Valentine’s Day morning, we board the bus at half past seven and head for the countryside: Viñales Valley, billed as “the most beautiful place in Cuba.” After last night’s late and non-delicious dinner, some among our group are actively cranky about this early start. Our host, Collin, is absent; his company’s got another group arriving. Plus also two of our friends have split off to look at art. I’ve eaten two bites of cold eggs, some orange and grapefruit slices, and several mini elephant-ear pastries at the breakfast buffet. For the bus ride, Philip and I have packed snack bars, pistachios, and wasabi peas, and we dig into them almost immediately. We brought all this stuff in our suitcases, along with a basketful of hard-to-come-by-in-Cuba drugstore supplies—eg., sunscreen, ibuprofen, Band-Aids—not to use but to leave here.
Our bus turns onto the Malecón, the seawall/promenade/avenue along Havana Bay. The ocean is choppy and dark. Waves climb the wall and spill onto the walkway. Both wall and walkway have the broad, grey, utilitarian feel of a fortress. A couple of pedestrians amble, skirting the spray. Alicia stands up front at the mike. One of the things she appreciates about these new Chinese busses is the metal arm that swings into the aisle—something to lean on while she talks to us, facing aft. She likes to see our faces, conversation-style, without the hazard of falling down those curving stairs. She’s about 5’2, with a blockish torso, a loud and genial voice, and warm, dark eyes. “I love to see the ocean like this,” she says, squinting dreamily toward the Bay.
At one of the piers, she points out a decrepit ferryboat that was hijacked during the Mariel Boatlift. Brief history: 1980, four guys conspired to drive a bus through the fence of the Peruvian embassy and request political asylum; during the fallout, 10,000 Cubans crowded into the embassy grounds seeking same; eventually Castro opened the port of Mariel for anyone who could find a boat-ride out of there; American Coast Guard and Navy got involved; on crafts ranging from seaworthy U.S. power boats to rickety homemade rafts, about 125,000 Cubans sailed for Florida, including criminals and mental health patients sent by Castro, for the dual purpose of unloading “undesireables” and giving the refugees a bad name.
Alicia asks the bus driver to slow down. On our left is an odd kind of city square. First, a statue of a man holding a child and pointing aggressively across a vast esplanade, at the end of which is a large glass-fronted building partially obscured by a forest of empty flagpoles. That’s the US Interests Section building, Alicia tells us. The closest thing we have to an embassy. The man is José Martí, Cuba’s favorite 19th-century revolutionary philosopher and symbol of independence from Spain. And the child in his arms is Elián González.
You remember all this, I’m guessing: 1999, mother drowned en route to States; highly politicized/sensationalized Miami-family v. Cuba-family-plus-Castro custody battle; immigration-status debate, testing our “wet foot, dry foot” policy; controversial “rescue” mission w/machine guns, to seize Elián from Miami relatives; E’s return to Cuba as hero, amid endless speculation as to his true feelings. The Castro regime built that esplanade for their Elián-related rallies. The José Martí Anti-Imperialist Plaza, scene of U.S. v. Castro propaganda battles that veered into the truly ludicrous.
Hence the flagpoles. There are 138 of them, all packed together. During George W.’s administration, the US contingent began displaying political messages in big scrolling red letters across the windows of our building. Things like, “People of Cuba, in the time after Castro, we will protect your free education and universal health care” (in Spanish, obvs., and I’m paraphrasing that one), or, from George Burns, “How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair.” In other words, nice light non-controversial stuff about democracy and human rights, sprinkled with jokey insults to the regime, and some baseball scores (“Los Astros de Houston…” etc.).
Castro retaliated by planting the flagpole forest and hoisting black flags to hide the messages from the view of passing cars. Plus along with the existing billboards of Abu Ghraib photos and Nazi references, there appeared a new one showing W. as vampire/assassin. Things quieted down after Obama took office. We ceased our electronic messaging, and the Cubans removed the flags and billboards. (Those billboards, anyway.)
Beside the highway on-ramp we see four people thumbing for rides. This is part of the public transportation system. It’s mandatory for any govt-owned, non-tourist-carrying vehicle to stop and pick people up. (And the government owns a lot of vehicles, including, eg., our tour bus. The driver would have to stop if he’d delivered us somewhere and was coming back empty.)
The highway has three lanes each way, with ragged pavement. We crank up to what feels like about 50 mph. The bus rocks in the wind and bounds over ruts and potholes like a ship at sea. Things we pass on the highway: rickshaw, horse and buggy, pack of cyclists, people walking, tractor, horse grazing, pair of oxen pulling a wagon, herd of mini goats, two people on a moped.
Alicia talks to us while we drive. A wave of exhaustion sweeps over me. I rest on Philip’s shoulder and start to doze, but I fight it because Alicia is telling her personal story—how her family survived after the Soviet collapse, how her opinions about Cuba have changed during her life. It occurs to me that I want to hear this more than I’ve ever wanted to hear anything, but I can’t pull myself back from the brink of this delicious, irresistible nap. (An unusual sensation for someone who often has trouble falling asleep; I remember noticing how wonderful it felt.) Philip rests his head on mine. What saves us is we end up dozing in shifts, so between the two of us, we hear pretty much everything Alicia says.
Everyone on the bus wants to know about the post-Soviet “Special Period”—especially the beginning of it, when suddenly there was no fuel and nothing to eat. Alicia’s father, a doctor, managed to feed the family by cultivating a small garden in a remote spot in the countryside. He’d ride one of those Chinese bicycles two hours down this highway, tend the garden and choose some vegetables, then ride all the way back to Havana. So their family was better off than most. He’d carry the bike up the stairs to their apartment. (Imagine this for a moment. No bike = no food.)
As a teenager Alicia joined the Young Communists League (UJC—Union de Jovenes Comunistas). But by the time she was old enough to join the actual Communist Party, she no longer wanted to. Life was not as rosy as the vision the revolution had promised. She shows us a photo of her mother as a young woman, books in hand, as a member of the literacy brigades sent by Castro into the countryside. There was a lot of excitement then, just after the revolution, about reforming the country and empowering the people. It seems nobody knew at that time—perhaps not even Castro himself—how radicalized the regime would become.
Someone asks how Castro was able to maintain control, through all that post-Soviet suffering. Alicia doesn’t use the word “brainwashing” but says, “With the political education we had all our lives, we were ready to die for him at that time. It was ‘Socialism or Death.’”
Viñales Valley is a lush paradise. We gawk and exclaim from a rest-stop lookout point, beside a mini-market of govt-approved touristy knick knacks: Ché Guevara tee shirts, animals carved in mahogany, maracas etched with the Cuban flag. Beside the bathrooms, there’s an emaciated white ox braying through a fence. (When we stop here on the way home, this animal will have a saddle on his back, a rope through his nostrils, and a man beside him offering rides.)
We drive through villages of tropical shacks. Everyone has a front porch with two chairs. Classic ex.: white cottage with tin roof, aqua rocking chairs canted against the wall. We pass groves of mango trees; a large dog riding in a milk crate on a bike; a battered Russian car with its passenger seat full of palm fronds; lots of animals tethered to the ground via ropes around their necks, all with deeply visible ribs, all scrounging for grass; wood-frame barns of a particular shape, tall pitched roofs with low shed rows off the sides (which shape, actually, has probably helped them stay up. See A Pattern Language, “Cascade of Roofs”). The road winds through the hills.
As we pull into a small tobacco farm, Alicia says, “Oh, I see an enemy bus there ahead of us. We will have to wait.” She was hoping we’d have the place to ourselves. She kills some time by standing in the tobacco field and telling us more tobacco facts. Finally the farmer ditches his other group. Alicia waves him over excitedly, calling him by a pet name, and throws her arm around his shoulders. He beams at us, a little sheepish, squinting in the sun.
Our group crowds into the thatched shed where the leaves hang to dry. Inside, it’s a lovely, dim jungle—rafters and low-slung beams covered with leaves, the just-picked green ones on the bottom, the top ones cured to a leathery cigar-brown. The farmer brandishes a bundle of dried leaves, sits down with a makeshift bench on his lap, and rolls a quick-and-dirty cigar, which he lights and passes around.
The farmer invites us into his house for shots of coffee with rum and sugar. We wander the yard with a bunch of chickens, sipping coffee and taking pictures. The coffee is rich and sweet and puts us all in a good mood. On the way out, Philip spots a Mercedes taxi and charges over for a photo op.
Lunch today makes the two-and-a-half-hour bus trek entirely, unquestionably worthwhile. Finca Paraiso Agroecologica (Paradise Organic Farm) sits on a hill overlooking the glorious valley. Rustic terraced gardens surround the restaurant, a complex of little single-room enclosures and wide, covered porches, with breezes and mountain views.
The owner, Rachel (pron. Ra-shell), is another buddy of Alicia’s. They hug each other exuberantly and exchange some rapid Spanish. (Owner being an important detail; Rachel clearly takes total pride in everything she’s built here. Because—and this is obvs. not to be taken for granted—it’s hers.) In her checked apron, and with a dash of sassy showmanship, she tells us the ropes. Raise your hand for yes on her signature “Anti-Stress” cocktail: pineapple juice, mint, lemongrass, basil, anise, yerba buena, cinnamon, coconut milk and honey, frozen and blended, with optional rum. (All hands fly up.)
There’s no menu; she just brings us everything, plate after plate of organic roasted vegetables, sliced tomatoes and radishes, rice and beans, picadillo beef in fried plantain cups, the most tender roasted chicken in spiced sauce, fresh pico de gallo, homemade potato chips, corn fritters, roasted squash soup, fried yucca, cabbage salad, roasted lamb. A whole suckling pig arrives on a tray. For desert, the most decadent flan we’ve ever tasted—a succulent eggy-caramel cloud. Rachel brings hot tea in glass mugs with a sweet and herby health-elixir blend: anise, moringa, basil, lemon, honey.
Alicia has to drag us all out of there. We have an appointment at the residence of our ambassador, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, whose official title is “Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section.” The wind batters the bus all the way back to Havana, where we arrive just in time at the shaded, opulent gates of the residence. With regard to our farm-touring attire, we’ve been told repeatedly that Ambassador DeLaurentis and his wife know we’re arriving from the countryside, and they’re cool with it. (Some of us at least change our shoes.) As was the case at that art collector’s mansion, the Cuban government does not permit Alicia to come in with us.
The foyer could accommodate a small jet. The DeLaurentises usher us into the living room, also hangar-sized, saying they thought we’d be more comfortable there than in the formal dining room, which seats like sixty people for State dinners. Even though I’m not hungry, I take a slice of cranberry bread and a glass of guava juice from the refreshments table. I’m eating in the manner of an animal preparing for winter—you never know when you’ll next find palatable food.
Ambassador DeLaurentis, in horn-rimmed glasses and pale tweed, sits with his legs casually crossed and talks to us re: the political and diplomatic situation. The upshot is he hopes this normalizing of relations will happen. He agrees with our President that our policies of many decades have clearly not been working. DeLaurentis is just the next day set to meet with several U.S. Senators who are flying down to scope things out. He says the various Senators’ inclinations on this issue don’t seem to fall along party lines. (Hard to believe that will last. Although from the plush vantage-point of this living room, still under the spell of Rachel’s enthusiasm and euphoria-inducing feast and dreamland views, one is more inclined than usual to put cynicism aside.)
But a theme appears in the comments of everyone we talk to here: the embargo has, at certain crucial times, actually helped the Castros stay in power—for reasons having to do mainly with scapegoating and the Us-vs.-Them phenomenon. (The Castro propaganda machine has spun the embargo, a.k.a. “the Blockade,” to full melodramatic effect, as in the highway-side billboard depicting a noose, with the line “The Blockade is the worst genocide in the world.”) Collin says the U.S. missed a major opportunity at the beginning of the “Special Period.” We strengthened the embargo at the Cuban people’s time of desperation—the Evil Empire willfully making things worse, just as Fidel predicted. On the other hand, a massive-aid-and-open-trade policy might have painted us/capitalism/our way in an irresistibly positive light—much more appealing, especially when you just desperately want something to eat, than “Socialism or death.”
In the garden of the Ambassador’s residence, a hulking bronze eagle spreads its wings in front of a very tall hedge. (Property boundaries are a big deal in this neighborhood.) This house has remained in U.S. hands since before the revolution—no threat of confiscation, but most likely a certain special neighbor keeping an eye on things. The eagle is prominently visible from the foyer and pretty much screams American brawn.
After dinner on the chilly porch of a seaside restaurant (Rio Mar: decent appetizers; chewy/overcooked seafood entrees; conspicuous dearth of veggies), we duck out with our friends Donald and Virginia and head for the Cuban Art Factory, nightlife hotspot. The line stretches around the block, but Alberto (that art dealer from yesterday) has told us who to ask for at the door. Cristina, co-proprietor, pulls aside the rope and lets us in. She and her husband, the photographer Enrique Rottenberg, created this place, a double-decker art gallery plus bar plus concert hall plus cinema screening room. Now it seems every teenager in Havana wants to get in.
There’s a convoluted logistical moment at the door when someone tries to hand us punch cards and Cristina intervenes. These are how you pay for food and drinks—i.e., you don’t pay at the various internal points of sale, because the accepted Cuban system of just pocketing stuff means business owners can’t have all that cash circulating; the cards are your record of purchases, to be presented at the money-handling booth by the exit. And you absolutely may not leave without presenting a card. But Cristina doesn’t want us to pay for anything, and she’s explaining that, I think, to the guy in the booth.
She leads us upstairs, through the warehouse-sized gallery of photography and installations. Her husband’s series of photographs of Cuban bedrooms is prominently on display; vivid colors, crumbling moldings, partitioned cubicle-style living, closet bars over beds, stained bedspreads, cave dwellings, nylon lawn chairs, guitars, chickens, a sewing machine. More than anything we’ve seen from the street, these pictures tell the story of life here.
Beyond gallery 1 is the screening room, also full of art, and a roof deck w/sculptures, leading downstairs to a series of bars and mini-cafés constructed of shipping crates painted white, and finally a concert hall. The front gallery downstairs contains more art of all kinds—paintings and sculptures and drawings—and the kid bar-patrons are wandering around looking at it.
Here’s how they give you peace of mind that you’ll actually receive the art you pay for. They send you the art; when it arrives, you wire the money. Philip and I buy four of the Rottenberg photographs, limited-edition silver gelatin prints that’ll ship from Israel. (Donald and Virginia know how to shop for art. They’ve been visiting studios all day with Alberto. And Virginia speaks fluent native-language Spanish. We are in good hands. Also the four of us seem to be the only members of our group interested in Fun Stuff At Night.)
We navigate the punch-card situation at exit, then climb the tower next door, to that magical rooftop bar we discovered last night. We take a table under the candle-lit awning, order drinks, jamón Serrano and patatas bravas (deliciously greasy and crisp), and toast to Havana on Valentine’s night.
On the way home, the Malecón overflows with couples out for romantic strolls. Couples petting each other on the seawall, or walking hand in hand on the promenade. There are so many people they spill into the roadway. The place to be—and it’s free, and there’s nothing to do but take in the sights and enjoy each other.
Cuba Journal, Part III
See the pictures:
Photo Portfolio: Beauty In Ruins
Or return to part one of this series here.