By : Kenny Francoeur
The Trump administration’s new Cuban travel restrictions went into effect on June 5th, the same day my two-week sojourn in Havana began. Luckily for me, this ban only prohibits traveling under the “person to person” specification, one of (formerly) twelve categories that were allowed for Cuban travel. Fortunately, my claimed purpose was the more oft utilized, and still allowed, “in support of the Cuban people” designation. Unrestricted by regulations, I bid the good ole’ U.S.A. a hearty bon voyage!
After a brief pilgrimage across a tie-dyed cerulean and turquoise sea, our American Airlines flight landed at Jose Marti Airport. Cuba’s dense history of major human rights violations notwithstanding, I found it affecting that the airport of Cuba’s capitol is named for a poet, activist, and artist while the major airport of the United States’ capitol is named after a president whose calculated negligence during the AIDS crisis decimated a generation of poets, activists, and artists. The writer Reinaldo Arenas put it best,“The difference between the communist and capitalist system is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream.”
As I was dragged through a hectic, unorganized customs system where my bag was completely gutted in front of returning Cubans claiming 72” TVs and Michelin tires, I vowed to prepare a meticulously organized carry-on bag rather than checked luggage if I ever returned. After exchanging my USD for CUC, a task not allowed in U.S. airports, I ventured outside the aeropuerto for my first taste of Caribbean heat. While I had no functioning cellphone with which to check the temperature, I can assure you it ranged between 100 degrees and the flames of Hell, as it did for the entirety of the trip. Mark Kurlansky, author of Havana: A Subtropical Delirium, explains that the heat of June is perhaps the best time to visit in order to receive the location in its truest form. Sweatily, I’d have to agree.
The prearranged escort to my casa particular loaded my suitcase into his burnt-sienna, vintage Polski Fiat and opened up the front-passenger seat for me to climb in. Without a puff of conditioned air, I was afforded the opportunity to feel the warm breeze on my face and smell the palms and fruit trees as I leaned out the car window, a scene reminiscent of any 90’s summer blockbuster that I was thrilled to reenact. I witnessed the Havana countryside become the Havana cityscape on our 30-minute trip to my apartment on the border of Vedado and Centro Havana.
When it comes to road rules in Havana, it seems to be a vehicular Fight Club—if there are rules, nobody has spoken of them. On non-major roads, lines are there but barely adhered to, lights exist but seldom work. The roads belong to cars and pedestrians in most of the city. Narrow sidewalks are used primarily as meeting grounds, front stoops, and shady areas to rest, so the street is where most foot traffic takes place. While the first minutes of the drive, jolty from uneven roads and a rusty stick-shift, were alarming, I’d confidently put the country’s combined driving instincts against the most heralded NASCAR drivers.
With the hand not sharing the dual responsibility of checking his phone and manning the steering wheel, my driver tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hermano, no hay racismo o sexismo en Habana. No, no, no.”
While I hardly could accredit this vast generalization handed off to me by an older, white, Habanero, there was something easing about his insistence. Although being an ill-informed tourist myself, a visitor to the U.S. with the I.Q. of a plate of tostones would hear a similar statement made about the United States and instinctively laugh at their driver’s obliviousness.
After settling in to my apartment in a city qualified as dilapidated by Westernized standards (but ideal to anyone’s inner Hemingway looking to truly experience the city’s beauty), I decided to take my remedial Spanish skills and hit the streets.While there are innumerable things to experience, all of which can be found in articles by more adept travelers than I, there is something undeniable about the allure of the Malecon. Visible from my white-washed balcony, I sauntered there first.
This 7-kilometer-long walk along Havana’s northern sea wall is described as the city’s living room. When I arrived in the early afternoon, all the seaside fishermen were out in full swing standing along the wall. Birds of prey would swoop into the waters as mammals of prey cast their lines into a sea that seemed to be at no loss for bounty. The Malecon’s rocky pavement danced with the desperate flops of the freshest catch, accompanied by the music of yesterday’s sun-dried bait crunching under the feet of passersby. If this microcosm of Habanero life during the day somehow leaves you wanting more, I can guarantee the views at sunset rival any of the world’s wonders.
If asked to imagine Havana’s aesthetic before this elongated excursion, I would’ve described it by its colors: pink (between salmon and Pepto-Bismal), mint green (like a generic toothpaste proven to accomplish nothing), baby blue (like the Chevrolets carting tourists and Habaneros alike around the city’s grid), and sandy yellow (a banana whose ripeness is dependent on how long the paint has been subjected to the elements). But I would invite you to set the kitsch ideal of those colors aside and instead permit yourself to see that pink as the pink of vitality; that green, that blue, that yellow as resilience.
Elder Habaneros have had the distinct displeasure of enduring two dictatorships, Batista’s then Fidel’s (and a current government which often acts in opposition to the people’s best interest). These septuagenarians who’ve bared back-to-back storms wear their shared experience on their faces in each canyon of wrinkled skin. This particular brand of fortitude seems to be a uniquely Cuban trait which never overlooks a generation. It is in the young boys playing soccer in the street; in the old men sitting on the rubble of failed infrastructure and smoking cigars; in the women dancing in the plazas; in the smooching of the soliciting sex worker and in each man’s tank top rolled up in machismo past his stomach to help alleviate the heat. These people are anything but simple. Their spirit is not that of the powerful or mighty, but of the passionately weathered; the endured and the persevered.
Havana, and Cuba, are no longer here to impress tourists, as their former leaders aimed to do with swanky casinos, pristine beaches, and 5-star hotels. This is not some Caribbean Spring Break destination for Americans to come and litter with Natty Light empties and begrudgingly opened condom wrappers before heading back for the end of a “rockin’ senior year”. Here, you are in someone’s home; a complicated, messy home that has seen its share of conflict. A haltingly beautiful home – one which does not need to be cleaned up or Disney-fied in order to be worthy.
The Trump administration is purposeful in their ban’s minimal explanation, allowing for Americans to place their own assumptions on the ban’s reaches given our President’s history of drastic orders as a means of distraction. In fact, information on Cuban travel logistics has been needlessly complicated for years. The government banks on the idea that if it seems difficult, the public will assume it’s near impossible. It is not. With the potential for further restrictions, take advantage before it becomes harder. The current processes of getting a ticket and obtaining a Cuban visa are moronically simple.
2019 is the 500th anniversary of Havana’s inception. This humble seaside kingdom has seen its share of war, weather, and revolution. I previously thought any further travel bans would only serve to hurt the people of Cuba, a financially struggling population with privately owned businesses which could use the economic boost of tourism. But that’s incorrect. Cubans have existed for years without us, they can do so again. But do we want to exist without convenient access to Cuba? Do we want to exist knowing we could not stand at the Malecon in the evening to witness the sun sink from the sky, pink with vitality, beneath the sea?
About the author: Kenny Francoeur is a freelance writer focusing in travel, theater and queer culture. He has been published in The Advocate, Twin Cities Pride Magazine, Wolfy Magazine, and Healthline Media, among others.