Un error in Cuba es un error en America, es un error en la humanidad moderna. Quien se levanta hoy en Cuba se levanta para todos los tiempos.
An error in Cuba is an error in America, is an error in modern humanity. Whoever rises up today in Cuba rises up for all times.
What will happen now, after Fidel? “We will wait, and we will keep our mouths shut.”
“Venice has gondolas. Havana has Chevys.” -H.
We learn Havana by walking it. I and my spouse, H, become pilgrims. The city befriends us as we move through the nuance of the days and the ebb and flow of the city. Mornings in Havana are teeming and purposeful though not frenzied. Days are ripe. Evenings are crepuscular, softened, melodic. And nights are staccato, savory, and optimistic. In the city the energy runs through the streets, eddies around corners and pools in plazas; it rides the wave and spray that batters the Malécon and solidifies in the stern visages that adorn public edifices.
On our arrival we pass under their serious faces: Che and Castro, writ large in the Plaza de la Revolución. José Martí, on the hill. Schoolchildren in uniform march in ranks by the hundreds and wave little flags as we drive by. Martí’s words, in gold, circle the museum at the base of his stature and obelisk and echo throughout the country. They are inscribed everywhere.
We walk a Cuban rosary: bodega, mercado, cafeteria, in endless succession, interspersed with some government buildings, shops, and little parks. The Coca-Cola invasion has not landed here, or rather, it was rejected. Sun leaches all of the American-style anxiety from our bodies and we replace it by weight in diesel fumes. We are all day immersed in people, people people everywhere, in this city of 2.3 million, and the ocean is everywhere as well, its arm drawn around the city. When we draw close to the Malécon, the sea-wall, on the first night, twilight is falling and the children run screaming and laughing through the crumbling arches of the tiled arcades, their flip-flops striking the ground slap-slap-slap-slap.
Our vision is sharp on our first night in Old Havana. Each sight falls fresh and hard. We pass the solitary workman at his scarred wooden desk pulled close to the door for light. His tools are laid out before him as he fixes watches and other small mechanics. The large gold-colored watch on his wrist gleams in the shadows against the grease and the dull blue of his uniform. Illuminated windows and doors frame the Workers, steady and solemn in their purpose. They are closing up shop, counting the till, winding down at the end of the day. The bodegas are still open, dimly lit, with counters and shelves of dark wood and chalkboards with carefully lettered lists of goods. Repurposed water bottles filled with rice and beans, tidy stacks of matchboxes and other goods are evenly spaced on the shelves behind the till.
Further down the labyrinthine street we duck into a bar to eat, hardly more than an alcove. Imagine two restaurant booths placed back to back, their table-ends aligned with the edge of the sidewalk; now remove the tables. That is the bar. We sit on one bench and talk with the people across from us as the crowd hustles past at our elbow. One is a grandmother in a stylish mini-dress who looks impossibly young. She works in a grocery store and lives with her son and young granddaughter who has respiratory illness. Her family left Cuba and she is the one who has stayed. The boyfriend works at a disco tech on the Avenida Principal. They sit next to a British tourist and we share drinks and watch the sudden rain fall.
Our conversation with them is the first of many amongst very friendly people. Yet in the case of both city and people there is a lid on. Part of this is practicality: with such constant proximity, people preserve space in the street. They do not all make eye contact, smile, or greet everyone. No one has books or phones to retreat into- access to wifi is another story altogether- so as they wait in long patient lines for buses and banking and bodegas they do not intrude.
But at the same time, lift the lid a fraction and they are right there, quick to be present. The warmth and graciousness of people that we meet is considerable. Every day people invite us to their homes: the waitress at the sports cafe, the 87 year-old woman we meet by the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg memorial, who recounts her memory of their execution from her childhood: “I will never forget.” She tells us that when we come back we can go to the next block and ask for her by name, and then we can have coffee together. She also tells us, with pride, that she still goes salsa dancing every Sunday afternoon.
We meet two vibrant, wild women at the beach, cousins who take us in, seat us on their lounge chairs, give us rum and dance with us to the booty-shaking percussionist and reggaeton dance party happening nearby. “Dale!” the older sister yells at us as we dance, and points to our hips: Shake it! They are free in dance, in gesture, and in sentiment. One lives abroad, making crepes for tourists to Paris. The other dearly hopes to leave. We ask them both about post-Fidel.
“Fidel was single minded in his vision. It isn’t good or bad, it is just how he was.” She makes a gesture with her hand driving straight as an arrow before her. Her black curly hair tumbles in the wind against an azure sky and sea. “He wanted to do so much with so little. Now you can see: Havana is kind of- destroyed.” Certainly La Habana is worn, even as it is beautiful, rich in color and texture, suffused with warmth.
With Castro’s passing so recent we are curious about its direct effect on people and ask them when we can. When we ask the couple we meet in the bar the first night, she covers her mouth with both hands to dramatize their stance during Cuba’s transition. Then her hands cradle an invisible ball, upending it from one hand to the next, as she tells us: “Cuba without Fidel is a country turned upside-down, like the U.S. without Obama or Venezuela without Chavez.” What about his brother? “Raul is not the same. Fidel, at 90, was sharp. He was always sharp. He was the brain of our country.”
And at our lunch spot, we are told: “Obama came to Cuba, and things have changed for you. Now you can travel more easily. But for us, nothing has changed. We still can’t come to your country. We still can’t leave.”
We hear about Obama’s visit a fair amount, and the most visible result is the new American embassy building on the waterfront. The night before we leave H. glimpses the only U.S. news of our trip. The report is brief and details the billions allocated in the U.S. budget for weaponry, while millions of Americans remain below the poverty line. Images of tanks and warplanes flash across the screen during the report.
It is difficult to discern what is allowed to be said, and that uncertainty on our part says something in and of itself. The limit is real. To a certain point, free expression, art, music, exuberance, but not past a certain point. When I pass punk Cubans I inwardly cheer them on. I want to ask, how is to for you? I can feel unspoken edge.
Art encompasses the edge, here as everywhere. The Cuban art museum, el Museo de Bellas Artes, is a reminder of this, and also a reminder of the un-Americanized nature of this place. I encounter masterpieces unknown to me even in reproduction and learn about their creators, their whole existence sprung upon me in an instant: their names, lives, works, deaths: Angel Acosta Léon, lost at sea, December 5th 1964. I swoon before epic canvasses by painters who have mastered their craft and wedded it to their inner eye. At night in the Fabrica de Artes, a beautiful collage of contemporary visual art and sound situated in a repurposed factory, we feel most free. The National Museum is in Old Havana, mostly constructed in the Sixteenth through Nineteenth centuries, and the Fabrica is in the neighborhood we are staying in, which was built in the Twentieth century. We stay in one of the Casas Particulares, which are like a government-regulated Air B and B, with very kind hosts who look after us conscientiously.
We spend Noche Buena with our hosts, who invite us to join them for a delicious Cuban dinner. The siblings begin cooking at noon for our eight-thirty dinner: two beautiful salads, boniato (Cuban sweet potato), congri (black beans and rice), and pork ribs marinated in lime and salt. We are asked, many times, if we are enjoying ourselves, enjoying our food. They are the warmest and most gracious of hosts. This is in spite of the older brother’s recent back operation. His face is craggy, a mountainside exposed to sun and weather, sharp edges softened, and the pain clouds it over, though he does not say anything, just excuses himself for a moment. The younger sister speaks some english, peppered with “da” and “nyet” from her years in Russia. She translates between the American and Cuban Spanish at the table, and then again into English. I translate between different varieties of English, and then into Spanish. Single phrases take time to travel around the table, without hurry; we all enjoy our time together.
The part of Vedado in which they live is sandwiched between the massive cemetery, a fortress of daffodil-yellow walls that enclose a city of white mausoleums, and the Avenida Principal. Large apartment buildings line the main road, smaller multi-family homes fill the blocks to the north, and in the little section to the south are many smaller, very modest homes with yards utilised as workshops and cafës. We find most of what we need in little businesses throughout the neighborhood.
The liquor store is our source for water. They sell a few beer imports along with the national beer and soda brand. In the glass case there is one plate of cake, and one apple with a large price sticker plastered on. Cardboard six-pack holders are recycled to carry goods, a slot for each selection: beers in two slots, rum in a third, an apple carefully placed into the fourth.
The Licorera is just past Cafe Viso, on the promontory between two busy roads. Every morning the patio is filled with people who sit with nothing on their tables. One night when I go to buy water, the patio is empty and the lights are off, all except for a small glowing aquarium at the back. The blue light silhouettes one man, hunched over in a chair. I think: Old Man and the Sea, modern day.
After I buy water I return by the back road where someone has dropped flats of eggs on the sidewalk. Every day people balance stacks of full flats through the teeming sidewalks or dangle tied stacks of empty ones to be returned to the bodegas whose counters are flanked by square turrets of eggs.
One light is on in the Tienda Cristaleria, one of several religious shops in the neighborhood. This one is shuttered in the morning, but Eliel, the proprietor, is re-painting it by night. The shelves are full of the necessities for Santeria: saints, necklaces, dolls, and other symbols. I notice one of them hanging over the window of a nearby coffee counter, a ceramic plaque of a tongue pierced by a sword: do not speak ill of this place.
Every morning I go to one of the neighbors who sells coffee out of their front door, most often the nearest. The front yard is her shop, with plants enclosing two sides, a railing by the sidewalk, and a veranda along the front of the house. The first floor is elevated from the street and her double doors are thrown open in the morning. Customers step up onto a tiled ledge and place their money and thermos, if they have one, on the wide stone balustrade. The proprietor, a slim Afro-cuban grandmother with a green head scarf and a strong and gentle face, dispenses coffee from a large thermos with an espresso cup as the measure. One cup of strong coffee with sugar costs four cents. Each customer gets their own spoon to stir in the sugar.
People drink their coffee in little glasses as they stand in the yard, and then the cups and spoons are whisked away and plunged into sudsy water. In between customers she coos to her sweet grandbaby, a chubby two-year old boy who cries for his papa.
When I am buying coffee in the morning the street cleaner passes. He wears an ancient-looking plastic back brace that resembles a saddle, off-center on his back. The patina-ed and dusty blue uniform hangs loose on his thin frame. He pushes his cart along the curb slowly and stops to painstakingly scoop, scrape or spear items off the sidewalk with long implements and deposit them in the barrel on his cart. The sidewalks and streets of Havana are pretty clean, with the exception of random potholes that become trash deposits, so that it occasionally looks like the street has been paved in plastic bottles.
Also in the humid mornings, especially after Noche Buena: smell of piss in the streets, acrid, pungeant.
Often, inexplicably we are in a city of men. Boys play in the street. Men buy coffee from the coffee windows and drive the taxis. Fifty cab drivers linger near the national bus station. Plazas and parks are filled with men. When I walk alone they call out to me. When I walk with my spouse they do not. My spouse has been bestowed with the awards of masculinity generated by a traditionally patriarchal culture. Aside from shielding me from catcalls these include: being the primary person spoken to; receiving all bills; and being expected to make decisions for me. Women hold numerous positions of power in the government and compose the majority of the assembly, but in the day to day here all is not equal.
The boys in the street push each other in a big milk-crate cart. They play soccer in the street at twilight and move the goals aside when cars pass. They shoot marbles under a tree in Miramar, an excited crowd of them, age six through sixteen. The girls are less visible unless accompanied by adults. I see the young ones in tow of an adult and the older ones gathered at a plaza amidst the after-school crowd. Are all the other girls at home?
As we go through the streets we ask each other questions. What is allowed? Is public drunkenness legal? Dancing in the street? PDA? Loud conversations? Is it even legal to be gay? None of these are features of street life. All of this raises another of our main questions, which is, is it possible to maintain such a strong sense of collective mission and ideals, for the good of all people, without curtailing dissent, expression, critique, originality, invention, and creativity? Creativity as an adaptation to limits is everywhere here, from the side-hustles and underground economy to the outcroppings of art, but what about creativity that defies, disrupts, or questions?
Creativity in the form of the side-hustle is omnipresent here. On our first day at the bar in Old Havana shopping bags fill the floor at our feet. The couple carries toys they received from family in the U.S. in time for Christmas. The bilingual Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle would cost fifty dollars on the black market in Cuba. It is unclear to us what has consequence and what is ignored. Certainly the man from the tobacco factory who tries to sell us cigars out of his apartment is up to something, but the risk must be worth the reward. Not so for street crime, which is startlingly absent. Nothing to complain about, but again, we wonder- how does it come to be so? How severe are penalties?
Both the severity in one instance and the laissez-faire in the other benefit one specific group primarily: tourists. The Cubans incur some reward, and all the risk. As tourists we represent the upper crust in a society that prides itself on crustlessness. Certainly the same wealth disparity present in the U.S. is not evident in Cuba, the visibility of both the destitute and filthy rich. Peoples’ basic needs seem to be more adequately met here: shelter, food, medical care, education. Yet there are still two classes: tourists, and Cubans. They have two currencies, two economies, maybe two applications of law.
A new hobby becomes finding the sea, from wherever we are. One day we find it by walking through the embassy district of Miramar, past Italianate mansions and estates marked Venezuela, Vietnam, Spain, Mexico. We emerge from the quiet, tree-lined streets at Playa 16, a pitted block of concrete with a path and a brilliant blue changing cabana, very different from the beach we went to earlier in the week. One tourist has braved the sharp rocks for a swim, but the locals are clearly there only to sunbathe on walls. Two places on the beach are open: a typical Cuban chicken and beer place, and a tourist restaurant, all gleaming white, with waitstaff in pressed shirts. We order chicken at the Cuban cafe and drank beer and soda and ate ice-cream at a plastic table, looking out at the Atlantic while reggaeton blasts on the patio loudspeaker. After an hour I go back up to the counter to ask about the chicken. The worker looks back over his counter at the silent kitchen. “The cook never came back” he tells me.
We eat late lunch at the tourist restaurant, with gauzy curtains floating, seated on padded chairs surrounded by astroturf. We sip wine as the sun slides through a band of gold and down below the horizon, and then we walk home over the hill through quiet Miramar, past the lush city park that borders the river, over the long concrete bridge and back into the Fifties architecture of Vedado. Even though we pick one side of the road, we still have access to both.
Jennifer Connor can be reached at thehummingwhale at gmail dot com.
To see more photography from Havana by Harper Bishop go to https://www.facebook.com/harpersebishop/media_set?set=a.879987476884.1073741833.100300724&type=3&pnref=story