I’m happiest when I’m looking out of a window waiting to arrive somewhere I’ve never been before. It’s that sweet anticipation of unknown pleasures and experiences, closely allied with apprehension. But I was nervous about arriving in Cuba. The time between deciding to go and touching down was less than three weeks, so I hadn’t prepared myself or fine-tuned my expectations. Apart from arranging a casa particular and reading a travel guide on the plane over, I had no plans. I tried to imagine myself there: I saw old American cars, mojitos and cigars; bright colors, colonial houses and music; I saw the Cuba of our collective imagination, images born from some sort of cultural osmosis.
By the time I arrived late at night, I was so tired I didn’t care where in the world I was. But as soon as I was in the cab, jazz wafting out of the open window, I felt excited again. We hurtled past police cars that looked like tin cans and 50s beasts with wide bonnets and rattling engines. Arriving in Verdado, Havana’s lived-in neighborhood, the streets were barely lit and empty. The buildings were modern, the pavements cracked and it had an abandoned air. I identified my casa by the elderly lady waiting on the second story balcony looking a little worried, her cigarette glowing in the dark as she took long drags. She waved at me as I got out of the cab, apparently the only tourist around. Frazzled from the flight, I felt lost and anxious. Where were the colors and the lights and the music?
But the next day, with the sun up and a renewed sense of optimism, I went to explore. I walked along the Malecon, Havana’s famous seafront promenade, and into Habana Vieja, the Old Town. Men seated in the doorways of crumbling old colonial houses whistled as I passed; a cacophony of catcalls and street sounds seemed to follow me wherever I walked, as bici taxis offered their services and fruit sellers hawked their wares. The multi-colored houses, the ripe yellow mangoes, the wide blue skies and the bright clothes everyone seemed to wear created an onslaught of colors, as intense as the sounds, and I felt steeped in Cuba, a sensory overload.
I was a little lost in reverie, and people stopped me everywhere I went. Always beginning with some friendly banter, sometimes they were trying to sell me cigars other times they wanted to take me to their uncle’s restaurant. I met a young boy with a bad limp who told me his dad lived in Liverpool and he wanted to travel to England for an operation on his leg. At first he tried to sell me tickets to a salsa show, and then to take me to the best mojitos in town, or so he said. Happy to practice my Spanish, and because he had all the sweet savviness of a ten-year-old kid who made a buck from passing tourists, I sat and chatted to him. When he realized there was no money to be made from me, he relaxed, and while looking out to sea we talked about what it’s like being a child in Cuba.
This is one of the most striking things about this country. Yes, often those who stop you want to sell you something or are on commission to bring you to a restaurant or bar, but once you get past that, there is a genuine curiosity and friendliness that goes beyond the mercenary. I spent my second day having tea with three old ladies in their small, windowless apartment. They refused to accept anything in exchange, so we sat, attempting to understand each other while their dog whined in its sleep.
The Cuba of our collective imagination does exist: the streets are crowded with American classic cars; Fidel and Che gaze down staunchly from every surface; you can buy a mojito for $2 and cigars are falling from the sky. But the aspects that make it distinctly Cuban are far more elusive than buildings, cars or billboards. It’s both everything you expect it to be, and unlike anywhere you’ve ever been before.