Notes from Cuba

I flew to Nassau, Bahamas, with a planeload of hooting Spring-breakers on a comfy 737. In Nassau I transfered from the clean First-World to the dull Third-World part of the airport, and, waiting in a concrete cafe, already start wondering about the food and the drinking water. The flight on to Havana is less than an hour, but the Cubana flight is on an old Russian jet, military style, the color of metal inside and out.

Passengers are passing around open bottles of rum, and the man lighting a cigar in the third row, who's just come out of the cockpit leaving the door swinging behind him--he's the captain. So this makes me feel a squeamish First-Worlder and maybe a bit compulsive with my traditional ideas of safety...and so far I'm only in Cuban airspace. The rum goes down smooth.

Beside the fact that it is vaguely illegal (a violation of the "Trading with the Enemy "Act), travelling to Cuba is not particularly difficult. You just can't go straight there. You fly through what is called a "Third Country"--the Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, Jamaica. So you have to take two flights instead of one from NYC. A travel agent can set it all up, it just happens to be a Canadian travel agent.

Why Cuba. According to the adventure-travel equation, "value equals weirdness over distance" (vt=w/d), Cuba is hard to beat. The equation states that the value of a strange travel experience is inversely proportional to the distance traveled to obtain it: Weird things are weirder when they are surprisingly close to home. Miami is closer to Havana than it is to Orlando. And Cuba can feel as exotic as China.

It is a place out of time, the least "Westernized" country in the hemisphere. Which means, in the most easily observable sense, that it hasn't been overrun with the visual symbols of West. There are no plastic signs. Save for a couple of billboards outside the Euro-resort area of Varadero, there are no ads for American consumer goods. Cuba, coming as I was from New York City, was a relief from the visual strain of the heart of the heart of Capitalism. It makes you realize to what degree a particular aesthetic is attached to consumer society.


Everything there feels like a open book: the people are very approachable, they want to talk, to find out about you, and tell you about their life, their brother in Hialeah. They are usually happy to have their picture taken, and often thank you when you do.

So much of the life of La Habana is out on the streets. The cars: Grand old American boats of steel, painted bright and still rumbling along somehow. The houses: Old mansions decayed and decaying line the streets, little dogs and children tearing up the yards. Colorful flags of laundry fly along the once-regal balconies, generations of paint crumbling and scratched away by overgrown trees and bushes and vines.

The streets jangle with bicycles during the day. Blackouts are regular, and streets at night are so dark that when a car appears, its headlights are blinding, and leave you stumbling to see the wrinkled concrete sidewalk, the next turn. Yet the streets still whir with brave riders through the blacked-out nights. Couples sharing a ride, families of three perched comfortably on a solid Cuban clunker, giggling home in the silence of a country blessed with a lack of gasoline.

After the first few nights in the Plaza, a classic old colonal hotel in the old center, I moved to the newer richer Vedado neighborhood where I rented a private 2-bedroom apartment for $15/night plus $1.50 for a big breakfast.

The center of the city is choked with huge hybrid buses called "camels," powerful trucks in front hauling double-length carriages packed with as many as 400 Habaneros. You see all manner of jerry-rigged vehicles. Tractor trailor cabs pulling steel containers, their small cut-out windows covered by bars of steel, and jammed like third-world prisons with suburban passengers. Painted on the side: "Transporte Popular"--indeed.

Out of town, concrete bridges arch over the freeway every few miles: just the bridges. They span the highway but there are no roads attached, they connect nothing. "They were building a new highway system," my driver told me, "and then came the Special Period." The Special Period is one of those classic communist euphemisms.: it suggests Cuba's difficulties are unusual and temporary. It is the term everyone uses to describe the economic depression than began with the end of the Soviet Union--and the loss of 70% of their foreign aid and trade.

On the freeways are more bicycles than cars, and any truck going anywhere will fill up its bed with companeros, as many extra riders as can fit standing, with perhaps a bicycle or two holding on for the ride as well. The bridges haven't entirely gone to waste. They now serve as shelters from the sun and rain for travelling Cubans who gather under the stranded spans waiting for rides.

Travellers also crouch behind the commom incongrous propaganda billboards. Some are newly painted, but most are as worn as their sentiments: They Win Who Fight and Resist; We Are All One; We Won't Renounce Our Promises; I Vote for Sobriety, Independence and Dignity; and my favorite, To Die for the Country is To Live.

Hitch-hiking is a form of basic transportation. Main intersections in Havana are lined with people hoping to get picked up and taken across town. If you have an extra seat in your car or van, you pick up a rider or two. As in China, I witnessed a high level of social cooperation and very little aggression between tight-packed people in difficult circumstances.

A lot of people complain--about not being able to travel, about not being able to earn any of the dollars more and more tourists are bringing in. But the people in Cuba are not starving and poor like ghetto dwellers in every other Latin American big city. There are no favelas or slums around Havana. They are subsisting, and they feel hopeless enough to build rafts and risk the seas to Florida. (The last wave of riots and rafters was a few months before when the government banned satellite dishes.)

Cuba has a recent history of wealth and luxury; the impression that only the state and a few powerful people are benefitting; and the proxitimy of the United States where Cubans have been welcomed with open arms and easy citizenship, where opportunity and dollar-rich relatives reside.


Most international tourists to Cuba actually manage to avoid Havana--except perhaps for a daytrip in for an overpriced cocktail at Hemingway's favorite bar. It's a cheap vacation for a lot of the Western World, a direct flight to Varadero, the long peninsula of perfect beach 100 miles east of Havana. Thousands of Italians, Germans, Spaniards, Canadians on package tours land at Varadero's international airport, and many see nothing more of the Socialist Republic of Cuba than these 7 miles of white sands and bluegreen waters.

The beach is strolled constantly by jineteras ("riders" or "jockeys"), Cuba's version of what you might call prostitutes--although drinks at a nightclub, or a chicken dinner and a Coke, make them happy, even if it's not followed by negotiations for something more.

A visiting doctor told me that Cuba has the cheapest and the cleanest whores in the world. Jineteras are between what we call a prostitute and a freelance girlfriend (or boyfriend). There are very few pimps. Less of the desperation of a pimp's exploitation, less drug addiction and those lower orders of need we associate with the profession.

I asked one what she thought of Castro. "I would like to kill him," she answered, "so that my son could have shoes." Then she called him (and it was a remarkable designation coming from her),"hijo de puta," a son of a whore. Do you have a boyfriend? "If I had boyfriend I wouldn't be talking to you."

"A Cuban woman will never have sex with a foreign man except for money." What about for love? "How can there be love when he goes away?" Can she have sex for love with a Cuban man? "Of course, if he takes care of me, with clothes and food and a house."

Jinateras who work for $50. Or even $20. Kids will beg for two or three dollars for escorting a tourist safely the length of the Malecon and Prado back to his hotel, telling a story of how their grandmother has no fuel to cook, making sad faces when they get a dollar less than they'd asked. The big question: What will tourism--dollars and places like Varadero--do to the Cuba that is unique in the Americas?

I got used to the warmth and openness there. NYC is the opposite, everyone is closed off and unapproachable: my natural state, certainly . In Cuba I could be passive, tentative, and still be taken in, brought close to people and situations. It is a place that is about people and intimacy. It is because they have nothing to lose, because they know what can't be taken away. They have been through and are going through something together, as a people, one nation under Fidel. There appears to be unity, even if it is only a unity of wait-and-see.

All the Habaneros I met could dance salsa, meringue, casino and other complex partner-dances; they could play guitar and sing: it's genetic or environmental, but it's there, in the blood, in the air. I don't know if it went away with Castro and has recently returned, or if Cuba's decadence and pleasures were always there, and even heightened by retraints on so much of the rest of life. Music, dance, rum, coffee, cigars, sex: the things Cuba still does best. "Cuba holds on to its pleasures, " woman told me, "Sex is one thing Castro can't take away ."


The Malecon

The Malecon is the seawall between the city of Havana and the Atlantic Ocean. It is also a waterfront highway and promenade that runs for five miles between the Castillo de la Punta in the old city and the wealthy western suburb of Miramar.

On the city-side of the avenue, the blocks of waterfront buildings are beautiful and completely dilapidated. Prime real estate in any other universe, many of these are empty shells or crowded slums, walls crumbling or leaning on rough wood scaffolding, paint 40
years dull, worn to breathtaking pastels, blue, violet, pink and grey.

Here are fishermen in the early morning setting out rump-down in innertubes; a constant stream of foot, motor and bicycle traffic in the day; where lovers stroll and friends share evening beers over a distant sunset and glistening brownskin kids swimming and splashing off sharp rocks. The Malecon is Havana at its most open and free: a public walk along the spreading beautiful blue Atlantic, a promenade as definingly urban as Fifth Avenue or the Champs Elysees. The city at its back, out of sight, almost forgotten.

This close is the sea in the Cuban mind, even amidst its largest city. This close the Malecon, the wall that separates, protects, and holds them back--from the sea, and from what is beyond, just barely out of sight. As much a presense as the wall, the rocks, and the sea is The Next Thing in this series, just over the horizon and the beyond infamous ninety miles: Florida, USA.

"There," was how I answered the tourist touts--the "amigos" who accosted me on the Malecon offering protection, conversation, and always asking what country I was from; "there," was all I had to say, pointing out across the sea.

It was impossible to be in Cuba without comparing it to the other commie lands I'd recently spent time in. Russia doesn't have Cuba's close history of wealth and luxury; Russia's wealth was all up in small part of St. Petersburg. Reminders of Havana's wealth are all around you, decaying, all the time.

Line Culture is essential to communist bureaucracy and post-communist poverty. In China, lines are long and slack and lifeless, mechanical but not relaxed: until the train comes in and they scramble in through the doors and the windows like panic, a stampede in reverse.

In Russia lines are organized and resigned, dour and hostile, depressing, desperate, openly aggressive, uncomfortable: We are waiting for bread. Or meat or milk or shoes. We are ashamed to have to provide for ourselves in such a way in public. Shame, projected, becomes spite.

A line-joiner in Havana asks simply for "the last" and takes her place. Here lines lounge, wait respectfully across the street from the cafe that is full, the store that is yet to open. You can save a place in line at Coppelia, the famous ice-cream restaurant, return an hour later with seven friends, and no one behind you will complain.

Patience is mixed with heat-induced laziness: what must be accomplished can be from a seated position. The attitude expresses itself is the essential ability of Cubans to hiss to gain your attention.

Hissing is rude, we think; in Cuba it is understood that the same pitched sibilants that draw the notice of cats and dogs work on humans too. We may find it instantly repellant, and it takes some getting used to--to realize there is a different cultural aesthetic here.

It's not just men hissing to bother pretty girls. In a fancy restaurant, why attract your waitress with a subtle head tilt or crooked finger when a "Tsss!" will cut through any crowd's murmur and clatter? Like laser or sonar, the skillfully directed Cuban hiss can pinpoint and lock onto a target a hundred yards away, turning only the desired head. All without having to stand or even wave.

It must work on some instictive level, harken to some primal core--it's hard not to respond. Hawkers, mongers, pimps and other street hustlers in Havana whose livelihood depend on it, assume they can stop passing tourists in their tracks with a wellplaced hiss--("SSSSS! Que pais? amigo! Sssss! My friend!")--and usually they can. You can tell the particularly ambitious tourist touts in Havana: they are the ones who actually stand up to talk to you.

There is a difference between a bombed-out city and a neglected city. There is a purity to Havana's decay. A museum of untouched, undiscovered, treasures. Buildings fall at random, at the touch of God rather than the bombadier. A natural process of urban calamity--which is not usually the case. A building near the harbor collapsed the day before I got there, six people were killed.