Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Weekend in Cuba

HAVANA –- The woman across the restaurant looked familiar, really familiar. An author, a video auteur or maybe I had seen her in a movie. It’s of course rude to gaze at people but I was irked that I couldn’t figure out how I knew that face. My travel companion didn’t recognize her at all. Apparently, my gaze was so intense it caused her to walk across the room to the table. She smiled big.

“You’re Americans, right?”

“Yes, we are.”

 “Then yes, I am the one who killed Selena in the movie.”

The woman standing at our table was Lupe Ontiveros. She had indeed been the killer in the movie “Selena.” Ontiveros has also played a quirky theater clerk in “Chuck and Buck” and an outrageous maid full of pithy quotes in “Happiness.” She boasted that her latest movie, “Real Women Have Curves” had, in her words, “kicked a** at the box office.”

“I’m from Mexico, so I can come and go here as much as I want,” she said.

It was Dec. 2002 and Ontiveros was a part of a brigade of filmmakers in town for a Latin American Film Festival being held in town. She wasn’t the only celebrity I’d encounter on my weekend trip to this beautifully dilapidated city.

Her sentiment about being able to legally go back and forth between Mexico and Cuba punctuated something that lingered in my mind the entire time.


A few years ago, the Obama administration lifted the ban for Americans wanting to visit relatives in Cuba. Prior to that it had been expressly forbidden. Certain categories of journalists, diplomats, religious organizations, educational groups and military were among the Americans who could legally obtain Cuba travel visas.

What strikes me is that it’s the U.S. Department of the Treasury monitoring this activity. Mostly, it seemed that the American government didn’t want us spending money there. As a freelance journalist, I was in a protected category, though I still felt uneasy.

I was there as a journalist and self-appointed sociologist. There are any number of subversive ways for savvy non-category Americans to travel to Cuba through Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. Increasingly there have been more and more organized tourists groups traveling through Cuba. It’s tricky, though not impossible.

My travel companion, a friend of a friend, was living in the Cayman Islands at the time and arranged all of the travel. American credit cards are of no use there so I couldn’t have booked it. We took a weekend package from a local Caymanian airline departing on a Thursday night.

Things work at their own pace on those islands. Our flight scheduled for 4:30 p.m. didn’t depart until 7:30 p.m. The flight into Jose Marti International Airport took less than an hour. By 9:30, we had cleared customs en route to the Hotel Habana Libre in a beat-up yellow taxi stitched together with parts from the 1950s, fulfilling every idea I had about Cuba.

I became aware that if I applied too much pressure with my feet, the floor of the taxi could cave. During the taxi ride, I noticed the road to downtown was more like an agrarian undeveloped road in Arkansas or Mississippi. Even in December, Havana felt damp, wet and muggy. Almost all of the vehicles were remnants from the 1950s, mostly taxis and trucks.

The interior of the Hotel Habana Libre was spacious, with sparkling white ceramic floors. The hotel was located downtown on the famous corner of 23rd and L, where the “La Rampa” district begins, very close to a lively nightlife district and the University of Habana. Not a 5-star hotel nor a run-down dive, the place had decent rooms that were clean and habitable, but was less than an average American hotel.

We arrived at almost 11 p.m. The staff was accommodating, speaking clear English.

The thing that shocked me most about Cuba was how many black people I saw everywhere. At least 50 percent of the street vendors, hotel workers and every other menial job, were the descendants of slaves. Back at home, I thought of Cubans as light, bright, almost white-looking people I had seen in Miami, such a contrast to Havana.

Apparently, the clothes I was wearing screamed “American tourist.” People thronged me with words in broken English, asking me to drop letters in the mail to their relatives in Miami, Chicago, New York or California. In my Sesame Street Spanish, I communicated as much as I could.

Their longing to communicate with relatives from whom they had been alienated made me feel a ball of sadness in my belly.

My friend and I bummed around the city aimlessly, which is how I’ve come to prefer traveling. I was struck by the splendor and grandeur of the stunning mansions overlooking the ocean. In Miami, these structures would be worth tens of millions of dollars. Before the revolution, they must have looked like palaces from another dimension.

Decades of neglect under Fidel Castro had left them decimated, dilapidated and crumbling, as if bombs had hit them during a war.

Cuba was an unhealed soul with an unquenched thirst for freedom and commerce, despite the hundreds of tourists who were flooding it’s gates.

Near the end of our trip, we found a bar called La Bodeguita del Medio, made famous by writer Ernest Hemingway, one of its regulars. It’s supposed to be where he had his first mojito. A bartender pointed to an inscription on the wall “Mi mojito en la Bodeguita” (My mojito at the Bodeguita) and told us it was in Hemingway’s handwriting.


At one point, we got on an elevator with Al Lewis, who played Grandpa on “The Munsters” in the 1960s. I had watched enough television to recognize him immediately. He looked exactly like his TV character. He and Ms. Ontiveros were in town for the same film festival.

Probably my most striking experience had to do with two black guys, Adolpho and Michael, who approached us on the streets. They were intrigued by how much we were enjoying Havana and Cuba. They followed us and talked for hours about of growing up poor in Cuba, even taking us back to their house to try to sell us Cohibas, perhaps Cuba’s greatest export, cigars.

I wanted to be able to speak to them in Spanish. I wanted to be able to tell them that just because I was an American didn’t mean I was wealthy, that I didn’t understand struggle.

I do understand.

Some day I’d like to go back to Havana do a Spanish immersion program. I have a feeling I could learn Spanish in an environment as rough and raggedy as Cuba.