The first thing that you notice when you arrive in the Havana airport is the attitude. There is an ever-present air of security about the place. And you very quickly get the sense that this country takes its unique spot in the world very seriously, but once Cuban customs is cleared something else happens — something that I put down to the Caribbean influence on the island. It’s a laid-back approach, and one that when initially encountered drives most North Americans absolutely crazy. The Cubans for the most part are simply not imbued with the same sense of urgency that we as Canadians or Americans have.
Havana, and no doubt the rest of Cuba, operates on a different kind of clock. One that is unique to this magical island, and one that is best embraced early on if one is to truly enjoy their stay in Havana.
In addition to this approach you will notice at some point, while still in the airport, an odor; an unmistakable smell, that is instantly recognizable for any cigar aficionado – burning tobacco.
Tucked away in the hidden corners of the Havana airport Cubans are actually having a smoke. It’s a unique and unintentional greeting for those of us old enough to remember when smoking inside was not a crime.
The ride into Havana is typically a 20-minute journey and is an introductory glimpse into the contradictions that make up this capital city that is home to some 2.5 million residents.
At some point during your drive there will be this unique sensation that you’ve somehow managed to break through the time barrier. That you’ve entered some kind of ripple in the time stream that allows for three eras to exist simultaneously.
One of these time periods that you will encounter while on the road will be the glory days of Detroit from the 1950’s; a time when every car rolling off the assembly line was big, beautiful and bold. To see these metal behemoths still driving is a thing of wonder. It’s a testament to the ingenuity of the Cuban people that these pollution spewing “tanks” are still on the road. More often then not these rolling museums are held together by the power of prayer and not much more.
Your next stop in this strange world will be the Soviet Union era from the 1970’s and 1980’s, a time when a box-like car called the Lada ruled the land. Before the fall of Communism, Russia was an important trading partner with Cuba, but with that relationship now gone, the ever-present Lada is one of the few constant reminders of that former friendship. That, and that the occasional glimpse of uninspiring utilitarian architecture, that unfortunately blots the Havana landscape from time to time.
What I found intriguing about these cars is that somehow the Cubans have discovered a way to turn these uninspired Russian boxes into something that almost resembles a pimped out ride.
The third and final era that you will discover is this equally magical time that seems to predate the industrial revolution. For it is not uncommon to see by the roadside Cubans also using farm animals to drive their carts to the market or home.
The fact that it is all mashed together in one city is what makes this experience so unique. A city that in its heyday was once labeled the Paris of the Caribbean.
I personally have come to think of Havana as this kind of grand-old dame, a beauty who was once the belle of the ball, but unfortunately through years of neglect has seen her best days pass her by. But, as with any former beauty queen, the old gal still has plenty of magic and charm left in her. And it’s a spell that she turns on at the most unexpected times.
It’s a city of contradictions, one that is struggling to keep her past alive while slowly trying to lurch forward into the 21st Century.
This is Part 1 of a 2 part series. View Part 2 Here.