Havana, the Art Sanctuary
An ode to Cuban expression
December 30, 2022
Happy Friday, travelers! Welcome to the last regular issue of From the Aisle Seat in 2022. I will be here tomorrow with December Links, but it’s a shortened edition.
This space has transformed—no, blossomed—this year. Newcomers, if you read old issues from before I moved to Substack, I swear you would not recognize this place. And that is a good, good thing.
I realize I just wrote you yesterday on books, but here I am again, in your inbox, with more to say about Cuba. Off to Havana we go.
Yesterday, I wrote this on Instagram:
If I could live a thousand years, I’d spend one hundred of them on the shores of Thailand, at the ancient peaks of Giza, on the sun-soaked terraces stacked against the sparkling Aegean Sea.
And once I’ve stepped foot into the last land of this Journey to 197, I’d return to these love-filled days in Havana. In Viñales. In a land everyone told me I should never traverse, never trust.
How fortunate am I that their voices were silenced forever the moment I stepped into December’s warmth in a land that is as misunderstood as it is strangled.
The truths Cubans taught me about themselves, life, and myself will be imprinted on my mind forever. Thank you isn’t enough, but in this moment, it is all I have. ❤️
This is the post in question, if you want to see the photos:
What I want to emphasize here is that Cuba is, I think, greatly misconstrued by media. And I say this as a sometimes-member of “the media.” In our best attempts to target a government, we have greatly disrespected its people by likening their land, their home, to a Never Go There Zone.
However, in all my interactions, in every moment I witnessed on this island, a takeaway I have is this: Cuba is strangled. Internally, externally. Strangled.
In the midst of breathtaking scenery, friendly faces behind puffs of cigar smoke, charming old cars, in the wistful voice of deep blue seas stacking against the rocks of the Malecón, I sensed a heaviness. The air was latent, with so many words left unsaid. What was unspoken was a heavy hum in the background. You can’t be in vacation mode to notice it. At least, I don’t think you can. You have to listen in layers to sense it. You have to be attentive. A sponge. Curious and thoughtful.
Everyone is leaving Cuba. Or so it seems.
Even as locals proudly showed their island to foreigners, there were hours, even days-long lines at the Spanish embassy. Everyone knows someone who left for Nicaragua, their ultimate destination the U.S.1 The story is the same for most, but the details vary greatly. Many don’t want to leave, but feel they don’t have much of a choice to have a good quality of life.
If there is anything humanity shares to our core, it is that we need two things in life: freedom and passion. Where either or both of these is absent, we will create them. Even at great cost to ourselves, because what we pay in return is but a grain of sand in comparison to life without either of these.
Our first morning in Havana, it was a warm, delightful Sunday. The beautiful voices of churchgoers streamed into Old Havana’s cobblestone streets from open wooden doors beneath an imposing steeple. People chatted on sidewalks, happy to see one another again. We popped into a bodeguita for a tiny café that was dark as night and heavy on azúcar. Every few feet, it seemed, we had to stop for a photo.
This is the kind of walk, the kind of first impression in the light of day you don’t want to just remember, but capture.
That morning, we met a local for an art tour. We walked through San Isidro, a neighborhood just south of where we were staying. This area is covered in murals—on government buildings, on the exterior walls of people’s houses, in parks. If there was room, a local artist made it into something amazing.
Along the way, we were introduced to the work of a particular artist who paints graffiti all over Havana. We saw his signature everywhere for the rest of the week, but there were some pieces that especially caught our attention.
It was apparent that some of his work had been partially painted over, to obscure his identity. Or attempt to, anyway. But everyone still knows it’s him. Every controversial, political opinion he expresses through his work, once seen, cannot be unseen.
This is art. A mirror. The things that cannot be said, but are widely seen.
Havana, the art sanctuary, a place that cannot be left behind, at least in memory. Where the sun meets the sea, where cobblestone meets greenery, where people from around the world meet one another, I was right to assume it wouldn’t be what I expected.
I just didn’t expect it to be this.
I hope your weekend is a lovely ending and beginning. I know it will be for me, as I celebrate the end of my 26th year and the beginning of my 27th.
Be brave and stay that way,
By the way, those flights have cost as much as $16,000. Sixteen thousand dollars.