W e walked down the Malecon between traffic and the ocean. A boy standing on the seawall tried to cast his line past the rocks, where his brothers and sister trawled the tidal pools. We were the only foreigners around. Boys shouted from passing cars. At least half of the cars were ’54 Buicks. Machismo Cubano: six well-oiled young men in muscle shirts and silver chains sitting in the back seat.
At night, the Malecon is a catwalk. Girls moved arms linked past young Cubanos sprawled along the wall, cooing, clucking, yelping, whispering, panting, groaning, singing, sighing under the street lamps. We wanted to observe, invisibly, but we were already part of the parade.
On the inland side of the Malecon an older crowd sat among dilapidated pillars and vaulted foyers. Pot-bellied men seated around card tables played with dominos and beer bottles. Decades separated them from their hunting days, yet they would still muster a whistle or catcall as we passed. Their plump wives sat to the side surveying us or looked out toward the pitch-black void where the ocean was.
Two dogs slept in the gated stairwell of our casa particulare between paroxysms of barking. Anita owns the casa. There is evidence of a family in her photographs. She is reserved but seems sad. Perhaps her husband left her or her oldest son died. Or maybe he defected to Florida and started a family she would never see. Or, in the case of Maria, who owned a nearby casa and had a degree in physics, maybe she was a solitary scholar who never got the chance to work as one. Instead, she made a living hosting young travelers and fat, sunburned tourists whose currencies were worth twenty times her own. She posted pictures of the inside of her house on the internet, of her living room hung with plants and her view of the ocean from six stories up, and waited for a bite from the next intrepid Westerner. After seeing to their breakfast and collecting a fistful of dollars, she retired to her television or terrace and waited.
Walking on the Paseo del Prado, a long promenade lined with stone benches and small trees between two boulevards. The kids there are in various states of undress: swim trunks, soccer jerseys, no shoes, school uniforms embellished with neon spandex shorts or flip flops, or, for the girls, high heels. It was hard to tell who was headed to school and who would spend the day playing pickup soccer between the benches, always in danger of losing the ball to the perpetual traffic just behind them.
The buildings along the boulevards are in worse shape than those on the Malecon, but they are all full. Cubans wear through buildings like they wear out their clothing. Windows were open in the midday heat and families flowed out like bees from their hives, until all you could see were frames and wires.
Second-story balconies are the domain of elderly women who overlook the movement of the Prado. There was no bustle of industrious society or riotous outburst of oppressive boredom below. It is something between the two, a slow burn, running on rumors and impressions of wealth.
The sound of birds chirping indoors. I wanted to look for the noisemaker: dubbed “Flintstones” on TV; dubbed “Life Goes On.” This has got to be a joke from the Ministry of Communication or some board of public opinion control. They let enough American culture in to appease general curiosity. (Nothing to see in America, just a bunch of mawkish white people dealing with their retarded kids.) There are only channels. Channel 2 showed a documentary about the days leading up to the 1959 revolution. It was on a loop. It had probably been on repeat since television landed on the island.
Hemingway is a comfort to tourists. He makes the street bustle fit better, tames it by making it literary. His room at the Hotel Florida has been preserved for viewing. It’s where he began For Whom the Bell Tolls. He still occupies his favorite seat at La Floridita just down the Calle Obispo (“best mojitos in Havana!”) in a life-size bronze effigy. He also occupies several slots in the postcard turnstiles. Tourists love the photo of Papa and Castro the best. They’ve read some of Hemingway’s writing and by extension can claim a bit of the revolution, or at least disown some of their imperious voyeurism.
We figured a clever way to counteract attention: the Havana down-tempo walk. This wouldn’t make us more Cuban, but it might flummox those would-be callers who mark us by our quick pace. Speed camouflage. It didn’t work.
In Habana Vieja the streets were narrow corridors. All the doors and shutters were open. The living rooms were tiled extensions of the streets. Grandma and son sitting in wooden chairs watching television, crucifix on the wall, framed painting of noble Fidel or dashing Che. We looked past the living rooms into hidden stairwells, trellises and deeper corridors. Women sat on front stoops talking while their boys played in the streets with bottle caps and sticks. Two girls practiced salsa beside a boom box, the littlest ones holding onto their mothers’ knees.
Son bands played in all the bars in Old Havana. It was a tourist set-up. The saxophonist was about to come on for a solo when a drunken patron started blowing on his empty beer bottle. He looked Scandinavian, and wore a Nike t-shirt and gold watch. He finished to a round of applause from his compatriots. The saxophonist, wincing, jumped back in.
At Bar Montserrat, a thin man in a white shirt and trousers seated us at a table near the back. A large table of Dutch tourists dominated the room. There were dozens of empty mojito glasses in the center of their table. They danced in their chairs. There were a few single men with prostitutes at the bar. A young African Cuban darted onto the floor and grabbed his friend. She could barely keep up with him. When she couldn’t take it anymore, he came to our table and persisted against our refusals to dance. Finally he asked if we had a cigarette for him. Justine gave him one. His name was Rey. He taught ballet, salsa and meringue to support his mother and twin sisters. He couldn’t sit still. In the middle of a sentence he would get up to shake his hips or pirouette. He left the cigarette burning in the ashtray to dance a few bars with his friend, then came back to our table. He wanted us to write him from New York, and to look him up on YouTube. He told us he used the computer at Montserrat to upload his videos. He smoked a few more of Justine’s cigarettes.
We sat next to a window that opened onto the street. A young woman leaned into a car window, talking to the driver. She shouted to Rey. The thin man in the white shirt and trousers made a joke, maybe about Rey and the woman. He seemed to have trouble walking and laughing at the same time.
The band took a break. The singer came over to our table. He didn’t speak much English but he stayed for a drink. He only ever wanted to be a cantate. He and his band spent the last few months in Shanghai. “Ni Hao!” he greeted us. He looked like a boxer. He raised his hands and belted out the first lines of Chan Chan. He intended to close in on me, since Justine was tending to Rey, who was doing some sort of bunny hop, twisting his cigarette in the air. The cantante grabbed my hand and caressed my wrist, prolonging eye contact. He asked for a pencil and my notebook in order to compose a poem in a language I could understand. Mis ojos…I am like a flor, tan dulce. The subject changed to something in fast Spanish. Whatever Rey just said caught the cantante’s ear. The cantante showed us a tattoo of Che Guevara’s head on his left pectoral. He puffed his chest and pointed to it. “Che, mas valiente, mas intelligente…”
We left Old Havana to go to the Casa de la Musica in the Miramar District, where the Cubans dance. It cost 15 Reals to get in, which seemed like a lot but might’ve just been the gringa admission. It was a dark, cavernous dance hall with a stage at the back and tables on both sides of the dance floor. All the tables were taken by regulars. There were no tourists anywhere. We stood by the bar and drank cans of beer. The curtains opened on a 17-piece salsa band. No one sat for this. Even the unschooled would recognize that Cuban salsa is different. It is fast, round and complex: the body reflects more aspects of the percussion and there are more grooves interlocking partners have to calibrate. The simple explanation for the difference is the African influence, but this doesn’t help us since it is impossible to pick up with your mind.
Justine and I got dance partners and headed to the floor with trepidation. Artemio showed me the basics then kicked into gear. I couldn’t follow. We went over it again. “Don’t think about it. Don’t think.” He pulled me closer so he could force my movements like a doll. He stopped and pointed to my eyes and then to his. “Look here. No looking at your feet. Don’t think about it.” The floor was packed. Everyone formed rows facing the stage. A man jumped in front of the band and called out movements to the crowd, who mimicked him in unison.
We took a pedicab back to the casa, pedaling through the backstreets no faster than we would’ve walked, listening to the squeaking axel and the soft pant of the driver, past a darkened building bearing an RCA studio sign. The one with the victrola.
We took a bus the next day to Valle Vinales, where a crowd of women at the station waved handwritten brochures, pleading with passengers to stay at their casas. The station was in the main square next to the tourism office and a bar. Yaela and M met us with their one-year-old son and showed us the way home. Yaela’s yellow hair was still wet from the shower and touched her tanned shoulders. She was an expert on night lizards, but there was no money for research. Now she mostly occupied herself with her son and her home, which was always open to tourists. M was affable. He told us he could arrange a tour with his friend Serge if we wanted to hike through the valley.
Serge led us through the fields and over the gentle slopes of the Valle Palmarito. Every mile we passed a farmer working on a patch of red earth. When we saw a cabin set high on a hill, Serge asked us if we wanted to meet the tobacco farmers who worked there.
Miguel greeted us on the porch with his son Raoul. Their house was a regular stop on Serge’s tour so they were always ready for guests. Raoul brought us fresh coconuts and a cigar. The tip was dipped in honey. Justine and I shared the cigar and pet their old dog, Mariposa. Miguel’s thick mustache and deep crows feet gave him a permanent smile. He looked 60, but islanders age differently, so he could’ve been in his early 50‘s. Raoul’s slick pompadour and inward eyes seemed inherited from old Hollywood rather than a guajiro farmer. His shyness nearly made him mute. It was Miguel who wanted to talk, using Serge as a translator.
It started to rain so we moved inside. The room was empty except for a few chairs, tin cups and a machete for splitting coconuts. There were coconut husks piled in the corner. Miguel motioned for us to push our chairs in a circle. Raoul stayed by the window to watch their sow, tethered to a tree in the yard.
“What kind of women the men in your country like? Thin—fat—eh, dark skin? White skin?”
“You do not paint the face. If a man is going to love you he has to love you for how you are when you are natural.”
“Do you like Cuban men? Uno Cubano, egale quattro Europeanos.”
“Cubano, mas fuego. Fuego? Fuego.” (Nodding.)
“Once you have a Cuban man you won’t want another one!” [translational hilarity: perhaps we wouldn’t want another Cuban one.]
“You have a man?”
“She is getting married…”
“You don’t have a chico?”
“Do you like tall? Short? Negro? Blanco?”
“Ah, she likes everything!”
“You eat everything! You have a big mouth.”
“You are thin now but when you have fifty years you will be fat from eating so much. My wife is very fat. She has big breasts like pillows and keeps me warm at night. I love her.”
“You can have a big garden, but you must love only one rose.”
“They think you’re a total slut.”
“I have no idea how that happened.”
“You’re on your own.”
“There is much to say to the woman who has found her one rose:
You have not had your heart cut in two parts. It’s very important for that to happen when you are married…And then you will have the heart cut in four parts…Then there will be pieces for your children also.”