Cuba: The Forbidden Fruit of the Caribbean

I traveled to Cuba on a people-to-people birding tour in March, 2016. Here is the first of three posts on this amazing country.

Beads of sweat dripped from my forehead as I walked the streets of Havana. I was navigating crowds en route to La Taberna, reveling in the upbeat guitar of street musicians, feasting on the dark beauty of Cubans dressed in gold dangles and colorful soccer jerseys, and envisioning my first toke of a Habanos, a genuine Cuban cigar, which until this year was devilishly illegal in the United States. After stocking up on seven-year Havana Club and a box of hand-rolled Montecristos, I went back into the street, basking in the simple pleasures of this thriving town. I noticed a black cat lounging in the shade beneath a poster. The poster depicted two men that only a year earlier were impossible to imagine together: Barack Obama and Raul Castro. I was proud of my President for opening doors to Cuba so the likes of me can get more of the likes of this.

Michael Jackson doppelganger

A Michael Jackson doppelgänger hangs out in the backstreets of Habana.

Cuba is a wonderful, anachronistic enigma. The U.S. embargo—the last 54 years of economic sanctions and restrictions on Cuban travel and commerce for all people and companies under US jurisdiction—has definitely impacted the modernization of Cuba – at least to international standards. In large swaths of the country, goods are hard to come by, oxen pull the plow, laborers hoe the fields, thatch covers roofs, and horse-drawn carts share the road with antique cars, bicycles, and motor scooters.

Hotels are as hopelessly outdated as the hospitality standards, though this is a somewhat charming reality. At one hotel our group of 16 arrived to the dining room and waited 40 minutes be served before we realized we had to ask the waiter, who doubled as the bartender, who tripled as a busboy, to take our orders. “Chicken, Fish, or Pork?” he asked in Spanish. How was it served? “Orno.” Cooked, of course! With rice. We learned not to ask many questions at ordering time. As I made small talk at the bar waiting for my next drink, my consciousness was awakened to a familiar grating sound. I looked into the staff office and immediately recognized where it was coming from: a dot-matrix printer printing out a scroll of the day’s sales.

Teenagers hanging out at the town square near Santa Clara

Teenagers cluster on the town square near Santa Clara.

Despite these anachronisms, Cuba is an orderly country with modern spirit. It has an enviably large “middle class” and though this middle class does not live in McMansions, play golf on weekends and vacation in the Bahamas, they live in small but pleasant homes, tend to their front porches, commute to work, and meet each other on the street for drinks and debate. Its young people wear modern clothes, watch Hollywood movies not long after they are released (not sure how!), listen to modern Latin pop, and huddle around internet cafés.

As a U.S. citizen steeped in my own culture and education, traversing the country from west to east was a bit like walking between towering walls of propaganda – I wanted to figure out the truth of it before I left.

On one side, the United States, by Congressional decree, expressly forbids travel to this small country which is located just 90 miles away from Florida. Many Americans vividly remember the time Cuba pointed Russian nuclear missiles at us, among other Cold War shenanigans. And we are taught that Communism, as a form of government, leads to a dangerous and repressive mess. It curbs innovation, limits enterprise, promotes institutional malaise, and harms the people physically and economically.

A pleasant and comfortable combination

A “pleasant and comfortable combination” of reading material.

On the other side, Cuba is a proud and independent country with a modern flare. Yes, it regularly reminds its citizens of the people’s revolution, led by Fidel Castro and Argentine freedom fighter Che Guevera, that brought Cuba prosperity and freed them from the clutches of American colonialism. Signage praising Castro and Cuba’s imported hero Che can be found everywhere, to the exclusion of much else. Berets and Che T-shirts are sold at every road stop and billboards applauding la revolución litter rural highways. At the Havana airport, for example, there was a lone kiosk offering a “pleasant and comfortable combination” of no less than 30 compelling titles such as “Che y Fidel, una amistad entranable,” a Raul Castro biography, a Fidel Castro “reader,” and “Operation Mongoose: Prelude of a Direct Invasion on Cuba.” Clearly, someone wants travelers to hear Cuba’s side of the story or to engender populist pride in their citizens before they make that one-way trip to Miami.

But what do the Cuban people think about their way of life? Let’s not forget that in both our countries, underneath these big, bad governments, deep-pocketed oil barons, and international revolutionaries, are regular people, trying to earn the day’s bread before rocking on the porch at the end of the day.

Cuba Egg truckI honestly didn’t know what to expect of Cuba. But if I expected to see a shoddily run third-world country this was not the case. I did see, however, an educated populace with a modest way of life free of crass commercialism and earth-damaging consumerism, yet blessed with sustainable agrarian and transportation methods. I also saw a country with food rationing, limited access to goods, lower job satisfaction (the average salary is about $30/mo), and restrictions on travel (though Cuba recently relaxed restrictions on external travel, its citizens still struggle to get entrance Visa’s to other countries).

I wondered about this thing called personal freedom, and wondered to what degree they are restricted in Cuba. One can’t ask these deeply personal questions of just any stranger…some people are afraid to talk, others are forbidden to. But here and there, glimpses were revealed.

One day, as my companions and I pushed back Cristals at a bar in Camegüey, I was approached by a tall, young Cuban man with bright, hopeful eyes. He had been leaning against the door jam for the last 20 minutes but then leaned over to me and asked “Are you speaking English?” Yes.

“Where are you from?” Los Estados Unidos, I told him.

“I love English. I speak it whenever I can. I taught myself. I was born in Canada to my Cuban father and Canadian mother. We moved here when I was very young.”

I invited him to sit down and practice his English with me. My companions scattered like roaches at this point, as we’d learned something from our time exploring Cuban town squares: when someone asks you where you are from, they are about to scam you.

After a few minutes of conversation, I asked him, “What’s it like to live in Cuba? Do you feel as though your freedoms are restricted in any way?”

He told me he was a janitor, but had dreams of being a sports (gym) teacher. He wishes he could go to school for those lessons but on his salary it is impossible. He also dreams of travelling to the United States. “I will make it someday,” he said, shaking his head and smiling. He left as kindly as he’d come.

@ Cinnamon Stuart

Cuban street art @ Cinnamon Stuart

Then there was a wall of Cuban street art depicting a red-shirted man with a hood. He is kneeling on the ground, as if taken prisoner. A halo graces his head, his hands are clasped in prayer, and a thought bubble reveals his Cuban dream, a dream no different than any American’s: a house, a plate of rice, airplane, dollar signs, and a cloud (home, food, travel, money, and…not sure the latter). A curious equation is scribbled by his knees: 2 + 2 = 5. It was the first, but not the only, time we’d see that equation scribbled on a wall, and we gave in to wild fantasies about a rebellious subculture.

I realize that the truth is out there…somewhere. It will take a course in Cuban history to figure it out, but I tell you this because Cuba’s cultural mystique and political history is at least as interesting as its endemic birds, and something you will no doubt struggle to understand during your visit. You may revel in its titillating naughtiness, but if you’re a traveler, and not just a tourist, your mind will also contemplate much bigger concepts of personal freedom, government overreach, media bias, national spirit, and truth and sustainability. You will be humbled to learn what you didn’t know you didn’t know.

Cuba is a lovely country with beautiful people and a bright future. Cubans are excited about the normalizing of relations with the United States and the opportunities it will bring. But like most birders I know, I hope its countryside and authenticity won’t be ruined by greed and unmanaged growth. This is up to the rulers of Cuba.

While some are skeptical of what growth will bring, others are more hopeful.

“Cuba is now poised for a leap into the future with an opportunity the rest of us have lost,” states a PBS Nature documentary.

“Where the rest of us made a lot of mistakes because we didn’t know any better, [Cuba] has paid attention. It’s almost as if Cuba picked the perfect time to not ‘follow the leader’ in terms of development. They did something radically different and now they have the benefit of a half of century of knowledge. They have a chance to be the model of how to do it right,” says David Guggenheim, a marine biologist.

Still, things will change. Best to book that trip sooner than later.

Cuba Vinales Valley

Cuba, The Vinales Valley