Cuba. Where do I start?
Where do I start to talk about Cuba?
A prequel in the Miami hotel, ostensibly close but a world away from Cuba, where a plethora of pillows was unable to conceal the fact that my bed was a subwoofer for the karaoke downstairs, where semi-drunk people sang semi-offkey versions of semi-current pop songs?
Or an introduction via the insanity of the modern world, where 40 minutes on a plane take you from that world, tipsy tourists trouncing Timberlake, to the liquid hips and notes of Cuban salsa? A flight so short they barely have time to hand you a soda, but transfers you from the problems and advantages of modern America to the significantly different problems and advantages of modern Cuba.
Do I begin at or our first stop, minutes from the airport, at the Plaza de la Revolucion? We filtered among the Germans and Russians across 72,000 square meters of merciless cement, which broiled our feet while our eyes drifted up like steam to the 100 ton steel outlines of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the facades of the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Communications buildings. The two iconic guerrilleros looked over the tops of our wide-brimmed hats, burning-despite-caked-on-sunscreen faces, and clicking DSLRs at the Jose Marti Monument, where Fidel has customarily addressed a million Cubans at a time, ie half the population of Havana.
No, none of that has the almost tangible flair of Cuba.
Nor did Cuba start at the Hotel Nacional, a tower of opulence made of marble, gold, glass, and gangster money, which became state property after the revolution. We walked between honeymooners and the well-to-do, continued our advanced course in mojitos, and tried to pay attention to our guide despite the distraction of an ocean just THAT shade of blue. Gorgeous, but still not Cuba.
Basking and lounging for five miles from the mouth of Havana Harbor to down past the Hotel Nacional, the Malecon is a wide concrete stage where waves dance during storms, but the rest of the time the performance is human, Cuban, intimate and welcoming.
During the day…I’m not exactly sure what people do on the Malecon during the day. It looked like some fishing and a lot of hanging out, as our bus passed on the way to meeting talented artists, hearing celestial choirs, or gawking at stunning ballet dancers. It looked relaxing, though with a sun like that, I can only assume they were catching fish already boiled by the time they left the water. But by night? That is when Cuba happens, in drifts of music, bounces of conversation, sloshes of kissing, and hurricanes of laughter.
Life is lived in the open here, not sequestered behind closed doors in front of flickering screens, and walking that esplanade is a slideshow of the human experience. Babies might be nursing or napping, while kids play ball in front of families passing rum and tales. Sisters joke with brothers, friends greet cousins, and wandering musicians will play a tune or ten for a peso or two.
Cuba is an erotic land, where shame and the demonization of sexuality have not taken root as they have in Puritan-schizophrenic America. I can’t claim to understand this, but suspect it was assisted by the accidental embargo on Hollywood’s impossible physical standards, our iron maiden gender roles, and (so-called) “women’s” magazines and their misogynistic advertising sadism. Maybe it’s the absence of these mutilating scripts and pressures, or maybe it’s just the fertile sensuality of Cuba itself, but somehow the Cubans never learned that they’re supposed to be ashamed of sexuality, private about passion, and removed from the physical lusciousness of being alive.
So the Malecon also sways with a current of kisses, entwined limbs, and touching torsos. It’s not remotely pornographic, not nearly indecent, and profoundly more tasteful than our commercials. And in contrast to our youth-obsessed mania, you are as likely to see a fifty-year old caressing his long-time lady as you are the scalding desire of adolescents. It’s frickin beautiful.
Merely witnessing the sheer Life on the Malecon is nourishing to a soul grown withered and weary in the Fear, Distance, and Isolation of “Western” Culture, but the Cubans do much more than simply exist in real-life elegance. They invite you to share it.
Accustomed to passing strangers with an American air of “Don’t worry, I’m no threat to you, but you’d better not come after me”, I was surprised and delighted when strangers showed themselves to be friends I just hadn’t met yet, calling out to me to come over, talk, meet, laugh with the family. Share your story, share this rum, share our lives.
Solidarity. It’s more than a political buzzword.
I’d long wanted to go to Cuba, and knew enough to feel confident that I had come via the two best organizations possible for such a trip, Altruvistas and Ethical Traveler, but I confess, wandering through the limp tourist morass of the Plaza de la Revolucion, and checking into the weary elegance of the Hotel Nacional, I had wondered if a tour would allow me to actually meet some Cuba.
But that first night, exhausted and adjusting, walking for an hour or two between families of new friends (I had three sets of phone numbers, addresses, and invites to come visit by the time we got back to the hotel), I felt myself to be in Cuba.
And I liked it.