Report: Our Man in Havana
DateLine: May 2017, La Habana, Cuba
Reporter: Robert Hale
Subject : Desarrollo Desigual ( Uneven Development )
The cabin attendants are gathering our cups and handing out customs forms in preparation for landing at Jose Marti Airport. We’ve left the mainland behind, floating over Key West the engines throttle back to a hush as we slip into the Florida Straits; a voice crackles from the speaker informing us we are just minutes from landing.
We turn sharply right, entering a tower of clouds. A ghost from the past drops into the seat next to me. He is a pudgy bald-headed spook in a ratty grey suit and greasy red tie I had met on a 1982 flight from Minneapolis to Miami. At first glance I supposed he was a salesman, but this sententious individual claims he works for an agency whose name he can not divulge. He proudly rambles on about the mayhem and disinformation he and his friends create in Latin America. My little friend sees communists everywhere, even mentioning that the only reason he set foot in the socialist state of Minnesota was because his sister is ill. I tell him that I believe that he is in the wrong seat.
We emerge into clear skies again. The ghost is gone but reminds me that our ugly past is never far behind. I breathe deeply to cleanse my thoughts as we cross the Tropic of Cancer just 23 miles north of La Habana.
From below the wing appears an unexpected vision. It’s a buccaneer’s ship, its flock of white sails full of the breeze, cutting the waves towards the island. Perhaps a ghost ship running the blockade.
With the sea behind us, grassy farms and red soil move quickly past my view; horses and chickens gaze upward as the wheels drop and the sound of rushing air fills the cabin, the aircraft kangaroos to earth; the flight attendant welcomes us to La Habana, 86 degrees, 12:30PM local time.
Jose Marti International Airport
I am tickled to be walking on Cuban soil, where walked Marti, Fidel, Camilo and Che. Long denied to most Americans we were now free to roam about the land – for a while at least.
On the ramp to immigration, I take note of many wide-body aircraft ferrying passengers to Cuba. Aerolinheas de Angola, Air Canada, Alitalia, KLM, Air France, AeroFlot, Virgin Atlantic to name a few. I’ve forgotten that everyone else in the world is free to pass through these borders.
With no luggage, I breeze through customs. The official examines my visa, stamps my passport with orange ink – Jose Marti Airport, La Habana.
A woman behind a desk at the exit says ‘Ola’. I answer and respond saying –Com Etá ( Como Estás en Castellano ).
–Ere Cubano ?
— No, de lo Etado Unido
— Ahhh parece Cubano, pase!
Avoiding further scrutiny, I put my arrival plan into action and head quickly to the money exchange. I am perhaps 20th in line; a neatly dressed guy with a gold nameplate on his white shirt steps in front me. His title suggests that he is in charge of taxi operations at the airport; he is all business.
–Hablas español ?
–Si señor !
He advertises that he can give me a ride to my residence for 30 pesos, and, as a bonus he will get me to the head of the line at the currency exchange. I laugh at what seems like a scam but I am running on a couple hours of sleep and before I can really weigh his offer, he spirits me to the front of the line. He whispers a couple words to the security guide, who nods and directs me to one of the exchange windows ahead of all other tourists who don’t seem to know or care about what was happening. I slap down my Euros and get a fistful of Cuban pesos; my driver then leads me across the road to a parking lot where his vehicle is attended to by a pair of security guys. I am guessing at this point that my driver is picking up a little side work on the way home for lunch.
My chauffeur puts his foot to the floor and we jet down the highway veering in and out and around horse drawn wagons and old Soviet Ladas. Somewhat rattled by his antics, I hope some conversation will slow this guy down as we exchange info about our families and plans for my first visit to the island; he offers many suggestions. There are no freeze/thaw cycles to destroy their roads so our Chinese Geely car swerves smoothly into the city, passing the Cerro neighborhood and the Salvador Allende hospital into the Vedado section of La Habana.
He parks directly in front of the house which I quickly recognize from the Airbnb photo. I peel off 30 pesos and thank him for the speedy intro to Cuba. As he peels out, I do a 360 of the neighborhood and the soundtrack of my adventure begins to play: The clave, the time keeper of Cuban life.
Dok! Dok ! Dok! Dok! Dok!
Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok!
The black iron gate is ajar. I push past into the marble tiled veranda. A lime tree heavy with shiny green fruits hangs over a pair of wicker chairs; Hibiscus plants line the front wall. The second floor veranda shades me from the midday sun but I am still anxious to shed my jeans and get into some appropriate attire. Magaly, the señora of the house greets me with a wary eye as I enter the main door, pausing to read a mini poster bearing a photo of Raul Castro and an inspirational meme about sustaining the revolution. Behind her Tania appears, shuffling her flipflops down the long tiled hallway, enthusiastically welcoming me. Her long black hair is restrained up in a bun and her brown eyes reflect warmth but also a more serious nature. She directs me into a room with 3 beds, explaining that the other guests have not vacated my room, so this is home until they leave later in the day. She turns on the fan and air conditioner and leaves me to chill. I get out of my travel rags and spread out on the bed, casting a gaze about. The ceilings are about 16 feet tall, the walls are blue painted cement and floor beautifully tiled, recalling similar houses I have stayed in South America. A single fluorescent lamp casts a bluish glow on me. It’s early afternoon. I fall fast asleep until I’m awakened by a tapping on the door.
Tania enters dangling my room keys. I figure I’d better get up, so I could sleep at night. Wanting to give me a tour of the house she commands “Venga” and motions for me to follow. The back veranda holds a table and a couple rocking chairs that have seen better days. A tall mango tree bearing a few green fruits looms overhead. A wall topped with three strands of <alambre de púas> barbed wire stand between us and Indian embassy, a hotbed of intrigue I’m sure. A sink for washing clothes compliments drying lines hung in front of a garage whose facade is crumbling. I feel at home.
Sprint claims I’d have coverage in La Habana. I do, but it doesn’t work very well; I can receive email but sending is iffy. I concur that wifi might be the better option, but I’ll worry about that tomorrow.
Dipping my foot into the whirlpool of Havana life I sit on the front veranda taking in life flowing by. Everybody’s walking. Always people coming and going with intent, with direction. They all look so healthy. I’m feeling unsure where my place is in this new world, but I am getting hungry, will need to get on with it.
Gawking for a few blocks, I stroll past a couple restaurants checking out the menus, settling on one that is open air, offering Spanish and Italian selections. I order a piece of pork stuffed with onions and sauteed vegetables to be chased by a can of Bucanero Fuerte beer. Dining alone is a mise en scéne the solo traveller often encounters. I always feel a little odd but quickly make acquaintances with the wait staff to get a bit more comfortable. Satiated, it’s time to prowl the streets. A cool breeze off the ocean sweeps the air clean; I have my mind on two things: bottled water and anejo rum. I find both near the Malecón. The prize is a bottle of 11 year old Havana Club dark rum for 8 pesos. The 1.5 liter bottle of water cost 1.50 pesos. I make brief stop at the Malecón to take in the sensuousness of the Noche Habanera before I head back to the veranda at casa Nestor to reflect on my first day on the forbidden island and sip the nectar of Cuba.
My conversations were wonderful, I just needed to tune my ears to the music of the Cuban Spanish. Forget most of the S’s and listen for the lack of them. Many people seem to speak with a slack jaw producing a almost slurred effect. But I understand 95% and they understand me so we’ll deal with that 5% later.
he guests have decided to stay another day so I’ll be keeping my temporary room. Tania apologizes and asks me not to write a bad review. Don’t worry, I reply, I could sleep on a bed of nails tonite. I flip on the air conditioner and dissolve into dreams.
I don’t remember closing my eyes. I check my phone. I’ve slept solidly for over 12 hours. I feel wonderful but a little groggy and dying of hunger. Tania informs that the Habana Libre Hotel is the place to pick up a Wifi card for accessing the outside world. Just a few blocks away it rises, a Miami Beach style hotel with beautiful well dressed people milling about. The hotel was, before the Revolution, the Habana Hilton, a luxurious destination that catered to the rich and famous. Following the Revolution, Fidel used it as his headquarters few months. In 1997 it was renovated and is currently managed by a Spanish company. Around the top of the building a dozen scavenger birds circled. Aura Tiñosa, scabby turkey buzzards is the loose translation for this extremely horrendous headed bird. At the base of the hotel, I spot a cafe that appears to be part of the hotel but the prices were so low that I doubt it. 5 pesos for a omelette and cafe con leche. Refueled I needed to check my email and file a report.
I’m standing on the corner Calle 23, more commonly known as “La Rampa” and Calle L in the heart of Vedado, the business center and one of the newer neighborhoods of La Habana. My being suddenly tunes into the harmonics swirling about me. I can feel the pulse of the city, the activity, see the invisible rhythm, the clave.
Dok! Dok ! Dok! Dok! Dok!
Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok!
People parade past me, I’m obviously a tourist, I can see by the look in their eyes. It’s probably the shorts, or maybe the lost, hesitant look. They walk intently, on their mission, I remember mine. Spying a travel agency sign across the street I ford the river of antique taxis and ask a woman emerging from the door about the wifi cards; she points to a man sitting on the concrete ledge along a hedge of Hibiscus.
He’s an attractive guy, cafe con leche complexion, an emerald shirt, tortoise shell glasses, trimmed beard and a medium length collection of golden highlighted dreds, held upright like a bouquet by a head band. Instant friendship. He sells me a card for 3 pesos and shows me how to setup my phone to use it. We begin a conversation that will go on for at least an hour about everything from politics to parenthood. He wants to be my go to guy for everything I need in La Habana, restaurants, women, wifi, even fruit. For his introductions he earns a commission, a peso for each person he brings to a restaurant and probably a lot more from Jineteras. He paints me a colorful picture of his life and becomes the conduit connecting me to the currents in the city. After speaking with Alejandro, I feel grounded and relaxed in a way that made me feel part of the city.
Excusing myself I get up to leave. Alejandro says I can always find him here and he wants to me to visit his home sometime. Do I like rum he asks. I bound across the street to a grove of trees to use my new card. This is one of the designated wifi hotspots. The cement wall surrounding the trees serves as a chair to keep my butt out of the grit of the worn out grass. I enter the login credentials and boom ! My new Habana office is open for business. I text my son in the Netherlands that I’m alive and well, sending a few tantalizing photos; his response is immediate and I’m amazed at how we are able communicate so easily across the planet. I’d have to find a quieter place if I need to do voice calls as the constant buzz of La Rampa and Calle L is all that’s audible.
One thing surprises me; I see many people doing the same zombie stroll as their fellow beings, mobile device to their face, fingers flying across the tiny keys. Inevitable.
Vedado is a wonderful part of the city that borders the ocean, the Malecón and Habana Vieja. I have no guide book, kind of a deliberate omission so I wasn’t tempted to be led around by my nose in a book. Spying the ocean about 8 blocks away I head down La Rampa, so-named because it runs downhill to the sea like a ramp. I peer into every shop on my way down. Mostly business, banks,a few cafes and a jazz club – La Zorra y El Cuervo, <The Fox and the Crow> Chucho Valdés was on the schedule last week. Damn ! Ten pesos entrance includes two drinks. Bookmark that place. I arrive at the sea wall, Key West 90 miles to the North. It’s hot, I can feel the hot salt air sucking the water of life from my body; retreating to the shaded avenue I pull down nearly a liter of water.
The iron gate to Casa Nestor complains as I push through. Magaly is in her rocking chair pulling in the breeze talking to a guy seated next to her. She introduces him, her son, Pavel, is visiting from Miami. The plot thickens. He emigrated to Spain then to South Florida where he can’t find work. Trained in air conditioner repair, he feels that employers want non-hispanic workers and is entertaining the idea of moving back to Cuba.
I’m HAPPY to be staying in a house with the family. I don’t feel apart from people like staying in a hotel can lay on oneself. It’s the perfect solution for the solo traveller, company when you want it, space of your own when you need it.
I hit my mattress and zone out for a half hour until hunger comes pounding on my door. I run into Pavel in the hall and ask him about a recommended place to eat. Las Rocas he replies, just up the street.
It is a dark and cool interior with black fabric on the walls, a grand piano and upright bass are on the stage as my eyes adjust to the light. I scan the menu having to use the flashlight app to read it. The prices are very reasonable. Grilled chicken, congría, a beer and dessert for 4 pesos. I could live here. I order a Bucanero Fuerte beer to accompany my meal. It is a darker, 5.4% alcohol, very tasty brew. I feel half lit before my meal arrives. The chicken is deliciously seasoned, resting on a bed of shredded cabbage. I have to take minute to deconstruct the congría which is essentially, black beans, some meat bits and rice plated from a mold to enhance the presentation. I have to request a bottle of hot sauce as it’s not a staple in Cuba. As a small glacé of ice cream arrives the music begins. A pianist appearing to be in his late 70’s or 80’s hits the keys playing Satin Doll. The young bass player carries the bottom while another brushes the cymbals. I applaud and the old man’s face lights, nodding his head to say gracias. I’ve been there before. After the next tune the whole room applauses.
Sitting on the back veranda at Nestor’s, the cool breeze off the ocean sweeps through the mango tree that swishes in approval. I replay the day below a silver half moon sipping the sweet 11 year old rum letting the Cuban vibe saturate my being.
Dok! Dok ! Dok! Dok! Dok!
Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok!
The clave follows me into my dreams….
I’m up at 8:30. The air is calm and cool with cloudless sky. Tania offers breakfast for 3 pesos; I accept. She counters with a disclaimer: there is no butter in all of Habana so the toast will be without, no worries, the eggs, juice and toast are delicious and I wolf down the whole lot of it while eyeballing a cluster of half ripe mangos. I’m thinking today I should break out of Vedado and make my way to Habana Vieja.
I drop into the office to check my messages. Alejandro is working the street with his two year old daughter in stroller. We sit on the wall to catch up. The child does not want to be restrained and bails from her ride. While Alejandro conducts some business I take responsibility of keeping her out of the traffic. She complains, but I’m relieved when she is strapped back in.
A young woman with a wide smile, short dark hair and two shiny silver teeth appears on the scene. She is married to Alejandro. We converse for several minutes before more acquaintances join our group. It might be fun to stay here all day talking and meeting folks, but I have other fish to fry this day so I politely bail.
As I enter the taxi I attempt to close the door resulting in a dull metallic clunk. The driver reaches across, gives the handle a jerk and chuckles apologetically.
Our powder blue 1950 Pontiac glides along the Malecón, my driver, Carlos, proudly narrating the shifting landscape. The new steel and glass of the Chinese built hotels rise over the waterfront, Carlos knows all the technical details of construction, how many floors, the height and cost. He is especially fond of the Capitolio, currently wrapped in scaffolding as it is renovated. As we enter Habana Vieja, construction cranes are everywhere, clearly there is a transformation in progress most visible in the souls of the Habaneros.
As I struggle with the Cuban car door, Carlos holds up five fingers. I hand over 5 pesos. Thanking me, he offers to be my guide and hands me a card with his number.
The first thing I see in Habana Vieja is El Floridita Bar the hangout of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and other artists. A pop band is almost blocking the door as I slip in sideways. Just the scene I didn’t want be in. Cruise ship Americans and Europeans gulping frozen Daiquiris and taking selfies. This is not the experience I had in mind. Nodding to the bronze statue of Ernest I slip away past the eyes of Our Man in Havana.
Calle Obispo, says the sign. It seems like the entrance to a carnival. A wave of entrepreneurs sweeps over me. I quicken my pace and push straight ahead.
Finally something of interest. A revolutionary bookstore. Ancient and smelling of old books I page through the stacks and uncover a book of poetry by Marti and another on Santeria. Five pesos gets me the treasure. As I hit the street, a tall afro cuban guy is playing the claves to entice folks into the bar across the street. It works. A six piece Son Montuno group is performing all the classics. I order a beer and get a Guatemalan beer, a brand I’d never heard of. It was cold and refreshing.
Two Brit women land at the table in front of me. On a two week bus tour of the island, they are in a hurry to see everything in a day. The band is selling a CD, I agree providing they play Son de la Loma. They are overjoyed and dive into an inspired 15 minute version, obviously a favorite of theirs also.
As I leave I fall into a conversation with two gregarious guys at the bar who talk to everyone. They are Venezuelan sailors on shore for the day. They proudly describe their ship as a tall sailing ship. ( Buque de Velas) I tell them I think I saw their ship from the plane and they confirm they were sailing in from that direction. How many tall ships can their be in Cuban waters. Tomorrow they are having an open ship and invite me to stop by.
Drifting down the street, I stumble into Parque Cervantes. A stiff breeze blows me onto a bench beneath a statue of Cervantes, where I start reading some Marti poems from my new book. A man decorated with colorful beads and long dreadlocks seated a bench over, opens a conversation.
–Interesante ! Leyendo Marti. ( Interesting ! Reading Marti !)
He was surprised that a tourist was sitting in the park reading Cuban poetry. We laugh a lot, talk politics, economics and art. He is the director of a folkloric dance company and laments that artists can not make a life with what they’re paid. It’s an old story, we nod in agreement. As he gets up to leave for rehearsal, he shows me a battery for his camera that can not be found in Cuba. I’ll try I reply and he writes out his email and home address.
The afternoon heat is smacking me down so I head back up Calle Obispo to shoot some photos. A hand painted sign on a door states that it’s the office for the the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution grabs my attention. I snap a photo. As I admire my work a man approaches me and asks if I’m interested in the revolution. Responding yes, he gives a brief history, then informs me that today is the cigar maker’s union holiday. Everyone is off work. A talented storyteller, he weaves these stories that end with an invitation. Would I like to meet a friend of his from the union. I follow as he leads me to an older apartment building and up a flight of stairs. A tall muscular afro cuban with a young girl hanging on his leg invites us in. It is hot and stuffy, suffocating. The man pulls out a bag containing boxes of cigars and starts rattling off prices. Appealing to my revolutionary fervor, he displays a box containing, he claims, the kind of cigars Fidel smoked. He wants 40 pesos for it, or, 30 pesos for ones that Che fancied. What a couple of salesmen, I leave with 20 pesos of regular soldier cigars. I had to get out of that sweat box.
The sun relents as my stomach begins to growl. I arrive at a corner with a restaurant on each. As I ponder, a young man offers a wifi card for 4 pesos. I tell him I can get them for 3 and he relents. I don’t buy one but he seems like a nice guy and is interested in conversation. When I tell him I play music he gets excited and says I have to meet his sister, Oleydis. He leads me around around the corner to a young full figured afro cuban woman talking to a grey bearded guy in a doorway. As she finishes her conversation I study her large eyes, her hair tied back with bright green scarf and smooth dark skin. She has a warm smile speaks intelligently about music. The clave calls, a salsa band begins to play in the adjacent bar and I invite her for a beer. It’s a large club with the waiters in red vests and black bowties hovering at the end of the bar joking as they wait for guests to arrive.
Oleydis seems a little distracted and is continuously bouncing her leg beneath the table. At a break in the conversation she starts texting furiously, no escape from digitalmania. A couple more beers in my dehydrated body and I’m feeling a little drunk and ready to eat before I sleep. As I ready my departure, a woman pulls up a chair next to me. She’s wearing short shorts, a pink tanktop stretched across her breasts, that are bubbling over the top of her low-cut bra. The word Baby is painted across the front in raspberry sequins lettering. Oleydis introduces Yenifer as her good friend. Her hair is dark blond and she has light blue eyes with no makeup. She’s very attractive but looks uncomfortable in her outfit and doesn’t talk very much. Oleydis chirps that she’s just shy. I order her a beer and ask if she’s a musician also. No, but changing the subject, she looks in my eyes and tells me she’d be very happy if I went home with her tonite. The deer freezes in the oncoming headlights. I didn’t see that coming. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is grabbing my balls. Of course, everyone is trying to earn pesos, Oleydis’ ‘brother’ pops into the bar and we order some more beers. I announce that I have to eat something and Alex as he is called says he’s got just the place.
We pass through a canyon of under-development, Yenifer walking next to me, just like a date. My instincts say all is cool but I’m cautious. As we enter the restaurant I relax. The brightly lit room is full of Quebecois. The air is delicious with the aroma of fried fish, the walls hung with photos of divers spearing large fish and French laughter bouncing around it all. The owner’s son welcomes Alex like they are old friends and introduces us all, happy to tell us the long family history of the restaurant.
I really like my new pals. They are trying to make a peso from the tourist but not in a predatory way, just offering what they have and hoping you want to pay for it. We all order fried Pargo ( snapper ) and there was silence as we devoured the slab of fish and cabbage salad.
As we drained our beers Oleydis once again raises the question of whether I was going to accompany Yenifer to her house. This would be the negotiation but I declined citing tiredness and beer. No problem we can do it tomorrow she responds. I paid the tab, almost 60 pesos plus the 30 in the bar put a dent in my funds; I was glad to contribute to the economy.
The gang insists on accompanying me to the cab stand where they personally select a cab for me. Oleydis whispers to the driver. With the air blowing my hair we cruised the Malecón, the driver asks me if I’d been with Oleydis before. No just met. I heard she sucks very skillfully he offers with a goofy laugh that causes his protruding adam’s apple to leap up and down in his throat. When he stops laughing he tells that he has two girlfriends and a wife. Very expensive he adds. As we approach Vedado, he asks for an address, at Oleydis’s request I’m sure, I ask him to just drop me at the Habana Libre as I have some business there.
Laying on my bed naked and dehydrated, the fan blades above me spin, scattering bits of the day’s frivolities around my room. While I have no intentions of honoring Yenifer’s offer, she slips into my dreams
Plaza de La Revolución, Tormentas
I’ve been unconscious for over 8 hours and rise at 8:30, dehydrated and hungry. I step out for a liter of water and make my way to the Toro Cafe just outside the Havana Libre. Scrambled eggs and a small pot of cafe con leche and I’m ready to rock. Make a quick visit to the office. No messages that need attention. I look up and down La Rampa, no Alejandro in sight. He had mentioned a fruit market to the east of the office so I head in that direction. It is hot and ripe with humidity, rivulets of sweat slide down my back and face. A mile or so in, bombarding gamma rays force me to seek refuge in a park of tall pines. I’m barely seated when up walks a gentleman with a story. He has some ‘rare’ coins, a souvenir of my visit. Two bronze colored disks have images of Marti, another larger silver one, Che Guevara. He expounds on the historical value of these bits of metal, I relent and give him 2 pesos. He walks away a happy man. Tania informs they are Cuban cents, the kind that are almost worthless, but he did earn the two pesos with his song and dance.
Smiling to myself at the creativity of the sales people I’ve encountered, I don’t feel as I’ve been scammed, but rather entertained, and my pesos were the price of admission.
Again I set out for the elusive fruit market but only find a synagogue and a stand offering cold bottled water. Too hot, I retreat back to the Casa Nestor to wait out the afternoon heat. I start into the book on Santeria and am impressed by its scholarly approach and graphic descriptions. I can’t put it down and pass the afternoon getting inducted into that stream of Cuban culture.
At 6 the temperature still holding onto the 90’s. I head to La Roca for a piece of grilled chicken, congri, and a cold Buccanero. The climate in the place is an atmosphere of cool dark air and high humidity, but I can eat without sweating. The climate reminds me of the tropic of cancer in southeast asia, the unrelenting heat and humidity that one has no choice but to get used to.
I head for the office. The Aura Tiñosa are buzzing the top of the building. I can’t imagine what a turkey buzzard finds to eat at that altitude. I grab a cab, a 1952 psychedelic green woody jeep, that emits a loud grinding sounds whenever we change gears. I laugh, the driver grins and responds matter of factly: “cuban car”.
He drops me at the Plaza de la Revolución, near the top of my must see list. I’m standing in what is really a immense parking lot, maybe 3 or 4 square blocks. The famous line drawings of Che and Camilo Cienfuegos on the building behind me are impressive but the huge color portrait of the them with Fidel is so life-like. I feel in awe standing among these giants. Besides a few taxis, the tall tower across the street is all there is to see. I’m a bit let down by the lack tourist activities.
A bank of grey clouds moves over us dropping the temp a bit so I decide to walk the 40 minutes back to the office retracing my mornings path. As I approach the Havana Libre a loud crack and flash warn of a storm. Behind my back some thick dark storm clouds have gathered and looked to drop some water. I make a break for the cafe with the music group and just got a mojito to my lips as the sky opened up. It was a torrent, monsoon quality cloudburst. La Rampa quickly turned into a raging river and it grew dark as night with bolts of lightning snaking across the sky. The wind howled and drove the rain past the canvas walls into the club. In minutes there was almost 2 inches of water covering the floor. My feet rested on another chair to keep dry. No one freaked, all just continued their conversations, knowing this too would pass. And 15 minutes later it did. The bartenders squeegeed the floor, the Rio La Rampa shrunk to a few rivulets and the air was 20 degrees cooler. The jineteras returned to the corner and all was right with the world.
I decided to return to the house and sip an anejo on the veranda. As I pushed through the gate I see bodies moving in the hallway. It’s Nestor, his wife and son. Tania dispenses introductions. Nestor seems like a kind gentle man and being a reporter with Cuban tv his english is quite good. His wife has her arm in a sling and looks a bit sad. Nestor explains that she had a car crash last week. They were supposed to travel to Nevada to be with their daughter who was having their first grandchild but because of the injury the doctor’s advised no travel. Nestor would go alone. Abuela was rightly depressed.
Nestor’s son is in charge of building maintenance and was trying choose a color for a new paint job in my bathroom. I asked him about the backyard specifically the old garage with the weathered wooden doors. He became animated, using his entire body to illustrate how a bird shit a seed onto the roof of the garage and from a crack in the cement grew a Banyan tree. Over the years, the tree dropped branches the way they do and eventually enveloped the entire building The branches had entered the attic also and it appeared as though the tree was some of kind of monster devouring the entire building. He estimated it would take several people and at least six truck loads to carry the tree away once it was cut up.
After his vivid tale about the Banyan I asked about the Mango tree. It’s an old tree, maybe 40 years old that doesn’t produce much fruit anymore. And what does ripen get’s knocked down by the birds that eat them as they are broken open by the fall.
I was next going to ask about the woman who keeps a container garden on the rooftop next door but his father called to discuss the paint job.
He is an interesting guy I hope to connect with again. Nestor stops by to wish me well. Promising to put out a good review and refer my friends I say farewell.
It’s very cool, almost chilly. With the windows open I need a sheet to stay warm and dream of tomorrow.
Artes y La Revolución
Tania was going to make me breakfast but she overslept.
–Mañana seguro !
For a change of pace I decide to do some tourist activities and head to Habana Vieja for the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana and the Museo de la Revolución. Hoping to avoid Oleydis and not get into a lot of chatter over Yenifer, I walk as far as the Malecón and hail a cab.
— How much to Havana Vieja ?
— 10 Pesos
— Others charge 5.
— Okay 8.
I start to close the door and he says 6.
Damn this guy’s really has been inoculated with capitalism fever.As I exit he hands me his card, it says call anytime. Serious in Service it announces.
The entrance to the Museo de la Revolución retains the bullet holes from the storming of the former residence of Batista. A few of the men killed are remembered here. The museo displays things like clothing worn during the battles, complete with bullet holes, and other memorabilia. What I found interesting was the documents containing the detailed plans for executing their offensive against great number of government forces.
Across the street is a park displaying an engine from a U2 spy plane shot down over Cuba during the missile crisis, the captured pilot traded for Cuban pow’s. There is the tail section of a crashed US plane used during the Bay of Pigs invasion by the CIA and Alabama National Guardsmen. A body found in the wreckage was refused repatriation to the US for 20 years because the US wanted to deny its hand in the invasion. Also Fidel’s tank from Playa Giron where he met the invaders head on is featured, but the main attraction is the Granma, the ship on which Fidel travelled from Mexico to start the revolution. It is encased and preserved in a climate controlled building. Touching and seeing these items really gives one a feeling of what it might have been like enduring the US obsession.
Dok! Dok ! Dok! Dok! Dok!
Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok!
The clave begins to grow louder…
Across the street is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana which offers the psychonaut a wormhole view into the mind of the revolution. Of course, trying to describe abstract works with words is ridiculous but we can observe and vocalize the themes. Memory through shades of colors, veils of reality, opaque views of the past are a few topics I enjoyed besides other depicting the promises of capitalism and socialism, none completely fulfilled. The common thread expressed was the sensuality of the Cuban culture. Thoroughly impressed I head back to the street to partake.
Still feeling uneasy about running into Oleydis, I walk to the large Parque Central and take a seat among the foraging pigeons. A vendor offers me a small funnel- shaped newspaper container of peanuts, I pass, she takes a seat next to me and sighs deeply taking a load off her feet. Another woman, a larger framed blond woman approaches, obviously well known to each other. She takes a seat between us inserting a young man into the bench also. She presents herself as Maria Castro, no relation to Fidel. She wears a licensed vendor’s photo id on her shirt and is selling aprons and olive-green Che-styled hats with red stars and the Cuban flag. Her grandson is presented as Alejandro; she explains that his father has gone to Miami leaving her daughter and grandson behind. She says that she comes here everyday after school to sell souvenirs, the proceeds go to the youth; she leaps up to pursue a customer leaving Alejandro with me. He’s a kind, 11 year old soul interested in sports, soccer particularly, and tells me he fears Trump. We share that moment of solidarity. From his pocket he pulls a small plastic tube. He puts a black bean into one end and draws back a rubber binder on the other end and let it fly, almost nailing a pidgeon. He tells me that his grandmother doesn’t know about and I translate that into keeping it secret between us. He then opens his shirt and shows me a bunch of bean-sized bruises on his stomach. I laugh with him. Maria returns asking me how old I am. She reveals that she is four years older than I, then inquires about my marital status. Reaching behind and massaging my shoulders she tells me that soon I will need someone to rub my back and feet. Kind of an oblique marriage proposal ? She writes her name and address and phone on a scrap of yellow paper and gives me verbal directions. She pauses to query if I have I ever been to the beach at Varadero. Alejandro’s eyes grow large as recalls eating lobster and shrimp every day on the beach. Maria’s sister lives there, we would be welcome there she adds. I buy 10 pesos worth of aprons and hats. She heads off with Alejandro to buy a fish dinner and I grab a taxi back to the office. I really enjoyed her graciousness, and would have liked to see more of them.
Following One’s Own Footsteps
The following morning I decide to walk to La Habana Vieja and heading out early before the sun gets too high. Along the Malecón I encounter a few fishermen casting the ugliest looking worms I’ve ever seen into the surf. They claim to catch snapper but I’ve yet to see one. The water is shallow due to low tide so perhaps things improve with the rising waters.
A young man approaches asking if I speak English. Yes I reply. He explains that he had 50 dollars stole from his hand and needs money for his ride to the airport. As it happens he is from Minneapolis; after at least a half hour of conversing, I give him 10 pesos out of my dwindling accounts.
As I look at the buildings ahead of me I calculate that if I take a turn and head into the neighborhoods I can shave several blocks off my trip. I am soon lost but not worried as I peer into people’s lives as they hang out of doorways. There is an enormous amount of renovation happening even in the older sections of the city.
Just as confidence in my zigzag navigation wains, I emerge from Trocadero Ave onto the Paseo Marti, three blocks down from the Parque Central. Not too bad, I congratulate myself. Several artists are displaying their work and I take a seat on the granite benches to take in the show. An elegant looking woman dressed in short black lace dress approaches, she swoops in like an eagle and with her cleavage in my face, asks if I’m looking for company, in spite of her intoxicating lilac scent fueling my imagination, I reply no thank you. A few minutes later a man with a close cut grey haircut grabs a seat. After he finds out where I’m from, we launch a conversation about politics. He is a few years younger than I and is the maintenance manager of an apartment building. He seems very intelligent and tells me he knows of a single store in Havana that sells butter and he’s going to score some for his granddaughter so she can make cookies. I repeat the story Tania told be about no butter in Havana, you have to know where to look he chuckles.
We discuss Salvador Allende, the revolution and the US obsession with Cuba. He shows me a Florida state driver’s license from when he attempted to live there. He couldn’t handle the impersonalness of life he encountered explaining that in Cuba when you want to talk to someone, you just go to their house. In Miami, people demand that you call them ahead of time to arrange the visit. He thought that was silly. Even with the difficulties of life in Cuba, he preferred to live in a culture he felt part of. He echoed my belief that the Cuban people were more educated than their US counterparts.We wished each other a warm good bye and he set out on his quest for butter.
I stand on a corner near the grand hotels plotting my next adventure, a woman approaches me saying I appeared to be looking for someone. No one in particular I reply. Named Olga, she is a profesora of nursing, and very sensual in her body language. We talk about kids, her daughter being the same age as my son, and the trials and tribulations. She lists all the subjects she teaches almost like a resume. I enjoy her vibe. We agreed to communicate with each other but she only has snail mail as her internet modem is not working. Would I like to come over and fix it she asks, it’s just a short distance to her apartment. I detected something else in her body language, anyway I had a long walk on my way back to Casa Nestor.
Entering the iron gate I encountered Tania doing some book work for the house’s business. We hadn’t really talked much about her life as there was always other things to discuss. I pointed to a picture on the wall of a young beautiful woman next to a serious young man. My parents she said.
Her father was a doctor and had died 5 years ago of smoking. Her mother a nurse, died from Dengue Fever when Tania was just 9. I wondered if this was the source of the tint of melancholy in her eyes. I asked her about how the blockade has affected her life and she said it kept her from getting building supplies but things had been much worse before. I offered an apology for the ignorant actions of the US government, she immediately silenced me saying she knew it wasn’t my doing. I retreated to the veranda and read my book on Santeria as the full moon light dripped through the mango tree.
I rise early and realize that I had not yet explored my own neighborhood Vedado, and tomorrow I would need to catch my flight back to the US.
After checking in at the office and drinking a couple cafe con leches, I step out, confident that my new acquaintance, La Habana has accepted my friendship. Instead of my usual right turn out of the gate, I take a left. Travelling down the long slope I spill out into a grove of palms just off the Malecón.
Mario’s infectious laugh travels through the fronds as I approach his corner. Wishing a friend good bye, he turns to me and asks where I’m headed; his taxi will get me there pronto he advertises. The 1950’s Chevrolet is a spotless red, parked out of the reach of the sun’s rays. I laugh with him pointing to the ocean saying I’m going to pay homage to Yemayá, the goddess of the sea. You’re more Cuban than I am he replied warmly touching my arm. I tell him I’m from the US and he laughs again asking my name. Roberto I answer. Ahhhh, my brother is named Roberto, tu tocayo. You are my other brother Roberto. You are Roberto de dia, he is Roberto de noche, referring to my white and his black skin. Mario is from Santiago de Cuba and glows as describes the bounty there. Next time I visit he will take me there for a personal tour. We laugh some more and I bid my new friend good bye not before collecting his name and phone number as he has offered to be available anytime I need him. Don’t miss the Nacional he offers as I leave.
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba sits atop hill overlooking the sea. A throwback to the 1930’s high life, it remains elegant. As I walk through the entrance I say hello to another older gent wearing an Obama ‘08 baseball cap. Tomas tells me his son was among the committee members who assisted Obama during his visit to Cuba. The 80 year old is very proud of that and he quickly draws up a fist bump and shines a wide toothless grin as I walked on. The hotel was too expensive for my wallet but many others found the luxurious setting suitable. I briefly tour the bunkers that look out over the Florida Straits and peer into the bomb shelters built during the missile crisis. Volumes could be written about the ghosts that occupy that place.
Getting together with my main man Alejandro wasn’t in the stars. We missed connections as I explored other parts of La Habana. I did however meet another merchant in front of the office. David did person to person advertising for a small restaurant up the street. A bright, sincere blond haired guy, he had studied mathematics and business hoping to land a job doing accounting for the many new businesses springing up. Soon to visit his girlfriend in Toronto he wants to brush up on English. I enter his email into my log.
My new favorite restaurant La Cocina de Esteban is already filling up as the sun sets on my last day in La Habana. As I browse the menu, I reflect on how my adventure in Cuba was triggered in part by a film festival that featured several works from the island including a personal appearance by one of the directors. One film in particular, Memories of Overdevelopment ( Memorias de Sobre Desarrollo) based on a book by Edmundo Desnoes tells a story about an author who left Cuba for the good life in the US. I let on to the waiter, Jorge, that I was writing about the many people and conversations I’d encountered, and how that film had influenced me. He got quite excited and began referencing other writers I should research. A theme in Cuban writing has been Realidad Sucio, literally dirty reality. Many authors both left and right use the raw data of life to describe their experiences. Sometimes violent and vividly sexual in content, life in Cuba and Florida is revealed. Jorge gets very animated as he explains that many people find it offensive but one can’t deny the authenticity. He returns to the table and asks when I will start writing; I respond ‘as soon as I get on the plane’. He gives me a thumbs up.
My flight leaves at 2PM. Tania arranges a ride to the airport for 10:30 with one of her friends. He’s a very jovial guy, who makes what looks like a sign of the cross each time we cross railroad tracks. It seemed more Santeria than catholic to me. When the topic is music he is gushing about Cuban musicians especially Chucho Valdez. We become friends for life when I tell him about my learning several of Chucho’s compositions. Of course he hands me his card as we pull into Jose Marti International Airport. Available 24 hours a day it says, ride with air conditioning and a fine music system is his angle.
In a few hours I will return to the overdeveloped world of guns and violence and Memorial Day Mattress Sales. I wish my new friends a good future. Development on the island is somewhat uneven, like many of the sidewalks, but, uneven development signals that things are in motion, it’s in the air. The Cuban people are irrepressible. They’ve endured the blockade and are still dancing. Son de la Loma…..
Dok! Dok ! Dok! Dok! Dok!
Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok! Dok!
Robert Hale is a freelance writer, hoping to develop a relationship with the people who live just miles from the US but have remained hidden from us by the bamboo curtain.