Isgrat, the son of the owner of the casa particular in Habana where I’ve arranged to stay, is standing in the airport lobby holding a sign with my name on it. This is a first. He’s in his mid 30’s, has short hair that’s thinning in the middle, light-brown skin and a big boyish smile. He is accompanied by a lighter skinned, long haired 20-something.
After introducing myself, I exchange my Mexican pesos at a small currency exchange booth. I am left with 843 CUC for my 8 nights and 9 days in Cuba. 1 CUC is equal to $1. I anticipated a few hundred more, but math has never been my strongpoint, and either way, it should suffice. Actually, it has to. American ATM cards are worthless in Cuba, and I have no other means to get money.
We walk outside to the parking lot where a rose-red 1959 Chevy Bel Air with a white top catches the Cuban sun.
“That’s your car? That’s my ride into town?”
I immediately forgive myself for paying $30 to get picked up from the airport.
If she could see me now!
Soon we’re cruising down busy rural roads, the fumes from old cars and buses choking the cool spring-like air. We pass a soccer game. Then a baseball game. Kids of various sizes and complexions play in open fields with serious intensity much like the way we played pick-up basketball where I grew up in the U.S. I see an old abandoned hospital to my left and a mule drawn carriage crawling up the side of the road, then another and another baseball game, soon too many to count, and all the while Isgrat is leaning back over the seat and talking to me in Spanish, but the Cuban accent is difficult to understand and my Spanish is rusty and never was all that great. So I digest but a few broken bones of what he says as I watch a tractor go by pulling a wooden carriage full of workers. Then the face of Che Guevara and his iconic cigar floats past on a billboard—the caption reads “Gracias Che por tu ejemplo.”
We pass the Plaza de la Revolucion, which is not grand and majestic like I imagined, but hauntingly dignified, like a wise man laid in a coffin—the dark distinguished outline of Che and his guerilla beret, his iconic handsome warrior face coiled into the city’s imagination. And then suddenly we’re in Havana, and it’s everything I dreamed but more. The colonial and baroque facades, the back alleys, the people everywhere in the streets, crisscrossing, congregating, carrying groceries. People loitering and talking, listening to music in doorways, playing ball, lowering baskets from balconies, sitting four to a group on the sidewalk over boards arranged with dominoes. People everywhere. A mad cacophony of people like I’ve never seen. But certainly not New York people, all in a hurry to get somewhere. More like New Orleans people, Caribbean people, island people—arms and shins and knees exposed, young girls abloom strutting in front of cars in short shorts tightly stretched around their sharp-curved hips, their mere movement inviting lustful glances, stares, whispers, and whistles from men and boys on the street. All sorts of people going to and fro, most of them not going anywhere at all, and they all look like someone I could’ve gone to high school with. And I probably did go to high school with some of their cousins; their lost family.
After entering the apartment and speaking with Isgrat’s mother, I set my bags down in my room and walk two blocks to the Malecón—the sea wall that lines Habana and peers out towards the Florida Straits. I’m hungry, and I quickly spot a restaurant across from the wall that looks touristy but quiet; a good place for a first meal. A sign advertises fish dishes for 6 CUC, and I can swing that, no problem. I enter and sit down at an outdoor patio that opens in the direction of the highway, and beyond that the wall, where I watch young lovers embrace and shield each other from the unpredictable sea spray that occasionally ricochets off the rocks and rains soft on the sidewalk. A waiter brings the menu and the first dish I see is called “Suspiro de un poeta” (“Sigh of a poet).” It turns out I’m at café Neruda. Pablo Neruda’s 20 Poems of Love and a Song of Despair happens to be one of the few books I’m traveling with, and various quotes are memorialized on the restaurant wall at my back:
I want/ to do with you what spring does with cherry trees.
The fish arrives chargrilled and bland. So bland it should be renamed “to make a poet sigh.”
The lovers fiercely embraced along the Malecón last night have not made it ‘til morning to see the sunrise, all lust and no love, or perhaps they know the sun comes up over the eastern end of the island from behind the cityscape, not over the shark invested waters that stretch 90 miles or so to Florida.
As I sit on the seawall and city-watch, the moon continues its fight for light at my back and the ocean sleeps as flat and calm as any bay. Its edges barely whiten as wimpy waves caress the ageless rocks—large, slimy and tougher than wrought iron—anchored in front of the wall. The sparsely placed and sometimes flickering streetlights fade the facades of lost wealth with their crumbling balconies, archways and columns, into orange sepia tones. But soon the sun is up and everything is soft pastel, pleasant shades of beige mixed with whitewashed creams and hints of green and pink coloring the buildings.
To the west, the city is built up along the Malecón. Apartments and block-shaped high-rises shape the city’s skyline. And to the east, a jetty reaches into the ocean like a curled thumb fingernailed only by an old lighthouse that flashes a silver jewel—to whom?
There are no boats, except one, distant and small, almost like a kayak or paddle boat it seems, going towards the lighthouse. From what I can see there are two heads, but no, it is nothing at all, driftwood, a shadow on a clean glass table.
The city has already come alive as I walk back to my casa particular. It can’t be later than 7 a.m. but one glance down the arching streets reveals a plethora of silhouettes going, coming, and standing around under the orange light.
A dog sniffs at garbage in the gutter. A man walks by carrying a box of Havana Club over his shoulder. Another man leans against a wall doing nothing, watching as I pass.
It won’t be long, I imagine, before a game of dominoes starts up and kids are running in the street kicking up dirt and dust.
When I return, breakfast has been laid out on a round wooden table covered with a modest table cloth stitched with golden flowers.
I have paid $5 in advance for breakfast and am more than satisfied: strong Cuban coffee, papaya juice, buttered rolls, an omelet, and a full plate of fruit—pineapple, papaya, guava, and banana.
Isgrat is awake and going about the house making preparations and doing a thousand other things I can only guess at, and another guest in his late 30’s with a boyish face is already taking his breakfast at the table. I introduce myself, and like I will get many times throughout this trip, in fact, every time I meet someone new and tell them where I’m from—
Always pronounced with the appropriate tones of surprise, confusion, and befuddlement, but also—and this is what I begin to love about being an American in Cuba—INTRIGUE. This is the closest I’ll ever get to impressing people with my criminality, I think. (At least I hope it is).
“So how did you get here?”
Michael is a Swiss banker, but no, that doesn’t sound right. He is from Switzerland, and he says he has spent the past few years working in a bank, but he hates the bank and has recently quit and it seems like all he really wants to do is hang out in Cuba. This is his 25th trip to the island. He’s been coming for 18 years now and claims he has over 500 friends here. He likes it, no doubt. But when I ask him the obvious—“so you like Cuba?”—he cannot fully commit. There are things that make him sad too; his eyes become distant for a moment. He must have been here in the 90’s after the Soviet Union fell and basic necessities like sugar and milk were as coveted as booze in a dry town. He must have seen some things, things to give him pause—things I may not see on this trip in 2013.
But now, spread out in front of me for five bucks a plate is everything I want for breakfast, and the apartment, which costs $25 a night for a private room and bathroom, is pristine. The living room has 18 foot high ceilings, three couches with decorative throws and pillows arranged around a tall mahogany cabinet that holds a small collection of books—English learner, Cuban history , Che Guevara and Fidel bios, and also many CDs. And instead of a TV dead-dumb in the middle, two shiny-black African-style figurines, their body’s limbless torsos, stand proudly, shaped by the sharp curves of dance and passion.
To the left of the cabinet a wooden table holds a lamp and a glass ashtray, and to the right a smaller wooden liquor cabinet supports etched glasses and jars on top, small tazas and glass goblets in the middle, and Cuban rum on the bottom. To enter this living room space from where Michael and I are sitting now, you must walk between two well-washed marble columns that rise 15 feet or so to join a cross beam before the ceiling. If you turn left before sitting on the couch, wooden French doors open to a narrow balcony with the ubiquitous wrought-iron railing and a view of the Habana street.
I’m a cheap traveler so this might not be saying much, but Isgrat’s casa particular is undoubtedly one of the nicest hotels/ bed and breakfasts I’ve stayed in… Anywhere. Ever.
My apartment is one of the many casa particulares operating in Cuba today. In 1997, in an effort by the Cuban government to increase tourism and experiment with private enterprise, locals were given the right to run their own bed and breakfasts. Though I imagine taxes are quite high, and from the meticulous manner in which I watch Isgrat do paperwork, government oversight not very far off—still, this is private enterprise in Cuba.
My apartment stands out in that it is the only place on the block with fresh paint. And by fresh I do not mean it was painted yesterday, but rather, that it still has full color. It is the color of papaya outlined by a cream trim, a truly Caribbean color I have seen on the uptown mansions and the Marigny shotguns in New Orleans. Sunset and almond milk. Orange sorbet with hints of pink strawberry dust. Flushed cheeks and tangerines. What a beautiful color, I think, walking out of the apartment and taking a look back to remember the front of the house.
Walking through Centro Havana—man’s work slowly deteriorating into dust and sand, but on every block an apartment or two or three freshly painted with Caribbean pastels, like the French Quarter but taller, grander, more impressive, and all the old stones decaying but at the same time being marvelously maintained, an old person with a broom on every corner, a mop, a duster. And in every doorway something hidden—half-melted candles, shrines to Santeria gods, an old lady listening to the radio rocking on an antique chair, the sound of baseball on the television. And in the streets the people drinking cafecitos from tiny hallway cafes, buying platanos and little onions and cloves of garlic from street carts with big wooden wheels, waiting in line for rations of bistec and lomo, the meat tepid and moist under the butcher’s knife—city of sun-dust, gravel and stone, with its sidewalk holes and craters that only New Orleans could have prepared me for, and its loud-mouth construction hammered out on the street, entire pipelines dug up from their slumber leaving long narrow trenches that pedestrians skip over as if they are jumping stones to cross a shallow creek—(a personal injury lawyer’s wet dream).
Cars pass like an afterthought and no one talks to me, bothers me, tries to sell me something I do not want.
About Nate Kostar’s exciting Renaissance Man Project, and how you can help:
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.
To help donate to Nate’s project and bring it to completion, click here!