Cuba Unveiled, Dispatch #5: Rachael

Rachael

Rachael (pronounced with an emphatic rolling of the beginning R- “Rrrrachael”) was a short, melancholic student who had been a student of English and French at the University of Havana for the past three years. She came up to the door downstairs wearing bronze-tinted knockoff sunglasses and listened quietly to the instructions of our hostess Marta, who spoke to her with the same grandmotherly slowness with which she had originally addressed us. Rachael nodded as she listened to the lecture, though already, you could tell, she was in no mood to follow any sort of itinerary.

Despite the slight rung of body fat that clung against her torso, she was nonetheless a beautiful girl, and managed to hide her depressive nature with a quiet charm and inclination to laugh that suited her perfectly to the task of guiding us around town for the first time.

Eating in a crowded, sweaty, streetside café where a mass of people had conglomerated IMG_20170312_121442under the fans of the open-air veranda to escape the oppressive mid-afternoon humidity, we dug into heavily loaded plates of arroz y pollo while Rachael, at our curious requests, regaled us with different aspects of her life.

Her fiancée, who she spoke about with a wispy glow of longing in her eyes, had escaped to Miami in search of better job opportunities (when, or more importantly how he got to Miami, I didn’t bother to ask.) One day, she hoped, she’d be able to join him in south Florida and perhaps create a new life with him there.

 

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Cuba Unveiled, Dispatch #4: Visions of Havana

How long does it take to become entranced by a country?

Does it take a day?

A week?

A month?

A year?

It took me barely thirty minutes after our jet skidded down on the tarmac to become possessed by the allure of Cuba- a land to whose ecstasies I’ve been forbidden most of my life.

We had been riding in the taxi for barely twenty minutes, the driver revving us up onto the highway, or autopista. Wilting fields of sugar cane attended to by sweaty men with machetes, peeling revolutionary-era murals lining walls of weathered cement, salt-rusted train crossings shaded by thick groves of palms, and aquamarine apartment buildings slid past in a feverish tropical landscape, like something drawn straight out of a García Márquez novel. A scorching mosaic of government-run plantations stretched out in all directions, and as we rode we kept the windows rolled down, the humid wind wafting our hair as we happily contemplated the sun-beat earth around us.

Traintracks

El Campo- the country- surrounding Havana

Our taxi driver, a saturnine old African who spoke the slurred Cuban dialect of Spanish, shot haphazardly through the streams of traffic, careening his Mazda through different lanes with complete and utter abandon.

For a few minutes I tested my Spanish on the man, asking about where he was from and how long he’d lived here and what it was like to grow up in such a country. My Spanish was working well, despite periodic misunderstandings due to his accent. Thinking about the raft-bound immigrants that’ve made the crossing to Miami, especially the recent wave in 2014, I asked if he knew anyone who’d escaped to the other side of the Gulf Steam.

He was consumed with a sudden, snorting laugh. “Half of Havana,” he said, his answer uttered without any discernable traces of sarcasm. He jammed the stick backwards and jerked into the left lane.

We were in Havana now. Buildings closed in on us, accumulated, grew close together as we came into view of the city.

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Cuba Unveiled, Dispatch #3: The Unsettling Legacy of Castro

The first dose of Cuba you get when you touch down at Jose Marti international and take a taxi through the scorching plains towards Havana is, unsurprisingly, an unending stream of Barbudos.

Barbudos everywhere: on cracked streetside murals with paint peeling under the IMG_20170314_160319weight of Caribbean humidity, on the great, mold-stained billboards that line the autopista, on the side of foodtrucks propped up on bricks, or on heart-shaped posters seen fleetingly through the passing windows of
schoolhouses.

They are inescapable, these Barbudos. You can hardly walk twenty minutes throughout any point in Cuba without seeing a public reference to them.

Named for the roughshorn beards they cultivated during the Revolution’s early years in the Sierra, these three men- Fidel Castro, Che, and Camilo- have attained a level of grandeur unmatched in any third-world country.

Most prominent of these three, also unsurprisingly, is the gleaming image of Fidel. His face is such a common sight that it is easy to forget his posthumous presence, so muchIMG_20170315_175332 so
that his memory quite literally permeates the geography of the island.

So I ask the taxi driver the question on the first day, watching him weave easefully through the frightening traffic towards Havana: what do you think of Fidel?

Pues, he said, enunciating his answer in his thickly accented Cuban Spanish, siempre me ha gustado el. Hizo mucho para nuestro pais.

            It was only the first of many times I received a pleasing review of the dead leader- a characteristic introduction to the convoluted, unsettling, legacy of Castro.

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Cuba Unveiled, Dispatch #2: The Cuban Intervention in Angola

If you walk the corridors of Old Havana, you can still see them gathered on the cobbled street-corners, these quiet old men. Grizzled and misty-eyed, often afflicted with PTSD, they sit in circles of plastic chairs and amicably discuss their pasts.

If you look into their eyes, you can see the memories of a war slowly fading into obscurity.

Veterans of Cuba’s fifteen year intervention in the Angolan Civil War, these viejos haveAngolan War 1 seen their fair share of warfare- the most vicious, in fact, that the island nation experienced in its whole three decades of militarily supporting leftist movements in Africa.

But it’s all disappearing now. As these men die, the herculean drama once played out by the Cuban people- whose retrospective numbers totaled hundreds of thousands by the end of the war- against UNITA, Zaire, the CIA, and South Africa in the name of international solidarity and anti-colonialism, is being forgotten by much of the Western World.

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Why am I going to Cuba? Cuba Unveiled, Dispatch #1

Next Sunday, March 12th, I will be boarding a flight to take a journey back in time.

Arriving before dawn at Orlando International that morning, two friends and I will check our bags, file through security, and board a JetBlue flight that will deliver us back several decades into the past.

cojimar-cubaRearing up into the atmosphere as the first rims of sunlight break the eastern horizon, our plane will follow southwards along the Florida peninsula and, after that, cross the glimmering cobalt emptiness of the Florida Straits. Then, if we are angled correctly against the windows, “it” will slowly begin to materialize: at first as an etching against the horizon, then as a green, wavering, oceanic mirage, gradually rising up into the assured image of tropical mountains and a city- a Botero painting rising like bread out of the sea. We will skid down onto the tarmac and, a few minutes later, take in our first breaths of the thick, palm scented breeze.

We will be in Cuba, and our journey into the past will have begun.

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