I sat in the cafeteria in the Havana airport eating yet another serving of beans and rice and watched as an American teenage girl had a First World Problem in a Third World country.
“No ketchup in Cuba?” she yelled at her mother. “What kind of country doesn’t have ketchup?”
The teen slumped into an empty chair at my table to take refuge from her mother’s failure to procure the condiment for her ham sandwich. She set her tray of food down, shook her fist in the air and called out, “I hate Cuba. I will never return.”
Fist shaking as an exclamation mark? I liked it. I put my tablet away where it might be safe from emotional outbursts as I enjoyed the last moments of my spring break vacation.
Her mother pulled up a chair, leaned in and whispered to her, “Shut your mouth. You know where you are.” Mother looked around. “I mean it. Save your opinions.”
Looks like I had a front row seat for drama before I boarded my flight home.
Teen stood and shouted. “It’s all Castro’s fault. No internet. No food. No happiness. How dare he…”
Mother sharpened her voice. “Stop. It. Now.”
People sitting nearby picked up their half eaten sandwiches and moved to the windows at the far side of the room. My smile faded, would someone think this girl was with… me?
Everyone knows that in Cuba you don’t express distaste for the Castro family in public. One Cuban woman told me that voicing criticism of the State carried a prison sentence that was heavier than murder.
I understood the teenager’s frustration with this country. A typical worker in Cuba makes a dollar a day; an internet card costs up to a dollar an hour. Imagine having to pay a day’s salary for an hour of internet. People get enough food for about two weeks, then use 80% of their salary to buy the rest of their food for the month.
Sure, there’s value in keeping people poor and hungry so they can’t fight for freedom, but I’ve never been to a place that stifled the human spirit as much as Cuba did. It was heart wrenching to walk through neighborhoods with crumbling buildings where people held up rickety metal stairs with a 2x4 or climbed in windows so they could get into their apartments.
All things for sale in Cuba are expensive and benefit the State. Food. Water. Clothes. Souvenirs. Taxis. Building supplies. Rental apartments. Hotels. Did I mention food?
My first two nights in my first communist country were spent at a resort at Veradero Beach because the guide books all insisted that the only way to get a good walk on a beach was to stay at an all inclusive resort. I’d never stayed at a resort before, preferring to find typical cultural experiences, but I craved beach walks, so I caved.
It was a good idea, travel hard to get there, then laze around for a few days. The resort, Turquesa All Inclusive, was filled with winding paths and pretty gardens and a spectacular pool and one of the best beaches I’d ever seen. My room was large, had unlimited hot water and no bugs. A dream find on the internet for a hundred and twenty dollars a night.
I met a cute Canadian man who was also traveling alone. We lay side by side in lounge chairs at the pool and told the secrets normally reserved for a stranger sitting next to you on an airplane. Work. Family. Fun. Dating. Travel. We spoke freely as most of the tourists around us didn’t speak English.
I left him by the pool, which is my way, to walk on the beach. Then left him at the resort, which is also my way, to find adventure in Havana. For those who wonder why I’m single, this is the full explanation.
Adventure is my favorite flirt.
Cute Canadian insisted on paying the hundred dollar taxi fare for my trip to Havana so that he wouldn’t have to worry about me getting there on the bus, but after he waited almost an hour to get money from an ATM that had none, I paid for myself.
I hired a state-owned yellow taxi for the ride and the tall Cuban driver was in the mood to talk—in Spanish. He was complimentary as I searched for words and opinions with my limited vocabulary.
He asked a lot of questions and established that we both like our mothers, walking on the beach and traveling.
(Do you like your president?) He asked, in Spanish.
(Nobody likes him.) I said, in Spanish.
(I wish that were true, for the benefit of your country.) he said, then gave an impassioned speech about the trials of teachers carrying guns in a classroom which was the rage in the international news at the time.
(Do you understand my Spanish?) He asked.
(I understand about half of what you say)” I said.
He smiled into the rear-view mirror and said, (Most women only understand ten percent of what I say. You are very smart.)
I laughed and had to let the perfect retort go, for lack of vocabulary.
About an hour into the trip, we were pulled over by the police for some kind of paperwork inspection. I asked the driver, (Is there a problem?)
(I don’t know.) He shook his head and pulled papers out of the glove compartment.
I watched as three police officers talked to him, reviewed his paperwork and handed it back to him.
One police officer pointed to me in the back of the taxi.
I could hear them talking. I wondered how long this would take.
They opened the trunk of the car.
What a relief that I kept my bag up front with me. I hate it when the police rifle through my stuff without me there.
They closed the trunk. The head officer held out one hand. The driver waved his paperwork in the air.
A bribe? Were they asking for a bribe? Right here, in public, on the side of the highway?
One policeman pointed to me in the back of the car, then walked to my door and put his hand on the door handle.
Me? Wait. Seriously? Are they here to get a bribe from me? No joke: I hid my money in every nook of my bag; it would take a long time for me to—find it. If I had to pay a bribe on top of the taxi fare, I would sulk for months.
I should have stayed with the cute Canadian.
The driver raised his voice. The policeman turned his head to listen.
There is always a moment in my travels when it dawns on me that I’ve made a terrible mistake in choosing this time to travel to this place: this was that moment. I shouldn’t have ridden alone in a taxi. I know better. I’ve been telling other solo travelers for years, “Surround yourself with people all the time so someone will notice if you’ve gone missing.”
I was sitting in a taxi on the side of a dusty highway surrounded by scrub brush. Just me and a random taxi driver and three questionable policemen. Bad plan. Bad, bad plan.
Before I left home, I told my sister where the key was to my new house and where my car would be parked at the Albany airport. My will was in my desk’s drawer and I told my mother I loved her.
Years ago my father suggested I stop traveling alone to poor countries and take up needle point. My friend, Loraine, keeps trying to ground me like some adolescent trouble maker so I might escape the wandering eye of foreign danger.
But curiosity lures; and so I travel.
I could hear the clicking as the policeman toyed with my door handle.
I went to a place in my head. A blank slate. I wasn’t planning the next step or worried about contacting my family. It was like I was a ninja warrior who knew she could handle anything that happened next. I was ready.
Later I would wonder where this skill came from, to find “radio silence” under pressure. I meditate regularly, but have no other mindfulness training. I waited for the next step like a woman who was inconvenienced by a gate change at the airport and just wanted to know where to go.
Driver shouted something.
The policeman moved his hand off of my door handle.
Driver pulled some bills out of his wallet and handed them to the policeman.
Policeman accepted the money, turned to me and waved.
Driver returned to the taxi, started the car and drove us away. I turned back and saw the three policemen waving from behind.
Fuckers. Those fuckers. Waving as if extortion was a game that they happened to win this time.
I broke into a sweat from head to toe. Inside my head I screamed insults at the police, at Castro and at Cuba for scaring the hell out of me and for bullying its own. It’s wrong. It’s so wrong.
I was on the verge of starting my own revolution when I noticed the driver’s reflection in the rear-view mirror.
I could see a part his tense forehead and one large, pulsing vein in the mirror. I could hear his uneven breathing. (That’s what I like about my country.) He said. (There are a lot of controls that keep us safe.)
I nodded in the back seat.
(Do you understand?) He asked, looking back at me in the mirror.
(Yes.) I said. (I think so.)
We drove on in silence. I closed my eyes to help me calm down and to give Driver space. When I woke up, we were in Havana.
He called off sights as I snapped photos from inside the car. The old fort. That one big hotel. The University of Havana.
Driver asked if he could buy my dinner.
I declined, telling him that I was meeting friends for dinner, because I didn’t have the mental energy to tease out whether he was looking for a fun conversation or an escape hatch from this country.
He asked if my friends were Cuban.
I said they were. We both knew I was lying.
Before I left NY, I played the song by Camila Cabello on repeat, “Havana ooh na-na. Half of my heart is in Havana, ooh-na-na.” I had no interest in living out the song.
When we arrived at my rental, I handed him a pile of money, he handed back the tip. I looked into his eyes and said in English, “We both know that you saved me.”
He shook his head and handed the money back to me. Although he didn’t speak my language, he understood the sentiment. He said in Spanish, (You are not to blame for my broken country.)
(Neither are you…) I said.
The owner of my rental, a seventy year old woman smoking a fat cigar, came out of her downstairs apartment in what looked like a night gown and disrupted our disagreement. I greeted her, then shook Driver’s hand. I looked him in the eyes as I tried to hand him the tip. Again he refused. I held the money in my hand and said, (Thank you for helping me.)
He dropped his gaze, then looked into my eyes and smiled. (Welcome to Habana.)
My $20 a night Air B&B apartment was owned by the cigar smoker who lived downstairs with her adult son. The reviews on the internet swore that she was sweet and grandmotherly.
She frowned at my comfortable sandals and knee length skirt. (Where are your bags? What kind of tourist are you?)
I held up my day pack and smiled.
She shook her head and exhaled as she handed me keys and waved me upstairs as if I were an inconvenience.
I know. I know. I wanted a typical experience. Looks like I was going to get it.
My apartment was in the Vedado neighborhood, far from downtown. The entrance was through a locked garden gate, then up a windy metal staircase to a locked door. It was more than adequate with a kitchen area, a dining area with an air conditioner (!) and a large comfortable bed just outside the bathroom.
The water heater hung inside the shower and the wire ran from the unit and was wired into an outlet next to the sink. I needed a shower but that wire scared me. Hello? What happens when the wire gets wet?
I turned the water on; it was hot within seconds. A light mist came out of the shower head. Just a mist. I stepped into the mist, careful to steer clear of that wire. It took a long time to get wet under the slow mist, but it worked.
I showered, dressed and unpacked.
The apartment had outlets with voltages of 110 and 120 right next to each other. I’d never seen that before. I felt like I was faced with detonating a bomb: cut the red wire first or the blue wire? I had both my US plugs and European adapters with me, and wondered which would be safer. I plugged my phone into the USA electrical outlet and it wasn’t fried.
I lay on my bed to recharge my brain. I’m here. I’m safe. I’m ready for adventure. Relax. Relax. Relax.
My $10 a day tour guide, J, met me an hour after my arrival, as planned, and made it clear that I could ask him anything in English about his country. He helped me fill out the paperwork for the apartment. Name. Address at home. Passport number.
We went downstairs to hand my paperwork to the owner. She wouldn’t look at me.
She asked J in a tone normally reserved when inviting the queen to a tea you know she wouldn’t attend. (Would she like me to make her breakfast every morning?)
I looked at the guide and waited for him to translate. What a strange welcome. Clearly she didn’t get the memo about smiling and welcoming visitors and that I spoke some Spanish.
There was no way I wanted to sit with Sour Puss and eat breakfast and make conversation. “No, thank you.” I said to the guide. “Tell her thank you, but I will eat in town.”
She turned to her son as they walked back into their apartment. (At least I don’t have to make her breakfast.)
My eyes flew open. No grandmotherly love for me?
“Ignore her.” J said as we walked out to the street. “She’s been in a bad mood lately. It’s not your fault.”
“Should I eat with her?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t.” He said.
We both laughed.
“I’ll buy my water from her.” I offered. She charged $3 for a 1500 ML bottle, which was 1 ½ liters or just over six cups of water. It was the same price I paid for water at the resort.
“That would help her out.” he said.
We walked a few blocks through the neighborhood that looked a lot like the garden district in New Orleans except that some buildings that people lived in were literally crumbling.
After a number of taxis refused to stop to pick us up, he joked that I needed to look more Cuban so we might get a ride.
“Not everyone likes tourists.” He said.
Finally a “collective” or shared taxi stopped and J negotiated with the driver for us both to ride twenty minutes to the old section of the city for a dollar. There were five of us in the taxi, plus the driver. The musty smell of the car on that 80 degree day seemed to have more to do with the fact that the car was over sixty years old than the sweating people around me.
J walked me around and pointed out major sights with a patience I welcomed. He literally watched my back as I snapped photos, pulled me across the road to safety when I got distracted, scared away stray dogs and answered every question I could think of.
He was 29 years old, married to a dancer and they had no children. He got a bachelor’s degree in IT but is not working in the area because there are no jobs.
He explained what it was like to live with banned books and the State run media, but was careful to never cross the line between explaining his country and complaining about it.
He asked how far I lived from my mother.
“By bus?” He asked.
“You own a car?”
He was curious to know how much I knew about Cuba and asked what I thought about the upcoming presidential elections in his country and asked what I knew about the price of food, the educational system and the lack of retirement options.
I studied Cuban history and politics before I arrived, but he knew far more details about my country than I did about his.
His English was strong. The only word that stumped him was flour, which he pronounced “flur.”
“Actually,” I said, “The word is “flour.”
He closed his eyes, listening intently as I repeated the pronunciation. “The way you say that sounds like you are saying the plant, flower.”
I smiled. “Yes. You are right. They sound the same. Flour. Flower.”
He lowered his head a moment, committing this new information to memory, then looked at me and apologized. “I didn’t know that.”
As we walked and talked, he noticed that I took a lot of photos of the buildings that were literally falling down. “Oh, you like destruction?” He asked. “Then you are going to love Habana.”
I wanted to hang out at the big restaurants with big bands and dancing and interesting food, but I couldn’t do it. Besides the fact that those meals cost what you’d pay in an expensive restaurant at home, those restaurants benefit the state. All workers there made minimal salaries and were trained to smile and wave and show interest in the visitors so they might earn big tips which, sigh, would also be given to the state.
J took me to locally owned restaurants where a Cuban, albeit a rich one, might eat. Dinner included a mound of beans and rice, a piece of chicken or pork, salad and about a tablespoon of sweet potato. I bought both of our meals for under five dollars which included a drink and dessert for both of us.
The black beans were cooked first, then the rice cooked in the same water which gave the grain a hearty dark color as if there was seasoning in it. There wasn’t. Some restaurants offered a decent ratio of beans to rice, others served only a pinch of beans per order. I grew tired of this same dish after a few days; J couldn’t believe he got to eat meat three days in a row.
I know. How dare I complain of boring food when this is what he eats every single day. On his birthday: beans and rice. On New Year’s Eve: beans and rice. When he’s sick: beans and rice. Or sad: beans and rice. Or wooing his wife: beans and rice. Twice a month his extended family who live together in one house, splurges on bits of meat to add to their rice.
One day we went to a restaurant that had lamb on the menu. Lamb!
“Sorry.” J knew my intent to eat typically. “We don’t have a lot of lamb here. It must be imported.” He smiled and asked if I wanted pork or chicken with my rice.
I got the chicken and hid my disappointment when all I got was a drumstick. Hello? This is it? One drumstick? I was hungry. I toyed with the idea of buying more meat for both of us.
No. This part of the trip was about having an authentic experience. Though I said nothing about feeling gypped, he offered to share his pork with me.
Cuba had a way of humbling me.
I worried about traveling to a place that kept only a skeleton crew on at the US embassy after an apparent chemical attack on the Americans who worked there. The embassy website suggested travel to anywhere else and swore zero help should anyone need assistance. Pair that with the fact that Cuban banks don’t accept credit or debit cards from the US, and I was essentially on my own with about three hundred dollars left, after the taxi ride, hidden in my pockets and throughout my bag.
Can you say solo travel?
It wasn’t my first visit to an impoverished country. I knew how to dress plainly and carried only a daypack for my visit, hand washing clothes at night so they could be worn again. I told everyone that I was a teacher, which is true, and that I didn’t have a lot of money, which is true by US standards, but any rookie would have lived a fat life on the spending money I brought with me.
There is little civilian crime in Cuba; nobody wants to be an enemy of the state.
I was too uncomfortable to spend money on extras. Those old cars aren’t a relic of a rust-proof society, they are the result of the US embargo on Cuba right after we claimed a slice of their island for our military base. No fancy taxi ride or photo shoots with old cars for me.
How could I buy a seven dollar trinket, knowing that it was a week and a half’s salary for a typical worker and that the money would, again, benefit the state?
Interesting art was priced out of my range and I swear the rest of it was the same cheap paintings I’ve seen in other countries—likely exported from China. There were beautiful handmade lace tablecloths for sale by local artists, but they reminded me of the tablecloths my mother knit in the seventies: I-just-couldn’t.
Hemingway lived in the Havana area for twenty-two years and wrote The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls at his Cuban estate. When Castro took over the country, he claimed all foreign owned properties as State owned, including the writer’s.
I wanted to see the place where Hemingway wrote even though the five dollar fee would, sigh, benefit the State. I’d been to his house in Key West, Florida and really wanted to add another of his writing rooms to my photo collection.
I’d researched before I left and read that I could get a taxi there for about a hundred dollars. My guide told me he could get me a taxi for about twenty dollars, or we could take a long bus ride for twenty five cents.
“How long’s the bus ride?” I asked.
Later he told me I was his first tour, ever, that rode the forty-minute bus because most people don’t want to waste their time on a… bus. But I wouldn’t trade it. Not only did I get a forward facing seat, I got to ride with locals while I studied their clothes and searched their faces for happiness.
The Hemingway estate is a tropical paradise. Palm trees. Winding drive. Large house with enormous windows. The museum curators claim the house is as Hemingway left it: desks piled high with collectibles [Sorry, but nobody could write on that desk], bookshelves heavy with hardcover books, a collection of his worn boots and military uniforms.
Visitors were forbidden from entering the house, but were permitted to take photos through the open windows.
I found what was most likely his writing desk over the garage. A simple table held a simple typewriter and a plain chair. Books on shelves. Large windows behind his desk.
That’s what I was looking for. That photo. This solitude. That view. A napping chair.
While waiting at the bus stop for our return to the center of town, I watched outer Havana go by. Old cars. Woman gossiping. Horse carts. School groups. A remarkable absence of people carrying shopping bags with groceries or electronics or clothes or… anything.
Back in the center of the city, we walked past four men who had a mattress on a table. “What are they doing?” I asked.
“Repairing” He said. “Cuba is not a throw-away culture. If something breaks, your cell phone or your shoes, you fix them again and again. There is always somebody who can fix what you have.”
We stopped at a coffee shop and ordered 2 small coffees through a window. Our coffee came in tiny ceramic cups for 5 cents each. J said it was pretty good for this kind of coffee.
He shared Cuban sayings with me. When a door into an art gallery was stuck, he said, “The door wasn’t very smart.” And when he tripped on a sidewalk, a man passing by said to him, “You found a sweet potato. Put a name to it.”
This peek into the regular life of a foreign country is what I long for as I strive to answer the question that’s the driving force behind all of my travels.
What’s it really like there?
In the evenings after he dropped me off at the apartment, I ventured out on my own. I never saw another tourist in the area.
As I walked, locals would yell out, “Hello New York!” I was never sure if they had heard my story or if they were correctly guessing where I lived. I offered them a half-wave and walked on.
A man passed me on the sidewalk and made loud kissing noises.
I said, as if by reflex, something I might have said to a naughty student in my kindergarten classroom back home. (Boy, be careful/cut it out.)
The man, who may have been in his early twenties, turned back and lectured me, in Spanish, on showing respect to a Cuban man, probably because I called him a boy.
I laughed and said in poor Spanish that it is easier to respect a man who isn’t kissing the air. I laughed as he walked away.
He turned back and yelled (You always laugh.) then he crossed the street and was gone.
Brain freeze. I wasn’t here to insult the locals. I took a few deep breaths and reminded myself that I was a guest of this country. Any further air kissing would get no response from me. There. Now. I was ready.
l happened upon a small, family owned bakery. Flan sat in the case surrounded by sugary pastries. The flan called to me. Why not? I sat at a little table by the door and tried to eat slowly. Impossible. It was the best flan I’d ever eaten. I bought a second piece. Just as good. Flan for dinner!
Feeling restless after my sweets, I wandered around until I found a family run restaurant with about ten tables and live music. Hello! The crowd was Cuban, mixed ages. Some were eating what looked like barbecue with a roll on the side, others had fancy sandwiches. I longed for a sandwich but couldn’t order one due to my food issues.
The band was young and I had no idea if they were playing original music or Cuban covers and realized it didn’t matter. I got the last table and smiled like I’d won the lottery.
After studying the menu, I got a plate of chicken, beans and rice and a tablespoon of sweet potatoes. The food was out in a few minutes. I smiled as if I were pleased with the presentation and thanked the waitress.
Several Cuban women joined my table and practiced their English by quizzing me on where I was from and what I liked about Cuba and the names of any Cuban people I knew in the states. When asked if I played the guitar, rather than mentioning that I knew how to strum the same five guitar chords I learned in college, I told them that my five-year-old students liked to sing.
I can’t remember exactly how I got on stage. The band sat at my feet, which felt a lot like being in my classroom, so I started singing and playing the Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds” on electric guitar. I was a little stiff; this was my first electric guitar experience and I’ve never mastered the skill of singing into a microphone.
“Rise up this morning, smile at the rising sun….”
People shouted encouragement, a few joined in.
“Three little birds pitched by my doorstep…”
The kitchen staff ran into the restaurant and sang along.
“Singing sweet songs…”
The drummer ran to his kit and began to play.
“A melody pure and true. This is my message to you oo oo.”
I was the last person I’d ever expect to see fronting a foreign rock band. But that’s the thing about travel, it’s easier for me to say “Yes” when I’m surrounded by strangers.
The lead guitarist took a solo while I strummed my simple chord changes and noted that the crowd was as electric as my guitar.
We weren’t there representing our cultures or hiding our differences. We were people out on a Wednesday night bonding over a good time. Music may be the best bridge builder of all.
We sang the same verses again and again until it was time for the song to end. Everyone clapped and laughed at finding fun in an unlikely place.
Someone asked if I knew any songs in Spanish.
I know. I should have stopped after the first song, but… why stop?
I thought it would be funny to play the song I sing in Spanish with my students. I started playing and singing “La Cucaracha” loud and clear. In the US, that song always brings a laugh.
“La cucaracha. La cucaracha…”
The place become as quiet as midnight. Smiles left faces.
“Ya no puede caminar.”
People stared with stone faces. Was I singing a funeral march? Bad move singing this song, bad, bad move.
“Porque no tiene. Porque la falta”
Did everyone just take a giant step backwards, away from me? Wait, did they?
“Las dos petitas de atros.”
I was held by their stares. What had I done?
I searched for words in Spanish but wasn’t sure what I would say in English to repair my faux pas.
One of the women who had laughed at my table called to me in English. “You sing that with children in America?”
“Yes.” I said.
She continued. “You sing it because they like insects?”
“No.” I said. “We sing it because it makes them laugh.”
The woman nodded and turned to the people and said something in a fast Spanish that I couldn’t understand, then said to me in English, “We don’t like insects, here.”
I nodded, looked at the audience and said a slow, (I’m sorry) to everyone in the room, then handed the guitar back to the musician and added, (It’s time for real music!)
The band started playing as I made my way to my table. The same woman joined me, a loyal new friend.
Where was the safe zone between window shopping and insulting? I didn’t want to watch without experiencing, but there was no way I could walk into their world and know the rules.
I asked her, “Is it bad to sing that song in Cuba?”
She laughed and sang into my ear. “Don’t worry about a thing. Cause every little things gonna be alright.”
I nodded and smiled and she left for the bathroom. It was late. I was tired. Time to go. I put 10 pesos convertibles on the table, more than double the price of my meal, and smiled my way to the exit.
I wasn’t there to insult the locals.
If I was there to learn about Cuba, why did I keep distracting people from sharing themselves? I wasn’t there to show off; I wanted to know what it was really like there. Next time I would listen to the music. There. Now. I was ready.
Lying in bed at the end of another fourteen hour day of adventure, I listened as the neighborhood came to life. People talking. TVs blaring. Dogs barking. Music playing.
I heard a fairly constant call of visitors throughout the night for houses in my area. In Cuba I didn’t notice any doorbells or hear anyone knocking on a door. Rather someone would walk to a front door and yell the name of the person who lived there.
I could hear names being yelled for blocks around.
“Enrique.” Then louder. “Enrique!” And louder. “ENRIQUE!”
Until a voice answered and the person was invited inside.
I heard Enrique’s name called so often that he showed up in my dreams. I asked him why he didn’t invite me to the party, and he begged me to learn Spanish so I could explain his country to him.
Though I would have skipped it, J insisted I go to the Museum of the Revolution the next day. Since I was there on a “People to People/Education” visa, I agreed to educate myself.
The Museum is housed in the former Presidential Palace in the center of town. It’s a beautiful building, decorated by Tiffany’s, with murals painted on the ceilings, airy archways and former President Batista’s golden telephone. The museum houses an intensive collection of memorabilia surrounding the Revolution. It’s one of the few buildings in the city that is being restored.
All of the information is written in Spanish and English and since we know that “History is written by the winners,” the bias is overwhelmingly pro-Castro.
Simply put: Castro was jailed for wanting to take over the country. When he got out of jail, he went to Mexico, built an army, returned to Cuba and took over. Then he killed everyone who didn’t like him. (You’re welcome.)
I was surprised to find a statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents next to other presidents from around the world. I think Lenin was another statue.
J couldn’t understand my amazement, “Cubans like Abraham Lincoln. He was a great president.”
Cuba is filled with surprises.
In the National Museum of Fine Arts, there was an impressive collection of works by Cuban artists hung in large, open galleries. J pointed out the famous art that he memorized in school.
I noticed the small ways artists used creativity to dis the State. One photo had a man painting off of the canvas [out of the box], another had a meter that showed the dissent of the people as “rising.” There was an exhibit that housed old leaves in Plexiglas cases [valuing the old way].
There was a whole area dedicated to Trump caricatures drawn by school children. It’s such an interesting statement that they can’t make fun of their president but are encouraged to make fun of the man who considers himself my president.
He took me to a series of underground bunkers that were built after the revolution to watch the shore line for intruders. One bunker had a windowed view of the ocean through the side of a hill. Inside was an exhibit showing where all of the missiles were housed in the country which showed that just after the revolution the State was prepared to bomb itself in case of invasion.
I pointed out the map to J who assured me that this was drawn many years ago and that the military no longer worked that way. He told me that the military today never leaves home to serve in other wars, so there are always plenty of soldiers available to keep the country safe.
It made me feel ideologically unsafe. Since the embassy was closed, I wondered if I could knock on Gutantanamo Bay’s door if there were some kind of international incident that made Cuba want to bomb itself.
We happened to walk past the US Embassy just as workers were leaving for the day.
“Wait.” I said, pointing to the people leaving the building. “I read that the Embassy was closed.”
We stood and watched the workers walked by with the ID badges hanging around their necks. I felt like I was spying on my country.
“They look Cuban to me.” I said.
“Yes.” He agreed. “They are Cuban.”
“Your country is keeping my embassy open?” I said.
He laughed for a long, long time.
I let him flip through the photos on my phone. Friends. Family. My classroom. A man I dated for a while. My trip to Vietnam.
He pointed to one picture. “When did you take this?”
“But this hat…” He pointed to the conical hats some Vietnamese fishermen wore on the river.
“Many people wear them.” I said. “They shade you from the sun and when it rains they keep you dry.”
He shook his head in amazement. “I didn’t know they still wore these hats today.” He looked at the photo for a long time. “I thought these hats were only worn in the old days.”
Of course he didn’t know about modern Vietnam with almost no internet and few modern books that he can look at; the world is mostly inaccessible.
I needed to exchange money so I could pay J for the day and then tip him for our three days together. We waited for most of an hour outside the bank and got no closer to a teller. So he took me to a fancy hotel and they changed the money at a great loss to me.
“How much of the $10 tour fee do you get to keep?” I asked him.
He threw his head back and laughed. “You should ask. Really. Ask them.” He laughed again.
After thirty hours of conversation you’d think he would tell me this one thing; he wouldn’t.
I wanted to give him the ten pesos convertibles ($10) for the day, then tip him another twenty pesos convertibles ($20) as a thank you for our time together. When it was time to pay, He thanked me for using his services and suggested that I send any friends to him for tour services. I told him I would, reached for the wrong bill and handed him the twenty pesos convertibles.
Though it was half the tip I wanted to give him, he grabbed me in a fast hug and thanked me. He threw his head back into a hearty laugh, hugged me again, kissed my cheek and was gone before I could give him the other bill.
I still feel bad about messing up his tip.
The irony of making it through my trip with only good stories of the kindness of many, only to get chosen by a bratty teen having a temper tantrum at the airport was concerning. I wasn’t interested in seeing the inside of a prison.
The girl ranted on. She hated the water, the towels, old cars and the lack of air conditioning. She stared at the ceiling, ignored her mother and shouted “If only Castro cared about his people rather than about himself.”
The police guards in the airport could tell something was going on as people continued to move to the other side of the cafeteria.
I needed a logical way out of this puzzle that invited itself to my last supper.
The police walked closer.
I wondered if I would have to eat bread and water in prison. I’m celiac, so no bread for me. And the icky local water would make me sick, too. So I’d have to start a hunger strike. I’d be dead in a week. It makes the very idea of beans and rice seem lavish, doesn’t it?
I leaned towards the teen and lowered my voice. “How old are you?”
She paused in her discourse. “Sixteen.”
‘Hm.” I said. “Old enough to know that sometimes you have to follow rules even if you don’t want to.”
She stared at me and I thought she might claw my face off.
The police walked closer.
“So.” I asked brightly. ‘Where you from?”
She shook her head and snarled, “Flor-da?”.
I smiled. “You’re so beautiful. You must have many boyfriends.”
And just like that, the topic changed. There’s nothing an American teenaged girl likes more than talking about herself.
The police left our area to patrol the far side of the room.
I listened to her story of multiple suitors which led to the reason for her ill humor, a missed date, and the reason for their trip, a grandmother’s frail health. Her grandmother couldn’t relocate to the states due to politics, so they would have to visit more often and pay neighbors to help her as she ages.
I left my dinner guests and headed towards the gate. United Airlines didn’t announce my flight or remind people to get their tickets out or suggest boarding groups. Passengers from all over the world and Cuba lined up and anyone who felt entitled moved to the front of the line while the rest of us waited patiently for our turn to leave.
by Holly Winter @hollywinter.com
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