose La Rosa De Ortega based upon its location (about 10 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Havana in a beautiful suburb overlooking the city), reviews and general ambiance as shown on its website. We wanted more organic interaction with locals in a homelike setting but we didn’t want to forgo the “luxuries” of a private bathroom and king size bed. Our room was well appointed, air conditioned and an A+ choice. We cannot say enough about the ‘hearts’ that flow from those who helped make our stay one of our lifetime favorites. La Rosa De Ortega is magical on many levels, from the casa itself to the soul-filled laughter that resonates from the common areas all day long. Again, the Cuban people are some of the most gracious in the world and embody what we, in Hawai‘i, term the aloha spirit.
Top Sites to Visit
Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana
Castillo de la Real Fuerza
Museo de la Revolución
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes
Statue of José Martí
Where to Stay
La Rosa De Ortega B&B
Can I Go?
Visit the Office of Foreign Assets Control regarding the 12 categories of authorized travel for many travel-related transactions to, from or within Cuba.