Most American’s have a fetish for the old. Well, all decent Americans, and it has to be really old. No one wants the first version of the iPhone anymore but we’d still get a kick out of a rotary. Ask anyone why they want to visit Cuba and they’ll say something offhand about the history and how everything looks so old, maybe something else about the culture. Because, really, what else can they say? This place has been isolated for so long most of us have to rely on National Geographic to get an idea of what it reasonably looks like. Now that the embargoes are slowly lifting most of us can take a look at the place through the eyes of others via Instagram and try to appreciate what is presented: the over-filtered depiction of Old Havana.
Old Havana is a world on edge. Here is a tourist trap that is trying to preserve its history while becoming somewhat appealing to the modern tourist. Now there are technologies of todays being plugged into the infrastructure of yesteryear. There are modern tour buses that park up half the streets and left running with air conditioners on high, squeezing by them are restored Bel-Airs from the 50s that belch out a fog of unleaded.
There are dogs everywhere. There is garbage everywhere. Empty lots, staircases, and buildings all left to crumble and tip over. In the states this whole neighborhood would have been regulated out of existence. Fenced off for liability concerns and sold to the highest bidder for some kind of glassy, gaudy redevelopment that makes no sense. Here, the decay is a part of the scenery, a part of the story.
Still, on the horizon there are cranes. Modern ones shipped from Mexico. Earth is being cut to build a handful of new hotels in the old city. Many of the ancient facades are hiding the slow, unsuspecting renovations of a boutique hotel. There has always been tourism in this town. With the American tourist comes a certain expectation – a decent bed and water pressure, a place to plug phones in at night, maybe some halfway decent wifi. A pool would be nice. The culture is the side-bet, everything else demands vacation.
Cubans have only just been granted permission to open private restaurants complete with menus of their own design made with ingredients of their own desire. This also means they can pick the price. We end up at 303 Lounge on the recommendation of many of our American friends who have made it down her recently. It’s the trendy kind of place that looks to appeal to the customer with something they actually expect from a dining experience: design. From the seating to the cocktails to the presentation, the private restauranteur understands things about the dining experience no communist official could ever hope to comprehend.
This was the kind of Cuban food that we had been trained to expect out of constant readings of travel blogs and amateur TV travel shows. The kind of rice/bean/jambalaya/ quasi-Mexican food that one expects would hold the story of a nation that had to make do with limited resources. Yet, it is disappointing that all of these dishes come at such a premium in an environment not catered towards the actual population of Cuba. This might be what is in people’s homes, but as a tourist I don’t get that sort of access. What we do see, the doors that are just as open to us as they are to the residents here, are dishes that we would find anywhere else – spaghetti and hamburgers and sides of fish and beef with grilled vegetables. Sure, they may be seasoned well, but there is that feeling of lowest-common-denominator that runs through so much of the food we had during our time here.