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Three hours from JFK. 90 miles from Key West. And yet, seemingly worlds away. Four New Yorkers — Alex, Elliot, Emma, and I — waited far too long for checked bags to show up, the first indication we were running on island time, and a socialist island at that. Our driver, Daniel, made small talk while we contemplated spending our loaned allowance of Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) on beer. Once we were all together, Daniel walked us over to our ride. It was a gleaming red 1957 Ford, a steel landship that nowadays only plies classic car conventions in the states.

Daniel turned to us and let us know, even though the exterior chassis was vintage, the engine of this time machine was newly manufactured by Nissan. This car we were in was as old as my mother, but it got us to our destination in style and relative comfort. The interior was surprisingly comfortable. It came equipped with frosty AC, a small LCD screen for music videos, and a slamming Pioneer sound system. The steering wheel had a Hyundai logo on it. As many have pointed out, the classic cars that meander throughout Cuba are a true testament to the ingenuity of the Cuban people. Although we saw plenty of modern vehicles about, they were clearly devoid of the unique character of this ride. Midway through our journey, we took a pit stop for beers, while the car also took a drink of water to cool off from the sweltering heat of the day.

Under the hood of a reworked ’57 Ford

Once we arrived in Trinidad, we made straight for our homestay and set our stuff down, encountering our gracious hostess. We strolled the streets but briefly before meeting up with the rest of our group for dinner. Trinidad, with its low-slung pastel crayon-box houses, recalled the scene I encountered in Ciudad Bolívar back in 2015. I remarked at dinner, “First impressions, Cuba is like Venezuela but less shitty.” Despite being a crude assessment, it does accurately capture certain aspects of my experience.

Trinidad and the rest of Cuba, ideologically and superficially similar to Venezuela, are at this point far better off than their much larger socialist cousin. Both places remind me of what mainland China was like when I grew up in the late ’80s. Apartment blocks in various states of disrepair, a general dustiness, inefficiencies everywhere you turn, bribes to grease the wheels, a dearth of selection at the local markets, these are apparently ubiquitous to this flavor of the socialist world.

But the vast disparities between Cuba and Venezuela quickly become apparent. Even in 2015, people were already queuing for food and basic supplies in Caracas. The face of poverty appeared more desperate, and violence was a real threat for both visitors and residents alike. Nowadays, increasingly violent protests roil the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities. The populace has become fed up with the extreme inflation caused by a mismanagement of the economy. A nation which by all rights should be among the wealthiest and most developed in all Latin America seems unable to climb out of a spiral towards anarchy, having fallen for the trap of reliance on the export of a single commodity.

Contrast the unrest of Venezuela with Cuba today. Cubans are by no means “well off”, but neither are they desperate. There are no queues for food and basic necessities. There are no armed gangs roaming. Cabs stop at red lights at night, because they’re not afraid of being carjacked. Private enterprise on a small scale is being encouraged, and change is coming slowly as the Cubans open up to the world on their own terms. Their most basic needs are met. This isn’t to say, Cubans with ambition are happy to stay put. The Cubans I met all had aspirations of leaving the island, and already had family abroad. Still, they are orders of magnitude better off than Venezuela.

People, Sights, and Misadventures

Moving the thread to a less serious and political tone, the Cubans I met were by and large bursting with friendliness. On the second night we were in Trinidad, I went out during a break before dinner on a liquor run. I had no idea where to go, so I bumbled along asking Cubans for a “tienda que se vende ron”. A guy actually walked with me most of the way there. Later that night, I invited my fellow travelers over for a drink on the rooftop of the homestay I was in. Not more than ten minutes later, the abuelo and namesake of the house, “El Tyty” came upstairs to tell me it was his birthday and that he insisted we join his family downstairs to celebrate. Well, you can’t not oblige that, so we ended up dancing and partying with our homestay owners.

The only snark we caught from people in Cuba was from other tourists/foreigners who were nippy about queues at restaurants and getting into the Cueva Ayala cave disco the first night we were there. I’m guilty of it myself at times: not leaving the big city mentality of rushing to get everywhere behind when I leave the city itself. Speaking of Cueva Ayala, I think all of us were taken aback by the sheer scale of this club inside a cave. A place like that in New York would be charging you a $20 cover and $20 a drink on top of that.

I would have been in better shape for sightseeing the next morning had I not partaken in the now official-because-we-did-it Young Pioneers Trinidad Dollar Mojito crawl back from the Cueva Ayala that night. Kiddie rides were ridden inside El Rápido. Video evidence exists, complete with nonplussed night manager, but will not be forthcoming here. Somehow Alex and I got separated from the rest of the dollar mojito crew. We made our way back to the hostels, and uh, they got a lift from the local Cuban police.

Luckily, waking up drunk the next day means you can’t be hungover. That was good news since we were on horseback for a good portion of the afternoon. I had a blast cantering and whatnot. Can’t say the same for everyone else. Thank god for those homestay breakfasts. I might have died without them.

I found the tour of the Valle de los Ingenios on our way from Trinidad to Santa Clara to be fascinating. I didn’t know much of anything about sugar production. I now know why aguardiente and baijiu have a similar flavor profile. Chinese people are just stubborn and don’t put baijiu in oak casks to make something more palatable like rum out of the first pour of the still. They age their baijiu in clay pots, but hey, who am I to argue with thousands of years of drunken tradition.

My only regret about the Valle de los Ingenios was the one place they were to have guarapo (fresh pressed cane juice) for my water bottle of rum was without electricity that day. This happened to be the only time we were in Cuba that there was no electricity at some place. Humorous aside regarding electricity in Cuba: if anything I encountered a surplus of it in Santa Clara when I stupidly electrocuted myself in a shower — electric water heater inside a shower head.

When we finally got to Havana, I was enthralled by the sheer scale of the place. Ironically, the very lack of full-throated capitalism in Cuba translated to large tracts of historic districts avoiding the sledgehammer. Much of the historic quarter of my own hometown Kunming has been leveled in pursuit of the heady dreams of matching the material conditions of the advanced capitalist west. Not so in Havana, or any of the places I saw in Cuba, where one could spend days wandering the warren of colonial streets. We saw so much it’s difficult to recount in words other than to say that there are parts of Old Havana where you can really feel transported back in time a couple centuries.

For me, some of the highlights of Havana were related to the arts and culture scene. The first night we got back to Havana, we got to experience the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a unique collaboration between the government and private citizens. The venue was once a cooking oil factory prior to its conversion into a gallery space and cultural hub. The facility is owned by the Cuban government, but the bars and restaurants within are wholly privately run. I asked our guide Alistair if the gallery ever hosts international artists, to which he replied that the space was exclusively for Cuban artists. He also indicated that the spot wasn’t just an exclusive haunt for gringos, that it is quite popular with locals as well.

Aside from that, some of us got the chance to see the Callejón de Hámel, a place that evokes what 5pointz used to be in Long Island City. The entire street is resplendent with murals, and littered with sculptural installations that make it feel like a Gaudí-esque playground. The walk from Old Havana to Vadado via Centro de Havana that took us to there was just as striking. We left behind the heart of Old Havana, romanticized by gringos for its gritty charm, frequented by massive cruise ships, and entered an entirely different realm. Just a couple blocks down from the Malecón, you can glimpse a slice of the quotidian Cuban life, without seeing so much as a single other gringo soul. While some might have balked at the scale and degree of relative poverty here, I can attest that for me, these neighborhoods seemed better off than the blighted shells of areas I had worked in Philadelphia, and that are all too common in rust belt cities in the states.

May Day in Havana

May Day in Havana was the other primary highlight of the trip, and in my eyes, it was truly a unique spectacle to behold. I’m not sure if any other socialist nation takes the day as seriously as the Cubans do (China certainly doesn’t), and you definitely won’t see anything of this scale in the Western Hemisphere. There must have been a couple hundred thousand people lined up along the Paseo marching towards the Plaza de la Revolucion under the watchful eyes of Ché, Camilo, Jose Martí, Raúl, and the next generation of Cuban leadership. This being the first May Day since Fidel’s death, we saw many signs proclaiming “Yo soy Fidel”, “Todos somos Fidel” — I am Fidel, we are all Fidel. The mood was raucous, the air filled with percussion, chanting of slogans, flags of various nations waving (Canada, Venezuela, Turkey, Nicaragua, among others). Emptied bottles of rum clinked around the pavement as the crowd pulsed at every invitation to move forward.

I’m by no means a socialist or leftist, but I can still appreciate the sheer scale and intensity of the march as a statement of opposition to the overwhelming large scale forces of globalism and capitalism that apparently have an air of inevitability about them. Indeed, there’s a certain irony to the nationalist rightist reactionary wave sweeping the West that claims an unfair economic and trade system as one of its core grievances, and yet refuses to even consider the possibility that capitalism could be flawed. Blame the global south, it’s easier that way!

My parents were somewhat appalled that I’d willingly choose to visit a communist country on vacation. As survivors of the calamitous Great Leap Forward, the anarchistic Cultural Revolution, and abortive June 4th movement, the very thought of stepping foot in a place like Cuba is physically repulsive. Why would someone who has enjoyed the fruits of life in a privileged place like the States bother with visiting places like Cuba? It is precisely because this place runs contrary to the prevailing currents surrounding it. Its flag was designed by an American with presumed statehood in mind. Things turned out quite differently. Although Cuba was late to cast of the yoke of Spanish colonialism, once the Cuban people got a taste of freedom, they weren’t turning back. Their tenacious spirit in defense of their right to self-determination somehow persisted against all odds right at the doorstep of the Western Hemisphere’s (and the world’s) great superpower. It is this history that leads me to believe that whatever the future holds for Cuba, its people will be approaching it firmly on their own terms.