Havana: A City Frozen in Time

I was drawn to Havana the second we touched down. I knew this trip was about to give me a unique perspective about a people and their way of life, in a country very different than I had ever experienced.

Outside the manufactured, typical tourist resorts, there is nothing typical about Cuba. Havana is real and authentic. Pre-Cold War military squares, 16th century colonial palaces, 1950s American cars, and ration shops paint Havana a beautiful city frozen in time. My photos capture little in the way of modernity but behind my lens Dan and I learned more about life in Cuba, the misconceptions we had – and the small ways it is changing – than we would in a guidebook or from a Google search.

Havana Cuba

No Street Crime. Crime in Cuba is virtually non-existent. Even robbery is rare. There is no drug trade or weapons circulating. Socialist equality means Cubans don’t own any more or less than their neighbour so there is little incentive to commit crimes against one another. There is also a strong sense of community here. Everyone looks out for one another, even complete strangers. I felt safer in Havana than in my own city.

Havana Cuba

No Homelessness. We were hard-pressed to find homelessness in Havana. No one in sleeping bags on sidewalks or random blankets on street corners that suggest someone’s home at night.  The government heavily subsidizes housing in Cuba, where having a home is considered a right not a privilege. Apartments might be small and maybe even over-crowded with more than one generation living under the same roof but everyone has a place to stay and at least it’s a place. We’ve seen worse situations in Paris and Rome, even in our hometown.

Havana locals

American Cars. Cuba is a paradise for car enthusiasts. Who are not Cuban. A lot of tourists come to Cuba just to gawk at these old 1950s trophies, but for the locals they are an unfortunate reminder of a frustrating, everyday reality. Since the US trade embargo in 1961, car parts have stopped flowing in and, for most Cubans, their only mode of transportation is constantly breaking down in need of major fixes and repairs. Some Cubans wait for family relatives to bring back parts from the US, others have inevitably become self-taught mechanics using any tools they can find to keep their cars running. It can be a shiny Chevy on the outside but a goulash of parts on the inside.

I was a little hesitant to take a ride in one of these – there’s rows upon rows of drivers parked in front of the Capitol building waiting, hoping, to take tourists for a tour. They all seemed really friendly and warm. Never pushy. But for some reason, I felt uneasy and unethical about taking a tour in an American car in Cuba. As if I was supporting a decades-old political decision (made well before I was even born) that has forced Cubans into this daily struggle to desperately make ends meet. They were definitely cool to look at, and while tourists like them for their prestige and historic value, personally I think these cars are a greater testament to a hard-working culture determined to keep going, with or without foreign trade.

Some locals have even turned their own bikes and rickshaws into transit systems.

Havana American classic car

Havana bikes

Free education. A lot of things that cost too much everywhere else are free for people in Cuba. Education is free right through to university (even medical school is free – most people I know could never afford medical school). Education is highly valued and so is choosing a career – though salaries are the same whether a doctor or farmer, Cubans see work as a vocation than a job. There is a sense of personal contribution to others without expecting anything in return. Kids also get free lunch in schools and likely they are more nutritional than a lunch hour at a US or Canadian school where Coke is in every vending machine and McDonald’s at every street corner. The literacy rate in Cuba is 99%.

Free health care. Cubans don’t fear losing health insurance because health care is completely free. Despite not having access to updated equipment and medicine, it’s considered one of the best systems in the world. Cuba has more doctors than other Western countries – 591 doctors per 100,000 people (Canada only has 214) even life expectancy is 78.3 (the US has 77.9). Unfortunately greater accessibility comes with long line ups and waiting lists but I think this is more a structural problem than it is a Cuba problem (Canada shares the same dilemma). Sometimes gifts of rice and sugar help.

Children always play outside. These days Western kids play video games and spend hours online. In Havana, streets are always filled with children playing.

Havana Cuba

Food Rations. Cubans rely on food rations once per month. While we were visiting a ration card included 5 pounds of rice per person, spaghetti, beans, eggs, salt, sugar, and coffee at subsidized prices. They pick up meat like pork or chicken twice a month and a small bread each day. The ration system is not enough to live on and doesn’t include fruits and vegetables (fresh ones are hard to find) so everything else has to be bought, often at unregulated prices or from the black market. Strangely, there is no fish.

Havana Food Rations

Cuba is not the poorest country. If you measure poverty on things like debt, starvation or homelessness, then Cuba is not a typical poor country. The average (albeit very low) salary is 460CUP (US $20) per month which Lianne, one of the locals we met tells us

it is not enough to save but just enough to live

Life in Cuba is not, by any means, an easy one but they don’t suffer the same deprivations found in other places. Everyone is guaranteed a job and if you work at a state-job, you’re given a free car and sometimes a virtually mortgage-free home. One of the newest changes from Raul Castro’s presidency allows Cubans to be their own entrepreneurs by owning and running their own restaurant, or renting a room in their home to tourists. We ate at a local Cuban paladar and stayed in a Cuban’s home (casa particulare). This is giving Cubans hope for change and confidence to be independent entrepreneurs. Cuban life is very simple and while they may not enjoy the excess or abundance we’re spoiled with in North America, they are a very hard-working and determined people to keep going.

Havana Cuba

Havana Cuba

Media. Coming from a background in journalism, I was impressed to see Cubans on top of American pop culture. There are four state-run channels with little variety in programming but the US trade embargo and the “Special Period” in the 1990s helped flourish an underground black market for anything from pirated American movies to music. Cell phones are rare but not impossible to find. Even social media is hard to contain – most locals we met knew about Facebook and some also had their own Facebook profiles. Internet is available but limited and slow – we paid 5 CUC ($5) for one hour at the Saratoga hotel.

If there is one good thing about the trade embargo, it’s that Cuba is probably the only place in the world that hasn’t heard of Justin Bieber.

Havana Cuba music

Americans in Cuba. Cubans do like Americans. And tourists for that matter. Even though the US and Cuban governments are at odds with one another, Cuban people are always eager to relate, communicate, and engage with outsiders no matter the differences. We have never met a more hospitable people who stop to say hello or ask you where you’re from. They were just as curious about us as we were of them.

Havana is a UNESCO city. The Catedral de la Habana was built sometime in the 1700s and is one of the most beautiful examples of Baroque architecture with European influence. It’s believed to have been inspired by Tuscan, French, and Spanish artists of its time. Both the cathedral and Old Havana where it stands are declared UNESCO World Heritage sites but to me, Havana was a city like no other place I had ever experienced.

Havana Cathedral

Old Havana Cathedral square

Most people I know head for the sultry sun and sand resorts of Varadero or Cayo Coco and then say they’ve “been to Cuba” but unless you’ve travelled inland, you haven’t really been to Cuba.

Thank you to Lianne and Anilka at Locally Sourced for showing (and teaching) us the local side of Cuba and giving us one of our most meaningful travel experiences. 

Want to visit Havana? Ask me how to book this trip

More in this series:

Cuban Cigars and my Visit to a Cuban Tobacco Plantation
Cuba’s New Revolution in Food

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