The Cuban time warp

Discovering an old world in the present day


Reminders of the Cuban Revolution still remain very visible.

Story and Photos by Ben Tomkins

Every travel site warned me that I was only to travel to Cuba if I was engaging in official business, journalism, the arts, or some nonsense about “support for the Cuban people.” This was worrying, but the Feds seemed perfectly happy to take my word for it with a click when I bought the ticket. There was also the concern of a visa. I knew I needed to have one, but the only information available casually suggested buying it at either the departing or arriving airport.

The one consistent line was “bring between $50 and $100.”

I am a seasoned traveler, and this all seemed sketchy as hell. People get jailed for screwing around with visas, and yet here I was a month later, sitting nervously in the JFK airport (that didn’t help), when the young woman at the Havana gate called out “If you need to purchase a visa, you may now do so at gate [whatever].”

Breath: held.

The Cuban gentleman at the desk looked as if he was selling used cars rather than processing diplomatic paperwork.

“May I see your passport?” He began scrawling something on the pad of visas. “Fifty dollars, please.”

“Do you need to know why I’m going?” I asked, dutifully.

He stopped writing, smiled, and said, “Are you a tourist?”

Given that that’s the only wrong answer according to the US, I said “Journalist.”

His demeanor became serious, but his eyes betrayed a wry sparkle, “The Cuban government carefully monitors journalists.”

“It’s just a travel piece.”

“All the same, we might have to contact the authorities in Havana.”

He paused to let that sink in.

“OK, sixty-five dollars.”

I paid, and he wearily handed me a visa marked “tourist.” Although I didn’t know it yet, I had just learned a valuable lesson about travelling in Cuba.

The flight was thus filled with many questions and even some nerves. Growing up in Ohio during the final stages of the Cold War, I had been taught that the last time anyone got a good look at Cuba was with a camera developed at Wright-Patterson during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For this crime, Cuba occupied an especially odious niche in the pantheon of evil communist regimes. While Moscow had risen from beneath the Berlin Wall rubble, Cuba remained immured; a decomposing state whose only evidence of life for Americans was an occasional boatload of haggard escapees washing up on Miami beach. If American propaganda was to be believed, that is.

The first sight of Havana did little to dispel myth. As we flew over the countryside, there were fires and tall plumes of smoke rising out of the thinned-out equatorial forest. It was eerily familiar to low-level helicopter footage of burning jungles during our collision with communism in Vietnam. It turned out these were merely controlled burns of scrubland, but nonetheless, three decades of US political enculturation was enough to get my heartrate up.

Surprisingly, Customs was little more than a casual photo op. After being shuffled through the airport by female airport security workers wearing black lace fishnets (the official uniform, as near as I could tell), we piled into the back of a ‘50s Plymouth and drove into the heart of Havana. Everything was a collision of eras and contrasts that somehow blended into a coherent cityscape. The first big attraction we passed was the Plaza de la Revolución, featuring two large communist-chic concrete buildings with enormous metal outlines of Che and Fidel welded to the front. Most impressive was the José Martí memorial, dedicated to the 19thcentury democratic revolutionary. The 466-foot tower was begun by Fulgencio Batista shortly after staging a military coup that toppled Cuban democracy. Had Batista known he was building a backdrop for Castro’s polemics he might not have bothered, but history has a way of oozing irony. On May 1, 1961, Fidel stood on the pedestal before Martí’s statue to inform the people he was abolishing elections and declared Cuba a communist state. The Castros have had their backs to Martí’s idealism ever since.

The results of the fallout with the US and the falling down of the Soviet Union severely depressed the Cuban economy, but not the Cuban spirit. After winding our way through the streets of Centro Habana, we arrived outside a weathered but colorful door about equidistant from the capital building and the Necropolis—the two largest repositories of Cuban government officials in the world, and equally effective in governance. Our host invited us up a flight of stairs into the first of a long list of wonderful interiors filled with cool, ornate tiles, high ceilings and the bright tropical colors of the Caribbean. Although it is a city of crumbling stone exteriors and heaps of refuse as a result of an impoverished and apathetic government, on the inside, its citizenry has preserved much of the pre-embargo dignity.

After settling in, our host took me to the rooftop, four stories above the fray. The entirety of Havana and its Caribbean shore lay before us, and she pointed out in extremely patient Spanish where the various highlights were. A few minutes later, Robyn and I were passing broken facades and doorways doubling as makeshift storefronts towards the Malecón—the famous cruising strip along the sea between the colonial glory of Old Havana and the glittering capitalism of the Vedado hotel district. The choice between the two was no difficulty: shunning the American pseudo-reality, we headed east towards the ancient Spanish fortifications of theCastillo de San Salvadorguarding the Havana Club rum factory, Hemmingway booze haunts (“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita”), and a kaleidoscope of antiquarian curiosities.

Despite hard times, Old Havana is still youthful and alive. Though clearly Spanish, the stone plazas have the instant social familiarity and comfort of a piazza in Rome. They are places for children chasing pigeons, soccer games and all manner of leisure and casual business transactions. There are street fairs, parades and spontaneous dance parties, and tourists from around the world are everywhere. Our long days of walking in tropical humidity required a very important dalliance in local culture. Rum is the ubiquitous drink in Havana, and has been for several hundred years since its days as a sugarcane colony. Like all vices, rum production is nationalized, and in every bar, there are bottles and bottles of Havana Club rum being poured into ice-filled glasses to make government-recipe mojitos and daiquiris. The homogenous liquor shelf is the best evidence most tourists ever have of communist control, but fortunately, it’s also some of the world’s finest.

Perhaps the American libertine in you is crying foul, but I would suggest you take your outrage down a notch. For a tourist, the Cuban experience is one of profound freedom. Bartering is very common, unlike the highly stratified capitalism of western nations, and good food and cigars are plentiful. At night, the people bring their city alive with dance and song, but with a relishing of life that comes from space from authority. Basically, the government doesn’t bother you unless you bother it. As a tourist, the experience is one of you and the Cuban people commingling in free society, and that’s a good place to be.

After several days exploring the waterfront and the old town, eating at thepaladars(the few privately-owned restaurants) and dining on the vibrant culture, this sense of freedom and adventure led us to rent acolectivo—a group taxi—and head west to the agricultural jewel Viñales. Our meticulously maintained ‘53 Pontiac arrived the customary 50-100 minutes late (or early), and after picking up two other people we were on our way.

The first impression of Viñales is that you have stumbled into Jurassic Park, if it was painted by Van Gogh. If you’ve ever seen iconic pastoral images of thatch-roof tobacco curing barns in lush, rustic landscapes, that was probably it. The main street is two rows of highly-colorful, little buildings spanning the basic landscape of life and leisure. We ended up spending most of our time there with a friend we met in ourcolectivo, who had lived in Spain and was now dealing real estate in southern Florida. He clued us into the truth of US travel policy. For all our anxiety about official requirements, in Miami, as soon as Obama opened up Cuba everyone just went, and restrictions be damned. Nobody was letting a simple click stand in the way of a Cuban vacation or family, and our government was by no means naïve about it. In truth, they don’t actually care if you go, and despite the hubbub, Trump’s new policy hasn’t changed anything. He simply wants to funnel money from his pet business of leisure away from Cubans and into American pockets. He doesn’t care if American tourists are paying the hotel bill.

The extreme sense of carefree relaxation was integrally related to the absence of our Big Brother. If push came to shove, the US government couldn’t check up on you if they wanted to. The policy is a diplomatic facade, and the Cuban government certainly isn’t concerned about you. Best of all, as far as the Cubans you actually spent time with are concerned, they are perfectly delighted to see you and your wallet—providing “support for the Cuban people,” if you will. That is already a recipe for a nearly spiritual experience, and if you toss in an evening of salsa and freshly squeezed fruit juice in your cocktails on long summer nights in a countryside full of hidden caves and starry skies, you’re going to discover something about yourself. In short, our founders had it right: paradise is a lot more about freedom than it is about whirlpool tubs. Hemmingway understood that implicitly.

On our penultimate day, we paid a local man named Manuel for a half-day horseback tour of the area. On our journey, we visited a tobacco farm, and had a smoke and a drink with a farmer who explained some of the difficulties of living under the Castro family regime. The government took 70 percent of his tobacco in tax, for example, and killing a cow for food meant 30 years in prison. Other than that, the government could care less what he did, and free education and free healthcare were not insignificant consolations. They are both points of extreme pride in Cuba, and were enshrined in Martí’s writing as axiomatic for civilized society.

Later that evening, we stopped by a beautiful little lake in which we took a dip, and then had a mojito as we watched the sun disappear over the horizon behind a dancing couple. Manuel seemed in no rush for the evening to end, and as we rode home under the stars, past little huts with fires burning gently in front and an occasional mother and child resting on the porch, he explained the one question I had been reluctant to ask:

“Problem is not people, it’s governments. Embargo wasn’t for people, it was for power. You, me, Americans, Cubans: no problem, right? We love you, you love us.”

When we arrived back at the farmhouse, we paid Manuel the agreed price and then some. At the risk of sounding like a Hobbit, it was far more than he had asked but less than half of what he deserved. We departed for Havana the next morning, and after a wonderful evening of food and playing with some kittens we met in a little courtyard, we packed up and flew home. Nobody at JFK said a word, inquired how my journalistic research went, or asked to see the visa the Cubans had sold me. Even the Customs agents were bored by the Cuban cigars I nearly made it to the end of the piece without mentioning, and the evenings on my balcony smoking them with friends are a peaceful reminder that people don’t need governments telling them how to get along with each other.

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Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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