As our tour bus turned on to the famed Malecón, my extended family of 18 all vied to get a good view. We were eager to see the shiny, vintage American cars, check out the pastel painted colonial buildings and watch the waves crash into the sea side wall. As we continued down the road towards Old Town Havana, and peered down the side streets, I soon realized that there is much more to Havana then those iconic images. The amount of extensive disrepair of so many buildings was astonishing. There was a plethora of crumbling structures barely standing, some with 2×4’s precariously holding up balconies while people milled in and out below. There were electrical wires swinging openly from roof tops and windows, and indication of poor to no intact sewage system. There were even some buildings that were completely hollowed out, just a shell of their former selves, sandwiched between surrounding buildings in not much better shape.
The shock of the condition of so much of the city took me by surprise. These sites were not in the glossy Havana shots I have seen circulating on social media. Little did I know, those media-worthy pictures, albeit definitely present were few and far between the overall disrepair of the city.
This first impression could have clouded my visit, but fortunately our commitment to explore Cuba with the “People to People” exchange that the government requires was the perfect way to learn more about this incredible country. Although organized tours is not our typical travel style, the many guided visits, lectures and enriching experiences with local Havanans opened my eyes to look beyond the dilapidation and feel the passion, vibrancy and creativity of Cuban culture and its people.
One of our first tours in Havana was given by a Cuban architectural historian named Ayleen Robiana. As we drove around the the narrow city streets, we learned a lot about the different eras and styles of architecture. Many of the most ornate building were built in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, and are in the most ruins. No doubt the years of neglect, no upkeep and tropical conditions haven’t help the situation.
Although there is much desire to restores these beauties to their former splendor, the reality is the government just doesn’t have the money. Another challenge being faced by the city is when a building is decided to be restored, it does not take just a few years, but up to 10-20 years to complete the restoration. Again, another indication that there just isn’t the funds to do these large scale restorations.
There’s also possibly a paradox for Havanans wanting every building renovated, though. We learned that when an apartment building is in desperate disrepair, it is not condemned (and the tenants moved out), but instead, the government just declares the the residents do not have to pay rent. Even if the general rent of apartment/homes in Havana is relatively low (compared with the US) since it is government controlled, many hard working Cubans would most likely rather live in these neglected buildings with no rent, then eat into their average $20/month salary to pay rent for an apartment that may or may not be in much better shape.
Following our architectural tour with Ayleen, in the evening we had an informative lecture from a Cuban architect named Miguel Cuyola. He informed us in greater details about the history of Cuba as well as many of the current issues (like the free rent issue above) the Cuban people face.
He did give a wonderful example of a successful restoration project of one of the most popular tourist squares in Havana, Plaza Vieja. Like many squares in Old Town Havana, this too was full of disrepair, and also included an ugly underground parking lot. In the late 1990’s a massive reconstruction project happened to bring this square back to its former glory. The results are quite charming, and what most tourists (including myself) probably imagined (before arriving) the whole city was like. Although this project has been a definite success, it’s clear that to update the rest of the many squares and surrounding streets is a huge undertaking that would amount to a unsurmountable price tag.
Does that mean the situation is hopeless? By no means. Even with the incredible number of structures and infrastructure that needs improvement, it has not seemed to dampen the Cuban peoples’ vibrancy, kindness and joie de vivre. One might think coming into this type of environment you’d witness downtrodden people, slumping on sidewalks and doorways, but this is not the case. Havana is buzzing with the energy of its people, socializing, engaging and going about their daily lives despite what tourists may seem as not up to par.
We enjoyed a few walking tours, and one afternoon had the opportunity to explore on our own. My walk taking photographs and striking up conversations with locals was one of the most memorable aspects of this trip. Most Havanans seemed very excited to see us Americans there (who knows if this will change as more arrive?), and were eager to ask us questions and hear what we thought of their beloved city. This experience was quite a contrast of what one might expect given the conditions, yet indicative of the passionate Cuban culture!
It’s clear that Cuba and Havana faces many uphill battles ahead. I did spend a lot of time trying to consider what the new influx of American tourists will do to the charm and innocence of this special place. It poses many challenges, some good and some very bad. It will be quite interesting to watch as time progresses, and I am eager to return in a few years to see what new and exciting changes have occurred, yet hope that the unpretentiousness and raw beauty of this city remains!