This Christmas we visited Havana, hungry to experience a fleeting piece of history.
Like so many American travelers — for whom Cuba has been a destination verboten for the past fifty years, thanks to a trade embargo established in reaction to the country succumbing to communist control in 1965 — I’d been yearning to make this trip for ages. The island’s allure was intoxicating in the way that only forbidden fruit can be.
The experience defied all expectations, and is difficult to describe except to say that I felt all the feelings. It must be understood that there is no context in my own cultural reality for the alternate universe that is Cuba; it operates on a system that is completely confounding to the way of life I know back home.
There’s a bewildering absence of any sort of infrastructure, no GPS or Wifi, let alone common cells phones or even basic things like street signs. Lower your expectations, then lower them again; leave all privileged ways behind. Traveling to Cuba — an option only recently opened up to United States citizens — will be one of the most frustrating and challenging, yet exciting and rewarding, travel experiences of your life.
The capitol city of Havana is quaintly colonial, but badly decaying. One can easily see how, in its heyday, it must have been like the tropical paradise version of Paris; today it is only a romantic ruin. Communism has a pretty bad track record for success across the world, but the U.S. embargo has certainly made things worse for everyday Cubans than the regime could have done on its own. That embargo is slowly being lifted, which means development in Cuba will begin to expand as quickly as it can in a country where a few flights a day is already too much for one airport to handle. Fifty years of living in a time capsule doesn’t make it easy to fast-forward into the Internet age overnight.
But one senses how Cuba longs to be part of a larger world. They have cause to be fearful too, for there is a great risk when people have been cut off for so long, that they will perceive anything ‘outside’ as ‘better’ — to mistake the ability to purchase t-shirts and televisions from U.S.-based brands (which are actually manufactured in Southeast Asia) for economic opportunity.
While Cuba has been excommunicated from the U.S. for 50 years, we have made great advances in technology and speed. I’m not sure that it’s always made us better. We live in a culture of unreality – of plastic and screens and digital dreams. We have lost our ability to perceive value in simplicity, slowness and humanity itself. To reappropriate the words of Andre Leon Talley, our modern world suffers a famine of beauty! We’ve become extremely quantitative, while the Cubans remain more qualitative. Our ways are as quick as lightning; theirs are slow as molasses. But it’s sweet and it stings a bit, peeking into this living, breathing postcard of what used to be, what might have been.
ABOVE RIGHT + BELOW| wearing Tasya Van Ree x Stetson hat, Christian Dior sunnies, Love Adorned scarf, WANT Les Essentials backpack, Carolina K dress, Club Monaco shoes Their culture today is as fragile as a bird’s nest, and it pained me to know that a great storm is blowing in from the north, promising to topple it — and nothing can be done to stop that. Maintaining the status quo wouldn’t be the right answer anyway, which is why these confounding moments in globalization are so layered, controversial, and complex. Like I said, all the feelings. I wept every day we spent in Havana, and yet I smiled, danced and laughed a lot too.
For the moment at least, Havana’s magnificent old buildings still stand — albeit near collapse — where in most other economies they would have long been demolished, falling victim to developers’ greed. Encouragingly, many of them are now being restored by internationally renowned architects. People still sing in the streets. Pre-1960’s vintage cars are the norm, not a novelty here — Havana has not yet endured the inevitable ‘Disney-fication’ of its core truths. It’s not yet a theme park.
The Cuban government has sorely failed its citizens on the central promises of breakfast, lunch and dinner, and yet life in seclusion has protected them from common scourges like drug abuse and crime, and the country is a world leader in science, medicine, and music. Theirs is a labyrinthine conundrum. To quote the truest thing I’ve yet read about this pivotal moment in history, “Cuba today is like one of its blushing quinceañeras, a teenager on the cusp of freedom from an overbearing father. But how will she mature?”
The path is not yet clear. The only thing I know for certain is that I’ll be back as quickly as I can — because Latins do soap opera better than anybody, and I don’t want to miss the last chapters of this historic telenovela.
ABOVE| Zach wears Satya Twena hat, WANT Les Essentials backpack, Moscot sunnies, Osklen blazer, Hartford shirt, Comme des Garcons pants, Maison Margiela sandals ABOVE| music remains integral to the culture of Cuba BELOW| this backpack makes for the best camera / travel bag! ABOVE| wearing Tasya Van Ree x Stetson hat, WANT Les Essentials backpack, Rebecca Taylor dress, Isabel Marant shoes (trusty travel companions that they are) ABOVE| Ernest Hemingway made Cuba his home from the late 1930’s until the 60’s; this desk still lives in his infamous crow’s nest writing hideaway BELOW| Zach stands in the front drive of Fina Vigía, Hemingway’s house in the suburbs of Havana; royal palms fill the backyard ABOVE| vintage stalls line the lively town squares; the most common shopping options include antique Fidel Castro and Che Guevara propaganda, books on Afro-Cuban tradition (much like in Bahia, a version of Yoruba is widely celebrated here), clunky old cameras and romantic salsa CDs BELOW| visual inspiration at Taller Experimental de Gráfica speaks to the vibrancy of Cuba’s arts scene WHERE TO STAY| A casa particular — basically a bed & breakfast inside a local home — is the way to go. They’re often more comfortable than the government-run hotels and give a truer look into what everyday life is like for the locals.
GETTING AROUND| is easy; negotiate a fair rate with practically anybody in a vintage convertible. Don’t get mad when your driver gets lost — stopping for directions is an intrinsic part of the local culture. You’ll eventually get where you’re supposed to go. (In Cuba, as in life, right?)
PLANNING A TRIP TO CUBA?| Buy this city guide — it’s tailor-made for the design-minded traveler. Beauty abounds when you know how to look for it.