Perhaps the next best thing to getting an assignment in Cuba is getting an assignment in Cuba that wraps a day early and leaves a person with 24 full hours of unaccounted-for time. I lucked into one precious day in Cuba without a camera crew, a microphone, a designated purpose or a notepad.
Where to start such a day, a free day, in a not-so-free country? Should a young woman flashing a camera walk around by herself? I was torn between "la tourista" in me and the real life adventurer. I went with my instincts and wove and dove in and out of both worlds. I experienced some of the pleasures and contradictions that make up Cuba in 1999.
I must admit I ate up "Cuba/Disney," from buying cigars at Casa de Tobacco to visiting the elegant Hotel Nacionale. I downed an overpriced daiquiri at La Floridita, the alleged birthplace of the aforementioned cocktail. I paid homage to the Habana Libre, the gigantic former Hilton Hotel where Castro set up home base during the revolution. It's still a gigantic Hilton with a more revolution-friendly sign. My guidebook informed me, educated me, explained to me the happenings at these places. But still it's no match for the real events and people you see.
The explorer in me felt compelled to veer off the main streets and walk the roads that haven't benefited from Euro dollars. One or two "calles" to the right or the left is a whole different story, another bit of Havana's personality. Old Havana is a maze of corridors, where the sunshine peeks through the top and spotlights each home, each with its own story.
On one block, an old man sells produce out of a wheelbarrow parked in his living room, which is his bedroom, which is also his kitchen. Across the way is the "farmacia" without much in the way of medicine or toiletries. Maybe over a street or two is an art gallery, on the second floor above a pizza stand. The gallery owner and artist in residence was, in fact, in his residence. Eating his lunch surrounded by his paintings, he was not concerned with his potential patron. Maybe he knew I could not buy one legally without filling out a special permit.
The architecture has a true beauty that shines through the peeling paint and unhinged shutters. It's a sharp contrast to the freshly painted Viva La Revolucion billboards that loom around the city. A more comforting image of Cuban pride came from peeking in doorways to see a glimpse of a picture of Che hanging on the wall, much like those found of Kennedy or Martin Luther King ihomes of a certain vintage in the U.S.
Perhaps the only moment in the day when my journalistic radar went up was when I stumbled on a line of 100 to 150 people circling a park. A concert? A food line? No, it's an under-reported story of Cuban passion that surpasses baseball or cigars. It's ....ice cream. Cubans love ice cream and will wait hours in line to get a scoop. This specific parlor, I Coppelia, seats 1,000 people in pod-like fashion. Apparently for Cubans, the line was not news at all.
By midday, I'd overcome my shyness and busted out my broken college Spanish. I wanted to communicate. But as I learned, there are more ways to communicate than mere words. For example, a young police officer approached me in a park. I was convinced I was going to be scolded for standing on the grass as I lined up a photo of a Jose Marti statue. He just wanted to know where I was from and why I was in Cuba. He offered me directions back to my hotel and even took me on a shortcut across the highway. He also wanted to know if I wanted to have dinner with him, and when I politely declined, in Spanish no less, he bid me a fond farewell and left me standing on the median between two-way traffic. It's true - the language of love overrides any embargo. I am not joking when I tell you a young man approached me on the street and asked "que es su significa?"--the classic "what is your sign?"
The romance of sun and rum can't mask some of the truths of Cuba. It's poor. There's one party. They need medicine. It's not an easy life. This came to me during a conversation, in English, with our translator. A strong woman in her 40s with a teenage son, she is a journalist who can no longer make a living, so she translates for other journalists. Her stories of food rationing and rich people who housed chickens to get the protein from eggs sounded like newspaper accounts, horrible truths but somehow foreign.
It was something much less serious that caught my ear and eye. One day I saw her reading a beat-up old copy of The Reader, an Oprah Winfrey book club selection. Several of my friends scoffed at even reading it for our book club. However, our translator was devouring it. I asked her what she liked to read. She explained to me she would read anything, anything at all. She said that because of censorship as well as a paper and money shortage, books aren't easily available in Cuba. The books she read were usually left by television crews with whom she worked. She was so thankful for the literature.
It made me think--something as small as picking up a book, which is so easy in our superstore.com world, is unavailable to someone who truly loves to read. The paperbacks we leave on planes, give to Goodwill or even recycle would make her happy. Many of my co-workers brought her books to read. With a small stack of limp-paged, dog-eared books she told me, "It's like Christmas."
Cuba is a place where a book can fel like a special event, and the stunning palace of an overthrown dictator is something people walk by every day without a care. It's a place where people are free to exchange emotions but unable to freely exchange ideas. Cuba is a place where everything is real, the problems are real and so are the joys.
By Alison Stewart
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