It’s night. Our last day. The only sign of civilization is a water tower imposing itself on the film noir highway and the Cuban woman on the radio. She’s sad. Melancholic and worldly, like Edith Piaf performing for the FFI. All can hear it, but few understand its complexity.
About three-quarters of the way through our three-hour return to Havana, that point in time on long drives where you’re itchy and have exhausted all comfortable positions and you’re just folding weirdly onto whatever or whoever is next to you, we pass a broken down car and its stranded operators on the side of the road and pull off to help. This is common practice in Cuba it seems, the intermingling of a culture steeped in Catholic Communism and the American embargo.
Our guide for the day is Ernesto. He’s making a living as a driver/utility player for tourists and visitors to Havana, and sending his money to his son on the other side of the island. Like most Cuban men, he’s a veteran by way of conscription, and the six of us have developed a rapport built on sweat, gin, and the intimacy of strangers. He takes me to the airport in the morning, his car stuttering and dying for a few minutes before it starts through a complex system of looking concerned and something similar to that time Tahj Mowry used a paperclip to fix a Chevelle on Smart Guy.
There’s something simultaneously eerie and comforting about rural island wind in the dead of night. It’s crisp and you relish it while stargazing, but it also means you’re about to become a zombie film statistic.
The stars are clear and omnipresent, and suddenly it feels like I’m in the middle of the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912; no moon, just stars. Dancing the night away with Leo and Kate on the Titanic. In this moment, I’m reminded of Mariela.
We met Mariela two days prior via her mother, Alina, whose shop we wandered into by happenstance; handmade wooden cars with the Cuban flag painted on top were her specialty, and I left with a bag full for friends and family. In the midst of upsells and chit-chat, Alina regaled us with tales of her daughter, a ballerina who worked at an indoor market elsewhere in Havana and had hopes of dancing in the United States before the Trump administration’s Cuba changes. Alina hopes she gets another chance someday. We depart after hugs and more upsells, the kind that mothers and grandmothers give when you don’t visit enough.
Perspiration slides off into rain as we make our way to the market, a trip that should’ve taken twenty minutes and takes one-hundred-and-twenty; in Cuba, everyone is eager to get you where you’re going, but not everyone knows where that is. One man’s twenty-minute walk west is another woman’s three blocks east, and eventually walking becomes a convoy of cycle rickshaws driven by people who assure us we’re going in the right direction.
The indoor market is less chaotic cliche and more shopping mall without air conditioning. Time moves like molasses as I melt into anxiety and grab a drink from a vendor. Raw coconut water tastes like brackish electricity.
Mariela is cute and charming and laughs about her mother sending strangers to talk to her. Some of the guys in our group joke about flirting with her in a different life. After a brief interlude while we wait on the market to close, Mariela leads us to a bar (restaurant?) a few blocks down, and we’re quickly served a round of mojitos. Who knows how many this makes.
The restaurant is reminiscent of an Italian eatery on the south side of a mid-sized city. It’s dingy and comfortable, a place for planning torrid romance and revolts against tyranny.
She is indeed a ballerina, a talented one judging by the video she shows us, and she has danced all over the world. The visa changes ruined her chance at a job in the U.S. and, though she has performed internationally, she makes a pittance as a dancer. She’s not sure she could leave her mother anyway. Nothing will change until the Castros are gone. She doesn’t know what God’s plan for her is, but she wants us to tell other Americans that Cubans aren’t scary. She has a boyfriend in the United States. Phone use is expensive, so they haven’t spoken in a few months. It’ll take a billing cycle for me to realize how expensive. The mood has shifted to that of sadness between old friends. I ask in broken Spanish how long they’ve been together. She responds in broken English. Two years. I’ve been married that same amount of time.
We’re all back in the car and Ernesto is offering a narrative of Castro’s Revolution. There are enough names and places that I can get the gist of events as they unfold. He tells this story often; it’s rhythmic and weighty, a gifted creator before a captivated audience. The active listener in me feels the need to offer “Si” every few minutes, despite my limited Spanish knowledge. I imagine he’d get along well with my PawPaw (grandpa).
José has a cow that drinks rum. They’re both sheltered under the open air bar as we sprint from the car to join them. A downpour has unleashed itself about two hours outside of the Cuban capital, and we’re in dire need of a glass-of-anything and personal space after the sweltering journey. The first stop on our day-trip from Havana. Later we’ll wrap up adrift in a cave, the stalagmites jutting into the dank abyss as the echoing drips lull us to sleep.
José is a cowboy, his sun-soaked leather hat an extension of himself as a human being. I jokingly offer to buy it from him. He’ll take no less than a million dollars. The story, as it goes, is that a rancher from Tulsa, Oklahoma, lived with him for a few months in the 70s and gave it as a parting gift. He hasn’t talked to the rancher since but has fond memories. I tell him he reminds me of my grandpa. He leaves and returns with another of his hats, less distinguished but just as world-worn, and places it on my head, and we all revel in the fact that it fits. I can call him Abuelo José, and the hat is mine to keep. All of us want to call him Abuelo José. All of us want hats. Soon, in grandfatherly fashion, he’s gifting us homemade cigars, and we each end up buying more from him. They’re fantastic. Cigars are his passion project, and it shows with each puff, the flecks of ashes flittering away like notes from a masterful symphony.
The cow has a genteel disposition and has since it was born. Instead of food or a farm animal, he’s José’s companion and, occasionally, entertainer, as tourists pay what they want to ride on him. The French pay the least. Americans and Canadians the most. Some of us take turns riding him, but I’m drunk, two cigars in and content. The rain stopped.
José argues Castro was good for Cuba. José remembers Batista’s reign, before Castro. Batista brought mobsters and dissident round-ups. Castro brought stability and services. Tensions flare between José and Ernesto, a brief yet honest spat about politics. The disagreement vanishes unsettled, and we’re all back to drinking rum and laughing. José grabs one of our cameras and pretends to take pictures with it. He’s confused by all of the buttons on the DSLR; so am I.
We’re leaving and there are tears. José’s eyes are misty. We’re all at least misty, at most crying. Rum and hugs are exchanged, and I’m told to ask for Abuelo José next time I visit. I will.
Four flights of stairs and the mishmashed pastels in our Havana apartment offer a welcoming embrace. Four flights of planes and I’m home.
*Names are changed per requests and caution.
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