“What Tom Miller has put together in Travelers’ Tales Cuba is as ‘Inside Cuba’ as you can get.”
—Elmore Leonard, author of Cuba Libre
From revolution to embargo, from the charms of old Havana to the beaches of the Bay of Pigs, from the hypnotic rhythms of Caribbean music to voodoo influences, Cuba is a country of passion and omplexity, a political dinosaur on the verge of dramatic change. In this eye-opening literary ensemble, Cuba emerges with all its strengths and weaknesses, convictions and contradictions.
Notable authors include Cristina Garcia, Pico Iyer, Dave Eggers, Ruth Behar, Eduardo Galeano, Bob Shacochis, Andrei Codrescu, James A. Michener, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Henry Shukman, Robert Stone, Randy Wayne White, Patrick Symmes, Jon Lee Anderson, and many more.
- Swivel your hips with Stephanie Elizondo Griest as she dances with Havana’s mistress of rumba
- Pick up hitchhikers with Dave Eggers and meet the starting center for the Cuban women’s national basketball team
- Feel the heartbeat of Cuba on late night musical excursions with Henry Shukman
- Learn the Cuban secret to life—making the most of what you have—with Cristina Garcia
- Join Patrick Symmes on his search for the Ernesto “Che” Guevara legend
- Deliver the mail in the back alleys of Havana with Stephen Benz and learn how mosthabaneros live
- Encounter the Cuban love of baseball with Randy Wayne White
- Glimpse the quirks, charm, and creativity of Cubans on an unusual bus ride with Eduardo Galeano…and much more
I’m listening to “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop” right now, Dizzy Gillespie’s terrific 1947 fusion of traditional jazz and Latin rhythms. Intricate drumming and chanting from Africa via Cuba surround this musical alloy. The mix of American jazz with muscular, otherworldly sounds gave us something altogether fresh, simultaneously rough and sophisticated, captivating and unique – much as foreigners have seen Cuba in the intervening decades.
When the United States government broadened the definition of who can legally travel to Cuba in the late 1990s, an overflow of applications came gushing in. While the number of American tourists ignoring U.S. strictures on travel to the island continued to increase, a whole new breed of “study groups” started to appear. My favorite was a flock of undergraduate English students from an upper Midwest frostbelt college who came to the sunny Caribbean in the dead of winter. They were the usual bunch – unfailingly polite, hair predominantly adolescent orange, and they spoke almost no Spanish. They were in Cuba, they averred, to learn about Hemingway in Havana. And this is how these American college students studied Hemingway in Havana: every morning after finishing breakfast at their hotel’s buffet, they returned to their rooms and changed into their swim suits, picked up a towel and a Hemingway paperback or two, descended to the pool, and lay down in a lounge chair to study Hemingway in Havana.
With all due respect to those students, there are better ways to learn about Cuba, even to study a foreign writer’s life there a half-century ago. Just before dawn one morning a few years ago along the MalecÃ3n, Havana’s expansive seaside boulevard, I met Humberto, a 34-year-old fisherman sitting on the seawall. He snapped his line out from a reel his late father had left him; nice wrist action. When I mentioned Hemingway in passing, he abruptly stood up and, unprompted, recited the opening lines of The Old Man and the Sea as if it were the Lord’s Prayer. “I practically idolized Hemingway for how he identified with Cuban fishermen,” Humberto said when he sat down again. “I was raised with a healthy admiration for him.”
It’s surprisingly easy to sidestep the well-marked tourist trail, to get under Cuba’s skin. Spend a peso to ride a city bus. Pass an afternoon walking the streets of La Lisa or La VÖbora, two neighborhoods that seldom see foreigners. Late at night drop in at the Cabaret Las Vegas, a decidedly second-rate but wonderful nightclub, and watch musicians, dancers, rappers, magicians, comics, and crooners take the stage in rapid succession in an all-night variety show. Most recently, the Las Vegas has appeared in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s fiction, Dirty Havana Trilogy, but if you stay long enough you may feel like a character in Three Trapped Tigers, Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s masterful and bawdy 1960s novel set in Havana’s decadent pre-Castro years. The book’s narrator, who wears many hats but sometimes little else, hangs out at the Las Vegas, where a wide variety of fleshy entertainers whisper bad puns in his ear.
Listen closely to what people on the street call norteamericanos. If it sounds like “yuma,” you’ve got good ears. In Cuban street slang, yuma means a foreigner, more specifically, someone from a non-Spanish speaking European or North American country, and most particularly, from the United States. When someone asks my brother-in-law where his sister went, he might say, “Se fue pa’ la yuma.” She went to the United States. Or an American tourist strolling down Havana’s Prado might hear, “¡Oye, yuma! ¡Ven acá!” Hey ‘merican, com’ere! Yuma is a word unknown in Mexico or any other Spanish-speaking country that I know of.
Cubans have always liked our Westerns going back deep into the Batista years, including the Glenn Ford classic, 3:10 to Yuma. The movie, popular in theaters and on Cuban television, was quintessentially American. Based on a 1953 Elmore Leonard short story, it portrayed the nuance of cowboy honor and obligation. In the quirky way that one language absorbs the sounds and images of another, Cuba, which has embraced so many American totems, has taken Yuma if not to its heart, at least to its tongue. The Cuban street-slang yuma derives directly from the film 3:10 to Yuma.
Late one Havana afternoon, hot on the yuma trail, I visited Fernando Carr, a word maven whose language column in the weekly Bohemia keeps Cubans on the linguistic straight and narrow. It would be tempting to call Carr the Cuban William Safire, but looking north from Havana, I prefer to think of Safire as the American Fernando Carr. He lives in an apartment house on Salvador Allende Avenue, a street everyone calls by its prior moniker, Carlos III, and when I stepped off the elevator on his floor I gave thanks that no power blackout had taken place during the previous forty-five seconds. I brought along a bottle of rum – de rigueur for a foreigner visiting a Cuban for the first time – and with some ice cubes Carr retrieved from a neighbor’s refrigerator, we climbed a ladder to his building’s rooftop. There we sipped Havana Club as my host pointed out landmarks on the Havana skyline: nearby, the old American-owned telephone company; farther away the cluster of buildings at the Plaza de la RevoluciÃ3n where Pope John Paul II – himself a yuma – celebrated mass in 1998. I pointed waaay off to the north and a little west, and said, “La yuma, ¿verdad?” The United States, right? Carr nodded, agreeing that indeed the word likely came from 3:10 to Yuma. Moreover, he thought it was reinforced by the similarity between the first syllables of Yew-ma and Yew-nited States. Next time I see Carr I’ll present him with “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop,” eight syllables that ought to keep the linguist busy for a while.
Most of all, get outside Havana. The people move slower and the air feels more Caribbean. The dollarization of Cuban culture does not yet dominate the countryside, but foreigners have wandered down just about every paved road, slept in farmers’ haystacks, and received emergency medical treatment in the most unpopulated regions of the country. One day near sunset years ago I was trying to find a town near the south coast that I’d heard had available lodging. I carefully followed the back-country roads on a detailed map I carried with me until I arrived at a village at the end of the blacktop. I pulled up to the plaza where an elderly gent wearing a Spanish beret sat by himself. “I thought this road continued through town to the highway,” I said, holding up my map. With his cane he pointed back down the road I’d just come to town on.
“You must have that German map,” he said with a chuckle. “Every few days someone comes here looking for a road that doesn’t exist, and every one of you has that German map.” I looked at the fine print in the corner, and indeed the map was produced in Germany. We lost travelers were the fellow’s only source of entertainment, and he invited me to sit a spell and chat.
He was known as El Blanco – Whitey – he said, but there were fewer and fewer villagers left to call him that. The town had no industry and farm labor opportunities were shrinking. Many of his neighbors had gone to Havana to try their luck. Officials in Havana, alarmed that their overcrowded city was growing yet further, began checking ID cards and sending easterners back home. It became the buzz of the street, just below the surface, but Los Van Van, the best dance band north of the South Pole, gave the anguish high profile with their song, “La Habana no aguanta más,” Havana just can’t take any more.
Another of their uptempo songs popular in Havana’s overrun barrios tells of the magical carpenters who manage to create yet more space out of already cramped living quarters. “Artesanos del espacio,” it’s called, Artisans of Space. Los Van Van give sassy voice to those who have the least.
To many travelers, Whitey in the countryside and Los Van Van’s audience in the big city have a certain incorruptible integrity. It stems not from what they have but from what they don’t: McDonald’s, and the worldwide consumerism it symbolizes. With the foreboding that such businesses may well come ashore in the early post-Castro era, and ignoring that many Cubans would welcome such flamboyant and homogenized offerings, most travelers marvel at the opportunity to visit a land in its pre-golden arches era. The U.S. embargo, nasty and reprehensible as it is, has helped isolate Cuban culture from the commercial excesses of our own. After the embargo melts, well, we can all meet to discuss this further at Six Flags Over Cuba.
“Words should be bright as gold,” wrote José MartÖ, father of Cuban independence, “light as wings, solid as marble.” I kept those words in mind when I selected the pieces you’re about to read.
The writers swoon, argue, get frustrated, and fall in love. They are innocents, sophisticates, naïfs, and spirited participants. They’re bewildered, up-ended, challenged, disillusioned, and hopeful. Some are gullible, others suspicious. None are passive, and each has a good story to tell. In short, they’re all over the map.
If you read between the lines, you’ll come to know Cubans and a Cuba far from today’s headlines and yesterday’s rancor. And if you listen between the lines, you’ll hear Dizzy Gillespie’s “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop.”
— Tom Miller
Introduction, by Tom Miller xiii
PART ONE: ESSENCE OF CUBA
The Bus, by Eduardo Galeano
An Elegiac Carnival, by Pico Iyer
Simple Life, by Cristina GarcÖa
Finding My House in El Cerro, by James A. Michener
Communism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Phillippe Diederich
Ticket to Ride, by Alisha Berger
Picture This, by Tom Miller
Under Havana’s Hood, by Charles Degelman
Sweet Thing, by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Havana When It Rains, by Eliseo Alberto
Making Music, by Henry Shukman
Havana Then and Now, by Robert Stone
PART TWO: SOME THINGS TO DO
Viva Los Diplomats, by Randy Wayne White
Slow-Motion Island, by Cristina GarcÖa
The House of Tango, by Stephen Smith
Fishing for Bone, by Tom Stienstra
Museum Piece, by Antonio LÃ3pez
Bring on the Cubans! by Judy Cantor
From Tip to Tail, by Wil S. Hylton
We All Scream for Ice Cream, by Christopher P. Baker
An Ernest Land, by Bob Shacochis
Hitchhiker’s Cuba, by Dave Eggers
PART THREE: GOING YOUR OWN WAY
Party Time, by Enrique Fernández
You Beautiful Doll, by Leslie Berestein
Remember the Maine? by Tom Miller
The Revolution’s Cradle, by Christopher Hunt
Havana Journal, by Jon Lee Anderson
Our Mailman in Havana, by Stephen Benz
High Top, Low Stubble, by William Lee Brent
Tuning with the Enemy, by Benjamin Treuhaft
Heroes of Tourism, by C. Peter Ripley
Es Cuba, by Lea Aschkenas
PART FOUR: IN THE SHADOWS
The Conflicted Tourist, by S. L. Price
A Strawberry and Chocolate Goodbye, by Ruth Behar
Havana at Midnight, by Lynn Darling
Cemetery Blues, by Andrei Codrescu
Hasta La Victoria Sometimes, by Patrick Symmes
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD
Cycle of Love, by Felix Winkelaar
Index of Contributors
You Beautiful Doll
by Leslie Berestein
she didn’t feel she was home until she was home
I had been in Havana less than three days and already I was arousing suspicion. The taxi driver kept glancing over his shoulder at me as we rumbled along a crowded downtown street, wondering how such an obvious foreigner could sound so Cuban.
“Where did you learn your Spanish?” he asked.
He had reason to wonder. My clothing was cleaner and newer, and my skin smoother and paler than those of any of the people my age milling about on the sidewalk.
“I was born here,” I explained. “This is my first time back since I was three years old.”
The driver pondered this a moment. “You left when you were only three? Ah,” he mused, “then you’re hardly Cuban at all any more.”
It was nearly dusk, and clouds of dust and diesel smoke tinted the air brown, making the crowds and the crumbling neoclassical buildings we passed look fuzzy and surreal. Through the dirty window I could see the faces of people who might have been my classmates, neighbors, friends, lovers. They hurried down the street, women sweating in cheap polyester dresses, sooty men on bicycles pedaling behind exhaust-belching buses. I tried to picture myself among them as if I had never left. Hustling home exhausted by the sheer difficulty of life with a few plantains and bit of black market pork stashed in my shopping bag, provided I had the means.
“I’ve always liked to think I’m Cuban,” I told him. “But I don’t know.”
I’ve never known. Children of immigrants are really two people, the one who is and the one who would have been. That other me ceased to exist when my family left Cuba ten years after the revolution, my parents complaining of long lines and little opportunity. Like most immigrant parents, they wanted to give me a comfortable life. So they came to the United States, and I became a different person in the process.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Cuba was little more to me than a myth, a shadowy world of black and white that existed only in old photographs. There were photos of our house in Havana, of me playing with my first friend next door, of my grandmother—a stranger who wrote saying she loved me—cradling a gray baby against mildewed foreign walls. I remember feeling guilty for not being able to feel sadness when she died. In my young mind, she was a black-and-white photograph, a handful of letters on thin paper, a crackling, disembodies voice calling from a remote place that I was repeatedly told had once been my home. None of it seemed real, not my grandmother, not even the child in the photos everyone said was me.
I finally returned as a tourist, eagerly bracing myself for the emotional impact that I knew would inevitably come when I arrived. I would see the same weathered building I had seen in the photos, the same flat rooftops, the same narrow streets, and finally feel a connection. I would cry with relief, home at last. The morning after I landed, I excitedly flung open my hotel window and gazed out past the weathered rooftops at the Caribbean, repeating, “I’m here, I’m here,” like an incantation.
Nothing happened. Faded laundry fluttered in the moist breeze, horns honked below, the clouds shifted overhead. I could have been anywhere.
So tonight in the taxi I carried a few old photos with me, determined to breathe life into them. The streets grew darker and emptier as we moved away from downtown, past deserted intersections where burning oil cans glowed in the thick brown dusk, serving as rough street lamps. We eventually turned off the main thoroughfare onto a narrow street lined with decaying colonial houses, all of them huddled close. In the remaining light I could see that some had not been painted in decades. Their once stately facades were pocked with crumbling plaster, their graceful iron gates rusted through. The driver stopped in front of one painted a faded green. I had seen this house a million times, but no one had ever told me it was green.
“Calle Lacret, number sixty-five,” the driver announced. “This is where you wanted to go, right?”
Old women stared from their front porches as I got out. Maybe they had watched me as a baby, but now I was a stranger, someone to eye with suspicion. I stood in front of our old house for a long time, holding a wrinkled photo of my family posing, outside, all of us gray. It was hard to imagine that this was the same house, that I had existed here.
No one seemed to be home tonight. But there were lights on next door, and I recognized this house, too, from photographs. I knocked on a heavy door flanked by dirty marble columns and it soon creaked open, revealing a heavy older woman, her hair in curlers.
“Buenas noches,” I started uneasily. “I don’t know if you remember me, but I lived next door when I was little. My name is Leslie. My family moved to the United States.”
The woman stared at me intently. “Leslita? You’re Leslita?”
I nodded, producing a photo of her daughter and me as toddlers on a see-saw. The woman covered her mouth. She began crying.
“¡Ay, dios mío! Leslita!”
With that she flung her big arms around me. A younger woman rushed out to see what the commotion was. She was chubby, with long black hair and a cherubic face the color of nutmeg.
“Lolita,” her mother cried, flopping me around like a doll to face her. “Do you remember your first friend? Leslita, from next door?”
Lolita looked dumbfounded. “Is it true?” I nodded. Her mother kept sobbing.
“Can you believe it?” her mother cried. “After all these years, she has come home! That same little girl who left so long ago has come home!”
These last words settled on me like magic dust. I suddenly took notice of the bright yellow tile on the front porch where we had played as babies, the lush green of the tropical plants surrounding us, the glitter of the marble columns beneath their coating of soot. Lolita stared at me in what looked like disbelief, then rubbed her eyes for several seconds. Her cheeks were wet when she took her hands away.
“You’re not gong to believe this,” she said. “Your mother gave me one of your dolls when you left. My sister and I named her Leslita, because we missed you.
I glanced down quickly at the photograph in my hand, then back at Lolita’s face, smiling at me for the first time since early childhood. It was soft, brown, warm, real. A lifetime’s worth of gray myth was coming alive all around me in vivid color. The little girl in the photographs still existed for these people, still Cuban, still one of them. She was real. And she was me.
Leslie Berestein grew up poring over National Geographic magazines until she was old enough to hit the road, and hasn’t stopped traveling since. Between trips, she has written about immigrants for the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register. Today she writes about people who aren’t famous for the English and Spanish editions of People, in places ranging from Alaska to El Salvador. She lives in Los Angeles.