It’s not that we hadn’t fallen in love with Cuba, her slender crocodile figure and rhythmic hips, her bawdy street corners and crumbling veneer. We had. We’d been all the way to her furthest tip, braving a five-hour bus ride over the sumptuous mountain curves, to Baracoa, where Christopher Columbus first planted a crude wooden cross in the New World. We’d cruised the urine-streaked streets of Carnaval and roughhoused with the Atlantic. We’d even encountered museum guides and shop owners whose desperate eyes said what we could not. This is not socialism, my friend, this is not freedom.
So what led us to commit the ultimate tourist faux pas?
I knew something of Cuban culture, having grown up with my Grandma’s black beans and rice, spicy as her temper and tongue, but I knew very little about the island’s past until I became a history teacher at an alternative high school. I was 26, shamelessly idealistic, a member of the International Socialist Organization. So if I waxed romantic about the radically creative exploits of Fidel and his 26th of July Movement—commandeering the Granma, guerilla fighting for months and months in the Sierra Madre mountains, wrenching his beloved island out of the sweaty capitalist hands of the U.S.—can you really blame me? My students loved learning about the charming Che and all the revolutionaries who refused to be enslaved by Dole.
So when, a few years later, my fiance Michael and I decided to spend a month on the steamy island, it was the socialist, not the tropical, climate that I most anticipated. Immediately I was smitten. Instead of advertisements for toothpaste or sitcoms, their billboards boasted revolutionary slogans like Socialismo o Muerte!, Viva Cuba Libre!, Siempre el Revolucion! City after city, we saw storefronts with un-ambitious display cases that seemed to say: Buy this stuff. Or don’t. Who cares?
And gardens everywhere! Looking out the window of the buses, we saw brown rivers slinking through groves of banana trees, and rows upon rows of pesticide-free produce. Cows and chickens roamed free. No trucks hauled food across the island. People brought their own containers to ice-cream shops and women got a year of paid maternity leave. I said to Michael, “It’s every bohemian’s sustainable dream!”
But he wasn’t so sure.
We moved eastward, from the lazy Cienfuegos to the maze-like Camaguey, marveling at the long snaking lines of people waiting to buy things like phone cards, hot dogs, eggs, nail polish. We soon tired of the unpalatable state-run restaurants, with their hostile wait-staff and gray, reheated meat. Everywhere we walked people made scribble gestures like they were asking for our phone number. “They want ink pens!” Michael realized one day, and we cursed our guidebook. Instead of the far more practical writing utensils, we’d bought colorful little whistles in Cancun, which we tossed to unsuspecting kids or left perched on the seats of community tricycles. Much better to catch the kids alone, otherwise parents would turn sad-eyed and aggressive, begging open-palmed for our booty as though we were giving out CUCs, not cheap bits of plastic. I imagined them taking the whistles from their children and adding them to the spontaneous window-displays that we saw all over the island, people peddling batteries and rubber-bands, lollipops and hosiery, sometimes a random pair of high heels.
In a square in Santiago a group of boys played soccer with a crushed soda can. Michael and I sat watching them, appreciating their raw skill and ingenuity. The still, hot air smelled like popcorn and garbage. A woman sat next to us—“I’m a teacher, too!”—and the three of us chatted about the classroom for nearly an hour. Then her face clouded over and her voice dropped. “Today is my birthday, you know.”
“Really? How old—?”
“Yes. And all I want is a beer. Do you have a CUC for me, just one CUC, so I can buy a beer on my birthday?”
I felt my stomach give way to my feet. All this time I’d been fixing Michael with a righteously raised eyebrow that said, See, I told you so. There are some people making a good living here. But as I placed a CUC in her warm hand and watched her smile turn business-like, all my eyebrow had to say was, Ain’t disillusionment a bitch?
Later that day, a guide named Oscar led us through the exhibits of the Bacardi Museum, explaining in lilting English what we were looking at: “And this is the very uniform that Jose Marti wore when he went into battle for the last time.”
“No way!” I nosed right up to the glass. Oscar grinned.
“I saved my favorite section for last,” he said as we ascended the stairs to the Modern Art Exhibit. We stood over a birdcage in the shape of the island, a woman’s sad eyes reflected in the mirrors, looking out. “Some people say,” Oscar looked over his shoulder and lowered his voice, “some people say this island is like a giant prison. And we are all captives.”
We both nodded solemnly, unsure of how to respond.
On our last night in Cuba, the night of our crime, we walked out of our casa in Havana’s Centro into streets filled with packs of roving shirtless boys who fashioned skateboards out of scrap wheels and broken packing crates. Short-skirted girls licked at small cones. We walked past the Museum of the Revolution, where the (alleged) Granma sat outside, encased in glass and under 24-hour military surveillance. The buildings were all in some state of crumble. Balconies hosted strings of drying underwear and sheets, and loud old cars belched their complaints.
Suddenly, a bucket of water splashed on the ground in front of us. We looked up to see a tiny slick of dark naked body topped with a big wet grin. The little boy’s eyes grew wide as he caught the flying whistle and studied its construction. Then he put the bright blue plastic to his lips and blew. We blew back, as we always did, and so on it went, until we were nothing but faint squeaks.
By the time we got to the Vieja, the true tourist heart of Havana, it was almost ten o’clock. We were hungry and grumpy. Michael because he was ready to get home, back to the freedom of well-stocked stores and smog-regulated cars. Me for just the opposite reason: I hate leaving anywhere that isn’t home.
Though we luxuriated in the conveniences of the Vieja—bottled water on every corner, the breezes off the waterfront like God’s sweet breath—we also felt trapped by the exhaust of tourists’ consumption, their endless pockets driving the prices up for everyone. We were offended (how could we not be?) by their insistence on recreating European luxury and American sanity on this island. We split meals, walked miles everyday instead of taxiing, pinched every precious CUC for all it was worth. But as far away from the wealthy tourists as we felt, we were even farther from the locals, despite our decrepit sandals and first generation digital cameras hardly worth stealing.
When we finally found a restaurant with decent prices and empty seats, we were ravenous. The mojitos were watery and the lobster tasted like salty shoe leather. The bored waiter said he did not have ketchup, though we saw a red bottle poking defiantly from the kitchen. We listened to the band play Dos Gardenias for what felt like the millionth time.
We had the money. It was in Michael’s right hand. We weren’t feeling thankless or entitled. Just the opposite: we wanted to tell them that we sensed their anger, we saw the injustice, that we, too, had been fooled. Was this what revolution looked like? Talented musicians forced to play the same six tourist-pleasing songs night after night, at the mercy of their tip baskets? Culinary art reduced to bland state-run fare? If Fidel were there we’d have let him have it with every broken bit of Spanish we had.
But since he wasn’t there, since no one was, we took off.
Our waiter had disappeared into the kitchen, so we walked casually outside and rounded the corner. Then we ran. It was as though we needed the adrenaline to fuel us home, to come unstuck from the heartbreak of a hijacked history. But we didn’t think it through—me in sandals, stupidly loose, buzzed on cheap rum. I could see in Michael’s terror-stricken face that we’d made a huge mistake. This wasn’t how we were going to find justice in Cuba. This wasn’t how we wanted to spend our last night.
The waiter caught us easily. He yelled so loud I thought Fidel really might appear. I said a silent thanks to God that we were on a dim street and not a crowded square. When the waiter grabbed at Michael, as though to drag him back to the restaurant, Michael dropped to the pavement, one hand up in defeat, the other holding out the money. The waiter hesitated. Then he took the bills and turned slowly away. I was still panting hard, sweating in my sticky Tevas, when Michael pulled himself up and hung his arm around my shoulder.
For a few minutes we hardly spoke. As we walked, the Vieja’s brightly lit hotels gave way to the Centro’s primal midnight yells and saggy balustrades. When we did speak, it was quietly, with reverence for the tremendous trouble we might have fallen into. We agreed that we’d been foolishly risky, something we’d better outgrow if we were going to have a baby. We realized, too, that it had nothing to do with money, but something much weightier, the leaden mixture of disappointment and shame. For though there was much we didn’t know—what would happen once Fidel died, for one—we knew that our waiter would be serving salty shoe leather for many moons to come, long after we’d left the steamy streets of Cuba far behind.
Jessica Dur has scaled the jungle to sneak into Machu Picchu, done outdoor aerobics in Bangkok, sipped wine with a priest in Bulgaria, and survived the month of July in Cuba. She lives and writes in Santa Rosa, California, where she and her husband dutifully pay all of their restaurant bills. Her writing has appeared in Recess Magazine, Frostwriting, Fractured West, The Sun, Hipmama, and others. She blogs at www.gyrlwryter.blogspot.com.
“Cuba Libre” won a Silver Award in the Culture and Ideas category of the Seventh Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.