So close, yet so far away.
While visiting Cuba the first two weeks of November, I was struck by the obvious effects, not just of the half-century US embargo, but of the influences of other countries—especially Russia and China—stepping in as allies. Given such connections, one wonders how the communist government, though providing certain first-world benefits like free health care and education, has managed to deprive so many of its citizens, for so long, of any broader sense of prosperity.
No sooner do the airs of one lively salsa or rhumba band fade than those of another two blocks ahead rise to the ear.
But Cubans count assets other than a high standard of living as it is understood elsewhere in the world. The flavors of their diverse heritage—European, African and Indigenous—blend in a savory stew of cultural energy. A distinct pride of survivorship keeps the great Revolution on low simmer, still evident in folks' erect bearing and in defiant propaganda splashed on walls and billboards. And Cubans are nothing if not resourceful, scrimping, saving and improvising to make do with their limited resources.
The country's lush, tropical landscapes, from jungle to beach to highland coffee plantation, are breathtakingly beautiful. There's a surprisingly strong sense, even when one is beyond sight of the ocean, of this being an island—something, I suppose, about how the air feels and smells, and how close even a distant thunderstorm seems to loom.
Even gritty La Habana Vieja, old-town Havana, though at first glance a ruin, holds its own charms. Through the structural decay shine glimpses of grander days. Some landlords have managed a bit of restoration, even if it's only a fresh coat of paint. Here and there, vibrant art delights and challenges the eye, and music is everywhere—no sooner do the airs of one lively salsa or rhumba band fade than those of another two blocks ahead rise to the ear.
While a people can hardly be characterized by a tourist's limited impressions, I found the Cubans I met on the streets and in the countryside to be friendly, welcoming, curious…and surprisingly optimistic. Most are excited about the thaw in relations with the US, looking forward to new opportunities and reunions with long-separated family members living there.
EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
I can't share all the warm smiles, the welcoming handshakes, the tastes and smells, the music's beat. Those you will have to experience for yourself.* But I can offer a few of the images I captured with my camera. Of the 1,000-plus I snapped, here are my best 25.
* Keep an eye here and on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento, for my upcoming post on how you can spend a couple of amazing weeks in Cuba—legally—for less than $1,500, about a third the price charged by most tour companies.