It’s safe, but see it before the Marriotts, McDonald’s go in

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Havana, Cuba, has long been described as a city that seems lost in time. A city that seems lost in time or at least 55 years behind time.

Two million people live in Havana in crowded conditions amidst a crumbling infrastructure. Marco Islander Jim Robellard, with a group of more than 20 fellow photographers from the Naples area, experienced this “time-warp” phenomena first hand on a recent trip to the island to our south.

“Havana must have been a spectacular city in its day,” said Robellard. “Today, it is charming with an undercurrent of vibrancy and a hope for better times.”

The five-day tour was organized by Peggy Farren, owner of Understand Photography, a hands-on, professionally-led training center in Naples.

Despite the fact that the relationship between the United States and Cuba is starting to thaw, the trip still had to be booked through a licensed tour operator and include a guide or “chaperone” from the Island. The guide proved to be a great source of information, and tour participants never felt restricted in their activities.

The group stayed at the five-star Hotel Nacional, which sits on a bluff overlooking Havana Bay near the center of the city. Robellard said the accommodations were more like a three-star, but concedes the hotel has had a fascinating history and has hosted famous guests such as Nat King Cole, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra since its opening in 1930.

Limited

Robellard describes Cuba as “a very poor country with a limited infrastructure.”

There are not enough hotel rooms or taxis, the airport has two gates and there is limited access to the Internet. There are problems with electricity; street lights are scarce, as are neon signs. Refrigeration is also a problem, and food is bought daily. Bottled water is the rule just as in other developing nations.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, Cuba’s ability to feed itself also collapsed. The Soviets supplied Cuba with most of its chemical fertilizer and much of its fuel. People started to go hungry and according to the United Nations report, the Cuban caloric intake per person plunged from 2,600 a day in the late 1980s to between 1,000 and 1,500 calories by 1993.

To turn this around, Cuba initiated a number of solutions, the most important of which was the introduction of organic farming techniques. Food production is still a problem today; rationing yet another solution to food shortages. But individual caloric intake is on the rise again.

“If the embargo restrictions were suddenly lifted, one of Cuba’s biggest challenges would be how to protect all that they have gained while still increasing agriculture production,” Robellard says.

Authentic

For authentic homemade Cuban food, as opposed to what is offered in State-sponsored restaurants, tourists go to paladares, family-run establishments located in private homes or apartment buildings. The meals are excellent, the food fresh and the cost reasonable (from $15 to $20 per person) but the selection is limited.

Very little beef is served, and most of the wines come from Chile, one of the few countries that maintains a trade agreement with Cuba.

The paladares operate on a strictly cash basis, as does most of Cuba. No credit cards issued by any American banks are accepted here. Tour members traveled with a great deal of money in their pockets, but did not fear being robbed.

“It’s really safe in Cuba,” said Robellard. “There are no guns, except in the hands of the military. There is some petty crime — but not among the tourists — and that crime is harshly dealt with.”

Robellard and his fellow photographers were more concerned with the condition of the streets than they were with the possibility of being robbed. The streets and sidewalks are in such bad shape, with holes, broken pavement and flooding after a rain that a twisted or broken ankle was a real danger.

“What then?” joked Robellard. “Who are you going to sue? Castro?”

Old American cars

Traffic is minimal and by the way, pedestrians do not have the right of way; there are plenty of horse carts, a relatively primitive bus system and, of course, bikes. New cars are definitely a luxury but old American cars, painted in spectacular colors, are a part of everyday life. Some of these cars, often called “yank tanks,” even operate as taxi cabs, another example of a successful business in a country that restricts private enterprise.

When repairs must be made, Cubans build their own parts or substitute other items for what is needed. For example, with no access to the narrow tires of the 50s, wider truck tires are used, the suspension lifted to accommodate these sizes.

There is a very active effort to restore the antiquities of central Havana, whether a statue, a fresco or buildings.

“The problem is they don’t have the tools nor the money,” says Robellard. “Much of the work must be done by hand, so restoration is a very slow and laborious process.”

Many of Havana’s building façades, a mixture of colonial and art deco architecture, have already “been saved,” propped up in back with nothing behind them, much like the sets on a Hollywood movie lot. The intention is to restore all of these buildings but unless funds can be found quickly, “it’s only a matter of time before a hurricane or other weather conditions, like salt air, causes even more deterioration.”

According to Robellard, music (a combination of African, Latin and modern jazz) is “very much alive on the Island.” Musicians are everywhere. In the streets. At the clubs.

“One thing that impressed me is that even though Cuba is considered a repressive government anyone can go to college — education is free, as is health care — nor are there restrictions on the subject studied,” said Robellard. “The good news is that many people major in the arts, whether in theater or the fine arts. The bad news is that there are few jobs available upon graduation.”

Influx

Religion is also an important part of Cuban life. Once outlawed by Fidel Castro in the 60s, the Cuban brand of religion, a fusion of West African beliefs and Roman Catholicism, now flourishes and is reflected in the island’s art, music and culture.

Robellard believes that a large influx of tourists would really tax Cuba’s already tenuous infrastructure. Changes should be made gradually. If you suddenly modernize, with back-to-back Marriotts and a McDonalds on every other corner, “you stand a chance of losing the charm that attracted tourists in the first place.”

When asked if he would visit Cuba again, Robellard responded, “I’d go back tomorrow. The people are so nice and friendly ... not jaded like in the Bahamas or in Jamaica. Could that change? I suppose so but at this point they are very genuine and happy to see Americans.”

Robellard encourages everyone to experience Cuba now, before the developers take over.

See more photos

See Jim Robellard’s take on the city in a photo spread on pages B6-7 of this issue.

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