As I stroll the streets of Havana I think of that song MacArthur Park about the cake left out in the rain. This is how the city looks—like an extravagant wedding cake left out in the rain. Everything is sliding. If God sneezes, the city will fall over. Take the grandeur of Charleston and leave that place alone to decay in the sea weather for 60 years and you’ll get an idea of how Havana appears today. This is how Rome must have looked after the Vandals sacked it or Danzig after the Russians bombed it. Rubble.
These stately homes of yesteryear are hauntingly charming, and the elegant, vintage cars or “Yank Tanks” are appealing too until they break down. Every day somebody dies as a building collapses. It looks like decadence. It is abject poverty. If you are foreign, you must drink water from plastic bottles. They cost a “cuc” each—the equivalent of our dollar. Natives screen out large dirt particles with cheese cloth. Montezuma’s Revenge hit our bus load of people. Or maybe it is Batista’s Revenge.
Yes, the talented Cubans dance, sing Guantanamero and smile. But they seem doomed like the musicians going down on the Titanic that played their instruments as the boat sank. There is a palatable sadness. In the outskirts of Santa Clara and Trinidad, the peasants with their oxen and plows appeared like a page in a book about medieval times. Horses pulling carts full of people. Flatbeds with hordes rumbled down the streets, unprotected from the hot sun or the rain. It seemed that they were trapped on a plantation or maybe caged in like prisoners on the island of Alcatraz. Everything stopped working in 1958. Blast from the Past some might name it, but I thought it was more like Time Stood Still or Paradise Lost or Gone with the Wind.
Communism is to blame and so is the embargo and so is the fact that time marches on, and these folks couldn’t keep up with it. They are hungrily desperate for the outside world. Young people sit on the curb of hotels featuring WI fi, hoping to hook up to the Internet. The couples line the streets in cars not to smooch but to get a signal. There is a desperate vibe in the city. On the edge of Havana, throngs of folks hitch hike to the country. They can’t afford the local bus.
At one hotel outside of Santa Clara, a mulatto bartender who spoke excellent English, who had taught English, sat with us and talked. We gave him a big tip for one beer, 10 CUC’s. Later that evening we got up with him again, and I noticed other eyes on us. Ears tuned in. Now, he became more guarded in what he said to us.
Our tour guide, a small black woman who was very sweet, revered Che Guevara. He is like a God to her. To me, the mythic Che seems like a narcissistic bandit who stole from the rich, destroyed the middle class, and ruined a nation to enact his own ideology. And then he moved on to other mercenary adventures and finally died in a hail of gunshots like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And his legacy—a country where nothing works. These people who are educated, industrious, and smart have no reason to develop a work ethic as they can’t get ahead for their families. So there is a bit of a malaise among some of them who move very slowly and don’t bother to hurry.
The elevator in the state-run hotel went kaput. A stinky generator put out diesel fumes as it cranked up to make the thing run. We were to meet with a group of writers at a certain time, but the time got changed, and we missed the opportunity. A tourist attraction we were supposed to visit was closed on Monday, but no one seemed to know this in advance. The Hotel Nacional ran out of cups and saucers and glasses and folks started drinking their muddy coffee from bowls. Two cooks made omelets, one at a time, for about 200 guests.
Things don’t go smoothly.
In Trinidad we stayed at a Casa Particulaire. These casas ( B&B’s) have been allowed to start up so that folks can eke out a living. The door knob fell off the door when I tried to exit and I found myself locked in my b&b bedroom, yelling for help. The dogs barked at night; the rooster crowed before it was light. Sleeping in Cuba reminded me of camping out. Nothing is easy.
“What the CUC?” I wanted to scream, but cramps made me scurry to the commode, and now I’d become conditioned to carry with me my own soap and my own tissue which I dutifully toss in the basura next to the toilet. The plumbing is so antiquated that toilet paper will clog it up. I’m thankful when there is a seat cover. In public lavatories there isn’t one, often. Frequently, there’s a woman there demanding you pay her something as she is responsible for cleaning the stalls.
“Enchanting!” declares Anthony Bourdain on his show. ENCHANTING? Intriguing, yes. And sad. The state of disrepair of their country made me feel sad for the Cubans. I was ready to leave, to escape the difficult life, to have needs and wants met, to feel a future spreading out before me. I asked often, “Where does Fidel live?” No one knows. “And Raul?” No one knows. And there are no guns on the island.
I see why.
There is a spirit in America, a compact with the people that promises folks that if they are clever, work hard, and have a good attitude they will succeed in the USA. But in Cuba, one can be industrious, use ingenuity, be kind and be talented and still one scrapes by with little and is often thwarted in endeavors. It came as no surprise to me that Cubans risk their lives to cross the sea to land in Miami. Indeed, they must believe if they succeed in reaching the American shore that they have found the fountain of youth or at least the fountain of hope for a better day going forward.
For those who doubt the uniqueness and wonderfulness of democracy and the resourcefulness of Americans, then those folks should travel and go to lands where folks don’t have what We the People take for granted every day. On their return flight, they will break into applause as the plane’s wheels touch the terra firma of the blessed USA.