My first impression upon landing in Cuba was that it was a little bit like a Wes Anderson film. The airport felt like a miniature, a Fisher-Price toy but with real people inside. Everything had a quirky, taped-together quality to it, as if created by precocious children for
a school project rather than sober-minded adults focused on industry. Women in short-skirted uniforms projected an aggressive boredom and mangy dogs with character wandered about the parking lot.
I wondered what their names might be.
Naïve and whimsical, I was thinking of Cuba as a child might, willfully ignoring the fact that it was a nation gripped in wretched poverty.
Rachelle and I would spend the night in the city of Matanzas, leaving for Havana the next day. It was a Friday evening and hard-eyed locals, girls with big asses jammed into hot pants and swaggering Jersey Shore boys, wandered by. Scavenging dogs rooted through garbage and cats flicked into inky parks from which idling men hissed at my wife. Occasionally, a person would stare at us from their front steps- hands on hips as if in challenge- and then suddenly, that moment would be broken by a parrot speaking language from the unseen foliage above.
It was disorienting and slightly menacing, the knowledge that we didn’t belong as omnipresent as the heat.
We passed by a pizza place and an older man called to us from the patio.
“It is no accident!” he shouted. “No, the Lord makes no mistakes and for sure has placed us in one another’s paths!”
He was about 70 and seeing Rachelle and I looking so out of place, innocent and crisply optimistic, mistook us for missionaries. The manhad spent the preponderance of his life as an inveterate gambler, alcoholic and adulterer, but he had been saved by Jesus and upon seeing us, in a place we should not have been, took it as a divine sign that he was indeed on the right track. Upon discovering that we were Canadian tourists headed to Havana the next day he warned us, “The Lord brought you here to me so that I might caution you of
Havana. It is a sinful place. Many are desperate and you will appear as a walking dollar sign to them. They will try to eat you. Alone without language you are vulnerable to their tricks. Be careful and trust in the Lord, trust in the salvation of all, for even I was saved.”
The truth is that I’m not a particularly well-travelled person and have always found the experience of being a tourist difficult. A tourist, almost by definition, is insensitive and obnoxious. As much as I’d love to be a “traveler,” a global citizen who is easily embedded in the communities he visits and lives like a local, that’s not me. I’m the guy with the sunburn and map trying too hard to make friends.
A tourist is resented by the very fact of their existence, and when Rachelle and I went to Cuba part of the reason we did so was because it was inexpensive. Inexpensive, to us, that is. Due to a random twist of fate, we had money and the Cuban people did not.
Entitled, empowered and generous in the ways that only good fortune can inform, we were looking to consume whatever sorrowing beauty the dilapidated country had to offer. My observation earlier that the airport felt like a Fisher Price toy was condescending, as if saying, “Oh look, they think they have a real airport! That’s cute!” The Cuban beach resorts, the best the island has to offer in many regards, are reserved for tourists and the only Cubans who can go there are employees. Under such circumstances, how would you feel about people like me trampling your country looking, as the Sex Pistols used to sing, for “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery?”
We wanted to step outside of this as best we could, and in Cuba where the tourists have been so vividly segregated from the population at large in all-inclusive resorts (kind of like first world bubbles that float amidst the third world populace), we hoped to integrate ourselves into the surrounding culture as best we could. We did this by staying at Casa Particulars — a form of lodging based on the Bed and Breakfast model — that would situate us in a Cuban home in a relatively typical area.
I think that when I imagined Havana I had a picture in my mind of men in cool hats. You know, jazz cats. Leaning against weathered buildings, they’d be the type of guys— wise and joyful— who winked at you just for the hell of it. In spite of the poverty that governs the city, in fact maybe even because of it, I thought that there’d be a certain style, a defiant flair to the people. Everybody, young, old, fat and skinny, would all be dead sexy.
Well, it wasn’t like that at all.
The city looks like it was attacked by robots.
Rubble is everywhere, and the majestic architecture, now largely disregarded and torn open as if shelled, is crumbling into chunks of dust the size of your fists. Although chaotic and confusing, nothing happens quickly or with purpose in Havana, it’s as if a smoggy cloud of indifference had settled permanently upon the place.
Our inability to communicate in Spanish quickly rendered Havana into some form of surreal game show where the goal of all the other contestants was to take our money. The visible expressions of poetry I anticipated in the arteries of the ruined city was quickly replaced by the feelings of anxiety I get when trying to have my computer fixed by speaking to some techie over the phone. It was a grind, and nothing resolved without a battle. I suppose you get what you deserve. Needed yet resented, we were the unwelcome other, lost in the time and space of a culture we didn’t understand. Our time there was one guided by hustlers, zombies and dead-eyed bureaucrats who saw in us only the superhuman capacity to change their circumstance without damaging our own in the least. There’s an obscenity to wanting to have an $8 lobster dinner in such a context, a very obvious one, and that tension was everywhere, invisible yet humming. A multitude of humiliations, scams and difficulties took place, and it became exhausting and demoralizing.
By the third night, when it became clear that we were going to leave our vacation looking worse than when we’d started it, a kind of reckless indifference washed over me. And when a woman took up stride beside us on the street and began speaking English to us, wanting to take us to a “real Cuban bar,” it seemed like more effort to dissuade her from her mission than to actually go, and as Cuba is a very safe country, I accepted her offer. (Previously, under similar circumstances, Rachelle and I went to a “real Cuban restaurant.” We were the only customers. No matter, three musicians were summoned to perform for us, who were later unhappy with the tips we gave them for the unwanted performance, the food was a disaster and we watched with equal parts horror and amusement, as the pineapple shell and straw from which Rachelle had a drink, were rinsed off for future use.)
At any rate, I figured that we would be expected to buy her a drink, that she’d likely get a small kick-back from the bar and the people there would pretend to like us for an hour to get drinks or other advantage (earlier, a man offered to trade Rachelle a Dachshund for a
bottle of rum).
The bar was like something out of an old western. Unadorned in any regard, it was nothing more than a drinking shelter within which were a few mismatched tables and chairs and drunk, solitary men. I ordered the three of us our drinks and after they were delivered was
told that they cost 20 pesos, the equivalent of two months wages for the average Cuban. This was an insane and bold extortion, one that seemed impulsive and wholly ridiculous.
What to do?
I argued the matter.
The two bartenders, both over 200 pounds, would not relent, and nobody in the bar rose to our defense. The woman who had hooked us into the place had her head leaning on her arm and was moaning, both about not being able to afford milk for her baby, and about how awful the situation was that we were facing. She might have been crying. I imagined what Daniel Craig would do. I wondered what I should do. Could I summon the physical courage to tell them to Fuck Off and then grab Rachelle by the elbow and storm off into the unknown night? Could I alter my body language, blowing past exasperation and into steely resolve? I continued to argue in a language that both figuratively and literally, was only partially understood. I told them that they were stealing from us, and they looked back at me like I didn’t understand what was going on and that the truth was that I was stealing from them.
I gave them the $20, pushed our drinks away and we walked away from the bar.
It’s the sort of thing that happens, whether explicitly or implicitly, to all tourists. It’s what we pay when we position ourselves between first world entitlements and third world necessities, an arrangement we’re likely much more complicit in than we understand. I mean, when was that bartender (who was probably educated as a mechanical engineer) going to have a chance to make that kind of money again and who was I to judge him?
As we waited to board our flight back to Canada, everybody in the line was talking about what they were going to eat when they got home. Everybody. Everyone, it seemed, had suffered some form of illness that they attributed to the food or water, and were now looking for familiar, comfort foods. McDonalds. Coke. Kraft Dinner. The irony implicit in this is that we were also all armed with cheap cigars and rum, both products of Cuba’s two central cash crops—tobacco and sugar cane. If the land was allocated for self-sufficiency (agriculture) rather than export (tobacco and sugar cane) then the food would have been safer and healthier and none of us would have gotten sick, but then again, none of us would have the cheap cigars and rum we were taking home to friends, and right there you kind of have my Cuba experience in a nutshell.