I expected the smell of oleander. Somewhere I had read this description of Havana, but I can’t remember where. Oleander, sultry weather, men in fedoras, women in spiked heels, salsa dancing, rum, and cigars.
More than a half century ago, my parents used to vacation in Cuba and fell in love with the country. Years after his last trip, my father still reminisced about the boulevards lined with beautiful mansions. Yet a divide between rich and poor existed that he acknowledged was unsustainable. Soon, Fidel Castro would sweep into power on the heels of a revolution. My parents annual vacation to Cuba ended.
Our first morning in Central Havana, I rose early and went in search of the Cuba of my imagination. As I wandered the streets, I kept my journal open and jotted down every sight, sound, and feeling. The sun had been up for an hour, yet already the humidity was overpowering. A rooster crowed. Wheel barrows bumped over pot-hole infested roads. A dog lay dead on a pile of garbage. A man sitting on the curb smiled and said hello.
I breathed in deeply and noted nothing, so I inhaled again. No oleander—no flowers of any sort, no aroma of cooking, no hint of perfume, not even a trace of the wicked, black exhaust puffing from the tailpipes of fifty-year-old cars.
Cuba, it seemed, had no smell at all.
As the new year approached, garbage started to pile along the streets—in bags or cans but mostly in heaps. On our way to dinner, our bus driver stopped on a Havana city street to clear an impassable blockade of debris.
I began to notice a fetid smell–one which waxed and waned to the trash collection cycle.
The mansions of my father’s stories were largely crumbling. From our hotel window, we looked down onto one of the grandest boulevards with a central walkway, the Paseo del Prado, which cut directly out to the seaside–the Malecón. Rooftop dwellings existed under makeshift covers; rooms were created by haphazardly placed plywood or loosely draped sheets.
Early in the morning people ran across the open space to a toilet in the corner. By noon, a clothesline full of laundry obstructed our view.
As dismal as the living conditions were, change was evident. Part of the emergence of a new Cuba allowed private individuals to restore buildings and to open restaurants—paradors–in mansions tucked away on gloomy streets. The ambiance was stunning, but the food no better than the high end of mediocre. A block from our hotel, a Hemingway Bar–Sloppy Joes, reopened in the last year or two with a long, gleaming mahogany bar where tourists drank mojitos.
At night, we danced, smoked cigars, and drank rum. Strangers welcomed us, hugged us, and laughed as our inept American hips failed to emulate the Latin undulations of their salsa tutelage. The people exuded an impressive graciousness, spirit, and joyfulness.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, a smattering of fireworks illuminated the sky for no longer than the time required to count to twelve. January first is the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, but in the downtown, I saw no signs of celebration.
New Years morning we walked the streets of a middle-class, Cuban neighborhood as Havana began to wake up. Mambo blared from apartment windows.
Having lived in two post communist countries (Slovakia and Hungary), I was particularly interested to witness the daily life I had heard about from our friends—rations, Russian cars, and forced joie de vivre.
A local friend and I walked alone as the others took photographs. A well dressed man staked out the corner, his aviator sunglasses hiding his eyes–a player. My friend laughed, “I recognize all these people. The same roles exist in my neighborhood. That guy, he buys unused ration cards and sells them for a profit to people who need more. My family never has enough rice.”
I commented on the apparent happiness, then told a story from Slovakia of a young woman who broke down when her peers mimicked the forced happiness of Labor Day under communism. She chastised them, “We had to act happy. It was hell and you know it was. How can you laugh?” I was curious to gage his reaction.
He smiled, “You understand our secret. Cubans know the consequences of their public behavior.” As I considered this simple admission, I realized as an outsider, I would never accurately understand life in Cuba.
Two days later, the photographer who led our tour searched for a cup of coffee one Sunday morning as we walked the streets of a neighborhood across the harbor from Havana Viejo. In his quest, he inquired at every bar, and in turn, each bartender shook their head, “No.”
Finally, one woman behind a counter yelled something indecipherable down an empty street. Within five minutes, her friend ran out of a house with three plastic cups of espresso. The barista rinsed juice glasses, poured the coffee into them, and placed them on the bar. I smiled, “Gracias,” and handed her loose change from my pocket which totaled no more than a dollar. The two women happily split the coins before the friend disappeared back into her home.
The coffee was thick and sweet, strong and delicious. But why was it so hard to come by? Was it a rationing issue? Or simply that no Cuban can afford to buy coffee brewed outside of the home? Was it normal that someone brewed coffee in their home for strangers? I was touched, but confused.
Across Cuba, I noticed a fundamental lack of commerce; I never saw a grocery store, a place to buy a stick of chewing gum, a flower shop, or a card store. With the US embargo, there were no American brands–not a can of Coke, a McDonalds, or a Starbucks.
Like the elusive scent of oleander, Cuba was defined, as much as anything, by it’s voids.
Today, the US sanctions against Cuba seem silly. When I mentioned the end of sanctions to our local friend, he smiled. “The Castro brothers will lose their last great excuse. It will be interesting.”
On our final day, I was talking with a woman on our trip who had developed a genuine love of Cuba and the Cuban people over a handful of visits during the last three years. As we discussed the current situation in Cuba, she commented, “I hope it never changes here. I hope that relations never fully open.”
I was momentarily stunned that an American with a $10,000 camera dangling around her neck could wish upon these people what seemed like a destiny of permanent poverty. Yet at some level, I understood her concerns. It will be a shame if Cuba loses its essence as the economic situation improves.
Pat and I are still ruminating on our Cuba experience and debating whether we want to return. For now, we are both unsure.
If we do, I hope to discover a changed Cuba—oleander tinting the breeze, locals purchasing adequate rice to feed their families, a genuine happiness which endures long after the puppet master has stopped pulling the strings.
And when the clock strikes midnight, I hope the Cubans pour into the streets, salsa dance in high-heels, tip back their Fedoras to light cigars, and drain bottles of rum as fireworks explode endlessly in the night sky.
Categories: Central America