At the José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba there are no escalators.
Passengers lug carry-on bags down stairs to their gate cursing the poorly air conditioned terminal, and the one restaurant in the food court has a constant line, with no indication of what is actually available.
When I reach the counter, a woman tells me in Spanish, “We are out of everything except ham sandwiches.”
You are out of everything at the international airport in the largest city in your country? I want to ask. But instead I agree to the ham sandwich, which they serve me on one side of a Styrofoam to-go box they have ripped in half to get more leverage out of dwindling supplies.
As I eat my soggy ham sandwich, I notice a tall American girl in line at the food court. And she is losing it.
“I hate this stupid country,” she says in a high-pitched voice, a voice everyone around her can hear. “It’s a piece of shit! They took my stuff. They’re not honest here,” she screams at her boyfriend, flipping her hair back and forth in her expensive yoga pants and hiking boots.
She is the worst kind of American stereotype I can think of. The kind of person who confirms the ugly notions other countries have about us.
The thing about her, though, is that while her delivery was concerning, her sentiment was not completely wrong.
What I mean is this.
Five days prior, I had arrived in Cuba. And I, much like yoga pants girl, had come with certain expectations. That I was going to see this country before it changed, that I was going to soak up the sun and get a chance to step back in time. That I was going to see the old cars.
And within 10 minutes of arriving in Havana, I stepped out of the airport into the currency exchange line and saw them– one of the most enduring symbols of Cuba’s economic isolation — 1950s Chevys and Buicks painted bright pinks, purples and greens.
In the beginning Cuba is like this.
Exhilaration mixed with disbelief. That you are seeing things you knew existed but didn’t really believe until you get into a 1964 Ford Fairlane and feel every pot hole in the road because the springs have collapsed long ago. It is sound and color coming at you in a steady stream like the salsa music that floats out of every bar. Buena Vista Social Club covers and mojitos with green mint leaves sticking to the side of your glass.
My taxi driver talks to me in a Spanish accent that is hard to understand. As if the words have gotten stuck in the back of his throat and are having trouble escaping. We pass billboards with government propaganda slogans on them—the only advertisements allowed since the Cuban government restricts free speech and controls media outlets.
These billboards say things like Salud para todos (Healthcare for all) and La revolución seguirá adelante (The revolution continues moving forward).
As if to complement these signs, the cab driver proudly rattles off a list of perks to living in Cuba. It is a list I will hear in different variations in almost every taxi I take the rest of the trip: “Cuba has no crime or guns and everyone has a free education, even a university education, and free healthcare.”
He’s wrong, though.
There’s crime in Cuba. But the Cuban government also controls that information—refusing to release crime statistics to the public or outside world. The door to my AirBnb has five different locks on it and a hole where there must have been a lock, but now has a piece of cotton stuffed in it. Small details and tiny signposts that seem to say, things are not as rosy as the taxi drivers would have us believe.
On the sidewalks in Vedado, a neighborhood in Havana where I stay, a little girl pees in someone’s yard as another one, maybe 12-years-old skips down the road in a red school uniform. Crumbling neoclassical homes line the streets. Once built for the wealthy, these monstrous buildings are now occupied by multiple families, who partition off the rooms to create the illusion of separate houses. An estimated 2-3 buildings collapse daily — either partially or completely — in Havana.
Half dead dogs, ribs poking out, lie in the shade and beg for food at tourists’ feet on restaurant patios and prostitutes, their trade not officially illegal in Cuba, follow men down side streets.
In a country where people live on $25 per month, everyone is trying to hustle you. They know you can pay it. On one street corner someone might tell you about their taxi driver friend with a great rate, and on the next a server will mockingly clutch his heart and tell you how beautiful you are in the hopes of luring you into a restaurant.
The produce at street markets goes quickly, a large percentage of it snapped up by restaurants struggling to keep up with the influx of hungry tourists — making it even harder for individual Cubans to supplement their government-allotted monthly food rations, which includes: three pounds of white sugar, one pound of beans, six pounds of rice, two dozen eggs and one pound of chicken.
And when drinks or supplies run out at a market, store or restaurant, they’re just out. “‘Til when?” you ask.
Cubans shrug. A shrug that says, “why would you even ask that?” A shrug that says as a collective society we have stopped asking why to these kinds of questions. This is just the way things are.
Beautiful old women with flowers in their hair begging tourists for money. Dirt streets and grand hotels, flickering streetlights and stores almost out of everything. Russian engines in American cars, well dressed women hanging laundry off their back porch. A steady diet of rice and beans. In Cuba the rules work differently, and sometimes they don’t exist at all.
A Cuban man in the airport makes eye contact with me and we share a look, one that says, “this yoga pants girl is the worst.” But then he says something that surprises me. “I don’t like to come back here either.”
He is impeccably dressed, with salt and pepper hair, and tells me he was one of the few Cubans who escaped back in the ’80s for Miami. The details of how are left vague. He is only here in the airport now because his mother is ill, and he is allowed to visit every two years.
“Everyone in the U.S. is so curious about coming here, but most Cubans just want to get out. There is no future here for anyone,” he explains.
I nod, relieved to finally hear a new opinion, one that didn’t feel like government propaganda.
“You can’t speak freely here, there’s barely any money, so even if people did want to leave they couldn’t afford it. Everything is falling apart. People fear their own government.”
We look at yoga pants girl again who seems to have finally tired herself out. Sitting across from us is a young man, maybe 17 years old. He has been watching us intently for the past few minutes and has finally worked up the courage to ask a question.
“Where are you both from?”
The man sitting next to me replies in Spanish, “I live in Miami now.”
The kid’s eyes light up. “That’s where I am going to live. With my mom.”
He clutches a clear backpack with his paperwork and passport inside. His father, sitting next to him, is beaming with pride and sadness.
My new airport friend looks solemnly at the boy and nods. A nod that says he understands what it means to leave the place where you are from.
“You’re really lucky,” he says, then pauses and looks directly at the boy, holding his gaze for a moment. “Welcome to your new life.”
Brittany Smith is a copywriter by day, and by night can usually be found biking around her neighborhood in Charlotte, NC looking for good beer, good stories and a pet raccoon. Not necessarily in that order. Sometimes she travel blogs here.