North American Scum in Cuba, I
Surgeon General’s Warning. I went to Cuba. In my Uncle Sam’s eyes that was only vaguely legal. But, Sam, I went for you as a journalist. It’s taken me a long time to start writing about it because I’m not sad, and I wanted to forget what happened so that I could remember what it meant. The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this piece are fictitious, except for all the real bits. No identification with actual persons, places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred, except for the ones that are intended and can be inferred. No animals were harmed in the writing of this story, except for me. But I changed all the names. American God, let this be my atonement. I trust in you to have mercy on my soul.
The bus stops nowhere in particular on the road between Trinidad and Camaguey in Cuba. An unremarkable restaurant that may have been called “The Oasis” sits in that particular nowhere. It was around midday when we arrived. The sun spilled between the fronds in thatched roofs and danced through the bottles of beer resting on the thirty or so tables. Out front, a bulbous paper mache statue of a horse with pygmy legs reered in front of two paper mache intact dogs that defied anatomy. Wooden paths led away from “The Oasis” to smallish buildings. Chickens and wild dogs wandered the grounds, captives by choice — “The Oasis” was likely the only place with food and water for miles. It was hot, but it was always hot.
Wild dogs are everywhere in Cuba. Most are starving. Some are dying. At “The Oasis”, one of the dogs carried mounds of ragged red flesh on one of its legs. He trotted around tables, hoping for scraps, and the growth bounced happily with each step, skin so taut that none of his skeletal structure was left to the imagination.
“Why don’t they eat the chickens?”
“They’d probably get beaten. They feed us the chicken, and they feed the chickens the chicken we don’t eat.”
“Then do the dogs eat the chicken the chickens don’t eat?”
The dog and his growth stopped near us and waited. He watched us calmly for a few minutes, while we drank the water we’d filtered ourselves and tried to decide whether or not we should get a beer, then he wandered away. We didn’t get a beer, and we didn’t eat the chicken. We got on the bus and left.
“Have you ever been in a Russian car?” I hadn’t. It was five in the morning, the sun wasn’t up, and I was sweating. Ajax, the driver, was a lanky man in his 40s, whose voice was pitched a half octave higher than you’d guess it would be, which made it easy to hear his smile, which was nice because he never frowned.
“The first thing you need to know about Cuba: it is a very safe place.”
A Russian car is a steel casket on “wheels” designed to maximize damage to its occupants in the event of a collision.
Ajax reached across me to secure the door by wrenching some of the machinery into the upright position. There were no seat belts. I’d just hitched a ride from Mexico City on a Russian plane in its 50s. We were delayed for 14 hours because of mechanical issues, and the safety instructions in the seat back pocket were in tatters so I figured that if we experienced a sudden loss of altitude, I’d try to make peace with all the Gods I knew of rather than busy myself finding a flotation device.
We lurched along the road to Havana, and Ajax asked me if I’d been to his country before. I hadn’t, so he filled me in. Cuba is safe. It is a wonderful place with warm people. They like baseball. Everybody likes baseball except for Ajax. He thinks the food is OK, but he loves sushi. There aren’t many places to get sushi in Cuba. He asked me about home, and he told me that he’s excited that, little by little, the borders are opening up. He pointed out the government buildings, marked by the multistoried visages of Fidel and Che.
He has two little boys, and he raced to tell me about them, nearly as excited about them as I was to be in Cuba. We talked about them going to the beach, and their grandparents, and the countryside, and watching them grow up, and about how the littlest was just starting to make mouth noises, and I listened, rapt, and looked at the window at Havana just before dawn.
Cuba looks exactly like you remember it. Havana quietly reminds you that you’ve been there before, seen it before, even though you’ve never been there or seen anything quite like it. “Ah,” I’d think, “I remember this,” which, of course, I didn’t. The buildings look old because they are, and they slip into your mind’s eye like you slip into well-worn shoes. Brick glared through holes in the flaking white paint on colonial buildings, and it all looked to me distinctly Cuban, which didn’t mean anything really other than that I was in Cuba and that’s what it looked like. And while weeks later I’d find buildings just like that, paint flaking, inspired by Spain, in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, they didn’t look like Cuba because they weren’t — at least not how I remembered it.
We arrived at the apartment I’d be staying at for a few nights, and I gave Ajax 40 Euro, which seemed reasonable to me. He told me that he didn’t have change, and I told him not to worry about it. He thanked me and left. Later that day I was told that Ajax used to be a surgeon. He’d performed some of the first cochlear implant surgeries in Cuba, and was widely acknowledged as one of the best in his field. He’d quit doctoring with the birth of his second child because as a surgeon he made $20 a month, the average Cuban’s salary, which wasn’t enough to support a family. He makes much more money now driving a cab.
Blas, the friend I’d be traveling with, was already at the apartment, so I rang the bell for 15 minutes to wake him up.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, opening the door nearly naked.
“What’s up, man… I’m not going to be able to sleep.”
“I know. I’ll get dressed.”
It was around 6 AM when we got on the street, and the sun was just starting to come up. We walked toward the Malecon, the boardwalk, which some consider the heart of Havana but felt more like its carotid artery. Small groups were still sitting on the sea wall, surrounded by empty bottles of rum, not yet ready to surrender to the day. Men were out fishing, hoping to catch something they could sell. It was a cloudy morning. The city and the sea were bathed in the warm grey that suggests that the worst has come and gone or that the city has a problem with smog. One person was jogging. He was the only person I saw jog in Cuba, thank God.
Blas and I walked along the water lazily, and I told him about the goings-ons at home. We met in New Zealand almost six years ago, and through the seasons were closer or further depending on geography and romance, until I moved onto the San Francisco Bay’s peninsula two years ago, and we became nearly inseparable. I hate people, he’s a social worker. I do computers, he does yoga. I want to work and work and make things and work, he wants to have a farm in Paraguay and do yoga. I do yoga too sometimes.
Weeks later, at a bar at San Juan, after our third mojito before noon, we decided that we should get couples tattoos to commemorate the trip. Just words, nothing flashy. I’d get “work hard” and he’d get “play hard”. We didn’t get those done that day because I suck, but that doesn’t mean we won’t, Blas. I haven’t settled on the lettering yet.
Gradually the waterfront gave way to the Old City. The streets there were not much wider than a car. It was almost 7. An old woman swept dust off her step. Old men sat on steps, waiting for nothing to happen, watching empty streets, smoking or cracking their first beer. People of all ages sat just inside their doors, watching nothing go down the street. I took pictures.
The buildings seemed to crumble as we walked through the winding alleys, though they all felt like they’d be there, just like that, for the next thousand years. Tiny doors hid the entrances to the enormous, opulent courtyards with stained glass skylights in the tourist hotels. The security at the Jewish Hotel told us that the nice ones are generally associated with an ethnicity. Here, the Jewish one; the Irish one was a few blocks away. There’s a stone in the lobby of the Jewish Hotel that came from Jerusalem — a hundred pound reminder that ham shouldn’t be the only thing on the menu even though it is.
“Let’s get an espresso,” Blas said.
We walked up to a woman on her step behind a small table covered in medicine cup sized china. He handed her two pesos, and she poured our espressos. They tasted like sugar with a spritz of coffee. We gave her another two pesos. The second cup tasted even better. A peso is four cents USD.
Blas wanted to find some pan dulce for breakfast so we started asking people on the street where we could find a bakery. Every bakery was four blocks down and two or three to the left, and none of those bakeries existed. We were dispirited, until we ran into Ron. “I’m a bit drunk and I work with plastics. Follow me.”
Ron taught us that “rum” is not called “rum” it’s called “rhon”. He asked us to buy him some. We declined, which didn’t bother him. He got us to a bakery, we ate our daily bread, and he pointed us in the direction of the plaza where we could get online.
I needed to let my mother know that I’d made it to Havana safely so that she didn’t goad the State Department into declaring war on Cuba to rescue me. Most people can only access the internet in hotspots in public areas in the cities. It costs $5 to get online for an hour. A kid with a laptop running Windows 95 sold us an access code and told us that it was a privilege to serve Fidel. Everywhere I was Fidel. Blas, then, had to be Che. I sent mom this picture and told her I was defecting. She told me I look like “Fidal”, who I assume is Fidel and Raul’s love child.
I got off the wifi and gave Blas the access code so that he could message his people. Dozens of people were in the square using the internet. Everyone was yelling at their phones, smiling, waving, spinning around. These were Cubans, not tourists, talking to friends and family around the world, maybe across the 90 miles of turquoise that separate Us from Them. A few days later, we ran into one of the tourist hotels to hop on the internet. A couple American girls sat on a couch next to us, vacantly gazing at their phones, listless. I look the same when I’m on the train — more an expression of the screen’s will than a creature with soul. I’m sure the Cubans will get bored of it too once we ruin their country.
Interlude: Making Friends in Latin America
To make friends in Latin America, either look like Fidel Castro or use this story and claim it as your own. This tale is from Blas’s time in Mexico. Please note: “B”s and “V”s sound similar in Spanish.
In the Yucatan, I went diving in the cenotes (ed. — In the Dominican Republic, cenotes is slang for “big breasts”, which really adds to the fun of this story and makes a game of waxing poetic about diving into warm cenotes at night, bathing in wonder and mystery, and looking up through the crack to see the stars and remind yourself just how small you really are). There happened to be a lot of catfish in this cenote so I asked some of the other folks there what they were called, and they told me that the word was bagres.
I misremembered the word. When I got back to my hostel I told my friends that there’d been a lot of vergas in the cenote. They gave me a look that told me that I must have said something wrong. “So… There were a lot of uh… men at the cenote,” they asked. “No, no. Vergas. Everywhere. Dozens of them. Swimming all around.”
Verga is Mexican slang for dick.
Nothing has made me prouder to be an American than the cars in Cuba. Mexican Coke comes close. In the middle of downtown Havana, across the street from a Church, people congregate to worship American muscle from the 40s and 50s. For somewhere between $20 and $40, a guy will drive you around the city in a classic for an hour. It was obvious that we had to do this. I’m sure that there were sights to see while we drove around the city, but I only saw the car.
Now, listen: Something spiritually significant happens to you when you are near one of these cars. They move you. These aren’t machines; they’re monuments to the human creative spirit. Our species peaked with the birth of the ’69 Camaro, and these cars are the giants that made that miracle possible. If there is a God, when I die, St. Peter will pull up to my death bed in that Olds from Havana, flick his cigarette on the floor, and toss me the keys. “She’s all yours now, kid. Don’t scratch her.” If I’m going to Hell, he’ll be driving a Prius.
We stopped at a tent on the Malecon to buy beer. Blas and I cracked them open in the back seat and asked our guy to drive us by the US Embassy. The embassy reopened in July of 2015. Soaring by it in a car that predated our blackballing Cuba, we gave the flag a cheers, a salute, and the finger. A real patriot tells everyone we’re the best before locking herself in the bathroom, staring in the mirror, and admitting we fucking suck and that everything is broken. Baller in the streets, scared and alone in the sheets.
Leaving the car was hard. With the end of that pursuit of happiness, we needed to begin another, so we bought a bottle of rum.
Back at our apartment we climbed up to the roof. The rooftop garden was surrounded by stained glass, the work of our host, Beto. Diffuse light dappled our glasses as Beto began our lesson.
To make a mojito:
- Cut a few sprigs of Yerba Buena off of one of the plants in your rooftop garden. Throw them in a glass.
- Juice one lime whole. Add.
- Add sugar. Add more sugar than you think you should. Add some sugar.
- Add sugar.
- Mash. This is the most important part. Spend many minutes mashing. Talk to Beto about pirating radio from Miami in the ’70s. Talk about classic rock. Talk about the Stones, the Beatles, Cat Stevens. Turn up the music. Talk about Led Zeppelin. Beach Boys. Smile.
- Fill the better part of your glass with ice.
- Fill glass with rum, leaving about a finger’s worth of space.
- Add a splash of tonic.
Blas is effectively fluent in Spanish, so he and Beto talked. I listened and thought. I remembered my Vonnegut.
“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD WAS MUSIC”
Later, as we played City of the Sun in our treehouse in Haiti, we’d wonder whether the other folks there liked it, and I’d remember that rooftop in Havana and know they liked it because it was music and they were human beings. As an American, I know that money is the only universal language. As a human being, I know that music is the only universal language.
We mixed a bottle’s worth of mojitos. Then we mixed a bottle’s worth of mojitos. The light retreated, and the heat became night’s warm caress. Down on the street, they were cleaning up the dominos, packing up the table. People flowed by, taken by the evening’s current. Blas wanted to go watch game seven of the finals between the Warriors and the Cavaliers. We figured we’d be able to see at one of the tourist hotels in the Old City.
The States were blocking the signal for the game because that was the patriotic thing to do. We walked from hotel to bar, bar to hotel, hoping that someone would have a workaround. After the sixth or seventh place we tried, we ran into one of Blas’s professors and her husband, who were looking for somewhere to watch the game. Our meeting was, of course, impossible, which is why it had to happen. We decided to try The Montserrat, one of the professor’s favorites. There we found the last five minutes of the game.
Blas grew up in the Bay. I grew up in Chicago. Growing up during the Jordan years in the ’90s, I assumed we always won basketball and wondered why other teams even tried. We ordered mojitos and felt our hearts sink as Lebron & Co. demolished the Warriors. A man sitting next to us treated his cigar like a popsicle and screamed “Lebron” at every inopportune moment. I mentally prepared for my first Cuban bar fight as Blas glowered at him. Exits at 2 o’clock and 5 o’clock. After using the glass, there’s an unclaimed empty at your 8 o’clock that you can use to backhand him. Does he have any friends? Who could be friends with a man who treats a cigar like that?
The Warriors lost. We parted ways with the professor and her husband, got beers, and headed to the Malecon. The Malecon at night is a sacred place. Nearly every step you take is accompanied by hisses and the sound of 14 year old prostitutes kissing the air, inviting you to sample their wares. Next to them sit families, blithely enjoying the sound of the sea crashing into the rocks below. Next to them sit kids, getting hammered. Next to them sit couples, losing themselves in each others’ eyes. Next to them sit tourists, who heard that this is the place to be. Next to them sit slightly older prostitutes, who are there hanging out with their friends, but wouldn’t mind making a bit of money if the right tourist walked by. Every hundred yards reflects the entire human ecosystem.
We found our way back to our apartment around 1 or 2 in the morning. I dug my journal out of my backpack because I’d told Uncle Sam that I was a journalist and made my first of three entries. Here’s what I wrote:
Money for rum; life for rum
Then I wrote this:
Since the Revolution, everything has changed, changing nothing.
And then I went to bed.