Guest Article

 

LETTERS FROM CUBA — 15

Some Sentences from Cuba


Mac Gander



It is dawn in La Habana and I am listening to Bob Marley’s “Rebel Music” as my wife Shanta sleeps in the next room and I mark the end of our third week here. One week to go. Travel is exhausting. There is no moment in which one does not wish to be awake.


I am thinking of the opening trope in Denis Johnson’s “Fiskadoro,” where he invokes Marley as one of the three great gods still left in the Florida Keys after a nuclear holocaust, a book that ends with a war-ship returning to those shores after a 90-year quarantine, from Cuba, a grey ship that is taller than the sky.


Last fall as part of a course I teach we studied the “Cuban missile crisis.” I was five years old when it occurred. My grandmother was born the same year that the first Cuban revolution tossed away Spanish colonial rule. I was born the same year that Fidel Castro was sequestered in the Sierra Maestra with a handful of companions.


Denis Johnson was a favorite writer of mine when I was young—his “Incognito Lounge” is a book I have owned twice. He died last year. I saw Marley three times in an early period of my life, before he died in 1981. These were marvelous experiences.


One of our purposes in traveling to Cuba was to see abandoned places so Shanta could photograph them—it is one of her métiers as a photographer. My own abandoned places are all internal.


On accident, as my kids used to say, we only brought one camera with us, leaving the other one behind on the bed in our Western Avenue apartment in our rush to catch our train down to Manhattan. Shanta has possession of the remaining camera, in our wandering. I am mainly thinking.


So yesterday we hired a cab to travel a couple of hundred kilometers to San Miguel de los Banos—I think a rough translation would be Saint Michael of the Bathrooms, or perhaps of the Waters—to see El Gran Hotel & Baineario, which our “Lonely Planet” guide calls Cuba’s noblest ruin. Lonely Planet. Noblest ruins. Snapshots from the phrasebook of history.


It is impossible to describe the grandeur of the ruins of that hotel and spa. Shanta’s photographs will have to speak for themselves. I spent the day practicing my awful Spanish with our driver, a kind and thoughtful man whose wife teaches physics at a local college for the equivalent of $30 a month. It was a good payday for him—the equivalent of two tickets to the Tropicana, or about five months of work.


It is nearly impossible to feel good about oneself in a developing world context where one is privileged to be able to afford things—nearly impossible not to travel as a tourist, no matter how intensely one seeks to do so—in a context that is organized around tourism.


I chatted with our driver for about four hours while Shanta shot more than a thousand photos in the abandoned ruins of the grand hotel. They used to have mineral waters there, before the revolution, the same way Windham County used to have, before that American fad went out of style.


The hotel was built by a wealthy Cuban lawyer named Manuel Abril Ochoa who wanted to attract rich Cuban people to the thermal waters of the region. He hired an architect who had designed a palatial casino in Monte Carlo. The hotel was open from the 1920s until the 1950s, and had become fully ruined by the 1970s—it is nothing but an empty shell now, but still so beautiful it takes your breath away when you see it.


That’s all guidebook stuff. The place was empty except for one security guard when we got there, and it stayed empty the whole time we were there. At first, the security guard was not going to let Shanta in, and she said let’s just go back to Havana—a two-hour drive—but then our driver talked to the guard for a small time, and then the guard said “Come on, lady” and he brought her inside and spent the next several hours leading her throughout the place. My wife has a way with her.


It must be strange to have a government job in which one guards a ruin to which almost no one ever comes. He seemed happy for the company, a kind and generous man. The three of us got a kick out of Shanta, who shoots photos like an animal—her whole body is involved. We watched her lie belly-down on the tattered marble of the floor to get a certain angle. She filled her camera cards.


The spiral stairs leading to the patio on the roof had no guard-rails, and I fear heights intensely, so when she and the guard climbed up there I stayed in the main floor, an immense, almost impossibly large space, chatting with our driver.


We talked about his sons, who play baseball the same way I did when I was young, and we talked about a lot of things, both of us practicing languages in which we are not proficient. “Como se dice,” I kept saying, and he would tell me how to say simple words, like afraid or happy.


On the drive home Shanta slept in the back seat while I chatted with the driver before I finally dozed off, waking to find us in La Habana on the Malecon, the route that rings the city, just before we drove by the United States embassy. Our driver hugged us both before he took off.


It was a good day. I will remember it for a long time.



LETTERS FROM CUBA — 14

Snapshots from Last Days in Havana


Mac Gander



In a few hours we will leave Havana for a couple of nights to visit a legendary prison on La Isla de Junventud—the Island of the Juveniles. The prison was designed as a panopticon, modeled on an infamous prison in the United States.


Fidel Castro was held there for a few years in the 1950s before Batista declared a prison amnesty and Castro went into exile in Mexico, perhaps to avoid assassination. It is abandoned now, a good place for photographs and to soak in some of the history of the island.


These will be our first nights out of the city since we arrived more than three weeks ago. When we return to Havana, we’ll have a couple of last days to pack, buy souvenirs, and try to see friends we have made to say farewell before we fly back to the states.


I feel nearly frantic to capture all the mental snapshots of the past days before normal life returns and time begins to dissolve memory. Some I don’t want to write about from here, but others seem safe enough.


In the past days we’ve been using the kitchen in our Casa Particular, and have been frantic to find where to buy eggs. Shopping here is an extraordinary experience. One goes to this place to find water, juice, and cooking oil, and to this other place to find vegetables. We pass by one market called “Aqua y Jabon”—water and ham.


In our searching, we wanted eggs because they are one food on which one may rely, but they are nowhere. We ask the proprietor of our favorite café in Habana Vieja and he explains that the recent hurricane wiped out a good deal of the poultry industry—800,000 chickens died. To get eggs, one needs a “libretto,” the little book that assures Cubans enough food to live on.


The proprietor is a Canadian ex-pat who has lived in Cuba for more than two decades. It turns out that he was born in Sicily—like him, I have a strong Sicilian strain in my heritage—and that we were born within a week of one another, both of us under the sign of the Bull. We both love to cook. He makes us sandwiches with eggs that have a special pesto spread that he makes himself, along with real mozzarella.


When our landlady learns we want eggs, she gives us four of them from her own stock. She is the most kind and wonderful woman. Shanta cooks them up for breakfast. They taste like heaven. It feels like an emblem of what our experience of Cuba is like; that the hardships here mean that one cannot find eggs, and the generosity of the people means they are delivered to your door.


It can be extraordinarily frustrating, no question. The saga of trying to execute a Western Union wire transfer so we could have some spare cash as a cushion and to buy souvenirs spans five days and could fill a long essay. It was truly maddening—long hours in line to find that the system was down, that sort of thing. It worked out in the end, and we got to spend hours with our landlady’s son, who speaks fine English and refused any sort of emolument.


Today, we had been promised real French fries at one place we go, but there were no potatoes yet, and so then we began a search that lasted hours, restaurant after restaurant, finally finding some really good ones in a hotel restaurant at the end of the night. La Dia del los papas fritas—day 25 in our travels. It felt almost crazy.


Along the way, we ran into an American ex-pat with whom we have become friendly, and we just chatted for a while. Like Shanta, he takes pictures all the time, and he uses his practice to make friends, taking pictures of people and then printing them and giving them as gifts.


He told us that the day before he had become so frustrated that he had almost decided to leave Cuba—he has been looking for a small step-ladder for weeks, something he needs as he renovates his place. Then he took as to La Floridita, a Havana bar that Hemingway made famous—it is where the daiquiri was invented, or at least popularized in the 1950s.


He posed us against a life-size bronze statue of Hemingway that sits at one end of the bar and took some snapshots, and then he brought us into the actual interior of the bar—he knows all the bartenders—so we could be photographed from the inside looking out. In a couple of the snaps we were joined by the bartenders.


At our Sicilian friend’s hole-in-the-wall café, which makes the best mojitos in Havana, we ran into a couple who had just arrived from Denmark. It was the sort of encounter that makes one understand why travel is a good thing. He was the editor of a small-city newspaper, a journalist, as Shanta and I have sometimes been in our lives, and she works with complicated children and adults in a way that is not dissimilar to my own work as an educator.


We talked for a long time—several hours—about many things. Their English was excellent. At one point, the woman asked how it was possible that Trump had been elected president. It was a serious question, and she was expressing bewilderment. I think of Americans as an educated people, she said. How could this have happened?


I’ve read all of the analysis on this, so I ran through all of the factors. The way our electoral system works is confusing to people from other countries, so it was not the first time that I had explained that Clinton had won the popular vote by a significant margin, but lost the election by a plurality of voters in three states that was just about big enough to fit into Havana’s main baseball stadium.


It is interesting to see America through the eyes of people from other countries. It certainly is salutary, especially when one considers the vast power of the United States. It is also interesting to look at what life is like in America through the lens—a partial lens, admittedly—of what life is like in Cuba.




LETTERS FROM CUBA — 13

What’s Time to a Shoat


Shanta Lee Gander



My husband shared this story that was shared with him through a family friend a long time ago.  A slightly different version of this story is also shared in a Garrison Keillor joke book. 

 

A guy is walking along on a country road.  He sees a farmer holding a shoat up to an apple tree so he can eat the apples from the branches.  The traveler pauses and looks up with a sense of bewilderment and amazement that the farmer is working so hard to make sure his little pig can eat apples from a tree.  An educated man, the traveler asks, “Why not just knock the apples down from the tree so that shoat can eat them?  It would save you some time.”  The farmer answers, “Time?  What’s time to a shoat?”

 

If I learned one thing from my international travel over the years, it’s the idea of becoming a shoat-like in my understanding of time in other countries.  In India, for example, crowds were so big, you don’t expect to get anywhere fast and power outages happened at least three times a day.  In Africa, during a ride to a weekend safari, we broke down hours from our destination.  We had to wait a while to figure out what the problem was with our vehicle before continuing to our journey.

 

In Cuba, you can go into one market that has laundry detergent, shampoo, perfume, rice, rum, and soda.  However, that same store would not have body soap, candy, or salt.  You might have to walk 15 blocks in another direction to get a Hershey bar in a store that is dedicated to selling soda and yet other places for something like aspirin or feminine products.  We encountered an expat who summed up the shopping experience in Cuba perfectly has he shared an experience of trying to get a few items, “We left in the morning to get four items.  Tape, screws, a plank of some sort, and I forget the fourth item.  We were back at the house 4.5 hours later, we’d travelled to 11 stores, and only found one of these items.” 

 

Given some of our own experiences and our conversations with others, this is accurate.   At a restaurant,  a waiter or waitress takes your order, but they may leave you waiting because the order (or an item) was forgotten.  In other instances they may be recovering from a power outage and therefore they could not start preparing your food.

 

In a nightclub, you can get a menu for food, but most of the menu items are no longer available.  Either due to time of day, the need for simplicity, or maybe staffing, you can choose to have a ham and cheese sandwich off of this “full” menu.  Regardless of the order restrictions, the music that one has a chance to hear at any of the nightclub joins is first class. 

 

Depending on the time you get there, the line for a phone or internet card could take at least an hour.   Our expat acquaintance brilliantly stated, “If there is a line, get in it because most likely you need whatever everyone is waiting for.”  The cards are cheaper when you stand in line, but if you really want convenience (and internet speed), you can pay 5 CUCs (equivalent to about $5) for an hour of internet at a hotel which is most likely banned to Americans.  And depending on the hotel, you may have to use your card upon the time of purchase instead of saving some of the time for another day.

 

 I have saved the best in shoat chronicles for last. Yesterday, we stood in what appeared to be a line at an airline office in Vedado.  As we approached a growing crowd, there were individuals on the left and right side of the office door.  A few others were sitting on a small brick wall facing the door.  We picked a side as others continued to join the line calling out “Ultimo, ultimo” to identify who was last in this so-called line.

 

Occasionally a woman came out to tell us (in Spanish) that we needed to pick a side before disappearing.  I keep reading a sign that has what appears to be destinations listed, “Roma, Italia, and Paris” wondering if we are in the right place.  I ask my husband to read the sign and he responds saying, “I don’t know. You keep asking me questions I can’t answer.”  Of course my questions are based on the fact that he took two years of Spanish in the early 1980’s.The same woman who has now given two warnings does nothing to establish order except to shoo us away from the door while again gesturing for us to reorganize ourselves. 

 

Of course no one listens.  I try to keep my cool as a very tall, husky man pushes his way forward shoving me and another person off to the side as if we were defective sliding doors.  I bitched and moaned about it as we continued to join a few others in our preparations to shove our way into the office when it was time.  Here, instances of shoving or line-hopping are not so much rude but feels more like you just got pushed by a sister, brother or cousin. 

 

A gentleman in white who came just after us seemed to notice my upset and asked my husband if we were next.  Their conversation landed on where we were trying to go and that’s when we discovered that we were on the verge of pushing ourselves into the wrong office.  He points further down the block, same building, but different office.  This airline only had tickets to Italy, Rome, or Paris.  We were looking to purchase plane tickets for travel within the country.

 

The sun feels like it is beating down on us and we wonder about our ability to stand in yet another line.  We gain false hope as we enter the other office.  I could’ve mistaken it for the Wethersfield, CT DMV office from one of my many childhood memories.  Hope materialized upon entering a large room with a desk with a person who assigns everyone a number and a digital number counter on the wall.    All of the desks with agents lined one side of the large room while all of us waited on the other side with our numbers.  After about twenty minutes and again looking at the digital counter that read 471, I whisper to my husband, “Maybe the 4 doesn’t count and it’s the last two numbers.”  He responds, “Shanta, that number has not changed since we got here.”  Meanwhile he is in his own head trying to figure out if 471 was a prime number. 

 

I get up to ask the woman at the information desk a question about how this all works, “How will we know when it is our turn?”  She answers, “They will call out your number.”  I came back to share this information with my husband and he yet again is the voice of reason, “Have you heard anyone get their number called?” 

 

He was unfortunately right.  We watched people go to different desks as all of us who remained waiting had to figure out if our numbers were next.  We eventually see an opening and we approach the desk enthusiastically flashing our number, 83, to the agent.  The woman immediately gestures to her mouth stating, “Lunch time.”  Frustrated, we return to our seats.  Directly in front of us, another port of hope seems to have a man just one number ahead of us.  As the agent’s desk becomes open, we once again approach, this time trying to cool our enthusiasm.  Somehow, we are again mistaken as another woman takes the seat ahead of us. 

 

I use my time impatiently to watch this particular agent and his customer.  He pulls out some candy that he has in his desk offering his customer a piece of whatever it is as they continue to process an airline ticket purchase.    The bag quickly disappears from sight and a few minutes later, another woman appears at his desk.  I assume that she is with the other customer but I watch another scene unfold. 

 

The words, “You’ve got to be f*&%ing kidding me” escape from my mouth as I watch the agent.  He seemed to be enjoying a gift of pants brought to him by what seems to be a wife or a girlfriend.  It quickly becomes a “not funny now, but funny later” scenario as we all witness the agent taking his pants out of the bag and holding them up like they are Simba in that famous Lion King scene.  He showed his appreciation of the gift and affection as he returned his attention to his customer.  I continued to watch in disbelief and further shocked when he closed his desk up to take his lunch break when his customer left his desk.    Was everyone going on a lunch break?

 

I guess I’ve been way too infected by a culture that gives you a lunch break but expects you to eat at your desk or nourish yourself on your work.  Also, I assumed the pants were a gift.  However, they could have been a replacement pair because he ripped a seam in the pants he was currently wearing or maybe he spilled something on them.

 

Who knows and it is always easy to make up stories about what we think we are witnessing especially in another culture.  We were finally put out of our misery of waiting in line and we finally get to a desk. 

As we left the airlines, I kept thinking about that vignette I shared, what’s time to a shoat?  If I really lived any lesson from my travels abroad, or any of my travels within the states, I would have known that one’s own concept of time becomes irrelevant.  Like the hog in the story, you just eat your apples at a steady pace.



LETTERS FROM CUBA — 12

What lies beneath:  Our Stories, Our Ghosts


Shanta Lee Gander



Who came first?  Europa or Europe?  With some research, I could get an answer, but the story of a girl who keeps dreaming about two continents fighting over her and who meets her fate and immortality with a God turned beautiful bull is an old one. 

 

But isn’t that what myths and our stories are for?  The explanation of everything we see in the sky (always linked back to Greek myths as if no one else’s Gods and Goddesses exist, but that is beside the point).  I keep thinking about 1946 here in Havana Cuba and about the who’s who of the American Gangster scene as they all gathered at Hotel National to attend a Frank Sinatra concert.  Or at least that was the story. [Image: Carrie Mae Weems, In the Mountains of Santiago de Cuba (from Dreaming in Cuba.)]

 

Ghosts of Haitian culture reside in tumba francesa as a result of French-Haitian landowners escaping to Cuba due to Haiti’s slave rebellion.  A comingling of 18th-century French ballroom and African music tradition (Lonely Planet describes it as “Voodoo meets Versailles”), the dance is so rarely practiced or witnessed here in Cuba that Unesco has labeled it as an “intangible cultural heritage” (Lonely Planet).

 

There is the story of Fidel’s rebel army.  During one of their missions, their forces dwindled down to three men (Fidel was among the three) all hiding in a sugarcane field until they got to safety.  They spent their days and nights suckling on the sugarcanes as Fidel kept their morale up by sharing the philosophies of Jose Marti while reminding them that victory would be theirs.  Fidel also slept with a rifle underneath his chin because he refused to be captured alive.  This is one or many scenes or stories of Fidel’s life as shared by a research team of Lonely Planet. 

 

There are also the stories birthed from the famous images we’ve all seen.  Alberto Korda, Raul Corrales, and Osvaldo Salas were among a small group of photographers capturing not-so-candid shots of the revolution in Cuba.  Maybe it is in this way that movements or revolutions are not only televised, but staged.

 

What are the dividing lines of the truth or facts?  The thin veil between a story that creates some explanation and embellishment and the myth that creates alternative universes of reason?  Will we ever know, for example, if La Malinche was a traitor, just savvy, or both?  What are the truths that can be teased out of Camelot apart from the overall packaging Jacqueline Kennedy felt the need to put forth to preserve her husband’s image?  The story is so strong that regardless of their bedroom secrets, we feel like we are peering into the world of yesterday’s American royalty.  I felt that way when I saw Mark Shaw’s photographs though I am aware of some of the various truths about the lives of the Kennedys.

 

One could argue that all of history is posed.  In our need to understand it, many stories, tales, and legends are created weaving truth with embellishment.  Stories, like the artifacts of a place, hold memory and wraiths.  When I travelled through VA, NC, and SC, some of the ghosts of the south were within the plantations, the 400-year old witness trees, and some of what was shared through the Gullah culture.  Within the many paint-chipped walls and rusted electric shock therapy machines, crumbling or fenced off asylums hold specters and betray secrets of our relationship with our mentally ill.  Right within Windham County, on Abijah Prince Road, on the homestead once owned by Abijah and Lucy Prince, some have mentioned seeing Abijah’s apparition.  When walking upon that old road, how could one not feel a certain presence?

 

However, feeling the presence of spirits is prey to skepticism and denial.  Stories, images, or old buildings are some of the quickest transports for our ghost.  The Pied Piper of Hamelin as a story to explain why all of the children were disappearing in a part of Germany in the 1280’s.  Beauty and the Beast is a tale that carries the ghost of Catherine de Medici’s military ambition to create human-beast hybrids.  The so-called beast in question was Pretus Gonsalvus, born in 1537, who was afflicted with hypertrichosis, a condition causing hair to cover the face as well as other parts of the body.  Beauty was his wife, Catherine.  And somewhere buried in New York’s past is the true story of how Colonel William Axtell’s lover dies in Melrose Place.  Afterall, he was the only  remaining one who knew about the secret passage to his mistress.

 

Cuba reminds me that the lines between the living and the dead, like the demarcations between fiction and non-fiction, are the ones we choose to create.  I’ve already talked about the sense of piercing the veil of time in Cuba through the old cars and many of the buildings from different eras.  I would like to learn the language for a return trip to Cuba so that I can explore the necropolis that exists within all of Cuba’s tales.




LETTERS FROM CUBA — 11

What flowers the black man has in his hands!


Mac Gander



I have been listening to music. I can’t sleep. After cooking our dinner but before eating—rice with some onions, peppers, and green tomatoes, all bought for about a dollar and still in a pot on the stove--my wife and I fell asleep for several hours. When I woke it was clear that she has a fever, a mild one, I hope. It was well after midnight.


I tended to her for a while until she slept again. I learned how to nurse quite well in the four years my father spent dying. He had a rough time in those last years.


Then I came to my computer, listening first to Jimi Hendrix’s live version of “Wild Thing,” where he sets his guitar on fire, and then, since it was in the same folder on my hard drive, I watched and listened to a clip of the ending of “My Dinner with Andre” with the Erik Satie music at the end as Wally Shawn rides in a cab up Broadway toward his home where his wife is waiting.


I suppose one purpose in traveling is to dislodge oneself from one’s moorings, to be at sea. It is odd not to have internet, for example, unless one stands in line and buys a card or goes to a hotel. The view from our “Casa Particular” gives us the sea in a lavish way. Spray leaps up over the sea-wall that runs along the avenue called the Malecon that rings this ancient city, and I have snapped at least a hundred shots of it from the balcony, trying to get one right.


Tonight the sea is calmer than it has been for days. In a week we will be back in New York, and then in Vermont, back in our lives again. I don’t want to think about art, or politics, or about whatever faces me in my work when we get back to the states.


I know only a very few people who might understand what it is like to go from Hendrix to Shawn and Satie in a single glance while looking at waves roll in against a sea-wall in Havana, but I do know a few. I have been blessed with good fortune in my friendships in my life.


Tonight I am thinking about the interconnections in my own experiences between Manhattan, Manila, and this month in Havana. I was privileged to live in Manila during a peaceful revolution three decades ago, where I met and married my first wife. That’s a separate story. I have written about it before, and someday may get it right.


Here, the revolution is a permanent thing. There are things to say about it but I am not qualified. A lot depends on who you talk to, and this is not a place where one feels any need to differ, living as we do in the privilege of our status as visitors. There are things I may write sometime, but not today.


Instead, this: Shanta and I have been translating poems by Nicolas Guillen, the national poet of Cuba. He self-exiled himself in the last years of Batista’s Mafia regime and then returned after the revolution. Many of his poems have been set to music. He was a mulatto—is that the word? He was the product of black and white parents, mixed. I guess that is the term. The same kind of mutt we all are in the end.


Last year I found out I have Native American blood on my father’s side—a great-great grandmother my younger sister turned up in a genealogical search. Who knows what blood we have on my mother’s Sicilian side, that small island a stepping stone between Africa and Europe. One of my great-uncles was furloughed from prison so he could attend my parent’s wedding. His nickname was “Westfield Jimmy.” There is a lot about history that we try to not remember.


Shanta translated Guillen’s poem “Son Numero 6,” which begins “I am Yoruba, I weep in Yoruba.” It is wonderful and strange to be wedded to a woman whose ancestry is regal and unknown. I translated this one:


Whip and Sweat

--after Nicolas Guillen


Whip,

Sweat, whip.


The sun came up early.

It encountered a black man without shoes.


His wounded body was naked

On the countryside, in the fields.


Whip,

Sweat and whip.


The wind passed and screamed—

What flowers the black man has in his hands!


The blood told him, “Let’s go.”

The blood said to him, “Go!”


He went off barefoot, in his blood.

The trembling cane-field let him pass.


Then, the quiet sky, and under the sky,

The slave, red with the blood of his master.


Whip,

Sweat, whip,


Red with the blood of his master,

Whip and sweat and whip,


Red with the blood of his master,

Stained by his master’s blood.



LETTERS FROM CUBA — 10

For Your Eyes Only


Shanta Lee Gander


If God ever sounded like that, I would be in church every Sunday.  It is not an exaggeration but an initial reaction to what we witnessed today at 12 noon at Callejon de Hamel, a well-known back alley in Havana because of its ties to Afro-Cuban culture and Santeria rituals and ceremonies.    We were among a number of tourists from around the globe who descended upon the back alley (as most usually do every Sunday) to watch the Santeria dancing and ceremonies.  


I mentioned wanting to know more about Santeria beyond what I have read.  We have also refused having a guide choosing to adventure and explore on our own but maybe a guide for this alley might be useful next time around.  While I watch the celebrations and enjoy the energy in the air tied to the music, I wondered about what we weren’t allowed to witness as mere visitors to this culture.


I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist, but merely just posing questions that I often wonder about within the context of being a traveler.  For example, while we were in New Mexico, there were plenty of places that promoted (and encouraged) visits to Native American Pow Wows and/or visits to Pueblos. I always wondered about the percentages of aspects of performance for visitors versus the authentic/just being within one’s culture in these types of experiences.  I asked the same question about the daily parade that takes place in Old Havana filled with stilt walkers (and other performers), the musicians who appeared at every restaurant, or the Cuban ladies who were always dressed in costume.  In fact, you can’t snap a photo without paying a few pesos.  


In Havana, tourists never have to go without being entertained on some level, but the same can be said of a modern day baseball game (there is some entertainment literally every minute of the game!).   And most have suggested we go check out the Tropicana Cabaret as “the thing” in Havana.  I am not suggesting that there is no authenticity in the music we have heard (quite the opposite, especially in some of the local jazz spots) but I wonder about what we see versus what is allowed for Cubans only regarding culture and the experience.  


We enjoyed our few hours in the alleyway, but the question still lingers as I say to Mac, “I wonder what happens that we are not allowed to witness.  I mean the experience we just witnessed gives one a sense that they have an understanding of the culture and Santeria.  I think what we have seen is just what we are allowed to see.”   Perhaps holding some things close to the chest is key if you don’t want it to be taken out of context.  How do you ensure that visitors understand of your culture while also making sure they don’t fully see the things you want to hold close?  Maybe there is no rhyme or reason.  And maybe everything is not intended to be known or shown to the travelers.  


Or perhaps all of culture, like most of our lives, is just one big performance.



LETTERS FROM CUBA — 9

I like pirates


Mac Gander


I like pirates. My best friend from high school was one, just now ending a thirty-year stint at ABC, one of the best news and documentary producers in the world. Another was my friend Ghani—his nickname was “pirata”. He took me into the provinces after the Philippines Revolution was settled in 1986.


Ghani was a hit-man for Imelda Marcos’s brother, Boy Romalduez, who ran the Marines. He had been a Marine sergeant before he went private. He showed me a lot of country while he let things cool off. He had wounded his right wrist fighting off the surge of demonstrators storming Malacanang Palace. His wrist healed in a few days as we traveled.


Ghani and my ABC friend are gentle and kind men, but you would not want to mess with them. That would just be a mistake.


I’m not like that. I am a kind and gentle man, but my physical courage runs on a cool plane. I only would use it in an extremity—I like to talk my way out of things. In Havana, the way things run so safe and cool, it is hardly an issue.


Today Shanta and I hung out at one of our favorite joints in old Havana, a little hole-in-the-wall run by an ex-pat who was born in Sicily—we share some blood, since half my blood is from Sicily and Calabria. He told us how he bought the place, running a 1,000 pound Vulcan Bike across from Key West on a thirty-foot boat and then selling it at a much better price, even after taking care of things in entry.


He told us how frightened he had been on the 90-mile open sea, running that bike across along with a lot of other stuff he was bringing across the gulf to start his business. He lost his maritime radio to a wave, traveling blind except for a basic compass. He said he prayed to god then, though the likelihood that he has any regular belief in god seems slimmer than my own.


We bought some more hot chocolate—he calls Shanta “hot chocolate lady”—and another mojito, which are the best in town. We listened and chatted, and he was enchanted that Shanta rides a 250 white rebel Honda, since he rides a Harley. They talked riding for a while and you could see he was the real deal with that.  It was all very cool.


At a silence, I had a chance to talk and I said you must have seen a lot in your years here, and he nodded. Things happen very slowly here, he said. I know, I said. I can see that.


He tries to convince Shanta she should bring across her cute white rebel bike, sell it here, go back and buy a couple more and bring them over. Capitalism in action. This man lived through the “Special Period” after the Soviet Union dissolved and stopped the subsidies and people ate straw baked into the appearance of meat for a few years.


My new pirate has two daughters by different women, and he shows us pictures on his cell phone. One is twelve, a heart-breaker in the making. The other, his darling, is just five, learning flamenco at a professional studio. He shows us a clip of her dancing and she is astonishingly well-practiced, for a five-year-old.

Shanta tells him that she studies belly dance and how the hand and arm movements in flamenco and belly dance are so similar. They talk for a while about that. We don’t have names yet so he calls her hot chocolate, which seems fair enough. When we leave I finally get the Cubano handshake right, a hard slap and then a grip, then fingers clenched in a mutual fist, sort of like a black American hand-shake but tighter, the way everything in this culture seems.


As we leave the club I am thinking we have been here just a week, with three weeks more to go. A lot to learn.


When one travels, it is always good to have a place where one is known, recognized, where one can have a conversation. I know he knows the story after 27 years. I just need to listen and ask the right questions.




LETTERS FROM CUBA — 8

What does every nation want?


Shanta Lee Gander


I never needed to be far away from my home country to think about some of these questions but they became magnified by whatever culture you are currently experiencing.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the ratio or balance between freedom and privacy.  Also, the equations or exchange rate between a government and its people.  Here, it is the perfect panopticon (an idea that was coined by Foucault) which presents a concept that everyone is watched at all times.  However, in exchange, one is free to walk the streets at all hours of the night without fears or dangers.  


In the case of the U.S., we can travel wherever we want within the country and we are free.  In exchange for the freedom, there is a façade of privacy.  However, there are certain places that are not safe to travel.  You can’t necessarily walk the streets of certain cities at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. in the morning without running the risk of a possible mishap.  I recall embarking on a trip with one of my boyfriends.  We were planning to drive the whole eastern coast of the United States from Vermont to Florida.  My aunt warned, “Be careful travelling through various parts of the south.  Being an interracial couple, you can’t just go anywhere.”  I found the idea absurd especially growing up with the idea and concept of freedom.


Is it better for a government to say to its people, “Look, these are your choices, agree with the politics for the greater good of the nation, and we are always watching.  However, you are always safe.  You don’t have to constantly look over your shoulder.”  Versus, “You are free (but we are watching behind the scenes and by the way, we can’t really guarantee you any safety at all time within the country).”    In other words, what does a country owe to its people in exchange for what it gives them?  


I don’t pretend to know any answers.   I finished a book by Sharon Blackie, If Women Rose Rooted and in this book, she shares stories as related to the need for the eco-heroine’s journey.   I find myself re-shaping one of the questions she shares through one of the tales as it applies to countries and cultures of people.  One of the stories she shares is related to the tale of the “Wife of Bath” within Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which was among one of my favorite assigned books in high school.  If you recall, the tale asks the question, “What does every woman want?”  


I have been asking the question, what does every “people” want as in what are the desires of a society?  Is it upon the wish list of things outlined within the signs of civilization (infrastructure, art, food, etc.)?  The answer to the question uncovered in the “Wife of Bath” and in the story of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle is sovereignty.  Is it freedom and self-determination that we all ultimately want within our own countries?  


In one of my dispatches, I wrote that we are all captives of our countries.  But what would we be willing to exchange to be complicit in our captivity as Americans?




LETTERS FROM CUBA — 7

The Male Gaze


Mac Gander


I leave my wife alone in the vast mid-town necropolis so she can shoot photos while I wander. When I find her again at least three men have hit on her, fingers to the lips to blow kisses, whistles, that sort of thing. She is lovely wherever she goes, but in Havana she seems like a scoop of honey to ants on a kitchen counter on a warm summer day.


Don’t leave me along like that again, she says, tugging on my hand. But she’s not freaked out by the attention, just worried about her belongings while she is distracted by taking pictures. I remember an editor at Newsweek telling me that the reporter’s main job in the field is to watch the photographer’s back. I promise not to wander again.


But it makes no difference whether I am there or not. No matter where we stroll together, hand in hand, she gets whistles and kissing sounds. It’s like I am invisible.


Part of it may be that the way Shanta is seen as beautiful here in a fashion that women with her body type in the United States are unlikely to experience, except maybe in the black community. Our images in the U.S. seem like a sort of thin-body pornography from this vantage.


I know about the male gaze, the crude imposition of a man’s sexual desire on a woman who is just being herself on the way to work. Here, the attention seems instinctual—is it catcalls or flattery? I hardly can tell. Cuba is a culture without sexualized images of women. There are no glossy magazine covers or Times Square electronic billboards. I doubt there is much bulimia or anorexia here.


I don’t quite know what to make of it—this insistent attention to my wife as we walk around. I ask her to decode it for me. Shanta is not offended. She doesn’t put it in the category of catcalling.  Why is it okay for us to admire the art hanging on the walls, she says, but we can never do it in the human form?


Cuba is safe for single female travelers in ways that most places are not. She knows she won’t have trouble, but she likes me close by. For me, I have those instincts to protect, to say what the hell man, you talking to my wife? But that seems silly here. No harm seems intended. Shanta can handle herself.


We talk about what #MeToo would be in Cuba. We really don’t know. It is a macho culture in certain ways, but there is also a kindness and elegance in the way men and women greet one another, kisses on the cheek, warm embraces between friends of the same sex, decorous handshakes between men and women.


When we run into a young friend at our local café, he embraces Shanta gently and presses his cheek to hers, then he and I shake hands and hug. When we watch women and men dance salsa in the clubs we see the truth of the phrase “a vertical expression of a horizontal position.” It is also beautiful, and very polite.


One of the things that traveling with my wife has taught me is to try better to ask questions rather than have answers. I don’t know what #MeToo would be in Cuba. We all know very well what it is in the United States, I do wonder whether a culture that is comfortable with our physical nature is better off than one that attempts to suppress what is natural to us as human animals.


I don’t know. Just questions. But it is comfortable enough for us here, no matter how many whistles and blown kisses my wife receives as we walk the streets of Havana. She knows that I have her back, the same way she has mine.




LETTERS FROM CUBA — 6

Context Clues Upon Buildings & The Human Body (Part 1)

December 29-30


Shanta Lee Gander


“Context clues can be the information before a sentence, after a sentence, or sometimes right within a sentence” said Mrs. Menefee, my seventh grade teacher at Fox Middle.  Perhaps she said it a bit more sophisticated than my recollection but I never forget the idea of context clues.  Earlier this month, during a lecture, I talked to a class about the idea that context is everything especially within a culture.  


The hissing sounds one makes to call attention, the way one ways their hand at the ground (ever so subtly) to answer the question “Do you want a taxi?”, or a conversation initiated by a woman on the bench of an alleyway known for Santeria rituals who wants to know if you have children all mean something specific to here.


The buildings alongside the work one witnesses here also have context to unveiling the snapshots of the history of Cuba.  The tall, stark Soviet Union-era buildings point to a post-revolution period which marked the 1960’s-70’s (and maybe 80’s) in Cuba.  Other types of villas and grand structures depict an imprint of the Spaniards which started in early 1500’s and lasted until the late 1800’s.   Around the mid-1940’s, after World War II, the mafia figures of America make their own imprint upon Cuba.  And of course, who can forget the abundance of American cars from the 1950’s alongside a growing motorcycle culture.  


While I have much more history to read about Cuba, the buildings and many other artifacts add to the complicated sense of place here.  Many once pristine and majestic villas and Soviet Union-era buildings either co-exist alongside small businesses or residences, or they have been re-purposed to fit these roles.  Some visibly show signs of age while others don’t try to put on any show anymore as illustrated by their crumbling structures behind the often locked rusty gates.  


I learned a lesson during my trip out West about the abandoned and Cuba is reminding me of the same lesson.  Many times, the abandoned isn’t a place you have to find.  In fact, some of these dilapidated structures often show signs of life with freshly washed laundry waving upon a clothesline outside of a ragged window.   Here, the abandoned isn’t something to admire from afar, but is just a part of daily life.  It isn’t beauty, or something to be titled or fetishize as “urban exploration.”


The abandoned just is and one can guess that it is largely linked to a lack of economic ability to restore and/or decide to do with oversized structures beyond use them as a place of business, a hotel, or living for many people.  One could find the same phenomenon in various parts of the United States.    In many ways, Cuba reminds me of our recent trip to Detroit in the way that the abandoned is a part of the natural landscape.  Both cities are in states of becoming, and becoming sometimes is a very slow process.  


This year, and on this trip, I find myself needing to check my admiration and fondness of the abandoned for the purposes of my art at the door because I am not sure I would be so fond if I had to live among the ruins.



LETTERS FROM CUBA

5 — Talking with Luis (1): Race in Cuba


Mac Gander


We are at a small outdoor café not far from Havana’s huge Necropolis de Colon, which we have just finished visiting, my wife shooting photos of the statues that adorn the tombs. English is spoken here—it is owned by an American ex-pat—and there are fine second-hand books in English for sale on the shelves, and good iced coffee and hot chocolate.


We settle in with our drinks and then I notice a young man at a chess board on a table near to us. I haven’t played chess in a while, but I love the sport, though I am just a duffer at it, starting from the Fischer-Spasky era. I ask Shanta if she minds if I try a match and she says sure, go ahead, so I ask him and he is game.


We exchange names and handshakes, and play one taut game in silence, standard moves, pawn to K4, etc., and I manage to checkmate him in about twenty moves. We re-arrange the pieces and I offer to play black but he says he will wait to play white until he wins.


We start to play again, and I try a Queen’s side opening for fun, and we start to talk about American politics. It turns out that his English, while not fluent—he lacks vocabulary but has the grammar down—is far better than my Spanish, so we use that to speak.


I am in a bit of a haze after spending a couple of hours in one of the largest and most beautiful graveyards in the world, so I don’t exactly remember how we got on the topic of race. We were talking about Trump and his new edict, and then the American elections. He had a lot of questions, which I tried to answer, and I lost focus and had to sacrifice my queen for a rook and two pawns, and then I resigned.


We set up a third match, with me playing a French defense but I have the sequence wrong so I am already in a bad spot after our third moves when Shanta comes over to join us. We are talking about race in Cuba—I’ll call him Luis and while Luis’s skin was pale he identified as black Cuban--and I have asked him about my theory that race in Cuba was different from race in the United States, that things seem more equal and less contested here.


Shanta joins, so that chess match is left on the table, unfinished for the next several hours. Afterward I thanked her from saving me from a defeat.


Shanta and I had already been talking about race—the ease we feel in Cuba, the way everyone assumes she is Cuban until she tries to speak Spanish, and also our suspicion that “shade-ism” is a factor we could not see clearly.


Luis is young, the sort of really bright college-age kid one likes to teach and also learn from. He has traveled to Canada and Germany. He is a young musician, whose father is famous in Cuba for his music and has been since the period after the revolution.


Luis says that he thinks that in the United States race is something one can talk about openly in a way that is not discussed in Cuba. His sense is that the civil rights movement in the 1960s created an avenue of progress in the US that is different from the way Cuba dealt with the same racism here. He is young but a student of history, and he suggests that Obama is the greatest president since Lincoln. Castro ended the Jim Crow laws, he says, but after that it was off the table. After the revolution there could not be any sign of anything that was wrong. He tells us that blacks are always the ones identified with crime. It’s like 1970s movies in the United States, I say. He agrees. He has watched a lot of American movies.


We talk on all afternoon in a shaded garden outside the café, and most of the time it is him and Shanta talking. I am just listening. I realize how little I understand of anything. Everywhere there are white people and black people, there is racism, he says. I want to write down everything he says. It seems like he has the gen on this place. Next letter, more.



LETTERS FROM CUBA

4 — A Surprise Behind Every Face:  Race, Identity, and the Soul of a People (Part 1)
December 27


Shanta Lee Gander


The continued exploration of self-image and identity in Cuba has been its own case study for me.   By self-image I mean how one may see themselves outside of their home country or how individuals within a culture may perceive themselves in the eyes of travelers (in addition how all of these parties may wish to be observed).   


In reflecting upon myself within this culture, for the first time in many years, I am not shy or apologetic about my curves.  I don’t feel like they are too dangerous to be exposed to the public view.  I’m not viciously tugging at my shirt to hide my hips or buttocks.  In fact, here, I have ass envy or what I have called asspirations.  Okay, forgive the bad joke especially for those who think that my comment is just adding to the problem of the over-sexualization of the brown body.  Quite the opposite.  I must seriously comment on how liberating it is to be in a culture where I feel like my curves are not only accepted but encouraged, embraced, and modeled everywhere I go.  My hips nor buttocks don’t feel like the anomaly on the street block, but instead, a sense of belonging (not so different from being in Uganda for two weeks in 2007).


In terms of identity, Cuba, like my other experiences abroad, has given me the flexibility I have always wanted.  I mentioned that most Cubans are shocked (as in wide-eyed, jaw-dropped type of shock) that I am not a fellow Cubana.  In the United States, it is commonplace for me to be placed as Haitian, African, Jamaican, or West Indian.   In all places (including Africa and India), I am always asked with a genuine tone of curiosity, “Where are you from?”


Before international travel, the idea of having the privilege of passing never occurred to me.  I’ve studied the concept of passing as it relates to race, class, or gender.  When it came to race-based passing, I always observed that the one with the ability to do the passing had a certain agility in the world that I lacked.  Those individuals also had a price to pay in exchange for the agility of passing.  In this current age of Rachel Dolezal’s, I should perhaps clarify so that my point is not being misunderstood.  I am not saying that I wanted the mixed ethnicity required for what we understand as passing.  I just wanted the privileges of it while maintaining a sense of the currency (soul, self-esteem, etc.) being paid for such flexibility.    Perhaps this is another piece for another time or something that I continue to think about, but my international travel, especially my time in Cuba, has almost given me access to an exclusive club.  But again, not in the ways we have been taught to understand it.  In this age of Trump with so much uncertainty, dare I say it?  I want the agility to pass and choose when I am American.


Before leaving the states, we were given some recommendations from fellow friends.  One place in particular was highly suggested as spot for books and good conversation.  This spot in particular was tucked away neatly within a nice neighborhood hugged by the trimmed bushes.  


I found a chair to rest my legs and feet while noticing all of the corners that held either books, people, cookies, or any combination of these things.  I was thankful for the cover of the bushes because of my embarrassment just a few minutes prior of asking a blue-eyed, blonde haired kid behind the counter, “I hope I am not being offensive, may I ask, where are you from?”  The question fell out of my mouth only after he seemed slightly annoyed at our attempts at Spanish and quickly asked “Espanol or Ingles?”  He tried to insist he’d been in Cuba the whole time but maybe my unconvinced stare made him surrender an answer, “ I lived in Canada for years” he said.  


I was ignorant to assume that because his English was so crisp, he was an expat but we have met a few Cubans who fit this description.  In our few days here we encountered:  the expats who blended in able to navigate the culture and language with ease like native Cubans; the Cubans who learned enough English due to personal experiences and/or education; and those who spoke primarily Spanish.  I don’t blame the folks in the latter category, it is their country after all.


After a few minutes of recovering from the sun and our walk, my husband wanted to challenge a young man to a game of chess.  I was still hoping the iced Wildberry Tea would wash away the rest of my embarrassment.  The young fellow and my husband sat a few feet away and completed a round of chess.  They started another round and a conversation.  I caught a few words of it while stumbling upon an explanation for the Ladies in White in one of the café books.  


My surprise and discovery (which explained that individuals wearing white may be initiating into one of the lines of Santaria) was broken by my husband’s voice which seemed to echo what the young man was telling him.  I only caught the words “racism” and “Cuba”.  I stopped reading to eavesdrop as the young man gestured for me to join their conversation.  I was in for a surprise which involved receiving a Cuban history lesson along with answering some of my questions I outlined in my last letter.




LETTERS FROM CUBA

3 — Manhattan and Havana: Quality of Life


Mac Gander


In one city, small, brown-skinned men wearing traffic-protection reflector vests queue at restaurants and then peddle rough bikes on dangerous streets to deliver food in plastic bags to the homes of the rich. In the densely-crowded mid-town areas where businesses are and tourists come, the streets are filled with homeless people and beggars. It is possible to buy anything one wants in this city—the only limit is the money one has in one’s wallet. Tourists come from everywhere and fill their bags with goods. The tall, residential buildings are like gated compounds, and one can tell easily who is rich and who is poor by the clothes someone is wearing. Police are on the street, and all day and night sirens wail—it is a constant backdrop.


In another city, there are almost no beggars or homeless. At five AM men and women pushing carts come out to sweep the streets and collect litter. They are employed by the government. The shelves of stores are filled with scarcity. People queue for a long time to buy whatever fresh product has come into the store, whether meat in a market or an electronic gadget. One stands in line for an hour to buy a card providing access to the internet. There are no modern cars apart from government ones. Style is still important, but it is impossible to know by looking whether someone is rich or poor. Occasionally one sees police on the street, especially in the most crowded sections, but there are no sirens and the cops are friendly. Wherever one goes, all night the air is filled with music.


In one city, the pace of life is brisk, and even hectic. Time is always a factor, and people move quickly through the streets, rushing to the next appointment or to grab some lunch within the busy workday. In another city, things move slowly. One must be prepared to wait for almost everything. Standing in line is a practiced skill. One chats, or thinks. It is foolish to feel rushed. People walk at an easy tempo. Finally at the front of a line, one waits while the vendor finishes a cell-phone conversation. Nothing can be hurried. There are no V.I.P. lines.


In one city, political expression is unguarded and free. Most people dislike the president and often chat about politics in the way one might talk about the weather. Political power rests in the hands of a few—those with money—but elections are held regularly. One always has a choice on the ballot. The press is free. It is possible to read information and opinion from every political persuasion, and to write and publish anything one chooses.


In another city, almost no one talks about politics. To speak openly in opposition to the government is to be a dissident, with significant risks involved. Some women wear only white, in silent protest of this silencing of dissent. The press is tightly controlled, although access to the internet is not, so one may read anything one can find there. For most individuals, the local political arrangements seem like something one just takes for granted. Things are the way they are. Education through the college age is universal and free. Health care is universal and free. Access to the arts is subsidized. No one goes hungry. Everyone is housed in some fashion. The cost for this is that one accepts the way things are.


To travel from Manhattan to Havana is like traveling between two sharply different visions of how human beings should live together and organize themselves along political and economic lines. And as I think about the contrast between Manhattan and Havana, the U.S. and Cuba, I think also about two other capitols where I have lived, Riyadh and Manila, both now strong friends of the United States, with none of the restrictions that Trump recently imposed on travel to Cuba. Riyadh is a fine city in many ways, with friendly and welcoming people, but it also is the capitol of one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Manila is in the midst of a terrible loss of hard-won democratic freedoms, with extra-judicial murders happening on a daily basis, urged on by its president.


Both are friends of the United States, but we treat Cuba as an enemy, as though the long-ended Cold War were still in hot progress. I wonder what the United States has to fear from Cuba, that Trump should have issued his executive order. Certainly it is not the Cuban military itself, which hardly is a threat to the American mainland. If we are worried about authoritarian governments, why not start with Saudi Arabia and the Philippines? This one is relatively liberal and free, limited in large part by its poverty, which stems mainly from the lack of trade with the U.S., just ninety miles away.


Maybe the greatest threat is the universal access to education and to health care, and the subsidies that prevent hunger and homelessness. Maybe the problem Cuba presents to us is a question: if these things are possible in such a small country with such limited resources, why are they not possible in the richest and most powerful nation in the world?



LETTERS FROM CUBA

2 — 96 Hours and Counting


Shanta Lee Gander



Tuesday, December 26, 2017


We’ve been here only 96 hours and we have seen parts of old Havana, watched the Cuban gait (which is more of a saunter) and continually try to mimic it, imbibed some good jazz in a local club that closes at 4 a.m., and Necropolis currently holds my fascination.  


In between these travels, I have wondered about the neighborhoods peeking out at me piercing the back seat of the cab.  I have also noticed how normal it is for a 1952 Chevy to have its original engine (as one cab driver bragged) while racing other cars on the street to get to any destination.  Cats behave as if all of their needs are met while owning the streets with their own version of the Cuban walk.  The dogs don’t seem as wild as the ones in India.  However, they always seem like they have some place to go.


I came here to learn more about things I’ve only heard about in passing and through the narrow lens of what I know about Che and Fidel.  However, they are obviously only a piece of a very complicated puzzle within a long history.  A cab driver told us that if you were born before the revolution, you view Americans more favorably than post-revolution babies.  


It is in that way I guess we are all victims of what our countries tell us.  Why have we been so restrictive allowing American travel to Cuba?  Wouldn’t it be helpful to their economy?  A couple of individuals said that last December was full of American tourists.  However, given the new ban, their businesses have taken a bit of a hit.  


I can’t make any conclusions nor do I necessarily seek to have any answers to any questions.  At first I did not want to publish this (or any) entry because my questions seem so simple.  Questions that could possibly be answered by Google, a few good books, and perhaps Americans who knew Cuba better than I did.  However, I felt like all of these things would have limited my ability to just be a true student in this experience.  


In Verdado, the city where we are staying in Havana, I noticed that the market has a few choices for everything from Costa Matequilla Biscuits, crackers, or expired Del Monte canned fruit to sodas.  A few items (including Oreos) are kept in a secure case but Rum was easily accessible.  We stood in line for about an hour to purchase an internet card only to discover that we could not use it at the main internet hub in town.  At this particular main hub, it is $5 per person per hour for an internet card within a place among a list of banned places for Americans to spend their money in Cuba.  


We also realized that if we had an extravagant meal, the local restaurant worked really hard to find certain items (like cheese, butter, hot tea or chocolate) for the meal.  As we roam the streets by day and night, I wonder about many things I see in passing.  I wonder about the ladies in white who are sometimes walking among us or seem to be on a mission rushing to a destination.  I wonder about the shades of difference among the Cubans.  Most are surprised to discover that I am not one of them.  One gentleman gave me a high-five today because we shared the same skin color.  Do they have shadism or internalized racism like certain racial groups in the U.S.?  Or has all of this been eradicated with socialism?  I can’t tell because everyone seems united in a way.


I also wonder about the many images of Che (while there are few of Fidel) in many public places.  I have often noticed that social movements, historical moments, and religions usually have a sexy spokesperson.  Maybe it is just this particular region.  I am sure a schooled American could answer these questions, but I am more interested in the Cuban perspective on such things.  While my descriptions so far have made Cuba sound lacking, please make no mistake or assumptions.  The depth of the culture, the people, and the texture of sounds are full of soul, sensuality, and life.  


In some ways, it feels like I stepped back in time, or maybe time has stood still.  Maybe this comes with being surrounded with the vintage cars alongside the slow walk in the extreme heat.  Maybe it’s the sewage system that seems to be archaic leaving a stench that one sometimes smells in the streets.  


Despite some of these things, my body dysmorphia feels impossible to co-exist in a culture so accepting of curves.  As I write this, Kool and the Gang’s “Joanna” with a brief threat of Belinda Carlilse’s “Heaven on Earth” fill the night air.  I am thinking about the conversation I had with our close friend’s daughter who is 11 ½ years old just before leaving and how she shared updates about what they were learning regarding the signs of civilization.  Art, form of government, food, and many other elements are things she mentioned.  I jokingly asked, “Does America still count as a civilization?” as I thought about all of the ways that funding has been cut for art in education and ways that democracy has sometimes failed many.  I am also thinking about the idea of civilization within the context of America having restrictions to Cuba.  How can we maintain a level of being civilized if we don’t allow our citizens to realize their role as global citizens?



LETTERS FROM CUBA

1


Mac Gander



Transitioning through immigration and customs in Havana and landing on the curbside a few days ago reminded me of nothing so much as the day I landed in Taipei to visit a friend on my way down to Manila, more than three decades ago. There was that same sense of heat and humidity, the swirl of people and cars and brilliant sunlight, the sense that I had arrived in a place very different from any place I had been before.


I guess there is something about having grown up in Manhattan that makes me like the capitols of other countries so well, a city kid at heart. Havana reminds me of Manila in some ways, and of Riyadh in other ways. And every great city reminds me of my hometown, where my wife and I had spent a few days before boarding our plane at JFK.


A Manhattan friend of mine suggests that the subways of New York City are the most democratic place on earth—so many classes and skin colors, ages and genders—and this seems true to me. Being in Havana feels like a version of the NYC subway system. You have to wait a lot, it is hot and cramped, and the range of skin colors, ages, and so on is very broad. The difference is class. In Manhattan, you know who is rich and who is poor. Here, no one is very rich or very poor.


My wife, who is black American, with some white and West Indian blood and a deep but unknowable family heritage in the ante-bellum slave south, is often mistaken as Cubana here, until she tries to speak the language. The contrast in our skin color is common among couples in Havana. I could be white Spanish, the way I look with my tan, and she could be Afro-Cuban, but when any cab driver or shop vendor hears us talk, they guess that we are from the United States. It is interesting for us to be in a place where the difference in our skin colors does not define us as a couple.


We were lucky to have bought our plane tickets before a new executive order reversed the arrangements that President Obama had enacted, so we are able to travel on our own. We’re staying locally, not in hotels, eating rice and beans and trying to engage with experiences that will feed our various artistic media—photography and writing. We are independent travelers by nature, and feel fortunate not to be in one of those groups one sees occasionally, having their group experience.


Our neighborhood is a good one, close to the University of Havana, and the bars and clubs are filled with young people who seem prosperous enough, in a fashion that certainly would not be the case in poorer parts of Havana or in the country-side. One of the features of the opening to market forces that took place after Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2008 is an increasing stratification of society along class lines.


The advent of a tourist culture seems to have been momentarily stalled by Trump’s recent edict. The proprietor of one café we visited told us that told us that American tourism is sharply down compared to the previous year. My wife and I were fortunate to get in under the wire so we could travel on our own terms; and even so, getting money from home is a hassle now in a way it was not just a few weeks ago.


A colleague said we were “brave” to be traveling here now, and I have wondered about that. Cuba is one of the safest places to travel—there is almost no violent crime here, and the medical care one might receive is among the finest in the world. Apart from standing in long lines, getting in was no problem. My only real concern is any hassle we may receive when we seek to re-enter the United States, in our current, mad climate.


Last semester I taught a course in 20th Century History and Literature in English, and it feels useful to be in a place that I had only taught from books—the role that Cuba played in the Cold War as Kennedy took over from Eisenhower and Castro’s revolution came down from the hills to wipe out the Mafia casinos and help to create Las Vegas. We are encouraged to visit Santa Clara, the region where the revolution really took off. The main town there features a drag queen party on Saturday nights, and we want to see it.


We both are traveling as educators—my wife Shanta has a social justice curriculum that she teaches. I have no interest in current politics during this trip. I can’t pretend to know how things are working that way in Cuba right now, and no one talks about politics here. I am deeply weary of American politics after the past year and need a break. I am sure there are things to criticize about Cuban political culture, and one has the sense that a certain level of surveillance is the norm. It is nothing like the current disregard of democratic norms that have been visited on U.S. political culture, with our interface of economic power and political power.


I do know these statistics. The average life expectancy in Cuba, at about 80 years, exceeds that of the United States. Infant mortality is low—just 4.6 per 1000 births. College education is free. So is health care. The arts are subsidized, so that anyone can afford to buy tickets to the theater or a musical event—no $2,500 tickets for a musical like Hamilton. There are three times as many doctors to citizens in Cuba than there are in the United States. Some doctors drive cabs in the evening to eke out their income here.


Scarcity is the norm here, too. The local market in a well-off neighborhood has almost nothing that one is accustomed to buy with ease—no eggs or cheese, for example. There is a queue to buy what little meat has come in, and no fresh vegetables, although one can find some of these from street vendors in this new quasi-capitalist opening. We stood in line for an hour to buy the WiFi cards that would let us access the internet, and had to show our passports to purchase them. It is a very poor country in many ways. Most of the cars on the street pre-date the revolution of 1959.


The art scene is vibrant. A younger generation seems to have taken advantage of the political opening in the past decade here. When we were in Detroit last summer we learned about some cooperative efforts between Cuban artists and artists in Detroit trying to build a culture of the arts in that benighted American city. One can see how central the arts are to the way in which culture is developing in Havana.


We have only been here a couple of days. Christmas is coming in a day, but one barely notices it—none of that muzak in the stores, no pressure to buy meaningless gifts. I can’t tell how deeply Catholicism has been eradicated, though it is clear that Santeria—a syncretic Christianity extending to African roots--still is strong here. These are just first impressions. It is a fine, safe place, filled with music, friendly people, and an egalitarian sense that makes the relative ease we have as people who budgeted for a trip here seem just fine.


I have decided to write a series of letters from Havana as one way to process my experience, as I use this college break to work on a book that I am trying to finally complete. I will send another letter soon.