27 Jul Cuba Libre and No Hay Pan (we have no bread)
I’d just engaged in an argument with a feisty Cuban-American woman in which I said nothing. Nada, y pues nada. I was speechless though alert to what was about to happen when I saw her striding down the hall to the lost baggage claim, flanked by children and perhaps her mother, dragging a luggage trolley stacked high, bearing the same weary look we all had–all of us just arrived at the Tampa airport from Havana. She was shouting, shall I say, discouraging words.
I had her bag all right. Of course it was a mistake, easily made by someone who had left the long wait and bare bones of Havana airport hours ago, but still. . . . My bag was smallish and blue; hers was too but a tell-tale yellow tie should have alerted me to my mistake. It hung limply as she verbally assaulted the Southwest Airlines representative–and me.
Her kids looked embarrassed, shuffling from foot to foot; the mother apologized; and SHE raged.
I flashed back to the Jose Marti airport where in the sweltering June humidity when we first landed bags for pickup were stacked like giant blue boulders, swathed in tough plastic, supposedly to keep them safe from theft and maybe mis-identification. Bicycles, small appliances, perambulators, clothes. We were told to bring soap and pencils and shampoo for gifts as these were scarce in Cuba. Now these seemed slight thanks for our trip given the great blue need.
But while there’s a scarcity of everything from certain foods to other essentials in Cuba–Cubans import 71 percent of their food–talk is plentiful. While waiting for my colleagues to recover their “lost” luggage (where were those bags on a direct flight from Tampa?), the cab driver picking us up was happy to try out his English as we bungled back our few words of Spanish. But somehow, in just fifteen minutes, we knew his grandson lived in Miami, that he plays baseball, who his favorite players are, and the fact that Trump’s speech the previous day, supposedly undoing Obama’s Cuban travel policies, won’t stop Cubans from improvising. “It is what it is,” he allowed but with a wry smile, perhaps forged by years of survival techniques. After all he would make thirty dollars taking tourists from the airport to the hotel–almost as much as the average Cuban makes in a month ($40.00). In the largest Caribbean country–over 11 million–we discovered lawyers and doctors moonlighting as guides to supplement their meager incomes.
Supplies will continue to be sent–and somehow received.
We were traveling with a colleague from University of Texas at El Paso who, along with another professor of Political Science, brought her communications students. She was born in Cuba, leaving as a child with her family when Castro assumed power; the students’ course was to be more special than perhaps any of us realized. At one point she said, “I am so happy to share my country with you.”
That meant shortages of water and bread (if never the Moors and the Christians–black beans and white rice, a staple), and even ham, at the El Bosque Hotel where we stayed; sensitive travel agents who eyed our straying from the set tour; cab fares than seemed to go up once we were passed along to another driver; trash heaps in the back alleys of gloriously restored historic buildings; shrugged shoulders when the money exchange at the hotel ran dry. But it also meant warm handshakes, friendly humor, a classy attention to welcoming details, caring suggestions, safe streets, extra efforts made, a patience and pride and ingenuity in the face of scarcity that could teach us all lessons.
My friend waited for her lost bag. It was more important to her than the ones she had collected. It held three swimming suits bought for her nieces who would join her in the hotel pool, something they had never experienced. In the bag were other gifts for her relatives, perhaps most importantly cake decorations which would augment her cousin’s cake business, the way in which she supports her family. (Later it was discovered that the family’s stove was broken. A visit to the government store where one might purchase a replacement revealed only commercial gas ovens available. The family had only electricity. And the cost: $1000. The family procured a toaster oven instead, surely a challenge for cake baking.)
Days later, after we had toured Havana Vieja, learned about the Santeria religion in nearby Regla, eaten at a number of lovely paladars (privately own restaurants, a sign of the entrepreneurial boon post Obama/Raul Castro agreements), there still was tension and potential heart-break.
The bag had still not been found.
Then only a day before my friend was to meet her family at the hotel where we all stayed, she got a call to come to the airport to pick up her bag. But she went through hell again, at Customs. She made the long drive back and forth to the airport only to endure three hours of what appeared to be bureaucratic stalling in order to get the bag.
“She came back in tears,” he husband told us. “She was so angry but also so sad. But you know her. When it was all over she gave the Custom Officer who had interrogated and delayed her a tip.”
Yet another generous Cuban.
We miss the cortaditos (expresso topped with foamy milk), the Cuban Libres (rum and coke). But most we miss an intangible quality found in a country throbbing and alive within a time warp. Beautiful 16th century buildings continue to fall into ruin yet are home to thousands in Havana, cars from the l950s cruise the Malecon, but people are not merely surviving but persisting in looking forward.
Back in hometown Las Cruces, New Mexico, a place dealing with mysterious borders and exchanges as well, I take one of my photographs to be framed. I am replacing an image taken of an apartment kitchen in Havana in 2006. Examining that image the framer comments on the beauty of the photograph, pointing particularly to the back door revealing ragged clothes hanging on a line.
“But look how spare,” I say, avoiding the word “poor” as I eye the gray warped wooden counter, the stark stained small sink.
“But it’s all one needs,” the clerk, a Brazilian native, continues. “Think of how extravagant and wasteful what we call ‘necessities.'”
Somehow then another conversation came to mind. One with two Cuban guides, one a doctor and the other a chemist, who drove us to Las Terrazas, a reforested area west of Havana, replanted seed by seed on a blighted landscape and now lush and restored after forty years. It was a pleasant afternoon; there was jamon and cheese at the modest outdoor cafe. We had been asking all the questions about the Cuban National bird, the tocororo, which we’d just seen, the workers cottages and school, the sustainability projects, like this eco-village, in Cuba.
“But what about you Americans,” Miguel translated a question by his assistant. “Are you involved with each other, like with families and neighborhoods. Or are you lonely?”
There it was, what I knew to be a familiar stereotype of individualistic and capitalistic America. Everybody out for himself? We, the consumers, had been asking all the questions and now this one was for us.
Expect surprises. That’s what the Lonely Planet guidebook said. We did and still were surprised– exiles from the truth.