Laughter, Light + Life: A Look at Cuban Culture without the (American) Propaganda
That was the first thing I noticed when I stepped off the plane. Children, in each and every country, laugh the same exact way. They giggle with their full bodies, bellies bouncing and smiles wide, with a carefree abandon that seems to leave us once we hit a certain age.
I’m a history buff and I thought I “knew” the story of Cuba, of the Bay of Pigs and of a country riddled with sadness and fear… the kind of fear that makes mothers put their children on boats because the water is, in most cases, safer than the land.
And that was not at all what I found.
Time travel exists in Cuba. Cuba makes one realize what the world could be like if corporations didn’t control the way we do things, if democracies didn’t use “free” speech as a way to hide their version of propaganda. If people (like you and I) chose to stand up and speak up for what we believe instead of what we’re told to believes. If the world was the utopia that many revolutionaries lived and died for.
So come with me, on a journey to a foreign land that has forever left an imprint on my heart and soul and a desire to be in the know about all things Latin America and give myself (and my readers) the re-education we deserve.
Skateboards + Art
La Factoria d’Art was one of the coolest venues I went to in Cuba. We started the night at La Guarida but they didn’t have any available reservations until our second night so we ate at a small restaurant where the balcony served as extra space with refurbished Singer sewing machines serving as the tables.
Spanish food is colorful. It dances to the table with steamy spices floating through the air to a beat all its own. And the food in Cuba is no different, however, it is scarce. The meals that you have in Cuba consider the community and the availability. Options are not as plentiful as we, in the land of plenty, are accustomed to. But the options they have are used in the most creative ways possible.
As a gluten-free traveler, I was concerned about what there would be for me and I was surprised to see that “sin gluten” is a thing here, too — and being that their healthcare is free and the life expectancy is almost 80 years old on average, it’s no surprise that this country would be ahead of the game here.
La Factoria d’Art is on the outskirts of Habana and as we drove past the Malecon, I was struck by the pure beauty of the country. Dark, deep blues in the sky and the sea highlighted the brilliantly bright buildings, some of which are in serious states of disrepair.
There are several rooms in the Art Factory, each offering a different experience. Some reserved for artists and their guests, others a free-for-all of sights and sounds.
The artists highlight the history, the passion and the people of Cuba. It is clear that these people love their country and their way of life… and that they want to share it with the world.
In the Know Five: Things to Know Before You Go to Cuba
Cash: Cuba, for Americans, is a cash-only country. Don’t bring American dollars, even though the hotels and “cambiare” locations will change them to CUC, it’s taxed. Stick to Euros or Canadian dollars and leave your cards at home.
Nightlife: The nightlife scene is varied — dinner, drinks and dancing at all levels of price and purpose. Most clubs that cater to a Cuban crowd are a bit far from the center of town. Most hotels catering to tourists offer an opportunity for rooftop dancing, drinking and “typical” nightlife. No matter how you spend the night, you’re sure to have a great time. And best of all? If you can make it, staying out till the wee hours of the morning will help you make some of the best memories AND get some incredible shots of the sunrise over the sea. Another interesting aspect of nightlife? Drink cards. At the Art Factory, when you pay the cover charge ($5-10 CUC), you’re given a drink card. You’re allowed to order up to $30 CUC on that card before you have to cash out. You can purchase another card but this really helps avoid drunken frat boys and other typical “club” mishaps.
Habana has a Hells Kitchen, too: If you’re unfamiliar with Hells Kitchen and Chelsea in NYC, I will say this — the gay scene is alive and well in Cuba. As alive and well as it is in NYC and that’s something that was truly surprising to me. Lesson learned? Don’t think that a different way of governing means a complete lack of acceptance. As I’m not a member of that community myself, I can’t tell you if it was a worthwhile trip, but I can tell you that the clubs I did go to had a diverse group of people, all dancing into the early hours of the morning.
Weather: It is hot as hell in Cuba and indoor plumbing is, at times, not as available as one would wish. Plan to wear light, breezy clothes and keep your hair-care to a bare-minimum.
Bottles — of Booze and Water: Tap water isn’t safe for travelers and, if you’re not a frequent international traveler, it’s best to avoid ice. When it comes to Booze, aqua con gas will be your friend — most alcohols are available, with the Cuba Libre being the local beverage of choice — one that, at most venues, is strong as hell! So, buyers be ware.
Bars close around 4 AM but that doesn’t mean that the party stops — stoops, it seems, are as popular here as they are in America. I spent most nights of my trip speaking with locals, drinking and learning about what they love most about their way of life.
One of the parties we ended up at was filled with tattooed teens, in love with skateboarding and Detroit. Why Detroit you might ask? Because it’s cold. And Cuba is anything but cold. Air conditioning is available in tourist spots and while most AirBnBs have air conditioning, that version isn’t the same as many are used to.
The teens highlighted the incredible success of the Cuban revolution in my eyes — these children were articulate, kind, many spoke at least two languages, if not more, they drank responsibly (at 16!) and they were completely at ease with themselves.
This interaction also highlighted the sad fact of global politics — while they had Instagram and cell phones (complete with Google translate that they happily used to tell me about their skills and their favorite American things), they didn’t have the same access that teens in the States do. And that made them more humble and hungry than most.
And you can see it in their Instagram posts and stories on @CubaSkate.
It was an eye-opening weekend — one that should be checked off everyone’s bucket list.
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