Cubans have a complicated relationship to time. The socialist system demands that time is not one’s own; time, like most everything else, is a shared commodity. Thus people are used to waiting in lines for services. They are so used to waiting in lines that there are no lines anymore. There is only a group of people living their lives, chatting, who just so happen to also be waiting outside a bank or at a bus stop. When someone new shows up they ask “Quién es el último?” A finger goes up. The queue quietly grows by one and time tumbles on.
One of the young Cubans we talked to waiting in line shrugged off this inconvenience.
“Yes, there are shortages of goods. No, it’s not ideal,” he said. “Private enterprise is important. But we don’t just want to copy the American system — no offense — where everything is about money.”
One of the great gifts of our short time in Havana was time itself. Specifically not having constant access to the internet. Back home my phone is my safety blanket, my cigarette, my friend, my enemy. Havana has recently allowed for public Wi-Fi, but only in certain parks and street corners. One has to purchase a little card to buy time online. And so we guiltily joined the masses at night in John Lennon Park (not to be confused with Lenin Park outside the city), huddled around the glow of our smartphones. The public parks are once again filled with addicts; it’s just the nature of the fix that has changed. Would this be where the new revolution began? And would this revolution have its own emoji?
We were wandering through dark parks at night because, for the most part, Cuba itself is perfectly safe. There is no crime to speak of, or so the Cuban government says. As is often the case, when you dig beneath the surface, all is not as it seems: Cuba has the seventh highest incarceration rate in the world (the United States is number 2). If there is no crime, why are there so many criminals? Or is there no crime because all the (potential) criminals are locked up? When I asked our driver about this he shrugged.
“There’s an old joke,” he said. “11 million Cubans, 5 million are police.”
I will not be the first to tell you that the streets of Havana are an intoxication. The city is ridiculously photogenic, no filters needed. Our Airbnb was in Vedado, a deceptively calm residential neighborhood of aging mansions which also features a few of the city’s most thumping night clubs and Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an old cooking oil factory turned into a sprawling multiuse arts complex with a terrific restaurant, El Cocinero, on its rooftop. The night we went, there was a fashion show, a concert, a gallery opening all wrapped up into one. Cubans are ingenious at adapting what they have into something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
From Vedado we walked. We walked without our kids, which meant we could actually get somewhere. We walked along the Malecón, the seafront avenue and promenade known as the “sofa of the city,” where young people come out to see and be seen as the ocean pounds the city’s sea wall. We strolled through the crumbling party of Centro Habana, the “real Havana,” as many people put it. Everyone was home for the holidays; the mood was festive. We dodged water flung from balconies. Men fixing cars. Cars fixing men. We drifted through the Callejón de Hamel, an alleyway covered in palimpsestic layers of Afro-Cuban street art by Salvador González — inscribed bathtubs embedded in walls, bright murals of bodies entangled in dance. We passed the joyous scrum of a rumba street festival.
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