Last month, I took my first trip to Cuba. As a package designer, I am always fascinated what grocery stores and shops look like in other countries. Like my trips to Sweden or Turkey, but Cuba was different. A short trip…less than an hour flight and only 90 miles from the tip of the Florida keys, but truly another world…another time for that matter. I knew it would be, but I didn’t fully know what to expect until I went.
Before I left, I tried to think of everything I might need while I was in Cuba. Of course I forgot a few things. And boy did I regret the things I forgot to bring…
Old Town Havana
We started in Havana. The first day we walked through the streets of the old town. Romanced by the beautiful old buildings and brightly painted cars from the 50s.
We discovered an apothecary (government-owned) where they sold items like cough medicine, headache cologne (hopefully to get rid of them) and tea.
Habana 1791 (Perfume Shop)
We stopped inside a gorgeous perfume shop. I loved the look of this place. Beautiful stained glass, scents of the different fragrances in old bottles…I fell in love with a chocolate perfume and ended up buying a little bottle for myself. I watched while they poured my new fragrance in a darkly wrapped bottle and tied ribbon around the top with the Habana 1791 label. I liked the dark wrapping around the bottle. The front label appears to be simply photocopied and a little grainy, but it kind of gave it a mom and pop shop feeling (although I’m sure this place was government-owned).
Havana Club Rum
Next we visited the Havana Club Museum. There we learned the history of the family who started it, how it was produced in aged white oak barrels, along with details about the story behind the label.
The Arechabala family founded their distillery in Cuba in 1878 and the company created the Havana Club rum brand in 1934. They sold rum under that name in both Cuba and the United States until the company was nationalized by the Castro government in 1960. At which point, the Arechabala family left Cuba for Spain and the United States.
The Havana Club Label
The history of the label was most interesting to me as a package design. Who was the woman on the label? Was there a story to it?
Of course there was a story.
The woman on the label was the governor’s wife, who watched from a tower her husband sail off to sea and awaited his return. He never returned. The flower she is holding symbolizes her tears.
We also learned that whenever you open a bottle of Havana Club, it’s tradition to always pour the first drops on the floor “for the saints”(the African-Cuban saints) and when toasting the party you should say ‘salud, por que la belleza sobra’ which translates as “To health, for beauty is in surplus.”
What the locals do when it’s hot in Havana!
The next day was a hot day in Havana! We passed by what look like the entrance to an amusement park with lines of people in all directions. Curious we went inside to see what was there. It turned our to be a humongous ice cream complex!
The Making of the World-Famous Cuban Cigars
The following day, we left Havana to drive to Viñales, an area known for its beautiful scenery and world-class tobacco farms. This area has recently seen a surge in tourism and we found those in this village were doing quite well for themselves (compared to many other villages we passed through). We booked a horseback riding tour through our host family and the next day we headed out on out horses. The horse guide took us through a valley of thatched roofs, oxen-pulled farming machinery, gorgeous lakes and caverns. After a stop at a cavern where, we swam inside the cavern by flashlight, we visited a Tobacco farm.
This really resonated with me since my grandparents and great grandparents were tobacco farmers. He took us through the tobacco aging process and showed us how he made cigars. First picking the leaves then hanging them over long wooden polls inside the tobacco shed. After drying for about 4 months, he soaked them in a mixture of sugar, honey, rum and water and wrapped them into palm tree packages for fermentation. After fermentation they are ready to roll. Each cigar uses 4-6 tobacco leaves for rolling.
After demonstrating how to roll a cigar, he offered us to try one for ourselves. He dipped the end into a bit of honey, lit it up and we each had an opportunity to try it. For someone like myself, who typically hates the smell of cigars, these smelled sweet and pleasant. It was the best cigar I’ve ever smelled and the only one, I’ve ever tried. The smell and the taste was of the highest quality. Everything was farmed organically and sustainability.
The farmer we met, was very passionate and was excited to teach us everything about his process. He also shared that each farmer had to give over 90% of his crop to the government and only 10% they could keep for personal use or local sales.
The Reality of Cuban Life
The reality of Cuban life became more apparent the longer we stayed. The scarcity of resources and the difficulty of not being able to count on things. As tourists, we only saw a glimpse, when we found ourselves with a rental car, but no gas, because the government stopped selling gas, or not knowing if we’d get our flat tire fixed before we needed to be back for our flight out, or killing 30 mosquitoes in our room before going to sleep each night (I wish I was kidding and there was no such thing as mosquito repellent), or getting burned because there weren’t any stores anywhere selling sunscreen or getting pulled over for speeding (when the sign was literally just tacked up there by the police). These are just a few things that happened during our short week.
Cuba can appear to be quite romantic with it’s old cars, and beautiful old buildings, but the reality is hard. In the stores you see shelves of just one product or empty shelves of nothing. For many of us in the US, with so many products on our shelves, it is really hard to imagine until you are there. What is also hard to imagine is that everything is government owned, the grocery stores, the shops, a majority of the restaurants, and even until recently the houses.
One of the last day we were in Cuba we went to another part of the island and the shop below was a rare gem that seemed to have everything or rather all the basics: shampoo, detergent, rum, microwave popcorn (not that I ever saw a microwave), bottled water both flat and sparkling. My Cuban friend who was traveling with us, talked to us about the food shortages while he grew up in Cuba and how he planned his escape for years, playing by all the rules, until he managed to leave.
Before I left Miami, I met an old Cuban man, who told me of the glory days of Havana, Cuba. Back when he was young…a vibrant, thriving, bustling Havana. His face lit up as he remembered. When I mentioned I was heading to Cuba the following week, his face dropped and saddened “Don’t go” he said. “It’s terrible now.” I wish I could’ve seen the Havana…the Cuba he grew up in. If you squint just enough you can almost imagine what those old buildings used to look like in their heyday.