Cuba from the Balcony

The sun is just rising over El Capitalio, the building in Havana that looks a lot like the Capitol in DC. And just like the last time I visited the one in Washington, the building is under renovation. It seems to be the only building that is currently being renovated in the city, even though renovation seems necessary for almost every other part of town. I am sitting on the balcony of our AirBnB apartment in Havana and these are some of the thoughts that come to mind on my first visit to Cuba.

We actually had a plan to visit Iceland (the nation that made the EURO2016 such a blast) but we couldn’t get the logistics sorted out – so we ended up in Havana. It is one of those stories only the internet makes possible. I hear people talking about “the good old days,” but for me, the fact that I can change my plans with a few taps on a tablet is proof that we live in extraordinary – and much better – times. In the good old days, you’d never end up in Cuba on your way to Iceland.

That same Internet we consider a near-human right is something the Cuban people are starting to discover. It’s much different than our introduction to the internet, though. Whereas we got online in the privacy of our rooms, Cubans are seeing the web on city squares or on the sidewalk. It is a shared experience with basically two wifi hotspot choices, one legal provided by the government and the other one in a kinda grey area. It took us a day to find our way back online and it took just that time to run out of offline content on all my digital devices. But at least there is proof that an iPhone battery can lasts more than a day.

The sharing experience of the internet is something the Cubans have also optimized for transportation. Just outside my apartment seems to be an offline version of Uber. Some beautiful old cars pull over to the sidewalk and some people leave and others enter the cars. There is no phone, no app, and of course no internet. It’s like an improvised version of Uber Share – and from all I can see, it works. And just like Uber, people prefer this over the Yellow cab. While at least 20 people are waiting for a ride, nobody even considers one of the yellow cabs parking just a few steps from the hotspot. I am sure the CUP and CUC structure has something to do with it.

Travelers, me included, don’t like to be seen as tourists. We like to be part of the culture we visit. Yet we hardly ever succeed. You can spot a tourist a mile away in Malaysia, South Africa, Japan or here in Cuba. But Cuba takes it to a whole new level with its own tourist currency CUC (Peso Convertible while the locals use CUP. There is nothing wrong to profit from visitors – tourism is a great business – it is just a reminder that we have a long way for people to be equals.

“Le Revolución” is such an amazing story with heroes like Che Guevara and historical figures like Fidel Castro as the mascot of socialism. But visiting Havana is also like traveling back in time. Many buildings look like a war just ended a few years ago. Very few are renovated, others got a paint job but still look like a bomb went off. Havana is not without a sentimental historic charm, but all in all, the city is a mess. The buildings are in ruins, the cars are kept together with duct tape and the streets are grey from all the pollution.

We joked on the tour about “what if somebody in Cuba would have invented the iPhone” and billions of hard currency would flow to the little island. Would it have been like with oil in Venezuela or Norway? We’ll never know for sure but I doubt any large scale innovation can come from a place that is purposely restricting the potential of its people. I am aware of the downsides of capitalism and I am terrified of what will happen to the country when US tourists and business invade the island.

Besides the buildings, the people seem as happy as others I met in developing countries. I’ve lived on a $1 per day budget in Asia and enjoyed upgrades to first class flights and everything in between. From my own experience I can tell that you need only so much to live a happy life. Yet as I observe the scene from my little balcony, I also see the corruption unfold. A police officer shakes hands with a taxi driver and some money is exchanged, just like an access fee.

I am purely observing as I sitting on my balcony. We’re here just for a few days and calling our Spanish vocabulary “limited” would be an understatement. What I can tell from the kid that got us a table in a nearby restaurant is that micro-capitalism is alive and kicking. He offered his “services” free of charge, had to pay a little “tax” to a local police officer and was ultimately paid by the restaurant once we sat down. It’s like an offline street version of Yelp.

The sun is up now and as if further proof about the power of money was needed, the moment money wakes up the good cars show up. The crappy old cars and the early local commuters are gone. Stunningly well preserved convertibles stop by and tourist families enter the cars. As I am getting ready to discover the city I wonder if there is a deeper meaning to this post but I can’t help to think there isn’t. I writing these last lines from the airport on my way to the next adventure. I learnt a lot and have yet much to discover. I know I am privileged and enjoy every aspect of it. At least we didn’t take the fancy convertible to the airport but a ride in the oldest possible clunker.

Muchos Gracias Cuba.

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