Last month I spent a week in Havana. I was there to help out my friends 10,000 Horses who were performing at the Havana Biennial. Instead of a manicured tourist resort, we stayed in a house just outside of the city core. Staying in a residential area gave me a very different glimpse into a country that has weathered relentless political storms. During the days, we would travel around town in shared taxis. Taking a "collectivo taxi" was - until recently - illegal for tourists to do; even now we are still a bit of an oddity. Trying to chat people up in the taxis was met with odd looks and silence. Perhaps the Cubans are not accustomed to hearing tourists like me butcher their language - or maybe the small space of a car is not suited to engaging strangers. Much like trying to start a conversation in an elevator, not everyone welcomes the intrusion.
Grocery shopping and checking your email could easily take the whole day to accomplish. Data cards to access WIFI could only be purchased at certain hotels and at certain times of the day. The system eluded me. Grocery stores were eerily empty, save for some products that no one wanted or could afford. One shop I wandered through had nothing but one brand of pasta filling four long aisles. A Kafkaesque illusion of abundance and choice. Locked behind glass doors was a jar of Nutella priced as if it were foie gras.
During the evenings we could walk to the local cafe in the hopes of buying cold beer or ice cream. The lineups were long, and they often sold out of everything before you reached the counter. The locals did not bat an eyelash at such inconvenience. My spoiled, first-world eyes undressed my neighbors' Heineken. Of course, tourists can always go to a hotel bar and find plenty of beer. Like any place in the world, if your pockets are deep, you can usually find whatever you like.
Outside of the tourist area in Havana (where tour buses never go) there are few restoration efforts to maintain what used to be some of the most majestic architecture in the Americas. It's hard to believe that this town once had more cinemas than New York City, and produced more revenue than Las Vegas. Its faded grandeur - and spirit - can be heartbreaking. Havana is the Miss Havisham of capitals, she is the Detroit of the Caribbean.
Often now, you will hear people say, "Go see Cuba before America ruins it" but I would argue, it is already in ruins. The damage is done. Visit it - not for the tragedy tourism - but because it's a fascinating place on the brink of great change. I hope that Cuba will blossom one day soon like the dormant garden that she is.