La Habana, Cuba- "The Key to the New World"
There is a magical place in Cuba that has my heart. For so many years it has been such a topic of discussion between myself and my friends who travel; this forbidden country that Americans could not directly travel to. Conjuring up ideas on getting around the travel ban, came to a halt in 2015 when it was lifted and American were able to now have access to this majestic place. Fast forward four years and I am on the most heart pumping flight to Habana. I was beyond excited and grateful to have the opportunity to see, smell and taste Cuba! The process was much easier than I had expected. The visa that I was stressing over, was easily purchased for $75 at the airline ticket counter prior to boarding the super short flight to the island. Getting off the plane and entering Habana's airport was like something out of a movie. From the uniforms of the employees to the interesting restrooms with minimal tissue, there was no denying that this was going to be an adventure.
Grabbing a taxi outside the airport was no issue and I was able to exchange my money quickly and safely from my dollars to CUC's. In Habana, tourists are issued CUC's while the natives use Cuban Pesos; each having their own separate rate of exchange. I highly recommend having a currency exchange app downloaded on your phone just in case you are not connected to WIFI or have mobile service, it is extremely helpful in understanding your true cost of items. The cab ride was uplifting as we zoomed by so many sights and people to end up in the neighborhood where our Airbnb was located. Casa Nostra was a beautiful luxury villa located in a nice neighborhood, close to the bus lines, great food spots and a few blocks from calle 23. Calle 23, or 23rd Street, is a central, busy street in El Vedado district. It begins at the sea and ends in a river, the Almendares.
Throughout calle 23, is absolutely everything you would need. When I needed to grab items from the farmacia or pharmacy, it was only a 3 block jog. Amazing café con leche could be found in the center of the theatre district, as enjoying the view and sipping it's warm deliciousness had a totally different effect in this high vibrational space. There were small shops and markets that sold ornately decorated wooden keepsakes and housewares sold at insanely low prices; in my mind due to the craftsmanship I ran into so many cool people, who invited my into their homes for dancing or a refresher of the culture of Havana. This really cool Irani restaurant and tea house called Topology was a hit in every way! The high quality Persian food and drinks were an oasis that we stumbled upon and we attempted to try the majority of the things on the menu. I am normally not a soda drinker, but their homemade drinks were so refreshing. Everything was so tasty and fresh and the staff were great at understanding my Spanglish.
Learning the language of the country that you plan to visit is paramount in showing reverence to the people and giving you access to conversations, information and understanding like no other. I love Spanish and feel the importance of speaking and understanding another language other than English. It is so limiting to visit a country whose native language is something that you are unfamiliar with. I implore anyone who may be interested in learning another language to try Duolingo, it is a cool free app that makes learning fun. There is no excuse as to why you do not have some sort of fluency in another language, when you can use an app that is engaging, rewarding and efficient. You connect to a person's heart when you speak their native language, and that is the primary focus on my travels. Connection is what makes me want to travel more and is my initial intent. I met so many special people during my short stay in Havana, and speaking Spanish and smiling is the main key.
La musica was everywhere. Waking up to the serenades of the construction workers in the neighborhood is probably one of the things I miss the most. It was always a man with a clear strong voice singing early in the morning, that would make me jump up to get my day started as a reminder; you are in Cuba and must take advantage of each hour. I never got to see who he was, but I still can hear his voice. Visiting Nao on Calle Obispo No.1, was jazzy experience that made me swoon at the fashion, vibes and freedom of local musicians and attendees. The instruments and singers seemed to be a neo soul/Latin infusion that surprised and delighted us all. The mojitos were on point and the fresh fish of the day was a meatier cut than I was used to, but delicious and filling. Walking through old Habana we found this adorable café, where there was a three piece band outside playing. There was no resisting the beautiful Afro-Cubana playing the bass, and the two gorgeous men who played the guitar, and the shakere. Music was constantly permeating through the streets and hallways of almost everywhere we turned. It was intoxicating and soothing and I cant wait to experience it again soon.
In the latest words from Dr. Akua Gray, "Habana is peace." And peace was what I experienced and look to experience it more often. The culture was suffocating in the most enchanting way, as this 500 year old city on this beautiful island has endured so much and held on to much more. The structures of old that have held up or been restored was reminiscent of New Orleans. The wrought iron and cement houses, lush foliage and frantic flora and fauna made this trip the most memorable one yet. Cuba is accessible, peaceful, rich and so generous in culture. Visit Cuba as often as you can.
Viva Cuba Libre!