During our six-day Christmas vacation in 2016, Naomi and I saw many instances of the fervent patriotism we had seen on the plane among our fellow passengers as we landed in Havana.
A bookseller with whom we talked exemplified this love of country. He was peddling books and posters in an open air market. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and straw fedora, he was trying to interest us in a poster showing a bent arm and doubled up fist. He was struggling for a translation of the verb in the poster’s caption. It was rendirse. “Surrender,” I told him. “To surrender.” “Yes,” he said, and with broken English went on to say how Cubans don’t surrender. His face glowed with pride as he remembered the courage of his countrymen who had stood up against the power of the United States. It was a David and Goliath story and he was very proud of Cuba!
I was very curious to find out what people thought about their government. Most Cubans have known only the regime that Fidel and his revolution established in 1959, a movement born with bloodshed and an absence of human rights.
When I posed my political questions, people lowered their voices and looked around to make sure they couldn’t be overheard. Most people however appreciated what they received from their government. Our driver Isael and his wife were expecting a baby soon, their first. They would pay nothing for the delivery of their baby. A visitor gets the idea that the Cuban government looks out for its people. The education and health care systems have drawn praise from all over the world. Ninety-nine per cent literacy is a source of pride.
People accepted that they had traded their freedom for security. It was a deal they could live with. Meanwhile, they welcomed the progress the regime would deliver over time. Renovation would proceed. Tourism so important to the island would expand. “No bloqueo,” all agreed. “No blockade.” They had all suffered from the one imposed by President Kennedy. Ironically, the US blockade of Cuba had created conditions which enabled Russia to secure a foothold in Cuba.
Of all the folks we interviewed, only one person expressed bitterness and animosity toward the government. Pedro had promised us a tour around the city. He drove what was called a bicitaxi, a three-wheeled bicycle-like vehicle with seating for two passengers. As Pedro pedaled us around town, he spoke freely of his disdain for the slow restoration of historic buildings and of his inability to make good money. He was divorced and separated from his seventeen-year-old son who lived with his mother in Miami. He wouldn’t be able to join him there for another three or four years. “I want to go back to the U.S. with you,” he said.
Most Cubans we met though seemed inherently joyful, with exemplary patience and a survivalist spirit. They have put up with shortages of all kinds. They have done so much with so little .
One night walking back to our room, we passed an old man sitting on the concrete steps outside his doorway. He had in his hand a small mallet which he was using to chip away the concrete on his step.
I longed to stop and visit with that old man, ask him more about his home improvement project. Why was he chipping away at the concrete? What would replace it? How long did he expect this project to take? Would he get help from the government? I expected he would.
As we walked further down the street, we could still hear the chink-chink-chink of his mallet. In my mind he became a metaphor for Cuba. Doing so much, with so little, and with such patience.
One evening, Naomi and I went to dinner in a café housed in a baroque palace dating from the mid-eighteenth century. Naomi ordered a Cubano. She wanted to see what the Cubans do with the ham and cheese sandwich popular in the U.S. The wait person told her “No hay.”
“No hay Cubanos en Cuba? Naomi asked. “Por que no?”
“Porque no hay pan,” said the wait person.
So the restaurant had no bread. “I’m going to call this country ‘the Land of Lack’,” announced Naomi. She was right. Traveling in Cuba made us appreciate so many things we take for granted in America. Like toilet paper. We found only one hotel that had toilet paper readily available in the lobby restroom. In the others there was always a little old woman sitting outside the restroom beside a stack of torn-up napkins. When you put a few coins in her basket, she would give you a tiny piece of paper.
The Cubans seem capable of coping with these missing items. They have also learned ways to meet their needs. Isael was a medical doctor, but his salary was limited by the state. To supplement his income he furnished taxi service.
Isael took Naomi and me to visit Museo Hemingway, fifteen kilometers outside of Havana. In 1940 Hemingway had bought a sugar cane plantation which included a charming bungalow where he lived until 1960 when he moved back to the U.S. Tourists are not allowed to go inside the house, but they can peer in the open windows to see all the furnishings of the Hemingways. We were staring at the animal trophies on the walls and stacks of books which littered the tables when an attractive Cuban woman joined us and began to tell us all about the land, the house, the tower added to the property to provide the writer with a place to write, but which he only used as a place to house his fifty-seven cats. She had quite a spiel and many stories to tell us, but we learned at the end of our visit that her information did not come for free. She expected payment which we gladly provided, yet we had never asked her for this service. This was her way to make ends meet.
We visited the beach area one day, east of Havana, a lovely expanse of sand bordered by evergreen forests. A couple of musicians wandered up to entertain us. The guitarist ended up making a marriage proposal to Naomi and the fellow with dreadlocks who played the bongo took a liking to me. Something amusing like that was always happening. Naomi and I felt embraced by the Cubans.
One afternoon we met Rojas. He was standing beside his classic car parked with other drivers and their classic cars outside the Hotel Inglaterra, one of the most popular tourist gathering places in the city. There were at least two rows of parked ‘50s vintage automobiles, most of them convertibles, lined up for hire. The place resembled a small used car lot.
Naomi chose a bright red one, gleaming in the sun. I don’t even know what brand it was. All I saw was big and beautiful and red. We approached the driver, a rather portly fellow with a round smiling face, wearing an untucked sports shirt and a brown felt fedora. His name was Rojas and we quickly settled on a price for a couple of hours transport around the city.
“But I don’t have a hat,” I said. “El sol me mata.” “The sun kills me.” I hadn’t dressed for an excursion in a convertible.
“No se preocupe, no worry,” Rojas assured me. “Tome el mio,” and he yanked off his own hat and gave it to me.
“But what about you?”
“No worry,” and he opened his trunk and produced another for himself.
So we were off, Naomi sitting in the front seat with Rojas, and me in the back with his sombrero.
For two hours we glided around Havana in what felt like a big red boat on four wheels.
Rojas wasn’t particularly talkative, more “all business” with a route firmly in mind.
He showed us the Plaza de la Revolucion we had seen with Isael shortly after arriving. Again, we were impressed with the grandeur of the space. How odd to be in such an important city center without gridlock traffic. Never did we encounter anything like that in Havana. The streets might be choked with people, but never cars.
Rojas took us to a lovely city park with lots of trees and walking paths, right in the center of what appeared to be a residential area. We noticed a mansion across the street from the park, an enormous dwelling dating back centuries. On one of the balconies was a fellow in an undershirt, catching the morning sun. We asked Rojas who that person might be? The mansion looked as though it could use better maintenance but could certainly be home to someone important, not some guy in an undershirt.
“Does he live there?” I asked Rojas.
“Si, claro, el con muchas otras familias.” Rojas said that a house like that would typically house eight families at least. Before the revolution a rich family would have lived there. With Fidel in power, the home would have been expropriated by the Communist government and become a home for poor families. The rich folks had jumped on the boats to go to Miami.
In the park there was a life-sized bronze sculpture of John Lennon. We took our photos sitting beside him on the park bench. I felt that John would have approved of the revolutionary government’s position on housing.
Rojas’s last stop for us was dropping us off at the fort, El Morro de los Tres Reyes, built in 1774, on a piece of land jutting into the sea. A wall had been constructed one hundred years earlier than that around the city. The new fort made Havana the most heavily fortified city in the New World.
After our tour I had to give my hat back to Rojas and then he drove away in his shining automobile. We caught a much less fancy taxi to go to the Hotel Nacional, built in 1930, an art deco/neoclassical architectural treasure modeled after a hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. We wanted to have a drink in the hotel where so many American movie stars had stayed. Photos of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ava Gardner, and others paper the walls of one of the hotel’s main corridors.
The last night we were in Havana we ate dinner at a restaurant called O’Reilly 304, which happened to be the street address of the establishment. We had no reservation but the owner told that we could go across the street where there was an annex to the restaurant. We happily complied and climbed the stairs to its second floor venue. We were seated at a table on the balcony and were just finishing our lobster dinner and draining our pina coladas when the restaurant owner came out on the balcony and began to yell across the street to the manager of the main restaurant. There was a crowd on the street, wanting to be seated, and the owner was hollering directions to them and to his staff across the street. Naomi and I just smiled.
We didn’t spend our last night in Havana at Raul’s place as it turned out. Yany had told us that our room there had been rented to a Brazilian couple so she was going to accommodate us in her flat. She promised us that our room would be very comfortable. There was only one problem: another guest, Alessandro from Italy, would have to walk through our room to get to his. By this time we were taking anything that came along with equanimity. It worked out, although there was an altercation with Alessandro when we attempted to use the hot water. We learned that two people could not shower at the same time, and he was first. We patched up our differences with Alessandro though and he greeted us the next morning at six o’clock with a cheery “Buenos dias!” as he headed through our room on his way to the kitchen. We were too busy packing our suitcases for an early departure to pay much attention.
We had said our goodbyes the night before to Raul. He was almost tearful as he told us in broken English that we were “the best guests.” I believe he had fallen in love with Naomi. He gave us both a comic book with the title, Revolucion, which I will treasure. I had bought a Fidel cap with an image of Che on it at the market the day before. I felt quite the Communist.
Naomi and I left Havana with hearts filled with cries of “Viva la revolucion!”