Ninety miles south of Key West sits the country of my mother’s birth, the place she called home for 26 years before her family departed after the country’s shift to Communism following the Cuban Revolution of 1959. I honestly never thought I would get a chance to visit Cuba, but then I was tipped off to a Universal Studios junket, travel to Havana included, to promote the studio’s Blu-ray release of The Fate of the Furious, a massive, $1.1 billion global success. So I procured a couple of assignments, sorted through the paperwork and embarked on an adventure of a lifetime, sparked strangely by America’s most beloved and bloated action-film franchise that just won’t quit.
The revved-up opening of Fate of the Furious, which includes Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) tearing through the streets of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) in a hyper-speed race, romanticizes a country that I knew little about. Classic American cars, sexy women, tropical paradise—it’s all so enticing. My mother, Maria, raised me the all-American way in suburban Massachusetts. She wanted to fit in; a classical pianist, she married a geologist with a PhD from MIT who grew up in rural Illinois, my father Richard. He is not bilingual, so my brother, Eric, and I were raised speaking English, although I always heard my mother chatting in Spanish with my grandparents, who lived a town away. I took Spanish for four years during my teen years and went on a three-week exchange trip to Spain, and that basic knowledge of the language has served me well throughout adulthood.
Neither my mother nor my English-speaking grandfather, Salvador, a Christian émigré from Syria who lived in Cuba for decades and raised a family there, spoke much about life in her homeland. At a young age, I didn’t know what to ask either. In recent years she has revealed stories about her life there, and through Facebook has even reconnected with various friends from her past, many of whom shared childhood photos she had not seen in decades.
There’s this concept called Cuban Time: things happen when they happen. It’s a tough concept for coastal urbanites to grasp.
Long story short: My grandfather left Syria around age 20—we never knew exactly how old he was because he never had a birth certificate—and went to Cuba via France. He had planned to come to America, but settled comfortably into life in Güines, about 45 minutes southeast of Havana by car, and married my grandmother, Dulce Maria. He ultimately learned to speak five languages, ran a garment business and owned four or five buses that traveled into Havana. Even though they lived under the dictatorship of American-friendly ruler Fulgencio Batista, middle class Cubans thrived. The farmers, not so much. My mother admits she does not remember so much about the political leanings of Batista, but her family and others did well. So did American businesses and gangsters, who dominated casinos and hotels. People began coming during Prohibition, but the numbers of American tourists surged when Havana became the hot tropical playground of the 1940s and 1950s. Americans would journey there to eat, drink, gamble, and watch half-naked, dark-skinned women dance at the Tropicana.
After Fidel Castro’s revolution, supported by the farmers whose businesses suffered under Batista, American business interests were purged from the country. Once the Russians offered support to Castro’s regime, Cuba shifted into its current Communist mode. My grandfather’s garment business was taken away from him. My mother left in 1962. She still had a four-year student visa, first obtained when she spent a year studying at Boston University, which allowed her to return to America and make her way to relatives outside Boston. She came as a political refugee and soon landed a high school teaching position that gradually allowed her to bring other family members and relatives out of her homeland.
Having been shielded from all of this drama by the benefit of having been born here, I realize how much easier my life has been compared with the struggles of my mother and her family. But now I was going to the land of her birth. I was pre-approved by the Cuban government to go on the Fate junket, and while I initially planned to visit my mother’s hometown, I realized that it might be tricky given the tight timetable Universal held us to. Breaking away from the group would also require me to going alone, and I wasn’t sure how wise that was. Either way, I was entering Cuba, a new world to many Americans, including those with roots there.
I flew to Havana from John F. Kennedy International Airport with one other journalist. We linked up with journos from other flights, met our driver, and were off. My immediate impression of Cuba outside of Havana was one of sharp contrasts that continued as we rolled into Havana proper (La Habana to the natives). In the countryside, modest shacks and non descript buildings peppered a lush tropical landscape. Within the city, rundown buildings abutted Old World architecture. Brightly repainted pastel buildings rubbed up against grayer, worn down edifices. Sparkling and impressively maintained classic American cars from the 1950s shared the road with less impressive Russian imports from the 1960s through 1990s as well as slightly newer cars from Asia and Europe. Numerous billboards and building imagery paid homage to revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Universal put us up in the first five-star hotel in Cuba, the Hotel Kempinski La Gran Havana, which officially opened three days earlier. While part of a European chain, this particular Kempinski is state run. The accommodations were fantastic, the only snag being that room service could take a long time. There’s this concept called Cuban Time: things happen when they happen. It’s a tough concept for coastal urbanites from the States to grasp. But this was a different coast we were dealing with here.
It was hard not to feel guilty about staying in such swanky digs considering that when I looked out my window, I immediately spied a deteriorating stone building with a staircase on the roof that went up to a wall without a door. Or the fact that we could order $5 mojitos and Cuba Libres at the elegant rooftop bar knowing that the general populace survives on $20 to $30 per month, often buying fresh meat and eggs on the black market.
People say that Cubans do not seem miserable but content and even happy, dealing with their economic plight (low wages, food rations) with a hearty spirit. Perhaps. A lot of likely unemployed people spend time on their balconies or sit outside their buildings looking bored. The livelier ones are the musicians and artists who charm tourists, but I found store vendors and taxi drivers to be friendly and ingratiating. There is a sense of pride that flows through many of Havana’s citizens, and a sizable number of people are bilingual as well. They seemed pleased to see us, and many of my fellow travelers engaged in pleasant conversations with them.
Cubans do not seem miserable but content and even happy, dealing with their economic plight with hearty spirits.
Since President Barack Obama reopened diplomatic channels with Cuba two years ago, American tourists have been able to visit again, including numerous Cuban Americans. Universal reps and F8 director F. Gary Gray toiled for months to coordinate shooting Fate of the Furious there, but they did it. Perhaps it’s because, crazy racing aside, Fate isn’t entirely off-base. The films displays some great cars, including a yellow 1952 Pontiac in which I was given a rolling tour of Havana. Many of the women were absolutely gorgeous. And it is always warm, although the humidity killed me on the last day.
It seems like no surprise that Fate would be the first studio picture shot in Cuba in 60 years. On top of being a massive global franchise (which Cubans watch through widely distributed bootlegs), it features a multi-ethnic cast that represents American diversity. It also echoes Cuban homogeneity—the people of Spanish, African, and Chinese descent that make up a majority of the island’s population.
Our itinerary involved visiting locations for F8’s Havana drag race, doing a walking tour of La Habana Vieja and enjoying Cuban food and drink every day. We dined at numerous paladares, independently run restaurants free from state control. They initially opened in the 1990s as small, family-run businesses in people’s living rooms with limitations on cuisine and occupancy, but over the last few years, restrictions have eased to allow them to operate in larger, non-domestic spaces and with professional chefs. The most impressive ones we dined at were Al Carbon, L'Atelier, with much of the dining located atop a terrace, and La Guarida, the hottest spot in Havana where Madonna, Jon Bon Jovi and Steven Spielberg have dined. La Guardia’s fourth story rooftop bar and fifth story terrace (with a panoramic view of the city) are wonderful. You can get a great meal for between $75 and $100. And the excellent service we found at many restaurants rebuffed the Cuban Time notion. Nightlife in Havana is carefree and fun, and like in the days of old, a good lure for tourists. As we were there Monday through Thursday nights, things progressed from milder to wilder over the course of four days.
On Monday night I checked out Casa de la Música with some new friends. Beyonce and Jay-Z have been there, adding luster to its reputation, and the evening’s program consisted of a solid salsa dancing group called Maykel Blanco y Salsa Mayor (cut guys, leggy babes), followed by the traditional Cuban stylings of Sur Caribe. It was not exactly the reggaeton and younger salsa ensemble that the taxi driver who coaxed us there hinted at, but it was still interesting. (And let’s face it, it was Monday night.) After we left the club, super sexy chicas in tight clothing began descending upon people outside, looking for hot dates, not cheap ones.
On Tuesday night, I journeyed to the Vedado neighborhood to visit two clubs: Sarao’s and Yellow Submarine. Talk about two entirely different worlds. Listed outside as a “restaurant-cafeteria,” Sarao’s is a two year-old, two-story nightclub catering to upscale clientele craving bottle service, which starts at around $100 a bottle for basic Cuban rum and goes up to $200 or more for higher end liquor. It oozed a 1980s, Miami Vice vibe with its black and white color scheme and neon glitz. For such a modestly sized place, they employed close to 10 bouncers. This was the kind of place where young bros come to check out the wealthier clientele and moneyed older men parade around stunning girlfriends half their age. Sarao’s was the only venue where I was not allowed to take photos, but I made sure to ask and they handled everything politely. Later that night a young five-piece reggaeton band commanded the stage, the type we expected the evening before.
One side note: At some clubs I visited, along with others patronized by my media peers, the DJs did remixes off of video tracks. The clubs all had large video screens. Since internet access is spotty to non-existent there, thus rendering streaming services unreliable, DJs use video clips of Latin American, American, and European artists they have obtained to do their own remixes. In the way taxi drivers there have maintained old American cars, this DJ twist is another great example of Cuban ingenuity.
Ten blocks down the street, the slightly older Yellow Submarine was more my speed, a basement-level rock club inspired by the animated Beatles film of the same name, with color saturated imagery from the movie painted on the walls and placed on tables. As we walked in, the six-piece Cuban cover band Habalama was performing Scorpions’ “Still Loving You”. The two female singers took turns on different songs with male vocals like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” while one of their two male guitarists sang lead on their rocked up cover of Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.”
I chatted afterwards with one of the guitarists, a young man named Moses, who taught himself basic English. Habalama’s two attractive, spirited female singers do not speak much English; they learned the songs phonetically. They perform English language rock and pop songs by everyone from The Beatles to Judas Priest. They were a delightful discovery. I did not expect to discover them in Havana.
After our dinner on Wednesday, our Fast and Furious junket group (we logged in our fair share of partying time) invaded El Gato Tuerto (translation: The One Eyed Cat), a respected, long-running jazz club where a couple of salsa acts heated things up; notably, the magnetic singer Anita Pedrazza who made most of the guys dance with her (and made me sing badly as well as demanded a kiss on the cheek, which I easily obliged). The rum was flowing, the crowd was grooving, and the music was intoxicating. A few ladies felt inspired to individually jump onstage and shake for the crowd. We shoved tables and chairs aside to make room for everyone who was dancing. This was the famous old school Havana I had heard about, the one romanticized by the media and portrayed in the classic Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. Granted half of the audience was comprised of our sizable press cotillion, but I am sure plenty of tourists regularly tear up the floor there. It was fantastic.
Americans are falling in love with the idea of visiting Cuba.
An equally fun and hip experience awaited us on our final night when we journeyed to Fabrica De Arte, a former factory transformed into an art/nightclub space the likes of which I had never seen before. Ten separate bar owners combined forces to create a huge nightclub where one space pours into the next. There is a cinema on the top floor, an art gallery and a live venue on the second floor, and a dancefloor/art gallery on the first floor. There is also a private restaurant and a VIP bar. What is amazing is how well sound proofed everything is. The rock band downstairs could not be heard in the VIP bar, to which it was connected by a special balcony entrance. This concept would be a hit in cities like San Francisco and Brooklyn, and the long line of nearly 100 young people outside indicated that it is a key destination for young people in Havana.
This last night really brought home the notion that younger Cubans are certainly searching for something greater than what they have, and the idea that they are creative, resilient and forward thinking while still embracing their traditions. This is the New Havana that I was beginning to hear about, one that is eager for a different life and for a chance to taste the pleasures and freedoms that Americans have enjoyed. My mother recalls that in her youth Cubans loved Americans. It looks like they still do.
Now some Americans are falling in love with the idea of visiting Cuba. One afternoon I encountered a young American tourist who wanted me to take her photo. I had just enough time to take a shot before running back onto our tour bus. I was surprised that she was traveling alone, but to be fair, Havana feels safe. When I would take taxis after late-night clubbing, I would see numerous people hanging out along the Malécon—the stone boardwalk running along a five-mile stretch of coastal highway—late into the night. Young lovers embracing, older people socializing, perhaps some of them drinking or smoking weed. And no police around. No fighting either. While I had heard of pick pocketing in Havana, I have heard little of violent crime. However, on our last night there, a drunk American reportedly got hauled off by police outside of famed Hemingway watering hole La Floridita after picking a fight with someone. But that’s a different story.
Exploring Havana helped me better understand the culture that my mother came from and that her family originally thrived in. I did see many people who were talented, creative and artistic; people who are proud and passionate about life; and a populace that is welcoming to outsiders. “Cubans are very different,” my mother tells me. “Cubans have always been very creative, very resourceful, and very personable.” She feels that they had the best of the world when American commerce and companies helped to upgrade the living situation for people, even if they did not always pay the wages they should. But the people have always made due. “Cubans are very progressive,” she declares. “Cubans can do anything with a nickel. If you give them a nickel, you will be surprised what you get back.”
My return flight to New York was in the air on the Friday that President Donald Trump announced a rollback of many Obama-era policies towards Cuba, making it harder for American tourists and companies to visit or do business by demanding that people only support business that does not benefit the military and restricting tourism to group tours. (It’s not official yet, however.) With the growth of many independent businesses including paladares and Airbnbs, there are still travel and commerce opportunities that await. It’s just a question of how to navigate the new rules, which have made many American businesses unhappy. I certainly don’t see how they will benefit anyone. Fate of the Furious brought hundreds of jobs down to Havana and forged new friendships. How is that bad?
Fate cast member Tyrese Gibson came to Havana to do press, and he lamented the potential slant of the Trump announcement two days prior to it being made. “I hope they don’t shut us down from coming back out here,” he tells me. “They’re finally getting a fresh sense of tourism and people coming out here. A lot of people are able to finally eat and survive on a whole other level. That would be pretty bad if they shut it down.”
In spite of the hardships I witnessed, I saw a city that is gradually being renovated with locals hopeful for increased American tourism. The countryside is likely a different matter; we did not see much of it. But this trip was still a once in a lifetime experience that gave me insight into my past as well as the future of a country where I could easily have been born and raised in. I am happy that I grew up in the States, but I am grateful that I got to tap into my roots and see where part of myself came from. I feel like that tenacious spirit in my grandfather and in the Cuban people certainly resides within me. I also decided to stop complaining so much, knowing how much more comfortable my life is than that of many other people.
My mother is skeptical that things will change from the current economic system in Cuba, and it remains to be seen what changes will be generated there. But from what I saw, the Cuban people are proud of their country and continue to live and survive in spite of food rations and limited incomes. There are many creative and intelligent people there, and one thing is for sure: They will always persevere.