Treinta y seis años
Tiempo, muerte, nueva vida
Algo en el pecho faltando
Y al cabo volver.
Our first contact with the present Cuba is a greeting of Feliz Navidad from the pretty brunette stewardess. It is Christmas day and yet the greeting is unexpected. We take our place in the frightfully run-down cabin, painted in a dull Soviet gray. I say my prayers and hope that the vital components of the aircraft are not in the same degree of disrepair. The service is polite and has a strange normalcy altogether disconnected from the drab surroundings, as if the crew is diverting our attention from impending doom.
The seat has no lock to prevent it from reclining, and I have to sit up straight to prevent it from leaning back on the passenger behind me. The reading materials consist of a copy of Granma, the one and only newspaper in Cuba. I am always struck by the irony that this medium of anti-Yankee propaganda should have such a homey American name. But then Castro had other priorities in mind than changing the name of the boat he purchased to take him to Cuba and start his insurrection.
The eight or so pages of what now is the only source of toilet paper available to the Cuban masses has articles on the upcoming visit by the Pope, on how the adoption of a multiparty system would go against the true interests of the Cuban people, and other tergiversation that makes it apparent we were going into a different reality.
I am determined not to let emotions color my thinking, but rather be a distant observer of my own experience, and to study the impact and impressions that the new Cuba would have on a fifty-year old that had last seen his homeland as a fourteen-year-old. So, when the coast of Cuba appears through the haze, all passions are under control, and the observation and annotation mechanisms firmly in place.
The plane approaches Jose Marti airport from the south. The airport used to be at the southern fringe of the city of Havana, in the middle of the lush countryside, and it still is. Havana does not appear to have grown in all these years. The landing and the immigration and customs formalities, which had been a source of trepidation, go smoothly and we are met at the gate by my cousin Leonor and her family, who have scrounged enough gasoline to take their aging Soviet era car on a round trip to Havana from my hometown of Camajuaní.
We pick up our rental car and drive through the dimly lit boulevards to our hotel in central Havana, through the peeling crumbling beauty of this once-great city that Alejo Carpentier aptly calls the” City of the Columns”. The lavish use of classical architecture reminds me of Paris, just like Paris had reminded me of Havana when I first saw it. In the 19th century Cubans looked to France as a source of republican ideas and institutions as well intellectual and aesthetic inspiration. They adapted these forms to their climate by favoring the airy colonnaded arcades and rejecting the mansard roof. Older Cuban architecture, the kind you find in Trinidad and Remedios has a definitely austere Spanish flavor. The forties and fifties introduced international modernist forms. But everything in between has a sensuous classical style.
Hotel Inglaterra is a restored 19th Century structure with one-meter-thick masonry walls and fourteen-foot ceilings, serving as a backdrop to the statue of Jose Marti in the heart of Havana. The socialist reality of life in Cuba is immediately evident, even in this showplace. There is only one working elevator for the huge hotel. The receptionists are beautiful and exquisitely courteous, as will be most of the people we will meet. Yet it takes one half hour to straighten-out our reservation and go through the formalities of registration. The young ladies share a common pen, which they pass around.
In the lobby, we meet my wife Maria's aunt and three generations of her descendants, who have come to receive us. Their hard life is evident in their faces, yet they exude life and love. It is as if the scarcity of material things makes human qualities all the more evident. We proceed to separate the gifts and medicines we have brought for them. Simple things, such as aspirins, vitamins, and other over-the-counter medicines that are next to impossible to obtain in Cuba, even with dollars.
We venture out to Old Havana looking for a paladar or private restaurant, sanctioned by the government. Such restaurants must be limited to a maximum of six tables and have no employees outside the family. The food is home-cooked and excellent. The menus vary little from place to place: rice and black beans, chicken pork or fish, and in some the forbidden lobster and beef. Fortunately, our family does not tire of eating black beans and rice, which will become a daily staple in days to come.
On the way there and back the narrow streets of old Havana are teeming with life. The crumbling buildings are packed with people. From the street one can see intimate family scenes. A kind of clean and proud poverty is evident everywhere. It is appearing that Socialism has succeeded in reducing everyone to a lifestyle of involuntary simplicity. Everyone is equally destitute and there is nothing to envy from your neighbors. Many feel that envy and not injustice is the mother of the Cuban revolution.
Yet the presence of outsiders with dollars is a disturbing foreign body in this shabbily uniform social fabric. The resulting tension has a definitely sexual overtone. The girls at the reception in the hotel comment on the foreigners they might hope to catch. The jineteras are everywhere. Some voluptuous and vulgar, some svelte and refined, some black, some white, some in-between, all looking for a way out of the sea of drabness. My two teenage sons walk ahead of us and are quickly solicited.
Walking through old Havana one sees the fading remains of a capitalist past. A beautiful but abandoned Citibank office. No commercial establishments are evident in this once bustling district, only some of the signs remain. We are amused by the House of the Suitcases where the merchandise appears to have long departed north.
We go into the old Hotel Pan American, whose sign is almost completely faded, looking for an old family friend. The graceful old colonial building has been turned into a solar - a series of single room dwellings with shared facilities. The decay is unimaginable. The old marble staircase is precariously held up by a steel beam. It appears that Havana is one giant slum.
Early the next morning I get up to see the sun rise over the city and to shoot the grand old buildings around Parque Central in the morning light. The bustling carnal activity of the night before is gone. Now parents take their children to school. I continue to wonder at the normalcy of day-to-day life in a place that in so many ways is a different planet.
We check out and drive through the old Pasco del Prado where Maria used to skate as a child. What she remembers as a huge esplanade, now seems much reduced. It takes us to the entrance of Havana Bay, and the postcard view of the old Morro Castle and the lighthouse, and then to the seaside boulevard, the Malecon. Nowhere else is the ruin of Havana as evident and visible as it is along the Malecon. The constant beating of the wind and the salt spray has destroyed many of the waterfront buildings, while others show hopeful signs of restoration.
Further on we see the still modern looking buildings in Vedado, and I point out to my sons that practically all the buildings we have seen predate the revolution. My oldest asks with all the prosperity in the time of Batista, why was he deposed? The answer is not as convincing as it was in 1959.
We see the old US Embassy, the decapitated Maine monument, and the posters of slogans and Che Guevara, and I suddenly realize that we have not yet heard the word compañero -comrade. Revolutionary zeal seems to exist only in the posters.
The Malecon takes us to a fading mansion in Miramar where three generations of Maria's cousin’s family live. Their living conditions are light years above those in old Havana, but as we learn, putting food on the table is a daily struggle. And yet here too life goes on. There is a new baby in the house. In the neighborhood, beautiful children going to school in modest but clean uniforms. What was once a pocket of privilege has been obviously taken over by people from less favored backgrounds. The population is indistinguishable from that in old Havana, and the disrepair equally evident.
In the afternoon we take the bay tunnel east to the outskirts of Havana and into the lush countryside. Majestic royal palms are everywhere. The evident richness of the soil makes difficult to believe that the country has difficulty feeding itself.
We get on a poorly built but functional six-lane highway that will take us to Santa Clara. Along the way another Cuban reality, at every intersection there are mobs of people looking for transportation. Sometimes a policeman stops trucks and other vehicles in order to accommodate passengers. The road is practically deserted, except for the mobs, and the occasional vendor of chickens, cheese, onions, and other local produce. At some points the vendors and the hitchhikers become overly aggressive, compromising their safety and ours. One vendor is determined that we will take his turkey, dead or alive. We are able to average 120 km/hour and soon arrive at our 20th century enclave, a motel built for tourism, right outside Santa Clara.
After dark we venture into the city, and we are back in the 18th century. The darkness and the practically complete absence of motor vehicles adds special ambiance to this city of narrow colonial streets, and one-story townhouses with barred windows. What used to be a vibrant provincial capital has now an antique sleepy charm.
We visit the house of one of the families for whom we bear gifts from the North. The family is rich by Cuban standards, where rich is defined as having paint to upkeep the house, and food to put on the table. They are an example of the new haves - people with family outside the country who can send them help in the form of dollars. The three generations that, as is the Cuban tradition, live under the same roof, are wonderfully polite and charming. I have the feeling that I am in a living room of 40 years ago and that the old Cuba is still there. After spirited conversation, cola drinks imported from Canada, we go on to see my cousin Lilia.
Unlike Leonor, whom I had seen four years before when she visited the United States, I have not seen Lilia for 36 years. She lives in a dilapidated neighborhood in the outskirts of the city. Her house is one of the nicest in the block, it is clean and cheery. I knock at the door and see the old furniture from their house in Camajuaní, I see the picture of Christ, huge in my memory but now strangely smaller, given to her by parents when they left. I introduce myself to her daughter whom I last saw as an infant. My visit is by design a total surprise. Her daughter calls her out and we embrace. My determination to coldly observe is overwhelmed by the joy, the love, and the sadness of unjust separation.
Lilia is one of those rare people that are born without malice, and do not pick it up along the way. She lovingly cared for our old aunt who died four years before at the age of 96. She now cares for her mother Amparo who is 90. Aunt Amparo knows who I am, but her mind is fading, and she does not recognize me. The once hefty woman is now a frail little bundle. Four generations live in this house, and the warmth and love are remarkable even to my sons who speak little Spanish. They cannot comprehend how people who live in such deprived situation can be so sweet.
Lilia also shows the marks of the hard life she has lived and looks slim but like the rest of her family, appears strong and healthy. They talk about the electric fans and other things they have bought with the dollars my sisters and I have sent them in the past. They do not talk about using the money for food, but I wonder, and the thought makes me choke. We look at an old picture album of their wedding, in far more prosperous times, when I was a freckled ten-year-old. The album is infested with bookworms, which are hard to combat because there is no insecticide. It is a poignant symbol of the decay of Cuba and the old memories. Yet my cousin is there, and so is her family, and her love and all their hopes. The rot of material things does not matter.
The encounter with my cousins, drains some of my pent-up nostalgia and prepares me for the last and most emotional leg of the return to Camajuaní. Early the next morning we drive out of Santa Clara, through a road I used to travel every day but hardly recognize now.
Our progress is impeded by the bikers and pedestrians in the narrow two lanes. It is a short fifteen-mile drive through open country, but it is symbolic of a lifetime of self-imposed exile. Soon we drive over the Santa Fe hills and the Camajuaní valley greets us through the morning mist, greener and more beautiful than in my dreams. It takes me a while to accept the joyful reality that it is all still there. I am back to where my heart is buried.
We drive down to the river, and up the hill past the cemetery and into the town, a hundred or so square blocks that used to be my world. Everything is familiar, yet eerily different. I have wandered these streets in my mind for many years every time I wanted to escape my troubles. Yet my photographic recollections clash with what I see, as two consecutive notes that while close to each other, give rise to dissonance when played together.
In the park, only the vegetation has changed. Many of the buildings around have a fresh coat of paint. Others are in disrepair. The big old Cosmopolitan hotel built in the town's heyday during the dance of the millions is an abandoned ruin. We turn the corner into my street and stop in front of the house where I lived the first fourteen years of my life. My younger son Daniel wants to know where one of my baby pictures was taken, and I point to the flaking masonry that still holds its graceful shape. Later we will go inside, but now we turn the corner onto what used to be the main commercial street and are struck by the endless sequence of colonnades. This town, unlike Santa Clara, is a product of the late 19th and early 20th century. It is a town of columns and broad streets. It is bright, open, rational, enlightened. I feel that, maybe only to me, this is a very special place.
We arrive at Leonor's house, a marvel of homegrown modern conveniences built inside an old wooden structure with 16-foot ceilings. She feels somewhat embarrassed by the unfinished walls, and the age of the structure, but I find it most charming and warm. She lives, by coincidence, next door to where my cousin Lilia used to live. Her house and my Uncle Alfredo's grocery store were my home away from home. My parents were not partial to animals, but Uncle Alfredo and Aunt Amparo had dogs, cats, chickens, fish, a parrot, and sometimes even a pig. This big old wooden house was heaven for me. It was a big day for me when as a young child, I was allowed to cross the street and was able to come here on my own. Now the old store is no longer. It, like so many others have been subdivided and turned into housing units. Next door to Uncle Alfredo lived a family of hard-working African women who made a living as laundresses. I see one of them, now in her eighties or nineties, sweeping the front porch. Her nickname is Yata. I approach her and greet her. She remembers my younger self. All is not lost.
Leonor has prepared a breakfast with produce from a local farm. Milk straight from the cow and boiled, not pasteurized, or homogenized. Farmer's cheese, homemade butter from the cream of the milk, homemade bread. Not a single commercial label on the table. I wonder if she knows by name the chickens that laid the eggs.
Leonor now takes us on a sentimental tour. On the way to the cemetery, we pass the house of a cousin of my mother's. Her big old wooden house has hardly changed in all these years. Time has been kind to her too. She is surprised and shocked to see me. Her family was one of the few in the extended clan that remained militant revolutionaries, even after Castro embraced the Marxist line. Blood is thicker than Marxism, so I choose to forgive and forget. The gesture does not go unnoticed, and later I am sought by other members of the family who had made what is to most now the wrong choice, perhaps looking for a rapprochement. Leonor remarks that it must feel good to open doors and close wounds, and I agree that it does.
A block later we come to the edge of the town, and another view of the valley, this time with the Santa Fe Hills as the background. I look again at the sight I thought for many years I would never see again. I cannot get enough.
A cemetery is designed as a place for eternal rest. And while eternity is not for this world, every effort is made to use materials that will outlast at least a few generations. The Camajuaní cemetery is no exception and has suffered little change. When I came to the cemetery as a child, I would go straight to the tomb with the miniature villa. It was built by a loving husband whose wife had died before he could build a real one and fulfill her dream. The villa, as is customary in Latin countries, has a name: La Casa Eterna. My memories take me directly to it, but now everything is different. Back then, everything was new to me, as new as I was. Now I am far from new and surrounded by unchanged reminders of approaching demise. I pay my respects at my father and mother's family tombs. I think of their now frozen grave under a gray New Jersey winter sky, and hope that some day they their remains can be repatriated here.
The big house where my mother and her five brothers and three sisters grew up, is on a narrow street named Cassola. The Christmas Eve family reunion at Cassola was the high point of the year. All the brothers and sisters, their spouses and progeny would converge for a long feast that culminated with midnight mass at the local church. These gatherings cemented the bonds that last to this day among the eighteen Torres’ cousins, who except for Leonor and her brother Roger, are spread to all corners of the world.
After the tragic death of the last of the sisters to remain in Cuba, Cassola was taken over by the state and used as the town's courthouse. It is now a sad reminder of its former self, with peeling paint and rusting iron grillwork. We go into the front porch with its uniquely textured tiles that precisely match my memory, where in the old days I would raise hell with the cousins of my age. The courthouse is not open today, and it is just as well because I am determined not to go inside.
The stream of memories continues as we visit other sites. Minor details, such as an old wooden bench in my aunt's former pharmacy. The French menagerie case taken from Cassola to the town museum. More colonnades, and everywhere the indestructible Cuban tiles, whose pattern is imprinted in my memory.
The next encounter with the past is the most difficult. Cousin Roger is only six months older than I am and is closest to being the brother I never had. In thirty-six years, we have corresponded twice, and spoken on the phone once, when his son came to live with us in New Jersey. He sits in front of his house in greasy overalls repairing a motorcycle and talking to two of his friends. He is balding, which is rare in our family, and wears a Santa Claus white beard that along with the scars of a difficult life makes him look older than his age. I leave the car and approach him. He does not know of my return and is totally surprised and dumbfounded as we embrace. Our first words are about how we both have dreamed of this moment, and how he thought it would never happen.
A high band-width conversation about old times ensues, science experiments, dams in the drainage ditches, the love-hate relationship, the steam powered boat we built, and other crazy things that we used to do. He shows us his homegrown battery backup to be used during the frequent blackouts. The red tile roof of Cassola is visible from his 2nd floor terrace, and he talks about how the old times still haunt him every time he looks in that direction. The families meet, and my sons are introduced to his collection of animals, two or three dogs, a rooster, and a domesticated jutia or Cuban tree rat.
He is talkative about his impressions of me and my family, which I find revealing and fascinating. How the wild kid that I was had matured, and how much now I look like my Dad. How I have the same reserve and wry humor, and how lucky I am to be like him. How Maria, after living all her adult life in the United States, could pass for a local girl in looks, speech and demeanor. He shows us more gadgets and plays some of his extensive collection of 1970's American music. I spend a long time listening to his complaints about the fact that his sons do not write to him, and how it hurts him. He gives me a litany of guilt-laden messages I should deliver to them. Time flies. After we leave, my eighteen-year-old son Adrian tells me he thinks my cousin Roger "kicks ass."
In the afternoon we go into my old house at the invitation of the current occupant. She has lived here since my parents left and the house was assigned to her by the government. The experience is joyless and anticlimactic. I never liked this house, and now with thirty-five years of decay, I like it even less. There is no shortage of memories. The penury of the revolution has turned Cuba into the great conservation society. No stick of furniture is ever discarded unless it is destroyed by termites. Most of my parent's furniture is still here. The refrigerator that was around ten years old when I left is incredibly rusted and ugly, but still runs perfectly. My bed, where I slept for the last time in October 1961, is still in my room, in the same place. Yet I feel no nostalgia.
The evening becomes a long sequence of visits. Segunda is a special relation. For twenty-five years she was laundress for my house. If I have met anyone who exemplifies decency and hard work, she is the one. She still lives in the same place where she settled God knows how long ago in a one-room shack with a dirt floor. The still humble house is now built of masonry and has a shining tile floor. As always, it is immaculately clean, and the walls sparkle of fresh whitewash. Segunda has a noble but unpretentious bearing and looks fifteen years younger than her 75. The world would be a far better place if there were more of her.
Nivia lives alone behind what used to be her parent's pharmacy. A plaque in the front commemorates the visit here by Che Guevara in December 1958, a few days before the triumph of the revolution. She answers the door after a long while and I am amazed at how much she still resembles her former beauty queen self. In the fifties she was the darling of the town's upper crust. Now the winds of time and the revolution have left her alone. Her mind wanders through her memories but does not find me. She asks me about this and that relative. I give her the acrylic paints I brought after learning that she likes to paint. She is happy for the present but does not express emotion. It is evident that we are talking with a very different soul. She promises to do a painting for us as we depart.
Tonight, there is a show on the story of Christmas at the Baptist church. The youth group has put together a series of scenes on the Nativity, beginning with the Annunciation, and ending with the birth of Christ. The costumes and the scenery are put together with the care, love and inventiveness that comes from scarcity of materials. The religious fervor and enthusiasm of the crowd is contagious. It is the eve of the Pope's visit to Cuba and the spiritual rebirth that has been taking place over the recent years is approaching a peak.
Many houses have posters on the door welcoming the Pope, and the churches have large banners welcoming John Paul as the messenger of Truth and Hope, both in short supply in Cuba. To see the pious gathering fills me with hope for the future. My first impression of the hustlers in Havana has been turned around. The damage to the human capital, like the peeling paint is only skin deep. The bedrock of Cuban family values is still all there.
I notice that this crowd, and other people we have seen strolling in town are very well dressed. It is hard to imagine, given the economic conditions and the lack of practically everything, where people find such fine apparel. Cubans, like their Italian soul mates, appear to worship at the altar of la bella figura.
We step into what used to be the busy commercial street of the town. Now it is dark and there are few lights no stores and no traffic. After living in a major city for so many years Camajuaní seems more serene than I had dreamed. On the way back to our hotel in Santa Clara, we stop along the Santa Fe hills to look at the magnificent starry sky. With no cars, no industry, and no lights, the Milky Way is clearly visible. The 18th Century has its charms.
Early the next morning it is raining. We drive through the town of Vueltas, with its ancient church where my grandfather was baptized. We continue driving North and soon the rolling hills give way to a flat coastal plain. We turn onto a dirt road with seas of sugar cane on each side now muddy because of the rain. After a few miles and the village of Refugio, we arrive at our destination. My cousin Leonor has arranged for a pig roast at a farm of her family friend and guajiroLazaro.
When we arrive, the victim is already dead, its dark skin has been peeled, and it sits in an open-air operating table ready to be gutted. Daniel who is interested in medicine stands with me to watch the proceedings. The piglet is opened, and its innards are sorted. Heart and liver are cut away and the rest is thrown to the dogs.
No one here is suffering from malnutrition. Lazaro and his helpers are strong and downright portly. He is amazed that my boys speak little Spanish. My cousin and her husband engage in the good-natured sport of Cuban townsfolk of poking fun at the rough ways of the “guajiros”, something that Lazaro delights in and proceeds to do even more violence to the Spanish language.
A quick tour around the farm brings us to a new reality in the Cuban farm. All animals are kept behind bars, under lock and key. Lazaro has built strong steel cages where his pigs and some of his chickens are kept. The shortage of food since the fall of the Soviet block makes faint animals a tempting target of the hungry. Townspeople like Segunda, who keeps a pig in her backyard, must bring their animals into the house every night.
The Cuban farm is still clearly a bastion of machismo. The women help with the preparation, mashing the garlic to be smeared on the pig, peeling the yuca and cooking the rice and beans that will complete the feast, but very little is heard from them. The husband does most of the talking with the guests. There is no doubt who is the boss.
Camajuaní is a tobacco-growing region and in the old days, when a farmer sold his harvest, it was customary to have a roast pig feast and invite the neighbors, along with the buyer and his family. My father often worked as a tobacco buyer, so pig roasts were a regular highlight of my summers. The pig is roasted over a wood fire, normally built in a hole in the ground. It is stretched flat using sticks and laid over a barbacoa, or platform over the fire. The whole thing is covered with yaguas, a natural wrapper provided by the royal palm, and used for a thousand purposes around the farm. This method of roasting is a six-to-eight-hour affair, depending on the size of the pig. The finishing touch consists of throwing some green leafy branches of guayaba, which imparts a subtle smoke flavor.
The scarcity of food in Cuba has been a boon for the farmers. They are a new wealthy class, able to sell their produce for premium prices. As a result, Lazaro's condition is much improved over that of the average farmer forty years ago. Instead of a palm thatch roof, his house has a one made of concrete. He has electricity, a refrigerator, and a bathroom with running water.
The dinner table is no fancier than when I went for pig roasts. We dispense with the table and eat plate in hand. Adrian, who is not partial to barbecued pork, raves about the meal. Finally, Lazaro, who is feeling no pain after consuming a good quantity of rum while roasting the pig, sings some decimas in our honor. Decimas are improvised ten verse poems sung to the tune of the guajira. Lazaro is a better poet than he is a singer, and the rum does not help, but we have some good laughs. This day is for my sons the highlight of the trip I have fulfilled my wish of showing them the heartland of Cuba, and I express my deep gratitude to Leonor and to Lazaro.
After dinner, we rush to Santa Clara to visit again with Cousin Lilia, who has invited us back to meet her son and his new bride. We get there fairly late and find that she has cooked dinner for us. Fortunately, they have decided to eat without us, and we excuse ourselves since we are literally stuffed. She then proceeds to proudly show us the modest food she has prepared and breaks my heart yet again.
Lilia's son and his wife are typical of the new generation of Cubans. Well educated and willing to get ahead but limited by the lack of resources and the restrictive decrepit policies of socialism. While the Periodo Especial following the demise of the Communist Block has brought on much suffering to the Cubans, I have to think that it is a blessing in disguise. Prior to that, the government was able to provide a fairly decent living with little effort, thanks to the Soviet subsidies. Now people have to struggle to survive, and the result has been a resurgence in enterprise, which flourishes despite all the obstacles provided by the State. People find, or as they say invent a way to make a living. One family bakes cake for celebrations, another raises parrots, and another rebuilds small engines. I am inspired and encouraged by what all this portends for the future of the country once the inevitable change in the economic system becomes reality.
Next day I have programmed to spend with cousin Roger, talking and visiting our old haunts. We plan to drive up to the high school we attended in the old city of Remedios. On the way there we stop to see my last living uncle, who lives on the edge of town overlooking the immense vista of the Finca Matilde which belonged to my aunts and uncles and was expropriated early in the revolution. He still holds a symbolic parcel of the land which he cultivates. He shows me proudly a field of garlic, and the last crop of fragrant peppers, which he is shipping to Havana. He lives alone with his wife, and the animals that he must bring indoors at night. All his children are in Miami, but unlike his wife, he has no desire to go. Blood may be thicker than water or ideology, but the bond to the land is powerful indeed, especially in the sunset years.
Driving to Remedios, Roger and I talk about how our paths diverged, how he had a passport and visa ready to leave the country and go to the United States, but his ailing father opposed the idea. How then the crisis of October 1962 closed the doors for him so that lie had to make his own life under the communist system. He talks about his many regrets and how now lie has found peace and contentment with his wife, whom he compares to a miracle from heaven. He talks incessantly about his two sons, who are now in the United States and about the infrequent communication. I explain that it is due to the pressures of modern life but that he should rest assured that he is well loved.
We also talk about my decision to leave the country. He is under the mistaken impression that it was my parents who sent me North. I explain that I was politically precocious and at the tender age of thirteen could see what was coming, that the leadership of the revolution could not be trusted, that like much of the current Cuban youth feels now, I felt trapped and without a future and that it was I and not my parents who made the decision to leave. I tell him I have no regrets even though I still love my homeland with the kind of love that aches.
Remedios is one of the oldest cities in Cuba, dating from the 16th Century. It streets are narrow, like those of its daughter city Santa Clara, only sleepier and lined with more ancient colonial houses. It is ironic that only a few kilometers away from this tranquility was the missile installation that almost brought the world to an end back in October of 1962.
We stop at what used to be the house of one of my uncle's wife's family. It is a huge mansion, covered with fading tiles, the doors to the central atrium feature the colorful stained-glass arches that are so quintessentially Cuban. The house is now used for the noble purpose of sheltering elderly women.
Down the street is the old Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza de Remedios where I attended my last school year in Cuba. I have a special affection for this place. It was a place of peace within this serene old city. Its walls exuded the smell of Cuba and of history. It was a link with the past and is now a ruin held up by wooden braces. We talk to the neighbors about the plans for restoration, and they complain about endless bureaucratic delays. Roger points out in a veiled way that one should be careful when criticizing the State, and the conversation quickly turns to smaller matters. I am stunned to find that two of the men who gather in the conversation were our classmates. Like Roger and 1, they also bear the scars of time. It is a small consolation that the school building is also feeling its years.
We drive on to the coastal town of Caibarien for lunch. We stop at the state-run restaurant where Roger had planned to take me, but they have run out of food. Fortunately, a near-by paladar is ready to serve. Caibarien, a once thriving port town is now typical of Cuban decay exemplified by the crumbling warehouses by the waterfront. It reminds me of the old tango that I paraphrase:
Port of oblivion
for ships of every stripe
that will never set sail
Cemetery of vessels that die
still hoping some day
to go out to sea.
It is then back to Camajuaní for a last relaxing evening with Leonor and family. At dinner, I recognize the old silver from Cassola. Leonor shows me other heirlooms she received when some of the contents of the old house were distributed among the family members who remained. We talk about the strife and ill feeling that was generated back then. And while Leonor is well above such materialistic concerns, I cannot help noticing the paradox in spite of the scarcities, or perhaps because of them, this may be a society far more obsessed with the possession of things than the more affluent one to the North. I feel some trepidation a sudden liberalization of the economy might result in an orgy of consumerism and loss of core values. I am torn between my bias for ascetic simplicity and my love of freedom.
That evening I notice a curious phenomenon. My memories of Camajuaní and the reality, which two days before had been in disharmony, have now coalesced. The initial strangeness is gone and the town, though changed, looks, and feels as I remember it.
The next morning I say goodbye to Camajuaní and the valley in the soft morning light. As I leave, I hope to return again. I hope that I will some day rest in the sight of the valley, surrounded by the palms and the Cuban people that have given me so much love.
Our journey back to Havana is quick and we arrive in Old Havana in the early afternoon. We now take time to walk through the old city in the light of day and see the signs of its beginning. The objectives for the rest of our stay are to experience some of the tourist sites, and to spend time with Maria's family in Havana.
The Plaza de la Catedral is the hub of tourism in Old Havana. It is dominated by the baroque facade of the Cathedral and is populated by vendors of every kind of tourist souvenirs and popular art. It is striking that everything is hand made and there are no plastic trinkets in sight. Here, like in every other aspect of Cuban life, people have to make do with natural materials at hand. Amateur artists mix with more professional ones in the open-air stalls. The bright tropical palettes dominate the exhibition. We visit the institute for engraving where artists are provided with printing facilities and a place to sell their work, but where they must supply their own precious paper. If necessity is the mother of creativity, this might explain the wealth of artistic expression in today's Cuba. We visit other galleries, but I am reluctant to buy works knowing that a good portion of the revenue will be going to the Cuban government.
The next morning, we are on our way to a gallery in the old fortress of La Cabaña, where Maria's father and many of my family were political prisoners. As I approach the building, I feel the old hatreds rising inside me. I choose to turn around and go back to the city.
That afternoon we take the Via Blanca through the North coast of Havana province, into Matanzas, and then to Varadero. We arrive just in time, check into a modest hotel, and go straight for the beach. The beach itself, always rhapsodized by the Cuban exiles, shows definite signs of erosion. The North wind is chilly and relentless and whips up a fearsome surf. But the water is warm and embraces me as the sun sets.
That night we go looking for a restaurant in the posh hotels. It is New Year's Eve, but we are not in the mood to party. Nothing exemplifies the other Cuba, the one for the tourists, as Varadero beach. It is sad to see foreigners paying for $50 and $80 per seat at buffets, while the average Cuban workers make only $12 per month. It all adds to my anger.
As I sit the next morning, watching the still violent surf, bathed now by the rising sun, I think of how I had to deprive myself of this, and of the warmth and love of Lilia, Leonor, and the others who have passed. I have had enough of Varadero, and we leave by midday.
Our last day in Havana is spent in family reunions with Maria's relatives. The family on her mother's side has us over for lunch, along with fifteen or so relatives. In the evening, we do the same on her father's side. It is a lovely family feast that reminds me of those in Cassola, complete with kids running around and raising hell. This, I am glad to say, also has not changed.
We must catch an early flight the next morning but have to stay up most of the night because the alarm clock is electric, and the electrical supply is going up and down like a yo-yo. We head for the airport to find out that our flight has been delayed to the afternoon. I can hear Maria's sigh of relief when we finally leave the island.
On the way back I experience a great feeling of completion, but my wounds have been re-opened. I am consumed by the sweet love-ache of renewed nostalgia. Adrian shares a keen observation: that all Cubans are blinded by the same love.
Manny Perez, February 1998