Notes from 5 Days in Cuba

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
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Barrio Chino, Havana's Chinatown.
Barrio Chino, Havana’s Chinatown.
1. The people who say Cuba is trapped in time just parrot.

In the two years since I’ve been here, the following things have changed: (a) There is an epidemic of really bad haircuts, a style called “el yonki,” among young Cuban men. In nearly 10 years’ worth of visits to Cuba, I have never seen so many bad haircuts in Havana.

(b) Numerous houses on my mother-in-law’s street have been painted. We’re talking intense, tropical pastels: purples, blues, pinks, and yellows. In fact, I didn’t recognize her building, as the downstairs neighbor painted her part of the fachada a robust violet. My mother-in-law says the rash of fixer-upping is due to the recent change of policies that allow property sales, as well as a certain neighborhood entrepreneur who’s caught on to the concept of “flipping” houses. My mother-in-law grouses about what she assumes is the woman’s deep pockets and tidy profits. Whether her theory is right, I don’t know. But there’s a rebuilding and renovation boom throughout Havana; I noticed major works projects in La Vibora and Barrio Chino, too.

(c) There is red meat again. The garlic and onions aren’t shriveled imitations of themselves. I saw a lot more variety among the goods being sold by fruit and vegetable vendors.

(d) Like “el yonki,” an obsession with the British flag has taken hold in Havana (and outside the capital, too, according to my friend Conner). From Toms-like flats to the unfortunate trend of the man purse, British flags are everywhere, and have replaced Chinese and Venezuelan flags.

(e) My favorite Chinese restaurant. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll go back. My meal there was a “never as good as the first time” moment.

(f) Wireless networks. Now that’s something I never thought I’d see in Havana.

2. There are the things that haven’t changed, too. The view of the Monument of the Revolution from my mother-in-law’s balcony. The sound of hooves and bells as a horse and carriage full of neighborhood kids round the block every afternoon. My mother-in-law picking through the rice to sort the good grains from the bad ones. Terrible Internet connections.

Mariel's souvenir: a chest x-ray from a Havana hospital.
Mariel’s souvenir: a chest x-ray from a Havana hospital.
3. Mariel gets sick as soon as we land and stays sick for our entire visit. Each family member feels compelled to take her temperature at least twice a day and to offer her thoughts about the course of treatment and how it should be carried out. Finally, my sister-in-law decides that my “Let’s wait it out” approach is a form of unacceptable maternal negligence, and she obliges us all to visit a retired pediatrician who lives two doors down. The pediatrician listens to Mariel’s lungs and advises we should take her to the hospital for a placa. Only I can’t go because if they know Mariel is a US citizen, they’ll charge us. And Mariel can’t talk at all– her looks won’t give her away (“She looks so cubana!” everyone says), but her English will. An hour later, Mariel has had her X-ray and I am delivered 5 glass bottles of powdered Amoxicilin to mix and administer every 8 hours.

4. 363 emails. That’s how many messages I have when I log into my account on Friday afternoon to send Francisco a message. Only three are important. It’s a compelling argument that I need to spend more time offline.

5. As I board the plane to return to Miami, I am surprised by the tears in my eyes. My feelings about Cuba are ambivalent at best, but I do have history here. My own Cuba story has been created during periodic visits over the course of a decade; while short, every visit has been incredibly intense. And in my visits I have been able to step into Francisco’s past in a way that few partners can, I think. I’ve been wracked by secondary nostalgia all week, and as I’m walking up the stairs to the plane, I feel saddened by the not entirely rational thought: “I may never come back here.”

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Julie Schwietert Collazo

Julie Schwietert Collazo and Francisco Collazo. For more information, please contact us: e-mail: collazoprojects@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Notes from 5 Days in Cuba”

  1. I know someone who recently cancelled her trip to Cuba because “she couldn’t live one day without Wifi” Estupida! One of the joys of travel here, if you ask me (I know you didn’t!) and as you mention, is the opportunity to disconnect, get away from screens etc. Its good for health, well being and social relations.

    Sorry la nina was sick the whole time but she has one hell of a souvenir from here!

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