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Cadence of Cuba

With the U.S. policy toward Cuba shifting, this long-forbidden island has quickly jumped rank on personal map quests. A tour of Havana with National Geographic photographer, writer, and filmmaker Peter McBride reveals the rhythm of these storied streets can be bittersweet, yet dances with a culture and community as authentic as its Caribbean history.

Around every crumbling corner, the rhythmical cadence of rumba and son, the musical signature of this Caribbean island, echoes down the street. The beat—a sultry, steady cadence—one, two… one, two, three… one, two — perfectly aligns with my pedestrian tempo.

As I leave one block behind, another pocket of rumba floats toward me. It seems there is a band or musician behind every pastel-painted wooden door, linking the island beat from home to home. Even the clip-clop of horse hooves on stone falls into rhythm. The clank of a purple cruiser, built before Kennedy was president, rumbles past. Its tail fins sashay under a tired suspension as it motors into the dusk light. Otherwise, these streets are empty of wheeled traffic.

Over the last 15 years, I have visited Cuba and these streets five times, working as a photographer and journalist for magazines including National Geographic. I’ve captured stories on varied subjects, from Olympic athletes and tobacco farmers to diving with sharks and stalking tarpon on the island’s pristine marine parks. I’ve even followed some of the island’s famous musicians, finding my own beat with the members of Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro Cuban Allstars. Along the way, I toured music schools and too many musty cafes to recall, but my feet have retained a few amateur salsa steps.

As the U.S. and Cuba step toward a warmer relationship, I wonder how life will change here and at what pace. From my limited perspective, rethinking the embargo is long overdue. The only visible affects I’ve noted from this U.S. policy are that it challenged the simple needs of local Cubans.

Walking the streets, I ponder Cuban life as I look for an old friend.

Street-Savvy Havana

Despite the politics, there is a fiery, messy vitality that defines Havana life and caresses every corner of this weathered port. It dances around me. Kids play stickball mid-street; the home plate a rusty manhole cover. The air is warm and salty. The sun, now a giant, blood-orange lazy orb, bleeds behind a weathered skyline.

I’m sauntering a few blocks off the Malecon, near such tourist spots as the Florida Hotel and La Bodeguita del Medio, the alleged birthplace of the mojito and haunt of Ernest Hemingway. I’m looking for Papi, a friend I met years prior. Since then, I’ve only heard from him once via a weathered, snail-mail letter written in Spanish. He asked when I was coming back. It was signed “tu hermano (your brother), Papi.” The return address offered Habana Vieja, Cuba. Nothing more. The letter had been carried by a traveler and mailed from an airport. Postmark, Texas.

Without a proper mailing address, there’s little confidence in a post getting past the doors of an unpredictable embargo with a dated postal service. As such, I’m responding to Papi in person, by showing up, old school, at his doorstep. A promise I’m hoping to realize. I’m not sure he still lives here, or if he is even alive.

On this return trip, my fifth, I find that the majority of Cuba and much of Havana remain timeless, with the exception of some new and unfamiliar development. The changes aren’t huge, but just enough to confuse my dusty memory and inner compass. Private restaurants are now more common, as are cell phones (service weak and inconsistent), both of which didn’t exist on my first visit a decade earlier.

The most obvious change, however, isn’t what’s new, but what’s missing. Socialist propaganda signs in Spanish, which blanketed every corner during my visits in the 2000s—signs proclaiming “Work Hard and Beat Imperialism,” “Viva la Patría,” and “Until Victory”—are surprisingly gone from hand-painted, wooden billboards and concrete walls. Perhaps it’s the sign of changing times. Fidel has passed and Raul has been in control for probably longer than most admit.

During my time dancing through this forbidden realm, I’ve learned I’m never completely in tune with the Havana rhythm. No matter how hard I try, I am always a step behind the real pace, be it on the dance floor, or be it the truth on the streets. As a result, I always seek local insight to navigate the labyrinth of the Castro world. These street-savvy locals can decipher the secrets that cloak much of this political island and have helped me do my job more effectively.

Known as much for its spiritual celebrations as Havana cars, cigars, and cultures, the island's colonial churches demand full attention.
A local street dance showcases the island's poetic pace.

Papi was one of my favorite fixers. We met on the street. He was in his early 20s at the time and bubbling with youthful energy. He wanted to practice his English with me, and quickly proved to be a logistical wizard. He found a cherry, white-vinyl-seated convertible Oldsmobile for me, with red trim, tail fins, and fuzzy dice (the full works, perfect for a travel story), for a quarter of the tourist price. After that, I hired Papi for any logistical Havana hurdle. He used his Cubano street savvy to land me a better deal or discover secret gems, ones I’d never uncover on my own, such as hidden restaurants or rumba concerts tucked away in artsy alleys. Cuba is a treasure trove of cultural jewels but sometimes you need a navigator to find them. 

My favorites are small, non-descript homes that, only through local connections, you learn can double as headquarters for voodoo doctors that read past and future (hauntingly well), or serve as secret poetry societies and weekly rumba jams. “Rumba Alley” is just that, an alley, but loaded with art. On Sundays it explodes in a cacophony of all-age dancing which made the feet of my soul boogie.

During the trip I met Papi, I hosted a party for him and his family at their home—my form of a thank you—the night before I departed the island. It was also an authentic way to see the “real Cuba” by spending time in Papi’s world.

We ate, drank, and salsa-ed merrily inside the high-ceiling, one-bedroom, art-deco apartment, which Papi had retrofitted into a two-story family home. This cheerful, endlessly wheeling-and-dealing kid had lassoed the time and resources to stretch his average $15-a-month Cuban salary into a full apartment remodel. He created a bedroom for his mother and younger sister, and built a loft for himself. His father had passed years earlier, so Papi was living up to his name.

I brought a case of Cuba’s finest, Cristal beer, and Papi’s mother whipped up a traditional meal of yucca, rice, and beans. It was a memorable goodbye to a friend I feared I potentially may never see again.

When I rallied at 5 a.m. the following morning for my flight to Mexico, Papi was waiting at the door of my rented apartment, (cheaper than hotels, equally safe and legal).

“Can I please come visit you Pedro?” he asked tearfully. I told him I didn’t know how he could. I honestly didn’t know how to help. But I replied, optimistically, that I’d return one day and find him. With that, I gave Papi what little cash I had left and my running shoes, a white pair of Nikes straight off my feet. They were slightly worn, but in good shape. I knew they would be gold to him—a tip he’d cherish more than cash, at least for a few months.

Now, years later, I am attempting to live up to my promise, but only if I can find my friend. Without an email, cell phone, or physical mailing address, my only option is to revisit his home. I am also carrying a new pair of running shoes for him. I figure he is long overdue for an upgrade.

Cars, Cigars, & Local Flavor

What consistently fascinates me about this Communist enclave is the spirit and warmth of its people, whether they want to be there or not. It’s poor on many economic levels, but surprisingly rich in humanity— especially on the street. Behind government doors, I’ve witnessed families drown beneath the weight of bureaucracy and even corruption. But on the street, the country’s living room, genuine hospitality is often king.

As a way to return the many gestures of local kindness, I always bring small gifts that Cubans can’t easily find—pens, toothbrushes, baseball mitts, bats. One colleague once brought a used violin for the music school. The student wept, and then played the most magical string version of “Guantanamera,” a Cuban classic, that I’ve ever heard. Such gifts, even trivial, material American items, can be significant to Cubans. And the display of gratitude is profound.

That white, 1960 Oldsmobile Papi scored became a passport to discover rural Cuba and meet lifelong friends. The driver, a round, gentle man named Chino, quickly became my surrogate guide, watchdog, and buddy. He toured me to hidden beaches, tobacco farms, the UNESCO World Heritage site in the village of Trinidad, and Ernest Hemingway’s home, where, in 1951, he penned the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Old Man and the Sea. Today it’s a museum maintained in its original state, with typewriters and even a journal handwritten directly on the bathroom wall where Hemingway recorded his body weight.

My gift for Chino was two cases of spark plugs utilized for pre-1960 American cars. His jaw nearly hit the steering column when I handed them over as an early thank you. No money could have enabled him to procure such parts.

“You just added years to my ride, Pedro. Gracias.” Chino said, slightly emotional. We’ve stayed friends and crossed paths three times, but only in Cuba.

That gift, I believe, also led to a one-leaf cigar experience, as Chino demanded I try a “real cigar,” “not the ones sold to gringos.” I told him I wasn’t a big smoker but he insisted I needed to experience this. So on a humid afternoon, on a farm in the remote hills of Viñales—some three hours outside of Havana—we sat on the veranda of Chino’s friend’s house, drinking rum. Children laughed and music lilted behind the house. Chickens roamed and two horses stood near the front door, saddled, awaiting riders. The scene felt like the verse of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez poem.

A bustling Havana centro, where a gracious local community awaits.
Papi's hometown Havana street, where the author returned in hopes to find his Cuban friend.

The farmer then produced the sweetest cigar I’ve ever smoked. It didn’t come from a nearby factory or a climate-controlled box. He just rolled one tobacco leaf that he had grown behind the house and dried in his barn. I marveled how the flavors tasted more like a creamy dessert than a cigar.

As if thinking to himself aloud, the farmer stated, “Life in Cuba on $60 a month is perfect. Education, food, medicine, ocean, and good friends …” He paused and looked down at the red dirt. “Too bad we only make $10-20 a month.”

His words rang true. Everything I’ve ever witnessed in Cuba is nearly perfect. I don’t romanticize the Cuban world. For us travelers, it’s easy to get swept up in its romance—the music, warm culture, and timeless antiques. In the perfectly preserved, 19th century, colonial village of Trinidad, some five hours inland from Havana, I witnessed a cowboy on horseback serenade a woman on a second-story balcony. His baritone voice echoed down the cobblestone street. The scene so perfect I thought it must be a movie in the making. Just young love.

But behind such romantic charm, I also have too many friends like Papi that have struggled to get ahead. I respect the impressive 96 percent literacy rate. Women enjoy a progressive, extended maternity leave, and for the most part, the majority of residents enjoy some level of healthcare. You rarely, if ever, glimpse a homeless person.

Yet Cubans such as Papi should have more opportunities to pursue their dreams. Warmer relations with the U.S. might help. But I’ve also seen enough on this marvelous planet to know that development can be double edged.

As political tensions soften, it’s hard to say how the Cuban Castro economy will leap into the modern world. Perhaps more Cubans will make $60 a month, or more. Hopefully estranged families will reunite after years apart and hard-working folks like Papi can afford new running shoes. But I wonder what may become of the magical, poetic pace and horseback serenades that can, at times, appear idyllic and dreamy to high-paced Western neighbors. What may happen to hand-rolled, one-leaf cigars, the sleepy, horse-and-buggy roads, and the pulse of rumba that gyrates throughout Havana’s alleys?

Lost & Found

Back in Havana, after a fruitless few hours hunting my friend, I’m lost. Crumbling and being rebuilt in tandem, every building looks similar. I can’t find the blue door to Papi’s pad—a four-story colonial design with arched balconies. Before giving up, I decide to test my luck Cuban style; I ask the first person I see, a middle-aged woman confidently wearing a red spandex jumper (trendy Cuban fashion at the time). Papi is a generic nickname in Cuba, but this kid was special. Like most Cubans, he had the entrepreneurial spirit of a Silicon Valley startup junkie but the warmth of the Caribbean in his soul. And his smile stretched the length of his neighborhood street. I had a feeling everyone knew Papi, if he was still here.

“Do you know a guy named Papi? He lives somewhere on this street I believe, mid-twenties, big smile?” I ask in my best Spanish. The woman nods, walks across the street, and talks to an elderly lady. Thirty seconds later, I hear voices ricocheting from balcony to balcony down streets and alleys, hollering over the percussion of more rumba. “Tell Papi there is a gringo here for him.” Cuba’s wireless, social network at its best.

Within minutes, a lanky, mid 20s Papi trots down the street. He looks anxious and ready to hustle a deal. I’m sure he has met hundreds of tourists over the years and probably can’t recall most. He looks all business as he saunters my way. But when he sees me, a smile creeps across his face. I can see the memory gears in his head ticking over.

Local musicians liven the Havana streets with an impromptu al fresco concert.
An older Papi flashes a smile as dynamic as his local community.

“Remember me, Papi?” I ask.

“Peeeedro. Ha! I knew you would come back. Que rico!” He gives me a bone-jarring hug, then adds, “Quick, come back to my house. You have to see my mother.”

We walk quickly, catching up while en route. His life is good, but hard, he says. There are signs of stress and fatigue on his face, lines I don’t recall from my last visit. He also seems hurried. We  enter the blue door (I was a block off) and climb the stairs to his loft. A new rumba song beats nearby. This time, the lead singer a woman. Different block, different band.

Before we meet his mother, Papi tells me he wants to show me something. He pulls a plastic bag from underneath his bed and delicately reveals the shiniest, whitest pair of Nike running shoes I’ve ever seen. Newer than nuevo.

“Your shoes, Pedro, remember?”

I’m shocked. Welcome to Cuba, where lemonade is made daily, often without even lemons.

“It looks like you are ready for a new pair,” I say, smiling.

I pull the new sneakers from my backpack. Papi’s grin grows wider and his youthful spark reappears.

He replies, “Good to see you, hermano.”