When I arrived in Cuba for the first time, I was struck most by how truly crappy classic cars are.
You might think that it would be fun to ride around Havana in one of those gleaming, original 1950s Buick convertibles. And it sure is—for about three minutes. Then the aging metal springs start to dig into your side each time the car hits a pothole (which happens, a lot). And you remember what you love about modern shock absorption as you brace yourself against the door for another bump.
And still, all that would be fine, charming even, if they didn’t smell so bad.
“Original engine!” one driver said as we motored along one of Havana’s picturesquely dilapidated avenues. He said he maintained the car himself—something that, in a time of embargo and limited parts, is nothing short of herculean. But while the ancient engine was a testament to this man’s world-class mechanical prowess, it also meant that the car belched black smoke. In fact, everywhere in Havana, even on the famed Malecón strip, which abuts the Atlantic, the choking smog makes New York’s West Side highway seem like a wildflower preserve.
The cars are just one of the many trappings of Cuba’s deprivation that tourists think would be great, but are actually terrible. Consider also the country’s charmingly decaying infrastructure. Yes, the buildings in the old town are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. They also collapse by the hundreds each year. Or the uniformity in the salary of Cuba’s citizens: Sure, it seems egalitarian, but it’s hard to make ends meet on the equivalent of $20 a month, even if you have the fortitude to wait in long lines for rations of food staples.
Much of the current American rush to Cuba is predicated on the idea that you should get there before everyone else does. One tour guide mused to the New York Times, “Americans are rushing to Cuba before Americans rush to Cuba.” And it’s worth pausing to consider just what we’re rushing to beat.
The dreaded Americanization of Cuba would probably go hand in hand with the enrichment of Cuba. Talk to Cubans—they’re not worried about the influx of McDonald’s. To many, the U.S. lifestyle seems just fine—in fiscal 2015, 43,159 Cubans came to the United States to escape poverty. Cuban American figures like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are reviled, and many residents resent the expat class in Miami, which is fiercely committed to starving out the Castro regime.
Still, if you’re genuinely worried about the preservation of the culture, consider this: Up until 50 years ago, the United States played a major role in Cuban business and politics. Most of the elements of Cuban culture we know and cherish were developed when Americans had full access to the island. It’s more than a little patronizing to think that the arrival of the Big Mac could deal a blow to Cuban sandwiches, ropa vieja, or fresh lobster.
In the desire to see a Cuba unsullied by U.S. influence, I do not claim innocence. And in that impulse, I was justly rewarded. I wanted to be a part of the Cuban experiment so badly that I spent about $5,000 to go on a state-sanctioned tour—with a people-to-people visa, the most straightforward method for Americans to visit the island.
I am not a faint-hearted traveler, but I found the smog suffocating, and didn’t realize how much I’d miss being able to use a credit card (for Americans, Cuba is cash-only). I went to the Buena Vista Social Club only to be surprised that it was jam-packed with Eastern European tourists and that there was no toilet paper in the bathrooms. In fact, toilet paper and toilet seats are rare in Cuba outside of the hotels and casas particulares. There is no mobile data service, so you had better be handy with a paper map. Our tour group was gripped with a terrible flu (don’t try drinking the water, either). And let me tell you, it is very, very difficult to get a flight out of Havana’s sleepy one-runway airport.
I’m not saying, “don’t go to Cuba.” If you’re not big on creature comforts and the words “adventure travel” sound energizing, rather than harrowing, by all means, go for it. The people are warm, funny, smart, and hospitable; there’s rich history; and the scenery is breathtaking. But there’s no need to scramble to get there before other Americans do. The tourist hotspots are already crowded thanks to Europeans, and the island’s infrastructure is literally crumbling—two problems that are going to get worse before they get better.
My suggestion? Don’t rule out waiting until things get better. Because catalytic converters on cars, foreign investment, and even U.S. businesses like McDonald’s will almost certainly be good for Cubans. And they’ll also be good for the Americans who don’t want to pay $5,000 to go on a Caribbean vacation without toilet seats.