30 de Marzo
DAY 2 IN CUBA: Sunrise, Soup Flies, and Rum in a Ration Shop.
Chicken bones in muddy gutters, dog shit on the sidewalk, two teenage girls listening to reggaeton on a tiny music player, a group of art students hovered around and focused on their maestra in a studio filled with abstract, colorful shapes painted on large, once-white canvasses.
A group of young girls in ballerina uniforms play along El Prado. A kid as thin as the gutter chicken bones tosses a rubber ball into a tree’s branches with great enthusiasm. A bored waiter in a black vest and white undershirt leans against a wall. A sign flutters over the street that reads “Cada barrio, la revolución,” and while I am not sure if there’s a revolution going on in every neighborhood, there’s certainly a baseball game, and usually more than one.
Now the art galleries in La Ciudad Vieja, the old Spanish colonial churches with their cream and orange peach fuzz skin, the big plaza with its children splashing in the fountain, the dark, wiry dancers on stilts beating ancient African rhythms for picture snapping tourists, the acoustic trio playing boleros to a group of pot-bellied cigar smokers and their mojito-sipping wives on the patio of a fancy restaurant, the construction workers digging holes through clouds of concrete dust, and finally, a couple with a cart selling frozen coconut ice cream—
Ahhh, coconut ice cream.
You see, very few poems, works of literature or movies bring tears to my eyes. Even less foods. But when I tell you I came damn near crying after the first bite of helado de coco, which was served inside a half coconut, it is no exaggeration. I may never eat coconut ice cream again, or ice, or cream, because when I do it will always be compared to this $3 ice I bought from a passing cart in La Plaza Vieja in Habana, and there is no comparison. Even ices that have not yet met my lips, un-invented ices yet-to-be-created by the engineers of the palate’s future, will not compare. Sure, it was expensive by Cuban standards. And some hippie-hipster-McBackpacker girls rolled their eyes at the vendor and walked away after he told them the price. But if they only knew—the fools!—just what they were missing. So rich and so sweet I tilted the coconut and drank the last remaining juice from it, a perfect bowl from mother earth.
To write in this bar is to blow my cover for sure. The people here seem to think I’m Cuban until I talk. But they sure as hell know I’m not Cuban when I take out my big brown notebook and start looking around like a tourist, or worse, a journalist. But somehow I’ve wandered into “El Angel de Tejadillo” in the middle of the afternoon and the place is a dump, so I decide to jot a few notes while I sit and rest.
Earlier I walked around the city for two, maybe three hours before entering an establishment where two black Cubans in their late 30’s sat in the doorway on plastic chairs in front of what looked like a large, wooden, open-space bar. From outside I could tell it was a dive. But I was tired from walking in the heat, and besides, I’d been in Cuba for nearly 24 hours and hadn’t had a cigar or a sip of rum yet. And from what I glimpsed from the street there were three rows of rum behind the bar, light and dark, and a long counter with a box of cigars sitting open on top—Cuban’s no doubt. It was time.
“¿Cuánto cuesta por un cigarro?”
I buy two.
One of the men who had followed me inside as I entered, clips the end of the cigar, strikes a match, and asks where I’m from.
Ahh, sweet Intrigue.
His name is Leo, and the place has no stools or chairs because it turns out it isn’t a bar at all, but a ration shop, and Cubans come and go as I smoke my first cigar and drink a hefty glass of rum. Leo takes breaks from talking with me to scoop white rice onto a scale, bag it and give it to the people, usually chatting them up in the process. They enter casually and exchange their cards or sometimes pesos nacionales for rice, oil and cigarettes, then continue on their way. At one point a cop stops at the front door on his motorbike and without dismounting shouts to Leo in a jocular manner. Leo smiles and quickly tosses him two cigars from the box on the counter. They are caught with surprising dexterity before the cop speeds off. No money is exchanged. It looks routine.
There are two currencies in Cuba, Pesos nacionales and the CUC (Cuban convertible peso). Locals use pesos nacionales and tourists use CUC. Because I am paying in CUC at a ration shop, even though Leo has charged me 1 CUC for a cigar, and 1.50 CUC for the glass of rum—which he fills three quarters full, I know I’m overpaying. You see, 1 CUC is equal to about 25 pesos nacional, and I have seen coffee being sold in little closet-cafes for as little as 2 pesos. You do the math, but I can tell Leo is making up prices as he goes along, and in all honesty, it’s fine with me. Most Cubans make less than $25 a month, so it only seems right that I pay more than them when I’m in their country. And though I soon realize I can acquire pesos nacionales if I want to—just buy something in CUC and ask for my change in pesos—I decide I’d rather support the economy and people than try do everything on the cheap.
Not do everything on the cheap? Who am I becoming?
Leo’s birthday is tomorrow, he tells me, and then he tries to sell me a big package of cigars for 15 CUC. I don’t buy them, and instead buy him a drink which he fills tall and swallows after a cling of glasses—‘Salud!’ Then he gives me a pack of cigarettes and matches and tells me he thought I was Cuban before I spoke. I tell him I’ll never say another word in Spanish again, in Spanish of course, and he laughs and gives me dap, which in Cuba I discover, is followed by a pound. (For the “non-hip,” dap is a certain handshake, and a pound, well, remember the “terrorist fist bump?”)
Leo pours a final drink. We quickly down it, and I’m gone.
Now I’m a bit tipsy smoking strong and filterless Cuban cigarettes on a bench in a small park watching a group of kids play baseball, and then walking, more walking, always walking, until finally fatigue and impatience lead me to this barstool in “El Angel de Tejadillo,” where futbol flags of Ireland, Barcelona and Real Madrid droop in the heat, and the faint scent of piss (not as faint as I’d like) breathes pungently from the bathroom.
The bartender asks me where I’m from.
Here we go.
Then to my surprise, she asks what I think about Obama.
Hmmm….¿quiere hablar de política?
Avoiding the question, I tell her he has a hard job. But she doesn’t have anything to add or say and I wonder why she bothered to ask in the first place. I watch her as she walks away from me chewing bread ferociously with an open mouth, then leans over the counter to dip it into a customer’s soup, crumbs crumbling onto her shirt in the process. After exhaling a laugh too loud for any room, she shouts down the bar: ‘He’s going to the States soon!” she says, referring to the man whose soup she has just accosted. The man glances over and smiles. Even hunched over a bowl of soup while seated on a bar stool, it is apparent that he is tall, but while he was likely once handsome, the good symmetry of his cheek bones have been ruined by bad teeth. He looks how a young businessman might after an all-night run at poker in which he barely broke even. Or after a lifetime of unfruitful all-night poker runs, bad soup, strong cigarettes, and shitty beer.
Instead of leaving, I order a beer and lentil soup with rice, which the waitress says is “Cuban food.” I may be the only tourist she has ever served, and as I eat she watches me. Although the soup tastes very good, I imagine the rest of my vacation will be marked by uncontrollable bursts of diarrhea.
I light a match that is made of thin wax like a candle-wick and not of wood or cardboard like the ones I’m used to in the States, and I pray the cigarette will ward off the urine and flies, and perhaps cleanse the bad soup I’m devouring, and also somehow smoke me away from further dubious decisions I’m prone to make with a bellyful of rum.
But the soup turns out to be one of the most satisfying meals I will have in Cuba. Even with all my doubts buzzing around me like drunken flies, occasionally falling into my bowl.
Over the past 3 years I have periodically embarked on a journey that has taken me to four distinct locations around the world. They include:
- Dorf Tyrol, Italy. The Castle of Ezra Pound
- Phuket, Thailand. Tiger Muay Thai Training Camp.
- Paris, France.
- New Orleans, Louisiana
In each country I have studied the skills expected of an Italian Renaissance Man (poetry, combat, visual art, and music so far), but in a modern, more global sense. In other words, rather than learn how to fight with a lance and ride a horse I went to Thailand to learn Thai Kickboxing, also known as Muay Thai–”the art of eight limbs.”
Ultimately, the goal is not to become a “Renaissance Man” in such a short period of time, but rather, to investigate the intrinsic values that lie at the heart of the Renaissance philosophy and see how they can apply to, and hopefully improve, my own life. I am also concerned with the benefits of becoming well-rounded, and of with the knowledge that can be gained by casting myself in uncomfortable, difficult, and sometimes painful (ie: Muay Thai) situations.
This project began three years ago and I only have two months left. The first month will take place in The Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands where salsa is part of everyday life for many.