How long does it take to become entranced by a country?
Does it take a day?
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.
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.
Rounding a shoulder, we came into view of the Plaza de la Revolución, of the wrought-iron faces of Che and Camilo on the walls of the buildings and of the towering monument to Marti. The driver veered off into a series of palm-lined avenues, leading into the weather-cracked neighborhood of fading Spanish architecture that made up Centrohabana.
Throngs of people mulled in the streets with seemingly little to do; knots of kids playing soccer ran off rambunctiously in the pursuit of a loose ball and emaciated cats with their ribs showing slunk off lean and highshouldered about the dusty street corners. Pedestrians and cars intermingled freely in the streets; our driver honked intermittently to herald his approach, the people casually dispersing to let him through.
Gutting the streets in long, geometric lines were powdery-white trenches where the pavement had been cleaved up to make way for pipes. Piles of broken cement, evidently from construction, were intermittently littered about. Adorning the walls of the cracked, aging buildings above us were the rusted girders of open-air balconies, each one graced with gaudy bouquets of flowers and smooth clay pottery, or a clothesline with carpets and shirts left withering to dry in the warm oceanic breeze.
Groups of men nursing beers and smoking cigars on the dirtied eaves of buildings
would contemplate us as our taxi slowly rolled past. The taxi was going slowly now, the driver deliberately taking it easy over the trenches in the street to avoid killing the non-existent shocks in his car. I asked him if we were close to the house we were staying, at 206 Perseverancia.
He reared the car up awkwardly to the left shoulder of an intersection. “Here,” he said.
We looked around, puzzled, seeing nothing but what appeared to be an empty pharmacy and series of stores.
“No,” he said. “Just over there, I mean.” He gestured towards the street to our right. Just around the corner, he said, that’s where you want to go- just around that corner and down half a block.
We figured it was a good moment to walk. I paid the taxi his thirty pesos, bid him farewell with a handshake, and shouldered my pack to join Joe and Pierce down the street.
206 Perseverancia was a narrow old house wedged on the corner of two streets just three blocks inland from the swells of the Atlantic. When we knocked on the door, the door was thrown open with a cable running up a steep flight of stairs, at the distant top of which stood the well-lit, welcoming outline of a portly old vieja, who would be our hostess for the next week.
“Hola Marta,” I said, leading the way up the stairs. I knew she spoke no English and was prepping to hold a conversation with her.
When we got to the top of the stairs Marta regarded us smilingly, with an expectant face of warm, grandmotherly laughter. When I tried speaking to her she merely laughed, politely shushing me with a finger to her lips and gesturing for us to follow her as she showed us the different corridors of the house.
Acting out with clear, measured affectations of what she intended to say, she proceeded to explain all the different amenities of the house. “Agua” she said slowly, pointing to the faucet of the shower. “Agua frio en el dia” she said slowly, indicating it would be cold now. “Y agua caliente durante la noche.”
It was ten minutes going about the house and by the time we had finished we sat down on the couch and waited, Martha regarding us with an unhurried smile. She asked us how old we were and where we were from and offered us an array of things we could do in and around Havana. We said we wanted to go to the beach.
“I can arrange for that,” she said.
She told us that in the meantime, this afternoon, she was arranging for her nephew’s girlfriend to show us around Havana, though after calling her she asked me to translate an important message for all of us to hear.
“Here,” she began slowly “there will be many men who will try to sell you cigars on the street, but you have to remember that they are all fake.”
She took a sip of water.
“Also, here, the girls will try to love you all, because you are gringos, you see. But watch yourselves around those girls though. Most of them just want your money, and many of them will put drugs in your drinks.”
I explained the situation to Joe and Pierce, and they nodded with a chuckle of laughter, nervous laughter.
“Eso es todo,” she said. “Cuidalos. Rachael should be here in just a few minutes.”
Marta’s house was an old Spanish flat, a spacious, lofty hallway connecting all the rooms together, with broad street-facing windows through which yellow beams of sunlight, in which dust-motes floated freely, cast themselves against the wall. Dropping our bags off in our room, we went out outside to contemplate the street from the balcony.
From the balcony we could see the hard, rising blue of the ocean just down the street to our left. Across the street on the roofs was a tanglework of corrugated tin roofs and clotheslines strung across a jungle of uneven buildings. Beneath us, uniformed school children ran eagerly through their rounds as they headed back to school. The day was fresh, full of a fresh, open, airy light. We sipped on our waters and leaned on the rail and listened to the sounds of the city.
The bell downstairs rang at that moment; we would now be heading down to go around Havana with Rachael. But it was now clear enough to me: Cuba had worked its spell on us, and I was irrevocably hooked.