HAVANA — “I have been without email for two years,” Dani tells me as the music in the car skips. I’m trying to stream a song by Sylvan Esso while we ride in his 1976 Russian Lada back to the Vedado neighborhood where I’m staying. But even with my expensive cellular data plan, service is spotty.
“It’s not because I don’t have access,” he continues. “I just try to go without wifi.”
I explain that in the United States, if someone sends an email in the middle of the night, I’m expected to respond soon after I wake up. The contrast makes him crack a smile and do half an eye roll as we make our way from the Cuban National Art School, where he used to teach dance.
I unplug my phone and ask him to turn on the local radio.
A Cuban Commute
HAVANA — “Transportation,” says José when asked the greatest challenges faced by Cubans. He laughed as he said it, thumbs looped through the blue straps of his backpack. He travels 30 miles to school every day on three different buses, and it takes him four hours. Returning, it takes three and a half.
The buses arrive randomly. If a schedule exists, he doesn’t know about it.
By the time he gets home, he says, he can’t remember anything he learned in school that day. To take a taxi would cost an eighth of the monthly salary he makes as a teacher-in-training.
On Havana streets, crowds of people idle on the curb, arms crossed, staring into space. They stretch so far down the block that it’s unclear whether a bus stop actually exists. The blue buses chugging down the street are almost always packed to overflowing, riders standing in the aisle grasping straps suspended from the ceiling.
José lives with his family and can’t afford to move closer to his school. Sometimes he gets upset about all that time spent waiting for buses, but mostly he just shrugs it off. Other people commute for a long time, too, he says. It’s not so uncommon.
Style vs. substance in the Havana heat
HAVANA – In a gloriously restored corner of a city that will soon celebrate its 500th anniversary, one building stands out. Not stone, not old, not restored, it is a modern, glass-fronted university building, San Geronimo de la Habana.
While this contemporary style may seem to some eyes an upgrade from the nearby Spanish colonial buildings and their more ordinary descendants, Michel Sanchez-Torres sees the university hall’s design as a mistake.
“Cuba was not meant for this modern architecture,” said Sanchez-Torres, a University of Havana archeology professor and urban historian who teaches in the building.
He says Havana’s heat makes a glass façade hard to maintain and the building difficult to occupy. Harsh sunlight and temperatures that routinely reach the upper 80s even in February mean the air conditioning is always running, leaving students shivering.
Keeping the A/C running all day requires a lot of energy and when it breaks there are no windows to open, making classrooms unbearably hot. Indeed, the air conditioning has failed and caused problems in the past. Sanchez-Torres said books and paintings have grown fungus from the humidity in the building’s archive. One employee got very sick from inhaling the fungus while working with a book from the library.
A renovation began in 2005. Construction continues across the hall from Sanchez-Torres’ office.
“There is no way to do all the maintenance needed,” Sanchez-Torres said. “It is not sustainable.”
— Robin Opsahl
A socialist, pro-revolution Syrian in Cuba
HAVANA – Walking around Havana in conversation with Cuban college students about their views of the government and the economic system, I find myself slipping out of my journalist’s role and returning to the thoughts I think as a Syrian citizen – ideas usually dormant when I am in the United States.
Two of the students are explaining that they have freedom in Cuba because they can party until three in the morning and do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break the law. Their response to every question is supportive of the government nearly 60 years after the revolution, even when one of them describes himself as “a bird in a cage” because he doesn’t feel that he can openly express his opinion.
The contradictions in what they say are actually very clear and understandable to me. This might not be the case for my American friends, who grew up with the idea of freedom of speech and other constitutional rights that Cuba and Syria don’t have, because our concept of freedom was shaped very differently.
The young Cubans remind me of how we were before our revolution in Syria, hiding our true opinions, fearing change and uncertainty, trying to look on the bright side while using the privilege of safety, free health and education as an anesthetic to our pain.
I feel every word they are saying, in two ways: Maybe they are honest and do support the system, or maybe they are afraid of expressing what they truly believe.
Havana: Giving visitors what they want
HAVANA – It’s a sunny Sunday in the Cuban capital. The calm waters next to the Malecon twinkle lightly in the glare of afternoon sun. In the neighborhood of Vedado, there’s barely any traffic, and even less public activity.
Except, of course, in the vast parking lot and public square a few steps outside the Jose Marti Memorial.
One after another, four or five big blue tourist buses come to a halt. A cluster of tourists descends from each. Feet barely on the asphalt, they are suddenly excited, for parked strategically near the buses are vintage America cars. In pastel hues from sky blue to powder pink they’re begging for attention, with suavely-dressed, charming and eager chauffeurs standing alongside.
More such taxis whir past the tourist throng, bathed in candy colors of purple and yellow, their speakers blaring years-old songs by American pop bands like Maroon 5 and Beyonce.
In terms of ambience, this might be what most tourists expect of Havana. And this is exactly what Havana will give them. Especially in return for $50 joy rides – more than twice the average monthly Cuban wage – on a circuit around the capital city’s broad avenues.
Never mind the billboards in praise of Fidel Castro, leader of the anti-capitalist revolution. He died in 2016. Never mind the towering nearby memorial to Jose Marti. It was closed this day anyway.
Freedom, democracy and fake news
HAVANA – David Napoles sits in front of me in an Adidas shirt, headphones slung casually around his neck. He has a curious, mildly pretentious British accent. He says he learned it on YouTube.
David is 23. He is Cuban, an English student, teaching his first English classes.
His privilege is revealed intermittently. His diplomat father, his knowledge of foreign literature, his artist mother.
David wants me to know that he loves Cuba. He also loves bold, sweeping statements.
He reminds me of the island’s free healthcare, of its quality education.
I ask him about democracy.
“We don’t want your democracy,” he responds, swiftly, harshly, assuming that I come from the United States.
“Socialism implies democracy,” he adds.
“In what way?” I reply.
He trails off. His sentences are dotted with contradictions.
Cuban news is best, but all news is fake. Capitalism makes people greedy, although he wishes he could take a trip to Switzerland and spend his money as he likes.
So, I ask him again, in different ways. I wonder if his answers have been amended to counter perceived assumptions from abroad.
David becomes more adamant. He loves the Cuba of the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul. He believes in the revolution.
As I say goodbye, I ask him if there is anything he wants, anything that the revolution has not given him.
“I want to be free.”
— Holly Honderich
A Moment in Marianao
HAVANA – A trail of plastic bags, pieces of cardboard and other debris clutter the ground as I walk through the Marianao neighborhood in Havana. Some children are using cardboard as makeshift sleds, while others are playing on a rusted seesaw. Incongruously, a few children bury their faces in their cellphones and tablets, a scene that I was definitely familiar with.
People-watching also seemed like a common pastime in Marianao. Residents sat outside their makeshift homes that were, like the sleds, pieced together from scraps, trying to catch the late afternoon breeze at the end of a sticky day.
What do they think about as they watch people walk by, I wondered to myself. Do they ever wonder if things will get better for them, or when?
At first, what I didn’t consider is that while a lot of them can’t wait for better living conditions and resources, others might fear that change would be too overwhelming, too different.
HAVANA – Music very often fills the streets here. Raggaeton, mariachi and American pop are all popular choices for party and dance music. Evangelical worship songs, however, are rare, so hearing the familiar sounds billow onto 16th street in the neighborhood of Vedado caught my attention.
The turquoise paint of the protestant church hadn’t yet chipped, and the gate was open. From my view at the gate’s entrance, I could see people standing, holding pamphlets and singing. Fascinated, I took out my phone and starting filming.
A man in the back looked over and saw me, so I nodded in acknowledgement. He gestured for me to come inside. Embarrassed, I tried politely to decline, but he gestured again and I didn’t want to be rude. It was the final song of the service, usually sung before a final prayer or benediction, and the man handed me his pamphlet so I could sing along.
It turned out not to be a pamphlet, but a hymnal in Spanish, printed on copy paper and bound in a plastic sleeve. I couldn’t understand the words, except for the capitalized “Tu Nombre,” but it didn’t matter – I knew the song. It was “Shout to the Lord,” a song I knew from growing up in the church. I sang along in English:
Shout to the Lord of the Earth, let us sing
Power and majesty, praise to the King
Mountains bow down, and the seas will roar
At the sound of Your Name
The service ended, and the man pointed to another man wearing a navy blue hat with “Jesus” on it. “Pastor,” he said. The pastor came over and, explaining that he spoke very little English. He asked who I was and what I was there for. I stumbled through what little Spanish I knew and tried to use simple sentences: “I’m a student.” “Journalism.” “From Chicago.”
A crowd soon formed, and they worked together to talk to me, piecing together enough English to ask more questions and interpret my responses.
“Are you a Christian?” one woman asked me.
“Yes,” I said, showing everyone the gold cross around my neck.
“What denomination?” asked the pastor.
They looked at me with blank faces.
“Baptisto? Presbiteriana?” the pastor asked.
“Methodist,” I stumbled as I thought to myself, How on earth do you say ‘Methodist’ in Spanish?
Then I had an idea.
“John Wesley,” I told the pastor.
“Methodisto!” we all said, laughing.
Read the next collection of vignettes from this series: “Of democracy, dogs and WiFi: Scenes from Cuba”