Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Fall of Cuba

Yeah, I’d love to come for a swim. Cool. I’ll just finish this, and get my stuff.
…went to see the mural..
…horse ride…
…you wouldn’t be that impressed by it...
…show me your photos…
..cave, but didn’t go for swim…
…no, it looks alright - I’d have like to have seen that… the time we got to the water-hole, we’d cooled down…
You gonna come?

Ummm. Maybe I’ll forget about that swim. Feeling a bit weird. Yeah, think I need to lie down.  

I’m sitting down. Starting to black-out from a sitting-down position. Never done that before. I need to stand up, go and lie down. The irony - oxymorony? - of that statement escapes me. But I don’t really, can’t really - stand. Lift myself out of my seat, kind of tumble forward into a standing crouch, trying to keep my body close to the floor. I take two steps, hit the edge of a step with my foot - I’m gone, gone. Blackness. Not even blackness. A gap - in memory, knowledge, life - that I could never share, be aware. I’m gone.

We’re here! We’re here with you, it’s OK! Can you hear us?!

Yes, I can hear you. What’s wrong? Can’t say it. Uuuh. Hmm. Yeah.

You fainted?! Do have any medication? For fits? You looked like you had a fit.

Huh? No. No meds. No fit. No.

Something in my eye. Tears? No - from above my eye. Bleeding. Water. Need water. Yeah. Water.


It’s the heat that gets you. The dripping wet heat. You walk off the plane, through the air-bridge. Hard to breathe, a weight pressing on your chest. But breathe you do. Shallow at first, but deeper, as you realise, as your body realises, you’re not actually under water, just surrounded by it. With breathable spaces in between. Your body decides there needs to be more moisture outside of it, starts sweating almost immediately, as if it knows what’s coming. But we’ve never been to Cuba, me and my body. How could it know? Magic.

The usual rigmarole. Line up. Get your bag. OK, wait patiently for your bag. Wait. Wait. Wait. Patiently for your bag. Look around, bags everywhere, as if the conveyor belt had backed up, at speed, and bags had exploded over each other, thrown themselves about the baggage claim, debris. But no. Seems as if the conveyor belt copes with about half a flight at a time, so that the first half of the hold to make its way out gets dragged off and heaved some distance away, to make room for the second half.

I find my dark bag, in a dark corner, in a far-flung land.

The rest you know. Line-up. Form please. Look up. Smile. Though the door. Officially in-country now. Line-up. Change money. Line-up. Taxi. Formalities - done.

The New World. Yes, a new world. A beautiful, wet, heaving, pot-holed, stench-ridden, sweet-smelling new world. Everything is here. What would become familiar to me as the regular afternoon storm had just passed. Everything shines, like gun-metal. A slate-grey sky, sun shining through; fluorescent plants, green, pink, blue. The road slick. Push her forward, the one with Spanish ( a common theme - though some others speak a little. One day we have Italian, French, Spanish & a smattering of English, in a five minute conversation). Taxi, for six.

The catch-up. Ah, the catch up. Haven’t met; haven’t seen each other for 12 months; haven’t seen each other for two years, more. An eye on each other, an eye out the window. Gloaming. Music on the radio. Something swinging off the rear-view. Wide-open streets, no-one on them. A bus, a car, occasionally.

We get closer to town, closer to our accommodation. There is no tarmac on the roads - the backstreets are dirt, with great potholes chewed out of them; they start literally, to close in. It’s dark, moist, looks like it should be cold, but you get out of the taxi, and it’s still so damn hot. There is life all around in the almost semi-darkness - scuttling animals down-below, adults at eye-level, more people above, leaning out of windows, watching.

It all seems so close, so physically close, as oppressive as the heat, so much going on, so many things happening out of the corner of my eye, just out of sight. Flugey-dogs, we used to call them - no idea why, but they were the shadows you just saw the subtraction of, as they disappeared around a corner, the suggestion of a presence just departed a room. But also faces, arms, chatter, luggage - none of this scary, just so much of it. The buildings on this street seem so close - by stretching out your arms, wings to their fullest extent, it seems as if you could touch one building on one side, whilst touching it’s colleague on the other. They give the impression of falling, of crumbling, of being on the point of collapse. They are crumbling, their facades falling into the road, but in slow motion, over 50, 100, 200 years.

And now a contrast more than just exterior to interior. From darkness to light; humid to cool; foreign to home. It’s the truth, that every place we stay on this island is an island, an oasis, from the outside. And the outside is so close, you only need to throw open a window, walk through a door and you’re there, back in amongst it, swept up again, carried - not against your will - out into the crowd, into the movement and the colour. But these houses, these homes are the place to breathe, to rest, to reconstruct. One of my favourite days, to peel off from the group - I’ve had enough, I need alone time, I can’t negotiate anymore, I can’t plan, I can’t wait, I can’t vote - and go back to our home; to take a nap, then to go into the inner courtyard, lay back, feet-up. Book (Fidel - History Will Absolve Me), beer (Cristal – x 3), cigarettes (Popular, the local brand - cheap, sweet, but like the buildings around us, they slowly collapse as they are consumed). And after some hours, I am re-inflated, I am re-constituted.

The homes generally appear like this it seems, slowly deconstructing, deconstituting. To walk down the streets in the daylight, it’s hard not to feel a self-serving westerner guilt. Click. Not only that you’re part of a system that - click - has allowed these people to fall by the wayside of world development, but also that you’re - click- now engaging in poverty tourism. Shafting them, then gawping upon The Shafted. Click. Click. Click. But hold on there, sunshine - just hold on one dang minute. Look deeper. Look just a little bit deeper, because there’s a whole lot going on back here that you might do well to take just a little bit of note of. Because this is a place that has survived long, without your presence; it has a history so long and involved that you apparently don’t appreciate. It doesn’t need you, this place. It lets you in here, it abides you, and it thinks nothing further of you once you’ve gone.

You need to venture inland, off the main road, down the small side-streets, to see how this works, for any semblance of the truth. It’s dusk. It’s warm. The people are starting to come out, now that the sun is down. The doors and the windows are opening, and with the glow of the lights inside, you begin to see their true existence. Flickering fluorescent shows colour - swift, deep. Music - familiar, influential, pervasive. People - on doorsteps, hanging washing, hanging over balconies, talking across the street. Small crowds gathered, talking, laughing. Children playing football, a little dancing or skipping game. Groups grow, shrink, wax and wane, as the membership changes; like a molecule changes its composition as atoms attract or detach.

The thing that is here is community. This is a community. Obispo. La Habana Vieja. Habana. Cuba. There is something here that is missing from other places, from other parts of the world. From my part of the world. There is a community here that I desperately hope does not disappear when this place changes, as it inevitably will. Hopefully this place might see that others have made mistakes, and learn from them. It might prevent what has been shown to be patently wrong, counter-productive, destructive. These people are part of each other’s lives – not for them the anonymity that my place prides itself on, that it sees as a virtue. There is no fear for privacy, because there is no privacy. There is community, because the community – literally – lives on your doorstep. And that all – I believe – engenders in each person some responsibility to the others. There is a pride here, in being Cuban. It goes beyond any politics, or social problem, to the heart of the place. This is Cuba, and being Cuban. It is a collective.

This collective can sometimes be an unhealthy one. Some of the smaller towns do not have the occupation, the busyness, the business, to sustain well-adjusted and balanced people. It’s the men that express the symptoms – listless, drinking, lacking stimulation. Men need to work. Women occupy themselves – if not with work, then with children, chatter, activity. Women make things happen, men need things to happen to them. Men need to work. Large groups of unoccupied, un-stimulated men, are never a good thing. There are too many unoccupied men in some of these small towns. I don’t know, would not express an opinion, as to whether these unoccupied men are a big problem in Cuba, or will be in the future. But whatever they are, they are an under-current, an underclass. Cuba will know they are there. She may already.


He stands there, an arm behind his back, the fingers of the other hand hooked into the belt loop of his jeans. Leaning on one leg, he stays almost totally still as he meditates upon the Florida Straits. He’s framed against the sky, by the sky, this wonderful, post-afternoon storm sky. I struggle for my camera, hoping to invade his privacy a bit, but not his reverie. If I break his reverie, he breaks my photo. Despite the usual lack of cooperation from my camera, I manage to get my photo of him, begging him silently not to move, please don’t move. I get my photo.

The afternoon storm, the sky. The sky is huge - not so much wide as tall. The clouds look to be thousands of feet tall, and solid, solidly boiling, but also still. They look impenetrable, as if an aircraft would crash into them, rather than pass through. They look to be a rock-climbers paradise. And they change – they look solid, but look away momentarily and they have boiled, flowed, roiled, changed and snuck up on you. In the afternoon they change, the whole sky does. I can almost set my watch by it, I begin to call it the “4.30 storm”. The humidity becomes heavy, oppressive, the temperature suddenly drops. The feeling of sudden chill is exacerbated by the sweat, still dripping, that has suddenly discovered it has no real reason to be there – but it’s been caught with its pants down, standing there exposed on your skin, as a chill wind blows across it.

This temperature drop is your first, best warning that it is time to seek shelter, that inside is the best place now. You don’t have a whole lot of time, best not just stand there. Second warning is that the sky has suddenly gone quite black. You now have just moments, as the first huge drops start to hit the ground around you. The sky seems to literally open above you, the inundation begins. These storms at times were so intense that the water caused a mist to shoot upward from the ground to shoulder height, as the rain hit the road, became spray. The imagery is of darkness, and moments of bright, flickering white light as the lightning renders its own impression.

And then, nothing. Silence. The rain stops, and the world takes just a moment to realise. The birds return, so does the sun, and the light. The gloaming that I noticed on the first day visits, colours become super-real. The steam starts to rise off the pavement, and the world starts to go on about its business – as if the storm was a slightly embarrassing little incident, like tripping over a loose paving stone, that its best to forget about and move on, quickly. But the smell is left - of clean earth, drying footpath, steam.

As if the world is being distilled.

There are also the silent night-time storms, out across the dark Florida Straits. Just lightning flashes, but so haunting, as there is no sound attached to them. I can’t help feel some of the isolation and aloneness that every sailor must feel in the middle of a storm, the fear of the potential of that storm, what it might do to his boat at any time, and him so far away from any help. But it is so beautiful too – I can sit on the wall of the Malecon, the city so alive at my back, the air so warm and clear. And I, along with many others all along that wall, can look out into the deep black, and watch this incredible light show, played out over the water in silence, across the dark velvet canvas.


And what are we thinking about, when we look out North, across the Florida Straits, all of us I suspect?

America. So close, so dangerously close. Dangerous not only because of the damage it has tried to do this place on so many occasions. The greater danger is more likely to be its insidious culture, that appears so appealing, yet proves so stifling and homogenising. I hope they can recognise this, before it lands on them, and of course proves too late to do anything about. Meanwhile, we can all sit quietly on the Malecon wall, subdued, and enjoy this fine, silent storm playing out in front of front of us, the warm Caribbean breeze embracing us – awed, and slightly fearful, something that draws us together, just a little.


Granma. Granma. I have heard of this before. What the hell is it? I’ve found myself in a little square, and there is a memorial of some kind here, some old military equipment, an eternal flame. I try to get around as much as I can, but a lot of it is barricaded off, so all I get are a few poorly taken photographs. I realise later that I was simply on the wrong side of the Museo de la Revolucion, now that I am on the inside. This place is incredible – I am seeing the artefacts of the men, the uprising, that I have only read about before. Che & Camilo’s weapons, Fidel’s robes, the ones that he wore while defending himself in court after the rising against the Moncada barracks, the birth of the 26 July movement. And of course – the Granma, the overloaded, leaky launch, that bought the original 82 into Cuba, 70 of whom would be dead before the victory was achieved. An awesome history, bought together in this understated museum.

Who were they? Why them, why not others? I’ve long had a fascination for them, and a curiosity as to why they, Che particularly, have been so idolised, and why I too am so attracted to their story, to them. Are they Cuba? Or is that a simply naïve question – there can be no one person, or group of people that could define a place, this place - Cuba most particularly. Is it these ones, who did admittedly incredible things, with such audacity? But when I think of them, I can’t get past the fact that they were killers, that they put people up against walls and shot them. Is Che really the right person to adorn a t-shirt? And why do these people never seem to realise, no matter what ideology they force on their world, it will only ever be transitory, that the world will soon move on, and move past them – that they will turn into the reactionary old men that they overthrew.  

Or is a better example of Cuba the museum curator, who showed us his great life’s work, with such passion, and knowledge of Cuba and it’s history, a man who so obviously loved his country, and wanted to share it. Who made me feel like a messenger, that I should take some of his passion for that country out into the world with me, and tell it to anyone who would listen.

Or is a better example of Cuba the angry young man I spoke to on the waterfront, the new revolutionary perhaps, who both loved and hated his country, was one of the few who had left and come back, had seen the outside. Or the one I spoke to another evening, who had the same anger, but was channelling it in a more lovely, creative way, helping his country revive and save itself.

Or was it the old man, who when we asked him about Cuba, about politics, simply held his hands up in a “Weeell, whaddya gonna do?” pose, to which we quickly responded by moving on to other, lighter, subjects.

Or was it another old man, who we met in a bar on our last night – the Musical Director, a stranger who started giving the band some very specific and vehement musical advice – which at first seemed a little strident, but whom we came to realise quickly had so much knowledge it just needed to get outside of him. Who had such a lust, and love, for life – with whom we sang, and danced, and drummed.

Or the young woman, at the airport checking the passports as we left – who looked like all she wanted to do was leave with us. And to whom I wanted to say “No – the rest of the world is not so great. You live in a wonderful place already, one of the best.”

But what would I know?

And she needs to find that out for herself.

Or is it the people that I travelled with, my 5 protectors and carers, who shared so much of the experience with me, whom I came to know, and care about, and who are so tied up with my Cuba, my memory of Cuba, that I can’t separate them?

There is one place, one memory that nearly encapsulates it all for me – the history, the camaraderie, my compañeros, the storms at sea, the beauty, the hot Caribbean wind. We cross the Canal de Entrada, or rather pass under it, to the wonderfully named Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana. This Spanish fort has looked out over Havana for over 400 years, often with malevolence. Now it has been turned into a museum and tourist attraction, and each evening at 9pm a cannon is ceremoniously fired to signal the curfew. And so we, along with many others, make the pilgrimage.

We arrive as the sun is going down, the crowd is large and animated. Children climb disrespectfully and unknowingly over historical treasures  - or possibly replicas of historical treasures – neither myself nor the children know, so perhaps we’d be better off letting each other away with it. People are jostling for the best position – which alarmingly, for some seems to be getting as close as possible to the 100 foot drop. As it gets dark – and it seems to quite suddenly - the crowd subdues almost immediately.

Whenever I am in a new city, I try and get out on the water. If there is an island, I want to travel to it; if there is a river, I want to cruise it; if there is a bridge, I want to cross it. I think a city is best viewed from the water, because a water-borne view offers a true, but unusual view – removed from the city itself, yet always an integral part of it. Whether an ocean, a river, or a lake, the city is there because of the water, and defined by it. The city responds to its water – exploiting it, protecting it, protecting itself from it.

So we are over the water from the city. And stretched out there before us is Havana. And she looks so beautiful in the dark – everything is stripped away: the poverty, the hardship, the decrepit and crumbling buildings. All that is left is the dark and light, and we can fill in the gaps between. The Capitolio, lit wonderfully, is the centrepiece, looking over the rest of the city . We are on firm ground, but the wide canal passes in front & underneath us; the Malecon is to our right and the Florida Straits beyond. A warm wind, ever present, comes from that direction. The cannon is fired, and the whole crowd jumps, as one, as if the shot was a surprise.

Later, going home in the dark, I see one of my beloved silent storms out there once more.

I think I am the only one who noticed it this time, and somehow it is my storm.

My storm, in my Havana, my Cuba.

Vaya bien, Cuba.

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