At 17:20, after a long day of anticipation, we put our school books away, prepared our sunscreen and overpacked our backpacks with clothes; we could feel the weekend atmosphere everywhere on the boat. Even the Captain couldn’t wait to set foot on land as we were able to hear the horns, the Latin music, and the crowded streets of Havana all the way from our anchorage. The unique Cuban vibe was already present on the Gulden Leeuw among its crew members.
As soon as we left the harbour, we were all impressed by the flamboyant and extravagant city centre. The rumours weren’t lying, Havana was congested with bright-coloured American 50s cars waiting at every street corner. Some drivers were waving their hands, some were wearing traditional hats, and some were playing loud Cuban music. Pink, purple, green, blue, it was up to you to choose the colour of your taxi. I felt like I was in a Hollywood movie scene when a famous actor enters a city for the first time. Havana seemed to celebrate our arrival by showing its best side with loud music, traditional dancing, a welcoming community, and a vibrant culture. At first, Havana seemed overwhelming with its thousand things to do, to eat, and to see, but we soon joined the relaxed Cuban vibe.
After a short bus ride, we arrived at the restaurant where we all shared lunch. Starving – as always – students were more than happy to eat rice, chicken, and beans; a meal which there is no shortage of aboard the Gulden Leeuw. Nonetheless, Cuba knew how to make it special. A distinct spice, a local way to cook it, and a secret ingredient, nobody could tell, but everyone was well pleased with their first Cuban meal. The warm-hearted host wouldn’t stop putting rice on your plate unless you told her to stop. Don’t get distracted, she would keep adding spoonfuls of rice until rice was touching the ceiling!
After the well-appreciated overload of food, we walked to the beautiful and vintage Old Havana. It seems like the more colourful your house is, the nicer it is considered. Indeed, neighbourhoods were painted with hot pink or bright yellow. We were impressed by the extravagant architecture and the historical buildings. Cubans commemorate their historical revolution through their buildings, art, statues, and parks. Today, we can understand better what they have been through by a simple walk through Revolution Square or by visiting the famous Revolution Museum.
Luckily enough, it was “El Día del Amor”, Valentine’s Day, in the animated streets of La Havana. Cubans surprised me once again; they don’t have the same vision of this day as me. The peaceful, romantic dinner with some flowers and a sunset is too banal and too cliché; they prefer to take their girl/boyfriend down the streets and dance until their bodies tells them to stop. They take this day as an opportunity to celebrate and to party; the romantic dinner can wait. A few streets away from our accommodation, we spent the little energy we had leftover from dancing with locals and we put it to use by tasting traditional chocolate Cuban deserts and by enjoying the cheerful and festive vibe of Cuba. This unusual and atypical Valentine’s day will surely stay in our minds for the rest of our lives.
The next morning, right as we entered the streets of Cuba, a shiny orange car was parked just on the other side. For those who had forgotten that we were in Cuba, the car’s 1950s appearance was a good reminder. Later we learned that in 1959 until 1994, the importation of cars from the United States was prohibited by the Cuban government. Undeniably, the Cuban population was stuck in time and therefore so were their cars. Today, tourists from everywhere come to see the most concentrated historical car collection in the whole world.
Later that day, we sat in the Revolution National Park where street artists were demonstrating their talent and we attended a demonstration of the fabrication of cigars. As a Class Afloat tradition, we wandered around the city trying to find the best ice-cream shop. The little gelato bar we found in the old city near the waterfront named Gelateria is second on the “Best Ice-Cream on the Class Afloat Itinerary”, only to be beat by Barcelona, Spain. The time flew by as we ate several ice-creams – it was simply impossible not to taste every flavour they offered – rested in the AC and contacted our families with the free Wi-Fi. To finish the day on a healthier note, we went to a fruit market in a residential neighbourhood of La Havana and bought the Bomb Fruit (commonly known as papaya), guava, pineapple, banana and baby watermelon. We ate some of the exotic fruits and kept the other ones for an upcoming day at sea.
Before leaving Cuba, it was unthinkable not to go salsa dancing, as it is a big part of this island’s culture. With the rich and sensual music, dancers get together and let their feet guide their movement. Precise or clumsy, everyone can be charmed by that type of Latin American dance. Unfortunately, the salsa night was cancelled, and we had to find a plan B. We had the idea to go to this famous jazz house, a few corners away from where we were. That was not a successful move either, the jazz music would only start in 2 hours… It was not a problem for my group, we always find the good in every unfortunate situation. After the salsa and the jazz plans failed, we ended our night on a good note by having our own little dance party in the taxi on our way back to our room.
The perfect ending to this lively port was a grilled Cuban sandwich and a sugary lemonade on the last day. We spent the last hours in the narrow streets of La Havana surrounded by the touristic shops, the enthralling street art, the astonishing architecture, and the roaring cars. We took some photos, bought a few gifts for our families, and it was already the time to return to the vessel. We decided to end our adventure in Cuba in the most predictable way: we jumped in this bright, barbie pink car, an American convertible Chevrolet from the 50s, and caught a ride to the port. Even if we felt more like tourists than travellers at that precise moment, we enjoyed the familiar sensation of our hair dancing in the wind, the distinctive horn from our car, the 1950s vibe, and the way people were looking at us. Later that evening, a few minutes after our departure, the crew enjoyed the colourful sunset setting behind the well-known Capitol roof as we caught our last glimpse of the zealous Cuban city.