La Habana is like the grandest seashell in all the ocean, built centuries ago by the king of crustaceans as a colorful tribute to lavish living and boundless extravagance – but this same crustacean has long been gone, and another creature has since moved in and made its home there. The shell now has cracks plentiful in its colorful design and this new sea creature is too miserly, tired, and disinterested to be bothered with its maintenance.
Now, this metaphor is trying to speak to the system and history here, and not so much its people. I haven't a bad thing to say about the Cubans I've met so far (well okay, except perhaps for the numerous and very persistent jinteros, or hustlers, that are about just about anywhere tourists are). On a first glance, they seem athletic, wonderfully diverse, and share a strong sense of community on both local and national levels.
Our first stroll through Old Havana seemed a densely choreographed show. Cubanos with a destination would stop to talk with every familiar face peering through painted bars of open windows or leaning over balcony railings. For a minute it seemed like the sky was falling for all the things flung down from balconies to open hands: keys, cash, and whatever else. Flirting was done publicly, aggressively, and as often. Small packs of boys would line a section of street to play baseball with a wooden stick, pausing to let bicycle taxis, horse drawn carts, and classic American cars pass. Every door and window seemed to be open and dared you to peek at the world inside. More than once a peek would become an invitation, and we were waved into a backyard boxing ring for young boys and later a dingy little bar with forty cent glasses of rum where a beautiful dark skinned Cubana in a headwrap showed me pictures of her kids and complained about her hypocrite man.
As you head to old Havana's downtown it almost seems as if there's a very specific line you cross, and all of a sudden the streets and buildings are in good repair and the cast on the street gets widely replaced with upper middle class white tourists. Despite a vaguely Disneyland-esque cultivation of the government planned tourist zones, there's no denying the beauty and authenticity of the downtown architecture. Strolling through bright cathedral laden colonial plazas and waterfronts mounted with fortresses and cannons, it isn’t hard imaging retired privateers in many buttoned coats with a cigar in one hand, an expensive prostitute in another, and bottomless chests with decades worth of plunder in the basements of their lavish mansions. A fedora toting casino running gangster wouldn't look out of place either, and neither would Hemingway himself – though, his old haunts are now obnoxious tourist traps and terribly overpriced. The worst and most expensive cocktail I had in my nearly three weeks in Cuba was in El Floridita, which claims to have invented the frozen daiquiri and sports a bronze statue of Ernesto sitting at the bar in the corner.
Music, much as I was hoping, was abundant in Havana, and certainly one of my principal motivations for sneaking away to Cuba. That and the rum. (Cigars too, I suppose. The country side, architecture, and history are strong selling points as well.) I had my first Havana Club daiquiri just weeks prior to my trip while still in New York – and I hate hearing the word sinful to describe Epicurean pleasure, but that's just how it tasted. Already a damn fine product, the rum was made all the more delicious by its being forbidden. If I'm going to be committing some light treason, I sure as hell might as well be enjoying myself.
For my cousin Brian's birthday, we decided to buy our first cigars and plant ourselves at a jazz club recommended by the bartender at our hostel (the first hostel in all of Cuba and a relatively new thing in the country). But first, we purchased a bottle of aged rum and took a stroll upon a malecon, a waterfront drive with dramatic views of the new downtown, Vedado, and occasionally interrupted with tremendous Caribbean waves that pound their way upward into the air after hitting the rocks below. We stopped briefly before the jazz club in a large clearing full of university aged Cubans. We talked at length with a young Engineering student set to graduate. He seemed terribly embittered about his lot, knowing that were he to be embracing his new career just about anywhere else in the world, he would be compensated well beyond his needs for comfort, but soon, as a Cuban engineer he'd be making the same roughly 20 to 25 USD per month as everyone else. He told us that happiness for him and his family is a great struggle (something I heard more often in Cuba than many of the much poorer nations I've been to, unfortunately).
An older man came by and attempted to join the conversation. He seemed very insistent on getting everyone's names and circumstances with great specificity. Brian couldn't shake the suspicion that he might have been a plain clothes cop that might have stumbled upon some subversive dialogue with foreigners – something not taken lightly here – and we hope our friend's candid conversation didn't land him in trouble.
In the jazz club we lit our cigars, which were far from the priciest cigars I've ever bought, and I enjoyed the best tobacco I've pulled on to date. The smoke blew thick thick thick but felt silky in the mouth and there wasn't a trace of that ashen accumulation I've come to expect from even good cigars. After a couple of mojitos we were rocking out to the jazz and the saxophonist poured himself out through those windy brass tubes and stole the show.
By the third day in Havana we couldn't help but laugh each time we caught a jintero telling us it was Havana Club's anniversary and that they wanted to take us to the party (a comically common scam where the jinteros get kickbacks from overpriced drinks). It was Saturday, and Brian wanted badly to see a baseball game, and while not originally enthused, I had a really great time at the stadium. We killed some beers before going inside, as they were no longer for sale in the stadium thanks to repeated instances of the crowd getting drunk and out of hand. I've never seen anyone enjoy baseball as much as the Cubans do. The sound and the energy would have been right for gladiatorial combat, with persistent yells, horns, and drumming. It was the nation's premier team, the Industriales, versus the team from Santiago at the far end of the island, and the Industriales mopped the floor with their opponents. We closed the evening out with drinks near the capital building (which resembles our own but is supposedly a few centimeters taller), with a number couchsurfers and then another bottle of anejo at the malecon.
|Photo by Brian Linzmeier|
Oh, I seem to have omitted my experience with customs when arriving in Cuba. What a tense and drawn out mess. While in line, we were first interviewed by a plain clothes officer in great detail. He asked us about nearly every stamp in both of our passports and then took my journal from my hands and skimmed through it, asking occasionally about its contents. Then we got our tourist cards stamped (no passport stamps for Yanks, thank you). Baggage claim took forever. The only luggage out for a long time was that which would be pointless to search. Strollers and the like. Then came innumerable bags wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. I suppose those in the know know that the wrap deters closer inspection and then saves you time. Well after that, every other checked bag. I assume that every bag was searched by hand, and I have since resolved to be more like Brian and join the carry-on only club.
Before we progressed any farther, we were asked to wait to the side by another customs officer who took our passports away for another uncomfortable ten or so minutes. Another agent came and led another interview while writing down each of our responses. I was actually starting to sweat a little because I had stupidly bought my forward flight flight for the wrong date, a date well beyond the permitted 30 day tourist visa limit. Despite the thorough questioning, I was never asked to show my exit flight ticket, nor did anyone inquire about the liquor we both checked in our baggage from Mexico. Our agent ended with, “sorry, it's my job” and then “welcome to Cuba.” Oddly, many of the agents were crazy beautiful, an observation a German friend we made also shared.
“You can take me to the back room if you want,” he said.