|Cuba Land of Melancholy
by Jamis MacNiven, The Big Cheese at §Bucks of Woodside
In 1957 Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and eighty men left Mexico on GRANDMA, a 70 power yacht they had acquired from a sympathizer, and landed in Cuba, thus commencing the Revolución. Today, Grandma rests in a sarcophagus of aqua blue glass in an open air museum, surrounded by other icons such as Fast Delivery, a red van shot full of bullet holes, and pieces of an American U2 spy plane. With my camera I shot the lone, red bereted guard. He waved.
Standing in what was Batistas back yard next to his palace looking at Grandma, I was moved close to tears for the people of Cuba who are in their own glass box looking out at the world, which for them is primarily the United States.
Imagine flying over Cuba looking down from 10,000 feet and spotting trouble right away. We passed over a six lane freeway stitching the length of the country. I noticed a regular cloverleaf exit, but one side exited into a swamp and the other into sugar cane fields.
From Jamaica our first stop was Varadero, some 100 miles from Havana, and as we got closer, the buildings began to take on the appearance of reconstructed ruins. To say the paint is peeling in Varadero is untrue. The paint, in fact, is completely gone, so the buildings take on the earth tones of stained concrete. The airport sported a contrast of Cobra style attack helicopters and a collection of 50 year old biplanes. Nice touch. A few minutes later we were in Havana, or Habana, as they say it. We passed in easily and stood in the sunshine in front of the airport. As promised, the cars were American and from the 50s. They had been resprung and repainted a myriad of colors - lime, orange, purple, with the windows heavily tinted. Forget going there to collect these unless you collect dents. There are also Ladas (Soviet cars) and somewhat more contemporary Japanese autos. The busses are sometimes cargo shipping containers welded to flat bed trucks with windows installed.
We climbed aboard our bus, air conditioned with reclining seats suitable for a rock star, and made the trip to the Hotel Plaza in the heart of the city. We passed through what used to be a grand neighborhood but is now decrepit mansions with chicken wire surrounding the verandas (for chickens), broken fountains and tropical landscaping run amok. These were elaborate villas and after a half mile or so my eyes got suitably larger as the neighborhood went on and on. I have never seen more mansions in one place, ever, than Havana.
We stopped at several hotels before my friend, Josh Shade, The Intrepid Traveller, and I got off the bus. We were swept into the Plaza past the piano bar and shown to our room on the third of five floors. Newly, but cheaply, renovated, the Plaza was not exactly drawing a crowd. Of the 100 plus rooms I think perhaps 10 were occupied, if that. The room was nice and it came with a collection of Hilton style bottles of soap and cream, but nearly zero water pressure. Who could complain because theyre doing the best they can.
We knew that restaurants would be limited but we hit the streets with the confidence that we could find one. Dream on. Within one block of the hotel we were propositioned by young, pretty streetwalkers five times. We were offered illicit black market cigars and Cuban rum, but once we escaped the aura of the hotel the hustling creased. There was simply nothing else to sell. We saw a few stores with all the shelving removed except one three or four foot section with ten or fifteen mismatched items for sale. Not ten types of things. I mean one bag of stuff if there were bags, which there werent. The city has no graffiti, litter or pollution. This is because there is no paint, no paper, and almost no fuel.
We passed a sidewalk cafe - dinner? Not a table empty. Fifty or so people filled every chair. Then we saw it: no one had anything in front of them. No coffee, no food, no conversation. They sat silently staring into space.
The architecture of the city is a mix of neoclassical and Spanish colonial rococo. People live in the stores on the once elegant streets. I saw through an open three naked babies on a battered couch watching Miami Vice on TV. In front of a particularly impressive Roman temple two men were tapping a water main as the water was out on the upper floors, as well as the power. This had an eerie reminiscence of what Rome must have been like after the fall. In the 1950s Havana was the place to be: glamor, movie stars and money. This was at the expense of the Cubans, however, for under Batista there was widespread corruption, US businesses had control, and hunger was not unknown. Fidel brought prosperity of a sort and even today healthcare, child care and education have not been cut. People have housing and food coupons but still you cant get the plumbing fixed because the government plumber is paid 15 or 20 dollars worth of pesos a month in a country where a soft drink costs $0.75. The plumber would rather sell his services on the black market where he can make $50 a day, and in greenbacks, so he and the millions of others lack interest in their jobs and attendance at work is unenthusiastic. Its a magnificent irony that the US dollar is now the medium of exchange in this capitalist black market. Two years ago you could go to jail for trading in dollars, but today the realities allow more latitude.
Through a combination of events, Josh and I met up with a professor from Madrid and 20 year old Juán Carlos, a ballet dancer from Havana. Juán showed us his city from the National Museum to the Hotel National. The Cubans are inordinately proud of this hotel and we ended up there three times in one day. The bar had pictures of the glory days of the 40s and 50s - Tyrone, Frank and Ava, Errol Flynn, and twin Russian grand pianos. A magnificent but nearly empty pile.
Juán took us to La Bodeguita, a restaurant and bar where people had written their names and slogans on the walls for over 50 years. We added our names to those from all over the world. The place was a mix of languages, Spanish, English, German, French and even Canadian. The food was the real Cuban fare we had hoped to find: black beans, chicken, rice, fried bananas and flaking spiced port. From there we went to the docks, where we couldnt help but think of the stowaway potential of the ships. Josh and I discussed the possibility of finding a local fisherman and cruising along the coast, but soon discovered that there are no fishermen. They took the boats and left a long time ago. I didnt ask about a yacht club. The only yacht in Cuba is Grandma and I dont think its presently available.
From the 17th century Spanish fort which once guarded Havana, we looked back on the once majestic city and it looked darn good, but the fact is its a sad shadow quickly slipping downhill. Castro is still seen by the people as the hero of the Revolution and there is real affection for him. He is the grandfather, loved, but holding on too long.
One of the most poignant things we witnessed was at the hotel restaurant. A woman who had been playing the piano in the bar came into the dining room with her grown daughters. She was playing the accordion and the three others each had an instrument. They played for us at our table and sang Cuban folk songs. Maybe it was me, but I felt they packed more emotion in the one song than it seemed possible it could hold. In that we were the one table (Friday night at 8:00 pm) they were all ours, and if we handt finally pretended to have suddenly fallen unconscious we would be there still. The next day, miles from the hotel, I saw the mother standing in a bus line gazing absently into her Havana.
When we left Cuba we were thoroughtly grilled by a Cuban immigration official who asked about my job, where I lived, and other seemingly irrelevant questions. Actually, he wanted to hear me speak to make sure I wasn't a Cuban. His last question was relevant, however. Why have you come to Cuba? he asked. I thought for a second and said, I came to witness and be a good neighbor. I hope you can come visit the US soon. He looked at me, revealing nothing, and I passed back through to my world.
First published in the back page of Bucks Woodside Menu, Vol 4, No 3, Winter 1995