What is Cuba REALLY like?
The new Bush policy toward Cuba is crazy! Bush is assuming that the people of Cuba are EVIL? That's crazy. What are the people of Cuba REALLY like? Here's an account from someone I know who actually WENT there. Read it and judge for yourself? Do these people really deserve to be blockaded? Or to be the next victim of Shock and Awe?
And pass this on to anyone who REALLY wants to know about Cuba.
Regards, Jane Stillwater
AMY GOES TO CUBA
By Mary Straitwell
December 27, 2000: 5:30 am. "Wake up, Amy. We gotta take BART to the airport." My 13-year-old daughter Amy reluctantly got out of her warm comfortable bed and grumbled off to the bathroom. And stayed there.
I paced back and forth. "Hurry, Amy! We're gonna be late!" And we were. We ran to BART, ran for a taxi, ran to stand in line, ran through the security check, ran through the airport, ran for Gate Nine. "Passengers Straitwell to Gate Nine," the loudspeaker blared. "Passengers Straitwell to Gate Nine!" They held the whole darn plane for us.
We got on board, took the very last seats next to the lavatory and pulled out our stash of See's walnut chocolate fudge to calm our nerves. "We made it!" I said. "It's a good thing we took that cab."
We flew United to Los Angeles. We were on our way to Cuba! At last!
10:45 am: What is this, the airplane journey from hell? Or am I just tired. At LAX we frantically ran from the domestic terminal to the international terminal and only got lost twice. At the international terminal, we learned that our flight to Mexico City had been oversold and because we were the last two in line, we got bumped.
"You will have to spend the night in Mexico City and fly to Cuba in the morning," the Mexicana ticket person informed us.
"Will you pay for our hotel room?" I countered. The Mexicana person looked highly doubtful. Then Amy and I boarded a flight for Guadalajara on a plane whose engine made a strange lawn mower sound. Or did it sound like electric hedge clippers. Worse was yet to come -- there was no inflight movie! That is as close to aviation hell as one can get. Amy and I didn't even get to sit together. And Amy was holding out on our last few pieces of chocolate walnut fudge.
I read Elmore Leonard's book Cuba Libre to pass the time and to keep from throwing up.
More hours passed. I chased my luggage all over the Guadalajara airport, ate more fudge, met new people, crocheted on my afghan and read more Cuba Libre. "Where is Gate 11?" I said in basic Spanish. "De donde esta puerto once?" It was 4:30 pm already and we weren't even off the ground in Guadalajara. Our flight to Cuba left at 6:30. "I don't think we're going to make our Mexico City connection," I told Amy. She shrugged.
6 pm: "Anyone who needs help making a direct connection should see the Mexican representative upon deplane-ing." Yeah. Right. Our Cubana Airlines flight was supposed to leave at 6 pm and we haven't even landed in Mexico City yet.
Amy and I deplane-ed. No one was there to meet us. No one knew where we were going and someone had disappeared with our luggage claim tags. Amy and I desperately combed the Mexico City airport -- looking for luggage, looking for Cubana Airlines, looking for help!
"Will you help us!" I begged a Mexicana official. And he did. "Tell me where you came from," he said.
"But we have to make the Cubana flight! They may still be holding it for us!"
"Tell me where you came from," he repeated firmly.
"But our luggage claim tags have disappeared and our luggage was supposed to be on that flight and..."
"Tell me where you came from," he repeated. Oh well.
"We came from Oakland, California via Los Angeles via Guadalajara." The man disappeared for five minutes, came back, punched up some computer buttons and smiled.
"Come with me," he said. We went around some corners, up some stairs and into a small back office occupied by tall, thin good-looking Cubans smoking cigarettes. "These people are here for the 6 pm Cubana flight," explained our Mexicana hero.
A tall, good-looking Cuban smiled at me. "You are in luck," he said. "The plane malfunctioned and has not left yet. Come with me." We did. He took us around more corners and up more stairs and got us to the right departure gate and handed us beautiful pink boarding passes.
But guess what? The plane really was broken and a new plane had to be sent from Cuba and the next scheduled take-off time was 3 am.
"Can I help you?" a woman said. "I am from Global Exchange." Global Exchange was the non-profit organization that had organized our trip to Cuba. I was so glad to finally see someone who knew what we were supposed to be doing. I could have kissed her. "Follow me," she said. We did.
"Because the plane does not leave until 3 am, we will take you to dinner at the Airport Marriott and then set you up with a room to sleep in while you wait." I could have kissed her again. By then, it was 8 pm. Amy went off to the Marriott with the Global Exchange lady. I went off to track down the luggage.
The Mexico City airport is not as large as SFO or LAX but it is getting there -- three or four football fields long at the least. I covered every inch of that airport three or four times, crying, "Have you seen my luggage! Have you seen my luggage!" One hour later I had luggage in hand and was eating chicken soup and flan and salad and pork chops and Coca Cola at the Marriott.
Two hours later I was wallowing in a hot bath and fluffy towels and clean sheets. One hour after that I was sound asleep. Heaven.
December 28, 2000: 2:45 am. The phone rings. "Huh?"
"Be at the boarding gate by 3 am." And there we sat for another hour or so but at least we had gotten some sleep. But guess what? Our plane didn't take off for Cuba for three more hours. We sat around Gate 9A and sulked until 6 am. The flight crew came at last and all the Cubans clapped and cheered. Cool.
That was about the highlight of our air travel experience. The rest of it had sucked. We arrived in Cuba looking like war orphans; hollow-eyed and bleak. But Cuba made up for it all!
Coming to Cuba was like stepping out of an old black-and-white movie of airports and bureaucracy and frustration and bad air -- and into the technicolor world of palm trees and friendly people and fine old cars. "Oh, look! There's a '55 Chevy Bel Aire!" I cried. Amy had not a clue what I was talking about or why I was insisting that she take my picture standing next to it.
Then we went off to our hotel and slept.
11:30 am: "What did we do next, Amy," I asked my daughter later. The whole morning had been a blur.
"We went out to lunch in a restaurant and we went and looked at the bay and watched little boys jumping off the sea wall into the waves, wearing little girls' underpants!" I guess Amy was impressed by the fact that boys didn't wear boxers in Cuba. Travel broadens.
Lunch consisted of fresh fish, rice, salad, black beans and Cuban beer. Lunch was enhanced by a strolling samba band, patio dining, strolling peacocks and strolling chickens -- yuppie chic meets the farmyard. Quite upscale.
1 pm: "Let's go on the bicycle tour of Old Havana!" I said.
"Sorry. That bus is full," said Tatiana, one of our guides. "The bus to the model city is available however." The model city? Ho hum. We went there and it was boring but on the way back the tour bus let us off at the local flea market and that was wonderful. We got four Che Guevara berets and it started raining and Amy and I ran home along the Malecon sea wall, laughing in the rain.
8 pm: After dinner, Amy washed her hair and went to bed. I went out again, into the rain, walking through the narrow street of Old Havana on the way to the Casa de Africa. Old Havana was enthralling because its streets were paved with stone blocks, no cars were allowed and the houses were tall, old, covered with wrought iron; historical and brave. One could imagine hidalgos and pirates living there.
"Santeria is a combination of the Yuruba religion from Africa and the Spanish Catholic religion," said the curator of Casa de Africa, the African-Cuban museum in the heart of Old Havana. She showed us costumes and banners and instruments worn and carried and played by the African slaves in old Cuba. "Come this way, please," said the curator. "We will show you some African-Cuban dances."
The Casa de Africa was a three-story townhouse with stone block floors and very high ceilings, typical of all the houses in Old Havana. I wonder where they got the stone? Earlier we had walked through a gallery and up and up high narrow stairs with wrought iron banisters. Louvered shutters haloed the windows. It was all very New Orleans and very charming; historic.
The curator led us downstairs again, past galleries in the old sense -- narrow walkways between the stairwell and the walls of what had once been bedrooms. Charming.
African dance is usually based on tribal ritual. The dances we saw this night were different -- these still retained an African flavor but they were highly influenced by the one overwhelming factor in the lives of the Cuban Africans from centuries past: Those Cuban Africans had been slaves.
The Casa de Africa dance troupe re-created that feeling -- that the lives of the slaves had been filled with hardship and oppression and slavery and labor in the cane fields that had been almost beyond endurance. The dances were also filled with memories of Africa and...and joy. Yes, the downtrodden and abused members of the lowest caste society had still held on to their exuberant appreciation of the dear gift of life, no matter how hard that life might be.
"Life for a Cuban slave was truly miserable," the curator had mentioned earlier. "Unlike in America where slaves were taken care of because they were considered property, Cuban slaves, imported directly from Africa, were merely worked to death and replaced with other Cuban slaves imported from Africa."
December 29, 2000: 8:30 am: Breakfast was a buffet operation -- pancakes, chirizos, papayas, croissants. Pretty good food. The hotel itself was pretty good as well. It was a modern hotel, built in the 1980's in the style preferred by Holiday Inn. But we had a fabulous view. Our window overlooked the Malecon, the sea wall/promenade that keeps the ocean out of Havana. The waves come crashing right up to the wall and sometimes crash over. On windy days, one stays off the Malecon. People have been known to have been swept off to sea from there. "I wonder what will happen to Cuba when global warming raises the level of the oceans?" I asked someone in our group. "Even a raise of one foot could overwhelm Havana."
The guy laughed and replied, "Don't you know? Global warming is America's secret weapon against Castro."
"Does that mean that if Castro steps down, they'll call it off?" I said.
We finished breakfast and prepared to depart for the day's tour program. I took an elevator up to my room where a maid was making the bed. It's funny but here in Cuba almost everyone has a college education. Even the maids. American tourists here live pretty high on the hog. I had thought that we would be living on bread and water and sleeping in crumbling buildings without running water. Hell no. We are doing quite well for ourselves down here.
"Where are we going today?" I asked Tatiana.
"We're going to see the special children," she replied. "We have special hospital areas for Cuban children with acute asthma and diabetes. We also have about 250 children from the Ukraine -- children from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Many of them have leukemia. We sponsor them here because our physicians are excellent in this area.
I was impressed. "Are they children from the original 1986 accident or do they come here, get treated and then go back to the Ukraine?"
"The children here now are recently arrived. They generally stay a year or so for treatment and then go back." We got on a bus and drove to the countryside on the outskirts of Havana, to what looked like a funky 1960's housing project/industrial park where both facilities were housed.
We toured the Cuban childrens' school and dormitory first. The children, seventh and eighth graders, were healthy-looking, intelligent, normal-looking and friendly. They were very happy children too. As a mother, I realized that happy children are usually produced only in a nurturing atmosphere of kindness and love. These children were getting the real thing. I was impressed.
"This is my daughter Amy," I told some of the children in my fractured Spanish during their recess. "She is in eighth grade in El Estados Unidos." Amy smiled shyly and the Cuban boys and girls smiled shyly and the inter-cultural exchange was a big hit.
I was also impressed with the healthy vigor of these children. "They use fresh air, diet and exercise as the main line of defense in controlling their health problems," said one of the teachers there. "Insulin and inhalers are only our second line of defense."
"In the United States, those are the first line of defense," I remarked.
"They may appear less expensive and easier to use in the short run but in the long run, fresh air, diet and exercise produce better results. We only use the medications when absolutely necessary." I could see the results of this policy in the faces of the healthy children around me.
10:30: After touring the school, we walked down the road to visit the children of Chernobyl. An older woman met our group and introduced herself. "I am the assistant administrator of this hospital group," she said. "Come with me and I will introduce you to some of the children. Altogether we have 250 children from the Ukraine. Right now only four of them are in the intensive care ward." She smiled. There must have been many more in the near distant past.
We walked across a lawn to the main hospital. The building was airy, tropical, simple and inexpensively built; not at all your typical US hospital. The paint was old, the concrete floors uncarpeted, the pipes exposed. Yet some of the best medical care in the world was provided here.
We stepped into the ward and were introduced to the children. I don't know what I was expecting but even these terribly ill children looked bright and happy as if the tropical air was giving them new life. One of the boys had kidney problems, another had lung dysfunction. All of the children smiled at us from their beds. I was touched by their bravery and honored that they shared their stories so readily with us.
"Each child has a parent come over from the Ukraine with them," the administrator told us. As we were leaving, I saw two blonde women walking together. They could only have been Russian mothers. They did not look Cuban even though there are many Cubans who are blonde. They looked like strangers in a strange land. And I have never seen two people look so bored. I could almost read their thoughts -- here we are, sophisticated city dwellers stuck out here in the damn countryside with nothing to do in the hot summer for months on end, far away from out country. I felt sorry for them. The children seemed to have adjusted to their new life in Cuba so much better than their parents.
Noon: There is an open-air souvenir market near Old Havana. Amy and I strolled through it just before lunchtime. We saw more Che Guevara T-shirts than we had ever imagined existed on this planet! Suddenly two women were fiddling with Amy's hair. "What are you doing?" I said.
"Braid hair? Braid hair?" one woman asked -- or rather commanded.
"How much for the whole head?"
"25 dollars only." It amazed me that the main currency of Cuba, the world's last Communist country, is American dollars. Everyone uses them. I wonder what happens to them when they get all torn and wrinkled. Does the US Treasury exchange them for new ones?
"For the whole head?"
"The whole head!"
"But we have to be back at the restaurant in one-half hour."
"Oh. No problema! We two can braid it in ten minutes." She made a motion with her hands for "really fast," twisting Amy's hair in pantomime.
"Ten minutes? Por cierto?"
"Si!" I nodded yes and the two women grabbed Amy's hands and ran off with her, just like that. One woman signaled for me to follow. I did. I wandered along after them. Only I wandered too slowly and suddenly Amy was gone!
Amy was gone. Totally gone. Dragged off by two complete strangers. In a foreign country approximately 7,000 miles from home. Jesus. I searched for her. "Amy! Amy!" I screamed. No daughter.
A policeman helped me out. "See that street over there? That's where they went." I looked down the street. I saw nothing but houses. I panicked and froze. Amy could be in any one of those houses. Why did I bring an eighth-grader to a foreign country? What was I thinking? Damn. My baby might be lost, kidnapped or worse. Get ahold of yourself, Mary. This was Cuba. Everyone here was friendly and safe. Yes, correcto, yet my young daughter had just disappeared into thin air down a back street of Havana.
Just then the clouds parted and the sunshine that was Amy came bopping down the street out of some dark colonial doorway into the light of day. I was never so glad to see anyone in my life!
3 pm: Lunch was rice, beans, salad and pork. And Crystal cerveza too. "Next we go on a tour of the Museum of the Revolution," Tatiana said. Tatiana had been born during the Cuba-USSR friendship period when Russian names were popular." My brother's name is Alexander," she added. The museum was in an old Presidential palace or something, right in the main part of Havana. Amy bought a Cuban flag at the gift shop for $15 and I bought a Cuban T-shirt. Then we looked at pictures and pictures and pictures of Che Guevara. We even saw pieces of his hair and beard.
"Don't you just love Che Guevara?" asked Amy as she bought a T-Shirt with his photo on it. I thought he had kind of a beer-belly and looked like the kind of joker who would be telling stories in a bar somewhere.
8:30 pm: After dinner, Amy and I walked around the neighborhood, listened to salsa music coming from the houses, savored the tropical night and stood in mute appreciation in front of the blocks and blocks of historically antique houses made of concrete and stone and ironwork, carved and decadent and decaying benignly.
You have to go to Havana to comprehend this faded grandeur. It is too difficult to describe this metropolis that is a living museum with any justice. It is difficult to imagine blocks, acres, miles and miles and miles of colonial souvenirs, each of which would be considered a palace back in the States.
It was a nice walk. We passed along the Malecon on our way back but the waves were too high and the breaking spray was to "act of nature" for me. Earlier a guide had told us yet again, "Don't walk by the Malecon when it is storming. Just the other day a woman was swept out to sea and drowned." All this oceanic drama was happening right outside our hotel! Amy grabbed me and tried to pull me into the spray. "Get away, hell spawn!" I replied. Ha! She got her pants all wet.
Then we went back to the hotel, located a housekeeper, procured some toilet paper from her and went to bed. Toilet paper is rather hoarded in Cuba -- but we were persistent.
December 30, 2000: Ever heard of the Bay of Pigs? I've been there! Apparently the Americans used the same technique on the Cuban invasion that they used on Normandy Beach. It worked at Normandy Beach.
We arrived at the museum commemorating the invasion of this area, called by the locals "Zapata Peninsula" and "Playa Giron". "The enemy began the attack by bombing every airport in Cuba," said Tatiana. "Here is an airplane from the Cuban Air Force that was used to repel the attack." We looked at this very small propeller-driven plane. We took our pictures standing in front of it.
"Cuban soldiers and civilians fought the enemy," Tatiana said. "In only three days, the invaders were repulsed. 80 Cubans were killed. 1,118 American-trained mercenaries were captured and traded back to America for medicine and food." We wandered through the small museum and saw the photos of the slain soldiers, etc. "The enemy picked the Zapata Peninsula to spearhead their landing because it was isolated." We looked around at the tropical landscape. Guess what? It was still isolated.
"However," Tatiana continued, "This area used to be very poor before the Revolution and the people were hungry and abused by Batista's government. After the Revolution, the lot of these people was greatly improved. Houses were built, food was supplied, people were taught to read and doctors were supplied. So when the invaders came to take back the land the way it used to be, the people who lived here fought with all their hearts, holding the enemy off for long enough for the Cuban army to come and help them."
1 pm: You've heard of the sparkling clear waters of the Caribbean where schools of brightly-colored exotic fish swim by you on the coral reef? It's all true! I've been there! The water actually is that clear and that blue and the fish are electric-colored just like the ones you see in the pet shop. I was so amazed. Amy rented a snorkel mask, dived right in and spent the afternoon on the reef.
"I'm going in," I told her, "not because I'd like to swim but because I'd feel like an idiot when I got home and remembered that I was that close to a Caribbean ocean and didn't go in."
"But Mom," replied Amy, "You didn't even get your hair wet."
"Yes, but I swam around up to the neck! That counts for something. And one of those sweet exotic technicolor little fishies just bit me!" I was all proud of myself for having gone mano a mano with nature again. Then I went back to my cabana and drank rum and coke and had the most wonderful massage in the world for only $15 -- by someone who obviously got a masters degree in the subject and was probably an MD as well.
On the 3-hour bus ride back to Havana, we wrote letters, read, knitted and slept. At one point the bus lurched to a stop as a bull, dragging the tree he had been tied to, ran across the roadway in front of us. The driver cum toreador executed a marvelous pass and we emerged unscathed.
As we drove back through the streets of Havana, it occurred to me once more that we hadn't seen Fidel, we hadn't heard Fidel referred to -- and we had the chance of a snowball on Veradero Beach of doing so. Mr. Castro kept a very low profile in Cuba. One could hardly even buy a post card of him let alone a T-shirt. No statues of him by himself existed. It was almost like he kept in the shadows deliberately, focusing the spotlight on Che.
As for Castro's secession, I don't think it will be a problem as there are a multitude of highly-educated people in Cuba. Even the bus drivers have university educations. Not like in El Estados Unidos where the school systems suck and very few kids go to college let alone med school. Don't get me started on education in America. This is supposed to be a vacation.
"Wanna go to the `Havana Nights' revue at the theatre tonight?" I asked Amy.
"Oh, come along. I've heard its really good. Lots of singing and dancing."
Amy loved it. There was one song and dance number after another, each one a take on some part of Havana life -- old cars, salsa, Santeria -- even a take-off on hip-hop. It was all very Las Vegas and light-hearted and highly professional and fun. "This is the kind of production they have in the world's only remaining communist country?" I laughed as balloons fell from the ceiling and sequined dancers in rumba costumes cavorted across the stage. I loved the performance -- it would have fit perfectly in Atlantic City or Reno, what was not to love -- but it definitely did not contain sketches of the rebels fighting in the Sierra Maestra or the heroic workers harvesting the sugar cane. Wow!
"I have to go to the bathroom," said Amy after it was over. While we were doing the samba in line at the ladies' room with the other Cubans, our bus left without us and Amy and I had to walk three miles back to the hotel at midnight.
"How could they forget us?" Amy grumbled. "My feet hurt!" As for myself, I enjoyed the night air, the exercise and the experience of being whistled at by the Cuban men who couldn't tell in the soft dark night that I was old enough to be their mother.
Sunday, December 31, 2000: We went on a bike tour! Would my old, creaky knees get me all around Havana by bike? Hummm. A block away from our hotel, the University of Havana Bicycle Club had a shed full of bicycles in pretty good shape (considering the condition my bike at home was in, these bikes were like new!). I ran from one bike to another, looking for one with a high seat and stable frame. "I ride a 1955 Schwinn to work every day," I told the student who was helping me. "Do you have anything like that?" He did.
We biked hecka far. We biked all over the city. I did pretty good.
"We're going to an art center first," said our leader, Ignacio. There were 30 or 40 of us and he had a large flag of Cuba on a pole on the back of his bike and he had a neon vest and a helmet and a whistle and biking shorts that read "Velosport". He was a serious biker. He commuted 15 kilos by bike each day and lead 500-mile tours of the island regularly. He was intelligent, informative and funny. I was impressed.
Ingacio blew on his whistle, all the traffic stopped and we were off through the streets of Havana. The art center turned out to be an alley near the university where students lived and painted. There were bright murals, sculptures and paintings everywhere. They had used their homes for their canvases. Surprisingly, the theme of many of the murals was Santeria: Oshun, Yamaya, Chango, Santa Barbara.
We biked uphill past the university. As usual, I was the last one in the group. A club member rode up behind me and gave me a push.
That day, Amy was feeling very sick and all the club members were very very nice to her and very helpful. "You can ride in the car," they offered. A Jeep with a bicycle trailer followed us just in case touristas pooped out. Amy rode in the vehicle for a while until she felt better.
"Next we go to a state-run market," said Ignacio. "Here in Cuba, every family gets so many pounds of free rice, beans, eggs and milk each month." He rattled off how much each family got and what other things they received but I forgot what they were. "Old people and babies get more cows' milk. The others get soy milk." We looked around the building -- it looked like a high school gymnasium converted by the Red Cross into an emergency food distribution center, except for the ancient adding machines on the counters.
"Next door is the farmers' market where people buy food to supplement their government rations. Each individual and family is rationed and at the end of each month when their free food runs out, the people supplement their diet with food from the farmers' market." As this was the day before New Year, the market was bustling with people buying meat and vegetables and fruit and eggs in preparation for celebratory feasts. Amy took a picture of me standing in front of a whole dead pig hanging on a meat hook.
"Eeeeeuuuuu," said Amy. But she took the picture anyway. Then we biked to Lenin Park where Vladimir Lenin's statue had been replaced by one of John Lennon, in bronze, sitting on a park bench.
Ignacio once again whistled, stopped traffic and signaled us onward, toward the Colon Cemetery. "Here is where the old wealthy colonial families buried their dead. Now the Cuban party leaders are buried here also."
"Is Che buried here?" someone asked.
"No, he is buried in Santa Clara." Colon proved to be my favorite cemetery in all the world -- even better than New Orleans, even better than Hong Kong, even better than Brooklyn! There were marble statues of saints and angels everywhere; more monuments per square foot than any patch of land on earth. I was so happy there.
"The cemetery is laid out with a church in the center," Ignacio told us. It was an octagonal church. I would have liked to have gone in but there were several funerals in progress. I could hear a priest droning the liturgy, just like at home only in Spanish.
"Here is the most famous grave in the cemetery," said Ignacio. I thought he was going to say Christopher Columbus, after whom the cemetery was named. Instead he pointed to a statue of a woman, madonna-like, with a young child in her arms. A line of people were circumambulating the statue, waiting to make their offerings and to present their petitions for help.
"In 1851," Ignacio continued, "this woman, Amelia, died in childbirth and she and her baby were buried in the coffin together, with the child at the mother's feet. Well, it is the custom in Cuba to dig a body up after two years and transfer it to a smaller box." I think that's what I heard him say.
"After two years, they opened the coffin and found the bay enfolded within its mother's arms. Everyone considered it a miracle and now people come here to ask Amelia for favors -- like to get well or find a house, that kind of thing. She is very famous." A miracle? Right. The poor mother and child were obviously buried alive and this lame story was their way of covering up the grisly discrepancy. I'll bet you anything on that.
I went through the line and left a picture of my children. "Please St. Amelia," I said, upgrading her to sainthood for her accidental martyrdom and for the way she answered the prayers of her believers, "watch over my family and bring peace to all the peoples of the world. And I'm sorry that you got buried alive and I wish that your pain also be released as well." Immediately I felt better. I looked up into the sky and it was a beautiful blue color. Perhaps the Cubans were right about St. Amelia. It never hurts to want to have faith that the future will be better.
"Let's go," said Ignacio. "We will ride past Plaza de la Revolucion, Chinatown and old Havana -- and we did. I spotted approximately ten Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, three or four Eurasians and one actual Chinese -- but he was with us and came from California.
Old Havana was beautiful and exotic and etc. but not as mysterious as it had been the other evening in the starlight. Nonetheless, it still was like walking through a time warp, a living museum of cobbled streets and grandiose stone facades.
4 pm: We went home, took a nap, had dinner at the hotel, fancied up our outfits and went off to El Morro Castle for the New Years Eve party of the millennium. People from all around the world were coming to this party, organized by the Millennium Society of New York and held in an ancient Spanish castle guarding the Havana harbor. Its miserable dungeons were legendary. It was the real McCoy. Great place to start off the next century!
10:30 pm: The New Years Eve Party of the Millennium sucked. They had canned music and no food and cold, windy tables and no strawberry daiquiris at the bar. Nobody danced. Everybody huddled in a corner out of the wind, wrapping themselves in red tablecloths to keep warm. There were no Cubans dancing salsa.
Of all the adventurous, wondrous, joyous festivities in all Havana, here we were huddled in the corner with a bunch of touristas and bored-looking bartenders. Hummph.
The sole redeeming feature -- and what a redemption! -- was that we were huddled in a cold windy corner of El Morro Castle! Built in the sixteenth century to expel pirates from Havana Bay, its fortifications and dungeons were legend in the New World. They'd chain you to the wall and let you rot there forever. El Morro Castle was awesome.
"I've got to go to the bathroom," said Amy. She had just finished drinking what she described as "herbal medicine to keep me warm" but we both knew that she had just snuck a taste of the rum.
"No rum for you, young lady," I replied. No rum for me either. But soon the Americans were downing it by the gallon and at last the party started to liven up. "Let's go look for a bathroom." And we did. We wandered all through the bowels of the castle. The stone corridors stretched forever and the looming hulk of the castle itself towered over us. The party was up on top of the castle, near the cannonade and overlooking 365 degrees of the Havana harbor and the lights of the city itself. No pirate barque could ever sneak up on El Morro unnoticed.
The bathroom was down at the level of the sally port. As we were leaving the restroom, the lighthouse keeper was leaving too. "Would you like a tour?" he asked us in Spanish.
"Absolutemente!" I replied. The lighthouse was beautiful. The light house was historic. The lighthouse was out of the wind.
"Watch out here," warned the lighthouse keeper. "The steps are very narrow." And they were. We wound our way up and up and up, around and around narrow stone stairs. After what seemed like hours enclosed in darkness and the musty smell of old stone, we emerged into the light of a 2000-watt bulb greatly magnified by a hundred prisms curved around it. The light shone everywhere, out onto the cold waters of Havana Harbor.
The lighthouse keeper showed us the clock-work mechanism that caused the light to revolve on its pedestal. "It is hand-driven," he said. "I must rewind it with this metal crank once every five hours. There is someone on duty here 24 hours a day, to protect the light and to keep the harbor safe."
The lighthouse keeper seemed young and intelligent, like so many other people in Cuba. Even the waiters and maids looked like they had plenty of gray matter behind their eyes. I asked the lighthouse keeper if he had a degree in navigation or whatever. "Oh yes," he replied. "I was trained at the university. I studied the ocean, to be a sailor." I think the word he used meant sailor. His English and my Spanish were equally awful and we communicated a lot in sign and pantomime. For instance, he showed me the writing on the light bulb package as he said "2000 watts" in Espanol.
"Gracias," we told him as Amy and I wound our way down the stairs again. "Felix ano neuevo!" We were glad that he brightened our evening and he was glad that we brightened his.
Back at the party, people were finally starting to get into the spirit of the event. At 11:55 pm, some bagpipers and soldiers dressed in powdered wigs and uniforms of the eighteenth century ushered in the new year (and the new millennium) and everyone hugged and kissed each other. Even I had begun to have a warm glow of comraderie and communion with all mankind -- or at least benign toleration for American party-goers like myself who could not samba in Havana on New Years.
We took the tour bus home and were in our beds by 1 am. Happy New Year!
January 1, 2000: The new year did not begin auspiciously at all. Most of us -- tourists and guides alike -- were miserable, sleep deprived, unorganized and/or hung over.
"Wake up, Amy," I said at 7 am. "Our bus leaves at 8:30!" Guess what? My bus to the orphanage tour was postponed until 11:30 and the bus to the UNESCO biosphere was cancelled altogether. And Amy's bus to the beach was postponed until noon. No one told us. We could have still been asleep. "Next year, why don't you just not plan anything on New Year's Day and let everyone sleep in," I suggested to a very tired-looking Tatiana. She thought that was a brilliant idea.
So. At 11 am, we drove off to the orphanage. It was a very small orphanage, housed in regular one-story house like all the other houses on the street. The children there met us at the door and gave us candy. They were so sweet. I showed them pictures of Amy and they got all excited. One boy said, "I like Rap. Do you know Rap?"
"Yo conosco Eminem, Lil' Kim and Nelly," I replied. He looked puzzled.
The orphanage's administrator herded us into the front room and gave us a talk. "There are 14 children here, one of the largest orphanages in Cuba. Most only have four to eight children. These children here appear normal at first glance but they are all mildly mentally retarded. We have 14 staff members here, one for each child. All of us have university degrees in child psychology, teaching, physical therapy or nursing." I was impressed.
"After they are grown, these children are able to hold jobs and be productive members of society. We try to mainstream them and make them self-sufficient through their experiences here."
"Do these children go to public schools?" I asked.
"Yes, they do. They also go out shopping and to medical clinics so that they understand how to operate in the real world."
"What about adoption," someone else asked. "Are there very many orphans in Cuba?"
"No, as a matter of fact there are not. Most orphaned Cuban children are absorbed into their extended families. In fact, many couples would like to adopt but cannot. Actually, we are considering bringing abandoned children from Latin America here for those who would like to adopt, if it would be of help to those countries."
"Cubans love children. We never hit them," added one of our guides. "If a Cuban hits a child in public, everyone gathers around immediately to protect that child. In fact, that was one of the reasons we hated the Russians. They used to beat children a lot. It made the Cubans very angry." I was impressed. There no laundry children in Cuba -- the kind, like laundry, that are hung out in the morning and taken in at night. There are no throwaway children in Cuba either. In the United States, throwaway children and laundry children are everywhere.
"As to foster homes," the administrator continued, "we have a few `substitute families' but they are volunteers and do not get paid to keep the children."
We thanked the administrator for letting us visit. She then introduced the children to us and we presented them with a cake and toys and school supplies.
This little celebration should have been a lovely occasion but by then it was 3 pm and I was tired and hungry and grouchy and made sure that everyone around me knew it. Finally I went back to the bus and pouted and sulked and even missed the cake and ice cream. "I just want to get back to the hotel," I snarled at poor Tatiana. "We were supposed to be finished and eating lunch two hours ago. Hummph."
Then when I finally did get back to the hotel, there was poor sweet Amy, sitting in the lobby and trying to look nonchalant. "Amy! What happened!"
"The bus was supposed to leave at noon and it left at 11:30 without me. And I locked the key in our room and couldn't get back in. So I've been sitting here for three hours."
That was it. I grabbed the first tour guide I could find and absolutely went off on him. "Next time schedule your planning better. This is pathetic!" Then I went up to my room, slept for three hours, felt better and gave everyone I had yelled at a box of cookies in order to make amends.
Sidebar about food at the Hotel Deuville: Dinner consisted of buffet food each night. The food was technically typical American food but with a Cuban twist. I liked it except that it was re-heated and served as leftovers a lot. More on that later.
What was it about the food that was different from American food? Not much. "Where are the tortillas, enchiladas and hot sauce," I asked our guide Carlos.
"Cuban food is based more on the European model," he replied. "The same as American food. You must remember that Cuba was a direct colony of Spain for much longer than the rest of Latin America and the Spanish influence is more apparent here." That made sense. The architecture of Havana was definitely Spanish. And Cuban accents resembled Spain rather than Mexico. Even that Spanish tendency to lisp still lingered in Cuban speech.
Still and all, I missed having tortillas.
In fact, there were a lot of things I missed having in Cuba. Like easy access to toilet paper (we always carried spare Kleenex in our backpacks or purses) or hot water on call. But here is a list of things I didn't miss: I did not miss seeing homeless people, drunks, bag ladies, lunatics and panhandlers clogging the streets. In all Havana, I spotted only four or five of the kind of economic outcast that America seems to mass produce.
I also did not miss American violence. "Cubans never hit their kids." Those words rang in my head. "The streets are perfectly safe at night." Or what Tatiana said, "I hitchhike to work every day. Complete strangers pick me up. It's perfectly safe." It's perfectly safe in Cuba. It's perfectly safe in Cuba.
8 pm: "Tonight we are going to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba to see a film about Fidel Castro by an American named Estelle Bravo. She has lived in Cuba since the 1960s and was given access to the Cuban government's film archives for the project," said Carlos. "The Nacional was the center of the American social whirl in Havana during the Batista dictatorship. American gangsters, politicians and movie stars stayed there in grandiose style. The hotel now has been completely restored." And it was -- first class tourist Havana at its apex. Bell captains and tile floors and suave lobby shops and well-dressed Americans and Euro-trash littered the place.
The documentary on Fidel was interesting. "Can I buy the video of it," asked Amy afterwards.
"No. It's $30."
"But I want to take it to school to show my history teacher. Mr. Williams would love it!"
"You can buy it in the States for $22," said one of our group members. As usual, the US had out-priced Cuba, even with regard to a movie on Fidel. Pity the poor Cubans.
The "poor Cubans" -- their major crime seemed to be that they aspired to make education, health and idealism more important than economics. They were like me! And I identified with the Cuban people even further in that I too had to struggle to keep from making economics my top priority. There is such an advantage to being rich! I too believe in the vast importance of my ideals. Yet I too get very bored very quickly with not having any toilet paper.
As we drove back to the hotel on the bus, we passed thousands of people dancing at a Fan-Fan concert held in the open air beside the pounding surf of the Malecon. People laughed and did the samba. I watched from the window of the bus.
January 2, 2000: "Mommmmmy, I don't feel so well," said Amy. Opps, she was calling me "Mommy". That was not a good sign. "My stomach hurts," she said. Poor Amy spent the next 24 hours in the bathroom.
We missed the electric train tour to a sugar mill located at Hershey, a town founded many years ago by the Hershey chocolate company. Hershey was located in Matanzas province, the sugar cane capital of Cuba -- if not the world. I bathed Amy's forehead with compresses and sang her hip-hop songs and tried to coax her to eat some rice and chicken soup but to no avail. Our Amy was really sick. I spent the day either holding her hand or watching her sleep.
At around 3 pm, I took a break and went to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba again -- a mile's walk down the Malecon -- to look for cigars. Buying cigars in Cuba is a matter of some intrigue. One is always taking a chance. Sometimes one can get really good bargains on the street. Sometimes one can get stuck with expensive duds or counterfeits that won't even light. Urban legends abound regarding Cuban cigars.
One group member said, "A policeman gave me a cigar this morning. He said you can buy 200 cigars for ten dollars and all these other prices are just a rip-off.
"Did he say where we could buy all these great cheap cigars?" I asked.
"No -- but I didn't ask." Knowing what Havana's police were like, I smiled at that remark. There is a "Neighborhood Watch" type policeman on almost every corner in Havana but they are usually highly disciplined men whose major credo seems to be "avoid all eye contact." Most of them appear to be highly unapproachable. But I digress.
The night before, a Cuban slid onto the couch next to me as I sat in the lobby of the Hotel Deauville. He said, "Hello. My name is Robert. I work here at the hotel. I can get you cigars."
"Oh? Can you get me Romeo y Juliets?"
"Si. I will meet you here in the lobby at 8:30 tomorrow morning. I will bring you a box of #3 cigars. It will be $60." Sixty dollars was a good price for Romeo y Juliets. They were one of the best brands besides Colitos. But what did he mean by #3s? I asked Orlando, one of our guides.
"Cigars come in different sizes," he said, "and in different qualities. They are rated by their numbers." So. Was a #3 a Churchill-sized cigar or was it a teeny-tiny cigarillo? It didn't matter because the next morning, in the lobby, Robert didn't show up.
When I got to the Nacional, I sat around their big cigar store reading their literature on cigars. All the tourists in Cuba want to buy cigars. Why? Because they're there. Who even smokes cigars? It was a mystery to me. I wanted to buy them to take back to America to sell them. But it is illegal to sell Cuban cigars in America. One could own them but one cannot sell them. I could get busted for violating the "Trading with the Enemy" act. If I were to sell a box of Cuban cigars then I, me, Mary would become a danger to national security.
I looked at all the boxes and boxes of cigars at the Nacional store and finally settled on two boxes of Romeo y Juliets; ten to a box, wrapped in aluminum tubes. "Quanto questan para los dos, Senorita?"
"Bien." I bought the boxes for $35 each and walked along the Malecon; 12 blocks back to our hotel. Amy was still limp and pale and sleeping when I got back.
3 pm: Before I left for the Nacional, I had my first experience with Cuban medicine. I had heard about the excellence of the Cuban medical system for years now but Amy and I were about to glean first-hand knowledge of it. Was there a doctor in the house? Yes, there was. The hotel actually had a resident doctor and a resident nurse. They were located on the sixth floor, three doors down from our room. Tentatively, I knocked on their door.
"Me nina tiene la Tourista, Doctor. Can you come help her?"
"Si. Of course." The doctor was young, personable and highly professional. Excellent bedside manner. And he made house calls -- er -- room calls.
"Has your daughter any history of major diseases," the doctor asked first, taking her medical history in order to get the big picture. Then, "What are her symptoms?" Wringing my hands in motherly anxiety, I told him. He prescribed and produced a bottle of medicine.
"I have been giving her some Chinese herbs," I told the doctor, producing my ever-reliable Po Chai pills from Oakland Chinatown.
"Ah, Chinese medicine," he responded. "We have that here. I myself have studied it and use it frequently." Why was I not surprised. Holistic medicine in Cuba? Si.
Had this emergency happened in the United States, I would have had to bundle Amy up, drive her to Childrens' Hospital and wait in the emergency room lobby for at least four hours before she could be seen. The doctors at Childrens' are the best in the world but, like all American health care services, their availability, as compared to the availability of Cuban doctors, is way down on the list.
Evening: I took dinner alone at the hotel dining room. Usually Amy and I played cards at our table after dinner -- Go Fish, Speed, Spit, Crazy Eights, Jacko and Egyptian Rat Screw -- but tonight I just read a book over dessert. I brought Amy back some rice and soup, which remained basically untouched. "Will you be okay if I go off to the tour of the local block organization?" I asked worriedly. She turned her liquid, feverish eyes toward me and nodded. "Okay. Well. Then. I guess I'm off," I added guiltily, thinking what a bad mom I was to drag my sweet little daughter off to a foreign country and leave her alone and ill in a strange hotel room while I went out learning about the CRP.
"CRP" stood for Committee for Public Responsibility. It was your basic community organization, improvement club, neighborhood association. There was a CRP on every block in Havana -- or at least every four intersecting blocks. "Are we going to have to sit through some boring meetings with the neighborhood spies?" I asked the person next to me on the bus.
"Communist party bureaucrats, more than likely," she replied. I nodded. Oh, well.
When we got to the neighborhood whose CRP we were to observe, we were herded into a large meeting room and introduced to the neighborhood CRP leaders. They turned out to be very friendly and very nice. And the whole thing turned out to be a great excuse for a party!
What did I learn? That in this particular neighborhood, the CRP had degenerated into an extended family where everyone helped everyone else. Burdens were shared. Good fortunes were also celebrated. As I watched the interaction between the 100-odd CRP members, officers, neighbors and children, I realized that all these people liked each other and liked spending time together.
"That is my grandson," the woman next to me said, pointing out a cute little 6-year-old. "He is going to read a poem." And he did. After that we all went outside and other children danced for us. Did they do traditional Cuban dances? No! Two rows of 8-year-old girls looking very self-conscious and very proud of themselves, demonstrated their proficiency with hip-hop. We applauded wildly. They blushed and smiled.
We had been standing in the courtyard of a block of houses but were then invited inside one of the houses for coffee and cake. "These houses remind me of the co-op housing complex where I live back home," I told one Cuban lady who spoke English and had adopted me, making sure I felt comfortable. "Even the buildings are alike. The only difference is that your neighborhood seems to work the way ours was supposed to work -- with everyone co-operating. At our complex, everyone is always trying to slit everyone else's throat." I don't think she understood the word for "throat" or the word "slit" but she generalized that I was trying to pay her a compliment. Which I was. People back in my country had yet to learn the concept of working together. I felt very happy that this CRP had mastered that concept well.
The insides of the houses turned out to be quite nice. The one we went to had three bedrooms and a microwave -- our host had relatives in Miami. "My mother cam to visit me last month," she told me.
Seated comfortably on the front room couch, my host explained that she was a dermatologist at a near-by hospital, that she had ample opportunity to flee to Miami and that she chose to stay and work in Cuba. "I am an idealist," she told me. I understood. I was one too.
We talked and laughed and enjoyed each other's company and ate grainy cake frosted with a powdered sugar meringue recipe similar to one my grandmother used to make back in the 1940s. I was having a thoroughly grand time. Then I looked at my watch. It was 10:15 pm! Amy had been alone for over three hours! "Carlos, please," I said to our guide, "can we go now? It's late and I have to get back to Amy." He nodded. I said goodbye to my host and to all the neighborhood children as well. They were looking rather drowsy but obviously had no interest in going to bed while Americans were there and a party was to hand.
When I got back to the hotel, Amy was sleeping fitfully. She woke up at the sound of me getting ready for bed. "How are you feeling?" I asked.
January 3, 2001: The next morning, Amy felt better, attempted some breakfast and was even up for the next tour. "Where are we going?" she asked.
"To a Jewish synagogue," I replied. Apparently there had been a rather large Jewish community in Havana before the revolution. Apparently, many had gone there before World War II in order to avoid the Nazis. And, apparently, American Jews used to go to Cuba the same way that they now go to Miami -- to spend their winters in the sun.
First stop on the tour, however, was an artist's studio. It was located in a house in the Copelia district. Havana is divided up into districts. Each one is a separate neighborhood -- almost a separate city -- with its own downtown, homes and stores. The artist's studio/gallery/work space was much like how an artist's home might be in, say, Malibu or SoHo. And judging by the quality of her art and the quality of her lifestyle, this artist's work had been selling very well. Amy and I both liked it; a combination of pointillism style, Santeria themes and post-modern influences rolled up into one.
"We still have an hour before we are scheduled to arrive at the synagogue," said Carlos. "Let's go visit a rum factory." Everyone on the bus cheered!
"We make rum from the juice of the sugar cane," said the rum factory manager. Much to my surprise, the factory was quite small and was nestled among other businesses and houses on a typical downtown Havana city block. "We begin the fermentation process by storing the juice here in these casks made from American white oak," he continued. Like many good Cubans, the manager held an unlighted cigar in his hand and used it as a pointer as he gestured toward the casks. Touring the back warehouse of the Snake and Swan rum factory was much like touring a winery in the Napa Valley. Even the smells were the same. The main difference was that...what was the main difference? Aha! Rum can knock you on your butt.
"This way to the tasting room," said the factory manager. We all followed him like good little sheep. Then we all headed off to the synagogue with happy smiles on our faces.
At the synagogue, a Jewish woman with a Spanish-Bronx accent showed us around. "This synagogue was built in the early 1950s," she said. It looked like it too. It looked like my old elementary school, also built in the early 1950s. Good old Green Hills Elementary School.
"During the beginning of the Special Period, when Cuba was blockaded by the United States and there was no money or construction material, this synagogue was badly neglected. But recently we got a rather large donation from the Jewish community and now, as you can see, it has all been restored." She proudly pointed to newly-polished bronze doors depicting scenes from the Torah.
"How large is the Jewish community here?" someone asked.
"At this particular synagogue, we have about 15 families. However, we do not at this time have a rabbi."
At that point, Carlos got a call on his cell phone. "We have a change of plans," he told us. "We are now going to see a community garden." Apparently there are about 90 small plots of land scattered throughout Havana, sort of like the victory gardens that Americans had during World War II. When the Special Period began and food was scarce, people began to grow their own. The government encouraged the gardens and helped them become organic as well.
We visited a two-acre plot by the side of the road in North Havana, out toward the old Ernest Hemingway haunts. I bought some organic carrots and two organic bananas.
Next we went further into the suburbs of Havana, to a small intensive garden/farm near Jose Marti Airport. "This is a completely organic farm," translated Carlos. Spread out in front of us was a feast, a groaning board, a cornucopia of vegetables, melons, bananas and home-made baked bread. Good grief! It was 1:30 pm and we hadn't eaten since 8 am. Okay, you convinced me, I'm ready, let's eat! But no-o-o-o. As we sat and stared at all that food, Renee, our American translator took over. "This farm produces.... They sell it at.... The organic seeds come from...." No, Renee! Let's not talk. Let's eat. But I knew Renee, a kind-hearted gringa who wanted to make sure we would learn all there was to know about Cuba, get our money's worth and go home knowing more facts and figures about Cuba's GNP than we had ever even known about the GNP of California -- even after we had studied it for a whole year in fifth grade (and even made the dioramas with the missions).
I was getting more and more hungry. That papaya looked really good. "And now," translated Renee, "the agriculturalists here will offer you an opportunity to help them work in the fields."
Earlier that morning, another tour group staying at our hotel had mentioned that they planned a trip to a Babalawa, a sort of Santeria fortune teller/witch doctor/healer, later in the day. "I heard that you were interested in Santeria," their guide said. "Would you like to go with us this afternoon?"
"I would just love that!" I instantly replied. "When do we go? Where do we meet?"
"Can you be in the lobby at 2:30 pm?"
"Absolutely! And thank you." And here I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere, playing at being the Venceramos Brigade and starving to death too.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I slipped in next to Carlos and whispered, "Which way is Havana?" He pointed south. I grabbed Amy, two pieces of home-made bread and some watermelon and went off to the nearest road. "We have 30 minutes left to get back to the hotel," I told Amy. "Start looking for transportation." She did.
A few trucks drove by; a bicycle and a moped; two more trucks; a 1949 Packard and a 1953 Buick. That was it. Then a miracle happened and a taxi picked us up. "How much to the Hotel Deauville?"
"Deal." We got into the spacious taxi and took off. It was a relatively new Russian car, a Lada. The Russians gave Cuba a hecka cars 10-15 years earlier. They were still like new. Cubans knew how to take care of cars. "I could never afford a car," Tatiana had told us. "You have to save up for years to get one. But everyone knows how to drive. We are taught in school."
Our taxi sped past rows of hitchhikers, lining the sides of the road. "Stop for one," I told our driver. It is the custom to share one's ride with one's fellow Cubans and I was all keen for Solidarity.
"One or two?" asked the driver.
Amy, always game to help, scooted over toward me to make more room in the back seat. "Two."
At the hotel, we jumped out of the cab and sprinted for the tour bus just in time -- or so we thought. But just as we climbed up the steps, the guide told us the bad news. "The babalawa has cancelled," he said. "We're going to the Casa de Africa instead." Rats. `See a Babalawa' had been number one on my list of things to do in Cuba. Scratch that.
Then, suddenly, as I stood on the steps of the bus talking to the tour guide, something else jumped up to the very top of my priority list -- something that instantly became my absolute number one thing to do in Cuba. I couldn't believe it! I barely made it to my hotel room toilet. Guess what I did for the rest of the day?
6 pm: Somehow, between gastro-intestinal episodes, I managed to struggle down to the hotel lobby for a de-briefing meeting by our head Global Exchange representative. "When you go through customs in the United States," Walter told us, "tell them that you have been to Cuba. You have a legal right to be here. This is a paper containing our license information. I'm giving you each a copy. Give it to the customs people and to the INS." Okay. "Your plane leaves at 5 am," Walter continued. "I want you in the lobby, packed, checked out and ready to go by 2:30 am." Universal groans followed that statement.
Our last dinner at the Deauville was a glum affair. I ate chicken broth and drank Sprite. Over half our group followed suit. We were all sure that the food there was the source of our dilemma and weren't up to eating more of it. The woman at the table next to me was looking green but her husband had not even been able to make it downstairs.
"I'm still glad I came," she said over gritted teeth and soda crackers. "Stomach trouble is a hazard of travel. I wouldn't have missed this trip for the world." I had to agree with her. Cuba had opened my heart -- not just my digestive tract.
After dinner, I went back to my room, took the last of my Po Chai pills (Hong Kong's answer to Alka Seltzer, available anywhere in any Chinatown in the world) and felt better.
9 pm: "So, Amy," I said.
"So, Mommie," she replied.
"So what should we do on our last night in Havana?"
"Sit on the toilet?"
I laughed. "Nah. We can do that at home. Let's go for a walk on the Malecon and watch the sunset."
"Okay." The sea was calm all along the Malecon. There were very few people out walking. The place had a deserted look. We walked along, looking at the ocean on our left and the decaying stone mansions on our right. Poor Cuba. Misunderstood, unloved and heroic. "We love you, Cuba!" I cried. Amy gave me a funny look.
As we walked along, Linda from our group joined us. Linda was a professional court translator, knew Spanish like the back of her hand and had not wasted her time in Havana. "It's our last night in Havana," she said. "Let's go shopping." She didn't have to ask twice.
Old Havana is considered the downtown area by tourists but about a half-mile from there is the downtown for Cubans. We all stuffed ourselves into a pedicab petaled by a really cute guy with mini-dreads and headed downtown. Half-way there, the street got too steep and we had to get out and walk.
"I've always loved dolls," said Linda.
"Me too," I replied. "I collect them." We went into a small corner store and stocked up on dolls. I got a wonderful Oshun doll dressed in yellow satin and carrying a mystic symbol next to her heart. Then I bought a doll that Linda assured me was "the guardian of the graveyards" and a Chango doll for Joe.
Amy bought a slave girl doll with a black stovepipe hat and cornrows. She loved it. It reminded her of the dancers at Casa de Africa.
As we walked around, I saw a sign on the side of a building. "Oh my God!," I cried. "There's the Hotel Ingleterre!" I poked Amy and shouted, "That's where the Elmore Leonard Cuba Libre took place! The hero shot the bad guy in the year 1898 in that very barroom!" I took advantage of the historic moment to use their bathroom and then we walked back home to the Hotel Deauville via the lovely smell of salt water pounding against the concrete seawall along the Malecon.
January 4, 2001: Next came the only thing, besides tourista at the Deauville, about Cuba that I didn't like: Getting to Cuba and getting home again. The journey began with check-out at 1:30 am as promised. And of course who could have slept that night? "Did you get any sleep last night," I asked Amy.
She just grinned satanically and said, "I slept like a rock." I'm glad somebody did. The housekeeper came and checked us out, we went to the airport and waited around for four hours. We said teary goodbyes to Tatiana, we flew to Mexico City. We waited. We ran from one airline to another trying to book a flight out to San Francisco that didn't involve eight hours in the Mexico City airport. What had our travel agent been thinking of? No luck.
Eight hours in the Mexico City airport. Right. We could do this. Just breathe.
"Want to play Crazy Eights?" I asked Amy.
Two hours later. "Want to play Egyptian Rat Screw?" I asked Amy.
Two hours later. "Let's eat lunch."
Two hours later. "Oh my God. There's an internet bar!"
Two hours later. "Flight to San Francisco. Now boarding."
Four hours later. "Dallas/Fort Worth airport." Look, Amy! There's a Dallas Cowboys store."
Four hours later we flew into San Francisco. Two hours after that we were home. It had taken us 24 hours to get back from Cuba. I was glad when we got home. And the cat was glad to see us too.