By Ruth Behar
This blog appeared originally on Bridges to/from Cuba.
For years Richard Blanco and I had talked about traveling to Cuba together. Finally the time seemed right. On June 13th, we met up at the airport in Miami. We were told to arrive five hours before our departure time. That turned out to be good advice. Several flights were leaving for Havana at the same time, and after we checked in, the lines got so long they snaked all the way down to the front door of the airport. In May, we would have seen Art Biennial types flocking to make the journey to Havana. But mid-June is the start of the low tourist season in Cuba. It starts to get much too hot on the island for foreigners. Our flight was filled only with Cubans bringing gifts for their families, plus the two of us, eager to share each other’s Cuba.
Richard had traveled to Cuba in the past with his mother, while I had mostly traveled on my own, going a couple of times with my husband and son, but never with my parents, who still haven’t wanted to return. We knew it was going to be emotional going together. If you’ve been to Cuba, you know that one day in Cuba is equivalent to about ten days anywhere else in the world. Life is lived with a unique intensity on the island that is indescribable.
In Havana, we stayed in a rental apartment in the building where I lived as a child, which is half a block away from the Patronato Synagogue. The apartment is managed by our former neighbors, who proudly pointed out that our shower had automatic hot and cold running water and so we wouldn’t have to warm up water on the stove and take bucket showers, as most people do in Cuba. As soon as we got settled in, we took a long walk around Vedado, ablaze with bright orange flamboyanes at this time of year. I showed Richard the park where I played as a child, which has a gazebo that has remained unchanged over the years.
The next day, accompanied by a historian-friend, Gerardo, and his wife, Amarilys, we took in La Habana Vieja from end to end. We had a look at the restoration work at the Capitolio, the mirror image of the U.S. capitol, and at the Manzana de Gómez, the first shopping arcade in Cuba, that once housed many elegant stores. Havana’s prized architectural monuments are definitely getting a facelift. But when we walked down Calle Muralla, famed for its Jewish businesses, we saw the closed doors of abandoned stores and felt the ghostly sadness of those who fled years ago.
As night was falling in La Habana Vieja, it began pouring, the kind of rain you only see in Cuba, rain that feels as if the world is coming to an end. We took refuge from the downpour in the lobby of the Hotel Plaza, next to a cage of loud parrots. We lost all sense of time until at last we stepped outside.
A light rain was still coming down. There was no transportation to be had. Out of thin air, a woman cab driver appeared and said she was available. Her name was Bienvenida—literally “Welcome.”
Bienvenida was so kind I thought to ask her if she might drive us to Cienfuegos, where we planned to go next to visit with Richard’s family. She said she didn’t drive outside of Havana, but not to worry, she’d help us find someone. Sure enough, she contacted a fellow cab driver, and he in turn contacted another driver, Eduardo, who had recently ceased to work for the government and become an independent driver.
We couldn’t have asked for a more professional and courteous driver. Halfway into our trip, we stopped at a family-run restaurant on the highway called Paladar Km 50, where the menu was in Cuban pesos rather than convertible currency, making it more affordable to Cubans on the island. We could imagine this restaurant being marketed in a few years as “farm to table.” The chickens and pigs and the plantain and yucca plants were just a few feet beyond. A complete meal, accompanied by a salad and generous servings of arroz congrí, cost the equivalent of $3.50. Though only graced with ten tables, each table was numbered, as if the restaurant was in New York City, the waitress referring to our table as “number five.”
In Cienfuegos, Richard was greeted by his extended family with huge affection, his mother’s older sister filled with pure cariño, hugging me, too, as if she’d known me forever. We spent a day visiting the sugar-growing towns of Espartaco and Palmira, from where Richard’s family hails, and paid a visit to a cousin, nicknamed El Curro, whose farm was filled with mango trees in full luscious bloom. A reporter and a photographer from the Associated Press joined us for this part of the trip, and upon our return that story found its way into the New York Times. Read about it here.
Late in the afternoon, Orlando García, a writer and historian, and an old friend, invited us to meet with writers and musicians at the Cienfuegos branch of the UNEAC (the Writers and Artists Union). It was the night of Candelario Alvarado’s peña, which he calls “Escritrova,” because it combines writing and trova music. We shared poems in between the cortinas musicales, everyone participating, and gathering in a more intimate circle under the rooftop when it began to rain.
In the evening we hung out with several of Richard’s cousins on El Muelle, by the dock in Cienfuegos, and we talked about the future and what might come to pass with the reopening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. Will the Americans take over again, we wondered? One of Richard’s cousins very confidently replied, “Eso no va a pasar aquí. Olvídate de eso” (That won’t happen here. Forget about that). She, like so many others, seems certain that Cubans will know how to hold on to their independent and rebellious spirit into the future.
We went on to Matanzas, where famed book artist Rolando Estévez, a longtime friend, now runs an independent imprint called El Fortín. Estévez invited us to participate in an afternoon gathering of music, literature, dance, and art held at the historic Pharmaceutical Museum, a jewel of architectural preservation. He himself offered a dramatic performance of Dulce María Loynaz’s beautifully wrenching poem, “Eternity,” with its lines, “For you infinity or nothing,” bringing many of us to tears. (The poem is at the end of this letter.)
There were more tears to come on the journey back to Havana as a phone call led our driver Eduardo to stop along the highway to receive a message from his former wife’s eighteen-year-old son. The ex-wife had left the previous day for Canada, with plans to immigrate, without telling a soul. Eduardo was beyond hurt. He tried to hold back the tears, but couldn’t, and it was all we could do not to cry with him as we drove into the city, passing the Malecón, Havana’s famous sea wall promenade, desperately holding back the great force of the ocean.
Our last night we went to Café Madrigal, opened two years ago by Rafael Rosales, a filmmaker, who has filled the high-ceilinged space with massive art works, and ancient typewriters and projectors, and turned the bidet into a pot for his plants. With us was another longtime friend, visual artist Rocío García, who studied art for seven years on a scholarship in St Petersburg, back when it used to be called Leningrad. It so happened that one of Rocío’s friends from Russia was visiting and over vodka and frituras de malanga we talked about pessimistic hopes for the future, Rocío translating from Spanish into Russian. Only in Cuba, we thought, could so many languages, cultures, geopolitics intersect in such an easygoing way.
The flight back to Miami was delayed five hours and we’d gotten there three hours early for our flight, as requested by the airline, so we had a long wait in limbo before departing Cuba. Richard needed to smoke a cigarette. Something unexpected had happened in Cuba—it wasn’t possible to smoke in the airport anymore! But along with others, including airport personnel, Richard snuck in a quick smoke in the airport bathroom. Again, only in Cuba.
We’ve returned inspired by this trip. We saw so many possibilities for bridges among writers, artists, musicians, and Cubans of all walks of life. We’ll be sharing news of these and other stories in upcoming blogs. We look forward to your responses and truly feel grateful to all of you who are fellow bridge-builders.
Dulce María Loynaz
From Versos, 1920-1938 (1938)
I want my favors not to disappear, but to live and last, if possible, all my friend’s life.
I’ve roses in my garden.
To you I will not give
my roses, for tomorrow—
tomorrow you’ll have none.
I’ve songbirds in my garden,
chanting crystal songs:
I won’t give you them, for they
have wings to fly away.
In my garden, honey bees
are crafting well-wrought combs:
the sweetness of a moment—
I won’t give that to you!
For you, infinity
or nothing; what lasts all time
or this unspoken sadness
that you can’t understand.
The unnamed sadness of
having naught to give
to one whose own looks carry
hints of eternity.
Leave, then. Leave this garden.
Do not touch this rose:
Things that death will carry off
are not to be touched.
[Translated from the Spanish by David Frye]
About the Author
Ruth Behar, ethnographer, essayist, poet, and filmmaker, is professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellows Award and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Behar is the author of several books, including The Vulnerable Observer. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.