Location: Havana, Cuba
Havana. The sight of the city makes me imagine a parallel universe in which the world’s population packed its bags and left in the early 1960s, leaving Havana and its inhabitants behind. The boulevards remain, but there aren’t enough cars to fill every lane. The street lights come on at night, but only a handful of people stay out to walk along the sidewalks. The cars are relics of a bygone era; the city center filled with old colonial architecture — some of it kept up by its inhabitants, but much of it crumbling and falling to ruin. A strong northern wind blows down onto the city bringing heavy, choppy waves crashing over the seawall and spraying across the road. Occasionally something breaks the daydream — a rare modern taxi, a family of tourists ambling down the street in modern clothing, a straight line-of-sight view from the street into someone’s living room where Obama’s visit is playing out across the TV screen. Havana is a city that exists with one foot in the past and one foot in the present, and the dichotomy makes it one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit.
In the morning, we learned about the historical circumstances which influenced and inspired this dichotomy, visiting the Museo de la Revolucion as a group. After an hour of soaking up history — Marti, Castro, Che — we filtered back out onto the streets of Havana Vieja, where we were free to explore until our meeting time of 4 pm. We hunted for the perfect souvenirs, lined up great photos, and tried local food — including Cangrejitos, a popular Cuban bread filled with guava jam.
The salsa studio was in central Havana in an old building surrounded by crumbling neighbors. The room was open to the air and covered in mosaic tile — but we were paying more attention to our instructors than to the decor. The first few minutes of the lesson were awkward as we tried to avoid embarrassing ourselves in front of the others. After a few minutes, however, our footwork improved, and our shoulders started to loosen up. We paired off and took to the floor to shake to some Cuban tunes. After an hour’s crash course in salsa, our instructors led us to a small bar and restaurant where we were treated first to a delicious meal of rice, beans, and pork/chicken, then to a performance put on by our instructors. After they finished, the floor was open, and we continued dancing the night away. Some of us left to explore other local bars, while those who loved salsa danced in a mixed group of instructors and students.
All in all, it was a tiring day, but in the best possible way — we went to sleep knowing that we’d experienced some of the best parts of Cuban culture.