Bronze thunderheads rise over the Gulf of Mexico. Ninety-five air miles from Cancún, our Soviet airliner crosses Cuba’s westernmost tip. I look down on the narrow spit of Cabo San Antonio and smile. San Antonio was my father’s favorite saint, the hombre responsible for finding lost wallets, car keys, eyeglasses, even missing persons. He also gave safety to sailors crossing the ocean. The flat arid peninsula juts into crystal-blue surf, bright aqua around the reefs. A variance in Cuba’s tropical geography, this could be the area described by Peter Matthiessen in his 'Birds of Heaven', home to a species of sandhill cranes that get by on little water and may be evolving into a flightless variety of their cousins up north.
Southeast of Cabo is the graceful bay where Francis Drake put in, as did many 16'th'-century English pirates who sacked Spanish galleons. Our last reference to Drake was off Pt. Reyes, California, hiking the estero where he careened his ship to make repairs in 1579. Drake might have been knighted by Queen Elizabeth as a hero who circumnavigated the world, but he is best regarded as a thief and slave trader who made his fortune by abducting and transporting West Africans in exchange for gold. Not sure I’d want my grandkids attending a school named after him, but, then, back home we pay gas and electric bills to an energy company named after Kit Carson, another dead “hero” whose deeds I’d prefer to forget.
Beyond the cape a rainbow follows us over Peninsula Guanahacabibes, tags along as we lower over Cordillera de Guaniguanico. Through gold-misted rain emerald ridgelines appear, thick with pines, palms, bamboo, and leafy evergreens edging down into rust-colored patchwork of yams, coffee, pineapple, and tobacco. Intricately-worked vegas ramble between wildly-shaped karst formations—lush, knobby limestone hills that seem more akin to a Chinese scroll painting than to the Antilles. As the plane descends, intimate scenes appear: ponds, haystacks, chicken shacks, horse-drawn carts, flatbed trucks plying red clay roads—everything bucolic from this altitude: political boundaries invisible, humans reduced to proper size; no apparent economic deprivation or social-reform battles. Minutes later the Autopista Nacional appears, unspooling into a silver ribbon from Habana’s outskirts. On touchdown, passengers clap, there is a sigh of relief. These wired-together Soviet planes aren’t always to be trusted.
Renée: The rainbow formed and seemed to grow down from the wing of the plane to the ground—never had such a vantage point on a rainbow before. It seemed to have attached itself to the wing and was following us.
José Martí International Airport. Humidity wafts into the fuselage as doors open. Debark, walk to a bus waiting on the tarmac, bump along to the terminal, new since we’ve last visited. In the airport, drift of espresso from little glass altars where customs officials go about stamping tourist cards. Most of the officials wear the same smiles I recall from ten years ago. A few display bureaucratic masks, but quickly drop them as they turn to each other with genuine faces, changing guard at their posts with high-fives or knuckle-to-knuckle salutations. Stepping up to the glass booth, my own private customs lady seems so young—outlandishly sexy in her black uniform, top button deliberately undone. Beneath the mandatory officialdom, there’s always a friendly off-the-wall remark: “First time in Cuba? No? What do you like that you come back? Certainly not our greasy pizzas.” She’s in no rush, despite the restless queue behind me. Always time for banter.
Long wait at the conveyor-belt for our two modest bags, then grab a cab into Habana Vieja, let the movie unroll. From the rear seat of our Russian Lada we take inventory: a roadside vendor holds out a pink-frosted cake under a faded billboard of Fidel. The driver looks at us in his mirror. “He’s trying to sell it for extra money because his job doesn’t pay enough.” Under Fidel’s face on a huge billboard, a sun-blistered slogan slowly peels off: 'Socialismo o Muerte'. Behind the billboard, a skeleton of an abandoned factory. Opposite the factory, blocks of Soviet-style tenement housing. Multi-story cement cages, very un-Caribbean, the ultimate insult to human imagination. People fill the tiny balconies, using them as extra rooms. They sit, chat, play dominoes, fan their faces with 'Granma ('the official Communist Party newspaper), listen to music, and dreamily stare into emptiness.
Every rain-streaked balcón is draped with drying clothes—like Calcutta, but 'not 'Calcutta. The air is perfect cerulean, billowed with trade-wind clouds, alive with the light of an old Italian chromolith. Between mother-of-pearl thunderheads, I expect to see voluptuous cherubs, haloed virgins, Venus lazing in an oyster shell—the Venus of smoke rings and gold coins deliciously lithographed on Cuban cigar boxes: plump as a Renoir, swaddled in taffeta, flanked by feathered Apaches.
Habana, fusion of decay, tendrils of spiraling growth. A cardboard stage propped up by and sinking back into its own history. Fumble of contraries, half-existence of stone and mortar. The Revolution leveled the playing field, but never did rebuild it. Passing through Barrio Centro on the way to Habana Vieja, the buildings—some collapsed or about to collapse, some restored—appear to be undulating, as Gaudí would invent. Or dreamed, as De Chirico would have them: iodine shadows, yellow pillars, crème-de-menthe arches. The old mansions, half-decomposed, are a terse commentary on life’s temporariness, the rise and fall of capitalist dreams, material wealth sinking into the dust of time. To live in one of these decayed relics is risky. No Habanero dreams happily with the threat of plaster falling onto his head. Strengthening and restoring these mansions is slowly being accomplished, but re-making Habana Vieja has its ironies.
In his book 'Mea Cuba', Guillermo Cabrera Infante—who was expelled from Cuba's Writers Union as a traitor “to the revolutionary cause” (he lived in exile until his death in 2005)—wrote that Old Havana’s restoration is largely for tourists (many of its inhabitants were forced out as cafes and hotels took precedence), and that “the restoration will really not be complete until we see a Spanish military authority in the Second Lieutenant’s Palace, and while the Spanish ecclesiastic hierarchy blesses the Cuban faithful from the cathedral, there is a lucrative slave market once more.”
His words cause me to reflect on Santa Fe, how spiffy its downtown has become since I moved to New Mexico forty years ago. Tourism the industry, the city revamped accordingly. Real estate is largely reserved for the affluent; districts once populated by Hispanics are now occupied by wealthy Anglos. Merchants eagerly direct visitors to adobe churches, the “oldest house,” the new museums; then back to their art galleries, spas, and trinket shops. Few tourists go beyond the red chile, questionable art, predictable opera, or the Indian Market to probe the details of the Spanish conquest or the reasons for the Pueblo Revolt—none of which are cited on the city’s historic plaques nor in the new convention center, built over the burial sites and ceremonial kivas of the ancestors of the present-day Pueblo people.
I’m willing to cut Santa Fe some slack, though. The setting is beautiful, a good base for someone wishing to explore the native villages, witness some of the finest ritual-drama in the Americas, and have the heart restored not by music originating in Europe, but by drums and chorus indigenous to the red earth of the Southwest. I’ll cut Habana some slack too. I’m aware of its history but I’m not going to have it wrapped around my neck like an anchor. Beyond the photogenic delights that make the city what it is—leafy plazas, street cafes, restored Beaux-arts mansions, elegant theaters, Hemingway hangouts, museums, must-do walks—are exuberantly distinct neighborhoods. Pulse! A picaresque slap-on-the-butt energy. Infectious music, contagious dance. The West Africa influence: spirit of the congas calling forth deities; esoteric shrines honoring the orishas; oracles reconnecting their followers with the primal force, the 'ashé', flowing through nature. Beneath the grumbles of everyday life, there’s a detectable waft of something bubbling up out of the ferment, a celebratory “sizzle,” a melding of human and cosmic, a medicinal relief from the maladies of the world. Every improbability becomes a possibility here. You are no longer simply in the human parade, you are in the realm of synchronicities. 'Oiga!' Toss your Prozac. Dump your pain killers. Get rid of your chiropractor. Want a true spinal adjustment? Buy a ticket to Cuba!
Third eye blinking, antenna up, I extend nerve endings, peer between rusted weathervanes, see into balconied patios, x-ray locked rooms, roll back lacy bedspreads, watch fiddlings and fumblings, hear the oozings, spy on underground deals. Easy to let the world enter here. Everything is slowed down. No assault of advertising or glaring billboards. Without speed, blur of chrome, flashing brand names, or the dumb parade of heads-down pedestrians texting as they walk, I can relax, meet a stranger’s eye, open my taste buds, lift the nostrils. A harpist’s chords float from a stone bell tower, pigeons flutter from market stalls, pebbles click in a hopscotch square. A pair of hotel workers steal a fondle between a line of bed sheets. Vague clandestine echoes sift from ramparts, doorsteps, spiral staircases: a cacophonous slide show, mire of figures, light rays bending through branches into the mime’s upside-down tophat waiting for a tip, into the dream-like eyes of the gazelle in her tights. And, right out of a' 'Nicolás Guillén poem, here’s
the obscure mortal who burns and fornicates,
who sometimes crawls and sometimes flies,
the sovereign and common man
who eats, sweats, cries, gets sick, laughs . . .
Yes, the mortal who breaks “the world’s astral ceiling and darts into the pure and immense night.”
A bass fiddle leans against a four-hundred-year-old wall. A lone marble hero stands with book, or gun, a dove in his hat. School kids in red and white uniforms dawdle on wooden benches in a cobbled square. A row of crenulated doors and fretted windows behind them give a Moroccan twist to the facade of a bygone estate. The stone fretwork and screens of Fez are designed to hide the women who sit inside and peer out. In Habana, especially along the Prado, you find the same fretwork, only the women are not crouched behind it eying the world. They sit 'outside 'the screens, exposed, trading gossip. Nada enclosed, everything in the open: music, bodies, boisterous shouts, erotic affections. Lavish unrestraint! Women aren’t covered, they’re bare. “Glassy ripeness” Lorca wrote, “the gloss of a flower.” Their skin sweetens the rain with incendiary heat. Ebony, amber, mahogany, latte. Oiled with lemon, pearled with gardenia.
Taxi springs tremble. Brake linings rattle. A trombone blats. A drum beats. A violin tunes. Melody from an upstairs conjunto wafts through drying laundry: socks, t-shirts, thongs, bras flapping like half notes from the grilled window of an art-nouveau mansion. Once a wealthy aristocrat’s home? Down in the calles, in pearly half-light, a black girl pedals a rusty bicycle, her neon-green tennis shoes spinning round and round. A horse-drawn carriage clatters by, coachman solemn, piggy-pink tourists extending telephoto lenses over sidewalks they’re afraid to walk.
Someone shouts my name. I hear clatter of scaffolds come loose from a half-restored angel. Shadows warble, dream-reality rushes in. Pebbled rain on a vintage DeSoto, Uncle Ed’s black Cadillac, and, 'wonk', rounding a corner here comes my old sea-green ‘53 Chevy—vintage, save for the Chrysler Imperial taillights added to the soft curves of the rear fenders. More bicycles now, handlebars draped with plastic flags bearing the face of Che. Another with neon feather dusters. One more with plastic crocodiles. On Calle Rayo a domino game is in progress, four men at a card table, middle of the street. Down the block is a seafood cafe with green glass portholes, sculpted marlin over the door, man in a vanilla suit, big hands around a gal in satin-red miniskirt. Ready to eat, now that they’ve done it.
Our taxi drops us at Maria Mercedes’ casa particular. We stayed here ten years ago. Immediately recognize the sky-blue facade amid faded barrio walls, door buzzer too high for mischievous kids to reach, a 'no-parqeo 'sign on the garage door hiding Jesus’ crème-de-coca ‘54 Buick. Nothing’s changed, only the age spots on my neck. Parapets drip, the calle bumps and grinds. An open-front bar blares out live music, sizzles its glow on the wet pavement. Right away Cuba loosens all the nuts and bolts that pin you together, cranks you up, pries loose inborn zeal. Everything rises to tease the nerve endings, like an elevator coming up through the floor (consciousness) loaded with cargo stored in the deep subterranean cellar. You drain your head of dust, refill it with another life. You want a rum, a cigar—a 'puro'. Rumors of bongos. A mouth kissing your cheek, a stranger’s mouth!
Renée:' When we arrive in front of our casa particular and open the taxi door the assault of sound is as if something got turned on, in my psyche, some big switch that beforehand I didn’t even know existed. Music from boomboxes, loud out of the houses, and voices of people, both part of and separate from the music.
Mercedes ushers us into her lilac living room. Two cups of espresso appear on a silver platter. A couch full of grandkids. Fish in an aquarium lit with menthol fluorescence. San Lázaro oozing his wounds on an altar, calla lilies to either side, shot glass filled with rum. TV flickers with a Mexican telenovela: Delia, the limping servant, her playing cards, her tray of candies. Armando, her impudent lover, a rich hypocrite with double standards. The bedridden mother, intent on manipulating Delia to her own ends. And then, 'whap', the lights go out, as they did a decade ago.
To sleep is to dream, both a privilege and a risk. So is Cuba, especially if you avoid the rules, arrive 'sin permiso'. The country is best visited on your own, no wheels and deals behind you. Want to make unusual connections? Take unusual routes. We’ve got enough policies, laws, rude legalities fencing us in. The U.S. blockade? Still on, 50 years later, almost to today’s date. Why must Americans control every horizon? Why not put all that wasted money (two trillion dollars already squandered on military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan) into schools, clinics, hospitals, windmills, farms, healthy food, clean water. Socialismo? Bad for business, bad for sweatshops, bad for maximum profit at the expense of the underdog. Castro? A traitor to capitalismo. Ché? Fodder for the CIA. Ragtag revolutionaries? Unruly menaces to our propped-up democracy. Make do without, make do within, leave yr mitts off others I’d say to the gluttonous businessman, the megabite conspirator, the louse-ridden NRA, the ultra-right Miami Cubanos lobbying to keep the bloqueo in place.
First thing I want to do when Sra. Mercedes gives us our room upstairs—her husband’s converted carpentry shack overlooking the azotea—is hang my skin out to dry, delete all imprisoned memories, regain primitive impulse —'Sin permiso.
25 Octubre: la Habana
Renée:' That first night, in Plaza Vieja, in a band of jubilados, a seventy-year-old female singer did the rumba for the extranjero crowd in the bar, as we watched from outside the grated window. She shook her shoulders like Priscilla used to do at parties when we were in fifth grade together—big breasts and tight pink sweater. Later, John and I walked the Avenida del Puerto, passed Los Dos Hermanos bar, found it highly lit, not the darkened bar of Lorca’s we’d stopped at last trip. On Calle Muralla a woman’s laughter erupted. We looked past dark rainy stone facades into a lit window to see her with her family around a table, laughing so hard and contagiously that we had to start laughing, too. All our laughter echoed from the stone, and John and I could not stop laughing all the way home.
Poetas. What do we chronicle anyway? Laughter on stone, rain-brilliant alleys, animated Oblivion, sun rays recomposed by clouds? The scoop, the sand, the bucket hoisted to the sky? Chango’s coconut, wind at the compass, cricket in a carriage wheel? Wings, breasts, groins, clocks ticking in time with a barefoot gypsy looking for her song? Jim Harrison compares poets to weeds:
All my life I’ve liked
weeds. Weeds are botanical
poets, largely unwanted.
You can’t make a dollar off them.
This morning, we wander. Not in space or time, but inside the metronome’s crescendo, the peanut seller’s whistle. Brass horns through bar fronts, arrows of warm rain, rise and fall of heels on cobble. Un-tuned piano between a donkey’s bray, broken lip of a Plymouth Fury dragging over Calle Compostela. A ship, Jules-Verne-like, bellows into the bay, looking to anchor along the docks opposite the tavern where Lorca swigged mojitos between “groans of flesh and manes of green.”
Walk the streets, find a baby’s shoe, false eyelid, rooster’s windpipe. Follow musical sway of hip, rhythmic roll in minimalist attire, shine of the orishas, scent of candles, open papaya. Why wear more when less is better? Unabashed elegance, pulse of blood. Perfumed whirlpools of women break from street errands, gather at the guarapo seller’s stand where a man in sap-stained trousers and Yankees ball cap feeds lengths of sugarcane into the brass teeth of his grinder, squeezing out fresh juice. Tightly-poured into their attire, the ladies drink with gusto, then loll away with conga-boom of breasts, nalgas, ball-bearing shoulders. Purely “island.” Caribe. 'Afro'-Caribe!
The crowd breathes in and out like an anemone. Not the pushy swarm of India, more like the give-and-take-and-flow of Hanoi or Kyoto. Gentle, obliging, musical. Here you can instantly dissolve into another, or simply be yourself. Shed tears, release the snapping alligators, resurrect the primordial self who fled your soul as you took to the ranks of profit, wore yourself thin in the doldrums of convention, or fell between the missing rungs on the ladder to success. No wonder Lorca wrote to his parents from Havana while lecturing in 1930: “If ever I get lost look for me in Cuba.” Good soil to return to. Diced with Revolutionaries’ bones. Seeded with the call of songsters, imbued with “warm waists.” Yes, yes. Liquid camaraderie, a verse in every curve. Die here and you die where dying things ferment into a dream—a dream that gives up its skin to become moonlight, a shipwreck of silver.'
Habana may be half fallen in, the residents of its derelict mansions penniless, but doors are always open, generosity abundant. No pan-banging homeless. No puritanical fear of the erotic. No gun mugger in the alley. Poetry rolls along in the iron hoop, snap of marbles, a home-made skateboard. It lifts with the titter of ballet shoes, sifts between the fingers of the tamer of moths, dances like iron shavings in the hand of the magnet king. Poetry is getting back to the heart and soul of children who don’t know better. Which is to say, they know best. Too many poets “know better,” which is why their verse has no lift.
Renée: 'But what is it really like for everybody!?'
Impossible to peel back the layers. Not even those who live here can explain what’s going on. Why nobody has anything to do. Why the city was left to fall down on itself while monuments to the Revolution rise in tiers of polished marble. Why foreign companies are busy restoring Habana Vieja as locals sit idly and watch. Why so many talented members of the new generation aren’t feeding the economy but left dangling their toes over the Malecón. But what do I know? I’m consigned to the ardor of the passer-by, the writer, the conspirator quick to jot the man with the rattling jaw over his sledgehammer on the cobbled piazza, or the sweet voltage of the Chinese girl in flaming brocade, crossing her legs at the Dragon’s Gate. Shoelaces dangling, my pockets full of pens, colored pencils, dollars, pesos, breath mints, I am not here long enough for money to run out or belly to go weary with the time-warp created by the Soviet pull-out and the U.S. trade embargo. I catch only snippets of realities: the guy trying to sell a pastry in the rain, the lawyer turned roofer, the scientist become baker because the pay is better. 'What is it really like? ' It’ll ring through our heads for the next three weeks.
A fellow traveler says most people return from Cuba with only a snapshot of the country, not the motion-picture that it really is. 'De verdad!' It’s a continuous reel rotating in steady flux, change, recomposure. Why try to connect the dots? They’ll connect you. Best to enjoy the reconfiguring juxtapositions and realize, in some weird way, that everything about to happen is already here.
In Plaza de San Francisco there is a sculpture titled 'La Conversacíon': two polished bronze semi-abstract figures seated in dialogue. One male, the other female. Both quite expressive. Upraised arm, gesture of hand, tilt of one head toward another. But heads are all these conversationalists have, other than a slight indication of arms and legs. What is missing is their torsos. They talk with animation, but something lacks. A perfect size-up of contemporary Cuba: the delightfully-intact art of engaging with one another with gusto. Yet, for all the ideas going back and forth an emptiness is waiting to be filled. Hunger for what the Revolution has failed to provide.
I start where my tracks stop. Noise of numbers, a rumbling Packard, a branch of a man watching domino players slap their bones onto a wooden table. A limousine fills up with tourists where once stood chained black men waiting to be sold. The Santería shop on Calle Muralla has a tin roof that sputters with morning rain—gold darts, blue pearls. A Caribbean breeze cools the heated bodies crowding in for a look at trays of miniature brooms, aluminum stars, scented wax, plastic jade, silver twine, bolts of taffeta, a crinoline veil, glass crown for Yemayá, faux-ivory dagger for Obatalå. Face out on a shelf is a book sewn with rhinestones: 'Cauldron of Transformation'. At my shoulder, the heavy scent of a mulata cradling a statue of Santa Bárbara. She’s rubbed with holy oil, smoked with incense, steeped with verbena to prevent malicious entities from penetrating her aura.
In a corner of the shop stands Elegua—revelator, opener of the way, Taoist trickster wrapped in plastic waiting to be sold. Someone breathes on my shoulders. A boy pushes forward with a tray of crude glass plaques, each painted with an open eye above a tongue pierced by a dagger: 'La Envida es la Religion de Los Mediocres'. He disappears behind a curtain under a mirror reflecting the woman at my side. She cuddles Santa Bárbara like a live baby, gives up a few precious pesos for three ritual cigars and a seashell, melts out of the crowd back into the rain-wet streets.
Under a shady laurel on the Prado we take a bench, think back on our breakfast this morning: fruit, baguette, omelet, espresso served by María Mercedes on the azotea. Opposite us, across the narrow street, an elderly lady was sweeping water from her balcony—her daily ritual. The same lady who intrigued Renée ten years ago, at it still: brooming rainwater from her decrepit second-story apartment onto the balcón, off the broken concrete lip, into a gray waterfall to the street below. The facade of her apartment—a rain-warped Clyfford Still abstraction of ochres, sepias, alizarin, and lampblack—is losing its plaster, as it was a decade ago, ready to collapse as so many of these facades do. The eternal 'derrumbe'.
With cynical looks, Cubanos ask: “What change do you see in Cuba since your last visit?” Hmmm, no longer can you spend dollars. That’s been replaced by the two-layer monetary system—an anti-socialist caste-creating system if there ever was one. We’ve noticed Cuban passports, so there must be more travel freedom—if one can afford it (we’re quickly reminded that doctors and certain professionals “necessary to the Revolution” have certain restrictions). Queues for food aren’t as long, but cues at foreign embassies wrap around the block. More material necessities are arriving from the ex-pat community abroad. Selling property, owning a farm, starting a business seems to be happening. But, overall, things are advancing about as fast as a stalled car. And that’s the statement the Cubans have been waiting for. It makes them chuckle with a shoulder shrug. Yeah, they agree: 'El cambio apenas se note. Todo sigue lentísimo.
The woman washing water off her balcony is stopped in a time-frame. Thunderstorm after thunderstorm, hurricane after hurricane, she does the mop-up routine (while giving a smile as we sip our morning coffee). What of her life, her eternal wait for the Revolution to give her a lift? Will she be buried under the collapse of her abode, or be saved because there’s no roof above her to collapse? If the building becomes dust will she be “rehabilitated” like so many others into the lowest of low-class tenements by the government? Castro may promise her a new apartment, but more likely she’ll spend the rest of her life jammed into a concrete cage with hundreds of other 'derrumbe' refugees sharing balconies.
Through the laurel trees, across the way, a child in a rippled-pink frock steps from an art-nouveau doorway with a stuffed giraffe. A sidewalk musician opens his fiddle case for tips, bows to his strings, and begins 'La Bella Cubana'. Setting up a makeshift stand, a pastry man—he could be a stand-in for Bill Murray—arranges guava cookies on a cardboard tray. Artists are hanging their oils on portable racks along the Prado; one of them is giving lessons to youngsters bent over drawing pads seriously copying images of Che, Benny Moré, Celia Cruz. A policewoman strolls by, bending to inspect the art, looking almost as sexy in her skin-tight navy-blue slacks and white top as she would in her day-off clothes.
So many of these faces have been sized up by other writers—Tom Miller, Ben Corbett, Christopher Baker, Peter Ripley, Lea Aschkenas, Yoani Sánchez, Nancy Morejón, Omar Pérez López, etc—that I wonder what new insight I can possibly offer. Bringing forward what other writers let stay in the background seems wide open though. A poet’s task. A spark underneath the obvious, moth against glass, gold under the fingernail, a cold draft from the church nave, spare parts of the soul. What, according to Lorca, “lifts the poet to a throne of sharp edges.” The “dark sounds” of the Duende, “the roots thrusting into the fertile loam known to all of us, ignored by all of us, but from which we get what is real in art.”
An accordionist props his stool in a ray of hospital sun to serenade the bedridden, while an old Ford on Calle Amargura cranks up. The flathead V-8 engine pops and sputters with a certain timbre, giving the illusion of a drummer kicking into motion a band. I look down at my polished shoes and begin to toe tap inside my own reoccurring dream of dancing unparalleled salsa moves in a three-piece linen suit. For just one instant I’d love to be Mr. Mambo King, floorboards turning silver, all eyes fixed on my impossible moves, girls in skin-tight Goldfinger cat suits lined up, licking their lips, suppressing their gasps; older ladies giving coy looks from behind pearl-handled fans; pin stripes melting from the shirts of amazed men—top-notch salsa dancers who, suddenly finding themselves on the sidelines, clap and whistle just the same, utterly dumbfounded that this gringo could have taken over the scene.
'Yo no voy a decirlte que so un hombre puro! 'begins Nicolás Guillén’s famous poem. No, I’m not pure. Only a migrant in the journey’s shifting shape. Anything said today will be putty in the hands of the gods tomorrow. Am I really sure this isn’t just a hallucination, even when I break from my daydream? Is it the heat, the waft of contraband Armani from that eager slit in the dress? The contagious delirium caused when the batá drum sounds? Or simply a psychedelic aftertaste from the coconut-sprinkled sweet-potato pudding I sampled at the Sabor Erótica pushcart parked in front of Peluquería Ilusión.
Tenement dwellers, street hustlers, construction workers, músicos, waiters, fishermen, revolutionaries in their offices, the couple at the sea’s edge waiting to board their freedom raft: each bears Cuba’s yoke in microcosm. If you speak Spanish and have time to lose yourself in dialogue over a pot of espresso or a hit of rum, you’ll come out for the better; not be left to wonder, judge, surmise, second guess. Of course, no matter how good your Spanish is or how keen your vision, there will always be something you will fail to understand. A tender vulnerability is required to make headway through Alice’s door. Even so, much of that “basic aliveness” rippling over the hills, through the fields, along the surf, kicking up dust from a baseball diamond, or slithering along the polished dance-floor will remain an enigma. In a dream it will all re-appear: raw, rearranged, brilliant. Eyes shut, it will make sense. Eyes open, the confusion becomes a struggle, if not a rousing dazzle. In the end, Cuba will be calling you back.
The señora mopping her apartment across from our breakfast table is a question, a mirror, the beginning of a verse slowly stripping itself bare to reveal the unexpected. From her crooked smile, from her flooded den that resists oblivion, a poem begins. It certainly doesn’t begin in literary circles. Only with thirst, dread, a raw roll in the dust, the machinations of curiosity, a feverous pitch-point, an instantaneous recognition, is the poem spawned. Only then can I get to work, go down under, come up someone else. In that tumultuous arcane we are 'all' poets.
On Calle Animas in Habana Centro we visit poet Reina Maria Rodriguez. We give a yell. She tosses the key down from the balcony. It fits neatly into the lock. Up four floors of stair, street laughter and shouts funnel into to Reina’s neat little apartment. Unlike the hard shouts of English, these are lilting sonorous calls filled with the musicality of Cuban Spanish. Reina’s azotea, the rooftop where poets and musicians once gathered for her literary salons, has a marvelous view, but rain is sweeping in, huge waves attacking the Malecón, a hurricane cutting a swath across eastern Cuba, and it won’t do for a long chat. We move inside to her couch. She prepares café. A rainbow arcs over the lighthouse next to the old stone fort guarding the entrance to Habana Bay.
Reina is a full-time poet, translator, publisher. Born in Habana in 1952, seven years before the Revolution took place, she’s managed to stay through it all, and so far publish eight books of poetry—including 'Violet Island', a gem of a bilingual collection issued by Green Integer Press. She’s a heady, questioning person. Vitally alive with thought, scope, analysis, evaluation. She asks whether we are full-time poets. Do we have jobs as other means of support? Do we get published easily? How long have we been at it? Job or no job, we all agree, a poet’s work never stops. After hours, before dawn—antenna up.
We explain our meager income: assorted teaching, an occasional lecture, a reading, sales of a painting, Renée’s part-time work at the state capitol. By Cuban standards what I’d make in a day teaching poetry would equal a year or more of earnings here. That’s why so many of Reina’s literary friends have left the island for New York, Lima, Santiago, Barcelona. “You graduate with a degree from the university and there’s no job, nothing to support you. The speeches are revolutionary, but there is no real revolutionary action. Talented people tire of waiting for things to change, they find away to leave. Most never return.”
Why they don’t return is what goes on in my head as we talk. Certainly the green natal cord left dangling in the Caribbean heat would call them back. Likely it’s the ease of doing normal things that keeps them where they’ve landed: a quick WiFi signal, a cross-town trip on an efficient subway, a well-lit bookstore, a well-stocked market. And no one watching. No jerk in uniform ready with rules, warnings, outdated officialdom. Nobody asking for your cedula, for a look into your shoulder bag, or looking to ban what you’re about to publish. No relentless hassle over whether what you think or do serves the “revolutionary ideal.”
We sense Reina’s sadness over the absence of poetic camaraderie. She hosted informal rooftop meetings on her azotea for nearly two decades. There aren’t many alternative cultural spaces like this in Habana, places where writers can gather, get rowdy with uncensored dialogue. But in the vacancy that remains, she continues. She writes—of 'walking against the water’s flow, of the movement in the nylon line, of heavy grief afloat'. She reads her work abroad (most recently New York and Ecuador). She returns to tend her elderly mother, one story down. She receives a constant flow of visitors like us, signs her latest book, receives ours in exchange. This is our life. Language as action. Something up from under shared.
After leaving Reina’s apartment, I think about how differently I approach travel these days, as compared to those far-aloof years when I traveled seeking that one remaining alley or lost-in-the-hills village that preserved a trace of an irretrievable past. These days I am willing to lose myself in the present, and within it seek out interesting people—exceptions to the rule—people doing something unique with their lives, and in their art, despite all that has been lost to the blade that’s cleared the way for concrete and rebar. Or digital “books,” for that matter.
Poetry, too, lost to the blade, to the rush to replace it with what it isn’t. Job, money, stardom. Yep, wheel me into the rock-n-roll hall of fame after I’m spewed through an MFA get-my-chops, rise-to-the-top program after learning how to tear apart others’ poems, work my writing to death, keep my nails clean, go on to teach the same. A Japanese speaker, new to the English language, once told me “American poetry sounds like an argument.” Is that because so many poets are trying to make a point, rather than take a dive into unreason or disappear into the unsure waters of self-discovery? In a more socially-conscious way, perhaps it isn’t about self-discovery, but about re-discovering people who have been stomped into the dust by the relentless warring of our era; or about shining a light on those who are going about their lives far beneath the radar of the electronic age. Places, languages, means of livelihood, investigative thinking, innovative doing—no techno gods calling the shots. In this sense, poetry is, like Octavio Paz said, “a resurrection of presences.”
Midnight. Through the wooden bars of our window in the tiptop room of María Mercedes’ casa particular, a storm drives in from the sea. Brittle spokes of rain flicker in ambient light, like zigzag cross-hatching on a TV screen. Our window looks into our neighbor’s living quarters, just as her window sees into ours. Wife in shorts and tube top opens refrigerator, takes out milk for child. Husband in boxer shorts struggles with humid bureau drawer. Daughter turns back a blanket on her cot. Baby whimpers, too tired to cry. Gust-driven rain bangs and patters. Half moon appears and disappears under wet shroud. Everyone’s in slow approach to sleep, all of us in one-same transparent act of preparing to dream.
The rainy heat returns me to my first hit of the tropics as a 20 year-old Peace Corps trainee in Puerto Rico. Drooping lianas, dimly lit orange and mauve rooms. Open doors, open lives. Every category of shape and shadow exposed. School kids under the stars, free of composition and theory, beating sparks from a smoldering log. Donkey braying under Cruz del Sur. Gecko upside down biting a fly in blue fluorescence. Infant being rocked in a hammock by her sister. Black saint with dog and broom under family photos. Scent of Jabon de Rosas, rotting plantain, musky sperm-like perfume from an unknown flower. It all resurfaces in the in-between stage before sleep.
Next to me, Renée is already dozing, unbothered by the stacking of chairs in the bar down the street, the tipsy conjunto knocking out one last 'son'. My eyelids thicken inside spools of film. I drift off to faint dissolving voices of men sipping rum on the neighbor’s balcón. I go over my Spanish, practice tenses to the thud of a stool, converse with a princess in crumpled crinoline, paddle out into the rising froth of the horizon. 'Querido, dámelo, dámelo' a voice whimpers through dark gauze of rain—blaze and muffled groan of a couple under the covers behind a louver. Orange-purple ferment of Gauguin. Petals falling from the African tulip tree. Black and white screen of Buñuel, everything fading, fading . . .
The chapel of Our Lady of Regla sits on a rise across the bay from Habana Vieja. It’s an auspicious place to begin a journey, in Cuba, in the world, in the mind. Our Lady doubles as Yemayá, the Yoruba All-Mother goddess. She is born from the sea and, appropriately, our approach is by sea—on a ferry that embarks from Muelle de Luz, the Pier of Light. Regla comes slowly into view, bouncing and jiggling as the boat lifts and falls in the waves. The captain (wearing aircraft shades and 'Amazing Grace' t-shirt) sputters up to the landing. No gangplank, we have to give a quick jump. Walking up to the church, we pass a row of healers in bright attire sitting on a low wall, reading cards, divining, advising pilgrims.
Inside the chapel we stand, as we did ten years ago, before the gilt altar dedicated to the dark-skinned Virgén de Regla. As Yemayá, she’s Queen of the Waters, embodiment of womanhood, fertility, maternity, parturition. She’s also the mother of the orishas, as well as the patron saint of the port of Habana (the term ‘saint’ and ‘orisha’ are used interchangeably in Cuba). Visitors have left shells, plastic canoes, bits of coral, a fresh melon, and tiny flasks of molasses at her feet. Santería worshipers are dressed in all-white, arms slung with baskets of honey, bright blue mums, dried starfish, iris, sweet pastries. Some ask personal favors; others, not necessarily of the Santeria cult, petition a blessing before they brave the sea for life in a foreign land. The colors of the virgin’s blue cape and white robe are repeated inside the church and out. The exception is an earth-toned band around the exterior base, a symbolic touch alluding to the union of celestial and terrestrial.
Ten years ago we were here on a Sunday, a favorable day when devotees were offering flowers, plantain, and sliced watermelon to Yemayá. Some held up babies, chanting in Yoruba. Candles flickered, flowers hid the altar. Regla is like New Mexico’s Santuario de Chimayó, but with a much lighter feel. New Mexico is rough, dusty, landlocked. Here one receives an extravagant breeze from the open sea. Instead of the somber Penitente vibe, you have the Santería vibe—African, not Spanish. Instead of heavy crosses borne on the backs of marchers in jeans and sweatshirts, you have sapphire-sequined taffeta scarves sewn with cowries and rhinestones borne by women whose bodies are poured into a second skin of see-through lace. A splash of liquor to the earth. Open handkerchief offering a rose. Rhythm of seeds, rumble of conga, click of crystal beads.
On our last visit, just up the street we saw a ceremony that included intricate call-and-response singing and drumming. Rumba! Like the indigenous drumming and sacred dance in New Mexico, drums create dialogue between seen and Unseen; so does the mime of the dancers. Both speak to the elemental Force in nature, call waters from the sky, or send them back if there is too much. Song and dance confirm the practitioners’ gratitude for the unnamable Force that sustains them. We attend the New Mexico dances not as spectators but as participants who come for the reminder, the intact drama, that imparts recognition and appreciation for air, sunlight, earth, and water. In Cuba, the same. You come as a spectator, find yourself a participant. You go dizzy with song and dance—secular, sacred—and below who you think you are, find you are someone else.
We send out a few silent offerings, inspect the saints in their sky-blue niches (San Antonio among them), bow to the Virgén de Regla on the main altar, and visit another image of her on a side altar, where she’s backed by a primitive painting of sailboats entering Habana Bay. We exit onto steps lined with vendors offering candles, votive pictures, oils, and incense. Cross the street, wait for a bus to Guanabacoa, 3 kms east. At the bus stop a sweeper with broom and dustpan introduces himself: “I’m Garcia, pleased to meet you. I am 76 years old. Fought in the revolution. An educated man, but look what I am doing. On the streets making a couple bucks a day.” I wish him well, give him an embrace as the bus rattles up, offer him some pesos, not much, and he beams back a missing-tooth smile.
Ah, these encounters—quick and unexpected—where you lose yourself to another. After Jack Hirschman sent us his 'Arcanes', I copied a line into my journal: “'Sometimes just passing in the street, a man’s face will enter your own, his eyes become yours, his poverty too, and the killed dream stirs for some steps after.” That’s it. The shape-shifting moment in which nobody is more than anyone else, an instant when self dissolves into other.
Guanabacoa is the old colonial slave-trade hub, with strong ties to Afro-Cuban religions. It’s long been important as a Santería center, and has a good museum devoted to the explanation of the orishas and their attributes. We make way through the streets, past a pretty park, to the museum on Calle Martí, where a group of Americans is on a Smithsonian tour. Their leader’s rap is interesting, but most of the group is beyond earshot, dawdling, snapping photos of things they will likely not be able to explain after they return home. A man wearing plaid shorts, American-flag t-shirt, and springy New Balance sneakers singles himself out and approaches me. When, by way of conversation, I let him know we’re here illegally (I prefer 'sin permiso'), he gives a frown (probably because he’s paid through the arse to come lawfully): “Oh through Canada, Toronto?” I tell him yes. It pleases him that his assumption is correct. In that ‘friendly’ American way he whispers a warning: “Canadians are tough, the American side of the border worse. Things to be aware of when you return.” Having had his say he walks off to rejoin his group.
Leaving the museo, we are cordially steered to the bus stop by a local who is pleased to abandon his usual route to chat with us. “I have my complaints. But I was born here, and here I’ll die! We suffer the woes of what Castro did not deliver economically, but we are absolutely grateful for one thing: being free of the chains that made us slaves of colonialism. Our revolutionary heroes are responsible for that, each common man and woman who fought to rid us of our despots. We remain hungry for change, though. And we will prevail—with or without Castro.”
These frank easy-on conversations—quick, elastic, full of considered evaluations—are an Island trademark. Cubans have plenty of time for thought, and to discuss, and how they love to do it! A lost art among people back home who like to rush into dangerous reactions. 'La plática Cubana', by turn, is always a pleasure, even if I don’t understand all of the rapid-fire Spanish. Being a stranger is no problem, either. Amazing how quickly you are absorbed into the larger spectrum. Instant familia! We’ve lost that spontaneity in the U.S. People are guarded. Not just psychologically guarded, or shielded by the privacy of their self-extended body space, but guarded by guns. Guns in the dining room, guns in the glove compartment, guns above the playpen, guns in the principal’s drawer. If people aren’t busy shooting guns, they’re up to their necks fearing them.
You won’t find such fortified mentality in Cuba. It’s the island’s nature to be inclusive, to downplay the individual, up-play kin, relatives, community. Ride a bus, take a ferry, grab a colectivo, you feel it. Self merged with other. You can rock yourself to heaven quite easily in a stranger’s arms, your soul like a ripe mango ready to be eaten. Loads of music and lots of rum crank up self-expressiveness. The government demands obedience, but the deep-set shared psyche is that of the renegade. 'No Puedo Conformarme!' sing the much-loved Grupo Sierra Maestra.
On the bus from Guanabacoa back to the Regla pier, there’s standing room only. We are bumped and jarred against a woman with whom we eventually begin to converse. She asks how we like Cuba, how long we’ve been here, where we plan to go, what most interests us. She rocks up close to us, in and out with the sway of the bus, her beauty half hidden under a pair of oversized sunglasses which reflect my own wrinkled face. “I’m thirty-five, too young to have a sense of the Revolution. Es una historia that I’ve inherited. And being on this end of history I don’t esteem the Revolution like older people do. I am tired of living dead end. You work hard, there is no return. You study to become part of a future, but the future doesn’t arrive. Cuba is a free country if you are a turista, but not if you are Cuban.” When we reach her stop, all three of us are teary eyed with the details of her struggle, her aborted law career, the loose ends she must tie together to keep her extended family afloat. “You can’t imagine what happens to my meager salary as a clerk when I change pesos to convertibles to buy shoes for the kids. “And a television? How many years of saving would 'that' take!”
It’s a bit difficult to explain Cuba’s two currencies. There’s the CUC, the Cuban convertible peso. And there’s the CUP, the peso Cubano or Moneda Nacional—the currency in which the majority of Cubans are paid with. Presently, one CUC = 26 CUPs. “If you want to own a pair of jeans,” the woman tells us, “it is easy if you have relatives abroad who can bring you a pair next time they visit. But not so easy if you have no one out there. Then you must change your salary—say you are a policeman and earn 500 pesos a month—into CUCs to purchase the jeans in a store. The jeans cost 30 CUCs. After you change your salary, you end up with about 19 CUCs, most of it going towards the support of your family. 'Entiendes?' 'Es una lucha que no tiene fin!”
Into the sack just after midnight. Regla and Guanabacoa would have been plenty for one day, but two other items were on our list: the Museo de Bellas Artes and Bar Monserrate. In the Bellas Artes we wanted to see works of contemporary Cuban artists, and especially the paintings of Wifredo Lam (1902-82). The air-conditioned galleries house an impressive collection of pre- and post-Revolution paintings, engravings, sculpture, and installations. Works by Mariano Rodriguez, Cundo Bermúdez, Antonio Gattorno, René Portocarrero, Amelia Palaez, among them. Renée savors the boldness of the bodies. “I love how ample they are in every single painting!”
In the Wifredo Lam Gallery we take it slow and easy. I learned about Lam’s work during college years—'the Jungle 'my favorite, an eccentric offbeat painting that didn’t quite fit European surrealist-cubist movements, although Lam is included in that genre by art historians. In Paris he became friends with Léger, Miró, Matisse, Braque, and Lorca, to name a few. Picasso was a big supporter of Lam’s work and they exhibited together. His Cuban roots give his work a unique twist: the lush tangled landscape of bleeding browns and greens, the African influence of his mixed ancestry: his father Chinese, his mother a mulata born to a Congolese former-slave married to a mixed-race spouse. The Santería influence also shows. Lam’s godmother was a healer. During World War II Lam didn’t go off to fight, but instead traveled to Haiti, with non other than Andre Bretón! The two of them were there to study magic rituals and voodoun. Those were the days! Walking tightropes. No safety nets. Curiosity lighting the imagination. Invention to the forefront.
Late night, we head to the Bar Monserrate and take a table. Plenty of worthy venues for music exist in Habana, but we didn’t hit it exactly right. The jazz fest has ended. The big rumba festival in Matanzas had its last performance just before we arrived. The Barrio de Hueso street music happens on Sundays, but we’ll be on the bus to western Cuba. Bar Monserrate is right around the corner from La Floridita, Hemingway’s haunt, an always-packed tourist destination. His bar stool has been chained off and behind the counter is a bronze casting of the old man. The Monserrate, rougher around the edges, is packed, too, but with more Cubanos than tourists—the music is loud and non stop.
We’re here for old time’s sake, to see if it’s changed any in the last decade. It hasn’t. Same brouhaha, same roaming cigar vendor who sat with us years ago making the rounds, same vieja—the owner, I believe—seated just off stage drinking her rum, eying the attendance. Tonight a five-member group cranks up the volume: guiro/trumpet player, tres player, conga player, guy behind a stand-up bass, and a lead singer whose veins bulge as he belts it out, maracas shaking as he roams the audience, lowering to his knees at a table, arms raised to the ceiling as he wails his 'son'. Poets take note! Haven’t mastered the art of projection and annunciation? Buy a drink and sit yourself down in the Monserrate! If you don’t learn it here, you’ll get a good lesson in the streets. Vendors, even in relatively low pitch, can send their calls down an alley and up several stories with nimble timbre. Most poets can’t put forth their voices in full capacity. Why not! It goes with the territory. Any poet who gets up before an audience should be able to transmit the energy of the word as does a songster, exclaimer, enchanter. But never, god forbid, as a mumbler!
The 'sonero’s 'throaty voice carries through the Monserrate with ease. Even the low notes easily reach the far-to-the-rear tables, and further, through the open windows to the onlookers peering in from the sidewalk, young and old, hips moving to the beat. Inside, women wait to be plucked from their bar stools to dance—smooth, sexual, ready. Desperate, too. A young girl’s coquettish eyes lock with mine for a moment as she fondles a prism between her breasts—as if I’d abandon Renée and shimmy up to her 19-year-old body. Even if I 'was' 19 and soltero, I’d have to shove my way through the ungainly tribe of whiskered lust-driven geezes who’ve come from Frankfurt or Milan to regain their youth through the purchase of one of these girls, most likely a girl fraught with the anxiety of scoring a way out of Cuba, or making enough dinero to help an ailing parent with expensive meds, or a sibling with a new dress. Or perhaps she’s in it for a meal out, a glimpse behind the doors of a place normally out of reach.
Meanwhile, the dance floor. Revved into spicy animation. Erotic swing of the ass, pivoting spin of the uplifted skirt. Hips, bellies, butts, shoulders rolling, dipping, swinging with and against the beat of the 'clave'. Amazing, all these body parts suddenly liquid, rotating on their own, yet maintaining perfect alignment with the body’s axis. Tight attire, tight rhythmic swing. Forceful, exuberant! One dancer—eyes lit with green flame, tongue escaping through teeth, lips varnished dark fuchsia—shakes herself in spasmodic rhapsody. Her ebony body is well displayed in a sassy black dress, cut well above the thighs, a line of ruffles cascading down from under one arm, across the belly to her gyrating hips, as she bends lower and lower to the floor. A dash of hypnotic perfume, a plum-colored scorpion tattooed on the nape of the neck. 'Candela!' Music of heat and seduction. Music filled with names of cities, towns, mountain ranges, fallen heroes, ripple of cane, sway of the sea, the call of the guayaba vendor. Music of rebelión, rattling oxcarts, polychrome skirts, brilliantined heads, a quiet cigarette, the bang of a blacksmith’s hammer.
Another dancer—plucked from a bar stool by a man in a slanted fedora, bright magenta shirt, tapered black pants, high-heel white leather shoes—is suddenly a-spin, swimming out of her fiery spandex dress, curvy and buxom, swagging her butt animal-like, and, in the blur of it all, my god, seems to be wearing only 'half 'a dress! The musicians reach a pitchpoint, the singer shaking the seeds right out of his maracas, dripping with sweat, eyes shut as the tres, trumpet, and congas go at it. He lifts a handkerchief, gathers the diamonds from his brow, receives a rapturous applause, resume his 'son'.
Suddenly a tall, sinewy blanca rotates out onto the floor—her willowy outline backlit by the stage as she slinks beneath her partner’s upraised arm. He, so knowingly suave, stands tree-like as if he grew right up from the dance floor, his hand extended like a branch, fingers bent, barely touching hers, as he guides her snaking body around him. She’s not a Cubana, but man can she salsa! Maybe she’s from a dance club in Paris or Barcelona and has come to practice her moves. Gracefully she swings—in, out, around. Fair skin, electric spine, platinum legs, ice-blue mini-dress stunningly sheer, a lace-tied see-through slit down one side. Is life worth living? 'Sí!' Even with impossible hurdles, break-a-leg pitfalls, brutal confrontations—'vale la pena!' On a night like tonight every option is open: from love to dying of love, from fighting for the cause to dying for the cause. Anything less than getting into trouble isn’t interesting.
You won’t see a band like this in Santa Fe without paying through the nose. And all too often what you get for your dinero is a performance-space venue where you sit on your nalgas 25 rows from the stage, having to be content to watch the show without dancing. No rum, no Cerveza Bucanero to lubricate the senses. No tobacco, save for the herb you’ve managed to sneak in. But who wants to 'watch' a performance? I’ll take the Monserrate any day. Shell out a couple CUCs, a few more for tips, renew my eyes, skuff my shoes, light fire to my senses, pinch an ass (my wife’s preferably), or try my luck with the slippery-hipped beauty who pulls me onto the floor and tweaks my ego: “Ay mi vida, tienes 'ritmo'!”
We enjoy a good hit of espresso at a stand-up horseshoe-shaped open-to-the-calle coffee bar before boarding the bus for Viñales. One Cuban peso per shot, about four cents. These bars are quite civilized. Stand behind someone downing a shot of espresso, move into place after the drinker is done, and, shoulder to shoulder with la gente, wait to be served. Why not something like this back home? Remove the doors, let the streets be part of the bar, keep the price low, get people buddying up to each other. Renée and I down our cups, order another round. Guy next to me notes my foreignness, “Italiano?” “Sí,” says I, feeling pleased. Then we are off, 9 a.m. en punto, on Transportes Viazul, headed four hours west into those lumpy green hills we saw from the plane.
Transportes Viazul runs modern Chinese buses all over Cuba. Clean, punctual, inexpensive. Mainly for tourists and the few Cubans who can afford them, more of them now than ten years ago. Leaving Habana, the landscape is clean, verdant. None of the bottles, cans, Pampers, Budweiser cartons, cow heads, hubcaps, and broken toilets that litter the roads of Río Arriba County. Waste! You don’t see it in Cuba. A billboard once in awhile, yes, but not every half mile. And when they do appear they aren’t pushing fast food, casinos, liposuction, etc. They’re ubiquitously political (if not redundantly so). Along the route a middle-aged Fidel is outlined against a rising sun: 'Desde mi Barrio Defendiendo Socialismo!' Up the road he’s there again: 'Solo Vencen Los Que Luchan'. 'Nada es Más Importante que Defender la Conquista de la Revolución'.
But what revolution is going on now? asks Renée. The essential question. Few Cubanos take these slogans to heart. For them socialismo never arrived, lots to complain about. But what did come about—after centuries of foreign occupation, slavery, brutal dictatorships and racism—is fifty years of no-frills stability, although people are weary of the “no frills.”
We make way smoothly along the autopista, while most Cubans wait on the shoulders for an overcrowded bus or pieced-together truck for a ride. Place to place they go—countless stops, no fixed schedule—banging heads in metal-canopied trucks or heavily-leaning buses, unsure just how far they’re going to get or how long it will take. If not traveling this way, they’re hailing a pieced-together American cacharro that serves as a colectivo: a taxi that picks up hitchhikers, arms extended, hands waving a few crumpled pesos, indicating they have the means to pay. Everyone jams inside, splits the fair, and—shoulder to shoulder or bunched up on each other’s laps—gets to know each other, share politics, price of food, latest noticias, world crisis, who’s getting married, who’s got what for black-market sale. “Social living is the best,” sings Burning Spear. A lost art in the States where “social living” means drive your own car to the movies, then take your chances on what loco is going to show up and blow bullets into the crowd.
We enter Pinar del Río, capital of the province of the same name, not an especially attractive city, though tour-groups likely find something to stop for: a rum or tobacco factory; an old mansion with displays celebrating the Revolution; an unexceptional museum filled with stuffed reptiles whose eyes match the bored looks of the tourists. If we wanted to give the town some time, an interesting place might be Centro Loynaz, a library and study center dedicated to poet Dulce María Loynaz (1902-1997) 'whose selected poems have been issued back home by White Pine Press. Once we get set up in Viñales, I doubt we’ll return here, though. As is, we give pause and remember Dulce María Loynaz as we rumble through town. Her upper-class standing gave her privilege to leave Cuba after the Revolution, but she refused to leave, even after her husband fled. From 'Poemas Sin Nombre' (1953):
Y esa luz?
—Es tu sombra...
Pinar del Río seems more involved with itself than with turísmo. I suppose the sugar and tobacco industry has long propped the local economy. As we leave town, a timely billboard:' Condenamos Terrorísmo!' A sign that would likely be short-lived in the U.S., defaced by graffiti or shot full of holes by homegrown hooligans. Further on, another billboard: 'El Partido Existe Sólo Para el Pueblo y Para la Patria'. Wonder if this message resonates with people here as it might with those of eastern Cuba, where the roots of the Revolution go deep? With productive soil and a good agricultural economy, Pinar del Río might have less to complain about than elsewhere on the island. Cuba’s prized tobacco is grown here, as well as an abundance of vegetables, pineapple, bananas, sweet potatoes, and coffee. Just off the coast, world-class scuba diving is the big draw.
It was a toss to head immediately east toward Santiago de Cuba, or come west to Pinar del Río Province and imbibe some scenery we haven’t visited before. Because the hurricane cut through Santiago de Cuba—crumpling homes, killing people, cutting electricity—we opted for this side of the island. The prices are right too: we found a casa particular for 15 CUCs a night, peacefully situated on the outskirts of Viñales, a pretty and very laid-back hamlet. “Just the right size,” Renée nods, “a town where I can be at home.”
Our casa is at the end of a bumpy road that narrows into a trail used by horsemen, ox-drawn carts, school kids, and farmers going to and from their tobacco vegas. The street is lined with tiny wooden houses painted rose, apricot, lime, canary, chalk blue, all of them clean and orderly and doubling as casas particulares—though not many are filled at this season. At the beginning of the road, near town, is a small baseball field, its tin awnings askew from Hurricane Ike which hit Cuba in 2008—tearing off roofs in Viñales, uprooting the shade trees that once lined main street. Many people have replaced their tile roofs with sturdier concrete slabs—not attractive, but a safer bet when hurricanes hit.
The stunning valley that surrounds is both a National Park and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its lumpy wildly-leaning limestone hills—called 'mogotes'—are similar to ones we’ve seen in Vietnam, Thailand, and along China’s Li River. You could compose a song to their undulating shapes. They look like thought patterns, moments in the head linked one to another. I’ll definitely get out my sketchbook here. The rusty soil, ground and sifted, would make good pigment for paintings back home, but it’s not worth the U.S. customs risk; ditto the coffee and cigars. (Re: cigars, I read somewhere that José Martí began the uprising against Spain by rolling the call to arms into a puro and passing it on to his comrades. Maybe that’s why the Revolutionaries smoked puros—a reminder of the Father of Cuba, and of Hatuey, the original Revolutionary, a Taino cacique and a puro aficionado who led the indigenous uprising against Spain after witnessing Velázquez butcher his people in Hispaniola. Hatuey was eventually captured and brought to the burning stake in 1512; the story of this event is known all over Cuba. Hatuey’s executioners told him if he’d repent, he’d go to heaven. “Any Christians there?” he asked. When he was told yes, he said he’d prefer to burn as a pagan.)
Our casa particular is run by the impeccable hand of Marilisa, accompanied by her husband Hector and his son Eliades. She makes sure to let us know she isn’t just the matron of a successful home-stay, she is a university graduate, a professor of economics. Upon arrival she welcomed us with two aromatic espressos, the beans harvested from her own cafetál planted between rows of banana trees just over the fence. Coffee doesn’t come any fresher than this! After a brief stroll into the fields, we return to relax. Renée gets some advice on preparing frijoles Cubanos from Marilisa; I enjoy a shot of rum with Hector.
After a couple drinks (he’s already had a few), Hector gets going on the Revolution, and becomes glassy eyed. “My son might not agree, I know he sees the Bearded One as a figure from yesterday, but I have great admiration for the Revolution. What did it say to me? That a country as small as Cuba can take control of its own fate, not be bullied by big nations who see themselves as superpowers. We stood up to Spain, we stood up to the United States, and we stood up to the dictators backed by the United States. We endured the collapse of Russia—who we were wrongly dependent on. We have withstood the embargo, and the ridicule and suspicion of elite countries who would again like to take us over. Imagine, we were once called ‘a terrorist country’ by your government. But here we are, you and I having a drink, looking at this beautiful land, talking as friends.”
It’s replenishing to be in a land so verdant—especially after three successive years of drought in New Mexico, the worst in a century. It’s not only the dying of the trees, it’s the dying of a land—a nation—as we knew it, or, say, as we best like to remember it. Bark beetles humming a vampire’s song as they bore into the skin of the pines; cyber beetles chittering their own brand of song as they bore into our skulls feasting on information overglut. Where forests once stood, sagebrush has moved in. Now, amid the sage, new invaders are marching through the heatwaves: cell-phone towers. In time they too will go. All that gadgetry ‘out there’ will soon be implanted ‘right here’ inside our human flesh. —Enough!
The massive hills, lush with fronds, carved with chalk-white grottos, give a bronze glow in the setting sun. Cusps of floating cloud roll through a pearl-blue sky. Shadows play on cinnamon-colored earth sprouting tender bean shoots. The measured order and harmonious vibe inspires a dream-like state of conversation. More rum! More talk. A glint of water shines, a cluster of bamboo bends in slow motion, violet-gray mist slithers into the valley, over a quilt of furrows, around delicately-thatched tobacco-drying barns. I can almost spot Van Gogh out there, going about his drawings. Straw hat, madly-eager eyes. Slash and chisel of the pen.
“Why should I want to leave all this?” Hector continues. “I love my people, my country. Why give up and abandon Cuba like so many who want more freedom to make and spend money? I am lucky, sure. I married a woman from this end of the island and we have done okay. We have had this casa particular for eight years, our lives our stable, we have enough to eat, we are of good health. We are surrounded by farmers who have kept to their traditions. They understand this land, 'they know how to live, coño! 'They’ve worked alongside their fathers and grandfathers. Their aim isn’t to get rich, their aim is to keep it all going. Money doesn’t always have to be a concern. As you feel yourself grasping for more, you’re actually losing more, getting farther away. Desire too many things and it becomes your ruin. You can add a room like we are doing out back, but you don’t need to fill it with things. Just a chair or two so you can sit and watch the fields.”
Renée and I enjoy dinner on the porch under a rising moon: grilled lobster served with a generous plate of avocado-tomato-cucumber salad, baguette, side of black beans and rice, wild spinach, plantain chips. Then comes dessert, which we didn’t expect: cascos de guayaba con queso—sweetened guava husks floating in their own syrup with cubes of fresh cheese—served with two cafecitos.
Delectable air, good night’s sleep. Breakfast is served on the same flower-draped porch we had dinner on last night. Fresh-squeezed orange juice, fruit salad, omelet, black beans, a pot of espresso. Based on our last visit to Cuba, we imagined endless fried chicken and rice. This time the black-market connections seem to be so perfected that seafood, pork, and vegetables are readily obtainable. Each morning Eliades disappears on his daily mission to buy what his mother needs for family and guests. Their tourist business being as successful as it is, Marilisa and Hector can afford to spend CUCs in the manner of the upper strata of Cuban society. A steady stream of visitors also means they can afford the government taxes on each of the two rooms they rent.
This morning we tour Viñales Valley by bus, hopping off at various points to stroll the fields, sketch, and photograph. The best place to draw is from a hillside hotel overlooking the mogotes. Vultures reel over flamboyant trees, egrets descend onto the backs of cows, mockingbirds twitter an Eric Dolphy riff. From this vantage point, each bark, caw, squeal, and clatter reaches us as if through a ventriloquist’s muffle—a kind of dream-state echo. Staccato calls rise from a farmer singing his oxen along, turning his plow at the end of each furrow. He moves, but the distance has him standing still. The Japanese poet Kyorai, one of Basho’s disciples, wrote a haiku to this effect:
the man in the field
Late afternoon, we return to Marilisa’s. The air has been cooled by a few sweeps of rain. I did several small line drawings this morning: hills, clouds, horse-carts, thatched barns, trumpet vines sprawling over wooden houses. At one point we were sidetracked by a tobacco farmer who stopped to chat. He invited us to his farmhouse, sat us on a bench, whipped up a piña colada in a blender, and soon we were joined by a relative giving a tobacco tour to three Czechs, who were surprised to meet two Americans sitting on the porch when they arrived. We all watched Fernando expertly roll puros from sheaves of tobacco. “Un regalo,” he said, handing each of us one. A fragrant dizzying smoke! The Czechs, a jolly crew, ended up buying several dozen—no silly embargo in their country. Fernando spent a good deal of time talking about how the locals returned to organic farming “after the Soviets left with all their pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.”
Renée: 'We walked the farmland and sat and talked and gazed. A man with blazing blue eyes appeared on the trail, calling to a young guy across the fields who was traipsing with foreigners. Then he invited us to his house where we all arrived at the same time. Our man’s name was Fernando. He poured rum into a thick pineapple-leche, making us the best piña coladas I’ve ever had. We sat on his porch, me in one of the wooden rockers, and Fernando, after asking permission, sitting on the arm of my chair with his two stacks of dried tobacco leaves, both of which he plunked down on my lap. He then proceeded to show everybody how to cut the tobacco into three long splices, remove the central vein, roll it into a perfect cigar, just like that. I liked his quirky smile and the way he said “gracias por tu ayuda” and laughed when he realized suddenly that my lap was full of his tobacco leaves.
Crops thrive in narrow swales between the mogotes, a few royal palms stand erect like sentinels, dark sprays of bamboo bend in contrast. A rustic vision of centuries past? Not a bygone era, I remind myself. This is the present, and perhaps a return to the' 'future, to the way things should be: a slowed-down sense of time, respect for the land, solidarity within the extended family that plants, hoes, and harvests. Cultivating healthy crops, cultivating healthy humans. These family-run farms seem to produce what they need without much modern machinery. No heavy attachment to petroleum; no capitalist agri-business intruders bulldozing small-plot farmers off the land to mass produce genetically-modified chemically-fertilized “food.” Wendell Berry once wrote that “one can only live responsibly in the world by devoting oneself to a small piece of it.” It seems to be working here.
Maybe the blockade that prohibits U.S. capitalists from selling all that crap the Soviets once pushed on Cuba should remain in place. It not only keeps out pesticides, it keeps out pests like McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and the Ugly American developer—though plenty of Ugly Others have already found their way here. Castro revved up tourism after the Russian pullout, leasing generous amounts of prime coastal land to European 5-star hotel developers to boost the deflated economy—a kind of joint-venture system run by the Cuban state. Non-stop flights from Europe fly right to these resorts; nobody need stop in Habana to mingle with Cubans or soak up a little culture. One can remain glibly apart at $400 a night spas, do yoga, have a Swedish massage, learn to salsa, or watch a drag-queen show while dining on Cuban-raised beef reserved only for tourists.
Fortunately, about 25% of Cuba’s land has been put into nature reserves by the government: biospheres and eco-zones devoted to the preservation of forests, wetlands, coral reefs. Wonder if wild Cuba will survive as Raul Castro steps up development? The U.S. trade embargo has kept U.S. developers at bay, but for half a decade Spanish, Canadian, Dutch, Swedish, and Germans have filled the gap, creating their own trade with Castro’s government. With the U.S. economy on a downspin, I’d hate to see the scramble when trade resumes with Cuba. 'Go now!' is the mantra you hear from the intrepid traveler.
Tonight Marilisa serves us baked snapper and grilled tuna bathed in tomatoes sautéed with green olives, garlic, leeks, and red peppers. Boniato, potaje (black bean soup), and fried bananas accompany. Add two Bucanero beers, followed by a stroll into Viñales where we end up at the plaza, inquiring at the Casa de Música about tonight’s program. Disappointingly we learn that it’s “an amped group for young people.” La Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad is opposite the Casa so we walk over to inspect. The sky is filled with low clouds puffed thick with moisture, brightly illuminated by a near-full moon. A strong breeze scoots them quickly along behind the dome. Pressing our bodies against the facade, we crane our necks to the bell tower. Suddenly the clouds are motionless, the church is moving. Jesus, it’s lifting right off its base! Trick of the eye? Too much rum?
Back at the casa, an update on the hurricane. In Santiago de Cuba eleven killed, power out, buildings fallen, and, in the aftermath of the flooding, an almost unheard of occurrence: looting. “This you don’t find in Cuba,” Eliades says. “But people are hungry. If a store has a fallen-in door, no one will to hold back. People are spontaneous in the east, they’ve got spunk. My father and I are from a little town near Santiago. Marilisa is not my mother, you know. My mom was of African descent, she died in a car accident.” This explains Eliades’ handsome darkness, his Bob Marley-like features, the wild head of hair he’s training into dreadlocks. He seems happy on this end of the island, helping to manage the casa, earning an income, checking out all the young European solteras who come for a stay.
We’ll leave Viñales day after tomorrow, a direct seven-hour bus to Trinidad. We’ll think about Camagüey and Bayamo, too. And perhaps the little-visited north-coast town of Gibara. Meanwhile it’s late, though sleep isn’t with me, even with all the walking we did today. Maybe it’s the extra shot of Marilisa’s strong espresso. Or the full Caribbean moon. A few lines in my notebook from this morning’s jaunts:
The waiter in the cave
whose eyed welled up ...
And the girl following the chrome swan
between the shadows of plantain ...
A flight of imagination? Naw. The waiter 'was' in a cave—a limestone grotto in the wall of a mogote that had been turned into a bar. Mirrors shone between dripping stalactites, music warbled from speakers concealed in stone. Tables and chairs invited sightseers in from the heat. A young waiter dressed in pressed black trousers, a white ruffled shirt, and a red bow tie brought us two rums. Only one other table in the place was occupied: women on an outing, laughing it up, their driver taking a polishing cloth to a ’36 Dodge in the parking lot.
The waiter had time on his hands. He wanted to play a guessing game, “you name the country, I’ll tell you the capitol.” Sure, I said, and with a pocket full of Cuban pesos, added: “Let’s bet.” After a few rounds I finally got him with “Burkina Faso” although I could have made it just as tough by asking him the Inuit Nation’s capital or by naming an obscure Melanesian island. Actually, I wanted seriously to lose so he’d come away with a few pesos. In the end, I gave him some CUCs, much more valuable than the lousy pesos he was earning. His eyes glassed over. He told us how much he worked, how little he made, but how he loved being Cubano, loved his wife and kids, the posibilidad of a futuro here—not elsewhere.
The women left just before us, a bit tipsy in their spiked heels and skin-tight pedal pushers, shaking their bums as they swaggled up to the old Dodge, its gunmetal hood brightened by one of those chrome swans that decorate so many vintage autos in Cuba. (The stock ’36 Dodge hood ornament was nicer: a leaping ram with curled horns). After the ladies got cozy, the driver fired up the motor, and they began to sing. Off they went, the car sputtering through the rain, the ladies raising their voices behind the swan, arms waving out the windows. 'Cuba!
When the bus dropped us off back in Viñales, an elderly campesino was sitting on the curb against a blue pillar. He was smoking a huge stogie. A lot of ancianos hang out like this, hoping a turista will approach with a camera. If the turista has any consideration he’ll make some kind of exchange, offer a coin in return for a photo. Most don’t. They keep their distance with telephotos. The man’s oxfords were shined, his polyester slacks pressed, his guayabero spanking clean. He was indeed picture fit. “I am 83,” he said. He looked damn good, and I told him so. He gave me the year, day, hour, and minute of his birth. Said his parents brought him to Viñales from a village in the island’s center when he was just a kid. “Pues, I’m lucky to be alive. I fell off a bicycle having a good time, went right over the handlebars and suffered a severe head injury.” He took off his hat. “Look,” he said, tapping his puro on the curb. “I’ve had five operations.” He showed off the scars: front of the head, side, under the eyes. “I spent three months recuperating in la Habana. Couldn’t wait to get back here.” When I asked him who paid for the operations, he said: “Government.”
“Not in my country,” I replied. “They don’t do that for us.”
Took the Trinidad bus out of Viñales, decided to hop off at Cienfuegos, several hours east. The city was written up with kudos in the guide book, but we found it dull. Clean streets but lots of traffic, a shock after Viñales. Prices were up, too. 25 CUCs for a casa, not the 15 we paid at Marilisa’s. Spent the night, had some names to look up at the Writers Union, but it was shut. Took an early bus to Trinidad, a relief. Like old times, it was welcoming. Walking the cobble streets, we easily found a family-run casa, centrally located, not far from the Plaza Mayor.
You really can’t go wrong in Trinidad. The pace is relaxed, the light marvelous. A deep blue glint traces the horizon, south. Up from the sea meander roads that branch into cobbled intersections, leafy triangles, well-tended plazuelas ringed with colonial houses—tall windows screened with turned wooden columns, no glass, just wooden shutters. Their heavy wooden doors, some with smaller doors set into them, are outlined with ornamental designs: a flattened plaster pilaster to either side, a curl of scrollwork up top. Under the eaves, lathe-turned wooden supports jut out to carry the weight of the exaggerated terra-cotta tiled roofs. Near our home-stay, one residence sports a Pepto-Bismol facade, doors and windows painted evergreen, trimmed with vanilla-colored ornamentation. “You could almost eat it!” I say to Renée. But she’s interested in real eatables:
'What stays with me is the sweet bread and cookie seller who I passed on the street selling his wares from a cardboard box. His hard biscuits were shaped like biscotti and his box was full of them. I didn’t have any change to give him, but because I was so enthusiastic about his cookies, he gave me one for nothing.
Trinidad is all aglow at sunset. Ochre, eggshell, lime, rose madder, pale violet, each hue with its own subtext of weathered tones: lemon, pistachio, mint, almond, pomegranate, faded malachite, powdered sugar, pewter, camel, lavender. Sharp-edged walls knife the sky. To the north, black-green hills. Over them, daubs of cotton. Walking the streets we become the color of whatever hue bounces from the facades. Underfoot, the uneven stones make us hobble—like walking on Braille. Spine tries to accommodate, arches grow quickly sore. The heart does, too. Each of these stones was hauled up from the riverbeds and labored into place by slaves. 17'th' century Trinidad had political and military control over central Cuba. Spanish landowners, reaping huge profit from their sugar plantations, called the shots. Their lavish homes—designed to fit he profile of the country they left behind—were also built by slaves. So were the elaborate theaters, sumptuous and formal enough to accommodate the kind of entertainment one enjoyed on the European continent.
The light of Trinidad, though we’re nearly at sea level, is comparable to that of northern New Mexico where the altitude gives a rare tint to the air. Santa Fe, however, lacks Trinidad’s rich palette. It is monochrome brown, as if puddled up from the earth. Maybe Trinidad was once the same, no sé. But its color makes me wish that just one Santa Fe barbershop or nearly-extinct hardware store would break the Historic Preservation Committee’s regulations and paint themselves a dangerous violet or canary yellow. As is, the dark adobe of the colonizers pervades. The only idea of color the Spanish Conquistadores had was that of gold.
In one of many little parks, we stop to enjoy ourselves on a wooden bench. The art of lingering—doing nothing as an elevated state—should be a requisite course in universities. Just plunk down, watch the world go by: músicos ambling by with guitars and fiddles, a kid chasing his paper kite, the woman carrying a portable stove through a courtyard door, a man on the curb with a bamboo cane over his knees, ladies trading jokes under a trellis of purple flowers. Nobody comes up to pester us, not one child asks for anything, no 'jinetero' hustles a buck. To one end of the park a church has opened its doors. We take a peek. Light bleeds from two small windows, filling the nave, spangling the gold thread twined in the lace of the saints. Every niche is filled with lilies. The Patrona de Cuba reigns, one of our favorites. Lacquered face, bliss-bestowing smile, halo of stars, gold embroidered cape over flowing gown. One hand holds out a cross, the other raises a smiling child above splashing waves. Clouds circle her feet, three smiling cherubs float among stormy swirls. La Patrona doubles as Ochún, the dark beauty who loves to flirt. Goddess of sensuality, money, and love. She’s worth a kneel, definitely, and a toss of a coin into the offering box.
As we exit, a member of the church approaches, an elderly woman in a long iris-blue button-down dress. She raps about something—very devotional feel—I don’t quite catch it, and gives us a blessing, consecrating with great earnestness ourselves and our journey. Renée receives a holy card of the Patrona, solar rays shooting from her curls. “The pastor of this church is a very good man doing great things for the poor,” the woman says. Maybe she wants a donation, but she’s not pushy, just wants to make sure we are happy, that Cuba is okay for us.
Pausing in these chapels and parks, one can’t miss the pride people have for keeping them beautiful—no hooligans climbing the statues in the Plaza Mayor with spray paint or smashing the porcelain ornaments on their posts. No graffiti either. The balconies are flowered, the streets swept. On them youngsters take the arms of oldsters, inching them across the bumpy cobble. If the Plaza Mayor were back home, it would have to be wrapped with razor-wire.
We visit the Casa de Música and find a good collection of c.d.s, but none of the music we’re after: 1950s 'son Cubano' by 'Jose Pepe Merino and Juan Manuel Diaz; the renowned tres players Isaac Oviedo and his son Papi; Conjunto Gloria Matancera; Familia Valera Miranda; the all-women conjunto Tradición Morena; live recordings of Vieja Trova Santiaguera. Have also been looking for some Changüí, music originating in rural Oriente slave communities in the early 19'th'-century. A sweet repetitive Spanish-African blend played on marimbula, bongos, tres, and güiro. Guess I’m an old fogy when it comes to música Cubana. About as modern as I get is Irakere or Los Van Van—and they’ve been around a long time. I’m not stuck in the Buena Vista Social Club era, though it definitely helped put Cuban music back on the map. Reggaeton and the new electric mix doesn’t do it for me, and as much as we like to support live músicos by purchasing their CDs, it’s better to tip them liberally instead of buying the disc they pass around after their acts. The recording quality can be awful, often recorded years earlier, sans the singer on stage whose voice gives the act its unique flavor.
At the Casa de Música Renée stops before a wall posted with information about the “Cuban Five.” We first noticed these five male faces, with 'Volverán!' (They’ll Return!) printed beneath them, on a billboard in Cienfuegos. We thought they might be politicos up for reelection, but seeing the same billboard in other places we began to wonder. The desk clerk at the Casa de Música explains that, no, these men aren’t politicos. They were arrested by US authorities in Florida in 1998 for espionage. And they are still there, being held in separate prisons.
“They were on a mission in your country to investigate who might be plotting, among Miami Cuban right-wingers, another invasion of Cuban air space with intent to overthrow our government. You have CIA people working secretly in foreign countries, no? Well, these young men were working with our government to help protect Cuba from terrorism funded and organized by 'Miami Cubans. A pity that those pendejos have so much money and such sway on your government. They are largely responsible for the arrests of the Cuban Five. And they are the ones who have gotten anti-Castro Cubans into your congress.”
Renée: 'After asking about the poster of the five Cubanos, who they are, why we keep seeing them, I write each name down: Ramon Labanino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Geraldo Hernandez, René Gonzales. As the woman at the Casa de Música tells me how they are imprisoned in five different prisons, “separado”, and how they are innocent and that they will return, she is surprised to learn, when she asks where I am from, that I am from the U.S. ... yet, within minutes, she and I are dancing together to the CDs we wanted to hear, her leading, showing me the moves I needed to make with my feet. How we strutted around that place together, laughing and shaking our hips!
In the evening we return to the huge patio down the steps from the Casa de Música. Everybody’s dancing under the stars to a smoking seven-piece band driven by the lead singer’s powerful voice. She stands like Janis Joplin, arms to sides, fists clenched, her sultry voice soaring. Raising a pair of maracas above her head, she shakes the constellations right out of the sky. The whole out-in-the-open venue is loud, sassy, and swinging—one-hundred percent on track with the vibrant collective spirit of those long-ago troubadours who brought spark to the most melancholy of lives. It’s a people’s place; no cover charge, no capitalist “can I afford it” worry taints the venue. We find a table, order mojitos, buy a puro from a roving cigar vendor, and dance! Warm air, warm bodies, a Caribbean moon, my lover throwing her hips back and forth, contagious energy all around us.
' Cógelo, cógelo! La danza!
The momentum sweeps us into a froth. When this 'diosa del ritmo 'lifts her voice you feel Oshún descend with a musky scent of adrenaline. The hills send down cool incense of pine. A waft of bergamot follows Yemayá between the call and response of the horns. The keyboardist catches fire, a woman in sparkling tank top loses herself, erupts like a fountain from skintight jeans. A black man slides up in a white jumpsuit, teased by an eye-dazzling diva sashaying to the high ring of the claves, her layered skirt wrapped with a metal chain over iridescent shorts and fishnet leggings. The place 'burns! 'Tables mambo, chairs salsa, stars rumba, palm trees bend with the refrain of the chorus.
'Cuando suenan los tambores
hacen la tierra temblar!
A kicked off open-toed rhinestone shoe lands on a table. A figure, voluptuous and regal, stands up in a headdress—or is it a shadow? A stogie-mouth hipster extends his hand to Renée—he’s twice her age. But who can say no? All the flags are waving. All the zippers coming undone. Every hand is where it shouldn’t be, all the fingers undoing what’s left to be undone. The 'bloqueo' has crumbled, the ribbons have been cut, the champagne smashed against the hull of the ship. Every sanction hoisted to regulate life, love, and liberty is awash under clattering heels. The old man in me goes wild. 'Jesus!' 'I' 'am the stogie-mouthed hipster! Ah, these lovely beauties. One in crystal-studded gothic leotards; another in sequined backless body suit, tail aflame in red ruffles; and here comes a 'Diosa' right out of the Yoruban pantheon—she’s infra-red ebony, poured into the shortest-of-short triple-tiered miniskirts, waistband blinking with the national colors. I’m in church, man. This is religion!
“Don’t you recognize me?” A voice slurs from a silhouette. Beret, humped shoulders, big coat. Not sure who it is, but when the figure turns toward the stage lights, I slowly recognize Francisco, the guy we met day before yesterday in a private house turned into an art shop. “I’m in the middle of a cyclone!” he stammers. Drunk, he dribbles out his situation—the pain of splitting up with his girlfriend, the attractive mulata painter we met in the art shop. Francisco was pushing for us to buy one of her oils. Perhaps he hoped a sale might bring him back into her favor. It didn’t work. Her paintings were too “informed” to make the grade as the true primitives we love. Besides, the timing was off. We sensed tension between the two, but had no idea what was going on. When I asked to see her studio she declined and he stepped in: “She’s relocating, everything’s packed up.”
We suggest he pull an empty chair up to our table. We buy him a beer, over which he begins to cry. Again he brings up the painting, his girlfriend moving out, his “cyclone” situation. Nothing cheers him, and I’m not ready to descend into that painful hell with him, having been there too many times myself. He is the third Cuban to cry in front of us: the waiter in the cave in Viñales; Tatiana in Cienfuegos who put us up for the night and said she had to quit her nursing career to care for her aging mother; and now Francisco, lovesick, torn to shreds like a beaten-up saint. Oh, and there was that young beauty on the Guanabacoa bus, teary eyed over loved ones who had left Cuba because of the economic stress.
By now the dancers have spun their hips into oblivion, the band is folding up. The night, all arms and legs, has become a sea of tumbled-off sound. Francisco won’t lift his head from the table. I suppose we should hobble him home, but I imagine worse things might be in store as a result of that favor, so off we go arm in arm under the stars on our own. We don’t make it home, though, without hitting one more venue, the nearby Casa de la Trova, music leaking from its open doorway.
Every town in Cuba has one of these clubs, usually a restored colonial residence where people can enjoy a drink, listen to music, dance. Casas de la Trova originally served as venues for older musicians to pass their music on to the younger generation. They still retain that flavor. In one night you can enjoy several acts, one after another, up close: trios, conjuntos, son, bolero, mambo, salsa. Trinidad’s Casa de la Trova is a classic—a pale-blue and white 18'th'-century house whose interior has been opened up into a dance floor trellised with flowers, painted with murals. A bar stands at one end, opposite a raised floor where a band is performing. When I leave our table to order two shots of aged rum, a woman grabs Renée and whisks her onto the floor. I hide in the shadows, fearing I might be next. She’s too good of a dancer—I bet in her 70s—and I don’t want to find myself out there on display like a clown. A joy to watch Renée, though. Feline spontaneity! As Los Van Van say: “La salsa Cubana es nuestra comunicación!”
Renée: 'A Cuban woman comes right up to me, smiles, takes my hand, leads me to the dance floor with her swaying hips. Nothing I can do but follow her. She leads me with her shaking shoulders and her cool stepping, sometimes holding my hand as we move together, sometimes turning away from my gaze. Sometimes her river becomes my river and sometimes we are stones the water moves over—no not stones—we are weeds in the river’s flow and we sway with a current not our own but also our own. She leads me with her hand and I feel her rhythm and I follow. She has a scent to her skin unlike my own and when the dance is over and the music stops she turns from me and I thank her, we kiss, yes we kiss, and I say to my husband, “I have the scent of a Cuban woman on my hands!”
And now the perfume is mine. I feel I have been out there dancing, even though I stubbornly retreated to the bar. Shortly, a group of foreigners arrive. They take to the floor, dancing with jerky vertical movements. The Cubanos, in contrast, are pure liquid. They move horizontally, undulating like rolling waves in a warm sea. Often, when a Cuban man sees a foreign woman bouncing up and down, he’ll step onto the floor, politely extend his arm, slow her down, taking her hand to give an impromptu lesson, not a word spoken. Soon she’ll be rippling like sea grass, her culo will slowly get in synch with the Cubans’ culos, her eyes will close, a liquid smile will replace her deliberate one, she’ll reach out for another glass of rum without stopping her sway, and, giving no thought to where she is or who she is or once was, she’ll raise her voice with a shout: '“Everybody happy?”' '—'Yes!
Our final night. Ana Gloria, who owns our casa particular, serves a classic entrée, ropa vieja: beef seasoned with bay leaves, peas, carrots, red chiles, and tomato sauce; cooked, shredded with a fork, and sautéed in a vegetable stock of onions, garlic, green peppers, salt and pepper. It comes with rice, sweet plantain, black beans, two beers, and the usual ensalada mixta dressed with vinaigrette. Ana Gloria prepares ropa vieja a day ahead of time so it can marinate in its own seasoning. “It will taste especially good for you today. It is más sabrosa after you’ve come home from the sea. Salt water gets you hungry and prepares your senses to enjoy the flavors.” Luck having it, we’ve just returned from Playa Ancon, a short ride in her son-in-law’s ‘55 Ford Crown Victoria—a throwback to my youth in a similar Ford, cruising the curves of Malibu Canyon to the Mar Pacifico.
Not much writing, mostly drawings in my pages from Playa Ancon. After a swim, I got out a book to read, but soon lost interest to the activities of a little girl at play. She was scooping sea water into a plastic cup, pouring it over her hands, running up to splay her wet fingers proudly in front of her mom, then going back to her play. Sifting sand through her fingers, she would enjoy the pattern of the grains falling to the beach. As I watched I saw myself as a small child, my hands trapped inside plastic ‘bubbles’ my parents had strapped to my wrists, some sort of in-vogue 1940’s device designed to keep kids from putting things in their mouths. Effectively these clear plastic cylinders prohibited me from touching the world. Luckily I outgrew them quickly and wasted no time exploring every tactile sensation available. Could be why I like to smudge graphite with my thumb to bring shadows into my drawings, or reach into an outcrop of raw ochre and smear the pigment into my paintings with a spittle-wet finger.
A shout from the little girl broke my reverie. When I looked up, as did her mother, she was standing before the sea, arms extended, fingers out, reaching toward bands of flying fish arcing over the water like diamond rainbows.
After dinner, we return to that big outdoor courtyard below the Casa de Música. Another smashing venue! A 12-member all-black rumbero group doing a fiery line dance to four conga players, two trombonists, two trumpet players, two percussionists with assorted cowbells, another with a drum at his waist held up by a strap around his neck. The place is smoking. Anvils pound, hammers swing, sparks sizzle. The crowd lifts from its center of gravity, spins into the stars. We slip into the rippling horns, cane-sugar sweet chorus, bright sweat of faces, and come undone. If we have to leave Trinidad, we’ll leave with fire in our hair, nostrils smoking. 'No hay otro modo!
After a several-hour bus ride to Camaguey, we find a room at Casa Colonial, a beauty of a two-story villa overlooking a small square in the 18'th'-century quarter. The square is noisy, however, and clamor fills our room—something we don’t discover until after we’ve paid the tariff and settled in. The walls of this vacuous old estate are pale jade, ceilings way up high, prismed chandeliers dangling between graceful arches. Tall gold-framed mirrors brighten every room, huge potted palms fan out over the sparkling tile floors. The vintage mahogany furniture is pretty, but heavy to move and hard to sit in. The bathrooms (gleaming tiles, freshly-laundered towels) are down the hall from the rooms, washbasins big enough to drown in. Meals are taken at a dining table adorned with a hand-painted vase filled with tiger lilies. Pottery busts, ticking clocks, frosted-glass lamps—they’re all perfectly-placed and feather dusted, as if the servants of the original owners were still fussing about arranging things. It’s too elegant. I almost feel that I’m not dressed quite right to be here. Ritzy crystal, polished silverware, tall-stemmed wineglasses upside down on a porcelain tray. Royalty expected?
Downstairs is a street-front coffee shop with tables under umbrellas, a good place to relax after a brief foray into the historic part of town. Paid a visit to Nicolás Guillén’s casa natal, nothing much. Interesting photos of him framed on the walls. A couple of poems. Nobody there. Most of the city’s action was on the pedestrian-only mall, full of well-dressed families, youth in the latest fashions, cell phones, spiked hair, heads wired with who knows what music—anything to avoid the awful muzac wafting from the lampposts. Well-stocked shops offered bright-leather shoes, sports attire, electronics, home appliances, trendy clothing—unlike anything we’ve seen in Cuba. A club featuring soft jazz, a bookstore selling mostly textbooks, a shop with cigars and kitschy wooden statues, another with baseball caps and stuffed animals. General good-time scene, but hardly interesting.
Delia, the owner of the Casa Colonial, has recently taken it over from the original owner, who “gave it all up and left to join relatives in Miami.” Delia has a lofty spirit and a pretty smile, but her dark-circled eyes reveal stress. Pinching her stomach, she jokes apologetically: “All this extra embarrasses me! It’s the business of running this house. I have to be here all the time to receive tourists—I’ve no money to hire anyone else to do it. I have to stay up late at night to be on guard so foreigners don’t bring in 'jineteras'. The young Italians who get loud and look for prostitutes are the worst. After them, the Russians.” She’s not happy about the taxes on her three rooms either. “Everything’s designed to keep you on edge, full of worry.” She tells us this while sitting in a big chair overlooking the street from the balcón. Sad to see her plopped in that antique seat, watching it all from above, stressed, becoming more obese.
Five hours to Bayamo on Viazul bus. The autopista trails off into a narrow road through a pastoral landscape heading straight into the Oriente, our favorite part of the island. Though we won’t be going into the heart of it as we’d like—Santiago and the Sierra Maestra—our pleasure will be to spend a couple nights in Bayamo, a city we’ve previously only passed through. A good place, me thinks, to celebrate my 69'th' birthday.
Camagüey didn’t match our psyches. Big, brassy, landlocked. No verdant hills like those behind Trinidad or Viñales—the kind that attract the daytime sea breeze and send down cool air at night. Camagüey’s taverns we expected to be full, but they were vacant and uninteresting. And Delia’s Casa Colonial, pretty as it was, was spoiled not just by the noisy arcade below, but by the arrival of a young Swiss hotshot who had flown non-stop from London to Holguin, where he grabbed a taxi to Delia’s to meet the German ‘guide’ who booked his package tour. The Swiss guy was plenty slippery. Blond hair brushed toupee-like into a little bang on his forehead (you could almost see the cheesecloth), stagnant cologne sprayed about his body, eyes like two pale-blue rabbit pellets in slits of red. He wore a black and white cowboy outfit, reminiscent of my boyhood Hopalong Cassidy getup. On his feet: low black patent-leather boots, heeled high in the back, little tassels at the ankles. All that was missing were spurs and silver pistols.
A few trivial travel details passed between us over beers in the dining room: where from, what do, how here given U.S. politics toward Cuba, what think of upcoming U.S. election? For his part he was here to escape the European winter, have a good time, get a girl—which, for these guys, means black girl, the darker the better. And sex. No matter the cost. No matter if she knows only two couple lines of English. When his German guide (read ‘pimp’) arrived, the slipperiness became greasier. Eavesdropping on their exchange we learned how the night—paid for in advance by this young lad—was to unfold. It looked suspiciously dark and oily.
Later, searching for a Casa de la Trova (to no avail), we met up with the cowboy. We sat a couple tables behind him drinking rum at an anemic open-front club where a trio was setting up. He was sitting stiffly in his Hopalong Cassidy suit with his ebony beauty, her hands all over him while he drank, her ruffled blouse exposing two glistening treasures, just what his package-deal promised. The music wasn’t worth a long stay, and only when we got up to leave did we pass in front of the cowboy to greet him with a nod and silent smiles. He gave us a look of stilted pride as he fiddled with his Dallas Cowboys cigarette case, his girl staring off into space, the crooners on stage doing a good job mangling 'Mentiras Tuyas'.
Back at Delia’s, we were finally nodding off—the street party below our window had calmed—when a ruckus began. Delia was at her front door, responding in suave rapid-fire Spanish to the cowboy’s loud guttural German. Another woman’s voice whimpered a plea in Spanish. When Delia gave her final word, there was a gruff 'Scheisse!' and a slam of the door. After things settled I got up to use our bathroom, the one Delia had assigned us. Inside, the cowboy was hunkered on the commode stinking up the place, his Hopalong Cassidy suit on the floor, shower running, the smell of cologne and liquor and flushed-out intestines overpowering. 'Ich bin krank!' he slobbered, looking quite dizzy.
En route to Bayamo Renée reads from her notes:
'Camagüey! I love its crazy streets that aren’t supposed to make sense, but do. I can feel a city like this, with its streets going every which way, much more than a city such as Cienfuegos, with its ordered calles and avenues all laid out in a grid—I could not get my bearings there. In Camagüey I immediately knew where I was. My blood meandering—the streets matching it. But by the time we leave and are heading to Bayamo, I realize I feel somewhat betrayed by Camagüey, a city that made me fall for it hard and fast and then stayed up all night partying with everyone but me! At first I loved the aliveness I felt there, but then the aliveness turned into noise. At first the colorful dress—all those reds and yellows tightly wrapped around the bodies of the women—excited me but then it became a place obsessed with modern styles. It didn’t feel like Cuba, but why? Because it wanted to be something new, homogeneous and prosperous. But who am I to wish for Cubans not to prosper? Yet why does prosperity have to bring with it such a dampening of the spirit that makes Cuba and its people so alluring? I think of Viñales, though, and its kind of prosperity, which embraces agriculture and simplicity and is rich because no one needs more than that. Or do people need more?
I can see the kernel of a poem in her notes. So many of these pages hold rough uncuts waiting to be tumbled and polished. Meandering streets matching the blood? 'Yes!' Afternoon light ricocheting from empty stone squares? 'Yes!' As Renée reads, each street becomes present: odd forks, angled bends, sudden dead ends. Bounce of light from sculpted facades. Courtyards sounding the clank of a pail, crescendo of laughter. The shine of a farmer’s knuckles at rest on his knees, a broom seller’s metallic twang, prattle of boys over a game of marbles. Each nibble of the eye becomes ink slipping from the fingers onto the page. Yet every fact of the eye is full of flimsy contradictions, after-shadows of thought. Reality can’t be caught with the net of reason. Why do I keep going back to Lorca? Because he notices what is absent in what is present. His vision is wrapped with mystery. He’s never sure, always reaching for something undefined waiting to come into focus—something beyond the grasp of words. Metaphor gets close. Wide spaces between staccato outflow bring the reader in. “Morse code of the heart.”
The journal has fed me since boyhood—a place where I can undress, spy through the cracks, reach out of the box, saw my body in two, vanish behind the curtain, regain composure, part the velvet again, bow to the crowd. What delight to be traveling with another who loves this ritual of hand on page, her mind suspended like a rainbow opposite mine, her head going deep into the details from inside out—while I go from outside in, too often 'not' making it in; too busy noting form, color, bend of a shadow, essence of an image that might become oil on canvas, haiku on scroll, a mad dash of pencil across the page.
There’s no perfection about these journals we keep. They don’t pretend to be like some of the precious “artists’ books” we’ve seen, that genre of craft usually meant for exhibit: wisely considered, cleverly executed—the kind you need white gloves to peruse. Overcooked, I’d say. Not scribbled, spittled with color, glued with torn bits of street posters or faded correspondence. No risqué keyhole wanderings, fold-out erotica, dreams scrawled in sleep, drunken burlesques, pants-down notations, or on-the-spot details written while scrambling a couloir or traipsing the salt flats at Furnace Creek. Nope, these are working bundles of notations so raw they bleed. Unfinished stammers rule. Smears, blips, squiggles. Dangling nerve endings. Molecules reconfiguring into slow works of art. Stepping stones towards a distant shore. Recipes for a Sunday meal. Blueprints for a garden cold frame. Addresses, book titles. Movies to see, songs to hear, random quotes. The journal! Unabashed launch pad to whatever smoky shape awaits' beyond' tierra incognita.
These pages reveal themselves as do Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures. They defy the trample of the electronic age. Luminous as a wound, dark as a catacomb, scratched and pecked, they represent the last of the holograph—hand moving in accord with the eye, the flit of a butterfly, wind through pine, conga patter, heel shuffle, puff of a nightgown tossed on the bed. Having placed so many of my journals in a university archive rather than let the funeral party divvy them up into dumpsters, I wonder if some future digital-age timekeeper, historian, young damselfly at work on a thesis, will give a look, see into a life, discover a few petty crimes, favorite sex positions, hidden pistol, up-from-the-gene-pool thoughts. A savvy investigator could ride the psychic seismograph, come through the tangles, find the headwaters, discover the loose tendrils, raw circuitry—what Artuad called “electric nerve flames of everlasting phosphorescence”—the very 'Source' of a poem.
A rough landing. Delia called ahead from Camagüey and set us up in a casa particular with a man named Jorge in the old section of Bayamo. But the Jorge who met us at the bus was a different Jorge than Delia’s Jorge. Our Jorge didn’t introduce himself until he got us into a bicycle taxi and over to his and his wife’s casa particular. He hauled our suitcases upstairs, threw back the covers of the bed, and flipped on the boom-box on the dresser. “By the way I’m Marcos. Jorge’s place was booked, ours was next in line.” He runs downstairs to fetch the guest book so we can sign in. Renée and I look at each other. “Like, whaaaat?” The room is windowless, cramped, no balcony, and the metal ladder through the grate to the roof is padlocked. Oversize furniture, bright acrylic covers, ratty doilies, a slumped easy chair, and a too-tiny bed covered with hard satin pillows. Nope! Not for us. I look at Renée, she looks at me: “Let’s bolt!”
When I go down to tell Marcos it’s off, I find that his wife—who is missing both legs and is in a wheelchair—has ordered him to roll her to the living room where she is purposely blocking the door to the street. I explain that we’ve decided to leave. Renée is bringing down the suitcases. Marcos’ wife is livid. She begins to raise her voice. He pats her on the shoulder, “Now dear.” But she won’t have any of it. “Why should you leave. You just got here!” I tell her we don’t feel comfortable. It’s not for us. “What is it, the price? You want me to come down? You can’t afford 25 CUCS a night!” Then she really gets steaming, points to her legs, “My state! And you don’t like my house! What’s the matter with you, anyway.” Now she is rolling back and forth in her wheelchair, wheels shaking, chrome bars rattling. When she finally rolls away from the door, I grab the suitcases from Renée and yank at the doorknob. It’s locked! I can’t open it. '“Jesus,”' I mumble, '“Estamos encarcelados!”' Imprisoned! “No you’re not!” the husband assures us, and goes to unlock the door. '“Marecón!”' the legless lady yells. Half out the door, the wheels of our luggage caught on the frame, I struggle to free them. Renée whispers “Stay tranquilo, it’ll be over in a second.”
Out we are! Stumbling around in the dark. Strange town, where to go? We roll our bags to a nearby park—antique lampposts between the trees, lovers doing their thing on wrought-iron benches, a few families out for the evening. Sit, catch our breath, take out guide book, can’t read a word of the 9-pt Times Roman font. The park lamps give off all of 25 watts. No wonder the place is so popular with lovers. Five-star feel-ups. Hmmm. Let’s just walk. So we begin.
The Hotel Royalton is nearby, a classic; but hotels are not our first choice, they’re pricey, impersonal, and the food is usually bland. The Royalton is indeed beautiful: a cadmium-yellow refurbished three-story facade, balconies facing the park, potted plants at the entrance. But the interior is nothing special, and the desk clerk is right out of a Cohen Brothers movie. He doesn’t really seem to belong to the hotel. With his wax-like manikin face and spooky hands flipping through the registration book, he gives us suspicious looks, pushes the book aside, begins asking disconnected questions that merit no reply. Unsure of the booking procedures, he randomly quotes us 50 CUCs for a room. Too high.
We excuse ourselves, move to the well-lighted lobby, take a seat, find another hotel in the guidebook, the Telégrafo. Setting off again, we meet two young couples on a stroll. I ask about the Telégrafo. One of the young men politely leaves his friends to help us. As we walk, he says the Telégrafo is an old place where they train hoteliers. When I mention that we’d really prefer a casa particular, he lights up and walks us back to the park. “How about right here?” He points to the upper balcón of a small two-story casa. Hmm. I’m dubious, and tired. Renée offers to check things out and give me a yay or a nay. I wait on the street with the suitcases. She’s back down the stairs in a jiffy, her thumb pointing up. “It’s great!” she smiles.
Raul and Yanet are accommodating hosts, In their fifties I guess, though they seem worn. She’s thin, he’s lumpy and out of shape. Both display the toil of daily struggle, but have good cheer written on their faces. We are shown to an upstairs room, spacious, clean, a breeze through the shutters, the sheets sparkling. Big terrace outside, table and chairs, good view of the park and church. Best of all, it’s quiet. Yanet brings coffee and offers dinner. “Unless you want to try the bistro across the way.” She points through the leafy canopy of the park. “They have very good pasta, and fine comida criolla.” Bistro? We hardly believe it’s true. We decide to have our coffees and take her advice. Shower, change clothes, be off.
In 'Mi Moto Fidel' Christopher Baker celebrates los Bayameses as “the happiest of people, spiritually alive and at peace with themselves. I felt uptight and self-absorbed in comparison. Cubans, by their nature, were showing me another way. Their heartrending warmth and disarming charm, their spirituality, their genteel expressions of human acceptance, their dignity and stylish forbearance, and—above all—their courage in the face of adversity made me feel ungracious.”
That’s why we’ve come to Cuba! Not just for the warmer weather, but for warmer climes of human acceptance. Cuba is the antithesis of the cramped tolerance of “others” expressed by patriots at home. Down with fatso Elmer Fudds slugging along in their “Proud to be American” chrome-assed gas hogs thinking they own the road. We travel to become less of ourselves, to step away from the familiar, let the unpredictability of the road shake our beliefs. I want to return home not me, but someone else: the person who was there all the time behind that reflection in the mirror who was defining me.
A memory: In 1969, after two and a half years of peace work in South America, I returned to the U.S., baffled, footloose. I tried Alaska for a year, Mexico for six months, and the California Sierras. I was finally drawn to New Mexico’s volcano-blackened mesas meeting snow-capped mountains. Population sparse, land cheap, farmers still using the hand plow, newcomers erecting yurts, building with adobes. Communal living was the big experiment—a kind of socialist lifestyle that didn’t go very smoothly, but it was at least a chance to engage in a loosely-defined life where hierarchy was out the window and mutual aid was in. Collective barn-raising, shared crops (and shared wives) was a definite break from the post-war suburbia most of us were raised in. I eventually collected my poems from that period into 'That Back Road In'. A fragment from my preface:
Journey to balance great with small
Journey to be made aware of what I still don’t know
Journey to guard against familiarity with only one world,
against becoming too easily arrogant about ‘my’ place and
relatively closed to anywhere else, any other way.
A growing socialist movement in Chile caught my attention during this time. It was nervously being watched by the U.S. government who would eventually use a CIA-backed coupe to overthrow Salvador Allende, halting his social reforms. Head of the Popular Unity Government, Allende was the first Marxist to be elected president of a democracy. This so irked Nixon and his hatchet-man Kissinger, that they quickly mounted a destabilization campaign, funded anti-Allende newspapers, increased aid to the military, sabotaged the economy, used every strategy they could to provoke a coup, and ultimately backed General Augusto Pinochet as the new ruler, ushering in an era of bloody dictatorship.
Socialism really bothers people in the Land of the Free. A bumper sticker on a truck before we left home: 'Haven’t met a veteran who voted for socialism!' It was parked at a supermarket behind two men wearing caps identifying them as 'Cold War Patriots'. They sat at a table over leaflets proclaiming their cause: “Socialism Trickle Up Poverty.” “Socialism the Choice of Parasites Worldwide.” Imagine trying to discuss Allende’s proposed reforms—a system based on a completely different social and economic foundation than ours—with these guys!
I’ve never offered my ears to American drum-beaters marching through others’ turf blowing bullshit out their bugles; nor my services to the war machine: youth donning uniforms, readying for a country they never knew existed until they signed up; youth shedding uniforms, home from a country they know even less about after their tour of duty. What’s this all about, anyway? The missionary pose? The need for big-guy to fulfill some god-given right to save the world, get on top, grind the enemy through the floorboards—and who is this enemy, anyway?
The U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 and stayed 19 years “because the Negro race wasn’t capable of governing itself”—according to our Secretary of State. We occupied Nicaragua 21 years before propping Somoza’s dictatorship into place. Guatemala and El Salvador fared no better; our nine years in the Dominican Republic led to the Trujillo dictatorship; Panama and Granada easily fit the list, and I haven’t even touched on South America, Asia, or Africa. In 2008, the U.S. finally removed Nelson Mandela from its “terrorist” list. In 2002 Bush called North Korea, Iran, and Iraq “the axis of evil.” And, to date, the State Department still has no plans to remove Cuba from its list of “countries that sponsor terrorism,” a listing which Cuba claims is purely political—a means of pacifying right-wing Cubans in Florida. 'Cabrones!' Why do we punish a country 90 miles south of us who doesn’t conform to our wobbling-on-its-foundation “democracy”?
“Don’t get on a roll, Brandi!”
Renée’s right. Cuba might be the only country in the world that Americans are forbidden to visit, but we’re here, and I’m going to put on my white shirt and we’re off to the bistro. A sweet little place, it turns out: subtle lighting, candles and fresh flowers on each of the five wooden tables, framed oil paintings on the walls, a big portrait of Benny Moré standing with his guitar. Through the tall Moorish arch separating dining room from the chef’s quarters, a waitress appears—radiant eyed, jet-black curls around her wistful face, nalgas quivering under her breezy skirt as she walks back to the kitchen and reappears with two cold beers and a plate of 'tostones, fried plantain patties. We order seafood, and are not disappointed: grilled snapper bathed in a sweet/sour mint, garlic, vinegar, cane-sugar marinade. Moros y Cristianos (black beans with rice), ensalada mixta. Espressos and flan for dessert. The tab comes to 13 USD, including tip. And we’re able to pay in moneda nacional; use some of the bills we’ve got too many of.
Mi cumpleaños. Today also celebrates the founding of Bayamo in 1513, the island’s second oldest city. We begin the morning at the table outside our room, drinking freshly-ground coffee, avidly writing in our books until Yanet appears with breakfast: omelet, pan, mantequilla, a plate of lettuce, onion, and avocado, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a hefty fruit salad: banana, papaya, guayaba, mandarin. After breakfast, do a little laundry, re-arrange bags, begin to think about where next, but don’t get very far. Clocks, calendars, schedules, the stuff of human time, where going, where coming from—it’s all too angular to fit through the waist of the hourglass. Our half of the glass has no plan, all pulse.
After breakfast we visit Manuel de Céspedes’ statue in the park named for him. Along with José Martí, Céspedes is one of the great heroes in Cuba’s struggle for independence. A plantation owner who freed his slaves and led a revolt against upper-class conservative Spanish rulers in 1868, Céspedes proclaimed Cuba’s independence in Bayamo’s main square. The Spanish later stormed the town, but the Bayamesos torched it rather than cede it to their oppressor. One house that survived the fire is the two-story colonial casa where Céspedes was born. Opposite it, in the park, a stone monument is inscribed with the lyrics of 'La Bayamesa', the national anthem composed by Perucho Figueredo, who helped lead Céspedes’ revolutionary army. The hymn was first sung in the Iglesia del Santísimo Salvador by las Bayamesas, a choir of a dozen women.
The Iglesia is a short walk from Parque Céspedes. It overlooks Plaza del Himno, a strikingly spare plaza paved with cobble. The church was burned along with the town, but restored in the early 20'th' century. The plaza’s minimalist feel is accented by a bowl of blue Caribbean light pouring into it from a cloudless sky. No benches, no shade trees. Just sky, architecture, silver stone. Low houses edge the plaza: cream, dusty rose, lilac, saffron. The Iglesia is brilliant white inside, floors set with hand-decorated tiles, perfectly-spaced wooden pews flanking the nave. On approach to the altar, under an elaborately-joined wood ceiling, there’s a fresco of Céspedes with the Bayamesas painted across the span of an arch.
A door in the north wall opens into la Capilla de la Dolorosa, a shrine dating back to the 17'th' century that escaped the Bayamo fire. Gilded baroque woodwork wreathes the Virgin of Sorrows, her heart pierced with a sliver dagger. Lorca might look at this lacquered wood icon and see “flesh like brass.” And detect, through the open doors of the iglesia, the “smell of horse and shadow,” a rebellion about to take place. In the cut-glass tears on La Dolorosa’s cheek, in the knife through her chest, he might observe a woman not torn by sorrow, but ecstatic with joy, light pouring into her body “with rounded songs, her breasts smoky anvils.”
Lorca’s culture was in his veins. He saw through doctrine and found his own symbols to make the world new—a good reminder for this ex-Católico. Mea culpa, I should have said, for allowing those red-nosed priests to bombard me with all their rubble. Lorca struggles with the inadequacy of language, opens room to doubt, lets the walls collapse, lets surprise open into desire. 'Verde que te quiero verde!' All the trees begin to wave, the dance halls fill, the little church begins to rock. He smells musk when ladies open their fans, lemon in the black capes of their suitors. Sexual power fills the dark insides of his guitar. The honey in the hive is sticky, radiant. The lacquered roses, carved fish flecked with gold leaf, the smooth-grained labia of the calla lilies wreathing la Dolorosa rouse the Duende from the blood. Cuba’s heat, the pulse of its tongue is caught in her lacework. The glass blades of her tiara throw prisms of sun onto the milky walls of her nave. Lorca once wrote about daybreak in an orange grove:
Sunup in the orange grove . . .
Little golden bees looking for honey.
But where could the honey be?
He parts the branches, peers through dripping blossoms, loses himself in day’s reflection. Dewdrops weep, branches spring back to their original shape as the poet goes astray. He tastes sweet apples in the bin, smells night jasmine through fallen triumphal arches. He lets the outside in—a pig being slaughtered as veiled girls kneel for their First Communion; he turns the inside out—goes to sleep to let everyone know he’s alive. As for “bees looking for honey,” I recall the first time Renée and I heard Cuba’s great composer Israel “Cachao” López. We were at a bar in a Garífuna settlement at the mouth of Guatemala’s Rîo Dulce. The bartender was playing 'Cuba Linda', blasting out Cachao’s 'A Francisquita le Gusta el Cusubé', a son montuno celebrating a dark-skinned woman named Francisquita. “That thing of yours people are talking about, that thing has honey, and if you taste it hot, you’ll have to taste it again.” That “thing” refers to a dessert known as cusubé, whose sweetness keeps calling men back—a Cuban specialty made with yuca flour, sugarcane, anise, eggs, butter, and honey. Other implications are obvious. 'Cusubé!' I’d fire up my old Buick and rumble back for more, too!
Back at Raul and Yanet’s, we crack two cold Bucaneros, enjoy a plate of boniatos fritos, and relax on the terraza—to a French horn doing the scales from the neighbor’s window. Renée showers off the heat. I open a frayed paperback of Basho’s travel sketches. From his 'Records of a Travel-worn Satchel', 1688:
In this mortal frame of mine which is made of a
hundred bones and nine orifices there is something,
and this something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack
of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is
torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind.
He goes on to say, “Traveler is my name, the weather is unsettled, I feel as unsure of my future as a leaf in the wind.” And takes to the road as both a walking meditation and literary experiment—essence not in bookish parties (he had already rescued haiku from such pretentious gatherings), but in getting ‘down low’ with rice planters, woodsmen, toilers of the sea, itinerant laborers, children chasing fireflies.
Indeed all who have achieved real excellence in art
possess one thing in common: a mind to obey nature,
to be one with it throughout the four seasons of the year.
When he writes about keeping a journal, Basho talks about not just naming places, but striking a ring with them. Recording “fresh elements, things that remain in the heart.” I haven’t quite met his ideal. Too often I ramble into cul de sacs, whine, babble incomprehensibly as the compass spins. Then, 'glint!' the morning star shines between the nettles, I part the willows, slog toward the headwaters, follow a raven’s squawk, listen to water bubble from a granite seam. Is the source just around the bend, or right here where it’s always been when I stop going?
Raul comes up the stairs and we talk on the roof. As best I can I try to comprehend his Cuban Spanish. At one point, befuddled over my own inability to put together a phrase like “It seems not to have been wanted,” I stop dead in my tracks and scramble to make do with something like: 'parece que no ha sido querido', and let it go at that. My Spanish bumps along. But the point gets across, there’s genuine listener attention. Any Cubano appreciates that—because he’s struggling just as hard to learn English. Not always a friendly language.
When I mention the bistro last night and how we were able to pay in either of the Cuban currencies, Raul removes his reading glasses (a recent gift from a tourist) and cleans them on his t shirt. We get to talking about Cuba’s dual currencies. 'The convertible peso, the CUC, introduced after our first visit in 2001, was intended to replace the U.S. dollar as well as the Cuban peso, the CUP, or moneda nacional. It never did replace the latter, which is what most Cubans earn. Those who have casas particulares, or who are lucky enough to be employed in hotels, or who are employed as doctors, pilots, technical specialists, or government higher ups earn CUCs. The rest have to be content (and they’re not) with the peso.
“The Cuban peso paid to state workers and pensioners must be converted to CUCs to buy things of worth,” Raul says. When I ask him why moneda nacional is still in circulation if the CUC was meant to replace it, he tries to explain. Mostly what I catch is that Fidel keeps the peso circulating because the government lacks sufficient foreign reserves to circulate only CUCs. I failed economics so don’t pursue further explanation. But I’m left wondering what, exactly, happens to all those dollars and Euros travelers exchange for CUCS when they enter Cuba?
The U.S. dollar, but not the Euro, is subject to a 10% tax whenever it is changed to CUCs, which is why we brought Canadian dollars. The tax is felt not only by turistas, but by any Cuban household receiving money from relatives abroad. Raul adds pensioners to the mix. “Say you receive 150 pesos monthly pension. You convert it to CUCs to buy basic necessities. It doesn’t work out!” he frowns. “You change those pesos into 6 CUCS, and what can you buy with 'that?”
“Pues,” I shrug, “Why not a 'huelga', a national 'strike' to protest the dual monetary system! “Ha!” says Raul, lifting both arms to the sky then bringing them down in front of his chest and crossing one wrist over the other to indicate a man in handcuffs. He then walks stiffly to the edge of the roof as if going to the gallows. “That’s what happens when you strike!”
5 Noviembre, Bayamo
Late afternoon. After a brief trio performance, nothing to write home about, at the Casa de la Trova, we ask a bicitaxi driver where we can enjoy a rum. “Aqui mero!” He points to the doors of Bar La Esquina, right behind us. A classic place, big mirror, wooden interior, bottles of every possible spirit, friendly bartender. Sit on the stools, order the usual two shots of seven-year añejo. The Canadian sitting next to us is an ex-pat, enjoying life in Bayamo. “My second year here. Cleanest, friendliest, smallest provincial capital on the island.” He says there’s a big street party every Saturday (we arrived Sunday). “On one street alone you can hear a different group of musicians on every corner. Food carts are everywhere. And if you want to get out of town, the mountains south of here are superb. “You need four-wheel drive, and that might cost you some. Petrol is expensive, and the road, after the hurricane, could be touch and go. Jeez, isn’t that awful news about how hard it hit the states—all those people killed, all those washed-away homes.”
That’s news to us. We didn’t know the storm picked up speed after it left Cuba. We envisioned the hurricane petering out over the ocean and evaporating. As for the mountains south of Bayamo, we’ve read about them. Seems the main thing to do is climb Pico Turquino, Cuba’s highest point. There is also a trail (you need a mandatory guide) to Comandancia de Plata, Castro’s headquarters during the Revolution. More appealing would be to find transport to the south coast, where the sierras plunge into the sea and the shoreline gets wild. This lost-and-lonely back road to Santiago would be worth it sometime, but not this time. To many suffering people digging out from their wind-battered homes.
For dinner we return to the bistro on the park. The minute we enter we’re ushered to the quietest of five tables, in a candle-lit corner. Two daiquiris magically appear—on the house—a big smile from the pretty waitress who wishes me 'feliz cumpleaños'. Probably Raul and Yanet have let the owner know it’s my birthday. Renée’s entree is roast pork marinated in olive oil, garlic, fresh tarragon, rosemary. “There’s a dash of vino blanco, too,” the waitress winks. My plate is shrimp with rice, a bit of kick to it. Cuban food isn’t known for spiciness, but it can be well seasoned. 'The shrimp is large and tender, bathed in a sofrito of onions, garlic, sweet peppers, cumin, bay leaf, and cilantro. A pinch of mint, cayenne pepper, lemon. Boiled squash comes with the entrees. Plus the usual avocado salad.
Am I really 69 today? 'Dios!' So many journeys through karmic quicksand, one geography merged with another, the psychic scroll rolled out like my boyhood window shade, which—'blapp!—'would snap shut without warning. Who 'am' I on the psychic scroll, anyway? Pinched dumpling in the clay-pot steamer? Field mouse grinding my teeth on a glacial boulder? The guy in the rain using his umbrella for a cane? Aesthete fasting his way to heaven, eating for the same reason, having sex upside down to clarify his vision? Mountains move, jade beads rattle against my chest. I’ve gone monk-mad wandering this world of humans. Except for a few like-minded thistles abloom in the field, my comrades are few. 'Adios!' I should say. Spin my arse into sparks on the dance floor, depart with a smile'.
Tomorrow we’re off to Gibara, a town of 30,000, once an important port on the north coast of the Oriente. It’s off the tourist radar, except in April when it hosts a “Cine Pobre” festival, a celebration of movies made for under $300,000 by independent filmmakers. To get to there we’ll backtrack towards Camagüey, get off the bus at Holguin, grab a taxi for the remaining 35 kms to Gibara. We have a feeling Gibara will be, in some idiosyncratic way, a nice wrap-up to Cuba before the long bus journey back to Habana and the flight home.
I draw a fish and a dog on their way to church. Sketch a rooster on a windmill, a goat standing in a wooden cart, cattle with egrets riding their backs, myself with cathedral for a head, trumpet in one hand, sun in the other. Out the window, half-notes of cloud bop across the hazy horizon. Bet I could replicate this sky by brushing cerulean-blue lightened with zinc-white over an underpaint of pale salmon. But how to paint the ox strapped to his wagon dreaming of another life?
I’ve often thought travel to be an essential stimulus for my painting, but I’m not so sure now. The act of travel 'is' the painting—you go to go, not to arrive elsewhere. I once read about an artist who said his canvases were not the ends, but the means of nearing the pleasures that his journeys provided—art enjoyed not for its own sake, but for its evocations. I always feel a pang when I sell a painting, because what I am actually parting with is a moment of travel (say, a crest of ultra-violet light suddenly ablaze over Annapurna, the ice fields prismed like stained glass). Even scarier is to part with a journal. I recall the driver arriving in El Rito from UC Berkeley to haul off 33 archival boxes filled with my life. Correspondence, manuscripts, drafts were not too difficult to let go. But the journals were another matter, and there were dozens. Everything was placed on a pallet and shrink wrapped. Like getting a divorce, watching my wife become my ex wife, or better said: watching my 'life' becoming my 'ex life'. Good god, she’s ‘public domain’ now!
A windmill stands naked, halted in heatwaves. It would look good in a fedora. A cow slides its jaw back and forth to the sway of women returning from the fields—cane cutters, burly yet graceful, Jamaican or Haitain blood perhaps, descendants of workers that arrived when the sugar industry was on the rise. Grasses bend with a steely sheen. Bohíos, thatched and humble, fit right into the landscape. Some lived in, some boarded up and rotting next to “modern” tin-roofed cinderblock huts, just like in northern New Mexico where abandoned adobes melt back into the earth next to new modular “homes.”
Passing through Cuba, I can only be content with a glimpse, an idea, a shadow. Reality isn’t just an image before the eye, it is all the thoughts, dreams, second guesses, psychic undercurrents, brainy interpretations that spring from it. It is both an inner, visible terrain and an outer phenomenon: spit, stack, hogback, hoodoo, laccolith, etc. My face reflects back at me from the bus window, riding heatwaves above the fields. I have sky for a head, homes of strangers for eyes. My shoulders are wrapped in vines, wasps dart from my sunglasses. Glitter of dew on nerve endings, metallic spikenards shaking their heads in the backdraft of the bus. In a world both real and imagined, am I reborn by chance? Or purposely dashed from the angular light of the cane cutter’s blade as memory, projection of the past, diviner of the future?
The rolled-up 'New Yorker' in my lap has an article by Salmon Rushdie on politics, magic realism, history, and society where he gives thought to “how the world joins up.” Past forms present and present changes one’s understanding of past. “The imagined world,” he writes, “the location of dreams, art, invention, and yes, faith, sometimes leaks across the frontier separating it from the ‘real’ place in which human beings mistakenly believe they live.”
Lorca goes straight to that essence in his poetry. He aims arrow-straight for the heart, and lets the blade go out the other side. “It is necessary,” he says, “to cross bridges, reach the dark murmur, so perfume can again rise from the breath.” These days of darkness in the world can really drag you down, but poetry, thank the diosas, rides me out of that darkness on a surge of light.
North of Holguin the land turns pastoral, eccentric—shaggy-headed palms poke from a savannah blistered with stumpy hills. The ocean doesn’t come into view until the very last moment when the road curves along the Rio Cacoyoquín, crosses an old iron bridge, and there it is—Gibara! The bay, a great stretch of sea curving off toward the Bahamas, a small harbor of fishing boats, a huge sculpted marlin looming over the dock. Across the water toward the northern Oriente coast is a saddle-like hill, the 'giba' for which Gibara is named, similar to El Yunque, the anvil-shaped hill behind Baracoa, further east. There’s a long-standing battle between Gibara and Baracoa, as to which of these hills is the one Columbus noted in his logbook as he approached Cuba.
So, we’re here! Our taxi is not really an official taxi, just a kid happy for our pesos, driving his uncle’s limping ’53 Ford station wagon. He pulls up to a friend’s casa particular, but we give it a thumbs down. The too-tiny rooms are painted in the style of those 1960’s posters announcing acid rock shows at the Fillmore; the courtyard is filled with bricks and sand, indicating general overhaul. Next door is another casa: Los Hermanos. A woman standing in the doorway unfastening her apron gives a smile and waves us in. We give a look. A shared facade connects all the casas on this street, so each has a unique paint job to claim its independence from the next. Los Hermanos has a modest but elegant simplicity: a light almond wall, tall doorway and two grilled windows outlined in deep brick-red. Looks like a high-end restored adobe restaurant in Santa Fe.
Once through the door, a new world opens up. We step from broken streets into a high-ceilinged Colonial sala, Naples-yellow walls, antique couch and chairs, family photographs under curved-glass frames, freshly-mopped tiled floors. We are shown to a room just off of the sala, entered through hand-painted saloon-style swinging doors. It immediately feels comfortable: tall whitewashed walls, big matrimonial bed, armoire for our clothes, desk and lamp. Spacious, spotless, and the price is right: 20 CUCs a night. The rear of the house opens up into a large open-air courtyard filled with flowering plants, a parrot in cage, sitting chairs and tables. There are three more rooms off the courtyard; another upstairs overlooking the patio where guests take meals. Back out the front door, a quick turn brings us down a narrow alley, the tropical sea 'right there!' Crisp deepwater-blue horizon viewed between peeling tangerine and guava-pink jasmine-hung walls.
Gibara is drowsy, weather-scuffed, a mere pittance of the regal port that served the sugar mills in the 1800s. The promenade is broken, most of the elegant buildings in crumbled decay. I imagine some of these places to have been homes of importers, exporters, attorneys, sugar barons, slave traffickers. Now they are faded, their iron window grilles barnacled with rust. A gargoyle bares a vacant eye, a plaster curlicue loses momentum halfway around a door, a broken stained-glass window is taped with a plastic bag. Hurricane Ike smashed through here in 2008, almost tore Gibara off the map. A lot of people left. The town never got back up off its knees. Today there’s a modest tourist draw, mainly during the film festival. Nearby caverns are of interest and a few small beaches, but Gibara is largely bypassed for Guardalavaca, a high-end beach resort pushed by European travel agents. Near the waterfront a new hotel is under construction. Townsfolk claim it’ll receive overflow from home-stays during high season, plus attract film aficionados who might want more privacy than a home-stay affords. Right now, Gibara is largely deserted—a plus for wandering the streets, a minus for getting to the white-sand beaches across the bay. The ferry doesn’t operate during the low season.
The main plaza, Calixto Garcia, is small and pretty, filled with African oaks, fronted by the mission-style Iglesia del San Fulgencio—the feel of Old California. The late Ira Cohen, ever-obsessed with the word 'akashic' (ethereal, bright), would have appreciated San Fulgencio’s name, which derives from 'fulgens' (shining). Never heard of this saint, just as we’ve never heard of so many bodhisattvas in the Buddhist pantheon. The 78-year-old caretaker of the church says Fulgencio was a Spaniard. “He lived in poverty, he worked miracles.” Didn’t they all! As he talks, I realize I 'have' heard the name before. Fulgencio Batista! The dictator who Castro overthrew in ‘59.
The caretaker says one of the church’s huge wooden doors “left its hinges” during the hurricane, and all the Stations of the Cross “left the walls,” except the one of the crucifixion. I ask about the Bergman-like clock on one of the church’s towers, the glass cracked, hands stopped dead. “Not from the hurricane. It broke on its own. This church is almost 200 years old.” The hurricane was not the only catastrophe Gibara suffered, the caretaker wants us to know. “The town was bombed in the early ‘30s when rebels occupied it during a national movement to overthrow Gerardo Machado.” Using air strikes to oust the revolutionaries, Machado (Batista’s ruthless forerunner) destroyed a large part of Gibara before he was brought down and forced into exile in 1933.
Gibara drips and crumbles. No money to fix it. It’s un-gentrified, nothing like tourist-filled Trinidad. No coffee shops, no attempts at “bistro,” eco-tourism, zip-line rides in nearby hills, or megaphone-trolley tours through the “old city.” Ah, just one dissolving edifice after another. Walls of aubergine, rusty tea-leaf, viridian, washed-out cantaloupe, lipstick-red, vein-blue. Salt-etched facades are dashed with dissonances of mercurochrome and gum-sole brown that could have been painted by DeKooning or composed by Thelonious Monk. Opal, fuchsia, tourmaline. A scratch of charcoal, a patch of thinly-washed malachite fading into a thin rosé.
If Naples were not a city but a village and it fell to the ground, it would resemble Gibara. A tumble-down theater. A bank with its eyes poked out. Drift of ink from a closed-up newspaper office. Mansion with skeletal balconies, no interior. Gargoyles toppled to sidewalk, eyes staring up your legs. Shattered mirrors, odor of rouge, clink of cufflinks, creak of porch swing. Drug-like drowsiness, magnetic deep-sleep of time. Fence boards have flown from their rails, paint has peeled from walls, the sea has hammered itself to death against the non-existent malecón.
Imagination sleeps, it has no work to do. Reality has taken on the surreal. A stairway goes up but doesn’t come down. A window peeks through someone’s head. The top floors of the Comite Nacional de ____ have been sawed off by the wind. Blue sky floats between broken swivel chairs, an overturned file cabinet, a wooden umbrella rack. “Go slowly,” says a woman in a low-cut cocktail dress. “It can be slippery and moist.” She’s advertising the “hot and damp vaults” of the nearby caverns on a sun-faded poster in the closed-up tourist office. “Worthy to see.”
Gibara will do, we don’t need the vaults. We’ll walk ‘til the leather’s worn from our shoes, then head back to Los Hermanos for a cold beer. We don’t visit the town’s butterfly collection, see Che’s asthma inhaler, the stuffed hermaphrodite chicken, or the vintage hardwood tooth replacements in the local museum. Enough time in the empty streets and I begin to wish it were Carnival, the town dressed for action, showered with glitter, alive with trumpets, skyrockets popping over the mermaid on her pedestal at the harbor, lights blinking around the liberator raising her torch above whiskered men shooting the breeze in the park, young lovers in silver-chain jumpsuits, grandmothers fanning themselves—well-versed in every kama-sutra pretzel-twist the youngsters have yet to experience. The calles would fill with rumba, private scandals would become public, saints would parade through the calles on the tailfins of bygone Cadillacs. Without warning the old clavichord would start up, the consecrated daughters would unloosen their lace, reveal their worth, bend in dance beneath the upraised arms of their suave despoilers. Ah, mi cabeza. All this sea tide slopping back and forth between the cranium walls.
Wonder how old San Fulgencio would see it? Inside the church on the caretaker’s table of liturgies, a pamphlet explained: “Saint Fulgence was a bishop who continued wearing poorly and sacrificing as a humble monk. He always wore his suit faded and never ate meat. If wine he drank he mixed with water. He prayed every day traveling bare of feet.”
A pleasant stroll through the streets last night. No light save for slits of fluorescence bleeding from closed doors, or from ones open—allowing a peek into narrow high-ceilinged living rooms. Old rockers, clack of dominoes, snow-fuzzy TVs tuned to telenovelas, but no news. Nothing of U.S. elections. “Tomorrow” they tell us. Nobody—Cubano, Europeao, Sur Americano—likes Romney. Obama is everybody’s favorite. We think he’ll take it. Republicans are coming undone by their own doing; Democrats already eyeing the next election. The 2-party system creaks like an old clunker, a gas guzzler that weighs too much and gets no mileage.
Today will be a repeat of yesterday. Time transfixed. Ocean air sultry. Old citizens in the shade on rusty chairs with repaired plastic netting. They chat, smoke puros, mend a sleeve, move to the other side of the street when the sun changes. Young men—robust, dark skinned, tattooed—walk rapidly by. Showered, preened, dressed in bright sneakers, designer jeans and t-shirts (thanks to a little help from abroad). With empty baskets they head to a clandestine location, buy groceries for their elders, and for their guest houses. Sellers treadle by on bikes, singing mercantile chants: 'plátano, escobaaaa, flores, pan, lechugaaa, pepino!' The morning comes quickly alive, but before it does Renée is out down the block to the local radio station to get the election news. The desk clerk wants to be sure she’s got it right; she calls the baker who says, “Sí, salió Obama!,” which is reconfirmed by a toothless man getting on his bicycle at the curb. Tying a plastic bag of baguettes to the handlebars, he gives Renée a thumb’s up.
No matter what level of income or social standing, Cubans are eager to engage. In such respect the USA with its one-to-a-car-in-the-fast-lane culture seems impoverished. The plátano man riding along in his donkey cart has time to stop, he’s in no hurry. He’s bringing bananas to the mother of the teenager on the porch in her rocker. The mother’s in no hurry, the girl isn’t either. With nowhere to go, everything’s 'here'. She stretches her canary-yellow tank top (stenciled with 'Fakes Not Welcome'), takes a look down, pulls it tight again, dusts the glass diamonds on the yellow plastic belt around her black shorts, looks to the sea, watches clouds build as the day heats up—daydreaming, perhaps, of one of those perfectly preened, tattooed boys looking to buy mangos.
In the evening we return to our casa for a hearty meal of camarones, congrí (rice and kidney beans cooked with peppers, onions, garlic, cumin and bay leaf), salad, fresh bread and butter, cold beers. Our willowy walnut-skinned server pauses long enough for a polite exchange, and when she returns with a dessert of sweet-pudding, her chromatic voice mingles with the drift of jasmine as she explains how sofrito is made, 'the base used for Cuban soups, stews, beans, ropa vieja, sautéed shrimp, etc. “We make sofrito at the beginning of the week and keep it for all the meals. It’s not complicated. Heat olive oil in a skillet. Sauté garlic, onions, green peppers, a bay leaf. Let it caramelize, mash in tomatoes, simmer. Add cilantro, oregano, sal, cumin, pimiento, and puree. “We use sofrito to begin whatever we cook, sautéeing it in olive oil, slowly adding the items of the main recipe. When sofrito is used for beans we flavor it with bacon.”
Light lluvia early morn. Sea magnificently dark and clear. Gazing upon it from a cement kiosk, we are met by a good-looking young man dressed in shorts, jogging shoes, Nike ball cap, a t-shirt printed with 'Oktoberfest'. He comes up to us just as we are wondering if it is lack of dinero or fear of another hurricane that keeps townsfolk from repairing their casas. Leonardo says no. “It’s always the same story. No money to do anything. You get paid in moneda nacional, you have to buy materials in CUCs. You lose your pants when you change denominations. You can’t get ahead. Cement, bricks, tin, lumber, paint, windows, doors are all available to construct big new hotels. But they are scarce for an average town person. You must be successful, and it is hard for an individual to be successful in Cuba. The government permits us to have small businesses, but we get strangled with taxes before we can get ahead. Or, we are free to do business one day, but next day—'poof!—'the law has changed. Suddenly, for no reason, your kind of business isn’t permitted. You have to fold. If you have a casa particular, you better do well. Impuestos are 100 or 150 per month for each room you let.”
We ask about his living situation. He, wife, and young son live across the street in his grandma’s house. “It’s a cave.” We expect a sob-story to follow, but no. “A cave of books! I love books, it’s my world. I love languages, too. By the way, what work do you do?” When we give him the details about being poets, scant earnings, but happy, etc., he beams. “Poets! I am enchanted to meet you. You must know of Neruda? My favorite. And Martí? I equate poetry with philosophy. I’ve always wanted to be a philosopher, someone who has insight. Everything is connected, you have to understand that to know the art of living. That’s what I want to pass on.”
Leonardo works as a bartender at El Mirador, a cantina that overlooks Gibara. “A hangout for locals, but a mandatory place for tourists. They all pay a visit when the season’s on. Good for me, because a European knows how to tip, and I rely on that. My wife has a full-time job but she earns less than me. As a high school teacher she earns 35 CUCs a month. I make much less as a bartender, but with tips I come out ahead. I am considered the breadwinner. Imagine!”
“Why not get a job at one of the high-end Guardalavaca resorts?” I ask. “Limited option” he says. “My commitment is to my family, my grandmother, my books. It would be hard to separate myself from life in Gibara. Besides, you need money to bribe your way into a resort. If you do get work, you become isolated. You live with Cubans you don’t know. You are trained to serve tourists, to do as they say, to act like them, even. You return home like another person because you haven’t been living as a Cuban. You’ve been totally cut off from everything Cuban. Also, it’s expensive to live in Guardalavaca. Impossible to commute from here.”
At the end of our talk Leonardo backtracks to his philosopher’s dream. “I don’t mean philosophy in a scholarly sense, but as real-life practice. I want to help youth here in Gibara. I want to instill positive outlook. Too many youngsters see the despair of parents who studied hard to become lawyers or medics or teachers or environmental researchers only to barely get by. They earn nothing! The Revolution has become dead weight. What good to educate people, then offer jobs that don’t pay? It’s self defeating. The children of our professionals have had to take to the streets to earn a living. They’ve given up. But things are ready to change. And it is worth preparing youth for this change. You have to keep their hopes up.”
As fellow book lovers we’d like to add something to Leonardo’s library. I ask what book would most interest him if we were to find a person visiting Cuba who could get it to him. “Galeano! Anything by Eduardo Galeano.” In the afternoon Renée returns to his house with bath soap for the family, art supplies for his son. We pay our tab at Los Hermanos and grab a taxi to Holguin to catch the Habana-bound bus. Instead of going the full 14 hours, we’ll break the trip midway across the island, at Sancti Spiritus.
Holguin’s bus station has seen better days. The outside walls are lined with “decorative” broken glass. Exhaust wafts through the open doors. Traffic clang mixes with the peanut vendor’s call: 'Caliente maní, caliente maní. Maní, maní!' His upswing-downdrop bebop catchphrase is throaty, powerful, jazz-sweet—the very rhythm Dizzy Gillespie picked up on! (A whole genre of música Cubana was borne from the Cuban street crier: the pregón cubano, which began its popularity in the 19'th' century. Songs influenced by street cries would make a long list: El Manisero, Frutas del Caney, El Botellero (a good version in print by Ibrahim Ferrrer), Azucar (Celia Cruz, Eddie Palmieri), etc.)
Sitting in the bus station’s plastic seats, our backs rest against a navy-blue wall where a painting depicts not the predictable Cuban Revolutionary hero, but two country lovers under the stars. He wears a woven-cane hat, she sports a red rose in her windblown locks. A rebozo wraps them together. A lump here, a crease there, who knows what amorous play goes on under that shawl. A janitor’s mop interrupts my thoughts. I lift feet, she swashes beneath the seat, and proceeds quickly down the aisle. I watch to see if she finds the folded peso bills I’ve wedged between two empty seats down the row. Jesus! Why didn’t I just 'give' them to her?
Our taxi man on the drive from Gibara was talkative and pleasant. He was proud of his “indestructible Lada,” a car very popular during the last decades of the Soviet era (like the Volkswagen, it stayed in production without change). He opened up to us right away: “You wouldn’t know it but I am a singer. Cantador de música popular. Right now there is not enough demand to keep me occupied. I’m only 58 and already my hair is gray from constant worry. What to invent, how to get by given the lousy circumstance. It’s work to be alive! Even harder work being Cuban, very complicated. You have to be thinking all the time: how do I bring in something extra. That’s why people leave. My son studied to be a licenciado. He couldn’t make it in Cuba, so he went to Miami. But he’s not paid well there. Divorce and petty accidents is what he handles, all the trash other lawyers don’t want. In Cuba even when he was sad he was happy. Now he is frustrated. Pretty soon he’ll just be an angry man. Already he complains that he is no longer ‘Cubano,’ he is ‘Latino.’ As Latino he is under the thumb of the Mafiosos. And the mafiosos are all from here! 'Coño!' I hated to see him go. I want him back! It’s very un-Cuban for my wife and I to be left alone in an empty casa. A strange way to grow old.”
As if to punctuate his grumbles, a horse-drawn cart ambling in the middle of the road in front of us brings us to a near halt. The horse’s tail is raised, pooping and farting as our driver pumps up his rant: “In Cuba one is always trembling. It is easy to tell you my complaints while we drive. No one is listening. There is only you and me. But out in the crowd one has to be on guard, even while having fun—playing chess, bantering with friends—one is always craning his neck. Who is listening? Is that an informer behind my back? A policia? Cops will grab you for anything they make up, so they can earn a little extra by having you bribe them. As a tourist you don’t notice any of this. As a Cuban it’s always present. Forgive me if I go on. But you are very different from tourists I rely on as a taxi driver—ones who fly direct from Europe and want only to get to the beach as fast as they can. 'Coño!' This car and these roads don’t permit me to go fast! All those people who go straight to Guardalavaca? They’ll never know the life of a Cuban. I’m delighted to have had this opportunity to converse. What pleasure to meet a couple traveling independently. That’s the mode, a good way to go, that’s how you get 'in'. By the way, how old are you? 'Jesus!' I’m 'younger' than you. I thought 'I 'was the old guy!” '
At the station he opens the trunk lid, props it with a stick, takes out our bags, receives a gracious tip. Walking into the terminal, we turn to see the tiny Lada putter away, blowing out exhaust rings under: 'Morir Para La Patria Es Vivir!
The Habana-bound bus finally arrives, no announcement, easy to miss if you are not paying attention. Waiting to board, hoping this really 'is' the right bus, we meet a traveler from Germany—her calves swollen with bites. “Sand flies,” she says. “At the beach, in the hotel room. Everywhere!”' 'She is in her late twenties, deep blue eyes, an intelligent independent vibe, a subtle smile that stays with her as she talks. With her eyes straight into mine, I re-live the immediacy of so many chance encounters with travelers like her—women with whom I locked eyes (and more) in places afar. And now? I am nearly seventy, the woman in front of me forty years younger. But what is strange, what fits and doesn’t quite fit, is that so much of the circumstance of past travels remains the same: two strangers with minimal gear about to board a bus in a foreign land, a destination clearly visible on the map, yet full of built-in sidetracks. Pretty face, spontaneous conversation, time-suspended immediacy of travel in territory that is completely off one’s usual turf. All serving to keep the encounter light-footed but full of deep possibilities.
A peculiar adjustment for me: to miss youth yet to feel benignly comfortable with “old.” I’m actually at home with this gnarled brow, these weathered hands. I feel my unshaven face and without hesitation realize it’s a prickly roadmap and I’ve savored every turn, all the bumps, grinds, dangling threads, loose ends, the symbolic Mexican 'topes', the broken axels, rigged-together Himalayan flights, the savage whirlpools of Komodo, the ferry pilots on the Mae Kong steering with their feet, talking with their hands. 'Coño!' Life lived, and waiting to be lived. But, the exit door. I can hear it banging in the wind as I contemplate this young woman’s face, so smooth, so new from the womb. My god, not to indulge, not to be corny, but I’d be a bud in her field again. A haiku written in India not so many decades ago:
a smile of recognition
in two stranger’s eyes.
Bus horn blasts. Passengers queue. With full contentment, I step into the bus with my lover, my wife, my elemental homemaker and traveling companion. These two people travel well together! They love seeing the world through each other’s eyes, they savor the high art of lingering, they’re okay with the uncanny practice of waking from a dream and blindly scribbling it—then to roll it around like a jawbreaker until it becomes a poem. We take our seats, the German beauty sits in front of us. She plugs herself in. Hard to tell whether the fizzle that reaches my ears from her earphones is Brahms or Bad Religion.
I am thinking about the collection of poems I’ve compiled over the past few years. And about Renée—tender of the hearth, traveler to the source—whose gusto for down-in-the-dust travel helped sculpt the poems. Book as map, book as layered descent through strata of time, geology, human exchange, what people say, what is thought, fumbled, fissured, fact. Each telepathic undercurrent of our travels ripples through this book: Dogen’s temple, Orissa’s cosmic sunwheel, Ladakh’s gompas, Kyoto’s shrines, Khajurajo’s erotica, our loft in Cuxtitali, our tin-roofed El Rito adobe, the hoodoos of Ashislepah, the prayer-flagged peak of Kyanjin-ri, the bramble gatherer pointing the way with her chin, the miller singing over his spinning stone, the humped auntie tending her indigo vat in Zhaoxing.
I don’t have to 'try' to dig up these places. They are 'imbedded' in my fiber like languages—all the lingos of the world, all the topographies merged into a single map: synclines, anticlines, fiery eruptions, whistling sinkholes, plates of hardened magma sliding back and forth inside me. Pink quartz on shins, sandy labyrinths, black beans dribbled on chin. Solitude, exaltation with others, a once-in-a-yuga clarity. The poem: what was, is, 'might' have been. Loose pebble from the scree, sounding a tumble, fighting gravity, almost human enough to give a yell.
I wobble as I walk. Gather strength as I climb. Fumble the rope, lose the axe: inside uncertainty, a few good lines. Mineral footholds, precipitous climbs, oxygenless blackouts: deliverance from the world of everyday doings into a realm where nothing is doing? A coin flip of the Duende, Bud Powell prancing over the keys? A clown with his head on backwards, he is the poem. A swaggering angel in torn shoes, she is the poem. The smell of the fish lady’s change in my pocket, that is a poem too—one that stays with me all day.
Renée’s notes: 'I woke in our gorgeous room in Gibara, as if still dreaming. Coming awake, what I felt in my entire body was a surge towards writing. Perhaps I have never felt my desire to write in quite this way—an energy running up and down my arms, all throughout my body, electrical and pulsing. My right arm particularly felt as if it wanted to move that energy out, out, into language. Wild and perfect, this energy, as if it’s what I have always wanted to feel, were meant to feel. I realized the irony of being in a land I am not supposed to be in and feeling I’d come home.
' Gibara, a broken-down town by the bay on the Atlantic. As I walk here, I can’t help but think of my girlhood on this same ocean, up the coastline of the U.S. Yes, neighbors. There is something familiar in this view of the world.
I can feel the trip coming to an end. I’m full! Imagery, topography, people, sounds, smells. A good feeling, one like I experienced in the Himalayas recently, trekking with my son and friends. We had been hiking the Langtang Khola at 14,000 feet, a fairly level course between immense snow crags, following the aqua glint of meltwater flowing out of Tibet. Edging toward a massive ridge of gleaming ice, my head full, legs tiring, bitter wind rising, we reached a stubbled-grass yak camp—old stone walls, imaginary yeti tracks, waft of sun-dried dung, smoke from a shepherd’s camp—and stopped. Eating nuts and raisons, looking over our maps, we bundled from the wind and became pleasantly silent. I did a few sketches, then flipped through my notes—penciled peaks, smudged moraines, crayoned cirques, pasted-in dried flowers—and slapped them shut. I had reached the limit of what I could absorb. “I’m on overload, I’ve got to get back!”
Last night we arrived at Sancti Spiritus in the dark. Today we’ll stroll the historic part of town, then board the bus for Habana, stay the night, catch the plane back to Cancun, Dallas, Albuquerque. Our arrival here wasn’t the best. The Casa Particular Hector we had reserved didn’t work out. Once again someone else picked us up without telling us Hector was full. At a newly-painted house we were shown to a room: fuchsia walls, canary bedspread, hard satin pillows, a black-velvet Last Supper above the bed. The owner pushed aside a bowl of plastic flowers saturated with cheap perfume, opened the upstairs window, and pointed to a sign attached to the wall of our room. “Casa Marta,” it said. “But you will be happy here, we belong to Hector’s family,” the owner justified. Of course, I thought. Everyone belongs to Hector’s family. Too tired to look for another place, we decided it was best to stay. The owners, an unsmiling matter-of-fact middle-aged couple, were parents of a snobby, uncommunicative kid (hadn’t seen one like that since leaving the U.S.) glued to an electronic notepad, a device which gave him obvious pride, and which he awaited our comment on—which we deliberately wouldn’t give. This was the first family of this sort we’d encountered on the island. Likely they were endowed by relatives in the States and wished to be there themselves.
When they inquire about all those high-end beach resorts they assume we’ve visited, the “Cuba worth seeing,” they say, and learn that we haven’t been to 'any' of them, they frown. “Well, there is where you will find the best of everything, the best food, the best diversion, the best relaxing. You can’t enjoy those pleasures in the places you say you’ve been.” I give a shoulder shrug: “We’re more interested in seeing life outside the tourist industry, how real Cubans are living.” The reply: “They shouldn’t be living like that.” I’m too tired to explain the reasons for traveling as we do—the need to jump the barricade, nurture solidarity with others, gain a new set of eyes.” No one is listening, however. “And those dance halls. There are so many aspects of our culture you are missing! The ballet. The folkloric.” We edge toward our room and bid good night. I nurture myself to sleep trying to recall a line from Melville: "I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts."
Waking this morning, I turn to Renée and laugh: “Feels like I’m in a Dollar store!” We dress, repack bags, go to the kitchen, tour the front sala—where the little brat, not bothering to greet us, is already at his computer. The maid, seeing me looking at him with a severe eye, comes closer as she dusts one plastic tchotchke after another. “Doesn’t he go to school?” I ask. She rolls her eyes. “Only when he wants. There’s always an excuse.” I look around and realize I have indeed descended into tchotchke hell. Gilded plaster statues of kitties and piggies, drapery patterned with Pac man, plastic cats with plastic bells, a mug with Liberace’s face, another shaped like Marilyn Monroe, a pair of enormous gold pillows on a black sofa under a flat-screen TV, everything set against flower-patterned wallpaper. Only thing real, and it takes awhile to discern it, is a parrot in a sprayed-gold wire cage. We decide to take our coffee upstairs on the roof.
The sun is bright, air clean and cool. But when we open our journals to write, the school across the street erupts with screaming kids. Hah! The teacher’s whistle does nothing to stop the noise. He pounds his desk. That calms them for two seconds. The roar cranks up again, this time up by several decimals. The teacher bangs the blackboard with his ruler. Nada. Finally he resorts to having the children sing. A lull, then it begins again: the noise, the whistle, the pounding on the desk, the singing, the lull. We’re a long way from that quiet young man in Gibara who said, “I live in a cave, surrounded by books, no TV. I love to read, I want to become a philosopher. I want to help young people see another way.”
After coffee, we have time to kill before our 2:30 bus. A short walk takes us to the impeccably-restored colonial center, pastel paint jobs, narrow stone streets, new streetlamps made to look vintage. Plenty of photo ops, but, frankly, the town seems to be trying too hard. A gentrification devoid of any spot of dirt, broken guitar string, remnant of kafuffle, sidewalk chalked with hopscotch squares. A little creative stenciled graffiti would help, a coco vender under a floppy umbrella, a street cook hawking a local specialty from a hand-painted pushcart.
We have a bowl of soup and baguette at a tour-bus restaurant, predictably mediocre but it’s the only place we found to be open after we perused guidebook suggestions in the old district. Renée: 'Wish we could just get off the bus in a town that hasn’t been described in a book, have nothing in mind, take to the streets, ask for a coffee shop, sit down, talk to some people, get a feel for the place, then wander.' We’ve done this elsewhere, but Sancti Spiritus was simply a point on the island convenient to break our long bus ride. We didn’t expect much; with different hosts, though, the town might have been more accommodating.
Thinking about Cuba’s geography, it is far-eastern Cuba that most interests us: the mountains-meeting-sea part of the island, physically very pretty, excellent music, spunky people. Couldn’t visit this time because of the hurricane, plus the south coast is tricky without a vehicle. And, casas particulares are scarce. Unlike Thailand or India where cheap home-stays line the coasts, in Cuba Castro’s money-making five-star hotels line them all. If you ain’t got the bucks, you stay inland.
Back to María Mercedes guest house, and the barrio with all its dog barks, broom sweeps, brake squeals, bicycle rings, backfires, throat clears, rumbles, tavern noise, avocado-vendor’s call, highheel clatter, horse clop, carriage rattle, beep, squeak, pan bang, spigot gush, boombox, snap of a spandex body suit, an impromptu street dance, kid with a hoop, neighbors yelling one balcón to another. We’re alive, alright. All in this together!
'We walked along the Malecón this morning, Vedado to Centro, encountering a man with a trumpet sitting on the sea wall, playing. We learn he’s in a band most nights in Havana, and as we walk away I hear him diligently practicing his scales...
On Calle San Ignacio kids are dressed in school uniforms, prim and proper, getting ready for a skit. They sit on folding chairs in the middle of the pavement in front of a wooden platform where a man taps the microphone and tests the fuzzy output from a rudimentary speaker. Everybody is enthused: director, tutorial staff, parents. Some have brought flowers, some food, one has a video camera.
A short walk away is the Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de Belen, a huge complex dating to the early 18'th' century. The convent is under restoration, along with its adjoining Baroque-style church, an iron skeleton around the bell tower. The caretaker is welcoming. Perhaps thinking we are just another pair of tourists wanting a quick photo op, he shows us the church interior, then walks us to the recreation room where, he explains, social workers care for the elderly. “They live in the restored rooms of the convent, and are given meals, an exercise routine, meditation classes, and crafts workshops. They even discuss books and hold dances. Neighborhood people join in, it makes for good interchange. There are enough rooms for fifty elders, and there 'are rooms for disabled kids, too. They learn ballet and basketball, give performances, weave, and play the guitar.”
Pedro, the caretaker, a 47-year-old man of African descent, says he’s a university graduate and loves to read. I ask what he is currently reading, and can’t quite believe his reply. “Dee Brown?” I ask, thinking I’ve misunderstood his Spanish. “Correct. 'Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee'.” Noting our surprise, he asks if we are professors. “Poets,” we clarify. He laughs. “Then you must be familiar with Guillén, Martí, Machado, Lorca. And do you know the revolutionary poet, Roque Dalton?” I am so excited my Spanish begins to get sloppy.
“Books are a passion, no?” He goes into his university experience, says he studied Russian, and speaks it well, along with a little English and French. “I also learned Czech—I’m fluent. I visited the country twice on friendship fellowships while the Soviets were here. I’d like to become a tour guide for Czech people. I know the history of la Habana well. This caretaking job isn’t really me. Just a small income to help out.” Bidding goodbye, I turn with a question I forgot to ask when we were on the subject of books. “Do you know Eduardo Galeano?”
“'Open veins of Latin America!'” he spreads his arms. “Galeano has a new book out, maybe you can bring it to me when you return. I’ll give you my address.”
Tomorrow we board the plane and once again I’ll look down into that liquid mirror dotted with political boundaries that is supposed to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’ Again I will ignore the politics and turns of history and sing back the gift of freedom that knows no rip in the cloak, or commie or capitalist, and understands that there is no ‘purpose’ in grinding good neighbors down with food and medicine blockades. Purpose equates with astonishment. “And generosity,” Renée reminds me. “This is the time for it!” The stories we’ve heard, the generosity of their tellers, this is what shall live on. Jim Harrison had it right, when he wrote 'In Search of Small Gods', “Death steals everything except our stories.”
Cuba, “an illegal island”? Cuba, George Bush’s “Axis of Evil”? People back home would have to have their heads screwed on backwards to buy that mierda. But they do. They wait for Cuba to become like us, the capitalist country that needs nonstop war to protect its get-head lifestyle, the in-god-we-trust country that fires drones into wedding parties and children at play. In a nation of so many loose triggers, where is the trigger for truth? The one that blows away indoctrination, allows doubt into the equation?
Boarding our bus in Sancti Spiritus yesterday, we met a Pakistani student dressed in all white kurta, trousers, and taqiyah. He was being helped aboard by a friend, dressed similarly. Discovering he was on the wrong bus, he stepped down just as I was getting on. I looked at him, he looked at me, and, in a Chaplinesque instant of surprise, we simultaneously asked, in Spanish, “Where you from?” He was studying medicine in Cuba, I was a poet in Cuba. Time only for a smile and to wish each other well. But it brought me great joy. Not that it couldn’t happen in New York or Detroit or Los Angeles. But here we were, on an island, both off our turf, outsiders who, in our own ways, had come “for study.” We didn’t fit each other’s stereotype, although in a longer conversation, who knows? But why go 'there'? Best to give doubt the edge and carry forth with an open heart.
The bus fires up and leaves with a huff of dust. The student goes back to his medicine, I go back to mine. As I wrap up these notes, pinpoints of light, minute details seep through the mind, emerge through the skin, dissolve into ink, become “page.” Straight talk riding a crooked beam of light, from the bard’s eye, the painter’s palette, the shoemaker’s repair kit. I don’t offer organized footnotes, correct spelling, power-point gridlock, Sunday hymns, intellectual logjams, academic spitballs, or—though I wish I could—a concert in the park. These words ride the 'dulce' breeze of a Cuban 'son', become dot-and-dash rain clouds, a blink from the tropical metropolis of the heart, warm rain from the soft Eye of exchange.
“Quiero vivir sin verme,” if I may quote Lorca one more time. “I want to live without seeing me.” To which he adds: “The true struggle is with the Duende where there is no map, no discipline. 'Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odor of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, medusa’s veil; a wind announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”
I dim the wick now—to light the night . . .
—22 marzo 2013
No re-entry hassle at the Dallas airport, we’re waved through with a “Welcome back!” after the official asks “Where is El Rito, anyway?” When we give him the location, he says: “I only get as far as Hatch, usually. To buy my green chile.” Waiting for our connecting flight to Albuquerque, I overhear a kid, maybe ten or eleven, telling his mom, as he peruses a war-games magazine, “Look, mom, you have the choice of getting the enemy or killing the whole person!”
There is always this grief of returning home to a nation at perpetual war where an uncomfortably large chunk of the population really does believe “god said it, I believe it, it’s settled.” Our democracy is indeed a strange breed, unable to insure its continuity without being a missionary for itself—a proselytizing, warring, manic control-freak pushing itself on others all over the world—a desperate need for cultural, geographic, and mercantile control. (The U.S. spends more on defense than all the other nations in the world combined, over $700 billion a year.)' Alarma! 'Too many shut-down brains going obese with patriotism: “God, guns, and guts. Let’s keep ‘em all.” Why not sweetness, voluptuousness, the mad edge always present, the distant ether forever beckoning, doubt the great motivator? There are secret rivers outside us, and within too. Barely the foam on their surface do we touch.
On arrival, front-page headlines in the Dallas Morning News: “Bigotry Against Muslims and Jews on the Rise.” Lost in the rear pages: a report on the first crane to lay an egg in the wild in more than 400 years. Perhaps—amid shootings, sectarian violence, hostage taking, embezzlement, and the latest congressional scandal—it merited little worth. What if newspapers reversed their idea of what constitutes a headline and what doesn’t—for a week, a month, a year, or forever? Lots of people would have differently-shaped heads. But what does it take to shape a different attitude?
Antonio Machado says “the heart (will be) made mature by darkness and art.” In a time of darkness Roque Dalton had time for art; so did Victor Jara, Gabriela Mistral, Ana Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva. Allen Ginsberg, too. In our own darkness, who will follow? Jim Harrison wrote: “In times like these I have nothing to fall back on except the sun and moon and earth.” (And that was in the 80s!) In my own despair I sometimes take sides with my collapsitarian amigo (who lifts his sax to the clouds and plays for the Universe). I want the world’s population to be massively humbled. Not just by tsunami, earthquake, cyclone, floods, heatwave, wildfires (all trying to tell us something), but by something irreversibly huge: the sun’s heart overboiling into a cataclysmic eclipse, oceans rising, the exhausted land taking its human population 'under', so that the planet could begin again. Who’d have time to shoot each other as the waves rip and tear, churning us all one-same into the abyss?
But we 'are' being churned into the abyss all one-same. And we 'are' still shooting! The planet has been pushed to a crisis from which it will never recover. Attention to the environment should be our priority, but how often does it make the headlines, overcome NPR’s war reporting, show priority in political races, take precedence on July Fourth, Hanukah, Eid, Good Friday, or Martin Luther King’s Birthday? Visiting schools, I find a dismal scarcity of earth-science classes. It’s more about leveling the brain to pass tests. Dictators and religious radicals certainly don’t have room for our suffering planet. Nor do the richest 5% in every nation who own 70-95% of their own countries. Progress leaves a suspicious taste in my mouth. Genocide, nationalism, oligarchy rides its tails. Force a narrow, conditioned idea of what’s “good” into an absolute, and it immediately becomes “bad”—excludes alternative interpretations, eliminates discussion, bars any complementary ingredients that might bring out the true flavor of “good.”
It seems that in order to fully be here, I must again and again leave, regain my balance with a crooked walking stick, talk to somebody other than my shadow. The high-mesa moon will do, but there is nothing like an evening at Spec’s with a few generous comrades, or drinking sakè with a good friend to rain pattering his mountain cabin, or sitting around the table in Bolinas for a halcyon afternoon of wine, herb, laughter, and genuine camaraderie. Ditto, the pot-luck and poetry at Kyoto’s Nama Chocolate Organic Teahouse; the breakfast turning into high tea with Rama in Pilgrim’s Book House, deep in the heart of Old Kathmandu; or the animated mix of bards and strays and monks at Moon Peak Coffee House in Dharamsala. But that’s another book.
An unexpected event upon our return to New Mexico was Eduardo Galeano’s appearance in Santa Fe. How appropriate after so many references to him in Cuba! The venue was packed, the crowd enthusiastic. As a storyteller, historian, literary mischief maker, Galeano is at the top of my list—a humble, truthful commentator on our human condition and the tragic times of our planet. He’s not one to engage in some heroic acceptance of the suffering of others. Instead, he pulls back the curtain to let the “others” tell of their suffering. He writes to get rid of amnesia, to resurrect the voices of the oppressed, to open the way for stories not told—those of the displaced who claw at the world’s bitter grass for a meal; those who don’t matter to the wealthy politico, or to corporate jihadists, because they aren’t rich enough to consume.
In response to a question on that wonderful evening, Galeano told the audience: “I write to recover our rainbow—the mix of humans, mix of colors, mix of species. I am not I, but another you, and you are another me.” He talked about strolling La Rambla, Montevideo’s equivalent of Habana’s Malecón. “As I walk, words are walking inside me, looking for each other. Stories come up to me, too. They tap my back, saying ‘Tell me.’ So I do. I let the stories of the scorned give the scorned the place they deserve. Everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard. Animals, waters, and trees have voices, too.”
On that note, Galeano tells a story about how Ecuador became the first country in the world to acknowledge that it is not just humans who have rights, nature has rights also. This was in 2008, when articles were added to the constitution to recognize "the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish." This allows citizens to petition on the behalf of ecosystems, and the government is required to hear such petitions, and to remedy violations that harm the rights of nature.
A brave step, given the reality that to improve our wealth we cut down forests, and to improve our position we cut down others. Why not cut down our ego, instead? Reduce our size to a proper fit in the world? Galeano says “We are inheritors of the brutality that came before us.” It seems there’s no way out of that collective karma (I say to students), except by finding a quiet place to write your own story—so you can discover who you are beyond how the media tries to define you.
The day after Eduardo Galeano’s talk, I bought a copy of his book, the one that Pedro, the caretaker of the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Belen, mentioned. How to get it to him, though. Mail from the US is banned, although there are covert ways. Even if the book gets through the correo to Cuba, will it pass customs? “We need to go back,” Renée urges. “With books.” From 'Mirrors', here’s a one-page chapter, titled:
His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity.
And in that his enemies are right.
His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo. And in that his enemies are right.
His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices. And in that his enemies are right.
But some things his enemies do not say:
It was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders’ bullets. He faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane, he survived six hundred and thirty-seven attempts on his life, his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony, and it was not by Lucifer’s curse or God’s miracle that the new country managed to outlive ten U.S. presidents, napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.
And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.
And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.
And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of it people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.
That’s it for now. Time to go out and feed the sparrows, return to the work at hand: the desk, the garden, my lost glasses in the compost, the Cuban pesos I promised my grandson, the mouse in the trap under the sink I’ve yet to release. Meanwhile, I’ll not forget to kick off my boots, roll back the carpet, let my feet go crazy to a feisty guaguancó, raise a call to Yemayá. May she open the waters, tune the fine strings of her rainbow, shower us all with a cleansing rain.