The coffee is strong and sweet, served in a white plastic cup no bigger than a shot glass. The man behind the counter collects my change and sits across from me on an old barstool with a torn leather cushion. He pulls a cigarette from the pack with his lips and strikes a match. He looks like he is about to say something, but he’s interrupted.
A vintage American car rumbles down the partially paved road and the driver manually rolls down the passenger side window to yell something I can’t understand. The man across the counter from me exhales a cloud of smoke as he laughs, rasps, and wheezes. He swats the air and shoos the man away as if he were dispatching a fly.
“Que queria decirte?” He mumbles to himself, waving the ember of tobacco between shaky fingers. The sun is starting to burn through the clouds and beat on my sunburned neck. The street is lined with tremendous palm trees swaying in the gentle morning breeze and a woman is listening to the radio as she hangs colorful clothes outside to dry.
The old man douses his cigarette in a small puddle of rainwater on the dented metal counter. He takes off his hat and flattens his sparse white hair to the back of his head. I gave him the hat—Red Sox of course. He wears it everyday now.
“When I was a boy,” he sputters, “I wanted to travel the world, just like you.” He looks up at me, eyes glistening with the invigorating memories of youth. “But, things were different then.” He looks into his coffee and reaches over to refill mine. I wave my hand at him in refusal. I’ve had enough caffeine for a week.
“You’re lucky to be here,” he said softly. “To see this. Nothing has changed.” He looks back into his coffee and shakes his head. “Nothing changes here. Coming to Cuba is like traveling in time and place.”
That’s what I tell people too, but it wont be long before that’s not true. As the old decaying dreams of the Revolution fertilize the visions of a new generation, Cuba is beginning to change. Recently, Raul Castro issued one of the most progressive reforms the Revolution has ever known when he removed the bureaucratic obstacle of exit visas for Cubans. Now Cubans must only obtain a visa for their destination country, and they no longer need to worry about how long they can stay there.
U.S. travel restrictions have also loosened. Direct flights to Havana are now leaving U.S. airports everyday. When I went to Cuba in 2010 this was not the case. We went through the Bahamas, switching terminals in Nassau. We flew in a Soviet-era plane with propellers and flight attendants that served complimentary Cuba libres. We were the only non-Cubans on the flight. I imagine this too has changed.
As the Cold War recedes into the past, the icy restrictions of the Cuban embargo are beginning to thaw. Underneath it all, the island, once a mystery, seems ready for a global future full of cultural exchange. The country that once harbored an old man from the sea, and a utopian ideal from a harsh reality, is still well preserved; but it’s also likely to transform as Cubans become a greater part of the global economy. In other words, there has never been a better time to visit Cuba than right now—just be sure not to bring dollars, you still get penalized for that.
Travel to Cuba with a tour organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.