Most people associate Cuba with three notions: beaches, vintage cars, and cigars. But this surreal setting is more than just a tourist destination. Since the change of regime in 1959, Cuba –– the real Cuba, not the alienated notion that is painted to outsiders –– has turned into Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island. Nearly nothing gets in or out. But Cuba and its capital, Havana, make up a world of bewitching characters, mesmerizing (and often perilous) locations, monstruous atmospheric conditions, and nonsensical events. Read on to discover 9 new things about Contemporary Cuba!
1. La costa
Cuba is known for its delicious beaches: Santa María, Playa Pilar, Varadero. If you go any day of the week between 7 and 7, the sand and water will be vanished, swallowed by crowds and crowds of tan bodies. But for your common Cuban, getting to the beach can be problematic. That’s why sometimes, when a quick dip in the ocean is in need, many Cubans will simply go to the coast –– la costa –– and dive in from the rocks.
In our apartment in Miramar, my family and I did this constantly. Getting to the nearest beach required walking, buses, and more walking, but the coast was only two blocks away. Aside from the sea urchins, jagged rocks, occasional inebriated men, and tremendously savage waves, swimming in the coast was blue and exquisite.
2. The Mysterious Disappearance of Everything
If you thought that Cuba was just as rich in materials as it is in culture and charisma, then you have received a considerably imprecise impression of the island. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite. While you will find bodegas dispersed about, most are out of stock in just about everything all the time, except Negresco, the Cuban oreo (which is a bit drier and more cardboard-tasting than the real thing). Olive oil, eggs, potatoes, fruits, milk, toothpaste, menstrual supplies, bread, rice, pasta, and more will often be nowhere to be found. Red meat is illegal, just like cheese. Internet is scarce and most don’t have access to it.
One time, I spent three hours walking around Miramar in search for detergent; as a result of its lack, we would often find ourselves mixing it with water so that it would last longer. Another time, my family and I had to sit in the car for over eight hours just to refill the car with gas. The line was so long it wrapped around two or three blocks in Vedado. Or there was that day when I went all the way to the agro market on 42nd street to buy emergency lettuce, only to find out that it wouldn’t be “coming in” again until Tuesday before five (what?).
3. Quinta Avenida
Quinta Avenida is an enchanted walkway that stretches from the tunnel connecting Vedado and Miramar all the way to Santa Fe. Flickering yellow trees. Tremendous buildings exhibiting the arquitectural fusion of the Orient and the Occident. A sort of sweet salt in the air, carried from the coast and tainted with mangos and flowers all about. This was my way to school and friends’ homes, this was the avenue that marked my mornings and afternoons.
4. The Pizza Problem
In Cuba, there is a pizza problem. And it’s bad. Sometimes the bread is so burnt that it gets black, all black. Sometimes they don’t have cheese. Sometimes they do have cheese, except it isn’t cheese, because cheese isn’t supposed to be green.
The problem isn’t just with the pizza, but rather, with the cuisine in general; this is chiefly caused by the scarcity of just about anything and everything. But the root of the issue is more profound than some missing ingredients; it was actually originated in the 90s after Cuba underwent the so-called “Special Period” (El Periodo Especial). This brutal decade, kindled by the desintegration of the USSR, cut a dark red scar in Cuban gastronomy. Afterwards, dishes never returned to what they once were and the true recipes for flan, ropavieja, pastelitos, torrejas, picadillo, and other classics were lost.
5. My Favorite Hotspots: El Gelato, Café Fortuna, Chuchería, and More
With that being said, not everything in Cuba is disgusting. In recent years, paladares or privately owned cafeterias have been appearing around Havana and other provinces. One of my favorites is El Gelato. Most of my most coziest memories have taken place in this ideally-located ice cream shop; this was where I went to share secrets with friends, to complain about the insufferable complexity of time, to grab a croissant before heading across town to the beach, and even to have my first date, if bringing your best friend with you counts.
However, if you’re looking for something a bit saltier, Chuchería or just about any stand in 70 will do it justice; and for the best key-lime pie in Cuba, pay a visit to El Biky. Finally, if you’re looking for a place to get a coffee, a conversation, and an ocean view, then Café Fortuna is your go-to place.
6. Cuban Innovation
Cubans have seized the space that scarcity has left on the island and created some of the most ingenuous products and services I have ever encountered. Like how they use random parts (often unrelated to mechanics) to fix vehicles. Like Cheo’s illegal money-exchange business or Mileidys’ rabbit products. Like Bajanda, a Cuban Uber sort of thing. But the most nationally acclaimed innovation is the intricate web that makes up El Paquete.
Well, what is it? El Paquete or The Package is essentially a hard drive which contains films, shows, videogames, podcasts, YouTube videos, and trailers from around the world, all illegally downloaded outside of Cuba. Once a week, one of the many members of the Paquete personnel, known as the “Paquetero” (Packeteer), will drop by your home and pick up the hard drive. Then, later that day, he will come back with an updated version, including latest episodes, new movies, and more. The cost is 2 bucks/week and, because Internet is limited, El Paquete is the one way Cubans can get in touch with the international panorama.
7. The People
What can I say? The Cuban people are enchanting and irresistible. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an old friend, a distant acquaintance, or even a total stranger; in Cuba, there’s always someone to have you for a cafecito, to accompany you to buy some eggs in the middle of La Lisa, or to watch over your cats. Conversations can be striked just about anywhere: in the bread-line, in the public bus, at the beach. And people are confident; when attracted to somebody, they don’t wait around hoping something will happen, but rather, they approach the subject in an uninhibited manner and compliment them on their nails or on the way they move their arms, without even considering that they might not be interested. Sometimes it can get too far, especially when random men on the street start grabbing your hair or when policemen pick flowers off a Quinta Avenida tree to give to you when you get near.
La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, FAC or most commonly, Fábrica, is the spiciest spot in Cuba. This nightclub/gallery/ex-oil factory is where top-notch musicians will go to play –– like Cimafunk, Toques del Río, or Roberto Fonseca –– and where you will find the coolest members of the Cuban population, which can be just about anybody. La Fábrica was our Friday destination; at around 9 o’clock, we (the girls) would all meet, dress up, and then head to Fábrica to meet up with the guys. All the drama, romances, and fights took place in this whimsical hotspot.
9. The Sound of Havana
Havana, the heart of Cuba, has all sorts of sounds that must be dissected. The pregoneros, or street vendors, selling necessities like eggs, household items, or venom. The tree dropping mangos, the football being kicked against some building, the vintage cars rumbling around. The roosters, then the dogs. The neighbor that is a famous Cuban musician. The sea, always close enough.
Tula Jiménez Singer is a 17-year-old Cuban-American who recently moved to Brooklyn after spending several years in Havana. You can read her work on The Teen Magazine, Write the World, The Weight Journal and her blog El Cuarto de Tula, among others. She wants her pieces to be a slice of her life — filled with jazz, oceans, identity crises, and chocolate. She writes because she cannot let it go.