The bus from Ciego de Avila is pitching and rattling through the darkness on the bumpy road back to Havana. Seven more hours of this. Seven! The long ride felt like a turbulent jet landing.
It is the end of my trip to Cuba and it has been a blend of heaven and hell. My dream trip to this off-limit country turned into several days of struggle, slight weight loss, a few tears and in the end a love for the people of this country that will keep me coming back.
For years I had romanticized the idea of Cuba. I wanted to drink mojitos, try a real Cuban cigar, ride in a classic 1950s American car and take in the colorful sights and sounds that we had been denied for 50 years. On the way to checking off all of those items on the list, I lived a different life during those two weeks. And it changed me.
The skin-wilting humidity of the Havana night was my first welcome, followed by an immigration agent at the airport who only spoke Spanish. Once I cleared customs, a smile stretched across his face and he said, “Ju are a bery beautiful woman. Welcome to La Habana.” Ah, the Cuban men all find a way to speak English when they want to pay a woman a compliment.
Luckily, I met a man on the plane who was also Cuban and spoke fluent English. After Cuba opened up, he had already taken advantage of it, having returned home several times after leaving in the 1980’s like so many others did. He told me about how Castro had overfilled the boat he was on. It was past capacity and many of the other boats beside them didn’t make it to America. You could tell he was angry about that, but still, he loved his country. It’s an important distinction because, like an orphan child who might love their adopted family, they still long for the thing that made them.
He was waiting for me outside the airport and promptly gave me the Cuba 101 course.
“There are two kinds of currency, look for the one that says ‘con-ber-ta-bull.’ Don’t accept the other kind. Ok? Ju got it?” he says.
“This is my friend,” he points to a middle-aged balding man with a belly. “He will take you wherever you need to go. Ju can trust him. Ok?” he says. I tell him thank you.
“Dis is my number. Ju are going to call us and let us know ju’re okay and I will show ju around tomorrow,” Ok? I’m-a-gonna-go now. Ju’ll be okay.” He then gets into another car with his Cuban girlfriend who swings her 4-inch white pumps into their rental and waves at me with her gold-painted nails.
I arrived that night at my casa particular, a bed and breakfast boarding house in Central Havana. The neighborhood I chose was block-after-block of narrow streets lined with gray concrete Mudéjar-style buildings. Some houses had beautiful wood-carved doors, others had no walls but only the support beams.
As we rolled through the neighborhood, a group of men sat at a card table playing dominoes. Couples made out. Some sat on their front step drinking rum. And while all this nightlife was teeming under the dinghy streetlights that yellowed the old roads, a little part of me was saying, “Run!”
I’m asked to sit, which happens to be near the man-eating animals and I’m given the safety talk. “Don’t go out at night with your camera. Don’t be flashy… I eye one of the cold-blooded animals with blank amber eyes and I am reassured, “Don’t worry, he won’t hurt ju. He’s like a dog.”
I am taken to a Pepto-Bismol-colored room with a painting of a nude woman arching her back in ecstasy. “Hmm, interesting in a Hollywood and Vine hookers apartment kind of way.” It was only to be matched by the animal print bedding and toilet cover.
Tired from my long, and so far, weird journey, I lay down relaxed to the hum of the cool wall air conditioner. Then poof–a power outage shuttered me into total darkness. “Did they forget to pay the light bill? Oh my God, how was I going to keep an eye on the large cockroaches or other strange things that go bump?” There was no one to complain to. After all, I had chosen to immerse myself in the culture and I was knee-deep in Cuba’s crumbling infrastructure.
The next morning, I hit the streets to experience my new neighborhood in Central Havana, Cuba’s most densely populated area. It is home to some of the most important Art Deco architecture which lines the streets like a taunting reminder of what once was. Buildings stand in spite of time and sometimes by accident. Others crumble in the streets like an old dog who finally lost its footing.
Like a strangled victim, the city has slowly been choked off of free trade and its gray-lined “Ash Heap” barrios are proof of the slow death that Cuba has suffered. Everything from the sights to the smells of Cuba has been shaped by the stubborn will of Fidel Castro and the iron hand of the US closing ranks on this small little rotting Caribbean gem.
After walking a few clothes-soaking miles, I found the Mercado, a warehouse filled with essential no-frill items. The guard searched my purse at the door and gave me the same send-off when I left. Hmm, I’m guessing theft is a problem.
I ask for hair conditioner and find there is a special line for it. Their weekly shipment had just come in. And when they were out. That was it. How did this frivolous product become my most fervent wish as I waited 30-hot minutes to advance in line? Finally, I got it. Score! I never felt more grateful and educated at the same time.
As I walked around that morning, I saw people lining up for their weekly rations of rice, beans, milk, coffee and whatever else was allotted to them. Another cue down the street had people waiting in line for clean water.
I entered one of the busier stores in Central Havana and it was dark and musty. There is no attempt to dazzle the customer with tempting displays when there’s nothing to tempt them, except for the basics. One store selling fabric had no lighting. Another sells plumbing supplies behind glass cases. Butcher shops in the area have no refrigeration, so meat sits out in the hot Havana day as flies hover and land all day.
The yellow stains that dot the streets in Central Havana stand as a reminder of Santeria practitioners trapping all of the angst and bad energy of a hard life into an egg and releasing it onto the streets of Central Havana.