Travel Essay: Cuba
The map at the front of the decades old bus looks like a humpback whale, diving away from the United States, the harpoon of Florida. We’ve been on this bus for over six hours, on our way to Trinidad in the center of the island. The bus is full, sweltering. We drive into Cienfuegos, one of the last stops before our destination, and there before us is a billboard with a picture on it: a Cuban soldier punching Uncle Sam in the face.
At the bus stops and the new passengers climb on. A small Chinese man stares at my friend and I, makes his way to the back of the bus. He begins a conversation with the Russian girls across the aisle. After some small talk, the dialogue veers political. “You can always tell an American from a mile away,” his thick ancient merges with the spite on the tip of his tongue, “They always have headphones in.”
I turn down my clinically American headphones to listen in. My buddy looks over at me to see if I heard. I make a point of not acknowledging him. The atmosphere of the muggy bus gets thicker, the Russian girls don’t say anything in response, and the Cuban couple across the aisle from us looks over, then immediately down to the military tattoo on my right leg. There is no doubt, we are two American veterans surrounded by Communists.
“They don’t care though. They don’t care about anything,” he looks for allies in this apparent conflict, “anything but oil.”
My friend senses the threat. So do I. But to be cool and peaceful in this foreign land, deep in Fidel territory, is an absolute must.
When we arrive at the airport in Havana and from the moment we step off the plane it feels like we are walking backward in time, across decades. Everything is old, falling apart. We know about the 10% fee for exchanging American dollars into Cuban, so we exchanged our money for Canadian before we left. A pleasant looking gentleman with a dapper suit greets us, speaks in polished English, and offers us a ride to town in an old muscle car for thirty-five dollars. I accept, and tell him I’m going to exchange money before we leave. He guides us upstairs to the exchange, where the teller slams us with the same 10% fee for US currency, on top of the standard 3%. I try to protest, but my Spanish isn’t good enough to barter, and the gentleman assures us that it’s just the way it is. Our cash is the only thing we have until we land back in the States. And just like that, we’ve lost 13% of it.
Conner and I make our way out to an antique blue Oldsmobile with leather interior. It’s a stunning introduction to the fresh air of Cuba. We roll away from the airport, lighter in wallet, race from the suburbs to the city, with windows down and vibrant Cuban music. Crumbling facades of four-story buildings, crowded streets full of classic cars in various colors and states of disrepair, soon, the Plaza De La Revolución with black-line drawings of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. What draws my eye is the stacked pillar at center of the square, with a marble statue beneath it.
“The memorial of Jose Marti. He is Cuba’s poet.”
We make it to the bustling neighborhood of Havana Vieja, get out at Bar Floridita, Hemingway’s old haunt when he lived here in the fifties. We’ve reserved an Airbnb apartment a block away. By the time we get to front door we are drenched in sweat. Our host is nowhere to be found. Since we can’t use our cellphones, there is no service or wifi available except in a few expensive hotels, we wander around the district. We are greeted in English, “American?” We nod yes, and all heads turn to us, inquisitive, curious, sometimes greedy glares. It’s like they see all of the cash we hide on our persons. The sales pitches are similar: cigars, housing, rum, girls? Will you buy milk for my baby? “Americans, our friends!” The greetings are kind but the conversations abruptly turn toward money, so we shrug off the salutations.
Our packs are heavy and our backs soiled. We make it to the Port of Havana, Morro Castle high across the inlet. With a red-eye last night exhaustion is setting in. We walk back to the apartment. The door is still locked so we post up in a square where locals are standing around aimlessly. They keep asking us if we want to rent a room. When the door to our building opens we rush toward it and find a tiny elevator with a wrought-iron gate in the lobby. A gracious mother with two young kids gets in with us and tries to show us how to operate it. Sweat drips from our arms. We stink. Her kind look forgives.
At the apartment we meet the housekeeper, a lovely woman with smiling eyes that feel like home. Our host, Carlos, soon arrives and says in broken English, “I look for you, all day, wait.”
He signs us in, asks for our passports, and says he’ll keep them safe while we are here. I assure him that I’ll hold onto my own passport. The US embassy closed last week due to a sound-wave attack. What would happen if we lost our passports? Every manner of fear runs through my head. Carlos talks about our president, how crazy he is. The keys are in his hands. Suddenly, I realize our precarious position. It’s very important that everything goes according to our self-made itinerary. I try to sooth the political divide between our countries. We’re here on vacation, but it’s starting to feel like a diplomatic mission.
He gives a brief tour of the apartment, then guides us outside where he shows us how to use the keys. The locks are old, and if we do it wrong, the door can lock permanently. Once we’ve showed him we can operate the door he hands me the keys and ushers us away from the building. They feel like safety between my fingers. Conner asks him where we’re going and Carlos says he’s taking us on a tour.
I’m flustered and getting irritable. “I need to use the bathroom.”
I rush back up to the third floor in just enough time.
Back outside, Carlos hands me a cold can of beer, we stroll the Paseo de Prado, and he takes us to the open-air lobby of Hotel Sevilla. A radiant woman with a soulful voice belts out Cuban songs with a band behind her. Carlos orders three mojitos as Conner and I buy packs of cigarillos from the small tobacco shop. He buys Cohibas. I buy Monte Cristos. When we sit down to imbibe Cuba, I finally feel at peace.
We barhop along the Prado, drink mojitos, smoke cigars, and get to know Carlos. He studied in Soviet Russia as an Engineer, was married multiple times, and in his seventies, shows no signs of slowing down his romantic pursuits. He lives a big life, and says that we are now part of it. We are his family. It’s easy to fall into his camaraderie, and in this strange land he has made us feel like old friends. The political divides seem far removed when looking into his kind eyes. The mojitos help topple our walls.
After two nights in Havana, we jump a bus to the National Park in Viñales, five-hours away. Every mile away from the city feels more otherworldly. It is a verdant landscape, vibrantly green. When we make it to Viñales, the bus door opens and we’re accosted by a crowd of faces and hands heralding pictures of their homes for rent. Confusion, a state of panic grows with the many voices. Conner yells over the noise, “I see your name on a sign.”
Look over to see a woman in a sundress, twirling her parasol in the sun, holding a handwritten sign with my last name on it. Her name is Leibys. She is as cool as the shade, the picture of class. She escorts us to her home, calls the local cowboy to take us on a horseback ride across the fields of organic vegetables. At a tobacco farm, we are given the smoothest cigar I’ve ever smoked. We buy some to take home and jump back on our horses, smoking as we go, feeling drunk from the rush of the virgin tobacco. The cowboy takes us to a local swimming hole, where we dive in and cleanse the sweat of the journey from our skin.
The next day Leibys makes us an enormous breakfast, our Cuban mother. She has bikes ready for us. We ride through drizzling rain into the depths of the tropical forest. Enter caves and tunnels. Underground rivers carry us by boat through the mountains. After a day of exploring, we make it back to Leibys’ house, where she prepares an authentic Cuban dinner for us. As a parting gift, she hands us a bundle of cigars, with a smile in her eyes like the crescent moon.
Back on the bus we are close to Trinidad and the threatening man behind us has quieted down. Arrive in the ancient, labyrinth town as the light drains from these maze-like streets. High walls, thin cobblestone pathways, we wander with dramatically incorrect maps. Darkness, no streetlights, few road signs, no house numbers, in broken Spanish ask for directions, given with hand gestures. No one knows the way.
Through the rain and stone rivers, in sandals slipping, up and down the same hills, concentric circles. More directions without destinations. Get on a bicycle taxi. A young man drives us in more circles, asking neighbors for directions. When he is lost and covered in sweat, pay him and continue to wander on foot. Tally the options. Wander further into darkness. When all looks dim, the blue and white door of Tony’s house stands like a lighthouse in a stormy sea.
He smiles, a haven of warm light. We sit at the kitchen table, acquaint ourselves. He’s a musician. Travels the world. He invites us to a local bar he plays at. Tells us about the best restaurant in town, nestled in a hundred year old Ceiba tree. After soothing our nerves from getting lost, Conner and I make our way back out to the dark maze and get lost again. When we finally find our seats under the ancient canopy of that tropical tree, we down mojitos to calm again. The food is the best that we eat on the trip. Trinidad is full of music: drums and guitars, and crowing cocks. We find our way around. At a used bookstore I discover a bilingual copy of Jose Marti poetry. At the end of our stay, Tony shows up at six in the morning to say goodbye and wish us well on our journey.
Back in Havana on our last night, we feel like authentic American tourists, in Hemingway’s hotel, Ambos Mundos. With the last of our money we buy mojitos in the rooftop bar, linger in the organic fumes of Viñales tobacco, feel strangely detached from the real Cuba. There is something missing. Someone. Carlos. Leibys. Tony. Without them, what would Cuba be to us? I begin to see our trip as something new. Perhaps I had wanted Cuba on my list of countries visited, of big game hunted and conquered, mounted on my wall. But instead, we almost ended up in the belly of the whale, were it not for our local connections. Carlos, Leibys and Tony were our whale riders, our guides. And together we rode that great humpback, so full of life. To me Cuba is forever breeching, an untamed creature of the sea.
BIO: When Lance is firefighting in Seattle, climbing the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and sailing the Salish Sea, he writes. SAILBOAT LIVING, his poetry chapbook, was a top-10 bestseller and an honorable mention for the 2016 Homebound Poetry Prize. His debut novel, SECOND-CLASS SAILORS, was featured as “a courageous exploration of the power of love and sexuality to transcend institutional boundaries,” in Kirkus Reviews. His latest work is found in The Stranger, Mountaineer, and The Wayfarer. www.lancegarland.com