The Cuban rhythm of life, an internal beat fed by the musical beats of son and the continuous swaying of hips, gets into your soul. Havana thrives off this distinctly Cuban beat.
It’s a sound, a movement and a feeling without which you can’t understand the country or it’s people.
Cuba may be considered off the beaten path, especially for most Americans, but Havana has over two million inhabitants making it worth a visit, especially if you can get beyond the tourist area and into the heart of Havana.
Most tourists arrive to a beautiful tourist terminal and are whisked away to glossy boutique hotels and restaurants in the old section of town, Habana Vieja.
Along the way, visitors may not notice the rundown once glamorous homes that line each avenue or the ragged children playing baseball with small sticks and bottle caps. If they do, this image of Havana is quickly replaced with perfectly painted colorful homes, stores full of “authentic” Cuban souvenirs, streets lined with iconic American cars and fantastic food. On their stay these tourists may visit one of the many museums, take in the ballet, enjoy a street performance, or wander around the perfectly landscaped streets of Habana Vieja, only leaving this haven to visit other historic sites while traveling in the comfort of a private cab or a coco taxi, all while spending the government designated tourist currency.
This is not the beat of Cuba. This is not the heart of Havana.
What these tourists are experiencing is a fabricated Cuba, artfully designed for their enjoyment and pleasure. What they are missing is the authentic raw in your face Cuba, the spirit of a people who have prevailed through imperialism, the harshest economic blockade for over 50 years, not to mention numerous hurricanes and near starvation after the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s this spirit that makes Cuba a fascinating place, not the landscaped avenues of Habana Vieja.
The real Havana is not glamorous by any standards. The city is littered with once stunning mansions now turned to into tenement houses with their crumbled balconies held up by discarded lumber and once beautifully painted facades chipping away in the sunlight. Neighborhoods are dotted with old movie theaters hiding tattered seats and curtains, and streets with cars that when you look closely, have been haphazardly rebuilt with whatever parts or makeshift parts are available.
Living in Cuba for five months gave me the inside view of Cuban life and culture. With a residency card I lived among the residents of Havana, shopped in their same stores, and wandered along the same streets. Despite its outward appearance, Havana is thriving.
If you were to walk down the street with you eyes closed you would be bombarded with sounds of radio, drums, trumpets, voices singing and talking, the smell of the salty ocean breeze, simmering black beans and fresh fruit. Take it in for a moment and you would quickly find yourself walking to a different beat. With your eyes closed, you could easily mistake the city for paradise, not a dilapidated rundown place.
It’s this sense of Havana that most tourists miss, they only see the outward beauty of the rehabilitated homes and buildings and the carefully rehearsed tourism dance that Cuba plays, they miss the authentic Havana beat.
Having lived there I fell in love with the daily beat, the never ending music and laughter, and the inner strength of Cuban people. My favorite experiences were the unexpected invite into a house, the taste of fresh ice cream in a crowded sweltering room full of boisterous families, the impromptu salsa dance with a stranger in the middle of the street as an old radio played from a nearby living room, the continual excitement of not knowing what you would find in a shop, and the pleasure of taking a cool dip in the ocean.
This is the Havana tourists don’t see, the one that is only a few blocks off the beaten path, that will really make you fall in love with city.
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