Taking into consideration all the trouble SAS had to go through to get us to Havana, our stay was spectacular. Not to mention that we were the first American ship to dock in Cuba in nine years due to the US embargo. It wasn’t such a big deal for me – being Russian I could go whenever I wanted (not that I ever thought I would), but for days since we left Salvador the ship was buzzing with excitement. Last time SAS went to Cuba Fidel threw a party at his residence for everyone willing to attend, and later the students were showing their folks pictures of them with Fidel Castro and bottles of rum…
We knew we’d only have three days in Havana, one day being taken by the official study program requiring the attendance of the whole shipboard community. It was the condition under which we were allowed to go. From what I heard, now US citizens can’t even go to study or visit their families. We were lucky in all ways. Though it was weird. Very weird.
I was born after the Soviet Union collapsed. I haven’t seen these empty shelves in food stores, huge lines to get some meat or clothing. I haven’t seen communal apartments, constant brainwashing and the communists being in charge. But I’ve read about it. I saw movies from that time. My parents told me stories. Now I saw it with my own eyes, and it was quite a shock. I wasn’t shocked with small Moroccan towns or Ghanaian shacks. I was shocked to dive into the Soviet Union few hours away from the Bahamas.
Of course, it didn’t happen straight away.
We pulled over at the port with rays of the rising sun lighting the water. People were running from all over to see us dock. I guess it was quite a shock for the locals – seeing a big foreign cruise ship enter the port, that is in ten years. As we were docking, we saw a line of silver buses enter the port building – these were to take us to the University of Havana and back. It took us quite a while to get everyone on, and the bus line didn’t start to move until the last bus was packed. The line was guarded by police, and they cleared the roads for us as we were a president’s cortege or something. As the buses slowly made their way across Havana, I gazed through the window, noting the old colonial style buildings with cracked paint, old people peeking out of the windows and from the balconies and old Soviet cars driving by. The cars must all belong to the sixties or seventies, all true vintage, something you won’t see anywhere nowadays. There aren’t many; I’ve heard only wealthy Cubans can afford cars.
We stopped as the line slowed down, and waited to be let out. I was studying the corner shop – a simple hole in the building with a stand, selling fish or something. The gentlemen that was shopping turned around, and I had to look away – he was a cripple, his whole body twisted and injured by nature, a scariest sight of a man I’ve ever seen. The bus moved a few blocks forward and let us out. We were on the square by the wide flight of steps leading to the university. I was looking around through the zoom of my camera. There were lots of journalists, picking students from the crowd to interview. People were looking bluntly from the nearby houses, observing the square with little to no expression. On the roof of one house a man in his fifties was brushing a cat. I blinked. No, really, he was just brushing a cat on the roof of the house. Must’ve been a fury cat.
On the square, there was some introduction speech – couldn’t hear a thing, the sound was really bad – and then, suddenly… “Imagine there’s no heaven…” Everyone was looking at one another in pure joyful shock. I rushed up the stairs to film this huge crowd – close to seven hundred people, mostly Americans – walking up to the University of Havana to Lennon’s “Imagine”. That was a moment to remember.
Another greeting speech – now from the stage inside of the university quarters – and everyone was sent to lectures. Going to lectures was compulsory, all of them being on Cuban politics, history and stuff. I joined one, and as soon as I walked in, I wanted to be out – the auditorium looked almost exactly like my home university’s, with the exception of Che’s portrait on the wall. And just like at home, it was hot and had bad acoustics. I killed some time reading an English local paper (that only spoke of how great Cuba was doing – just like these Soviet propaganda newspapers I once had to read for a research) and then shamelessly walked out. Hell, I don’t even go to lectures at my home school!
Sneaking out was easy, and I wasn’t alone, although we surely attracted a few judging stares. After all, it’s good to be a grown up. No one can tell you to sit in the lecture hall if you don’t feel like it.
We decided to walk around and meet some local students. The university’s program promised a lot of interaction with local students. Pretty quickly we found out it wasn’t exactly true: all the “students” we encountered were Master’s students, all in the party-affiliated student union and all pursuing careers in the government. They also had a certain behavioral line – I couldn’t figure it out first, but then it dawned on me that they all were given very particular instructions on what and how to say to the foreign guests. So whenever I tried to ask how to get to Varadero or any beach, I was told that I didn’t have time for beach. I was like “whaaaat”, because although all the field programs we had for Cuba were offered by the university, but surely were not compulsory. On the third person I stopped saying “of course I have time” and just decided to ask Wikitravel once we’re back on the ship. We also sneaked up the stairs in one of the buildings and saw the ancient computer rooms. Not everyone gets access to these, and they have most of the world web blocked. There’s no wifi in Cuba, except maybe some hotels, and personal use of Internet is restricted.
We were called to watch the concert – some amateur dancers and singers, all very talented. And in the end they started a dance at the bottom of the stage. I looked at all the craze and climbed the stage to film. That was a sight to see – a huge crowd jumping to the Latin American rhythms, led by the Cuban students who were showing the moves. I filmed until I saw deans Nick, Kathy and Eddie killin’ it on stage behind me, and felt that I had to join.
The line to get back on the ship was enormous. That’s what happens when you decide to send the buses in one line. And minding that everyone had first to go through airport-like port security, then passport control and then airport-like ship security, you can imagine.
They didn’t let us off the ship until later in the evening because of the diplomatic briefing that I ignored, strumming some patterns on my uke in the meantime. These briefings always bored the hell out of me – I wasn’t even American. At last they opened the gates, and the Currency Rush started.