I’m fully convinced that there is no social, political or moral problem that can’t be solved with palm trees, endless beaches, and copious amounts of hooch.
My malaise of the two days previous—a malaise that drove me to violent, often psychopathic thoughts—would finally break on this last day in Cuba. No, I didn’t join the Orlando Bosch fan club, nor did I go on some right-wing killing spree. No members of the CCP were under my knife; not a single CDR apparatchik was swinging from a rope in a rage.
In fact, exactly the opposite: Saturday was the day I reminded myself, for good or bad, why I was falling in love with Cuba.
It began with our group taking an unscheduled break from the routine, at a little place called Santa Maria del Mar. Santa Maria del Mar is part of a string of beach towns that stretch from Havana’s eastern edge. Go far enough, and you reach Varadero, the massive resort mecca of white-sand beach, posh resorts and crowds of tourists that fuels the Cuban tourism machine.
Santa Maria was, thankfully, not Varadero (although I did see Canadians there, too). It was, in fact, a local beach where local Cubans tend to go. Local beach usually conjures up Coney Island, or the Jersey Shore—littered coastlines, mobs of tanned, sweaty bodies in brackish water, teeming boardwalks of hawkers and tacky shops.
Nothing prepared me for this. Though I heard other beaches are more spectacular, it was hard to imagine. Santa Maria was just too beautiful.
The turquoise water, sand clean and white, cushioning breezes, palm trees swaying, little huts to buy drinks…I can see why so many tourists flock here. Sometimes, the last thing you want to think about is politics. A dip in the water, a tan and a drink is what’s necessary.
That wonderful beach couldn’t have come at a better time.
Lying on the deck chair, my hat covering my already-red pate, with the world’s best pina colada in my hand, a voice shouted in my brain:
“Hey asshole! What the fuck’s the matter with you! That’s some sick shit going through your brain, buddy, and I KNOW you’re not like that! Get your fucking act together!”
The Marine drill sergeant that is my conscience couldn’t be clearer. I was so foolish to fritter my last two days in pointless, and violent, daydreams. It wasn’t me, all that killing and gunplay, the horrific thoughts about people with which I felt a genuine connection.
It also dawned on me that it was the Saturday before Easter. Even for a Catholic as lapsed as I, my attitude was entirely un-Christian. There had to be a more positive way to channel my anger, my rage, my indignation.
After the sojourn at the beach, we went to the artisan market for some souvenir shopping. It was a very organized affair near a pretty smelly stretch of Havana harbor. Paintings lined two sides of the market, with the usual smattering of shirts, caps, knickknacks and whatnot in the middle. This was definitely a tourist paradise, and it offered me nothing as I quickly strolled through the booths.
Instead, I took a walk outside.
Walking through the streets of the neighborhood outside the market, much of what I hated about Cuba was there in front of me: the dilapidated houses, the lack of amenities, the stores with empty shelves, etc. But that didn’t matter to me today.
On one corner, some guys were fixing an old car. On another, a small gym was packed with people watching what I guessed was amateur boxing. There were women doing laundry, neighbors deep in conversation, and children playing in the street.
Anywhere you go in the world, children have the best radar for foreigners. A group of them immediately took me in, noticing my camera. We played their brand of stickball for a while, using a bottle cap for a ball and a PVC pipe for a bat. It was a great time, at least for the kids: watching a fat, out-of-shape Yankee imperialist shank bottlecaps in all directions had them rolling in laughter.
A couple of kids, who seemed a little ashamed to be doing it, then came up to me and asked for money. They put together a story about their mother needing an operation and not having enough money. I wasn’t fooled, but I didn’t care: soon enough, the kids on my impromptu kickball team lined up and got about 10 CUC a piece for ice cream, candy and whatever crap they normally could never get. I was able to take some photos of them in return.
When I left to get back to the hotel, the kids were there to wish me bon voyage. I almost cried.
That short time with the local kids was the most cleansing experience of my whole trip. I must’ve spent over 100 CUCs on those kids, but it was the best money I’ve spent all week. In my mind, it was better there than in the flea market, where I’m sure a good chunk of that dough goes to the government.
Even more important, it finally broke, once and for all, that terrible dark cloud over me. The good Catholic in me came shining through, and any negative feeling I felt, especially towards anyone on my tour, melted away.
Even though my own political opinions, and my opinions about the Cuban government, didn’t change, my attitude toward Cuba certainly did. Stop shouting so much, stop talking, I said to myself.
Just look and listen. Your senses will never steer you wrong.
When I got back, I made one last visit to Juan’s bookstore. One of the ways I was going to channel my emotion was through charity. Upon greeting Juan, I asked if there was anything he needed, or if I could send back any messages to anyone in the States. He politely refused, but I insisted on giving him some cash to help him out. Ever the rebel, Juan insisted I take some more books with me since he felt bad taking my money for nothing. My bags were already bursting (why is it that the contraband books are all huge, and hardcover?), and I was in no mood to pay more for overweight fees at the airport. Yet I really admired Juan’s spirit, and on giving him a last hug, really hoped to see him again.
I had a great meal in a (wait for it) Middle-Eastern restaurant in Old Havana with great new friends and soda. In a bit of counter-revolution, we’ve made it a practice to sneak in a bottle of rum to avoid giving any marked-up cocktail costs to the regime. It worked until the wait staff didn’t give a shit, which meant we were brazenly hawking the bottle on the table. To the barricades…and bring some ice!
Since we were leaving early in the morning, I made it my business to stay up until we left the next morning. To that end, most of our tour group (the younger folk, mostly) got together as much beer, rum, soda and cups as we could muster and had a Cuban good time on the Malecon. With booze, some little cigars that came from God-knows-where, the music on the street and the people along the seawall, the setting couldn’t be better for a perfect last night.
In my glee, in my zeal, I forgot all of the negativity of the past, at least for a moment. It was important, on this last day, to see everyone for what they were, not what my demented brain was creating them to be.
To be fair, I found something to like in all my groupmates. I may not agree with many of them politically, or socially, or in any other way. Yet it’s safe to say that it was a group of people that were, for the most part, great to be around.
Mariana brought her friends from the last night, and we were all pretty much the last few people hanging out as the hours dripped away…12…1…2…3…
As I talked to her friends, one mantra kept coming out which I hope resonates through the island:
There was a Cuba before the revolution.
There will be a Cuba after the revolution.
Cuba will always be here.
In a place where change can come sooner rather than later, the importance of identity can never be underestimated. Change is going to happen, whether those on the left or right like it or not. If it does, Cuba cannot forget what makes it a special and unique place.
It has nothing to do with a group of bearded guys with guns, a repressive government and a stagnant economy.
Without Cuba, we wouldn’t have beautiful beaches, rich colonial heritage, a polyglot society of African, Native American and European influences, great rum, fantastic cigars, strong cups of coffee, music such as son, mambo, salsa, cha cha, Jose Marti’s stirring words, Gutierrez Alea’s thought-provoking films, black beans and rice, a lechon on the barbecue, the daiquiri, the Cuba Libre, the mojito, great baseball players (the ones that defect, anyway.), reruns of I Love Lucy, straw hats, old cars, and an even older spirit of camaraderie and bonhomie that can only exist on an island like this one.
Say what you will about the politics, because Cuba doesn’t need it to be a special place. It already was one, and as I took off on the plane home, I saw the island one last time.
It was so beautiful.
It was a beauty that made me angry sometimes, even psychotic.
Yet it was beautiful, nonetheless.
I really grew to love this country. More importantly, I cannot wait for the opportunity to go back.
Next Time, an Epilogue will tie up my loose ends on Cuba, including an analysis of what is in store for the future of the island.
As an added bonus, I’m putting a music video to a popular song from Cuba, Gozando en la Habana (Having Fun in Havana) by Charanga Habanera. It’s cheesy, I know, but it was a real feel-good song, and it always put a smile on my face. Enjoy.