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I was stuffed into the front seat of the van between Jorge and Leonardo. Never mind that there were some empty seats in the back. Jorge wanted me to have the best view as we drove out of Havana and on to the four lane highway toward Holguín.

As we picked up speed outside the city, voices rose to compete with the wind whipping past the open windows. Directly behind me Curtis was working hard to keep up with his translating duties, coordinating two or three conversations at once.

There was very little traffic, some bicycles, a few old cars, a horse drawn cart. In the median there were men carrying rounds of white cheese, big blocks of guava paste and long belts of garlic strung together with twine. Once they could see we weren’t soldiers, they held them high to encourage the sale.

I heard Evan explaining to Michael how to set his camera to get pictures from the moving van as Curtis translated billboards for them. “¡Patria o Muerte!” I had seen this one often, Country or Death! But the next one was new to me. It was a neon green and bright orange billboard that read: “¡Vamos Bien!” Next to those words was a ten foot tall picture of Castro’s face. Curtis offered the translation; “we’re doing well, things are great, it’s all good.” Jorge elbowed me and chuckled at this adding,  “Si, vamos bien. Sure, “he said, “. . . if you’re the man with the beard.”

I leaned back thinking about the bright green sign with its fluorescent orange letters and its arrogant contrast with the grey and beige of Cuba’s houses and crumbling hotels that hadn’t been painted in 50 years. Other than Castro’s billboards, the only other consistent color in Cuba is the sea of t-shirts donated by well-meaning tourists and missionaries.

Then a relative silence replaced the sweet chaotic blend of Spanish and English. Leonardo slowed the van. We were approaching a bridge that shielded at least two dozen people from the hot Cuban sun. The bridge was not connected to any roads and stopped abruptly on either side of the highway. It was as if it had been built only as a shelter from the sun. The bridges were built many years ago to connect roads that were never built.

We rolled closer and I could see that a soldier was standing inside the right lane of the highway. He held his AKM assault rifle the way a pessimistic fisherman holds his pole. The soldier was stopping cars and filling them with people from the crowd. He stopped a ’54 Ford that was blowing dark blue smoke from its tailpipe. With his free hand he opened the front door and ushered in a woman with a baby in her arms and a toddler in tow. He closed the door after her and pointed at two men in grease covered clothes. He directed them to the next car in line. They shared the last drags from a cigarette and tried to open the back doors of the car. The handles were broken, so they climbed through the window into the back seat next to the driver’s son.

The driver pulled away leaving a cloud of exhaust for the next car, a small Russian-made Lada. The soldier opened the back door and told the occupants – two young boys –  to get in front with their parents. He chose three women from the crowd who happily squeezed into the tiny back seat.

We were next, and Leonardo pulled the van forward. I turned around to see Curtis gently push Annie’s hand and camera back down to her lap. When we got close to the soldier, Leonardo gave him a slight expressionless nod. The soldier didn’t acknowledge him except to look past us toward the next car. We pulled away with our empty seats still vacant.

Before we were back up to full speed, Evan leaned to the front seat and said, “what was that?” Jorge continued to look out the front window.

“Those are botellas,” he said.

“Bottles?”

“Yes, but in Cuba we also use the word to mean what you call hitchhikers. Mostly they are workers trying to get to their jobs in a field or a shop where they can earn some pesos. The young woman and her children were probably going into Holguín to see a doctor or visit some family.”

The rest of the van was silent now, everyone listening carefully to Jorge speaking in his best English.

“The soldier is stopping drivers and making them take riders. He also makes sure the riders have a peso or a few coins to pay the drivers for their trouble.”

Evan pushed his sunglasses back to keep his curly blond hair from blowing in his eyes. “What if the driver doesn’t want to take them? Does he have to?”

Jorge glanced past me toward Leonardo, the driver. Leonardo worked for the University and Jorge didn’t know of his alliances or his politics and was not sure how freely he could speak. But Jorge was an esteemed professor. He could get away with more than most and was willing to risk more than most.

“Evan,” he said, “there is no law in Cuba that says you must take the Botella. In Cuba, most laws say what you cannot do.”

Leonardo was looking straight ahead and driving fast, occasionally honking to warn a biker, a walker, an ox cart, or a slow moving flatbed truck overloaded with sugarcane workers.

“For example,” Jorge said, “there is a law that says you cannot drive a car that throws dark smoke, like the Ford we just saw. And maybe the driver also has no brake lights. It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to get new lights or other parts. But it is illegal to drive with these problems. And likely the driver has no license or no ownership papers. And maybe, just maybe, an inspection will show illegal food in his trunk. Maybe beef, God forbid.”

Jorge was on a role. He glanced at Leonardo and saw a supportive nod and maybe a grin. That was all he needed. He was now a fully sanctioned professor, believing at least for the moment, that in this car, outside of the eyes and ears of the Committees in Defense of the Revolution, he could feel free to make a simple point, tell a simple truth.

“In Cuba,” he said, “everything is illegal. To survive is to surpass the law. To live is to live outside the law. To breathe is to break the law. So when my brother in the Ford is stopped and asked to accept a few pesos to take his fellow countrymen to their jobs, to see their doctors, or to visit their families, does he have a choice? Sure he does. He can make this small sacrifice for the good of the revolution or perhaps he will be fined or jailed for some infractions that might otherwise go unnoticed. Sure, he is free to make that choice.”

“And this is also why we were released without filling our empty seats. It was clear to the officer that you are tourists. You are not part of our ‘public transportation system.’ We have bridges without roads, we have travelers without wheels, and we have soldiers with rifles. This is our system. . . this is Cuba. ¡Que País! What a country!”

Baseball Bond

My hand stung with pain, even through the leather padding.  That’s what I remember about the first time I caught a baseball thrown by one of my Cuban friends.  I smiled to mask the burning sting and casually returned the ball to the shortstop.   We had finally worn out our visitors’ prerogative playing volleyball, Frisbee, and soccer.  Now the Cubans wanted us to engage in THEIR sport: baseball.

So we gathered up the gear; two bats, one ball, and a canvass bag of gloves that would be shared by both teams.   The neighborhood baseball field was well used, but carefully maintained, and I wondered how they kept the grass clipped so short.  I had never seen a lawn mower in Cuba except for one that had been hand made with an electric motor mounted over a piece of plywood.  When the motor was plugged in, two unguarded machete blades spun below it, attached only by a washer and nut on the motor’s axle..

The field was well cared for, but the spectator accommodations were another story.  A few ruins of crumbling concrete still stood to remind us that they had once held bleachers. But that was some 50 years ago before the revolution brought “progress” to the country.  Behind the plate a chain link screen hung from its frame, rusted and patched, swaying in the dusty wind.

People heard that the Americans were playing baseball with the local boys and a small crowd of mostly women and children began to gather. Isaac called all the players out to the pitcher’s mound to choose captains and teams.  When we joined them, Isaac quickly grew tense.  I knew the look and what it meant, but offered him no help, I made him say it.  He walked over to me and nodded toward the American girls.  “What are they doing here?”

“They’re playing baseball,” I said, “same as you.”

Two of the girls were chosen for each team, and I said a little prayer for their safety and our national pride.  I shouldn’t have worried, the Cubans ended up impressed by their skill and their fearlessness.

After the first inning of play, my team was down by 3, and I asked the captain what we were going to do to win.  “We won’t win,” he said, “they have Andrés on their team.”  He was right, of course, there was no amount of strategy that was going to overcome Andrés.   At 6’6, and with rock solid athleticism, Andrés towered above his Cuban contemporaries.  They were all good – some truly gifted players -  but when Andrés was on deck, little boys left their mothers to go stand beyond the outfield and look for our  only baseball, a ball that was about to soar over the homerun fence.

When the game was finally over I asked one of my team mates, “Why didn’t you just walk him and give our team a chance?”  I was immediately ashamed of myself for asking and even though the question went unanswered, I knew.  The truth was, a game won by walking the other team’s best player was worse than a game lost.

Osci came to the filed just as we were throwing the gloves back into the equipment bag.  It was almost time to eat. “How would you like to experience ‘real’ Cuban baseball?” he asked. “There is a game tonight between two teams from the Cuban Baseball System.”  I looked at my group and saw their eyes shining in anticipation through their dust matted faces.

That night we hired a bus to take eight Americans and eleven Cubans to Pinar del Rio for a game.  When we arrived at the stadium, the parking lot was empty, but the stadium was nearly full.  People came by foot, bike, bus, and hitchhike. But few had a car of their own to drive.   I bought everyone’s tickets for the game, costing a total of around eleven U.S. dollars, and we began climbing the steps into the stadium.  We had box seats along the first base line. They were wooden seats, but many were missing slats and others broken beyond use.  Our Cuban hosts checked each one to assure its safety before letting us sit.

When the teams entered the field there was a fury of cheers and boo’s, standing and high fives.   And by the second pitch we heard the crack of the bat. A base hit to right field welcomed us to the national sport of Cuba.

Isaac sat in the front row, cheering and yelling with wild abandon.  All of the Cubans expressed their passion for the game, but Isaac was different.  Isaac was formed purely from passion and personality. He screamed and mocked and laughed and sprang uncontrollably from his seat, sometimes hanging dangerously over the rail above the opposing team’s dugout.   After one player was thrown out at first, I thought Isaac might be evicted as he taunted and provoked the poor guy who walked with his head down back toward his bench.  Just before ducking into the dugout, the man made eye contact with Isaac, giving him a look that threatened a meeting later in a back alley.   Isaac simply escalated his rant, arms flying in a whirl.  I couldn’t understand the rapid fire slang, but was intently watching the drama of it all. Osci looked over at me and chuckled.  “What is he saying?” I asked.

“Well, that player was on the team that played for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic this year.  He dropped a fly ball in the final game against Japan.  Many people think that error was responsible for Cuba losing the championship.  Isaac was just reminding him of that.”  We both laughed and I turned around to repeat the story in English to my group.

Behind our box seats were the ‘cheap’ seats – oversized concrete steps that doubled as bleachers.  But other than the Spartan accommodations for the crowd, the rest of the stadium looked like any minor league stadium in the U.S.  A perfectly manicured field, with a carefully raked infield and straight chalked lines, was surrounded by bright green grass that sparkled in the reflections of the setting sun and blazing field lights.

By the third inning, the few empty seats around us began to fill with young men who seemed more interested in our group of Americans than the game itself.  Before long two policemen pulled Osci aside and talked to him.  “What was that about?” I asked when he returned.

“They want us to stay here after the game is over and to be the last to leave the stadium,” he said as my eyes widened.  “They are worried that we have attracted too much attention and they want to escort us back to our bus after the game to avoid trouble.”

A little later I smelled food and looked around to see what the culture had to offer.  I saw popcorn and hand wrapped caramels.  Some people brought bread from their monthly rations, smeared with mayonnaise.  But I smelled something else; something was being deep fried in grease.  Then I saw him – an old man standing at a table on the landing between our section and the bleachers.  He had a large bowl of batter and an electric pot of boiling grease.  I watched as he scooped balls of the batter into the pot, letting it sizzle to a golden brown. He then retrieved them with a wire mesh spoon and dropped them into sheets of newsprint. 

“I want some of that,” I told Osci, reaching for my wallet.

He stopped me.  “You don’t want that,” he said.  “The cooks will make us something good when we return.”

“I want to experience Cuban baseball,” I said.  “All of it.”

Osci shrugged, took a small bill from my wallet and asked me to stay.  He returned with three of the things wrapped in oily paper and we passed them around, ripping off pieces of the soft dough and crispy crust, licking the crumbs and grease from our fingers.  It tasted of salt and garlic and an herb that I couldn’t place.   Osci shook his head.

It’s a bit of a culture shock as we are dumped off of Air Canada’s plushy new jet liner into the customs area of Havana’s José Martí International Airport.  From the airplane ramp, we’re herded along the narrow glass hallway between the tarmac on the outside and the terminal on the inside. At the end of the hall an escalator takes us down into customs, where I begin the head count.  Five teenagers, two parents, one translator and me.

The basement room is as big as two basketball courts, brightly lit and severely air conditioned.  The only way in appears to be the two down escalators at the back two corners, and the only way out is an entire wall of customs booths at the other end of the room.   In the middle of the room there are two thick round support pillars wrapped by round counter tops for last minute paperwork.

We stand near one of the pillars as customs officials direct travelers toward the lines of people waiting to be processed.  “Have your passports and visas ready,”  they say over and over.

Our translator, Ian, stops the official nearest us. “Excuse me, miss,” he says, “we don’t have our visas. They are supposed to be waiting for us here.”

“Give me your passports and I will go and check,” she says holding out her hand. I notice our kids gawking at her without subtlety.  One of the boys even mouths the word “hot!”  She’s wearing a green military uniform, but the buttons seem open a little too far down the front and the skirt seems to be hemmed a little too far up the legs.  Add to that the fishnet stockings and black heels, and this girl takes the standard out of standard military uniform. Hot indeed!

She is still waiting for us to hand her our passports so that she can take them to some other part of the airport and check on our visas, but I didn’t just tumble down the escalator yesterday. Our passports are going nowhere without us.   I hand her a prepared list of our travelers with their passport numbers.  She looks at the list, and finally says, “this will do,”  and disappears.   The room, once crowded with travelers, slowly begins to empty.

Emily, our tiniest teenager with a matching itsy-bitsy bladder, announces that she really needs the ladies’ room.  As much as I try to avoid using bathrooms on airplanes, I had counseled my crew that they should use the airplane facilities before landing.  The restrooms in customs are the worst in the airport, and if at all possible, they’ll  want to avoid them.  Perhaps it’s because they are in the basement, or maybe because thousands of travelers get to them after long flights, but they always seem to need a cleaning and deodorizing and at least one of them is usually clogged full and awaiting repair.  To make things a little more awkward, there’s a woman outside taking tips and handing you a small ration of toilet paper.  And for the men, if you don’t tip her she follows you in to make sure that you are only using the urinal.

In Cuba, toilet paper cannot be flushed, but is instead folded after use and tucked into small waste baskets, which are hopefully emptied on a regular basis by the attendant. I don’t know much about plumbing and sewage systems, but it seems odd to me that the Cuban system can handle all that comes out of our bodies, but not a few pieces of T.P.

The cavernous waiting room empties leaving us sitting in a corner on the cool tile floor.  But, like the bible says, whenever nine or more protestants are gathered in my name a euchre game and potluck will break out.  We deal cards and empty our backpacks of any airplane leftovers.  On first look there’s half a bag of peanut m&m’s, a Ziploc of homemade trail mix, two rice crispy treats, plenty of chewing gum and a handful of jolly ranchers.  It’s slim pickings until Emily returns from the the ladies room.

“Oh, I’ve got some food,” she says cheerfully.  She unzips her backpack and releases the 21st century version of the loaves and the fishes.  She has an unopened box of Cheezits, a bag of miniature snickers bars, starbursts, more gum, 6 nutri-grain bars and two liters of water.

After an hour, we see our fish-netted friend walk by and ask if she’s heard anything about our visas.  She says she will check and disappears again.

The escalators buzz and the room fills again. We look up over our euchre hands and watch the crowd form into long lines that quickly grow and slowly shrink, leaving us alone again.

When ‘fishnets’ finally returns, she tells us that our host, Pastor Daniel, has contacted the airport. He has our visas, but is late due to car trouble.  He drives a ’56 Chevy, with a Mitsubishi engine, a Russian Lada transmission and a home-made drive train.  What could possibly have gone wrong, I wonder.

Another two hours of junk food and euchre tournaments and we finally get our walking papers. Two booths open up to accommodate our small group and I go last to assure everyone gets through without trouble. As my customs official is looking at my face, then my passport, then my face again, I hear Emily in the next booth begging her customs officer to stamp her passport as a souvenir.  I am powerless to stop her.  The officials are trained only to stamp our visas, not our passports.  A Cuban stamp on a U.S. passport can cause trouble getting into other countries and at U.S. Customs.  But she’s cute and blonde and eventually, the official relents.  As if to say, “OK, you asked for it,” he stamps her passport.

After customs we enter another security check, complete with x-rays, detector wands and the occasional physical bag inspection.  They see the prescription bottles in Adam’s bag and do a full inspection.  Adam is recovering from major surgery and needs multiple prescriptions.  Three uniformed officials pass his medicine around, reading the contents, checking the name on the bottles against his passport, nodding and mumbling to each other.     I stand back, feeling they are unecessarily invading his privacy and I prepare to intervene. But just then the supervisor stuffs the bottles back into Adam’s back pack and sends him along.  I hadn’t noticed that a similar thing was happening with Ian, two rows over.  Ian had a book about the politics and culture of Cuba in an outside pocket of his bag.  Two officers are passing it back and forth discussing its contents.  Ian speaks to them only in English, so they don’t seem aware that he understands their conversation.  They hone in on a particular chapter about Castro, a particularly negative assessment of his regime.

“What are you doing with this book?” one of them asks.

“Reading it,” Ian says simply.

“Do you plan to take it back to the U.S. with you?”  he asks.

“Yes, of course,” he says.

They flip through a few more pages, then write his name and passport number on a clip board next to the title of the book.   They hand the book back to him and say, “make sure you have this with you when you leave the country.”

Ian nods, shrugs his shoulders and heads toward baggage claim.   Finally everyone was through except me.  I have two carry-on items; one is a portable DVD player in a black canvas bag and the other is my back pack.  I’m surprised when they show no interest in my back pack.  It contains duplicate supplies of Adam’s drugs, the extra medications of every other person on the team, as well as medications for Cuban friends who can’t get them filled at the bare-shelved pharmacies in their town.

My official does however take a special interest in my DVD player, not that it’s contraband (so long as I plan to take it back with me) but it’s a rare sight to this young Cuban man.

“Is this yours?” he asks.

“Yes,” I tell him.

“You brought it to use in your vacation in Cuba?” he asks.

“Yes,” I lie, “but mostly for the plane.”  It’s brand new, a “donation” for the youth group at a the church we will visit, but I had removed all the tags and packaging and stuck in a few old DVDs to make it look like I use it wherever I go.  As he removes the player and inspects it I decide to distract him.

“Your English is very good,”  I say, “you must have studied it for many years.”

With this, his eyes brighten and he looks up at me.  “Really, you think my english is fine?”

“It’s very good,” I say again as he passes me through without further trouble.  As I walk away, I hear him tell his colleagues, “he say my english is very good.”

I take one quick look back to make sure the last of our team has made it through security, then head to baggage claim where the fun really begins.  The luggage “carousel” enters the room from a hole in the wall, hiding the inner workings from view by a black rubber curtain.   Behind the curtain I picture underpaid and under-fed Cubans scanning and searching bags, dreaming that some day they might travel and have access to the  clothes and medicines and electronics they see during their searches.  I’ve heard stories of bags being confiscated, items missing, and things broken. But in more than a dozen trips, I’ve never had these experiences.  Luggage is coming in on a belt that whines and klunks and creaks.  But, since we were detained so long our luggage is already removed and stacked neatly in a corner for us, all 16 bags.

I know the minute I see the tags on them that we are in for a long stay.  Each of our bags are marked for physical inspection and we will need to line up behind at least two dozen others who are waiting for the same treatment.  The codes on our luggage tags indicated that medicines had been observed during the x-ray scans, as well as other possible contraband.  As we organize ourselves and distribute the luggage , I remind our youthful travelers that until we are out of the airport, they do not speak Spanish, and they must insist on only talking to officials through our translator.  This strategy accomplishes two things.  First, it assures that no one says the wrong thing.  Second, it puts pressure on the officials to process us quickly.

Saying the wrong thing can be costly.  A simple mistake, like saying the items in our bags are “donations” instead of things for our own personal use subjects the items to taxes equal to their value subjectilvey assigned by the customs official.  But, trying to convince officials that we each need 100 punds of clothes in various sizes, 6,000 miligrams of tylenol, and three dozen toothbrushes for our own personal use during a 9 day stay, can be a hard sell.  Our translator, on the other hand, is trained to make the argument, boldly asserting and plausibly maintaining that “most” of the items are for our own personal use and the rest include a few gifts for friends.  The nuance between “donations” and “gifts” is the difference between “taxation” and “negotiation.”

The second goal is to take our time.  We have 8 people with 16 bags stuffed carefully up to the 50 pound airline weight limit.  If each of us must use one transaltor, the officals will be motivated to negotiate as the line grows longer and longer behind us.

As I lecture, I notice three college age kids sitting near us, listening and perhaps taking note of my advice.   They’re checking us out, while keeping one eye on the rubber curtain as luggage slowly pops into view and either finds its owner or returns through another dark orafice.  Suddenly one of them, the only girl,  shouts an exclamation to the other in a language I can’t place.  The three jump tp their feet and run over to the belt where a large cardboard box barely fits through the hole in the wall.  As they remove the box, another box enters and then another.  They look around and take their boxes back to the wall using our large pile of people and bags to shield them from view.  As I continue my instructions, the three students rip open the boxes exposing bycycle parts that are deftly assembled into working transportation.   The three adventures, leaving a pile of cardboard behind, throw backpacks over their shoulders and push their bikes through the last checkpoint and onto the streets of Cuba.  I stopped mid sentence to watch them, free of pampering hosts, crammed rental vans, and scheduled events.  Free of adult reponsibilites for the safety of other people’s teenagers.  Free of 800 pounds of luggage.  I look over at the rubber curtain, imagining that a fourth bike might come through with a sign on it that says, “Free – Take me! “

I try to pull myself back together and direct my group to the growing line.  The weight of our bags suddenly seems light compared to the burden of my responsibilities. Slowly the line shrinks and finally we are next to enter the luggage search area.  Three rows of stainless steel tables would make the room look like a war-time morgue if not for the stacks of clothes and toiletries being removed, inspected and restored to open suicaces and unzipped duffle bags.

We tried to pack girls clothes in bags carried by girls and boy clothes in bags carried by boys, but therre wasn’t much we could do with the baby clothes, medicines, and shoes of all sizes.

I send Ian in first with Michelle, an attractive redheaded 17 year old girl.  A strategy that will work only if one of the male officials is assigned.   But no such luck.

“Don’t hold back the tears if she gives you a hard time,” I say as she is escorted to the cadaver table.

My 15 year old son, Ben, and I are called next.  The customs officer takes us and our four bags to a table.  He asks us to place the first bag on the table and open it.  I understand his instructions, but cheerfully ask ask him to repeat them in English.   The offical reaches in, feels around and pulls out a gallon ziploc filled with bottles of liquid children’s tylenal.  He doesn’t ask any questions about the medication, but says to empty the bag and stack all the contents where he can see them.  He leaves us to talk to the people at the next table as Ben and I began to carefully pull out men and boy clothes and stack them as directed, leaving meds and other supplies stacked between them, out of sight.   Something falls and lands on lightly on my foot.   I take a quick look down.  It’s a hot pink satin bra, with tags still on it.  Who donates a hot pink satin bra to be taken to Cuba on a mission trip?  “Benny,” I say, “reach down and grab that off my foot and stuff it in the other clothes.”  Ben glances down at my foot and sees the offending article of clothing draped over my right shoe.

“I’m not touching that thing!” he says.

Our customs official has joined in an argument with Ian and another uniform, so I take the opportunity to reach down and grab the bra, hiding it between two pair of jeans.

Ian’s conversation is getting heated, and he motions me to come over.  “This is our leader,”  he tells them pointing at me, “I’ll need to discuss it with him.”

Ian  faces me with his back to them and says “They say we have to pay taxes on the value of everything that’s in all of our bags.  I explained that it’s mostly used clothes and shoes and has little value,” he says.  “I also explained that we’ll insist on itemizing each item taxed and discussing its value.  Then I reminded them that there are 8 of us with two bags each.”

“Well?” I asked.

“Well,” said Ian, “they suggested we agree to a value of $20.00 per bag for any “donations.”

“That sounds pretty good to me,” I said.

“Yeah, I thought you’d like that, but don’t look to eager.”

We sealed the deal and I was sent to a window to pay $320.00 assuring our passage into the public area of the airport.  It wasn’t exactly the freedom of three care-free, debt-free European students on bikes, but it felt pretty good.

Jorge was selling his art on a narrow street in Havana Vieja, the historic section of Havana.   His art isn’t the usual bold colored paintings of the old cars roaring through Havana streets.  His color pencil scenes are softer, deeper.  He could tell I wasn’t going to buy any of the art he had displayed, so he pulled out a few more from a battered portfolio behind his chair.  The first that caught my attention was of a neighborhood street with a fifty-seven Chevy, hood up and wheels on blocks.  It wasn’t caricaturized like his competitors paintings, but simply parked indefinitely behind a 54 Willy’s Jeep that was stripped of all but its essential parts.  

“You can see this scene still, near my house,” he said pointing in the direction of his neighborhood.  “I just finished this yesterday.”

“I like it,” I said, “and this one too.”  I pointed to a picture of the Cathedral.  It’s one of the most photographed, painted and drawn buildings in Cuba, if not the world.  The building’s disrepair and weathered façade only adds to its charm for tourists and artists.  But in Jorge’s drawing it was white again, and perfectly restored.  It was healed. 

“These are wonderful,” I said, “why do you have them hidden?”  I asked in Spanish.

“I prefer we speak English,” he said.  “I need to practice.”   He looked at me and without saying so, we both knew why he wanted to be good at English.  It would mean a better job if he ever made it to Miami.

“I must keep these other drawings behind me,” he said, “because they don’t meet the standards. If the police see them, I will get a ticket.”

“The standards?” I asked.

“Yes, the government gives us license us to sell in tourist districts only if we make the scenes they tell us,” he said.

“How much for both of these” I asked.

They were the equivalent of about $22 together.  I gave him $30.00 and we continued to talk as he carefully rolled my new treasures in brown paper.

“Is this your only job?” I asked, “being an artist?”

“No,  . . . I mean yes,” he said,  “It’s my only real job.  I make enough to pay the fees to the government and then a little more.“

After handing me my package, Jorge began to pack up his paintings.

“Are you done for the day?”

“I’ll be back later when the crowds increase,” he said.

I offered to buy him lunch so that we could continue our conversation.   I had two hours left before I had to meet the group.  I had planned to sit in one of the bars that Hemmingway used to haunt, La Floridita or La Bodeguita del Medio but Jorge told me they were only for tourists and had expensive watered down drinks. 

“Follow me,” he said.  “I know a good place.”

We walked toward the Malecón, the famous break-wall that protects the roadway and promenade along the northern coast of the city.  He led me into a dark little bar that was neither for the “casual” tourist nor the typical Cuban.  Jorge noticed my reluctance and assured me I’d be safe and welcome. 

“Travelers come here for specific reasons,” he said.  “You can talk to the bartender here and find whatever you need if you have dollars or chavitos.” 

“See the women sitting over there by the corner window?” he said a little too loudly.

“Yes,” I whispered. 

“It is OK,” he said, “she only speaks Spanish, and Russian I suppose.”

“Russian?”

“Yes, she came here from Russia in the seventies,” he said.  “Thousands of Russian women came when the beard [Castro] was what you call ‘in bed’ with the Soviet Union.  They married Cuban men or came as singles looking to find Cuban men.  They wanted freedom, socialism, anything but what they had .  I think they got a warmer version of the thing they were trying to get away from.  Since the Soviet Union fell, they have been stuck here, living on small pensions and unable to return to Russia, even to visit their families.  Yulia – over there –  is an old woman now, selling imported drugs like ibuprofen and Robitussin to Cubans with dollars, and selling Viagra to the old tourists who come here to find jineteras, prostitutes.  Yulia’s husband left her years ago for a younger women.  He left the young one too, for a boat made of plastic and powered by an electric engine and the battery from his old Ford.  There was talk that he didn’t make it to Miami, and there is no talk that he made it back to Cuba.  After he left, the soldiers came to her house and confiscated everything, her furniture, her refrigerator, everything.”

Jorge’s English was very good and his stories had my full attention.

“When the Soviets were here, times were OK for awhile. They brought us the Ladas and Moskoviches,” he said, referring to the boxy cars that still share the roads with the U.S.-made cars from the 50’s.  The Cubans say that the Lada is not really a car, but they like them because they are simple to repair and replacement parts can be made from scraps of other cars.”

“The Russian influence is large in Cuba,” he continued. “It is why we wear our wedding rings on our right hands, and why many Cubans born in the 70’s have difficult names that start with the letter Y,” he said laughing.

“Tell me how you survive,” I said. 

Jorge thought for a moment and looked at me as if he had some special way of knowing whether I could be trusted. 

“My other job,” he said, “is to help people like Yulia do their jobs.  I meet tourists all day with my drawings and talk to them.  I find out what they are doing here, what they need.  If they are looking for a cheap place to stay or a good place to eat, I take them to a casa that has clean rooms, good food and cheap prices. If they need a cab to take them to another city, I find them a driver with a car.  If they need a companion, I find them a young girl.  If they need help entertaining the young girl, I bring them to Yulia here for a blue pill.  Every time I find a customer for one of my friends, I make a small commission.” he said.  “And to be honest the bartender here will give me a few pesos for bringing you here to buy food and drink.”

When we finished our plates of roasted chicken, with rice and beans and salad, I told Jorge had that I had to meet our group for a bus tour.  He walked me to the Malecón and I promised him that I would bring the group by later to see his art.

“Will you be expecting a commission if they buy something?” he asked with a laugh.

“Yes, fifty percent,” I said. 

“OK, fifty percent.  Now I will have to raise all my prices before they arrive.”

“Jorge, what is that?” I said pointing to a huge white sculpture of Jesus on hill on the other side of the harbor.

el_cristo_de_la_habana2

“Ah, that is Jesus.”

“Yes, I know, but what’s the story?”

Jorge was as well informed about Marble Jesus as he was about Russian Yulia.  “The sculpture was commissioned by the Batista family and completed in 1958.  It was designed by a Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera and made of 67 blocks of marble that were brought from Carrara, Italy.  It stands 66 feet high,” he said.  “The eyes are hollow so that he appears to be looking at you no matter where you are when you see him.”

“There are many stories about him,” Jorge said.  “The statue was inaugurated only a few days before the beard (Castro) and his men arrived in Havana.  And on the day Castro entered the city, the statue was struck by lightning, ruining its head.  It has since been repaired,” he said.

“Jorge, I want to see it up close, can I get there with the tour bus?”

“This is the best view of it, right here.  Anywhere in the city, really!”

“I know, but I’d like to stand under it and see how big it is.”

Jorge seemed a little peeved. “It’s best to see it from here,” he said.  “If you go up there, they will charge you just to walk around in front of it and  . . . “

“How much?” I asked.

“It’s a dollar each.”

“It’s only a dollar!” I said, forgetting that ‘only a dollar’ is a meal or two for Jorge.  “Come with us,” I said.  “I’ll pay for you to see it with us, and my group will buy some of your work.”

Jorge’s anger was not directed at me when he raised his finger and said, “I will not pay a single centavo to Fidel Castro to see something that belongs to the people of Cuba.”

The bus horn interrupted my stunned silence and Jorge said he needed to get back to his business.  I thanked him for taking time to talk with me and promised to look for him later.  He shook my hand and asked if we would be going up the statue. 

“Not a single centavo,” I said.

SICKO in Cuba

The hearse led a procession through the streets of a Cuban town then out into the countryside.  It was converted from a 1980’s era Chevy S-10 blazer, a rare model to be found in Cuba where nearly all American-made cars predate the 1959 revolution.  But a few foreign embassies and consulates imported cars for their own use, and sold them to Cuban businesses when they were ready for newer replacements.  Behind the hearse was a ‘56 Buick, driven by Yosmani, a black-market taxi driver.  Today there was no charge.  Today Yosmani was transporting his childhood friend and the friend’s parents and in-laws.   The rest of the families, mostly women and children, rode behind on the third vehicle.  They were tossed around on the back of ‘53 International flatbed truck. It spewed purple smoke that swirled into clouds of its own dust.  Along the sides of the truck, six or seven older men were riding bikes.  The last car in the procession was mine, a 2005 Hyundai rental.  I kept some distance trying to avoid the dust while listening to the heated conversation in the back seat.

The funeral was for a baby that had not survived childbirth.  I knew the baby’s father from a previous visit and had heard that his wife was in the hospital.  There were complications, so the mother had been hospitalized for the last few weeks of her pregnancy. The hospital reported to the father that the baby was too weak to make it through the surgery and died during the C-Section.   The mother was still in the hospital, so this young man was here to bury his son and then return to her bedside. 

The local pastor and his wife, Silvia, were riding in the back seat of my car and their 16 year old son, Andreis, was riding in the front with me.  Silvia was talking very rapidly.  I could only tell that she was talking about how the baby had died, and that she was angry and sobbing.  The pastor was quiet.

“What are they saying,” I asked Andreis.

Andreis translated his mother’s meaning into a slower and simpler version of Spanish so that I could understand. 

“The hospital reported that the baby died during the surgery,” he said.  “But when the mother regained consciousness after the surgery, she told her husband that this was not true.”

“What happened?” I asked.

 “When the baby started to come, there weren’t enough doctors available,” he said. “By the time they got to her into surgery, the baby had already died.” 

Silvia slumped into her husband’s arms and began to sob. I could see in my mirror that with each sob, she pounded her small fist onto her husband’s chest..

“My mother is angry because the government has sent too many Doctors – the best doctors – to other countries,” he said.

“Cuidado,” the pastor said to his son.  Be careful.

“No, he should know the truth,” Silvia said through her tears.

As I maneuvered the car around washed out holes that I thought might swallow up my little car, the pastor told me about the situation in more general terms.  He said that several years ago the government opened up its Medical Schools to any students who wanted to attend, for free.  “They are good schools,” he said, “but as a result of this open system Cuba has many fine doctors, many mediocre doctors, and some really bad doctors.”  He then told me that recently, when the government agreed to send hundreds of doctors to Venezuela, Bolivia and other countries, he sent Cuba’s finest.  In most cases they went willingly.  Outside of Cuba they could make more money for their families.  In other cases they went so that they would not be sent to less desirable places as punishment for not accepting the assignment. 

Silvia added, “He’d rather look important to other countries than take care of his own people.”

The car grew silent except for the gentle sobbing in the back seat and the occasional roar of the truck engine ahead. 

I remembered the first billboard I saw when I arrived in Havana.  You couldn’t miss it on the road from the airport into the city.  I had the taxi driver stop so that I could take a picture.

dscn46552

10-MILLION CHILDREN IN THE WORLD

DIE OF AVOIDABLE ILLNESSES.

NONE OF THEM ARE CUBAN.

No wonder Cuba reports such great health care statistics, low infant mortality rates, high life expectancy averages, etc.  No wonder Michael Moore chose to highlight the Cuban health care system in Sicko.  Statistics and billboards tell good stories when not everybody counts. 

I found myself hoping that the grieving father in the car ahead had never seen that billboard – the one that would say to him:  

HEY, YOUR BABY DOESN’T COUNT

When the procession stopped, the pastor and I helped the women and children down from the bed of the truck.  They hurried to gather around a family tomb where the mason was preparing concrete to seal the cover. 

I saw the child’s father sitting on a bench 30 feet away with his face in his hands.  I walked to him and asked, “are you going to join them?”

He stood up, moved very close to me and whispered, “I’ll say goodbye to my son when I can stand by his tomb with his mother.”

After we loaded everyone back on the truck I agreed to take the pastor to the hospital to visit the baby’s mother. 

“I’d like to see the hospital,” I said.  “Can I go in with you?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s only for Cuban patients and their families.  I’ll be allowed in with my credentials as a pastor, but I doubt that they would let you inside.” 

He could tell that I was disappointed, so he began to help me see the hospital through his eyes. 

“Like all of health care, the hospitals in Cuba are ‘free’,” he said using air quotes, “but still it’s best if you go with gifts or money for the staff.”

“And you don’t send a relative there alone,” he said.  “If you want your son or mother to get fed and get good care, you send an advocate, a family member, to stay with them.”

As we drove toward the city, he told me of his friend who had emergency intestinal surgery.  After the surgery, the unconscious man was rolled out of the operating room on a gurney with doctor instructions and antibiotics tucked between his legs. When he arrived in his room, the medicine and instructions were gone – stolen to sell on the black market.  By the time the family found the doctor and convinced him to write a new prescription the man had gone for 24 hours with no medication and had acquired high fevers.

The pastor directed me to the parking lot of a large four-story high building.  If there were signs, I had missed them and there was no way to tell that it was a hospital.  The block building’s exterior was crumbling and had not been painted for decades.  Clothes and sheets hung from open or missing windows and there was obviously no air-conditioning.  

“This is it?” I asked.

“This is it,” he said without expression.  “There are better hospitals in the bigger cities.  Some are cleaner and don’t have insects, cockroaches or rats.  There are better hospitals, but there are worse hospitals as well.”

That’s Not Funny

His name was Ricardo. He was speaking to my group of American Students in a private home on the south side of Havana. It was our last day in Cuba and these students had seen the poverty of the streets, the crumbling conditions of once beautiful buildings, the unhealthy conditions of rural hospitals. They met a man who had been incarcerated for nearly three decades for his opposition the Castro regime and they had viewed the Libreta (ration booklet) of a family that could not afford to supplement the government’s meager allotment of food. But Ricardo was the first man who had agreed to speak with them freely.

“I’ll answer your questions honestly,” he said.

There were conditions, of course. There always are. First, the students had to agree not to write about him or to use his name on the Internet. He told of a friend whose family suffered a long string of “problems” after the friend’s opinions were published on the Internet. Second, the students could not take pictures or video of him. (Well, maybe a few pictures if you give him a copy.) Third, his children really need shoes.

I was only half listening to the interpreter, so I wasn’t sure what he was saying about shoes. He didn’t ask for shoes. He didn’t ask for money for shoes. No Internet. No video. And, by the way, his children don’t have shoes.

As he began to tell about his life and his work in the sugar fields, I noticed something being passed around among the students. When it got to me, I saw that it was an envelope stuffed with dollars and chavitos (Cuban Tourist Dollars). It simply said “shoes”  on the envelope. Apparently my students understood perfectly what he was saying.

“Do most Cubans want the Castros to die or lose power?” a student asked. I was stunned by this abrupt introduction to the Q and A, but our guest was not fazed.

“Many do, but many don’t,” he said without elaboration.

“How can some Cubans not want something better?” another student asked.

I was with them. How can it be that some still believe Fidel’s smooth tongue after fifty years of broken promises and unfulfilled rhetoric? How can they buy Raul’s promises of a more open system and a better economy? How can it be that they won’t fight for better health care, or freedom of speech? I didn’t understand. Ricardo was as interested in hearing the questions as my students were in hearing his answers. He explained the history and economy of Cuba and the “diabolically brilliant” mind of Castro.

“Fidel has convince many people that the problems of Cuba are the result of the American ‘blockade.’ He tells them that if they give in, the U.S. will take Cuba and its heritage and destroy it. People will be without health care and food. The rich capitalists will use up Cuba’s resources and leave it in worse condition than ever.”

He had a point, I thought. It brought to mind our involvement “helping” other countries.

“But I’ve heard that Raul Castro has made changes,” said one student with his native sarcasm. “He’s had public meetings to seek input for a more efficient system, loosened restrictions on access to tourist destinations, and allowed cell phone use. Right?”

“Yes, some of the rules have changed,” Ricardo agreed, “and that’s good for the image of Cuba abroad, but it changes nothing for me. A night in a hotel – a cheap hotel – costs three months of my salary. And while I’d love to have a cell phone, I could have had one before if I had a rich Miami relative and put it in his name. Legal or not, I cannot afford a phone and my ability to afford one is controlled by the Cuban government. We have a phrase: Raúl Castro es el mismo perro con diferente collar,” he said. Same dog, different collar.

“Oh, and we have a joke about those public meetings,” he said. “At the first meeting, a party leader came to the large auditorium and it was filled with people. He talked about the sweeping changes meant to improve conditions. When he was done he asked if anyone had any questions. One man raised his hand and asked why the chocolate in our stores so bad? The leader said he didn’t know the answer to that question, but he would check on that and report back at the next meeting.”

“At the next meeting the room filled again and the party officials made their comments. When they were finished the party leader asked again if there were any questions.  A different man raised his hand. The leader asked him if he too wanted to know about the chocolate in the stores.”

“‘No, the man said, I want to know where the man is that asked the question about the chocolate at the last meeting.”

When Ricardo finished the story he chuckled at his own humor. The students were horrified. “That’s not funny,” I heard one of them say.

“It’s a joke, but that’s how it works,” Ricardo said.

“But the man in the joke, what happened to him – hypothetically,” asked a girl on the edge of tears.

“Maybe he got a threatening message. Maybe his son lost some privileges at school. Maybe he got a ticket for an expired license. Maybe his paycheck was docked for that time three weeks ago when he was late for work. Nothing official, but he got the message.”

“We tell jokes about it because if we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying,” he added. “I still don’t understand why more people don’t want things to change. Why they follow Fidel or Raul. Why things are so slow to change even after Fidel has given up his presidency,” I said.

Ricardo took a long breath. “There’s a story we tell in Cuba,” he said, “another joke. It will help you understand the psychology of some Cubans.”

I looked around the room. Ricardo had the undivided attention of every student.

“There were three men walking down the beach together,” he began.  “One was an American, one was a Cuban, and the third was a Russian.”

Ricardo laughed. “Already you know this is a joke, right? Because Cubans are not allowed on the beaches with the tourists. . .”

A few students chuckled nervously.

“But let me continue. They came upon lamp that was partially buried in sand and covered with tarnish and dirt. The three of them had heard of such lamps and they frantically cleaned it and polished it. Finally a genie emerged, thankful for his release. I’m sorry, said the Genie, but I only have three wishes and therefore I can grant only one to each of you.”

“You are first, he said to the Russian.”

“I would like to own all of the oil fields in Siberia so that my family might be wealthy for generations to come, the Russian said. “

“Your wish is granted, said the genie.”

“And you, he said pointing to the American.”

“I would like to be wealthier than Bill Gates, said the American.”

“The Genie snapped his fingers and granted the American’s wish.”

“And you, he asked the Cuban, what do you want?”

“I know of a man who lives in Havana, said the Cuban. He has a beautiful house with many bedrooms and bathrooms. It has a swimming pool and a three-car garage. He also has a home on Varadero, the most beautiful beach in the world. He has four cars, and money in three different banks.”

“So, the Genie said, you’d like to live like this man lives?”

“No, said the Cuban, I want HIM to live like I do.”

Counting Cubans

Cubans are not allowed on the best beaches, hotels, resorts or restaurants of their country.  My friend Jose tells me, “in this country WE are the extranjeros (the foreigners).” My rule is that I never go anywhere where the Cuban people are not welcome. The law was in place “for the protection of the tourists.”  But everyone knows the truth, Cubans comingling with tourists could lead to anti-government sentiments. So, last year when I stopped in a small town where I knew the local priest, I offered to take him and a few of his friends to a beach on the north shore.  He had put me up for a couple nights on a previous trip, so I was trying to return the favor.  I had a rented van that held 11 people, and there were only 7 of us Americans. So we crammed Father Miguel, three women from the church and their three little boys into the “gua gua.”  None of the children had ever even seen the beach before. 

The women offered to pack lunches, but I insisted on taking care of the food.  We packed only water and thermoses of café Cubano.  In the states I drink my coffee black and mild, but in Cuba I drink it the way the Cubans drink it: Sickening sweet and thick as sludge from the Exxon Valdez.

I assured my guests that I had been to this beach before and that there was an open-air thatched-roof restaurant where I would buy them all lunch. It wasn’t a “tourist” resort, so Cubans were permitted.   After an hour and a half drive we came to the road that leads to the beach.  We were stopped by a soldier who checked our documents.  He carefully noted in his book how many Cubans and how many Americans were in the van. A little further down the road we were stopped again. A government worker made us pay an entrance fee before raising the gate.  A few centavos each for the Cubans and ten bucks each for the Americanos.  Another mile and we pulled into the familiar parking lot on the beach.  Well, it was half familiar – the other half of the lot along with the restaurant, bathrooms and changing rooms had washed into the ocean during the last hurricane.  All that was left was a small stand that sold beer, soda and water.  No food.  I decided we’d figure out the food later.  Let’s get these kids on the beach!

For a song you could rent snorkel gear, umbrellas, or a small paddleboat.  For a few more chavitos, the Cuban tourist currency, you could actually rent a small speed boat, although Father Miguel tells me it only has a one-gallon gas tank. The water was crystal clear and the sun sizzled above it as it broiled any skin left unprotected.  Once everyone had what he or she needed I looked for Miguel and saw him talking to the guy at the stand.  I joined him and relieved the guy of his entire supply of water and soda.  If Father Miguel hadn’t been there, I’d have taken a few beers too.

I suggested that he stay with the others while I drive back to the nearest town and find some food. 

“You can’t do that,” he said.

“Why not?”

“You came into the park with 7 Cubans, they won’t let you leave without 7 Cubans.” 

When he said this he turned and looked north toward Miami, only 90 miles over the horizon.  That was the reason they counted the Cubans.  That was the reason for the one-gallon gas tank.

As I contemplated this, the man from the stand ran up and said to Miguel, “He agreed to show you.”

Father Miguel told the guy he’d be right there and pulled me aside.

Que pasa?” I asked.  “What’s up?

Miguel explained that he had talked to the man while I was getting the group organized on the beach and he knew of another man who could get us dinner – a man that has a “business.”  I was familiar with the casa particulares, home businesses.  Some were legal and pay high fees and taxes for the privilege of operating their trade.  Others were not legal, part of the mercado negro.  These pay their fees, if any, in the form of bribes.  This was very common, but Miguel was very cautious, very protective.

“I will go and check it out,” he said.

He walked toward the parking lot as I ran to kids who were splashing and calling for me to get in the water.  A while later Miguel returned and yelled for me to join him away from the others.

“I went to the place where they will feed us,” he said. “It’s OK.  It’s clean and the food looks fresh.  Each person will get grilled white fish or grilled lobster, some salad, rice and bread.”

  At this point I was sure it was not a “legal” business.   Lobster is only allowed to be caught and cooked in state-run restaurants or for export.  

They can only handle 7 at a time,” he said, “so we will have to eat in shifts.  The Americans will go first.  It will cost  5 U.S dollars each.”

“$5.00?” I said, “for lobster?”

Si!” he said smiling.

“Great!” I said,  “but you’re taking the Cuban families first.”

“No, no . . . ”

He started to argue, but I stopped him. 

“It’s not negotiable,” I said.  “These women and kids haven’t eaten since early this morning.  My team, on the other hand, can easily live off the fat of the land for another hour.”

As Father Miguel led them back toward the parking lot, I went back into the water to inform my troops.   Each of them chose the lobster without hesitation. 

By the time our Cuban friends returned from lunch they looked happy and satisfied. 

“Follow me,” Miguel said. 

We followed him through the parking lot and past the cars.  There, two men joined us and led us down a different part of the beach for a few minutes, and then onto a trail into the woods.  I looked through the trees for the house where we would eat, but saw nothing.  In a small clearing, Miguel said, “Here!”  I was a little bewildered at first, until I saw the small fire, with lobsters grilling, another fire with a pot of rice, and a piece of wood with plates and flatware stacked neatly on a cloth.

We ate salads and rice and bread first as the two men grilled the lobster and plopped them one at a time onto our plates.  Most of us were standing, so maneuvering a fork to pull meat out of the shell required a bit of a learning curve.  Eventually we did learn – it couldn’t be done.  So there we stood holding the shells up to our faces and sucking out this charred delicacy made of equal parts adventure, ambience and hunger.  

When we had devoured every last morsel, it was time to pay up.  This is never comfortable in Cuba.  It’s one of those events where cultures clash.  Miguel saw me reaching for my wallet and he approached. 

“Give me the money and I will pay him,” said the good father.

 “No, no, I can handle it.” I assured him. 

I calculated in my head:  14 people, 5 bucks each, a generous tip for risking their freedom to feed us.  No problem.  I’ll make it 7 bucks each.  I counted out the money and handed it to the man who seemed to be in charge. 

“It’s good,” I said handing him the money, “no change.” 

On the trail back to the beach I saw Father Miquel ahead talking to Andy, my best Spanish speaker.  Miguel seemed rather agitated, but Andy appeared to be amused. 

“Hey,” I yelled, “what’s going on up there?”

Andy turned and laughed. “Father Miguel is not happy with you,” he said.

Miguel grabbed him by the arm and hurried him forward to stop the conversation, but I caught up with them.   

“What is it, Father?”

But Andy looked over at me and said, “It seems our hosts originally wanted $7 per person and Father Miguel here spent 20 minutes talking them down to $5.”

“Ah, but Miguel,” I said, “it is a good thing that you did that for me, otherwise those $7 lobsters would have cost me $9.”

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