There are places you go, you travel, that just graze the skin. You’re there and you see and you enjoy but you’re never really inside the place and the place is never really inside you. And then there are the worlds you travel to that actually slice a gash across your skin and slip inside and infect you – in the very best possible way.
That’s Havana – a world that changes the way you look at the rest of the world, a world that changes the way you look at yourself.
The below is a continuation from my Thursday and Friday and Saturday, which are written about here.
Sunday, May 1
The beer is writing me. I’m at Hotel Nacional. There are spies sitting behind me. Real spies. I swear it. One is telling the other that he can offer surveillance and protection. They’re with the American government. I am now actually inside a Graham Greene novel. They’re pretty crap spies. I am spying on them.
I’ve left Old Havana and am now staying in Vedado in a casa particular called Villa Costa Habanera. My bedroom is out of some kind of seam-ripping romance novel. The ceilings are 50 feet tall, almost. And there are draping fabrics and grandiose mirrors. It’s quieter here. Less tourists. Wider streets. Derelict mansions. All residential. I could stay for almost as long as forever.
The waiter at lunch today was all charm. (He reminded me of a boy named Bush I once knew in England, a crush I once kissed when I was twenty. I wonder what happened to him.) The waiter high-fived and knuckled and made me laugh and handed me a love note. I squashed it between the pages of my journal like a flower.
I am now okay with the affections. Those aggressions from the other night haven’t been repeated. And I quite like the mumbles of “Beautiful.” Or the crinkly old man who leaned over to say, “There are flowers in your eyes.” I feel like a woman. I feel my insecurities disappear. I feel beautiful here. I feel like a lady.
Women are ladies here. That is what we are called. The woman who served me beer just now, “Hey lady.” The male taxi driver, “Hey lady.” The woman who checked me out of the hotel, “Hey lady.” With every uttering, “Hey Ladies” sings in my head. And I tap my foot. Right now I tap my foot.
The gale-force wind is going to knock my beer over. It’s got its fingers tangled in my hair. It’s tugging. I’m mesmerized. I’m Medusa. My wild woman is free.
I want a cigar and I need a water.
I made friends tonight. I put trust into two guys I met on the street. For the past two nights, I’ve walked by and said hello and received high fives. Tonight, I let them lead me up the dark and ominous stairway of a ramshackle old apartment building. To their restaurant – Somos Cuba. Trust is a special thing. Especially when you’re a woman traveling alone. Because these guys were two of a few who didn’t treat me like a vagina on legs, I trusted.
It was only me inside this small second floor parador – a privately owned restaurant excluded from the strict regulations of the government. Old records and postcards and posters were pinned to the walls, and international flags flapped from the ceiling, and past guests had written words of love on every surface. Ivan, the owner, cooked me a feast of lobster and salad and rice and beans and fruit and cake. I felt like I was inside his home. I ate his beautiful heart and soul.
Tonight, Chanel held a flashy party down the street for Karl Lagerfeld’s racy photo exhibition. I think my night was better.
Monday, May 2
The sun and heat throw me into a perpetual state of fatigue, but I stay awake. I could sleep all day, but I don’t.
I am sitting again at Hotel Nacional. I have latched on to the city-wide habit of sitting and staring. It’s been so long since I’ve merely sat and thought and stared into space. I don’t check my phone. I don’t feel awkward. I am not guilty of time wasted. I am still. It is the most glorious feeling. The heat turns me into a zombie. We are all observant, reflective, peaceful zombies.
This morning I ventured to Hemingway’s estate. I found a lovely driver named Julio and we embarked on the thirty minute journey into the suburbs to the place Ernest called home for twenty years. If I were to make a pie chart sectioned into all the reasons why I came to Havana, Hemingway would flavour most of the filling.
The ride there was delicious. There was much to marvel at. Like the Nirvana poster someone had discarded and propped against a garbage can or the man pushing a Queen-size wooden bed frame down one whole lane of the highway or the car being towed by another car by a rope that swayed the uncontrolled cargo into oncoming traffic. The everyday sights are ridiculously whimsical.
Hemingway. His home is intact and immaculate, as though he’s just popped out for a cockfight or a mojito or both. Amongst the Japanese tourists and Chanel’s entourage (all of whom wear the same double C straw hats), I felt him. He was there in the magazine racks and taxidermy heads and rows of shoes and piles of books and bathroom toiletries. There is some kind of lizard forever floating in a jar on a shelf above his bathroom sink. He has a tower where he houses a telescope and office. I saw where he wrote. It smelled like old man and sea. I just realized I wrote ‘has’ rather than ‘had’ as though he still lives there. Because I think he does in spirit.
We were only allowed to poke our heads inside windows, rather than inhabit his space, but even so, his presence was overwhelming. I sat in a metal outdoor chair, which may have once seated him, and wept a little. The pressure of greatness was so… great.
I picked up leaves from the ground and I ran my hands along tree trunks. I watched a French woman with those double C’s on her hat depart from her fashion legion to do the same. I wanted to say, Hello, how do you do?, because I don’t often see another dreamily do as I dreamily do.
The waiter here, at Hotel Nacional, has just paid, from his own meagre pocket, the musicians to serenade me with a love song. I’ll be here in this seat staring at the scene forever, except that I need to pee.
I was supposed to take it easy today. Too hot. Too humid. Too redheaded.
But instead, I walked. My face is shiny. My skin is slick. I could wring the sweat out of my underpants.
I have never walked so much in all of my life. I walked for hours without seeing another tourist. I roamed the streets where the people of Havana live. I got lost. I got found.
Kids were playing football, kicking the ball off buildings, creating cloudy poofs of plaster. Two young skateboarders generously bestowed me with lewd gestures as they rolled by. A group of people stood in the centre of an intersection to watch a fellow pound out the beats of his heart on a bongo drum – the cars rolled around them. A toothless man in a doorway asked me to take his photo and gave me the best smile I’ve yet seen. Other men bent together under car hoods with tools and scrutinizing eyes. And a woman sang out Whitney Houston from her balcony.
I found the core. I found real life. I found community.
I thought about the people at home who go about their days, walking down the streets, with barely a glance at another soul. The Western, modern world seems so empty compared to Havana.
Night (from my social media post)
I ate a massive cheese plate in the empty air conditioned bar inside Hotel Nacional. Then I found a little restaurant nearby and ate what seemed like a whole lamb, along with a plate of rice and a plate of vegetables. And I joined a couple guys from NYC who mistook me for Kirsten Dunst. Then I returned to my casa where my host had some lady friends over. Four women ranging in age from 40 to 90. They handed me a plate of cold pasta salad piled next to a huge slab of gooey cake. Because who doesn’t love sweet and savoury brushing up against each other in the mouth.
I watched and I listened. They don’t speak English, I don’t speak Spanish. They hissed at each other, they laughed, they bickered, they had shiny painted nails. And every so often a topless young fellow, a relative, bearing resemblance to Zac Efron, cruised through the room, pausing my teeth mid-chew. My belly is going to burst. It was a good night. And the beat goes on.
The final part soon…