Leaving Cuba

The following day would be our last in Cuba. We caught a late breakfast at a place called Havana Blues, a trendy, musical palace where we further appreciated our American buying power: we shared mojitos, a cup of soup, a ham and cheese pizza, caramel flan, and a café for the spartan price of 16 CUC, tip included. Our wallets not much lighter (but our budget growing thin), we spent our final afternoon getting lost in Vedado, still dreaming of finding guarapo.

We strolled into the Havana Libre hotel and headed undisturbed for the elevators. Ascending to the top floor, we were rewarded with a lavish room lined with glass windows offering the best views of the city. Besides the occasional staff that drifted in and flashed us a smile, nobody seemed aware of this place. After our week in the country, we were drawn out of ourselves and back into the present as we beheld with open eyes the splendor of the city. There were few skyscrapers; everything seemed so far below. Along El Malecon, the coast wrapped around the highway and and got lost in the deep blue sea. We stood silently taking in the majesty of the country, our faces once more pressed against the windows toward the blue sky.

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Havana for miles.

Back in the lobby, we came across a La Casa del Habano, one of the state-run tobacco stores recommended for anyone looking to buy cigars without getting scammed. There was an older man outside with graying hair and sun-kissed eyes, seated by himself and rolling tobacco with weathered hands. We watched as his practiced fingers formed each cigar, effortlessly blending three types of dried leaves to give them shape. He’d been at this for half a century, and laughed when I asked him how many he’d rolled. His wares were the best we’d seen, and we saw them created in his hands. We left with enough presents for ourselves, family, and friends, then spent ventured to the Hotel Nacional and got lost in the Cold War trenches dig into the soil that surrounded the harbor.

Our funds were nearly gone. We had an emergency supply of Euros we’d set aside to get back to the airport after enjoying the night. Now at the end of the day, our choice was simple: find a Casa de Cambio and eat well for the evening, or swoop back into Habana Vieja and try once more to find the ever-elusive guarapo. We elected to swap funds, knowing, at the very least, that we’d have another reason to come back, someday.

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State wares.

At the end of the afternoon, we ventured back down the El Malecon to savor the favorite local routine once more. There was a man selling ice flavored with cane syrups by the water, and we bought a few cups to slip some ron into. We sat on the wall and were soon joined by a couple of teenagers. They goofed around, standing on the wall to take selfies or pose with each other. I noted that their hats said “NY,” and “Brooklyn,” or proudly sported those familiar stars and stripes. America was in fashion here. As we left, I turned to the one sitting closest to me. “Why do you like New York?” He shrugged, spitting onto the rocks as the waves crashed into them and it all mixed together, then said, “It’s New York.”

As the sun set, we headed back through Vedado toward our apartment. An older man missing a few teeth stepped in my way. “Amigo de Cuba, de donde es?” “Estados Unidos.” He broke into a toothy smile and gave me his hand. “¡Viva United States!” Looking back into the history, if there was one thing I was expecting to find more of in Cuba, it was anti-Americanism. Yet as we explored the streets, it wasn’t disdain that we found, but American flag shirts and bandanas, and familiar bands drifting from the windows of passing cars. Maybe the situation would have been different had we left centralized areas; maybe the country understood what it was like to be disappointed by your politicians. Either way, they were happy to have us, and we were thrilled to be there.

We made it home, once more, and refreshed ourselves with showers and one of the cigars we’d bought that afternoon. Perhaps we were biased by warm Cuban night as the air seemed to evaporate around us, perhaps it was the fact that we’d seen the cigar rolled earlier that very day, but as we sat on the porch of our last casa, the smooth tobacco was sweeter than anything that had graced our lungs. Bidding buenas noches to our host, we returned to the water once more to stroll along El Malecon, now changed in the night. As we head toward our last dinner, the feel was different at this time of day: this was still the place to be, hanging out by the water, but the crowd was different now, livelier. Locals gathered with their guitars or speakers, coming together in open circles, sipping on beers and liquor and sharing the night. As we made our way to the restaurant, everyone was a friend.

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The best drink menu we found.

Artechef offered one of the best meals we’d had: I enjoyed the most inspired variation of ropa vieja I’d try, while my girlfriend salivated over garlic-infused shrimp. In a country whose culinary taste is just beginning to reawaken, the ingenuity of a nation looking to broaden its palate came to life here. After dinner, lured by the promise of music drifting along the water, we followed our feet to an open-air venue right by the water called 1830, where a 12-piece band performed on stage for a sea of like-minded locals. As the Cubans spun around each other in well-rehearsed grace, we forfeited our shame once more and lost ourselves in the crowd, not caring how silly we looked. We danced until they closed, and the sore-footed masses shuffled their way home. We wandered back once again, more slowly, along El Malecon, now thinning out save the occasional band of late-night brethren. In the distance, over the dark waters, were lights that flashed like spirits. I thought about how many people had stood here, wondering like Jay Gatsby what promises those distant glimmers held; yet it was funny, wasn’t it, that there we were, so sad to leave the country, so eager to stay.

The next morning, our belongings seemed to solemnly assemble themselves into our luggage. There was a small state-run restaurant down the block that served us breakfast. Our host arranged for a cab to come collect us. We bade her farewell in the final of a series of sad farewells, and promised that we’d look her up when we found ourselves in town again. The driver chatted amiably with us as we half-listened and our spirits sunk in the backseats. America seemed so far away.

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On the way out of the country, Jose Marti International Airport was a mess. Nationals and foreigners alike wound their way through a winding line that spilled into twelve customs desks, which shuffled through documents and unleashed a horde of travelers impatiently into two pathetic security lanes. While the chaos multiplied by the dozen, the indifferent staff yawned as they went about their daily vocation unconcernedly. Where was the logic here? As the obedient, rule-following Europeans were trampled by the hurried, I listened to a collection of nearby Americans mocking the disorder of the system. Travelers walked through the scanner before it had time to reset. Bags poured through the X-ray machine as the airport staff walked away to take a stretch. At the far side of the hall, three security agents helped a single flight attendant through an empty lane, then went back to lounging in boredom. The tide continued to rise, eating up the space between the customs desks and the mob. With obvious annoyance, two more security agents crawled into action, opening up a third line. The masses pulled and pushed in every direction. I couldn’t fathom how this happened daily.

On the other side of the confusion, I rapidly collected my neglected belongings. Struggling to understand how the system managed to function, a conversation we’d had with a local about the limitations of the state-sponsored work force came to mind. Government-issued jobs meant that anyone and everyone could work; it also meant that inefficiency resulted in little more than wrist-slapping. Employees were scolded, and then let back about their inefficient business. Watching the madness at the security gate and the staff simply tolerating it, I recalled the systemic coldness of the waiters at the state-run restaurants, who greeted their guests by tossing a menu or check on the table, and the evasive eyes of cashiers, who always seemed to manage to find something more engaging at the final moment of a transaction. It wasn’t so much laziness or apathy as it was a cultural standard. I wondered if the mess was as great on the other side of government buildings.

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Back at the Hotel Nacional.

Yet to say it was all bad would be to miss the point. There was often a great divide between public and personal opinion here. For instance, it was odd to compare the impression of Fidel that I had been sold by history classes to the image that I saw plastered on state-sponsored billboards: “¡Viva Fidel!” “Fidel es el pueblo,” or above a montage of the young militant playing baseball, “Fidel entre nosotros.” Although free speech and assembly were restricted (yet behind closed doors, politics was the favorite topic of conversation), people seemed to remember and speak of him fondly. And his modern, progressive brother? “He isn’t a leader, he’s the boss,” a local told me. Raul Castro has announced his intention to resign from politics in 2018, and the public seems uncertain about what is to come next. Cuba stands poised above an uncertain future, as its ties to the north thaw and strain again. In a country so strict about order, somebody told me, “progress is catalyzed by conflict.” I suspect that Fidel would have understood that better than anyone.

At the end of the day, as we filed onto a flight bound for JFK, I reflected that the Cuban society we explored can best be summarized by the word community. After telling one elderly local that I was from America, she smiled and said, “me too.” Confused at first, it dawned on me that she thought of herself as a citizen of the Americas. On our side of the water, this idea sounds strange: this is America, and we are Americans. Yet over there, among a population primarily concerned with the communal, their identity spanned the waters and the continents themselves, so what they conceived wasn’t simply an island astray in a vast body of water, but a seaward-neighbor within reach of the hemispheric community.

Wherever we went, neighbors and strangers alike clustered together on the street, their doors open, ready for anyone. I didn’t see a single local come into conflict as they bustled past each other on the busy streets; the cars didn’t honk out of anger, only to pass. When the lights in the city grew dim and the locals went out to dance, the sight was like one big family gathering, where everyone knew the same steps to the same music and damn, did they look good shaking. Standing on the side, watching  in thinly-veiled gringo-jealousy, I couldn’t help but admire this overwhelming sensation of being part of something, of sharing the same thing, all together on this big little island.

To anyone who is ambivalent about our neighbor off the southern coast of Florida, there is only one thing that I can say: go. See for yourself. Whether by getting caught in a spontaneous party on a sidewalk cafe, or losing yourself in the rich and rolling countryside, if there is any shred of doubt about the beauty of these people or their country, it will be banished from your heart the minute that you come to dance among them. As the country is gradually flooded with the slowly rising American tide, travel before the country is swept away by tourists who come to stay on beach resorts and sip mojitos. Not that there isn’t a time or place for that — after all, Cuba is the home of the mojito — but you’ll be missing the point, and if you wait, you can only hope that what we saw will still be there.

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