A news vendor paces the aisle of the bus offering a mensaje de Fidel, which sounds in his accent like a massage from Fidel. Pasted against the glass are H1N1 warnings listing symptoms and preventative measures; in the airport all employees wear surgical masks. The bus moves through the city going east and as we go I assemble the parks and houses into a central calculation; I am trying to figure out the rate of decay. The driver jokes that we must prepare to be stopped by police, inspectors, and inspectors of inspectors. Jajajajajaja!
When we arrive I go downstairs and get a drink at the bar, where there hangs a photo montage of people who have visited Cuba, including Evo Morales, Orquesta Aragón and Audioslave (“grupo de rock”). Outside the palms are swinging and I take my drink to a table next to two elderly Spaniards. Below us lie the highway and the seawall, beyond which fishing boats and a bank of cumulus clouds float. To warn people from blundering onto the highway there is a red sign posted: PELIGRO! Cigarettes cost less than a pack of gum does in the US, and everywhere there are slogans painted on walls and billboards:
50 años de luchas y victorias
¡La dignidad no se vende!
Hasta la victoria siempre
Si se puede
Girls wear tight lycra tops or bras or cropped shirts, or burgundy school uniforms if they are young. There are pharmacies with bottles of traditional remedy on sale, and stores selling rum that we are warned not to buy because the bottles have perhaps been emptied and refilled with an inferior substitute. There are gays and transsexuals but they are forbidden from holding hands or kissing in public. People are nice sometimes, and sometimes not. One boy suggests that he would like to cut my head off.
People organize themselves along the seawall according to their intentions. A couple makes out. Four boys watch the swell in boredom. A one-legged man stares out with no expression, his eyes going in one direction and his stump in the other. The penalty for talking to a foreigner is twenty years in prison, though this seems neither enforced nor enforceable. Internet use is surveilled by the government, and if a person chooses to ignore this fact and log on anyway, he will find that his monitored access is painfully slow. (A fiber optic cable is being laid from Venezuela to speed things up.)
(Since my visit, the US Treasury Department announced plans to ease sanctions on Cuba—also Iran, Sudan—in order to allow US companies to export browsing, blogging, email, and social networking services. The Cuban Foreign Ministry released a statement criticizing the decision as having an objective of destabilization. “This shows once again that the US government is not interesting in softening its policy nor in developing normal relations with Cuba, but only in developing a network that facilitates its subversive actions in our nation,” the statement said.)
Keke is sponge cake with vinyl-shiny icing, and it is affordable because it is mostly sugar and there is plenty of sugar here. You will see a man carting keke through the streets or a little girl resting against a motorcycle with a box of keke on her hip, orange frosting spilling from the top, waiting for her friends to finish school.
“Is it potable?” becomes a key question. After only a day we’ve recalibrated our sense of cleanliness and begun to see that our standard has been freakishly high. Pig carcasses piled in a dirty storefront remind me of Chinatown at home. It is less dignified to refuse food than it is to spend a few hours expelling it over the toilet later, so everyone eats normally and hopes for the best. In the morning we walk to the Avenida de los Presidentes, with its island of tended grass and honking carloads of men. In Cuba, an American experiences something close to hate. A government bakery has, instead of a sign, a big poster at the entrance depicting George W. Bush and a man who might be Ben Bernanke as “GUILTY … of harboring terrorism.” Small children say fuck you and teenagers throw cigarettes at my feet when I walk around alone. This is the “upside-down world” that Eduardo Galeano spoke of. Americans who go where Americans are disliked usually meet a kind of slack moral disdain; something which is acceptable because the faults implied are demonstrable and probably worth apologizing for (and sometimes, rarely, people apologize: think of President Clinton’s 1999 apology for US support for Guatemala’s violent military dictatorship). Here, after decades of sanctions and aggression and accusations, the response is different.
The hotel provides a little zone where you can drink Ciego Montero sodas and watch the cars go by, and I spend a few hours picking dead ants from my dress and reading a book. When I can’t read I try to understand the idea of an artificially fixed currency and do not succeed.
The zone where I sit watching cars is marked by tables, a carpet of cigarette butts, and a cannon that was used to sink an American battleship, the USS Montgomery, in the mid-1950s. A few blocks to the west there’s an ice cream stand surrounded by shady tables that also functions as a hub for prostitutes. At each table sits a foreign man and one or two local girls drinking Red Bull with a bored expression.
There are no places to read after dark. The only light sources are compact fluorescent bulbs which burn dim and contain mercury (if one breaks you have to sprint in the opposite direction.)
“We cannot submit to their whims!” Álvaro Uribe Vélez is announcing on TV in response to a kidnapping. The Latin America Roundup on CNN Hong Kong is broadcasting this information along with b-roll footage of FARC guerillas shooting machine guns at a shack. I’m watching the segment on a television with all the lights turned off and exactly one ounce of Havana Club rum in my stomach. There is a faint smell of sewage in the room but the space is cool and there are fluorescent lights which could be illuminated if I felt like getting up. The city around the hotel, a city of 2.2 million, is dark.
Christmas is not exactly celebrated but for foreigners, on December 24, restaurants put together special dinners. The restaurant where we plan to eat has glass walls through which I sit watching preparations being made in the afternoon: pinecone-shaped candles placed on each table, napkins folded to stand erect, servers in fresh lipstick and a pair of heels. Near the restaurant is a fish pond into which drunks must fall all the time. At six I watch the servers set out chafing dishes full of boliche and Caldo gallego, turron and coco rayado and yule logs assembled from makeshift supplies.
Vacation, to most people, means the freedom to regulate one’s own body temperature at will. People from all nations go in the water and sun-dry themselves ten times in a row. Then they take hot showers and sit in an air-conditioned room, then take some more sun, then wade into the water and repair again. For no reason it feels good to decide whether you’d like to be hot or cold at a given moment. It is entertainment and occupation and relaxation rolled into one.
The Latin Americans and Germans smoke while they sunbathe, advertising an open-mouthed stance toward other pleasures. I’ve noticed that Canadian tourists neither smoke nor publicly link arms with prostitutes nor drink before noon.
A person who spends most of his life in a country like Canada or the US develops a sense of geography based on things like climate and demographics, not civil liberties or the availability of toilet paper. Distance means one thing in the US, where you can move 1,000 miles and find a variation of what you left behind, and another thing here, where you can (or more likely can’t) go 70 kilometers in a few directions and encounter people who are permitted to use the internet, sell their own bread, and look at porn. Due to the state-controlled economy, things produced within Cuba are cheap and things produced outside of Cuba are expensive. Neither type of item is inexhaustibly available, though. Things disappear from day to day: one afternoon there are cheese sandwiches and the next there are none. On the bus ride from Havana to Matanzas we pass farms plowed by oxen and dotted with skinny-looking cows, and I wonder whether Cuban cows are underweight or American cows are obese, or both.
We fly back one day after the attempted bombing of an international flight, and there are all sorts of new restrictions on the plane. No one is allowed to stand up during the last hour or have a blanket, for example, nor use his tray table or move his seat. This is OK with me, but some others are not having it. “If they did things right the first time we wouldn’t have to deal with this shit,” a man says. Several people disobey the orders and a stewardess takes down their seat numbers to have them arrested at arrival. It is too bad that these regulatory provocations reach people when they are at their worst, but there is also something misplaced about the anger that tumbles forth. I think in certain situations (in traffic, on airplanes) adults find themselves leaping at the chance to misbehave, if only because it comes so infrequently. Tantrums are therapeutic, and we all need to have them sometimes.