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Time-Hopping in 90 Miles

Local women with cigars in Havana

Photo by Eliesa Johnson

For more than 50 years, it’s been shrouded in a cloak of mystery, this island 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Growing up, I heard stories about Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, but it isn’t the historical legends that draw me to Cuba—it’s the desire to know and understand its people and, quite frankly, to understand how they view us.

Being someone who thrives on the adventurous long-weekend trip, I pack my bag and head to Havana, where I meet up with three friends for an immersive educational and cultural experience. As soon as I land, I’m transported to the 1950s. It’s a time when everyone gets around in cars such as a turquoise 1954 Plymouth Savoy. A time when sitting in a rocking chair on the porch in the evening twilight while chatting with neighbors is the norm. A land where smartphones are not the norm.

On our way to our Airbnb, we pass through the Vedado neighborhood with its large homes typical of the 1940s and ’50s, weave through Centro Havana with its art deco structures and finally land in Havana Vieja (Old Havana) with its quintessential Spanish colonial architecture. I’m struck by the contrast between buildings that have been restored and those that lie in crumbled ruins, looking as if they’ve been left in disrepair for years.

Here, the city is a flurry of colors, lights and music. It’s rumba, Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa flooding the streets. It’s small cafés serving mojitos and daiquiris. It’s perfect.

Strolling along the streets of Havana Vieja, I quickly lose myself in the pulse of the city. This is not the nine-to-five work race that I’m accustomed to, but everyone moves with purpose. I wander into Plaza de Armas, which is lined with tables: flea market vendors selling old books and records, all drawing me in. An old woman passes by slowly, a cane in her right hand, a cigar in her left.

I head for Almacenes de San José on the Port of Havana, an artists’ market housed in a warehouse built in the late 1800s. As I meander through the stalls, one young man’s photography catches my eye. He asks where I’m from and is not only excited to know that I’m visiting from the U.S., but he also wants to know what I think about the upcoming election, noting who he thinks will win (or at least whom he is pulling for).

The curiosity of the people—and their kindness—is something I’m not sure I expected. Perhaps I assumed that because they’re not as connected to the internet, social media and other forms of communication as we are that they might not be as attuned to what’s happening in our country—or perhaps I thought that because of the divide between our countries for more than half a century, they might not be interested. As thirsty as I am to know about the people of Cuba, they’re just as intrigued, wanting both to share their stories and history and learn about mine.

Though our governments and ideologies might be worlds apart, we are not. After all, Cuba is now just a hop, skip and a jump—i.e., an easy plane ride—away.

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