I found a Cuban coin in my purse today. And I wore sandals still coated with Havana’s streets. It’s been a month since I returned. And I swear there’s still dust in my sinuses. My blood and guts are changed because of this powder.
It happened, the magic, when I first exited the airport. The tropical heat began, from that first second, to change my molecular makeup. It’s here that my eyes retuned, recalibrated, to notice more, to notice everything.
“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.” ~ Jack London, 1903
I wrote some things down in the moment. I kept some things in my head for later. Here’s a jumble of the two… my Havana experience.
Thursday, April 28
It’s after 1am now. Friday, not Thursday. I am under the covers in my grand palace of a room. The hotel was asleep when I arrived just moments ago. I knocked and knocked on the castle-like double doors, the knocker heavy and stiff. I stood there in fear, wondering if I would be sleeping in the doorway. I wouldn’t be the only one, in a doorway.
I was late. My plane was late. I had to wait outside, in the thick night heat, for two hours to exchange my money at the airport – you can’t buy Cuban pesos outside Cuba. My driver, Orlando, waited patiently by my side, not at all miffed by the delay. There seems to be more time to spare here.
While standing there, I watched five men tumble from a powder blue pickup truck, each wearing denim overall shorts – some with tank tops, some without. I watched them pile black boxes onto the flatbed – important looking boxes, overseen by important looking American men, frantic at the prospect of their valuables toppling from the truck. The Cuban men remained completely cool and calm. English butted heads with Spanish as instructions were yelled and lost in translation. I watched. And I smirked. Cultures were clashing.
With wads of money in my hand, Orlando led me through the parking lot, past dozens of ancient cars painted all colours of the rainbow, to his black 1990-something vehicle. I had gone back in time, but not as far as I had hoped.
The passenger seat was low and deep, my ass sunk into it like a scoop of ice cream sits in a cone. All the car windows were tinted the darkest black, one shade from opaque. I was in my twenties again. I wanted to request R. Kelly. I wished he had bass in the car, to feel it’s hard drop reverberate in my gut as we drove through the ominous streets.
Orlando’s English was close to impeccable. And he liked to talk. History, politics, football, his kids, tourism. He explained what I should and shouldn’t do. Should: drink Cristal beer. Shouldn’t: buy cigars on the streets. He bestowed his philosophies on me. He explained how we are all in control of our minds, and because of that we are in control of our bodies. We are our own masters. His message resonated. Still resonates.
It’s been a long journey, from airport to airport to airport, but here I am – Havana. Tropical, sticky, humid. Crumbling, old, decrepit. Beautiful.
Friday, April 29
I’m sitting in a café called O’Reilly’s.
This morning I walked and walked and walked. The heat has warmed my bones. They are metal skewers. Red hot.
Buildings fall into the streets here. Great big chunks of plaster and window ledges and roof eaves are piled like mole hills. Between that and the meteoric craters, the streets are an obstacle course. I’ve enjoyed the leaping and dodging. It’s good for my spirit. It’s easy to feel youthful here. Curiosity and wonder are coming out to play. I’ve been peering in doorways and windows and alleys. Once-beautiful mosaics are broken. Staircases are mutilated. The state of dilapidation is stunning. If only poverty weren’t paired with this beauty.
There is a female guard in here. She wears lacy black nylons with her uniform. Earlier, I saw a nurse, dressed all in white, but for her lacy black nylons. Sexuality is inhaled in the air. Men have been hissing at me like cicadas. I think that means, “Hey baby.” I cannot stop to look at something without being bombarded by men. “Hello.” “Where are you from?” “Do you have an invitation for dancing?” I must keep moving. I have decided this is the most sexually charged city on the planet. Just try to refute it. Go on.
There is a fan that sporadically blows cold-ish air onto my sweaty arm. I’m drinking a cappuccino, turning up the heat even higher in my body like some kind of sadist.
Una cerveza on a patio. There’s a band. There’s a breeze.
I had a hunk of building fly into my eye. The hunk more like the size of a fly. My eye watered and stung and blinded. I thought I was a goner. For sure. There has been more walking. That’s what you’re supposed to do here. I am unaccustomed to such strides. My calf is sore. It will mend. I will mend. I am in control, so says Orlando.
I found Graham Greene’s spot, the place he wrote, in a hotel I wandered into called Sevilla. Oh, it was so grand. Columns towering through the lobby, windows with ledges larger than me, opulent couches dulled by bodies. I can only imagine the space in its heyday. The outfits! The hairstyles! The conversations! They say Josephine Baker stayed there, and Al Capone. I’m still looking for the sliver of time I can slip through to arrive in that era.
I must find a way to Hemingway’s house. I need a car and a driver. Something old. Something without a top. Perhaps something pink or blue or orange. I’d also like a scarf for my hair. And glasses that cover half my face. And Humphrey Bogart. That should do it. Should I have another beer?
Havana is horrible. Pack-my-bags-and-leave-on-the-next-plane-horrible. I want to spit in Havana’s face, which will immediately be followed by curling into a ball to weep. I can’t go anywhere without being harassed.
It began at dinner. I found a spot in a courtyard lined with several restaurants. Tourists everywhere. I sat alone. And soon man after man after man interrupted my dinner to chat me up – the only woman alone. Alone. Alone. ALONE.
The first two or three times were sort of amusing, but then it didn’t stop. It became more aggressive. Again and again. “Why are you alone?” “What’s your name?” “I’ll teach you how to dance.” “You need a Cuban man.” And so on. A merry-go-round of irritants. They were all friends with the restaurant owner, who watched amused, unconcerned his patron was uncomfortable.
I tried to be polite and smile and pick up my pen and concentrate on writing. I’m not used to this overt attention. It was overwhelming. When I didn’t leap into their arms, they whispered Puta under their breaths. My introversion was interpreted as bitch. A woman, friends with the men, and dressed in a teeny white dress stretched to its limits, leaned into me and asked why I was traveling alone. And then, “I would never do that. That’s crazy.” Yes, perhaps that’s it. I’m crazy.
Skeletal dogs ran between my legs, and fought under my table. In the madness of their bites, I hoped my legs would be mistaken for fur. Pinch my skin and get me out of this nightmare.
After dinner, I took a stroll down a busy street, towards Floridita, Ernest’s main spot. Because Hemingway could surely cure the night, couldn’t he? But large men loomed into my face, so close I could smell the rotting food between their teeth, and said “Hola” or “Beautiful” etc. Some grabbed my arm. Others took my hand.
I can usually handle this. I can usually laugh it off. But I felt threatened. I felt alone. And when I kept walking, and didn’t bow to a particular man’s offer, he yelled “White trash” over and over again, loud and bellowing across the crowds. My skirt grazed my ankles, but I felt naked.
The heat depleted me. I wasn’t strong tonight. I was only so very alone.
Saturday, April 30
Cuba redeemed itself.
I went into the valley. Viñales. Two guys picked me up in their sweet red ride – my private tour. And we zoomed for hours with the windows wide open, out of the city and into the green. I could breathe again.
There are no seatbelts in cars here. Driving feels free and dangerous and exhilarating. We reached great speeds. The old car shook and rumbled. It might have broken apart. But I didn’t want to slow down.
Skinny horses pulled ragged carts heaped with families. Bicycle gangs wore brilliant spandex. Old men sold cheese and chickens from the side of the road. Motorcycles feebly held helmetless parents and children. A handsome policeman pulled us over and asked to see papers. His mirrored aviators shone out sunbeam lasers. We sped on. The countryside blurred.
The fellas took me to a tobacco farm. A blinking pig was tied up on a porch, it’s legs roped together, waiting to be roasted on a spit for dinner. Cowboys lazed on rickety chairs, hats tipped stereotypically over their faces. Horses lashed flies from their rumps. The air was sweet with the happiness that associates with a simple life. Maybe I could shack up with a cowboy. Maybe I could be a farmer.
I smoked a cigar dipped in honey. On my first inhale, the bee’s sticky juice dribbled down my chin. On my first inhale, my face almost exploded as I tried not to cough in front of the veterans around me. And then I couldn’t stop smoking. I was euphoric. Dizzy. Alive. Last night disappeared. Happiness reigned.
We traveled into the centre of the earth. A cave. A massive, ancient cave. Powerful and magnificent. I can’t exactly explain the sensation in there, but, in short, the rocks spoke. There was language. Silent and pressurized. I touched them. They were cold, but pulsating with a heart beat. I was convinced a ghostly figure would materialize before my very eyes. This is where it all began. Life. And there was actually life there. High on a wall I saw one determined spring of green.
My guide kept talking, explaining the formations, doing his job. I asked him to stop. I wanted, I needed, silence. This was a heavenly place.
He asked if I believed in God. I said no, but I believed in whatever it was that created this cave. He told me I’m the only tourist he’s led who has wanted to simply stand still and feel the rocks. The others speed through with their cameras flashing and with little regard for the magic. He said this is his favourite place.
And so he and I stood there together, in silence, with great appreciation and awe for the force of nature. Until a quartet of tourists caught up to our vigil. We walked on and reached a river in the heart of the cave, where we hopped a boat to take us back to daylight. I dipped my hands in the river and absorbed the vitality flowing through the world. I felt a tug to explore the parts that barred entry. I wish I were Indiana Jones.
I wandered and wandered. And I wore jeans. And my thighs melted. And I felt safe. And Havana is glorious again.