We stand in the airport of the only place in the world forbidden to Americans by our own government. My traveling companion, Matt, and I have risked severe fines for aiding the enemy to see what nine presidents since Kennedy have tried to exterminate: Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the communist monster.
What we know about Cuba is mostly iconic: a bearded Fidel in military cap, cigar clenched in his teeth; Che’s bereted imperialist defiant stare; grim jackbooted communist foot-soldiers menacing the populace with bayoneted rifles. The same images as China or the USSR, communists are largely interchangeable, they come from a world most of us haven’t seen outside the pages of Newsweek. Yet from a trip to China in the early 90’s, I know images such as Tiananmen Square don’t tell the whole story.
So here we are. The taxi ride into Havana is unlike a car ride anywhere else in the western hemisphere: the streets teem with pre-1960 American cars, Russian cars, diesel trucks and tractors, Chinese made bicycles, even horse drawn wagons. People stand waiting for rides or walk along the dusty margin of the road. So far no soldiers or tanks, but there are plenty of billboards with political slogans: “We will win” declares one. “We’re doing fine” assures another optimistically while a grey bearded Fidel looks on.
At our hostel, we meet Tom, a gregarious Canadian who’s been here 10 days. Tom has just enough money left to fund accommodations and meals for his remaining three days. He also has a suitcase brimming with packs of disposable razors, old T-shirts and condoms to distribute. He sports his thinning hair in a ponytail and has a distinctive Sikh-like beard he teases out from his jaw into a sharp ridge.
Anxious to wade into the city, we tell Tom we’re hungry and throw ourselves at his mercy. We soon come upon the Prado: the wide tree-lined walkway running down the middle of the street. The restaurant is in a neoclassical palace: a spectacular if dirty glass ceiling, wide marble staircases, classical furniture, a bronze mounted El Cid on a table, sculptures of Greek goddesses adorn the interior courtyard. We feast on lobster and shrimp; extremely reasonably priced by western standards, but still a month’s wages for a local.
The only Cubans in this restaurant are scurrying in and out of the kitchen bearing dishes such as Congri, the traditional black beans and rice. We’re early, other tourists don’t start filing in until later. Soon enough retired white people fill the elegant front room amongst the marble end tables, their images multiply endlessly in the oversized mirrors at either end of the room. After coffee we stroll beneath the leafy canopy of the Prado past the grand inns with their majestic old world architecture and black and white photos of famous past guests.
As we pass the entrance to the pedestrian shopping street, San Rafael, hustlers pounce on Tom. The combination of unemployment and low wages afford people plenty of time and motivation to earn money on the side; a tip can mean a quick week’s pay. Although rebel Americans are relatively rare, plenty of Canadians and Europeans ply these streets handing out trinkets. Tom is well known by the regulars and placating them with promises of later gifts, we hastily move on.
We cut through the Parque Central with its statue of the grandfather of the country, Jose Marti and down a narrow street into Old Havana. Restaurant touts try to lure us in. “Tomorrow night!” they call after us hopefully. To prove we’re not home anymore, we buy cans of beer at a corner stand to sip as we walk. A darkened park crouches next to a hulking old church; inside a small congregation sings, their echoes resonate in the cavernous building. Three and four story buildings stand in various stages of disrepair. Dark beauties with crumbling facades loom next to hollow shells, ornate arches still intact.
As we approach another churchlike building brightly lit by construction lamps, a man in a guard’s uniform steps away from the girl whose neck he has been murmuring into, motioning us to look inside. “It’s a convent. They’ve been renovating it for 10 years,” he says. The nuns will have to continue to wait; it’s nowhere near finished. Over the course of a few blocks the streets become quieter, the buildings less decrepit. A row of cannons buried muzzle down in the cobblestones of the narrow street signals our entry into the oldest area of the city.
Taking the most mysterious street at each intersection, we happen upon Plaza Vieja. The square is dark except for twin restaurants dominating opposing corners, lit only by the ghostly light of the nearly full moon. A large fountain gurgles in the center of the plaza behind a tall wrought iron fence. A traditional Son band serenades diners. The streets are quiet, the buildings dark. A section of the original aqueduct lies open in the street behind a fence like an open, bloodless vein. The buildings of Old Havana have had their restorations completed. The result is an elegant theme park: teeming with tourists by day, abandoned at night.
As if to prove all roads lead to the church, St. Francis of Asis blocks our path. The simple white stucco exterior and characteristic bell tower are identical to the missions built along the California coast. A statue of the founder of the California missions, Father Junipero Serra stands in front, his hand resting protectively on an Indian boy’s shoulder.
I feel a twinge of kinship with this country, like secretly visiting a cousin you’ve never met because of a family feud no one remembers who started. In the center of the elegant Plaza de Armas sits the bookseller’s park. Behind it on the seawall, known as the malecon, the solid Castle of Royal Might stands guard, the oldest colonial fortress in the Americas and home to the Spanish governor for 200 years. Across the harbor the flame of an oil refinery flickers atop its stack, an unintended monument to an unnamed hero.
The malecon is busy. Lacking the money to enjoy the restaurants and bars of the old town, ordinary Cubans share flirtatious conversation, gesturing, laughing, dancing, sipping cheap rum from tetra-packs and enjoying the cool salty breeze at the edge of the sea. Not yet ready to leave the museum-like charm of the old town, we turn our backs on the malecon.
Walking west we run into another band playing to another outdoor restaurant. The show is for the tourists’ benefit, the rhythm infectious. Behind the band stands a building pairing Spanish classical architecture below and modernist elements above. Beside it is a Moorish style fountain, water trickles along a narrow fissure in the cobblestones stretching the entire length of the building before feeding a wedding cake fountain. A man pushes his daughter on a bicycle around the gently splashing sandstone cascade. As we walk along the narrow streets, kids pause in their games to ask for money in an offhand way.
Back at Parque Central we buy another beer from the corner stand, already we’re repeat customers. We cross the Prado, which forms the border between Old Havana and Central Havana and wade through the hustlers on San Rafael. Tom slips one a pack of razors as we move through the crowd. By this point my feet are blistered from the sandals I haven’t worn since the temperature dipped below 70 in Portland, months ago. A dark skinned girl greets us, questions us pleasantly, then begins to tell us of the difficulty of life here and how she needs money for her child. Only a chair and a drink can save me now.
On cue, we find Cabaret Palermo. Hard luck looking patrons perch on stools around the oval bar nursing bottles of beer under the tall ceiling. Loud salsa music booms. The long defunct “cabaret” lies at the end of the bar behind a plywood partition sporting a slogan painted in large letters commemorating the 48th anniversary of the revolution. It’s still the honeymoon phase of the trip: I’m enchanted by its grimy honesty and outdated lines; this is my kind of dive bar. I barely notice the strong odor of concentrated urine.
Our bartender is Michael. Like all service industry workers he wears a white button down short sleeved shirt and black slacks. Michael tells us the government hasn’t gotten around to fixing up this neighborhood, the piles of rubble in front of the numerous ruined buildings of this neighborhood confirm this. Soon we’re surrounded by the bartenders and several patrons; they sense opportunity. We drink rounds.
While waiting for the toilet I chat with a man who guards the door while his lady friend is inside. Unlike the rest of the patrons he’s dressed in casual but elegant clothes; he later turns out to be the boss. The bathroom is horrible. The toilet can’t be flushed – no handle. The concentrated stench is overwhelming. Michael invites us to see the best DJ in Cuba the next night. We promise everyone to meet, then leave and wander the streets towards home. Matt has to pee and we aren’t really yet ready to go to bed. Light and music stream out of a corner doorway. As we pause, unsure if we should poke our heads in and ask to use the bathroom, a chorus of voices rings out, beckoning us inside.
The bright living room holds several curious faces; youngish Cubans sit around the small room on the sofa, chairs are brought in from the table which is visible through the archway in the kitchen. The guest of honor wobbles precariously on her mother’s lap, she holds her gently around the waist: it’s her first birthday party. The loudest man introduces himself in broken English as Abel and proceeds to question us, where are we from? Are we in a casa (hostel) or hotel? Do we want to buy cigars? The older woman curled up in the corner of the sofa is Abel’s mother and the baby’s grandmother. The baby’s father sits silently in a chair behind his wife. The others arrayed around the room are friends from the neighborhood. Abel suggests we make a toast in honor of the baby. We agree emphatically, the catch – no booze in the house.
Thus begins the long journey. My winter-soft feet protest at each step, but I suck it up and hobble on. These streets, so full of activity earlier, are now quiet, the air warm as we go towards the malecon. We walk shoulder to shoulder, talking in pairs. Tom pokes me from time to time, “How do you say motherboard in Spanish?” We cross the wide boulevard separating the colonial neighborhood from the malecon. At an outdoor bar a fresh breeze blows off the straits of Florida. We buy the last of the canned beer, but it’s not enough for everyone in the little sitting room. After finding a second bar closed Abel decides to try our luck on the other side of the neighborhood. My feet curse him.
Back we go, trudging down the darkened streets, talking in a mixture of Spanish, English and hand gestures. By the time we finally find another bar, we’ve finished the ones we originally bought. We replenish and head back to the party. It seems like hours since we left, I’m surprised to find everyone still there, listening to Latino pop and chatting. Red Bucanero brand cans are raised to the baby’s health. I wonder what Cuba will be like by the time she’s old enough to make a toast of her own. We soon trickle back into the darkness to locate our inn, exhausted yet thrilled by Fidel’s Cuba.