Experiencing a Cross cultural old world mashup in North America's lost city
Article and photography by Michael Marquand.
Originally published in Sweet Paul Magazine
Havana Cuba! Even if you’ve never been, the name conjures up colorful imagery of Latin culture and 1950’s Americana. And it turns out that vision is fairly accurate, but only a fraction of the experience.
On the morning of the first day I went for a walk outside in search of bottled water. My sister and I had arrived late the night before and we hadn’t ventured out to see anything that night other than the inside of our hotel bar where we drank too much rum and told embarrassing family stories.
After walking a few blocks and making my way back to the hotel room I handed my sister a water bottle and said “it is like….. CUBA, out there”.
“What do you mean?”
“ It’s weirdly colorful and vibrant and musical and Caribbean and I only walked three blocks”.
The ‘Quintessential Havana street‘ is just about every street. The sheer amount of people socializing on every stoop, and alleyway gives the whole city the feel of a never ending summer block party. Turn one corner and there are people playing music, turn another and a cyclist is selling fruit out of his rickshaw. A brisk 10 minute walk will yield kids competing in a soccer game, old men playing dominos, well-fed street dogs napping on the sidewalk, uniformed school children talking and women hanging clothes to dry on their balconies.
The city itself is a charming and bizarre mix of cultures. The architecture is Spanish Colonial with mid-century American influences, adorned with neon signs that were clearly added pre-embargo, sporting names like “El Floridita Bar” or “Teatro America.” If you explore you’ll find more hidden pockets, like the Russian-style ballet school, or the Chinatown district tucked between the old European Catholic churches and hyper-saturated homes. Not to mention beautifully ornate 1930’s hotels built for wealthy gamblers of the era.
The cars are also mid-century American as well as soviet era Russian. They are equally vivid, somehow fitting with the landscape when you see them driving down narrow cobblestone streets or along the Malecón on a windy day, with waves crashing into the roadway as a backdrop.
The food is also a curious blend of cultures as well as a testament to both the effects of the embargo and the ingenuity of the restaurateurs. Restaurants were previously heavily regulated and taxed, stifling any creative menus or experimentation. However, in modern Cuba chefs and restaurant owners are getting their feet wet in the food world, creating unique menus with the limited resources that the island provides. While much of the food may be notoriously bland don’t let that deter you. While you can easily find rice and beans or the reliable cuban “jamon sandwich,” you can also find decent Italian food, American style pizza and burgers, and Spanish food throughout the city. Yet there are more interesting hidden gems if you search for them.
At one point we discovered a Chinese restaurant down a dark alley by our hotel. No sign, just a crumbling building with an old man standing outside, gesturing at a shadowy doorway and calling, “Chinese food?” For some reason we took that gamble, despite having to walk a literal wooden plank over a muddy ditch and a broken sidewalk to get in. Through the door and up a creaky unlit staircase, the interior was shockingly nice but in a slightly absurd way. The space was draped in richly ornate Chinese fabrics and traditional artwork with the detailed molding of the corroded Spanish-style architecture covered in multicolored peeling paint poking out behind them. Naturally they also served Italian food and sandwiches. Other favorites included a modern Swedish-Cuban fusion restaurant, and an American style joint featuring a tinsel Christmas tree and a disco ball.
Some consumables in Cuba however, are consistently high quality. The fruit is fresh and delicious and there are fruit stands everywhere. It’s hard not to stop and pick up a couple of perfectly ripe oranges or a freshly cracked coconut. The coffee is excellent and much of Havana seems to have it’s own coffee culture happening. Go to any restaurant in the Historic district and you can get a great cappuccino. Depending on where you go you can find much more complex java drinks as well as some coffee-based cocktails. The rum is made from locally grown sugar cane. You can get a cheap, well made mojito (the Cuba’s most popular drink) with fresh mint and lime at just about any bar or restaurant in the city. And of course the cigars are famously good and very available.
The people of Havana are possibly the most interesting thing about the city. Before coming, I envisioned the the Cubans to have a bit of that 1940s classic Havana style. Women in red lipstick with long dresses and flowers in their hair and men in tailored suits, hats, and leather dress shoes. I’m sure I projected this idea onto the culture in part, because everything else about the country feels like another era and partially because I, as American from the Northeast had experienced so little of Cuba’s culture outside of “I love Lucy” reruns.
On this point I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone looked impossibly cool and casual. Much closer to what you would expect from 100 degree island culture then from Rici Ricardo’s nightclub. My sister had been genuinely concerned about looking too exposed in a knee length skirt and a tank top on arrival. Fears that were quickly assuaged upon seeing the airport security women wearing fishnet tights underneath their short brown uniform shorts.
The young people were athletic, with stylish t-shirts, and trendy haircuts. Their clothing complemented by well placed tattoos and occasionally a facial piercing thrown in. Many of them looking like uber stylish hipsters that could just as easily be walking around Brooklyn or L.A. or San Francisco on a warm day. We kept joking that once they get rid of the embargo all the American modeling agencies and fashion blogs are going to come down to Havana and cash in.
The classic Americana themes that permeate the city are equally apparent in the population. The people we met were incredibly friendly and seemed to have an almost comical admiration for the United States. Walking around Havana it's not uncommon to see someone with American flag leggings or a T-shirt that says “New York City.” When asked where I was from and answering “New York,” or “United States,” I would get a big smile in return and people would run up to shake my hand. One guy lifted up his shirt to show me his statue of Liberty tattoo. Another man I photographed playing dominos in the street just grinned and said, “Take my picture and put it on Facebook in U.S.A!”
This was the most impressing thing about my experience in Cuba. There was a strong and genuine need to connect with other people and with the world. Walking around anytime in the day you’d see people in public spaces, socializing and playing games. This happens in every populated city, but in Havana it was much more pronounced.
The internet had come to Cuba in a big way about six months before my arrival. It wasn’t common enough for people to have it at home, but it was available in public parks and hotspots throughout the city. Most nights I’d pass one or two of these places and see crowds of people sitting almost shoulder to shoulder on their phones or other devices connecting to the web. Like everything else they were doing it in a very different way than I’m used to. It wasn’t passive. It was a social activity and they were excited about it. The people of Havana have a real thirst for knowledge and progress and participation in the world. In some ways this dynamic made me fear for the culture of Cuba being tainted by the modern world. However, when I contemplate the history of the city it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that it can take on many influences and only becomes more interesting.
On my last night in Havana I walked down the Malecón as the sun was setting. Every few minutes passing by a young couple staring at the Atlantic, or a group of friends talking, or an old man playing the trumpet. Walking back towards my hotel a middle aged man approached and asked me the standard friendly, curious questions that foreigners get asked about how long I’m here and where I’m from. After telling him he just replied-
“Ahh, United States. Our countries our fighting but our people are friends”.