Friday, December 19, 2014

Cuba: Myth & Reality

I wrote this post last week, a few days before US agreed to normalize relations with Cuba and to free the remaining members of the Cuban 5. Doors between the US and Cuba that have been closed for over 50 years are now opening. Hard to believe I was in Cuba a few short weeks ago. The excitement was palpable, we felt a change in the air, fresh winds blowing from the sea ....

Day 1, and a dozen photographers snapped our photos as we descended the gangway of the MV Explorer, our home for past 108 days, giving us our first taste of paparazzi. A police escort accompanied us from the port to the university, where the rector of the university urged peace between the US and Cuba. 

This is my third Semester at Sea voyage as a faculty member teaching Travel Writing and Creative Writing, and I’ve left pieces of my heart in many cities around the world, but this heartfelt welcome to Havana brings me to tears, nearly making me miss the enormous banner draped over the entrance to the university: The Cuban 5.

“Imagine there’s no heaven,” sings John Lennon over the loudspeaker. “It’s easy if you try.”
 I am known for my imagination, but nothing prepared me for this surreal moment: over six hundred Semester at Sea students, faculty and staff climbing the eighty-eight steps to the University of Havana on a windy morning in late November. Later, I get lost in the rhythm of the dance as Cuban and American students (and faculty!) move to the beat. 

The most problematic moment of the day comes when we file into a small theatre in Vieja Havana where La Colmenita (The Little Beehive) a children’s theatre group (aged five to fourteen) will put on a special performance for us. “In English, just for you,” cries Tim, the gray-mustached manager/director of the troupe. “With love for you! Enjoy!” He blows us kisses, and the curtain goes up.
I settle in my chair and watch the children perform a play. They are talented and adorable, especially a tiny girl wearing large glasses, and dressed in a jaunty Peter Pan cap and tights. But wait … what’s this? In the middle of the play, a public service announcement with Danny Glover exhorting us to free the Cuban 5? And video footage of the 5 tenderly playing with their children or teasing their mothers? Ah, I see, this isn’t a play at all. It’s propaganda masquerading as art, slogans pretending to be dialogue—uttered by wide-eyed, earnest children. My stomach coils tighter than when the ship sailed through a typhoon.
You’re in Cuba, I remind myself. Did you expect a frothy Disney concoction with singing, dancing little bees?
Yes, I admit. I want to see Cuba as more than politics and myths of revolution. It’s a tropical paradise of faded glamour, mojitos and daiquiris, hot salsa that starts in the soul and travels to the feet, and warm, generous people. It is also a country where time seems to have stopped in 1959, at the height of revolucion. A country of old men: Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Ernest Hemingway, a Holy Triad who never age and remain frozen in myths as colorful as the 50s cars sailing down the roads, and whose photos loom over the entire city. 

Tour historic Hotel Nacional with Estela, the diminutive guide who was eighteen during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and move from notorious Room 214—where Frank Sinatra stayed and used the secret entrance to Meyer Lansky’s room—to the underground bunker where posters display photos of Fidel Castro with Khrushchev. “This is my Fidel,” sighs Estela. “I wish they showed these pictures of him all over town, not the ones when he got older.”
But no one sees the eighty-eight year-old ailing former leader. The images of Fidel plastered around Havana depict a rumpled, bearded middle-aged man. Fidel hasn’t aged, and neither has the second member of the Bearded Triumvirate dominating Havana’s mythic landscape: Che Guevara, handsome and charismatic from fierce glare to clenched jaw. Che’s face—the iconic portrait that inspired the hippie revolutionary movement of the late 60s-early 70s—broods from book covers, posters, T-shirts, key chains, ashtrays, and aprons, and at night, lights up against a building overlooking the Plaza de la Revolucion. Though I haven’t smelled the Che Guevara cologne, I’ve been assured it exists. A Cuban friend told me that after Cuba, Che went to Bolivia to offer his services, but when the Bolivians saw Che in reality—balding, wearing glasses, middle-aged paunch—they turned him down.   
The third member of the Holy Triad, Ernest Hemingway, still bursts with testosterone from black and white photos where he grips a shotgun or fish, drinks at his favorite bars, smiles with Fidel, and poses with his hunting trophies. Tour buses unload Hemingway aficionados in Cojimar, the wild, isolated fishing village that inspired The Old Man and the Sea. At his favorite seaside café, La Terraza, they are given fizzy blue drinks (specialty of the house) and led to the dining room to ogle his table, roped off and set and waiting.
Back in Vieja Havana, I walk into the room in the pink Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he lived ($3/night during the low season, $5 high season) and wrote. And drank and lived hard. Peering over his typewriter (under glass), I picture him writing terse, taut sentences, tossing adjectives and adverbs out the window like small wriggling fish. Around the corner at La Bodegita del Medio, a cozy neighborhood bar that serves up mojitos, cigars, and hot music, I toast him with a mojito, and then follow his shadow down the pedestrian street of Obispo, lined with cafes, shops, churro stands, and musicians, to the swirling neon sign of El Floridita, the delightfully retro bar known for its daiquiris. I sit next to his smiling bronze bust—on his favorite stool, his back to the wall—and over a daiquiri named for him, I ask what he thinks of this country of old men who remain forever young. He doesn’t answer, maybe because behind us, trapped in his own black and white myth, Fidel eavesdrops.

On my last evening in Havana, I explore the streets beyond the carefully circumscribed tourist areas. The instant you step off Obispo and Mercederes, you stumble into enormous potholes and torn-up roads, crumbling buildings, markets with nearly empty shelves, and people talking, smoking, eating, and laughing on balconies and steps. They rarely eat at the tourist restaurants a few blocks away. There are two different currencies—one for the tourists (Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs), and one for the Cubans (pesos). US dollars are not officially supposed to be exchanged, but for ten US dollars, you get eight CUCs. The average monthly salary for a doctor is fifteen CUCs. A daiquiri at El Floridita costs six CUCs. Health care and education are taken care of, but it is incredibly difficult to live, day to day. When I ask a Cuban friend how he survives on a monthly salary of thirteen CUCs, he shrugs. “Black market. Extra jobs. Tips.” Then, with a shy grin, “Do you have room for one Cuban on your ship?”

As the sky darkens, I return to the port along the Malecon, a five-mile walkway along the sea. In the distance I glimpse the lights of our ship, the MV Explorer. Havana is our last port, and in less than a week we’ll return home to the United States. I’ve fallen in love with this city—the tropical promise and warmth, and even the underlying shadows beneath every ray of sun. I understand that people eat myths for survival, but the revolucion was fifty-five years ago, Che was executed, Fidel has a successor, and two of the Cuban 5 are home.
I wrote these words as soon as we returned to the US. Now, in light of new developments from Washington, I hear the clock ticking again. It’s time to move on and imagine new stories, ones that haven’t been written because they haven’t been lived yet. To create new heroes. To restore hope. As John Lennon says, “Imagine all the people living in peace …. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
Dancing at the University of Havana