Cuba 2016, Ep.1: “First Encounters”

My first impressions of local Cubans are that they are subtly unique. Middle-aged and older men look distinct and weathered–almost as if gently sun-dried. Younger men are visibly “macho”–often with their lean bodies a little exposed at the chest and/or arms.

Landing In Cuba

The airport was nice, with an aged yet modern appeal. Along the runway (I didn’t notice more than one in use) were older military planes on one side and an expansive goat pasture on the other. There were planes from Jet Blue, and the National Mexican Airliners still had the glaring sheen of a minimal clear paint job. Departing the plane, we walked down steps to the hot and humid outside, passing an airport worker in contrasting hosiery and tan colored uniform. She shuffled along the passengers of various origins into a building that was for  incoming immigration. It was dim, yet clean.

Middle-aged and older men look distinct and weathered–almost as if gently sun-dried. Younger men are visibly “macho”–often with their lean bodies a little exposed at the chest and/or arms.

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Bonus points if you notice how resourceful Cubans are…

We got through customs with no questions asked, aside from if we wanted our passport stamped (Historically Americans traveling to Cuba for uncleared purposes would not want American immigration noticing their stamp and then questioning their stay in Cuba. Now there is no need to obscure visiting Cuba. Thanks Obama!). They took a portrait/photo for their records. It was as simple as that–they didn’t care that we were from America. There were a few baggage claim belts for checked luggage, and after that was a doorway that opened to an expansive central room with a wall of doors, a bar in the middle, a few small dim rooms on the yellow sides… and many many people holding signs and waiting for people. It was a crowded, small, and hectic–not to mention hot and humid.

There are several currency exchange booths/counters at the airport to handle the masses of travelers needing to exchange for the travelers currency: Convertable Pesos referred to as CUCs. However the lines were very deep for each one, so our Airbnb hosts drove us from the airport to a nice hotel to exchange money–a place with no lines and two men to handle money.

As soon as we left the humble airport, the humming city of Havana invited us under a blue sky to a place that was reminiscent of the past.

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The drive into town from the airport was fun and visually enjoyable. There were European and Asian cars from the 90s and 2000s, many old American cars (which constitute about half of the cars on the road), and only a few scooters and motorcycles (much fewer than I anticipated). The vehicles are at all different levels of upkeep, but most look decent.

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This first evening in a typical Havana neighborhood, I chilled on our small Havana “casa particular” stoop and soaked in the people (we booked through AirBnB).

People are just mingling and going about their lives in communal harmony. Kids–loose and free–feel empowered but don’t overpower their presence over each other. Some just lounge over their third floor balconies, sometimes chatting to people passing by on bicycle. A pedicab goes by and asks if I am from Mexico. “Mexico?” “Qué?” *he points at me* “Mexico?” “No, soy de estados unidos””Ahhh”*he smiles at me as he continues to ride along. (The asking of if I was Mexican happened multiple more times in multiple regions and cities. It’s refreshing in an odd sense.)

Kids–loose and free–feel empowered but don’t overpower their presence over each other.

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I don’t fully understand the family relationship (or lack thereof) of the people tending to the AirBnB and the owners. “Mimi”, the older lady is very friendly, has happy eyes, but speaks quite fast:

– Mimi: “Hablar español poco?”

– Me: “Si, yo puedo a halblar en español solo un poco.”

– Mimi: <insert quick, incoherent monologue that is delivered with a smirk>

There was a younger woman cleaning who I perceived was younger than me, was shy, yet walked out with her phone. There was an older man who came in and out, but I never saw what he did, though he clearly was hired help of some sort. People are very friendly. Women and men get along. I don’t feel an oppression of patriarchy like I have sensed in other less-developed communities.

This older man with tired eyes and soft hands, who nobody knows the name or relation of, saw me chilling on the stoop and asked if I wanted to go on a short walk. I said sure! We walked along the street; he greeted a few people along the way. At one spot he dropped off clean white linens (maybe he delivers laundry?). We stopped at a building that was a facade, went in, and behind it was a building under construction. It was a work in progress of another home for tourists. He showed me his very simple room in this place that he sleeps, with a fan, a bed, and a dresser that he individually pointed out. We walked further to a mini plaza, and as I saw more and more people I noticed more electronics, which finally made me realize it was a WiFi hotspot. People were aggregated in this area just to connect to the world Wide Web. A single park with access to the outside world beyond the communist system pulled people’s necks over their screens with a glow I’m sure you’re familiar of.

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I really enjoyed my first hours in Cuba, I couldn’t feel safer or more relaxed.

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