Visiting Cuba

Originally published in The Sunday Business Post Magazine, October 15, 2017

The string of police checkpoints outside Havana was punctuated by hitchhikers hopefully extending folded peso notes to passing cars. Our 1954 Pontiac was – for four residents of New York City, at least – at capacity, a state interpreted by waiting Cubans as having adequate space for two or three more passengers. 

On the road to Trinidad, a small coastal town in the south, we watched horseshoes coarsely changed roadside and full families balanced on the back of speeding trucks. We drove five hours with four windows rolled the whole way down, hot August air whipping around our heads. When it rained, just once, the smell of soil rolled throughout the car. 

A single wiper of about six inches batted against the sheets. A small rotary fan stood unused on the dash, three teal blades shaking in a cage. The car’s clock digits were perfect 1950s figures. The steering wheel was a skinny metal ring and the single light in the perforated leather ceiling encased in an etched glass cap. Almost everything in Cuba is old.

The simplicity of our surroundings was refreshing. Our phones were also inoperative. One week without a working phone is exceptionally agreeable after 11 years with one. The practical nuisance of being frozen in time by communism, however, and the psychological toll that takes on an oppressed citizenry, became evident upon closer examination, or, in our case, in prolonged conversation with natives. 

“Marooned by politics”, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos wrote of Pyongyang last month, likening it to Rangoon and, yes, the Cuban capital of Havana.

When Cubans raise a toast, they say “amor y dinero!”. We encountered an abundance of the former and very little of the latter. Crossing the town square in Trinidad, we noticed a lot of commotion amongst a gathering of men. “The hot corner,” our guide said, indifferently regarding the fracas. “Esquina caliente,” he repeated in Spanish. A fixed point where men congregate throughout the day to talk shit about sports teams. 

When we admired, in passing, the many bird cages suspended over the front doors of homes, we were told that older residents take them down and meet with friends in the street for singing contests.

We stayed at an Airbnb in Trinidad, or, more accurately, at a casa particular, or family guesthouse, listed on Airbnb since the option became available to Cuba in 2015. There are now hundreds of Cuban listings. We wound up at the home of Julio, a self-styled vet and longtime guesthouse owner. His family house was a marvel, shutters opening on to the street and evening light spilling in on marble floors and delicate screen doors of coloured glass.

We woke early and had coffee and omelettes with Julio on the terrace. We meandered the streets learning about Santería, a transfixing Afro-Cuban religion, the Cuban opinion of defectors to Miami and elsewhere (mixed), and the subtle difference between two national beers, Presidente and Cristal. We visited the National Museum of the Struggle Against Banditry, and attempted salsa for the benefit of an encouraging band at a bar. 

Day after day, we doused rum hangovers with rum, eventually requesting our mojitos “sin azucar" to avoid bartenders’ invariably heavy hands. In rotation throughout our stay, we ate clear soups with fish and sweet potato into which we drowned rounds of stale bread; fried plantain; and extremely good pork, grilled fish, and stewed beef. Also, all the time, white rice and black beans. In Cuba, the dish is “moros y cristianos”, translating to “moors and Christians”.

We took a cab from Trinidad to Playa Ancón, a beloved stretch of local beach. We basked on the sand and floated on our backs in the warm ocean. That night, we went to a club in a cave on the edge of town, sweating profusely until three in the morning. At eight, we turned back for Havana. 

During our time in the capital, we visited monuments to the revolution, art galleries, museums, and popular restaurants. We traced the steps of one-time resident Ernest Hemingway and drove at dusk in a red Thunderbird along the Malecón, five miles of promenade. 

We also took in the state stores selling rations. Eggs at one store, rice and flour at another, oil at another, open-air meat markets with stray dogs circling. These establishments are spare, practically free of signage, and dimly lit.

They need not market themselves. “Custom” is a necessity where ledgers of names flank cash registers. Cubans bring their ration book, their own bags and their own egg boxes. It is not normally not a big box; the state offers five eggs per person per month. Anything else is traded for or found on the black market. As we checked out of our Havana apartment, a neighbor stopped by to ask if we were getting rid of any clothing. 

These are unambiguous traits of the regime of Fidel Castro, dutifully extended by his brother Raoul (now 86). Communist rule has preserved some situational charm. Mostly, though, it has deprived Cubans of basic rights and liberties. While an “exit visa” – although more or less always a chimera – has not been required since 2013, the cost of leaving the country is still entirely prohibitive to all but a few.

Fidel Castro’s face is everywhere, in art, on buildings, and on billboards nationwide. Word of the government’s “revolution” is widely projected as though still being waged. In ways, it is. Language used at the Museum of the Revolution, housed in the presidential palace where dictator Fulgencio Batista lived before he was overthrown, while bald and sober at the beginning, loses its grip on disinterest in steady increments. 

“We”, “us”, and overt demonization of the US is standard for the final exhibits. A large mural of garish caricatures of Batista, both former presidents Bush, and Ronald Reagan is one of the last sights. Each of the four plaques says the same: “Thank you cretin for helped us [sic] TO CONSOLIDATE THE REVOLUTION”.

A preposterous shrine of photographs of the Castros’ revolutionary partner, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, in every pose and setting imaginable, can be leant on for light relief before exiting. As many have lately pointed out in response to An Post’s decision to release a Guevara stamp, though, there’s nothing particularly light about the legacy of a man who led the summary execution of hundreds.

For the most part, the Cuban people wear the circumstances lightly. Everybody we met was generous and good-natured. Our hosts in Havana, Lilly and Pedro Martín, invited us to stop by their apartment in the suburbs for a drink during our stay. 

Pedro Martín spoke to us about growing up during the so-called “Special Period”, when the collapse of the Soviet Union crippled Cuba’s economy. He recalled neighbors and friends attempting to flee in the Cuban Rafter Crisis of 1994 and food being in very short supply. His parents, he told us, did what they could to insulate him from hardship. “The child always gets the best piece of meat,” he said.

On our final day, we traveled in the Pontiac (our driver, Gerardo, by then a close friend) to Soroa, a rural hinterland southwest of Havana where we were hosted by a farmer, Alexander, and a neighboring family, relatives of Gerardo’s.

We planted coffee shrubs which we hope to return to. Unearthed fresh cucumber from the tropical soil. Ate guavas and bananas off the tree. Sucked on sticks of machete-trimmed sugarcane. Guzzled from freshly felled coconuts through bamboo straws, then ate the meat. We paused to watch the lunchtime state-produced news bulletin (the very same package off off-diary frippery as aired at 9am, and later, at 6pm), and road horseback through the jungle. It was my first time on a horse.

Over a long lunch, our hosts spoke to us about “gusanos”, worms, a Castro-devised term for people lacking devotion to his vision, and about the “patrina”, a class of politically connected elites that can manage a semblance of success in private business. How starkly such a life contrasts with the that of the farmer who welcomed us to his three-room wooden house, whose farm is visited by government auditors who tell him how much they will be buying from him, and for how much (very little), and when.

Alexander single-handedly built the house when his last was torn down by a hurricane. Even the telling of this was unthinkable to us at the time. I left Soroa in an emotional state, choked up by a blend of gratitude and bewilderment. I was lost in the tenderness and thoughtfulness of our hosts, qualities that have endured in spite of all of the interference in their country, in their lives, for decades. 

Hurricane Irma struck the northern coast of Cuba four days later. We sent WhatsApp messages to the Cubans whose numbers we had, and they responded within a few days to say that they were alright. But, as we had learned, they would say that they were alright.

My time in Cuba wasn’t relaxing, luxe, or wild. It was profoundly illuminating: an absorbing education, a series of meetings that made me feel bright and warm, an iridescent expedition far beyond myself.