People Who Took Me Places — In Cuba

Nava Renek

Could it be that the less you have, the happier you are? Or, is that some kind of clichéd antidote to capitalist thinking, or perhaps the attitude is simply derived from the reality that if poverty is a way of life, why not at least be happy?

This rationale might explain why, during my two weeks in Cuba, I met only kind generous people who seemed to possess almost nothing, but provided me with experiences that made me wonder: because Americans regard money so highly, when it’s taken out of the equation, do the simplest transactions carry a more profound meaning?

Last January, I traveled to Cuba with some trepidation, not about Cuban politics or economy or if I’d find a comfortable place to stay and good food to eat. I was more concerned about logistics — a psychological barrier The Embargo puts on Americans contemplating travel. Before purchasing an airline ticket, I read and re-read the new travel regulations that made it possible for certain categories of Americans to visit Cuba legally. Clearly, as a journalist/writer and educator, I fit into a couple of them.

Because there were no direct flights from the U.S., I decide to take a familiar route — flying first to Cancun, Mexico, an airport I knew well, and from there boarding a short flight to Havana. I read about the little jig I had to perform in order to obtain the necessary documentation: how to fill out immigration forms, the visa I’d buy in Cancun, what kind of currency to bring as, from my research, I was under the impression that American credit cards were useless, and dollars could be exchanged with some limitations and always an added surcharge. So, for the first time since I was 19 and my parents saw me off at J.F.K. for a sophomore semester in France, I found myself on line at a money changer in midtown Manhattan, switching dollars to Euros, which I would then change into CUCs (the Cuban Convertible Peso) when I reached Cuba.

Two days later, with 600 Euros in my wallet, $100 in cash, and some random foreign currency I hoped to change when I arrived in Havana, my sister and I boarded a plane to Mexico, and by late afternoon, we’d negotiated the Mexican Arrival and Departure Terminals, found a kiosk where we purchased $30 visas to enter Cuba, and boarded a daily Cubana de Aviacion flight from Cancun to Havana, not really knowing what to expect, but vaguely believing that we’d be sharing some of our “Capitalist wealth” with the Communist people.

We arrived on New Year’s Eve and our taxi let us off alongside a crowded street where people were shouting and laughing to one another outside their doorsteps. There was music in the foreground, background, and all around. Our host, Mily, a young salsa teacher, was at home in what I would soon learn was a traditional Havana house, filled with narrow rooms, winding staircases, rococo style furniture, and a Yoruba shrine. Many members of her family and friends were there, each one greeting us with a big hug and warm smile, welcoming us to Havana and offering us what they were having: beer and rum, while passing around a large bowl filled with what looked like Saltine crackers. The salsa rhythm was becoming more recognizable as we hauled our carry-ons up the narrow marble steps and were shown to the two dark rooms where we’d be staying for five days. Once we settled in, there was no other option but to go back downstairs and join the rest of the group of family and friends who were streaming in and out of the apartment.

As the night wore on, other guests arrived: an Italian man, probably in his late 30’s, who said he’d come to Cuba to study salsa; a Ukrainian banker in his 20’s, also studying salsa, and from what I could make out using my passable Spanish, there was our hostess’ mother, father, sister, brother, nephews, nieces, and friends who were all waiting for a large traditional New Year’s Eve dinner of rice, beans, cerdo, salad, and chocolate cake. Even as we stood there jetlagged and blurry-eyed — probably not the best company for New Year’s revelry — there seemed to be no doubt in their minds that we were going to join them for dinner.

Soon the music grew louder just as the neighbor’s music across the street gained in crescendo and our hostess and her girlfriend sprung up from their seats to hit the tiny make-shift dance floor. As smooth as knives, their hips cut through the air, arms flying over their heads and behind their backs, fingertips reaching out to twist each other around and about, their lips chanting the lyrics to the song without missing a beat. When it was over, they flopped back down on the sofa as if it all never happened and continued their animated conversation. This occurred several times as midnight drew near, with several different pairings: Mily, with her long black curly hair, micro-mini tugged over brightly colored calf-length leggings, and whatever partner she pulled up from his or her seat.

Next, it was the Ukrainian man, dressed in khakis and tennis sneakers who lost no time leading, his head always turned in the direction he was going. Then Lourdes, Mily’s friend, who looked European with fair skin and light blond curls, but who spoke high octane Spanish flecked with some regional accent, a combination, at least for me, that made her impossible to understand, although there was so much about her I wanted to know, most importantly: how could someone look so sultry while dressed like a Raggedy Ann doll in denim overall cut off shorts and a face fill of freckles?

For the five days we stayed with Mily, we never really got used to her frenetic pace. She was either coming or going, welcoming friends, relatives or other guests who showed up as early as 6:00 a.m. and stayed long after we went to sleep. If she was sitting down for a brief moment, she was talking rapidly on the phone, arranging repairs for her casa, scheduling the hours for the salsa studio, or getting dressed to go off to Casa de la Musica where shows began at 11:00 p.m. and let out at 3 a.m. Often we’d find her the next morning slumped in an arm chair, still dressed in her micro mini and leggings, her heavy eyes laden with false eyelashes, slightly askew from the night before. She’d always give us a contrite smile, as if apologizing for being unable to deal with us — two 50+ year old American sisters. We knew how it was. We were on vacation, and there was really nothing critical to discuss at the time.

When our five days were up, we tried to pay Mily for the meals: the delicious New Year’s dinner and a couple of breakfasts, but she waved us off as if it was nothing, but by then, after spending nearly a week wandering around Havana, always hoping to find a simmering food stall or produce market like one might come across in Mexico or Southeast Asia, we understood how precious a good meal was. As a matter of fact, food seemed to be scarce. The few restaurants that were in our neighborhood were packed with European and South American tourists, and we’d gotten to the point that even the Saltines that were like an amusing throwback treat on New Year’s Eve, had become more preferably than eating the rancid “pizza” and ham and cheese sandwiches that were available along the crumbling pedestrian walkway that led down to the Parque Central and was lined with vacant department stores and barren provision shops.

In the States, when I told people my itinerary in Cuba, I somehow knew I wasn’t correctly pronouncing the name of the beautiful colonial city where we were going to visit next. Simply saying the city’s name phonetically in English didn’t do, so I tried to accent different combinations of syllables, and when that didn’t sound right either, I started adding an “e” at the end of the name as if it were spelled Trinidade, which it wasn’t. None of these pronunciations were correct, so in answer to queries about where we were going next, I received incredulous looks and a flurry of indecipherable questions as our Cuban acquaintances tried their best to guess where we were headed, the name of the city always coming out as if they were speaking with a mouthful of marbles.

“Trinidah,” I finally heard after accustoming myself to the accent.

“Si,” I smiled, relieved at finally being understood. “Trinidah.”

Really, our destination was La Boca, a much smaller village four kilometers from Trinidad, a little town with houses or shacks lining a dirt road that led down to where literally, the river met the sea. Behind the village were mountains, long, lovely, and green, a rolling chain that came from inland and stretched to the Caribbean. Biking along the flat gravel road outside La Boca, we could reach white sandy beaches where we would kick back and relax, although we’d heard from our new hostesses (a mother and daughter team) that there might be problems getting back to Havana. Because of the enormous influx of tourists, there were rumors that there weren’t enough public buses running the Havana route, and they advised us that if we wanted to return to Havana on the date we’d planned, we needed to get back to Trinidad the next day to book a ticket…if we could get one.

The next morning when I woke up, my sister looked ill and told me she’d been throwing up all night. Then she sank back down on her mattress and lay curled up for the rest of the morning. Obviously, she was in no shape to go on the 4K trek back to Trinidad, on what our hostess described as a public bus that stopped at some non-specific times at some non-specific locations.

I didn’t mind making the trip alone and packed my bag for a solo adventure, thinking that I’d stand out on what appeared to be the main road and take whatever form of transportation came first. On the way into La Boca, I’d seen a couple of taxi’s, bici rickshaws, motorbikes, bikes, and horse and buggies, all seeming to transport farmers and other residents from one place to another. How hard could it be to get a ride to Trinidad?

When I arrived at the deserted crucero, there was already a young man crouched in a slim slice of shade cast by the shadow of a concrete electricity pole. In Spanish, I asked him if he was headed to Trinidah, and he nodded. Then I looked up and down the road, listening for what might sound like a motor of an arriving vehicle, but heard only the dull hum of the intense heat bearing down from what would soon be the noonday sun. If and when a vehicle presented itself, I couldn’t be picky.

A square Lada taxi picked the boy up first. Since the small compact was already filled with passengers sitting on each other’s laps, I waved them on to leave me to gaze out at the mountain range so fertile and green, while I thought of the revolutionaries who I imagined had lived up in those hills or hills somewhere else like them. It wouldn’t be so bad if I had to spend an hour or two contemplating the mountains before getting to the city. The day was long, and the weather partly cloudy, so I’d be in some shade, even if I had to walk, which I reminded myself was a very bad idea.

That’s when I heard the sound of hooves on the gravel road and turned to see a horse and buggy coming towards me, looking like some kind of utility vehicle from the stone age. I expected to come face to face with a grizzly old farmer, hands rough and twisted from years of cutting sugar cane and tugging on the horse’s reins, but as the buggy drew up, I glanced beneath the canvas shade that hung over the driver’s bench, and encountered the most handsome man I’d ever seen.

He wanted to know where I was going, and by then, I’d mastered the pronunciation of the city correctly, so after I said it, he nodded and motioned for me to hop on. When I asked him how much the ride would cost, he smiled shyly and said: pay what you want. I gave him three CUC’s — $3, a small fortune — and climbed up next to him. That’s when I realized I’d just been offered the ride of a lifetime: I was being transported by horse and cart on a nearly deserted road surrounded by lush green fields and mountains by the handsomest man alive!

When I described him to my sister, I told her he looked like Ricky Martin, if Ricky Martin was forty years old, wore a cowboy hat, a wife beater, and had skin tanned a caramel brown. Along the way, I wondered if I would get through the ride without telling him how handsome he was, so I distracted myself by glancing in the back of the cart where I saw a number of wooden crates filled with dusty potatoes, onions, strings of garlic, dented cans of tomato sauce, and packages of pasta that looked as if they’d been shipped over from the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

As we rode together, the trader and I made small talk, and I learned that every day he loaded up his cart and came down from the hills, then went from town to town, picking up produce from farmers and selling it to others along the way. He also supplied his family’s small produce stand on the outskirts of Trinidad where, at the end of our journey, I hopped off as he left me so he could eat lunch and give his horse a rest. I’d wanted to take his photograph: the handsomest man alive, the horse’s reins slipped between his long fingers, the historic mountain range in the background, and I thought briefly of the warning we’d been given before leaving the U.S. about Cuban men looking for foreign wives, but this cowboy/trader wasn’t one of them, although before the end of our journey, he was the one who turned to me and told me that I was beautiful. It had taken all my will power to hold back and not return the compliment.

With the help of herbal tea and a few homespun remedies, my sister recovered within a day, and less than a week later, we were back in La Havana where she flew to the States, while I stayed on to meet two friends just arriving from the U.S. It was probably only a day or two after my sister left that I met someone else whose generosity and kindness left me speechless.

By the time we returned to La Havana, I’d gotten used to the crowded sidewalks and exhaust-puffing taxis of El Centro, the inexpensive and indigestible ham and cheese sandwiches, and could recognize the increased chatter and clusters of teenagers who huddled in parks or in front of five-star hotels, staring at their smartphone, tablet, or laptop, talking excitedly to a screen while using the public Wifi that could be accessed for the price of a small card and a user ID.

On my return to Havana, I stayed in Vedado, a more tranquil neighborhood, just over walking distance from where my friends had rented a room in El Centro. Late one night, after a full day of sightseeing which ended with an impromptu tour of Casablanca and Moro Castle, an unofficial taxi driver hustled us into a rusty sedan to take us back to the city on the other side of the harbor, but as we started out, his car suddenly listed to the left and he pulled over; then with the speed of a pit stop crew member, he changed the flat tire for one a little less worn, and we were quickly on our way again.

At my friends’ hotel, I asked the boy-taxi driver how much it would cost to take me a few kilometers further, and he suggested an outrageous sum, so I got out with the others, thinking I’d find a nearby bus stop, as a bus would get me home for only pennies.

By then, it was around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., and I asked the doorman at the hotel where I might find a public bus stop, but this question, which seemed baffling to most Cubans, really threw him off. I don’t know if his confusion was caused by the mere idea that a tourist wanted to take an over-crowded public bus, or that he just didn’t know the routes? Even the guidebooks seemed vague about public transportation. But this night, as I said goodbye to my friends, I began to wonder if I’d even find a cab in what had become a dark and rainy night.

The streets seemed unusually quiet, but I knew that didn’t necessarily mean there was any heighten threat to my safety. Havana felt safe, like no other city I’d ever been to. I was comfortable walking along the streets at almost any time of day or night, yet at that point, my exhaustion had gotten the best of me, and after a few brief moments of unsuccessfully trying to locate a bus stop, I was relieved to see a bright yellow taxi make a quick U-turn and pull up alongside me. When I popped my head into the passenger window and asked the driver how much it would cost go take me to Vedado, he replied with an amused smile, reminiscent of the trader/cowboy in Trinidad.

“How much do you want to pay,” he asked, when I started to negotiate and finally gave me a figure that was half of what the teenage Lada driver had requested. Then I got in, and soon we were driving up the hill, chatting about pop culture and Cuban/American politics, both of us agreeing that politicians were “tantos” and the citizens of both our countries just wanted to get along.

There was something between us that I can’t explain. It wasn’t intimidating or sexual, just open and warm-hearted. This was a person I could probably have talked to for hours, as were so many of the Cubans I’d met on the trip, and as we got closer to the neighborhood where I was staying, I took out 20 CUCs, debating whether to even ask for change. It was a lot of money for a short ride; I thought he probably needed.

But when he pulled the taxi over at my corner and asked me to wait inside the car, I didn’t know what he was planning. Maybe he’d seen me with the large bill and needed to go into a nearby bar or restaurant to get some change, but quickly he came along my side of the cab and gallantly opened the door, bowing deeply as I got out. I thanked him and attempted to hand him the twenty dollar bill, but he waved it away. “No money.” He scolded.

“Please,” I begged, thinking of the poverty and scarcity that I’d seen: the absence of fresh fruits and vegetables; the empty shelves and barren stalls in provision stores and bodegas, the coffee rationed in a little paper notebook, the quarter inch of oil stored in a plastic water bottle that the woman in Casablanca explained had to last another two weeks. I couldn’t let this kind cab driver who’d been so attentive and polite brush away my money as if it meant nothing to him. I pleaded for him to take it a third time, but again he refused, and I knew it would be rude if I persisted.

“My heart is full,” I told him in my lame Spanish.

His smile grew even brighter as he shook my hand and said good-bye.

I crossed the street, headed for an Iranian restaurant, still open despite the late hour, where I knew I could sit undisturbed on the terrace, order a plate of fresh hummus and warm pita, and gaze into the empty square across the way where in the bright daylight, I’d seen school children kicking around a deflated soccer ball and old men playing dominoes while perched on wooden crates, seemingly enjoying each other’s company and the relief from a distant sea breeze.

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