Taxi Rides and Phone Calls

Excerpt from my journal:

July 2, 2012

I woke up at 8:45am and sat in bed reading until 9:30. I made it to breakfast by 9:45 and was out the door and walking by 10:15.  I ran around the city trying to find a telephone, first starting in my room—dialing and only getting the busy signal–, then moving downstairs and asking at the front desk. There they told me they couldn’t spare the line since there was only one. I ran out my hotel, crossed the Prado, walked three blocks, entered into the Hotel Sevilla and they confirmed my suspicions: they had no way to help me, no phones were working. I hustled over to Hotel Inglaterra, where they ushered me outside and told me that phones were only privileged to guests. Outside,  I paid one pesos worth of money for a five cent call and then lost the 95 cents altogether. The call never went through, but my money was taken and no phone lines were available, anywhere.  I was stuck. I would have to go to the Instituto de Literatura y Linguistica without knowing if they had approved me as a researcher worthy of using their collection.

Outside, by the telephone, a bici taxista (bike taxi) stood and motioned me over to his bike. I was already exhausted and sweating from the telephone debacle.  I asked him how much a ride to the instituto would cost and he told me 5 CUC. I wanted to stay under 10 CUC a day and  thought there was no way to do that by paying that much on one taxi ride. 5 CUC to ride only 2 miles? As I walked away, he yelled, “3 koo!” which means 3 CUC and I gave in. I gasped out my exhaustion, while the heat enveloped me. If someone else could help me find relief from the swelter of the air, I was willing to pay.  He started “driving” and we headed over towards the road that splits Habana in half. The division lets one know they are entering into the outskirts of Habana Central and leads into the more suburban area of Vedado. At this divide, there is a third area, Cerro, that exists south of Habana, a neighborhood that is never-outrightly-admitted- as-such, but most definitely an all-black neighborhood, whose main road is named Belascoain. Today, we weren’t going to Cerro, we were just going to look at it. Raul, the taxista, was going to huff and puff his way through it. He was going to murmur to himself about the sluggish movement of the people around him, “actuan como si no estuvistes ahi, tratando trabajar. Que se mueven! Cono! Que? Que no tienen algo mas que hacer? Que no trabajan?”

He turned at Teatro Tacon, biking alongside the outside of the building. I pointed out a large plot that looked to have once been the foundations of a building; parts of the building’s skeleton hung from above, while other sections randomly dangled underneath the massive tomb of some old home. I yelled at the taxista, “Que es eso? Parte del edificio (What is that? Part of the building?)?” He responded with a shrug, “si, todo se esta derrumbiendo… lo vas a ver (yes, everything is crumbling, you will see).” And from that point on, he would bike and show me anything that was falling— buildings, birds, refrigerators (yes, I saw a refrigerator— staircases are often too thin to lower large appliances through them), peso pizzas (being lowered to customers in a box on a string), soapy water, hanging laundry, dogs’ hallowed barking, gum from children’s mouths, dead flowers and leaves swaying to the ground. He pointed to everything and nothing, and I would actively follow his fingers in an attempt to take in my environment.  On the Calle Reina, he pointed off to his sides, the right side mostly (he seemed to favor holding the bike with his left), places that were falling in and around people. He told me a story about how two months earlier, a building on Calle Infanta, had completely imploded into itself. The building collapse killed six people, “mato a seis personas, nenes y todo.” With a shushing of his voice, he quietly turned back, looked at me (while entering into the traffic of a busy streets), pressed his pointer finger over his lips and signaled a “shhhhhhhhh”. He paid attention to the road once again, cursed slow moving passersby, and once we crossed the intersection, he hushed at me, “pero no se publica nada de eso aqui. Solo se sabe.”  Almost immediately, he hailed the bike taxi to a rude stop. We were almost hit by a teal chevy.

We turned on Galiano towards the Calle Carlos III and, as we turned, a huge pile of garbage stood in the middle of the street. The pile contained old cascaras of fruit, shit, rubble, flies feasting, slush, dirt, dirty clothes, towels and soot. Raul pointed as he biked, and did so long enough that he twisted his arm awkwardly into a backwards position to make sure his opinion and focus were noticed by his client (me).  He then yelled at someone in front of him. Someone who he seemed to know, but who he might not have known given the custom in Cuba to talk to strangers as you would close friends. Since we were in an alley, and not in open view of a public street, he felt comfortable. He stopped the bike suddenly and told the man, “le esta ensenando la miseracordia de todo aqui. Ves (I am showing her all the misery here, see?) ?” The man nodded in acknowledgement and continued to walk, stepping past the smelly pile of shit, soot, dirt, flies and fruit. Raul looked back at me, once again, shrugged his shoulders and thrust the bike back and forth, attempting to gain enough momentum to get us away from the trash.

As he sweat and grimaced, he spoke to me as if I were a counselor. He told me, what I believed were, his thoughts stated out loud. While I wanted to hear his voice, I felt like an intruder: slinking against a closed door, listening to the quiet sounds of two intimates speaking. I was not sure that I was supposed to hear his words. I was not sure I was supposed to speak and understand spanish as well as I did (in his mind). I was not even sure he was speaking to me.

“Uno se tiene que trabajar bien duro para sobrevivir aqui…. para comer cada dia.Y que paso con lo que te da el gobierno? Bueno, te digo, es para muy poco, muy poco, eh? Se tiene que salir y hacer los trabajos. Se tiene que hacer algo para no temor por el hambre. Se tiene que inventar, siempre.” (One has to work hard to survive here….. to eat every day. And what about the money from the government? Well, I will tell you, it is very little, very little, eh? You have to leave and make work. You have to do something to not feel hunger. You have to invent something, always.)

I interrupted his talk: “Cuanto necesitas para sobrevivir normal aqui?” (How much do you need to survive an average life here?)

“2000 pesos nacionales para comer normal, sin gusto pero normal.” (2000 national dollars to eat like normal, without flourishes, but average.) 24 pesos equals 1 dollar or CUC.

“Cuanto te dan cada mes?” (How much do they give you every month?)

“Depende, pero 250 hasta 500 (about 25 CUC or 25 dollars US), depende de persona y de trabajo.” (Depends, but 250 to 500 national dollars, but it depends on the person and the job).

“Entonces, que haces si no trabajas con CUC?” (So what do you do if you don’t work in an area where you can get CUC?)

“Te lo mandan o uno se pone a coquetear, inventar.” (Well, you are called upon or you decide to flirt or invent something.)

“De verdad? Se puede hacer sin CUC o personas afuera? Que hacen los viejos?” (Really? Can you make it without CUC or people sending remittances? What do the elderly do?)

“Se ponen en las calles, pidiendo favores. Ponen tienditas enfrente sus casas, piden los vecinos o la familia. Bien dificil, de verdad, duroooooooooo (his finger pointing up in the air while saying this and maneuvering the bike) sin el dinero del CUC o de la familia de otro lugar.”  (They go out into the streets, asking for favors, begging. They make stores in front of their houses, they ask neighbors or family. It is very difficult, to be honest. Harrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrd, without the money of tourists or without family abroad.)

Raul was sweating by the end of our two mile trip. I decided to give him the 5 CUC. He had five daughters and three were very young. His clothes were torn, I noticed his shoes had holes and he had tried very hard to keep me happy on our trip. He smiled for a picture. You can find that picture below.

I entered coral facade building of the Instituto de Literatura y Linguistica, and asked to speak to the main librarian. Yolani came out of her office and let me know that confirmation about my ability to access the library would be late. She was not sure when she would receive news and suggested I call them. I told her my issues with making phone calls and she assured me that surely I could find a phone, somewhere, in the city. I asked if I could make a phone call from her office and she told me all phone lines were down in her building. I was dumbfounded by the irony. How can I make a phone call to the building, if phone lines are down in it?  As we did our despididas, she reminded me to call either the following day or wait three days and return. I turned around, 10 minutes after my bici ride, and walked 2 miles back to my home. Image

The Malecon

Return in the time of cholera: Havana, Cuba

          I walked through US customs, down the hall, and out the electric doors into the Los Angeles sunlight. I was excited to see my mother.  My mother, upon seeing me, both smiled and then winced. She looked at my face and condition. Her first words to me, after 5 weeks of absence, were, “Pareces como si estuvistes barriendo las calles por propinas (You look like you have been sweeping the streets for tips).” I shrugged and agreed, only to respond, “I actually looked pretty well-kept in Cuba. I was noticeably more well-kept than the others there.” Mami made a reluctant I-don’t-want-to-believe-that “pssshhhh” noise, waved at me with disregard, clicked her heels together, and began to move towards the garage. While she was happy I was home, she was not about to get dirty for our ride home to San Diego.

         Mami knows Cuba; she was born there. And while I was not born there, I was always told I was displaced from my heritage– I was supposed to be born there. Because I missed my birthright, I dedicated my life to Cuba– learning about the island, writing about the island, getting my doctoral degree in history on Cuba, and making as many people aware of the island, its situation and possibilities. I never felt outright American; Mami was Cuban, Papa was Cuban (and part of the ranks of children who came on the Peter Pan flights), my great uncle was a great Cuban war hero and political leader (Manuel Sanguily), both abuelitas and abuelitos were Cuban– I was seriously displaced. My displacement made me feel as if I was born in a plane and then parachuted from the sky, only to land on earth for the first time by chance. I was a duck out of water, a baby fallen from the sky. Before my birth, my life was displaced and relocated from my rightful birthplace. So I made it my job to return to my homeland. I made it my goal to find the place of rhythm, sun, guava, heat, rooftop restaurants, palmeras and the Godfather II. 

          While I traveled to Cuba before, this time was different. I was alone and being a woman, alone, in Cuba is, in and of itself, a difficult task. The machismo of the 50s is still very present. The practical reality of this machismo means that knees turn heads, let alone shoulders, arms, thighs, necks, breasts and any other body part that might need air in 90+ heat. Men ask you if you need help, given you are alone. When you answer that you are fine, their automatic response is, “You are beautiful.” As if that were the kind of reassurance one needed or wanted.  I know I am beautiful; I don’t need your approval. 

The little annoyances were not going to deter me from my main objective: finish researching and collecting documents to finish my dissertation. Each day, I would walk from Havana Central, onto the Prado, through Parque Central, across the Plaza to Calle Obispo, turn right at Compostela, passing Convento Belen, traversing stagnant pools of water, mold, gaping holes in the cement, dog diarrhea and feces, strewn old fruit, fruit sellers, the man who worked on cleaning a home filled with trash and barbed wire, metal and fences, until I reached, 35 minutes later, the Archivo Nacional de Cuba.

By the time I would enter the Archivo, I was covered with the soot of the city. Dirt, grime, tiny little flea-like animals radiating around my skin, sweat-covered arms, and achy feet would accompany me the next 6 hours as I poured over the pages of 19th Century documents. Refuge only found in looking at the other researchers, feeling miserable and looking as beaten as myself. Exasperated and hot, constantly washing their hands in the stinky bathroom’s washbasin, pointing me to that same bathroom and stating the bathroom wasn’t so bad if one could just, “hold your breath.”

           This was my routine for a month in Cuba.  This is generally the routine of most women researchers in Cuba; sparing individual differences, of course.  I had experienced the grittiness of the city before, but this time it felt more strident, more pulsant, more unpleasant than ever before. When I told a colleague of mine, after working in the archive all morning, “Doesn’t the city seem dirtier than usual?” She responded, “Of course.” I was not sure what she meant by her “of course” but I didn’t interrupt our conversation. She was actively involved with our chatter and she was about to surprise me with a statement:

“You know there is cholera, right?”

Immediately, I remembered the uproar over cholera in Haiti after the earthquakes. I became whoozy with dizzying, anxiety-ridden thoughts. I began envisioning pictures and videos from the Congo on the cholera epidemic in that distant country. I imagined black toes and finger tips. I felt fever and sweat on my forehead. I thought back to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book and looked at my colleague in disbelief, “Cholera? Really?” She looked at me dead-on, “Yes, we all need to be careful. No love affairs, no tap water, no off-the-street drinks, and no hanging out with sick people. The official reports from the Cuban government are that it is only taking place in Matanzas, but there exist some reports of possible cases in Havana and in Cienfuegos.”  

“How do you know of the possible cases?”

“They announced it on the news, but they made it sound like it wasn’t serious. As if cholera was….somehow…. not serious. But, furthermore, I heard from friends in Cienfuegos, and my hosts tell me, that everyone is whispering about possible cases in Havana. Technically, we shouldn’t be talking about this. So let’s whisper.”

I began to whisper.

“So how do we prevent ourselves from getting cholera? The water touches everything, there are pools of muddy water on the streets and dripping from the buildings. I don’t know how one can evade the problem.”
Lacie whispered, “I don’t know how to prevent it. Maybe, just, think about it all the time and watch your hands and mouth?”

We walked along the dusty streets, careful to press our lips together as we saw water dripping from above, soot shifting into the air with each of our shuffling steps. We spoke about Haiti and how close Cuba resembled the island before the earthquake.  “But Haiti never had cholera until after the earthquake, Lacie.”

“Haiti had cholera before and after the earthquake. But the earthquake made cholera relevant. Supreme desperation and poverty made Haiti relevant. Cuba’s problems aren’t relevant yet, because complete and total destruction has not completely taken over the city. When all the buildings have fallen, when floods swallow the city, when rubble is on every corner and not every third corner, then Cuba will be recognized. A state of emergency will be sounded. But we have to reach complete destruction before that can happen.”

“But everything (the implication is on the island) is destroying itself, at the moment. Cuba is filthy, people are dirty, sick and hungry.”

“It doesn’t matter. The government will cover it up until they can no longer hide the damage. And the world will pretend it is not happening until total catastrophe makes it utterly immoral to look away. We need a catastrophe. This country needs a natural disaster.”

I had a love/very discouraged (not quite hate) relationship with my researcher friend. We had very different ideas about life on the island– I detested the circumstances of the island. Meanwhile, she both detested and enjoyed the current circumstances of Cubans. She benefited from the poverty of the island. She used its poverty to her benefit.  I vehemently tried to live outside of this poverty. I tried to seek comfort at each turn, I never approved of the poverty I saw, nor tried to get around the rules and “live as the Cubans” i.e. use their currency which, literally, equated to living from penny to penny, rather than dollar to dollar. I did not research during the day only to party at night. I never bled Cuban friends for their goods or dangled my money, as a sort of ill-determined promise, in their faces. I worked hard, kept to myself, struggled and lived in a “I-will-not-subject-myself-to-this-awful-state-rationed-food” sort of hunger. While I was on the island to research, I did not enjoy what the Cubans’ poverty could offer me as a foreigner.    

 Suffice it to say, Lacie and I often agreed, but more often disagreed, in our opinions of the island. Lacie, despite stating these opinions, had an odd love with the island and its men. She participated, passively, in the indescribable, ill-defined, yet-defined, prostitution, poverty and hardship of its people. She enjoyed visiting the island. She enjoyed dating the men and paying for their meals, drinks, in a quiet exchange for love and sex. She used the men as she used her Cuban friends, making “friends” with families as a means to obtain things cheaper than in the tourist dollar (convertible). She justified her actions by saying they used her as well. They used her for sex and company. She used them for sex and company. Suffice it to say, she was like many tourists on the island.

She would proceed to tell me I needed to make “connections”. Make life easier for myself. She believed love and friendship crossed all borders and boundaries, race, color, nationality, creed–citizen to tourist. I believed all the same things, except love passing between Cuban citizens and Cuban tourists.  There are exceptions, of course. But that relationship, in my experience, was always dependent on money. What drink I could buy them, what internet access I could make available to them, what croissant I could give them, what extra clothes could I leave for their mother; the currency for sex was no longer money, but bread and shoes.

I kept a journal while on the island and my first entry is telling. I remember my initial impressions of the city, the reminders of all the harsher elements of city-life in Cuba: the pungent smell of piss, shit, dust, moldy water and a faint hint of what smelled of dead animals, the (as one french researcher put it) aggressive state of poverty and the constant panhandling of merchandise and one’s self on the island. My entry stated, “I do not approve of any of this. I do not approve of my existence on the island, I do not approve of the way people must live on the island, I do not approve of what people need to do to survive on this island, I do not approve of the close to apartheid-like system (Dual-currency system, the haves and the have nots, the Cuban citizens and the tourists) which separates the population at all points in their daily lives. I do not approve of the tourists who spend their money and vacations here overlooking citizens’ quality of life only to enjoy and benefit for themselves the luxuries that are restricted to Cuban citizens because of their government-imposed poverty. I will use this time to write about what Cuba’s reality entails. I will write about the Cuba I see, not as a tourist, but as a researcher.”

When asked about my trips to the forbidden island, I always feel embarrassed by how negative my descriptions of the island sound. However, I don’t know how else to state the truth and so I always chime, as afterthoughts, “Havana is very safe, there are no drugs and very little domestic violence.” Those are clarifying statements, phrases used to comfort my friends and the listeners of my travels. But I find that those statements are misleading.  My “returns” to Cuba are never some glorious return to a beautiful nation and tropical island. Rather, they are a return to a ghost city, a city whose past constantly lives amidst the present. As a result, as I walk the city, I constantly feel haunted myself: as if all the refugees in the United States, their family members who died in the Revolution, and those who died in the many wars that preceded the 60s, somehow still walk the choleric streets of Havana today.