On the way in Mano paid for both of us. Or I should more accurately say that Mano gave the guard the money in the hopes that he wouldn’t realize I was a tourist but it didn’t work. We also got charged extra for me bringing my camera. Maybe $10 total but Mano only had to pay 50¢. There was, of course, a parking lot attendant. She tried to point us towards refreshments I’m sure would be overpriced but we weren’t coming like ordinary tourists.
The house had all the windows and doors open. You could look inside from these points but you couldn’t enter. It was actually pretty cool and amazing. Not just because of all the dead animals he had mounted on everything or all the books and magazines he had all over the place but just the way the man lived. A great friend of mine says “if you’re broke they call you crazy, if you’re rich they call you eccentric.”
Hemingway had been in Cuba for a year shortly after the revolution. He advised Fidel on how to handle public relations with the US. One of the first things I saw in the house was a cigar box with the inscription “Ernest Hemingway great friend of Cuba.” There was also a magazine with an unflattering caricature of JFK on the cover. I’m pretty sure that was planted later because Hemingway died before JFK took office. As we walked around to the next viewing point we passed some tourists who were complaining about their overpriced tour guide and the fact they were only giving them fifteen minutes to see the museum. I smiled.
On the way back Mano took me to the biggest cemetery in Cuba. On the way in there was an official who wanted to charge us to enter. Mano said this was a new thing and he seemed pretty bummed that the government would charge money to see the dead as though they were nothing more than a money maker. The cemetery looked pretty cool from what I could see but I thought it would be irreverent to take pictures in such a place. When I had visited a concentration camp back in ’00 I also had foregone any pictures out of respect for the dead.
During the drive back towards the house Mano pointed out someone whom he said was part of the “secret police.” I tried to ask how he could tell but he wasn’t able to explain very well. So I asked “who is the enemy of the secret police?” He pointed to himself. He then said that 90% of Cubans secretly informed to the authorities. I’m not sure exactly how that all worked out but it seems to confirm the popular notion of communist countries, trying to ‘police’ the people’s private lives. License plates in Cuba come in different colors: Yellow represents regular citizens: Black is for diplomats : Orange is for rental cars and blue is for people who work directly for the government. A third of all plates are blue.
I can’t say anymore about the secret police but I can say there was a cop on almost every well-travelled corner. Most of them looked very young and had absolutely no interaction with the people who came and went around them. Almost as though it was just another way for the government to try and give everyone a job and purpose. The only time I ever saw any of these cops do anything was late that evening. The cops blocked all traffic two blocks back from the busiest street in town. Then a convoy of black Mercedes flew past. Mano explained that was the way Fidel travelled. That was the closest I got to him on the trip.
That night I was still behind on my sleep so instead of going out and hitting up the town we just hung out at Manos’ parents’ house. After dinner ‘we shot the shit’ then I salsa’s for a couple hours. I was barely competent but knew enough that I was able to keep myself up to the beat while Dieling danced around me in a way that made it look like I knew what I was doing. That night I crashed early and hard. Probably got the best sleep of the entire trip.
Mano lived in a tiny efficiency built on top of a flat concrete roof, on a house, at the end of his parents’ street. He paid seventy dollars a month for the place. Two houses down from his parents there had been a little sliver of undeveloped land. Mano arranged to have a house built on it. After the revolution Fidel had made a big deal of making sure that everyone had at least one, but not more than two homes. He did this by allowing the people to build wherever they wanted as long as it wasn’t in a place that the government was using. He had a big program that taught the people how to build with concrete so everyone built themselves a house. After the initial building spree new construction was restricted and only recently have the restrictions been loosened. The problem was that most of these people didn’t know how to build themselves a house. There are no companies to do this for them so Mano traded his motorcycle to a guy who acted as foreman of the project.
I’m sure there was some money exchanged and I’m sure there were costs to the materials but I got the impression the motorcycle was the largest payment. Additionally Manos’ father who was a “mechanic” worked on the foreman’s truck. A bright red ’46 International. He changed the suspension, fixed the brakes and was attempting to stop the fuel pump from leaking. The truck’s original engine had long ago been swapped out for a straight six from a ’50 Dodge. The fuel pump looked like it had also been Frankensteined from a different vehicle. The problem was in a very simple couple to one of the three gas lines that went out of the pump. It was an incredibly simple little elbow with threads on both ends. For the two weeks I was there Manos’ father looked for that piece every day many times coming back in the evening only to find that the piece he had acquired wasn’t compatible. It was a part that would have cost fifty cents at an auto-parts store in the United States but after two weeks he still hadn’t found the correct piece. For all I know he could still be looking to this day.
The house that was being built blew my mind. Not because it was so grand or because any part of it was truly exceptional but because it was all being built by hand with only the barest of tools. They had some very thin rebar plus a truck load of scrap wood they nailed into forms using a single bag of nails….both of which were constantly being pulled apart and reused for the next part being poured. The doors and shutters were handcrafted out of wood. The electrical line was poured right into the concrete making it impossible to move or work on at a later date. This house was being built with a garage on the first floor and each of the two floors above being their own separate dwelling. Stairs, porches, ceilings and roofs were poured a little at a time then finished by hand. In the States a house like this would be expensive because concrete isn’t cheap but could be done in a couple months using forms and trucks. Mano said his house would take two years to finish. Insane. To top it off the crew of six worked almost twelve hours a day, seven days a week. However they worked at about a third of the speed and about a third as hard as workers in the US. That rule of thumb (a third) was true for almost all workers and industries that I saw on my trip.
Friday afternoon Mano, Dieling, Carlos and I packed up for a road trip to the beach. After all Cuba is an “Island Paradise” right and what could be better than the beach. Again the drive was a journey. When we finally got there we were told by the parking lot attendants that we only had four hours before…. I’m not sure “before what” but somehow we only had four hours. The beach was nice. Not white sand but pretty clean. The ocean was beautiful as it always is to someone who lives in the geographical center of a continent. The smell of saltwater is like a drug and I was in the water instantly. Mano and Dieling stretched out on the beach to work on their tans as though they weren’t already naturally bronze. I went a couple hundred yards out from the beach. I was barely able to touch but every time the waves came in I would jump into them and be tossed up and over. I felt like a little kid.
Finally I tired a little and went closer to shore where Carlos was lounging in the water. He wanted to talk for the sake of talking but instead I chose to steer the conversation towards Cuba’s medical system which is supposed to be world famous. He said that yes there was a doctor on every block more per capita than anywhere else in the world. He said that it was deceiving because there are two different kinds of care: one for the tourists and one for the people. Tourists and important people went straight to the best care. The first thing the locals had to do was approach their neighborhood doctor with their ailment. If that doctor decided they needed more care he would refer them to the next level of care which was a clinic. From there they may refer you to a hospital then a specialist then a surgeon. It was something like five different levels of care. The bureaucracy slowed everything considerably at each step along the way. If you had appendicitis or some emergency that needed immediate attention then it was a coin toss whether or not you’d make it in time.
Carlos also said that many people fall through the cracks within the system. When I asked him to elaborate he told me a story of an old indigent diabetic who had probably lived a very low life on the street and had not taken care of himself. While in the hospital he was not strong enough to be released. The nurses found excuses not to clean him nor take him to the bathroom so he had giant bedsores that became infected and only got worse. The man was old enough to be taken to hospice where he would receive the care he needed but hospice wouldn’t take him as long as he had these ailments. The nurses wouldn’t help him get better because they felt the hospice style care he needed wasn’t their job so he spiraled downward. Carlos said that all the old man could do was yell at the nurses but no one in authority cared. The old man would die in bed at the hospital. More doctors per capita than anywhere else in the world but people die in hospitals simply from not being tended to.
That night Mano took us to a different party in the country. This time Carlos brought his girlfriend along. She spoke the best English of anyone I had yet encountered down there but is very shy so it was hard to get her to talk. I would ask her questions because I knew she would answer directly but Carlos always butt in and rambled on about nothing. This “party” was actually the parking lot between two clubs that were playing music so loudly it carried into the surrounding area. As we pulled onto the road the clubs were on we all had to get out of the car to lighten it up so it could get over a hump in the road left by shoddy road repair work.
We parked the car. I got out and started doing my little steps trying to keep time with the music. Carlos’s girlfriend and Dieling took turns trying to dance with me while Mano and Carlos stood around like bumps on a log. Carlos’s girlfriend seemed to really want to dance with me regardless of his jealous glances. I got the impression I may be the only foreigner she was ever gonna dance with her whole life. He had cheated on her two nights before and was kind of “brow beating” her that evening but she just took it. I couldn’t do anything to change that. We weren’t even dancing close but it seemed like that was the only nice thing I could do for her.
The next day Mano, his Dad and I took a drive into the country to give something to a relative. The pretense was unimportant. I enjoyed the time and somehow technically still in Havana so we couldn’t have gone that far. On the way there we passed a field with some stone houses on it. Mano explained that those buildings used to house the slaves back when slaves still labored in the plantations. Definitely not the kind of thing you would see on one of those pricey guided tours.
On the way back we had to stop the car while some dairy cows milled around in the road. They looked pretty skinny and it took quite a lot of honking to get them to finally move. While all of this was going on Mano explained that the cows were quite a luxury item. If a Cuban got caught killing a cow he would get twenty years for it whereas if a tourist got caught killing a Cuban he would only get five. The difference he explained “is that the cows belong to the government.”
Along the way I couldn’t help but notice the state of agriculture in Cuba. Coming from Iowa (ground zero for ag) I noticed quite a bit of difference. The Cubans almost never used tractors or other large machinery. Instead they simply threw manpower at any and all aspects of farming. When looking out over a piece of land the field was usually much smaller than the plot itself. The rows of crops were rarely actually rows. I guess you don’t need rows if you don’t have tractors. I saw very little corn and a lot of trees (banana, avocado etc.). Noticeably absent was any kind of natural irrigation or landscaping to prevent erosion. Very different.
After we dropped Mano’s dad off at his house we headed for the marina on a hunt for some langouste (lobster). This journey was very wayward. On the way we passed a hotel named El Viejo y El Mar (The Old Man and the Sea) named after the book Hemingway won the Nobel prize. In front of the hotel is a fountain that has a sculpture depicting the pinnacle of the book. …when the old man finally hooks the fish and it jumps in the air. It was funny though because that fountain, like all the others I saw in Havana, didn’t have any water in it. I’m sure it did when it was first built but has since fallen into disrepair and now is just an elaborate statue.
When we finally got close to where we were going Mano started asking people on the street “who has the lobster?” It took a few knocks on unanswered doors but eventually we went around to the back side of one of the houses and got ten lobster tails for twenty bucks. Let me tell you they were amazing.
On the way back we talked about the smog from the cars. Mano explained that in Cuba the cars ran off of 83% octane gas but sometimes it would get cut along the way and end up even lower. I had read their gas came from Venezuela and asked how it was that Cuba could afford this expensive resource. “What did they trade to Venezuela for the gas?” The answer shocked me “doctors and medicines” was Manos’ reply. After hearing from Carlos about the state of Cuban health care I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I struggled to wrap my mind around how bad medical care in Venezuela must be if doctors from Cuba were an improvement. I’m not sure it was actually a physical trade of doctors for oil; Cuba may have simply educated the doctors, but still.
That night Mano, his partner (whose name escapes me) their girlfriends and I went to a concert. It started late maybe eleven or midnight and cost me five bucks to get in. There was an MC who was in charge of the whole event. He acted as announcer and self-promoter. He played a bunch of popular songs for a while then started interacting with the crowd. He picked me out as a tourist and asked in Spanish where I was from. I didn’t understand his question but the others were quick enough to answer for me. He played a clip from Will Smith’s “Welcome to Miami” with an American montage playing on the screen. I thought it interesting he picked a song that was more than ten years old. I suspect he didn’t get a lot of Americans showing up there.
While he was playing records there was an older, white looking guy who was dancing with a very attractive, very skinny young Cubana. He knew how to salsa. That’s what he was trying to do but most of the music didn’t work out very well for salsa so he struggled as she danced all around him. She was wearing a very short skirt that she continually fought to keep down. He kept coming back with new rounds of beer… the preferred choice of Cuban women. She was so obviously out of his league and because of the dismissive way she treated him I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion she was gonna get a hundred dollars in the morning. The standard amount of money a Cubana would want after a night of intimacy.
I couldn’t help but think of all the times I had spent at least that much money in one night on dinner, drinks plus a show and still come up empty-handed afterwards. In that light it seemed like a bargain. At the end of my trip I would leave, as a gift to Mano, almost all of my possessions I brought with me. They were of much greater value than a hundred dollars and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had found a Cuban girl with whom we had a connection if I would have given her a similar gift. This was uncharted moral territory for me.
When the music finally came on it was a group called Kolaloca which I think means “crazy kola” but somehow doubt it was a drug reference. They played “reggae ton” which is a Hispanic club blend but were not as special to me as they were to everyone else. In the States there is a huge macho influence to any male music reformed but in Cuba the men aren’t really very macho. They may wear tight fitting clothes but they lack the swagger of someone who thinks he is tough. Their music reflected this. It was almost like Spanish hip-hop minus any tough guy references and from the looks of the performers it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had been told they all still lived with their parents. However their music had definitely been the stuff I had heard at the first discoteca (club) and both the parties in the country. How crazy that this was one of the most popular groups on the island.
This music was definitely not salsa so I did my best to bob to the music. Mano’s partner’s girlfriend who they called “Flacca” (skinny girl) and for good reason danced with me. She was way more into bumping then grinding and eventually I tired of her using my pelvis as a punching bag. I made an attempt to turn my body so I wasn’t as exposed to a direct shot. I would have expected him to be mad about his girlfriend’s actions but he seemed to only encourage her. Finally she went back to dance with him…he was a much better dancer anyway. As the concert started winding down I couldn’t help but notice some of the more attractive girls start to dance close by me as though they were making themselves available in case I wanted to make the first move. After a time with no encouragement from me they would move on and another one would dance over. Unfortunately I was still sorting out the morality of it all or I was simply too sore to care. When the concert finally ended it was four in the morning and I was beat.
We had made plans to go to church on Sunday morning and then a cock fight but after such a late night it didn’t happen. I wandered over to Mano’s parents well after noon to a breakfast of rice, beans, unsweetened apple yogurt, fried plantains and of course coffee. I asked Mano about the religion Santeria which is famously referenced to in the song by the band Sublime. It’s a mixture of traditional island voodoo plus Catholicism that was introduced by the Spanish. Mano said about half of Cubans are Catholic and the other half of which he is one practice Santeria. I asked if he could take me to a service but he said it wasn’t that organized and he showed me a little shrine set up in the other room. Mano explained that every time they open a bottle of liquor they pour the first shot on the ground which is a tenant of the religion.
That afternoon Mano took me to a little neighborhood with some raggedy looking houses. However once we got inside I started noticing there was a lot of mosaic tile on everything. Mano explained there is an artist named Fuester who started tiling mosaics at a young age and just never stopped. He became a favorite of Castro’s so he got all the tile he wanted and lived relatively nicely. As we got farther into the neighborhood the tile started to cover everything. The houses, sidewalks, walls that fenced in the yards. Then… we reached the epicenter. Fuester’s house looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. He had obliviously tiled every square inch a long time ago so he started adding on porches, pavilions, decks and verandas. Then he just started building statues and abstract protrusions of cement all of which he covered in tile. I could see there were a bunch of mosaics that looked like they had been collaborated with school children. There were tables and benches and gates: I am running out of words to describe just how absolutely over the top this whole thing was.
We got out of the car and I snapped some pictures as we ventured into the courtyard a little ways. The place had been added onto so many times I couldn’t tell where the original house had been. I didn’t want to wander into somebody’s personal space but at the same time I was over the top curious. There was another girl there taking pictures as well and when I said that the place was amazing she answered back her agreement in English. I asked her where she was from. She said LA. I had been in Cuba for one week and she was the third person I was able to speak English with.
As we stood back in the street admiring the place there was an old guy with no teeth who walked over from somewhere. He tried to talk to me a little but he only spoke Spanish. With no teeth it was impossible for me to understand anything he said. Finally he indicated he wanted me to take his picture. Mano leaned in and whispered the word “boracho” which means drunk. I’m not sure if he was saying that the guy was drunk or if he was calling him a drunk. I took the picture and as we were leaving he asked me for a little money. I declined. In all my time in Cuba he was the most destitute person I encountered but if I had to guess I would say he probably had a roof over his head every night.
On the way back to the house Mano spotted a guy riding a bicycle with a stringer full of fish. He asked if I’d like some fish and I said “hell ya.” Again I was told “don’t say anything.” Mano parked the car in front of the guy then walked back to talk to him. After a brief negotiation he came back to the car and said it would be twenty dollars. I have no idea what the going rate is for fish in Cuba but there must have been fifty pounds or so. I gave him the money. Then we spent at least the next half hour trying to find a grocery bag to put them in so the car wouldn’t smell all fishy. That is how things are in Cuba. You come across a good deal then spend a ton of time on some tiny logistic.
In our journey we passed the presidential compound which is where Fidel still lived. It was on a pretty major thoroughfare with an iron fence around it but from the road it looked like jungle in there. There were signs on the fence that had the image of a camera with a red circle around it and a slash through it. “No Pictures.” I had no idea how far from the road the house actually sat but once again something I had expected would be grand, like the President’s house, was instead kind of a dud.
That night I ate a whole fish for only the second time in my life and it was excellent. Afterwards we went to a show that Mano called “disco timba” which I think translates to something like “Cougar’s Club.” It was in a swanky tourist restaurant that apparently reserves Sunday nights for the locals. There was a comedian who seemed to get a pretty good response from the crowd even though I couldn’t say for sure what he was saying. After he finished they started playing a bunch of old dance music from the States. There was some disco, some stuff from the eighties and was definitely aimed at the older crowd. I can’t say all the ladies there were cougars because a lot of them seemed to come with husbands but I could see enough to understand why Mano called it that. We found ourselves a little spot. Dieling and I salsad for a few hours. It wasn’t much but I was still kind of wiped out from the night before.