Cuba has been one of those mysterious places cut off for a very long time to Americans. Every now and then, we would get snippets on TV of this land so close to us and yet so far away. This began to change a year ago when the president announced a new dialogue had been created with Cuba, and Americans were given more freedom to travel there. My wife and I pounced on the opportunity.
I thought of Marty McFly as I saw Havana for the first time. Passing me were 1950s vintage Chevrolets, Fords and Buicks – some in extraordinary condition and the owners so proud to be cruising down the wide boulevards.
Havana must have been a beautiful place at one time, very European. Now the large cities are falling apart. With the need to feed and house 11 million people, there has been little left over for the rehabilitation of old, decaying cities. They are very clean and safe, and the people are extremely warm. But the ravages of five decades of neglect, caused by no hard cash, have taken their toll.
Cuba, like the United States, is an amalgamation of cultures. The early Spanish were from many city states; they had to learn to live together far from home. The tens of thousands of slaves were from hundreds of tribal units, all with their own language and customs that were forced together. Add some Asians and others and you get something truly unique. In many ways, Cuba can be a model to the rest of the world of blending diverse cultures together.
Art is everywhere – you are surrounded by street art and art shops and fine museums. It covers the entire gambit from basic to intricate and provocative. There is a feeling of life and hope, usually embodied in bright, eye-catching colors. This, in a country that has experienced some very difficult times in the last 25 years. But Cubans do not let it permeate their vision of who they are.
We went into a Havana neighborhood one night to visit a project started by a man who woke up one morning and decided he needed to do something about his crumbling surroundings. He appealed to all of the local artists to help, and this they did, creating beautiful sculptures and walls with incredible murals. They actually took an old, unused water cistern and converted it into a community center where they teach art, music and dance to the young.
If asked to summarize Cuba in one sentence, I would say above all else, Cuba is music. It is impossible to walk the streets during the day or go out at night without hearing and feeling the beat of bongos. It is everywhere and it is consuming. It is rhythmic and pulsating. It invites you to dance, and nobody can dance like Cubans. My wife and I danced more in 10 days than in the last 10 years of our lives, and went home smiling.
The many Cubans we had an opportunity to talk with have a true fondness for Americans. We never met an anti-American. The announcement of a new openness with the United States has been met with excitement and hope. Cubans look forward to a renewed relationship with their most important neighbor.
We thought changes to Cuba would come very quickly, one of our reasons for visiting now. Having been there, I think it might be slower than has been predicted. How this new engagement with the United States will evolve while maintaining the ideals of the revolution will be interesting to watch.
Cuba is an exciting destination; put it on your bucket list.