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The Cuba Experience – Prepare To Be Surprised

I’m obsessed. I can’t get Cuba out of my mind. It fills my thoughts during the day and my dreams at night. They’re confusing thoughts, as hazy as the smog that hangs over Havana. This dichotomous culture quietly rests 90 miles from our southern border. Vibrant cities full of song & dance. Each with the outward appearance of a ghetto. Highly literate and articulate people in western dress barely getting by.

There’s only one thing I’m sure of. I’m going back.

GETTING THERE

You have to sneak in.

NASSAU:

I’m crouched inside a Cubana Air Yak 42 that tilts on the runway like a wounded duck. We’re waiting for a storm to pass. Fat pellets of rain splat against the scratched surface of the window then blur against the darkening sky. The visa in my breast pocket says “The Bahamas” but we all know better. My neck aches from where the flight attendant pushed my head down when I entered. The apologetic smile tried to compensate for the 4-foot high opening obviously designed for a yak. It’s sweltering inside. The tattered interior looks like it was dredged from a lake bottom. We perspire in silence before the pilot turns on the air. A dense fog immediately fills the cabin. The vapor condenses in the cracks covering the ceiling and plops down on our already sweat-soaked heads.

The storm centers itself over the airport fractionating the retreating light. At its height the pilot takes off. We shoot into the black clouds. The engines howl as lightning bolts reflect off of the whirling mist and explode around us. I peer outside at one of the engines. It’s encased in rust.

An elderly woman is hunched next to me consumed in fingering her rosary. She looks up and fixes her pleading eyes on mine. I turn away and measure my breath, hoping the pilot will climb above the fury. He never does.

We spend the next hour zigzagging through the tempest. The old woman grabs my leg each time we hit an air pocket. I stare at the gray cloak of clouds swirling outside. There I conjure up the vision of a tiny plastic yak stuck on the console of the cockpit. Its plastic head bobs wildly as the maniacs flying this piece of crap search the darkened skies for their homeland.

WELCOME TO HABANA

I expect to see the military. Tanks, jeeps, something. The only object in sight is an antiquated DC-3. It’s dumped in some weeds missing a wing. Next to it a low concrete building solemnly stands guard. I step out onto the rain-soaked tarmac. The stench of gas & oil permeates the moist air. The odor follows me into the building where a guy in a starched uniform glares at my passport, then me. He stamps my entry visa and shoos me away. I pick out my bag and walk between two cafeteria tables. Ahead of me an official chats with a guy in a guyabera shirt. He glances at my satchel and waves me through without halting his conversation. And that’s it.

My guide invites me to his home my first hour there. His mother graciously offers me some coffee but discovers she has no matches to light the stove. She’s truly disappointed. What I learn later is that she didn’t forget to buy matches. She couldn’t buy matches. I’m unclear whether she didn’t have the money or that they simply weren’t available. It’s a mute point. No matches, no coffee, no hot food. Not that day.

Another hurricane has just blown through the island. This one hit the eastern end, the tobacco-growing region. It was the 3rd storm in as many months and the crop has been destroyed. Cuba’s main revenue source lies ruined in the field. I assume everyone knows they’re in for more than their standard dose of hardship this year. Yet you don’t hear much about it. The people emerge from the gale and continue on just as they have for the last 500 years.

It’s Saturday afternoon in Old Havana. Siesta time. I’m holed up in my room searching for salsa music on the radio. This should be easy but Fidel is on. I twist the knob. His voice fades then reappears. Eventually I hit on some music. But his speech remains in the background. I like it. I don’t understand a word he’s saying but his voice sounds charismatic. I realize I may be the only one in the city tuning in. And that’s only because he’s bleeding into my station. Whenever I ask anyone about Fidel, their eyes roll up towards the ceiling. Hanna Montana is way more popular here. But I understand Lil’ Wayne is catching up fast.

Our guide calls and suggests we beat the heat at one of the European hotel’s pool. It’s $8USD to get in. That’s serious money here. But they give it back to you in food credit. I fat-cat it in my chaise lounge with a planters punch and a BLT. A group of English kids play chicken in the shallow end. A warm breeze picks up and swishes through the palm fronds that encircle the patio. Something flashes by the corner of my eye followed by a dull thud. A large green coconut spins atop the concrete two feet left of my temple. Glancing up, I see a bunch more dangling in the treetop clustered like bowling balls. Nobody else has noticed a thing. I pull my chair out of the way and finish my meal.

LA MUSICA

I’m hunkered in a bar off one of the Plazas. I’m the only patron. You can tell it was originally the patio of a fine colonial house. Purple flowers and what look like limes but I know aren’t lie entwined in the arbor above my head. To my left, seven men sit in a circle playing some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. The bartender looks up from his newspaper and raises his head. I nod and he brings me another beer. Across the square, the sounds of the ‘El Discoteca’ reverberate off the old church wall. Shadows bobble among the pulsating blue lights that pop on & off to the rhythm of the bass.

Our musicians stop playing. The circle forms into two lines. The leader looks at me and introduces the band. They launch into a full-blown orchestration that drowns out the beat from the other club. What I’d been listening to was only a rehearsal. Now it’s time for the show.

ECONOMY

There’s a billboard in Havana that reads, “2,000,000 children will sleep in the streets tonight. Not one of them will be in Cuba.” What it doesn’t say is that except for a place to sleep the kids here have nothing. That also goes for everyone else.

The island’s an agricultural oasis. Once you leave the congestion of Havana, mile upon mile of fertile farmland stretches out to the horizon. But the economy’s desperate for cash. So the abundant variety of produce is all exported. That leaves rice & plantains and maybe a few beans for the Cubans.

A friend from the States has arranged an introduction to a well-known Cuban writer. I arrive at his address. The squat, rectangular building looks like the remains of an air-raid shelter after a heavy bombardment. We greet each other and do a brief tour of the apartment. He’s especially proud of the windows “that are in every room”! He tells me about when he & his wife got married.

“It was just after the Soviet Union disappeared and we had nothing. There was no food or liquor for any guests. So it was just the two of us. But we did manage a toast. My wife had saved a little sugar that we put in two glasses of water.” Which brings me to the embargo.

THE EMBARGO

It’s existence defies any logical explanation. Personally, I think its spite. As long as the US turns its back on the Cuban people, they’re left with the Castro brothers. Those two have been in a pissing contest with Uncle Sam for the last 50 years. And guess who it’s been raining on? Not Fidel. He wears tailored suits and drives around in a Mercedes. Three of them to be exact. Meanwhile the strain of being Cuban cuts into the handsome features of everyone else like rivulets.

My guide asks me, “Why does America do this? I love America.” I try to think of a reasonable answer. When that fails I shrug my shoulders and say, “We’re a big country. We make a lot of mistakes. It’s simply your turn”.

I’ve heard the argument that if we lift the embargo it won’t make any difference. After all, the Government doesn’t have cash to buy anything. Perhaps. I think once American tourists rediscover the beauty of the island and its people, they’ll come. (Don’t think this is lost on the other islands. They pray every night that we’ll keep the embargo in place. Cuba used to be the #1 Caribbean tourist destination.)

If the tourists invade, that special uniqueness that is Cuba may be lost. I’d hate to see another culture polluted for the sake of tourism. But I’d pour the first bucketful of concrete on one of their pristine beaches if I thought it’d help.

THE PEOPLE

Joaquin is my guide. Tall, handsome & openly gay, he’s just turned thirty. He’s been jailed three times. The first was for speaking out against the Government’s policy towards homosexuals. Upon release, he stole a truck tire, removed the tube and hit the beach. He was 18 miles out when they picked him up. That got him #2. The last time was for doing what he does now, guiding tourists without a license. The police raided his house, confiscated his computer and took him away.

“How long did they detain you?” I ask.

“Not long,” he answers. “Only six months.”

I’m incredulous. “How about the other times?” Part of me doesn’t want to know the answer.

“Two years the first time and 18 months the second. My boyfriend’s in prison now. It’s hard to say how long they’ll keep him.”

All this is matter-of-fact. Like the police checks that can occur anywhere. It’s all part of being a Cuban. Joaquin served in the Army & trained in Russia. He fought briefly in Angola. And we think our Vietnam Vets got a raw deal. Still mystified, I leave him at a coffee stand and hail a taxi. “Why do the police stop its citizens?” I ask the cab driver as we glide down the Malecon.

“Because they’re the police!” he retorts.

He tries to overcharge me when we reach my apartment. I think he figures if I can ask something that stupid I may just be a total idiot.

Judith is 19. She has a slight build and a radiant face crowned with a bob of blonde hair. I met her at the ice cream shop on Calle 22. Ground zero for prostitution. I turn down her offer for a blowjob. Partly out of fidelity and partly because she tells me I’ll need a rubber.

“I don’t like doing this,” she confesses over a vanilla milkshake. “But I have a three-year-old son in Cienfuegus. It’s because of him I come here.”

The street overflows with a cornucopia of women. They all have one thing in common. They’re young. Most come from the other provinces. Their goal is to earn enough to support their families for a while. When that’s gone they’ll be back. As much as she despises her work, Judith is lucky. She has looks. If she’s fortunate she’ll earn $50 USD. That’s more than a doctor makes in two months. The chances are good she find someone. If not today, then maybe tomorrow. In a few years she’ll be in her mid-twenties. That’s just too old.

I think back to the embargo. One of the most vocal groups for keeping it in place are the Cuban-Americans. Don’t they realize that these are their nieces & nephews out there selling themselves in the streets?

It’s mid-morning on a warm Saturday. I’m walking through the busy streets of Old Havana. I’ve got a newspaper tucked under my arm trying to blend in. It’s not working. Scores of people approach me with various requests. All of which would result in their economic gain and my monetary loss. I’m doing a credible job of fending them off until a guy & his wife spot me. He’s wearing a soccer jersey and I love the game. So I lower my guard and converse. As I’m saying goodbye she asks me if I’d buy her a gift. I’m expecting this and reach into my pocket for a dollar.

“Oh no,” she exclaims. “We don’t want money!”

They both grab my arm and carry me to a little stand that sells dry goods. There they order two large plastic sacks of what I take to be flour. When I’m handed the bill I understand that it’s powdered milk.

“It’s for our baby,” they explain.

Once they’re gone I chuck the newspaper in the bin. I just got hustled for $15USD worth of lactose for a two-year-old. I don’t mind it a bit.

THE REVOLUTION

What the Government calls their “Revolutionary Society” can be described this way:

“Everyone is Equal and No One is Free. Except If You’re a Tourist.”

In this Orwellian world, unless a visitor does something extremely stupid, they’re untouchable. For example:

The police constantly stop Cubans. They must produce their papers or go to jail. Tourists are ignored.

On the Autopista, police checkpoints routinely stop and search vehicles. Tourists are always waved through.

Visitors can enter any hotel in the Country. Cubans cannot.

Certain sections of the country are off-limits to Cubans, but not to tourists. (the entire peninsula of Veradero Beach for one although that’s slowly changing).

Where does all this leave the people? Extremely pissed. Not at us though. They love us. We’re the big juicy tit they’re hoping one day to suckle.

The only tangible result of the revolution I witness is that the island is incredibly clean. You motor down the highway and there’s not a speck of trash on the roadside. No bottles, cans or food wrappers. Nothing. Then again, Cubans don’t have anything to throw away.

In my travels I’ve seen poverty in its rawest forms. Women dressed in no more than threads, their naked children groveling in the mud at their swollen feet. You feel compassion, but you can’t relate. There’s this separation. That world is different than yours.

In Cuba, that separation disappears. These folks are no different from us. It’s as if someone plucked you from your comfortable life, handed you a potato and said, “Enjoy your dinner. You’re on your own”. That’s the best I can do to describe this place. To truly understand it, I think you have to be Cuban.

I hope once the Castro Brothers pass there’ll be another revolution, a capitalist one. You can wait until then if you’d like, but if you really want to see something unique…

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