The reactions I got when I told people that I was going to Cuba came in three varieties: “I’ve always wanted to go to Cuba!” “You’ll love it; the people are so warm; there’s music everywhere,” and “Why are you supporting a dictatorship?” I, too, have always wanted to go to Cuba, which is why I leapt at the chance to attend the International Federation of Translators conference in May 2022 with a group of three other translators and one interpreter. Facets of my experience mirrored all three types of reactions.
As we drove the nearly empty streets from the airport into downtown Havana, I was giddy looking out the window at palm trees, the strange surroundings, and the possibilities awaiting us. I chuckled at the sight of the occasional fifties-era Chevrolet. They really do have them! I thought.
We spent our first day of the trip in Havana, visiting the historic plazas, Plaza Vieja and Plaza de Armas, and listening to our guide recount the country’s long history of fighting off control by other nations. We got a sense of the Cubans’ pride in their struggles, in their ability to finally be able to rule themselves, and how a home-grown ruler who created a Cuban brand of Communism could be appealing.
We were having our own struggles with the lack of bottled water. Unable to drink the local water, Americans must drink the bottled form, but an unexplained shortage at Cuba’s only water-bottling plant was making us very thirsty. Luckily, we passed by a woman selling water from a little cart in the street. We drank gratefully, as yet another street musician struck up the chords to “Guantanamera,” the immediate musical response to spotting an American.
The journey up till arrival had been wearying. In addition to all the usual preparations to undertake before leaving on a trip, Cuba posed unique requirements. We needed vaccinations against all the diseases that threatened: dengue fever, hepatitis, yellow fever, and more. Stories about the deadly mosquitos on the island are so prevalent that I scarcely dared to pack shorts. We had to carry with us all the cash we would need for the entire trip, since the country does not accept US credit cards. But what form of cash? Cuba accepts euros, US dollars, Canadian dollars, Cuban pesos (unavailable in the US), and prepaid debit cards called MLCs. We also had to obtain a Cuban tourist card and special medical insurance (to prevent medical tourism travel).
Selecting “support for the Cuban people” as our official reason for being in Cuba to satisfy the US government requirement meant that our trip included some stops with various craftspeople. Before reaching the conference venue, we dropped in on two local artists. The first was photographer Alfredo Sarabia, who worked in his musty basement studio recreating images of his sons with the family VW bug, exactly as his father had done with him as a child, with exactly the same car. He showed us a series of photos of the shoreline, that represented the division between those who left the island, and those who stayed behind.
Our next visit was to the museum-like home of two artists who made mobiles, great white sculptures of cats and other objects, and leather items. We were impressed by how warmly they welcomed us into their art-strewn home, serving us coffee among the varied paintings and sculptures.
The visit that truly stood out for me was a trip to a vast organic farm, Finca Coincidencia, whose grounds blended man-made art sculptures with the natural art of rare trees, mango groves, and peacocks, and even contained a pottery studio. Our gentle hostess served us an herbal tea from a stone altar as we sat in an outdoor café composed of stones for seats and tree branches for a rooftop. Later, we were offered a memorable lunch from the farm’s bounty of foods like papayas, rice, sweet potatoes, and the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. While the rest of the island can’t obtain milk for love or money, not even milk powder, there on the farm, cows provided abundant, fresh milk.
The next few days were spent in Varadero at the Hotel El Patriarca, an imposing salute to luxury. The vast lobby boasted marble floors, sky-high chandeliers, and air-conditioned splendor, not to mention a pool, several restaurants, and an in-house doctor. I was grateful for the 1.5-liter bottle of water placed in my room every morning and the huge all-you-can-eat buffet every day, along with the king-size bed and the pristine beach a short walk away. Yet that clean beach with its recliners, bamboo awnings, and morning aerobics lessons also contained armies of destitute Cubans ceaselessly walking up and down the shore, hoping to sell large starfish and crocheted tops to the wealthy tourists.
Our driver brought us each day to the conference venue, the Hotel Melía. If the Patriarca was luxurious, the Hotel Melía was opulence itself. Think gold-banded onyx columns, meditation pools, and swaying palms. In Cárdenas, the nearby town where most of the hotel workers lived, decrepit buildings covered in soot lined the cracked and barren streets. We walked the length of the main street to the sea, to see the monument to the Cuban flag, a small piece of fabric waving disconsolately at the end of a very long pole.
After four days lounging in luxury, the interpreter on the tour and I decided to head back to Havana to experience the real Cuba. We were driven to our accommodations in a neighborhood that can only be described as a slum. When we entered our B&B, we discovered an open, artsy apartment with rooms opening off a verdant tiled courtyard.
Back in Havana, my friend went to explore a synagogue while I trudged through the ravaged streets of Old Havana, dodging people asking for clothing and money nearly every few yards. I found the beautiful Art Deco façade of the Moderna Poesia bookstore, filthy and worn with neglect. I saw a couple in rags sleeping in the alcove of a store, even though our driver had told us that in Cuba, there are no homeless people. I entered a closet-sized souvenir shop where the owner told me that the doll I picked out cost “Five.” “Five what?” I asked. In a place where currencies come and go and exchange rates change with the wind, it didn’t matter.
By the end of the week, I was disheartened by the misery. It is too hard to live in Havana. The island’s contradictions are confusing. The people were helpful, at pains to tell us that they liked Americans. One woman said “I love you” to me in English as I gave her some old clothes and medicines. The sun shone daily and the mangoes were abundant. Yet everything else is scarce, apart from the unneutered dogs and cats that sit listlessly everywhere in the streets of Havana. I wondered whether all Cubans are truly equal, considering the wealth of the Castro family, the fortress homes of the politicians. While the native people did not survive the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century, was there really no underclass? I couldn’t decide if black and white mingled equally, as our dark-skinned driver had told us, or if black people doing the menial jobs at the hotels, with the whites at the reservation desk, was more than a coincidence. I saw no white people patrolling the seacoast, selling cheap wares.
One week after we got back, a man in Cuba was arrested for speaking out against the regime.