Coming out the door at Havana’s José Martí Airport, hygiene goes right out of the window as dirt, sweat and clammy handshakes start melding with my body like yellow pulsating maggots consuming me.
Claus, a bum-looking German, plants his skinny ass in the cab along with a sorry pale Briton, itching to prove his uselessness. As Europe’s The Final Countdown sets the tune for Havana over the car radio, Claus fails to keep his stories straight and I plot accommodation and Mojitos with Eddie, the nervous Londoner whom I just recruited out of the ATM line.
The heat immediately hits like a suckerpunch but is blessedly free of humidity. My over-stuffed suitcase berates my poor research out of the grimy trunk, and every sleeved and hooded article starts feeling the lack of love in the air. After a cold shower in a hotel on the main drag, the further lack of research unveils the surprise of two different local currencies, one 26 times the price of the other – a Commie device to milk the tourist dry. The street is still a mystery and the vibe is yet to be felt, so we stroll down the boulevard as blank slates for the onslaught of Cuban mockery of all things culinary. Five time zones and nine hours of flight out of Gatwick and I never thought I’d encounter a plate I’d be willing to trade for the vile vein clogging ways of an English breakfast.
Not ones for the soft-sell, these capitalism craving hustlers, vendors and service providing men of Havana. I hone my deaf, dumb and blind act further for each assault. Walk straight and goal oriented while turning a blind eye and feigning ignorance of both the English and Spanish language. Turn reasonable doubt on its head and acquit no smile of guilt or you will find yourself so deeply befriended you end up in someone’s living room battling incredible deals on stolen cigars, crap weed, black market casas particulares (i.e, Bed & Breakfast) or an undesirable piece of ass.
On the Road
Eddie is slowly slipping away and I let him and his touristy ways go without a care. We are just back from the road and traffic bears new, preposterous connotations. Hitch-hikers of refugee camp proportions give way to rickety horse and carriage, melding with traffic going the wrong way or a pair of oxen with cart, trudging forward in medieval slow-motion with produce in tow for a trek the length of the Crusades.
Fact or tourist book legend has it that filling vacant seats with hitchers is compulsory in Cuban law and the sheer amount of raised thumbs supports it. Eddie pops his cherry driving on the right side of the road and raises desperate cries of distress from a ravaged gear-box whose stick he’s accustomed to fondling with his left hand. The vehicle – which is neither washed or cleaned out between customers – rolls its merry way on my credit card and I quickly strip him of his driving rights so that he may focus his terrified little worldview on refusing even those hitchers who give us directions at rural intersections.
The landscape is like beauty stacked upon beauty ad infinitum. Eddie’s hesitant, accented Spanish is engaged with a blond eyesore of a girl he reluctantly picked up as a reward for her directions. My keener and more cynical eyesight, coupled with my lesser Spanish skills, flash us back to where Eddie went from being a fellow adventurer to an untrustworthy object of scorn, where common love of rum and photography ceased to matter – the point where my communist curiosity folded in front of the forces of suspicion.
In the street every impoverished soul is happy as can be and I wonder why because this does not look like a façade. And we’re exploring and we’re walking aimlessly and we take friendly smiles and gestures at face value…and we’re in for a surprise. Or at least I am. Eddie is a dozen paces ahead of me and we’re barely talking, just exchanging observations.
Making New Friends
The guy is young, tall and slender and he slides up to me like a serpent while employing stock hustler terms of endearment. We’ll call him Pedro, as it’s the first name that comes to mind and you’ll go along and he’ll be a person and not just an object signifying the moment Cuba became a chore. Naturally he informs me of our friendship, like they all do, and of course he wants to know where I’m from; he’s not thrown off by my unorthodox answers. I instinctively never let go of my high-end camera, although it hangs on a leash around my neck.
I reject his attempts at bonding through musical tastes and he goes straight for the kill with his left hand, still holding my corresponding shoulder, while the right one lunges for the camera – only to find itself dropping down rapidly along with his scrawny legs pursuing in an arc where his face impacts with pavement alongside the lens.
People tend to freeze with fear I am told and I have seen it in the faces of witnesses at fatal car crashes before, but I have seldom frozen myself. So with my arm around Pedro’s neck for a brief moment, with my elbow and knees to the blacktop, I glimpse Eddie looking like a wild eyed statue and his kick will not come to my aide. So Pedro slips out like a snake and scrambles to his feet and the locals are as blind as Eddie is immobile. Even with my camera still in my grip, blood thirst swells within me and Pedro retreats backwards from my gathering fury and pulls a long, double-edged, ornately hilted knife to sedate my urge for a cold blooded hunt just before turning to run like Forrest Gump.
And Eddie still stands there as if made from stone. I might well just slap him out of his stupor or part my disgusted way with him right there – but I don’t – and as I walk away blood trickles down my forearm from where gravel is lodged deep in the elbow.
Back on the road, the girl leads us to a hilltop lookout so scenic I’d buy property if someone were standing there accepting Visa. We find our way to a restaurant at the edge of a field, where a guy hand rolls cigars sitting at a workbench and the food is just as terrible as everywhere else. The patron takes me into the tobacco drying barn where I finally invest in some cigars because nothing can be as perfect as this – or because the Mojitos are kicking in and it buys me some time away from Eddie and his little 50 mile romance.
Hours later we roll through an army checkpoint, from the directions given by a hitcher, while still unaware of the signature Cuban practice of charging tourists for services they’ve unknowingly received – which we’ll soon become accustomed to at possible gunpoint. But the beach is serene and the scuba diving spear fishermen we encounter is exactly the stuff my Caribbean dream is made of.
After paying through our noses going back the way we came, we end up where superlatives go to die: A deep valley modelled after heaven with sheer rock walls hundreds of meters high, painted with Jurassic scenes commemorating the archaeological finds made right here at this spot with cheap, rustic huts converging on a pool and a small museum.
The price is right and joy starts bubbling inside me again. Inside our bargain hut there a two cots and nothing else but my brimming glee born out of large cigars and swigs of rum straight out of the bottles offered poolside by vacationing school kids. At last I find an edible meal hidden in a backyard full of Scandinavians and Britons dining under the cover of darkness.
Inefficiency Cuban Style
Mastodon is spinning on the car stereo as we run out of asphalt. I’m looking back at the police cluster under the overpass behind us when Eddie starts screaming and I see we are rolling on grass. No signs are posted. The officers aren’t waving people to slow down. The road just ends. What will they think of next? How about having you go to four different registers to pay for different kinds of merchandise at the Supermercado or checking your bag with an old lady? Yup, you bet they got that kinda backwardness in check. Such a sweet vacation spot for queue aficionados indeed. Nobody does inefficiency like the Cubans.
How about me getting the fuck out, I say, although my flight is in 3 weeks and I haven’t been to a Spanish tutor yet. So I go find one and my handful of Spanish trumps her table scraps of English. We give and take for a while and I learn some and she gains some. But the armed robbery jitters funnel down into my paranoia tank and I’m spending more and more time hanging out at the Hotel Nacional, which looks Bond movie sleek apart from the explosions and long legged Bond girls.
Eddie is history – having hightailed it for the airport amidst a scene where our landlords are desperately trying to sell him whatever shit he had said he might possibly buy later every time they pushed it on us. I, on the other hand, cruise Havana for a few days and spend my nights in an easy chair writing prose while hooked to a Cuba Libre I.V listening to a city where living rooms open to the street and keeping secrets must be a bitch, as you can hear every word said – even if your neighbour’s wife is faking it.
I slip out under cover of night and Landlord Luis won’t be on my case again with the cigars his grandma heisted from work. I won’t be roused every day by friends rapping on my door trying to get in. No more street corner Domino games where I’m expected to donate a bottle of Havana Club. Only one last day of endless walking and clicking the shutter, turning architecture – glorious, colonial and crumbling – to pixels, capturing street life in its vibrant vitality and leaving only tourist revenue in return.
The Sunday street market is like a carnival and elsewhere men mix cement with shovels right on the street to patch their derelict homes or take the wrench to their aging Ladas. Canine faeces leave trails like Hansel in the bewitched forest and open sewers run like babbling brooks by foot-high curbs of roads where chariots of Detroit motor companies jerk you kicking and screaming back to the 50s in full Technicolor, spewing plumes of exhaust like Indian signal fires.
Early morning I sit headphoned and finish the last paragraph of my book on the floor of José Martí. The gate is about to open and half a pair of Swedish girls is on the last page of her book as well, and the other half looks surprised when I propose a book trade in Swedish – and behold, I’ve got me a posse for the Mexican leg of my journey.