A Walk Through Havana Capítulo 1

January 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Like everything in Cuba, Maria’s sparse refrigerator reflected a hard-fought battle between ingenuity and preservation.  Recycled jars filled with homemade fruit juice concoctions crowded the entire top shelf, and the side door was filled with a collection of sweets, eaten a nibble at a time, to make sure they lasted.  It was never a sure thing that there would be more on this island, of anything.

Every morning Maria got up at the crack of dawn, although it was hard to tell if she was up, or if she’d ever really gone down.  There was no real discernible space where she rested her head for the night.  Her railroad car style apartment began with a terrace overlooking the Vedado neighborhood, considered the cultural heart of the city, and home to some of its more upscale realities including majestic hotels and clubs.

The next room was the beating heart of the place, a literal “living” room where everything happened.  Maria and her 3-year-old granddaughter Sofia held court in a wicker chair the entire day.  The younger lay spread out across her grandma’s chest like a little bib.   Intermittently they would watch one of the five state-run tv channels, take tandem naps, and greet a steady stream of friends, relatives, and vendors.  Sofia, or Sofi as her family called her, had already developed a brash, loud personality, demanding things from her family members and anyone else who ventured into her path.  Her tempestuous behavior seemed like a gift in a place like Cuba, where much of the preceding generations had long stopped raising voices about their lot in the aging 53-year-old revolution.

Next to the living room a tiny kitchen was tucked behind a gaudy mirror with an inlaid panoramic nature scene, and shelves full of expensive bottles of rum that had long been drained of their spirits.  The cupboards were filled with what Maria was pledged in her Libreta, the rations all Cubans were promised, and whatever seasonal extras she could find at government sanctioned farmers markets.  Wintertime meant bananas, guayaba and some papaya.

Down a narrow corridor were two small guest rooms she rented out as part of her “casa particular,” one of around 400 government sanctioned bed and breakfasts in Havana.  When the rooms were full she could make around 60 US$ a day, highly taxed, double what most locals made in a month.  The flip side of her small business privilege lay at the very end of the apartment, a tiny, very tidy one room where Sofia had a small bed, her parents in a slightly larger bed right next to her, and what appeared to be a folded mattress in the corner for the 67-year-old Maria.

Maria got excited when she was asked about the revolution.  She was a young teenager in 1959 when Fidel Castro took control of Cuba and she says her family was happy to be liberated from the “oppressive and abusive” Batista regime.  The only close-knit casualty was Maria’s sister who had fallen in love with a policeman, and as he fled to Florida when the government collapsed, the sister followed.  “Love is love,” said Maria, you can’t change who you fall in love with.  But love has its downside, 53 years later the two sisters still had not seen each other, despite being a mere 90 kilometers apart.  Maria would point North from her living room when she talked about her sister, as if Miami was across the street from Havana.

Every morning Maria read her copy of Granma, the ten page government paper named for the boat Fidel and his band of rebels took from Mexico to invade their own home.  And she proudly talked about the education and medical services that formed the heart of Castro’s universe.  As if to accentuate her point,  Maria got an early evening visit from a local doctor on his way home a few blocks down.  He stopped by to check the tendinitis in her left arm.  A short while later the living room featured an operating table, as the gentlemen physician wrapped her arm in a plaster cast while dinner was being served a few feet away.  Maria smiled and held her arm in the air, like a trophy, proof her country took care of her.  There was an air of sincerity, not brainwashing, in Maria’s nationalistic beliefs.  Unlike many younger Cubans who felt disenfranchised and decidedly prisoners on the island of their birth, she had lived through the alternative, the staggering disparities that most Latin countries still suffered from.

It was hard to argue with Maria on some levels, seeing an unpaid house call by a doctor was a startling concept in most countries.  Another very vivid site was the one of relative racial integration on the island.  Blacks and whites appeared to live the same reality, in the same neighborhoods, with the same resources.  Nobody batted an eyelid when an inter-racial couple walked by.  Sofia, the picture of Spanish heritage with her jet black hair and pale white skin, slept at night with a large felt black doll with long dark braids.

One of the guest rooms was occupied by an Iranian-British engineer who was able to see the revolution with a critical eye, as he had escaped a similar fate when his family fled Iran in the late 70s.  Having only recently visited relatives he barely knew back in Iran, he was uniquely able to see Cuba on a level that those who had only known freedom could not.  Eventually he was replaced by a towering 6’7″ Croatian who demanded a four egg omelet with ham and a plate of fruit every morning.  He could have cared less about food shortages or seasonal barriers.  Coming from a socialist state and a civil war himself, the Croat seemed unfazed by any uniqueness in Cuba.  Besides, he was a capitalist now, living in Las Vegas, and was here for two things, to smoke Cuban cigars and sleep with cheap prostitutes.  He had heard they were forty dollars and was deeply upset to find the night before that they cost double that.

The other guest room, more walk-in closet than living space, had a window overlooking a decaying, but vibrant sports stadium colored in faded pinks and blues with a dirt track and a cool breeze coming off the nearby malecón(sea wall).  From sun up to sun down the grounds were packed with young baseball stars pitching everything from balls to bottle caps to their friends, who would respond with broom handles, wood posts, and some real baseball bats.  Soccer players congregated in the grassy middle of the dirt track for spirited games with friends, teams playing in rotation in order to maximize resources, the losers sometimes turning over their shoes to the team coming in to challenge the victors.  Joggers did their laps in faded “Cuba” track suits.  Young men appearing to still heed the call of Che’s “Nuevo Hombre” used rusty jungle gyms to do their pull-ups, and ran sprints against co-workers of all ages.

Watching the sea of activity, intently, like a private Olympic Games, was me, a quiet American, who one month ago saw Ray Suarez broadcasting live from Havana on PBS and decided he could wait no longer.  I had been telling people for about a decade that I wanted to see the island before it changed, before there was a McDonald’s, before there was a ferry-boat from Florida.  So I went, out of fear of future regret, but even more out of extreme curiosity.  I had to see one of the last true social experiments in the world.

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