New York to Havana - Cuba 1/10/11
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011
The first leg of my journey back to Cuba after an absence of more than ten years begins with a relatively glitch free departure from JFK, though my over stuffed duffel prompts a ´this bag is heavy´ from the baggage porter and a fee of over $100. I´m sure I will return from this trip pounds lighter in ´things´ but hopefully filled with new impressions, insight, ¨calor humano¨as the Cubans call the unique blend of warmth and affection they offer, and lots of material for my book Unfolding A Memoir of Forbidden Travel, AIDS and Healing in Cuba.

In Cancun, where I board a Cubana flight to Havana, my overweight suitcase, now adorned with a bright orange sticker advising baggage handlers to bend their knees when lifting it, requires me to pay another $80, eliciting an I can´t believe it look from the ticket seller. Now only the challenge of Cuban customs remains. I hope they let my Costco bottles of vitamins and painkillers, my Adobo and Sazon Goya through without incident. I know how much my Cuban friends will treasure these small but useful gifts.

Thousands of Americans travel to Cuba every year despite the U.S. travel ban, which has been in place for more than 40 years now. I am traveling this time under a general license which allows limited travel for professionals doing research. The other passengers are a motley crew - some Cubans returning for a visit home, though not many. I imagine most take direct flights from NYC or Miami now, which didn´t exist when I last traveled. Tourists mostly - a range - Japanese, Chinese, a group of tanned young Aussie men in shorts and flipflops, a couple of solitary travelers studying the Lonely Planet travel guide.

The plane is a small Russian made Aeroflot that looks like it could have been the same one that brought me to Cuba on my first trip in 1971. I remember how excited I was to hear ¨Bienvenidos a Cuba, the first liberated territory in the Americas¨ when the plane carrying me and a hundred other members of the Venceremos Brigade touched down on the tarmac at Jose Marti Airport. Do they still make that announcement, I wonder?

I soon find out I don´t have to worry about whether all of my gifts will make it through customs because my large black duffel has not arrived. My other suitcase is here, intact and undamaged, but the duffel is nowhere to be found. I go through a frustrating process of filling out papers with completely unsympathetic Cuban bureaucrats who assure me that my bag will be on tomorrow´s plane and move through the gates to find my friend Carlos, the head of the Cuban AIDS Prevention Group I will work with during this visit, anxiously awaiting my arrival.

First Impressions of Havana

Havana is a large and cosmopolitan city on the northwest coast of Cuba, stretching out in all directions from a large bay. Habana Vieja, the old colonial part of the city, is where most tourists spend much of their time, and many never see the other neighborhoods of the city. I am stayng with a friend in Centro Habana, just a few blocks from the Capitolio which is an exact replica of the U.S. Capital building. The neighborhood is full of crumbling and overcrowded buildings and potholed streets, but very lively and full of energy. Across the street from my friend´s apartment is a large colonial building that onced housed one of the most famous cigar factories in Havana and is now a school for pre university students. I watch them gather in the morning as I wait for my ride to the AIDS Sanitarium. Like many American Catholic school girls, they adorn their uniforms of very short blue pleated skirts and white blouses with individual touches..striped leggings, short leather boots, large dangly earrings...and talk and giggle together until school starts.

The same 50´s era American Fords and Chevys that are one of the most singular features noted in any tourist guidebook are still here and still miraculously running. Many serve as taxis for Cubans moving around the city...lumbering along, belching black smoke, without seatbelts and cramming passengers in front and back.

The whole city looks faded and tired. Lack of paint and plaster have made it impossible to do repairs or renovations and piles of crumbled rubble dot many street corners. My friend Maria Julia lives on the top floor of an old building, but she has managed to put aside money from professional travel outside the country and has completely renovated the small apartment where I am staying. The walls are bright with pink, red, yellow and green paint. The floors are newly tiled. She has a new computer and printer in her bedroom and a small flat screen TV in the living room. She also has a luxury only about 1% of Cubans own...a small gas powered water heater. But we still bathe by pouring water from a bucket in the bathtub because the water pressure is not enough for a shower.

There are beautifully restored colonial hotels in Old Havana, and many new modern luxury hotels in Miramar, one of the richer neighborhoods in the city, but I don´t see many tourists strolling around the streets. I invite a few friends for a meal at a restaurant one night and they suggest the ¨Barrio Chino¨, Havana´s small Chinatown, where we eat large plates of Italian, Chinese and criollo Cuban food. The whole meal with drinks for 4 of us costs less than $30, but this is not something most Cubans, who earn around $15 a month, can ever afford.

In the 90´s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba´s main trading partner, the country entered a period of tremendous economic crisis and scarcity, called ¨the special period.¨ Since then there have been repeated attempts to reform the economy and come out of crisis. In the past few months, the government has announced the planned layoff of up to 500,000 Cubans who work for state enterprises, and more liberal rules that will allow more small entrepreneurs to open private businesses. But my friends are skeptical. Where will people get the merchandise to sell?  And who will buy it, with what money?  At the same time, there is a marked decrease in the greatly subsidized food that Cubans can buy with la libreta or ration book. Most Cubans receive 5 pounds of rice, 3 pounds of beans, 10 eggs, about a pound of some kind of protein, and a half pound of sugar. In the meantime, they get by with a creative and frustrating daily hustle, figuring out how to get to work with scarce and unreliable transportation and turning to the agropecuario markets or the black market for food to supplement what the ration provides.

Despite all of this hardship, Havana is a bustling, exciting city. Cuban women find a way to look elegante and there is laughter, music and lots of affection in their lives. Carlos tells me that I look renovada or renewed in just a few days here and it is true that I feel energetic and open to whatever the day may bring.

Let's be friends

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