A Walk Through Havana Capítulo 2

January 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

Cheers rang in the morning as two slightly overweight runners duked it out down a 100 meter stretch of dirt track.  One of the men with a gut tumbling over his jeans, and work boots, staked a lead over another man in shorts and a muscle t-shirt. It was a slow motion photo finish as they broke the imaginary tape.  A tall, black man in a tracksuit held up a stopwatch to display the winning time to an assistant dutifully recording the numbers on a clipboard.  Two more men quickly emerged from a group of around fifty, and stepped up to the starting line, peers screaming their names.  The two would be sprinters stood poised, completely focused on the task at hand.   A false start brought jeers from the crowd, indeed everybody was taking what appeared to be an adult phys-ed class extremely seriously.  Upon further investigation these were low-level government security guards, doing a mandatory physical fitness test.  While the group was only about half in shape, everybody seemed to be competitively minded, and supportive of each other.

Being that this was Cuba, it was hard to know if this kind of spirit was natural, or if it was a byproduct of the revolution.  After a half-century of economic and other depravities, what people had at the end of the day were not distinguishing possessions, but each other.

Walking up from the stadium on the Avenida de los Presidentes, the promenade was full of people taking in the morning sun and catching up with neighbors on park benches.  A busy group of government worker bees pruned, mowed, raked, and swept the series of plazas around them.  Havana was, if nothing else, maintained and relatively clean compared to most Latin capitals.  Every few blocks somebody was lost under the hood of a 1950s Chevy or Ford, fixing a fuel pump here, carburetor there, and right behind them, holding a wrench, was their neighbor.  Nobody seemed alone here.  Every corner, every patch of grass, every abandoned lot, every alleyway there was a makeshift baseball game.  Some kind of music, salsa, reggaeton, son, seemed to rain down from every faded, crumbling, once majestic balcony, giving the city a flowing soundtrack.  There was a rhythm to this place, a flow, as if everybody was doing some kind of coordinated dance.  Digging deeper it was obvious that some of this Havana scene was merely a façade to cover a struggle for survival.  Despite the bright curtain it was definitely not paradise.  But it wasn’t hell either.  Hell couldn’t be this colorful, musical, beautiful.  Whatever it was, it had a spirit.

South down the Avenida the city stretched into the aging rows of Central Havana’s three story buildings.  Families were packed into the once beautiful apartments that lined up visually like a pack of Life Savers painted with limes, strawberries, and lemons.  One could walk for blocks here without seeing a formal business.  A noticeable omission compared to the chain store laden streets of the outside world.  Indeed people did not spend their days buying things, in part because there was comparatively little to buy, and also because a local salary was around 20 US dollars a month.  Most people simply couldn’t afford anything beyond the basics.

Outside the massive Estadio LatinoAmericana, the baseball stadium that played home to Havana’s version of the Yankees, Los Industriales, five retirees sat on a park bench sharing a bottle of rum and telling stories.  Hoping there was a game that day I chatted them up.  Within minutes we had covered the whereabouts of every Cuban to have ever played in Las Grandes Ligas(the Major Leagues).  My favorite was the old Industriales star Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who won championships with the real Yankees after defecting from the island.  This choice seemed to please them and I was given a nod and a slap on the back.  They wanted to know where I was from.  In any other Latin country it would have been obvious that I was a gringo, with my accent, my sunburn, and even my style of walking.  But these guys didn’t see a lot of United Statesers, we weren’t supposed to visit them, so they got lost in an argument over whether I look more British or Canadian.  Finally I established that I myself was a sort of Yankee, and they excitedly told me about relatives in Miami and Elizabeth, New Jersey.  They wanted to know about snow, and how cold it got in the wintertime.  I was offered the rum bottle, a humbling gesture from this Cuban fraternity.   I felt like a pledge who had gotten accepted to an exclusive club.  One resource that did not seem hard to come by here was the hallowed Cuban white rum.  Everybody seemed to have the ability to get a little bit of rum to cool off from the hot Caribbean sun, or maybe just to keep things smooth and calm, despite the myriad of daily frustrations.

I was out of luck, there was no Industriales game today, but my new brothers pointed West to a road that led to another stadium, Ciudad Deportiva(Sport City), home to Havana’s other team, the Metropolitanos(Mets).  I laughed.   Los Mets, perfect.  With a half hour until first pitch, I went to find out if they are as bad as their New York namesakes.

Nearing the stadium my heart was beating fast, it was Christmas and was about to go to a baseball game, in Cuba.  After paying a mere fifty cents for a paper ticket, I stepped inside the cozy, half full stadium.  A couple of hundred fans were spread out on the wood bleachers for the 1 p.m. matchup between Los Mets and Cienfuegos, a team from the center of the island.  Starving, I bought the first edible item that crossed my path, a couple of sandwiches that turned out to be simply bread and a fried mixture of sausage and grain.  It tasted like a creative use of rations.

I grabbed a seat along the first base side, a few rows up from the field.  I was immediately followed by a young Cuban in a San Francisco Giants hat who was yelling in English “my friend…my friend,” at me, as if we’ve known each other our whole lives.  I was a little wary of being followed, even though I was just there to hang out and get to know the island, so I quickly made up an alter ego to try to preserve my anonymity.  I introduced myself as Jorge, from Northern Mexico, but that I had an American mom, which is why my accent was still pretty gringo.  Eduardo, my new best friend, seemed to buy it, sort of.  He still wanted to talk to me in broken English, even though I responded in Spanish, and kept all of my references to Mexico.  “What’s New York like? “ “I’m more familiar with Mexico City” “my friend lives in Miami” “I’m more familiar with Cancun”.  And so it went, two separate narratives, me sticking to my lies, Eduardo sticking to his passion for the United States.  Thankfully we had one thing in common, baseball, and so I kept the subject on America’s pastime, which, by the looks of the game, our island neighbors had learned how to play as well, if not better, since missionaries first brought the sport to Cuba.

Eduardo educated me on who the best players were, which Major League stars they most resembled, (A-Rod, Pujols, even a Ricky Henderson reference for an aging speedster).  He even claimed to know many of Los Mets, a claim that seemed plausible as players from both teams milled about the stands in between innings, talking to friends and fans.  Eduardo’s devotion to my presence wasn’t just about baseball.  Every Cuban seemed to have an ulterior motive, which didn’t bother me as they were struggling to make ends meet.  He discretely opened up a small blue backpack to reveal a Cuban baseball hat and some pirated CDs and DVDs.  Keeping an eye out for security forces, he explained the amazing deal he was prepared to give me.

And then came Eduardo’s story, which seemed more sincere than part of the sales pitch.  He said that he didn’t normally have time to see his beloved baseball games, as he was kept busy working his job at a cigar factory.  But a few months prior he’d been laid off, potentially as part of the half million layoffs the government had announced last summer in hopes of modernizing their economy in a sustainable way.  He says he was picked because of his history, which included an ill-fated attempt with friends to reach Florida via a makeshift raft.  Eduardo says he and his four friends got close, but that the Coast Guard intercepted them, and returned them to Cuba where they were jailed briefly and admonished and fined by the government.  The worst part he said was the stigma, the government made sure his employers, his neighbors, everybody knew what he had tried to do.  It sounded like a jailbreak gone wrong, and now he was back in his sunny tropical open-air prison.  And his lot was getting worse he said.  “My girlfriend is moving to Spain, with her mom,” she got permission.  “This is going to be the worst New Years ever.”

We sat in silence, both of us contemplating Eduardo’s fate.  One of the Cienfuegos sluggers snapped us out of it with a home run that cleared the entire stadium and landed in nearby traffic.  “I told you he said, he’s the Cuban A-Rod” “Very good, no?” “Increíble,” I responded in Spanish, working on my Mexican accent.  “Increíble.”


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