A Walk Through Havana-Capítulo III
January 22, 2011 § 1 Comment
For a young Cuban guy looking to meet girls, there were a lot of cars on the island that could help in the effort. The economic embargo meant that the last American auto imports were in the 50s, before the revolution. Cherry red Chevys and Midnight blue Fords drove straight out of the past, down Havana’s boulevards, like a perpetual classic car show.
Thanks to what he refered to as “the rules,” 25 year old Miguel didn’t have access to an eye popping car, they were either too expensive, or more likely shared from one generation in a family to the next. Passing things on was easier in a system that made it nearly impossible to buy and sell private property of any consequence. Miguel’s inheritance included his father’s Lada, one of the main cars that came AFTER the revolution. The Fiat looking Russian car was a global running joke, thanks to its propensity for breaking down.
What do you call a Lada at the top of a hill?
How many people in a Lada?
One. The other three are pushing.
What do you call a Lada with twin exhaust pipes?
Miguel had heard all of this before. It was simply a fact of life that the Lada needed repairs at least two days a week. Indeed Miguel and everyone else in Havana had learned the basics of fixing cars. If Castro was smart he would have exported not just thousands of doctors to improve societies around the world, but also car mechanics. Fixing peoples cars with a smile and some Latin flair would certainly improve global opinions about the revolution.
“The other day,” said Miguel, “I’m fixing the Lada, and I needed a bolt for the engine. My neighbor, he stopped over to see what was wrong, and he gave me the part I was missing.” “That’s Cuba man, we help each other. We are good neighbors.” Indeed cars, and specifically fixing cars, seemed to define a certain way of life in Cuba. It was interesting to observe the idea that when everything, EVERYTHING, was taken away, what people were left with was their neighbors. It was comforting to know that reality bred community. At least in Cuba it did.
While he tolerated the Lada, and life in Cuba, Miguel was also extremely frustrated. Everything was regulated, everything was controlled, everything seemed harder than it needed to be. He lived at his grandmother’s house with his sister, with no hope of acquiring the money or access to get his own home. People simply never moved out, instead creating makeshift spaces for every additional generation that was born. Like most Cubans Miguel worked for the government. As a programmer he was paid around 30 dollars a month for working 8 to 5 every day, with a short half hour lunch break. When talking about the precarious life of a Cuban, Miguel liked to share the statistic that one could kill another man in Cuba and get 12 years in prison, but if somebody killed a cow, without government permission, that was 30 years. “A man 12 years and a cow, 30? That’s fucked up man.”
Miguel listened to the famous Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez as he drove around Havana in the Lada. “Music, sex, and exercise, that’s how Cubans survive.” Indeed these three things seemed like the foundation of regular everyday interaction in Cuba. Music flowed from every balcony, people walked and walked and walked to get to their destination, and at night, there was dancing, and sex, according to Miguel, lots of sex. “In a good year, maybe I enjoy 50 girls,” he said, calmly, seemingly oblivious to the fact that 50 sexual partners was a lifetime for most people. Fifty girls also raised a lot of questions about safety, although condoms seemed part of the local culture too. Government TV often aired safe sex public service announcements, sometimes even in cartoon form, reminding Cubans to have sex, but in a responsible way. Miguel said his first experience was when he was 12, after school in his classroom. “It was nice,” he said, “very nice.” Cuban society was repressed in many ways, Miguel and his countrymen did their best to focus on the aspects of local life that weren’t.
As he grew older Miguel’s “Don Juan” persona was only enhanced by the fact that he was able to woo women with a ride as unspectacular as Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante, and by the fact that he lived in a small room at his grandmother’s. Granted, a lot of people in Cuba didn’t have cars and the public transit system was a little spotty, so a car, even a sputtering Lada, was still a coveted resource.
Miguel’s method was so smooth that you couldn’t really call it a method at all. He simply went about his day, driving around Havana, and inevitably there would be a girl, with her hand up, who needed a ride. Inevitably she was kind of cute, and low and behold Miguel was heading somewhere nearby her destination, and if that destination was a bar or a club, all the better. Sometimes these Lada pick-ups resulted in an actual hook-up, sometimes just a phone number. Either way, “it’s cool.”
One week there was “the girl with the dragon tattoo,”(who based on a photo on Miguel’s phone really did have a dragon tattoo), she was heading out to a bar and coincidently so was Miguel. Then there was the contemporary dancer who was heading home. She gave her phone number and invited him to a performance. One night that same week, while out at a bar, Carlos noticed a beautiful blonde. Leaving his friends to mingle, he quietly approached her in the corner. “What must I do to know your name?” “Just ask,” she giggled. Unbeknownst to Miguel the girl with the dragon tattoo had dropped by the same bar and noticed her lover from a few days prior across the room. She moved in. He calmly collected the blonde’s phone number, said he’d see her tomorrow or the next day, and headed out. Back in the Lada Silvio Rodriguez’s powerful voice kicked in, singing a bittersweet song about love lost and found. Some nights music took precedence over sex.
At the end of the day it was hard to tell if sex was merely an opiate encouraged by the government to get people through another tough day. Was it just another not so subtle perception of freedom? Like allowing cell phones, but not paying people high enough salaries so they could actually use them. Whatever the revolution’s take on sex was, in the end it seemed like it was simply part of being Cuban, part of living on a hot tropical island with beautiful people, part of being 25 and in possession of your dad’s ride, even if it was a relic from another failed revolution.
Late night at a club, listening to a live salsa band, Miguel smoked one Nacional cigarette after another, calmly surveying the packed crowd. He left his yellow lighter in the middle of the table, it was more than a flame, it was also his talisman. Sure enough a steady flow of beautiful Cuban women whispered in his ear, and he kindly obliged by lighting their cigarettes. Surrounding him at the club were droves of tourists from Western countries, liberated countries, who had come to Cuba in part to meet cheap prostitutes, an economic reality in a country with a devastated economy. These foreigners possessed the wealth, the ability to travel, and the civil liberties that were out of reach to normal Cubans, to guys like Miguel. Yet here they were, paying for sex, one of the only accessible and free things in all of Cuba. Miguel smiled at the scene and exhaled. The band kicked into a fast number and tall European men danced awkwardly with their shoulders as Cuban women effortlessly moved hips in a smooth, rhythmic movement, like the nearby ocean against the sea wall.
After another song Miguel got up, lit a few more cigarettes, and calmly exited the club, alone, clutching a phone number in his left hand. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll call her,” he said with a grin. Then he stepped into the Lada and turned the key a few times. Tomorrow he’d have to fix the engine.