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Holguin and Gibara

    The flashy mini skirts and platform shoes of '01 and '02 were almost gone in Havana '04, replaced by subdued pastels and sensible cuts and shapes, still very-chic, I thought. Newer generations of houses being built faster than ever all over Cuba in '04 looked better, too. But renovation in the capital was getting slicker in a glib, California way that threatened to make Habana Vieja a generic destination, and a sudden burst of construction at the west end of the malecon seemed to be following suit. Traffic was increasing in Havana and everywhere. The public transit system had improved in part and regressed in part. Computer access was spreading and about to explode, and bureaucratic involvement with that was as parentally schizophrenic as it always is about interaction with the outside world, over-controlling here, surrendering there, tacitly encouraging somewhere else, everywhere obviously simultaneously sponsoring and smothering.
    Unfortunately, Cuban paranoia had been reinforced in '03 (the year I wasn't there) by a series of terrorist hijackings sponsored in Florida and Washington and egged on by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and the most visible result was that, for the first time, I could see the butts of the cops' pistols sticking out of their holsters In '00, '01, and '02, most cops had been unarmed and the older, better trained exceptions wore such tiny holsters containing such tiny guns, I'd had to look close to see them or ask the cops themselves if they had guns. But now they were carrying bigger, very visible pistols - a clear message to dissidents or visitors from Miami dreaming of stirring up an international incident.
    Cooks in state restaurants were outcooking the private paladars. But proliferating private sidewalk stands pushing sweet doughy concoctions that did nothing for me were turning on the Cubans, who had become a population of munchers on the walk. Prices were going up in the mercados, where in '02 things had cost the same in centavos as they did in cents in California, so Cubans, who've gotten used to eating well in the 00's, were complaining. Cuban adults looked to me to be getting generally fatter, though, while the flocks of kids in red and white and teens in yellow and white on their way to school all looked as healthy and happy as ever.

    I flew from Havana to Holguin in May '04 at the end of a long winter drought that had changed the colors of Cuba's central plains. Flying toward Baracoa two years before, in '02, I'd seen green on green on green. But, from the sky, I'd been unable to see the damage and destruction of thousands of homes caused by hurricanes that must have contributed to all that brilliant green. In '04, I was looking at black and orange fields and white pastures, and even the thirsty patches of woods looked paler, and what I couldn't see wasn't there. One of the island's three growing seasons hadn't happened.
    In Havana and Nueva Gerona, on the Isle of Youth, the veggie mercados had blamed higher prices on the drought. But some people who had dollars and were becoming tight with them just because they had them were inspired by their Miami relatives and underground propaganda coming through the U.S. Interests Section to blame the government. Cuba suffers double from natural disasters - first from the force of the cyclone winds or blazing sun and second from the cunning critics who blame everything - hurricanes, drought, fallen houses and risen prices on communism. But the highly organized socialist system had been rapidly repairing and replacing knocked-down houses when I was there in '02, and I was sure they'd adjust just as well to the effects of the drought.
    To my California eye, the dormant fields beside the long, straight country lane leaving the Holguin airport looked like home, and the small city of parks and trees, shrubs and lawns, reminded me a bit, as it always does, of old Sacramento or Stockton, more compact, cleaner, and (of course) minus the California homeless.
    My taxi stopped at a southside house with an upstairs two bedroom apartment for rent. There was no other roomer so I had the kitchen and bath to myself. But I only had half of the big upstairs veranda, the other half being fenced in to form a giant bird cage. A lot of homes in Cuba have bird cages. This one was as landscaped as an aviary in the San Diego zoo, and the birds knew no songs about drought or high prices.
    I didn't use the upstairs kitchen, but having it to use reminded me that, even after two previous times through Holguin, I still hadn't seen any mercados, and I decided to look for one, but not to shop. I prefer to get out of my lodgings in Cuba and walk around looking for elusive mercados and/or whatever, to see more places, houses, worksites, etc. and to ask a lot of talkative Cubans for directions. So I found the Gibara bus station on Lonely Planet's little ('00 edition) map and then tried to get there by cutting across a residential quarter I hadn't seen before, looking for stray mercados along the way.
    It's better than probable in Cuba that if I stop and study my map, somebody will want to help, we'll talk, and I'll add something to my stock of island information. On a Holguin side street in '01, we were invited in for coffee by a man who showed us clippings proving he was famous for spending several days in a grave in the 50's, buried alive by his friends to hide him from Bautista's police. He'd given us each a coin minted in the first years of the revolution to remember him by. In '02, an old man who'd seen my dismay when the immigration office turned up missing had led me to his son-in-law's house where he'd borrowed a bicitaxi to peddle me to a leafy neighborhood where the office had been relocated. The migra had been just as friendly but not nearly as helpful.
    In '02, I'd had no problems in Cuba except with bureaucracies that didn't work the way I thought they should, and '04 was turning out the same. When all the zigzag directions from citizens as geographically challenged as Americans but eager to tell me something just to be friendly finally led me (past a neighborhood mercado which I put on my map for later) to the bus station, I found a bus bureaucracy there designed to divide and conquer tourists. It probably depends on what day you go to the chaotic depot on Libertadores, but the last woman I encountered there that day (after several people sent me back and forth, wildly contradicting each other) was adamant that that depot is only for Cubans.
    "So how do tourists get to famous tourist resorts like Guardalavaca and Gibara?" She shrugged her shoulders. The answer is that they rent cars, take taxis, find a different person in charge on a different day, or bluff better than I did. Hitchhiking might be tough on those lightly travelled northern roads.
    Of course, friendly Cubans listening in, who have learned from experience that the best way past a bureaucratic snarl is an end run, told me I could stand by the street a block away to the west and pay the driver of the Gibara bus when I got on, just as easily as any native. But, with my backpack, though I survived the much tighter busses of Nicaragua in the '80's, I'm getting too old for that if there's another way. I wanted a seat.
    So an hour later, after using the internet in the Hotel Pernik, I decided to take a taxi back downtown and tell the driver my problem. No taxis appeared, but a bicitaxista, who wasn't supposed to carry tourists but who was there, had all the answers. During the long detour he struggled up to avoid cops (who wouldn't have bothered him anyway) and to get a downhill slope all the way to the center of town (what struggles up must coast down), he told me he had a taxi driver friend who could take me to Gibara on his day off for a bargain rate, and he also had a relative who rented rooms in Gibara, and he would later come by my house, which he knew from my description, and give me her card.
    Leaving the Pernik, we passed a cluster of modern high-rise condos - near sky-scrapers - which, except for the wash hanging off the balconies, look like desirable addresses. You can see similar tall clusters of upscale edificios in Cienfuegos and Santiago. I don't like any edificios, but I'm glad to see them getting better, and along the long detour I saw a section of small, fairly new ones, as neat and clean as everything else in Holguin. Coasting down the old residential street to Central Park, we passed numerous single family homes that could have been in Lincoln Village in Stockton. In '01, a woman near one of the downtown parks had insisted on showing us how poor she and her home were, but she must have hoped we'd be blinded by her fast talk, because we couldn't see anything wrong with her place and we refused to join other foolish tourists who'd undoubtedly given her handouts.
    Cubans consider Holguin the island's most beautiful city. I think Cienfuegos is, but Holguin's airport is international. From Toronto, you can fly directly into Holguin, and if all tourists did that, the general impression of Cuba would be mirror reversed. Holguin does not look anything like America's media packaged image of Cuba. Neither does most of Cuba. But if Cason had to meet Bush in Holguin and show his boss some oppression and suffering, after one 360 rotation on their four bootheels with their eyes open in broad daylight, both their lying hearts would sink.
    Holguin is not only a beautiful city to live in, tourists from, say, the San Joaquin Valley, who want to know Cuba and aren't just looking for a party, should find it as comfortable as their own home towns. For one thing, the Mayabe brewery is there, so it's one place where I know I won't have to settle for Cristal, and from Parque Calixto Garcia, one of Holguin's three central parks, where I sought a bench to rest up from being pedalled around in the sun, I could see the Begonia beer garden next to the Casa de la Trova on Maceo Street.
    Most shady bench space in the park was filled by old men talking, mothers in pairs watching their kids, couples and groups. Some women walking through carried umbrellas against the sun. Everybody looked as content as a cat on a couch. There were no derelicts sleeping on the grass and no beggars or jineteros. But when I'd found a shady spot for myself, stretched my legs and looked around, I saw three young chicas, on a bench near the general's statue, as modishly dressed as if they'd just arrived from Paris, one with (oh!) Spanish eyes boldly eying me, probably because, old as I am, I was the only tourist in sight.
    Holguin isn't Havana or Santiago or Baracoa. It's a country city. There's not much action there. In '01, after the Casa de la Trova had proven an over-amplified bust, it had cost me and a younger, more romantic travelling companion as much ingenuity and persistence as it would have in Fresno to pick up two girls on the plaza, share a drink and some outrageous flirting in a side street cantina, and deadend against their inability to visit our rooms under Cuba's girlfriend rules because (maybe conveniently), neither could produce a carnet.
    So I wasn't surprised when the glamorous trio didn't immediately abandon their own place in the shade and follow their eyes over to mine. Instead, two little boys presented themselves so one could prove to the other that he could speak English. "Do you speak English?" he asked, pronouncing the words perfectly. "Yes," I said, "Do you speak English, too?" "Yes," he said. I waited. "Thank you very much," he said and walked away with his admiring friend.
    Later, after discovering that at least the downtown branch of Cuba's new seafood chain, DiMar, is one of the state restaurants surpassing paladars now, and much much later, after forsaking the still too-loud Casa de Trova for a cup of coffee at the glistening modern Cafeteria Cristal, I was abruptly surrounded by the three models from Paris. As I waved off the counterman, on his way over to rescue me and chase them out, they marched from the door to my table and brazenly took over the other three chairs, asked my name and told me theirs. They were from somewhere else, for sure, since they clearly didn't know any other drinkers or diners and their bold arrival and immediate propositions were not the kind of behavior teens and twenties exhibit in their home towns.
    I offered to buy them a drink instead (which didn't make the counterman happy), and while they sipped their tuKolas asked where they came from. "Not here," the one with the (oh!) Spanish eyes said, making sure I didn't underestimate them, but one of her shyer sisters or friends boasted that they were from Aguas Claras, which I guessed from her tone was an exclusive enclave. Since they were pretending to be so bold and blunt, or at least their leader was, I cheerfully told them what kind of impression they were making, trying to take the edge off by making a friendly joke of it, but Spanish Eyes, irrepressibly ignoring my discourse, insisted in a low undertone only I could hear, "Glen...Glen...(and in English) you want fucking me or not?"
    I corrected her verb form and explained the importance of getting it right because her question, while it might seem charmingly bold correctly phrased, was made merely crude by the error. She ignored most of that, repeating her query while I was still talking, in the same insistent undertone, using the correct infinitive this time. I told her I don't pay for sex and, not forgetting her soda, she made a great show of stomping out the door, though not for long. I'd barely learned from the others that they were 17, 19, and 21, Spanish Eyes being the oldest, when she came back and, ignoring the conversation, started the insistent undertone again, "Glen... Glen... (and in Spanish now) Can't you give us $5 for a taxi to get home?"
    "Five dollars?!!?" Cuban city busses cost 20 centavos (8/10 of a cent according to the bank but obviously as good as $1.25 in San Francisco), and two weeks before, I'd gotten from the south coast to Havana, travelling like a Cuban in a camion, for one peso, so I suggested they take a bus - or walk. She said the city busses don't go to Aguas Claras, it was too late for an inter-urban, and they didn't know where to find a camion even if there was one. I felt bad not relenting, and I still do, thinking back on it. They were foolish kids whose adventure in the big city had flopped, and I could have walked them to a taxi to make sure the fare was right and not misspent. I'm not kidding. I still feel bad about being so tough with them, but what was was, and, much to the counterman's relief, they left. And I walked a long way home myself, where my hosts gave me the card the bicitaxista had left for me and his promise to show up in the morning with his friend.
    And he did. The car wasn't a taxi, though there was a dubious looking "taxi" placard lying on the dash. But I'd already called and reserved my room in Gibara; the guy's ID proved he WAS a cab driver; if I'd toted my backpack downtown and sweated all the way around each of Holguin's three central parks talking to taxi drivers, if I found any to talk to, all but the last one would tell me he wasn't authorized to make that trip; and the last one would put me in touch with a friend who had the day off. The tantalizing capitalistic bubble around tourism was the government's idea. I wanted to get to Gibara.
    There are only two regular highway checkpoints in Cuba that I know of - on the freeway to the east and the west of Havana. They aren't military, like checkpoints in the rest of Latin America. They're Transport Ministry checkpoints to see if taxis are carrying passengers not on their manifests or if private cars are acting as unlicensed taxis. Every wildcat taxi I've ridden has easily bypassed them. Looking down from a domestic overflight, I'm always reminded by the network of roads below of the ubiquitous checkpoints of the Mexican and Central American police states that wouldn't work if there were so many ways around them. I don't know about side roads and farm roads north of Holguin, but I assumed there'd be no checkpoints to worry about, because Cuba isn't that kind of country.
    So I made sure my hosts got a look at the driver (they knew him of course), nixed the company of another guy who came with him, and went. The other guy's feelings were understandably hurt, since Cuba isn't that kind of country, either. It may have fewer robbers, even, than it has cops. But I'm not Bruce Lee, so I take precautions like that when I can. The driver got over it and, on our way, I got what information he had about the countryside and Gibara, which wasn't much and which contradicted my outdated Lonely Planet on only one point - he said the hotel mentioned in the guide was long defunct.
    About a third of the way along the 23 miles of country road, we passed through Aguas Claras, a gathering of farm houses around an intersection. "So this is Paris," I laughed, and when I explained it to the driver, he told me, "These campesinos all have a lot of money to buy their daughters nice clothes from robbing the rest of us in the mercado."
    I seldom see more cheerful people than the mercado merchants and their prices in '04 encouraged me to see his point. I've never seen exactly why Cuba allows free farmers' markets. I've read Medea Benjamin's account of how they shuffled policies back and forth in the 70's and 80's until something seemed to work. But they shouldn't have done that. A communist state should have state markets, and they should have figured out how to MAKE state markets work, and that's that.
    To encourage farmers to produce better tomatoes by letting them indulge in a little capitalism is to surrender socialism. The problem of motivation has to be dealt with some other way. Actually, the only logically defensible motivator in a communist system is a guarantee of real equality. Obviously, the chief factor motivating complaints in Cuba is continuing inequality. The capital of communism is participation. Cubans need to understand that, but they also need to know their investment of participation will help build an equal society. Communism can't be pie in the sky. It has to work. You can't bravely tear down all the shanties and then chicken out of tearing down all the mansions and eliminating all the pork barrels. Why start a communist revolution at all if you don't mean it?
    The people should be taught that the capital of communism is participation and that the profit is an equally good life for everyone. Farmers are no more special as participants than are carpenters or doctors or teachers and they should get the same salary as anyone else. I've argued this point with Cubans who disagree with me, and I've argued it with Cubans who agree with me, and I'd like to argue about it with Fidel - though mainly just to meet and talk to Fidel. I'd like to be a force for rational change, but I don't expect it anymore. I travel and look around me because I want to learn. I say what I think because of an irrepressible urge to articulate what I've learned - because that's me - because that's what I do.
    In Gibara I learned that any Americans actually reading or watching the news just then were being told Cuba was in a state of panic and near revolt - the very Cuba I was in and which looked perfectly calm to me. On the yellow screen of the town's only public computer, a plastic dinosaur in the post office, I found an E-mail from home telling me U.S. media were reporting a near rebellion in Cuba as dollar stores were closed, their doors posted with threats that all the prices would be up as much as 30% when they re-opened.
    The message was dated the day before and was about the day before that, when I'd still been in Havana and had gone into several open dollar stores looking for liquid Dial soap, which I finally found in the pharmacy of a hospital on the west side of Vedado.
    A European couple in another room at my lodging house in Gibara, who'd just arrived from Santiago, said they had seen tense crowds outside dollar stores there, but they didn't speak good Spanish, so I sprinkled their report with the salt of my own experience that crowds outside dollar stores are easy to see, and tension isn't. It was Sunday in Gibara, but the few dollar stores there had been open the day before. So had the stores in Holguin, and I'd seen no warning signs.
    Our hostess's daughter told us it wasn't actually fiction but she and everyone else knew about it and it was not a big deal. Not all prices were going up, 10% would be the biggest increase for the things most people buy, and anything more than that would be for non-essentials.
    The store in Gibara opened as usual on Monday. I bought toothpaste and a small, narrow towel (to cut into 2 washrags). Each purchase was 90, up, they told me, from 80 on Saturday. Only some prices had so far been raised. The clerks said only clothes and appliances would go up a lot. Everyone shopping seemed content. In fact, when I got there, everyone in the small crowd outside politely urged me to go to the front of the line and be the first one in when the store opened. Most of them were there because they understood the new prices would be effected in stages and they wanted to buy certain things before they went up.
    Granma covered the story that day or the next, claiming to have announced it in advance (I hadn't seen it, but I took their word for it). Now an entire front page bulletin board editorial clarified that nothing vaguely critical went up over 10%. It advised Cubans with dollars to change them for pesos and take advantage of the subsidized prices in the peso economy, pointing out that milk for kids costs only 25 centavos a litre, about 1 U.S. It also pointed out that most Cubans don't have dollars, so only a minority was affected (including, it didn't say, all the internal gusanos getting money from Miami). It was a frank editorial, though it claimed, without clarifying how, that the capitalist world outside forced them to take the measure. It wasn't objective journalism. It was a notice from the state. But, truthfully, the price increase didn't cause much of a stir in Gibara. There was a small crowd around each dollar store for a few days until all the prices had gone up.
    At the hilltop palapa restaurant called El Mirador, I heard a guy bragging he got his little girl two pairs of panty hose before the prices on those contraptions went up. That may indicate how important it all was. Anyway, U.S. media neglected to follow up their story by reporting that it didn't cause a revolt and was soon virtually forgotten.
    I conscientiously checked all the peso stores, including the ration center, and found everything still affordable and some things impossibly cheap. Even perennially expensive shoes, in several perhaps scorned styles, could still be had for 80 to 100 pesos, the same as when we checked in Santiago in '01. Liquid soap with strange clusters because, the clerk giggled, it had to be constantly shaken back into shape, was so cheap I didn't bother to write down the price. Travelling through various towns and cities for the next month, I heard mention of the price increase only a few times and I saw no evidence of any significant effect on life in Cuba, where essentials are so near totally susidized that many people never use up their famously meagre salaries.
    Life, to be good, does not have to be filled with competitive stores and abundant products or "freedom" to buy what Americans have. At first glance, there's very little of anything extra in Gibara, for instance, yet life in Gibara is very good. Just in case you're dozing, HEY! You just encountered not just wisdom but very surprising anti-"free" enterprise wisdom, anti-lots that your political leaders and media chiefs (and maybe you yourself) are so smugly sure of wisdom. Go back to the top of the paragraph and read it again. Never mind. You don't have to. I'll repeat the key point. To be good, life does not have to be filled with glossy abundance or what America on any given day calls "freedom."
    I had not been in Gibara long before a small house on the bay was pointed out as the home of a European who I was told lives two lives. Hopelessly tied to family and roots and obligations, he lives one life in Europe full of all the perks so supposedly critical that the Judeo-Christian god orders U.S. presidents to force them on other countries at the point of a gun. But for decades, I was also told, he has escaped whenever possible to his more cherished life in the perkless paradise of Gibara.
    That sounds a bit apocryphal, and, of course, as some readers are wetting their pants to interject, this guy lives (less significantly than those readers imagine) in Cuba's "dollar economy," not the "peso economy." But people living entirely in Cuba's peso economy don't live badly at all, and the theme of my 45-page report "From the Andes" (also on this website), about my very recent ramble around most of the "free" enterprise democracies of South America to make the comparison, that the vast majority of Latin Americans lead much lower quality lives than do all Cubans, is objectively true.
    If the Democrats had taken back the White House and ended the embargo, allowing me to draw my pension from an ATM in Cuba, I would now be poised to apply for permission to live in my favorite Cuban town - not Gibara, but too many people already know about my favorite place, and I don't know why I'm telling you about Gibara. On my first visit, I had the town to myself, except for a series of European couples who came and went quickly because there's nothing to do there, and though I feel compelled to tell the forbidden truth about Cuba, I'd hate to see that change.

    I read about Gibara in Lonely Planet, which dwelt on the bay and the colonial houses and said (in my old edition) that there was one hotel and a restaurant. In Baracoa, Cubans told me it was like Baracoa but unknown. It sounded perfect, but coming in on the malecon, it looked very plain and dead. As we passed the quiet piers, slowing for the final curve from bay to gulf coast, the taxista pointed out the grand bayfront ruin of the hotel, long defunct and gutted by time.
    No matter; I had a reservation in the private home I'd learned of from the Holguin bicitaxista, and the town looked small enough to find it on foot wherever it was. So where the malecon turns out of the bay and crosses the foot of the main street, I paid off the taxi, got out, shouldered my pack as the cab disappeared back around the curve, and stood there absolutely alone, looking hopefully across a palmy waterfront park at what appeared to be the only restaurant and the only modern building in sight.
    The colonial front wall of the town facing the park was so grand and so quiet, except for the muffled sounds of wind and sea, it could have been a Roman ruin. So I trudged across the park to the restaurant, a plain, low institutional box on a flat rock point between the bay and the coast. There were two comedors, an empty tourist terrace closed in with lots of glass and a big view of surf bouncing along the outside edge of the point, and a viewless smaller cantina on the inland side, which, when I opened the door, I found full of local fishermen and politicians talking quietly and drinking tuKola or Cristal beer. The only employee there told me the kitchen between the two rooms was closed. "For good?" She thought it would open later. "OK, but what do I do for breakfast?"
    She didn't know, but a guy I thought was a jinetero because he was too eager to help me walked me to a bakery (where I saw nothing I yearned for) on the main street. The address I had in my pocket was on the same street. All I had to do was follow the numbers, but he insisted on walking me to the door and making sure the patrona saw him. I thanked him but didn't tip him because I didn't even need him to find the bakery, but it's too small a town to offend anyone in so I didn't tell her that.
   She had the edge after all - though maybe not so much as you think. She was house rich (which is what rich most often means in Cuba), so she could rent rooms. But she had to pay 40% taxes and share with her staff as the state directed, and her overhead included upkeep for that house, which must have gobbled up plenty. This was the house described in Chapter Seven as being so long that, entering the front door, I had the sensation of looking forever through a series of reflections of reflected mirrors. It's one of a bunch of colonial houses in Gibara that have to be classified as mansions. Before settling down, I was given a tour that included the roof, where they keep a large water tank, the laundry and clothes lines, and the family dog. I paid $20 a night, including breakfast, for four nights in a radically high ceilinged room, which I guess I shared with an almost iguana-sized lizard, though I only caught him under my pillow once, before, while chasing him round and round but not out the door, I lost track of him. While I was there, the other guest rooms drew three couples for one night apiece.
    So, in that time, the house earned $96 after taxes, which, after kicking back 10 breakfasts and the cost of bed and bath supplies to the guests and taking out for mansion maintenance, it shared between the adults in the family and at least one housekeeper, one cook, and one handyman and, if what I know of other houses I've stayed in applied, the extended families of everyone involved. Questioning people licensed to earn dollars (now convertible pesos) instead of moneda nacional in several ways in Cuba, I've found the government figures the permissible takes so closely that they actually don't get so far ahead of their neighbors as Miamistas and American media claim. Very few cheat by charging more than they write down. Maybe some waitresses make more than doctors, a popular claim by U.S. embedded journalists plagiarizing each other. But not always, and I know a popular singer in one of Havana's top clubs who, after sharing her tips with the band, makes about the same as a doctor or a cop, which is fine in a socialist system.
    In Gibara, I found the emerging class structure less problematic than the emerging internet access. There wasn't any. The yellow screened computer in the post office, reputed to be the only one in town, worked only as a word processor and to receive and send E-mail. When I clicked on "send," a ghostly yellow image of my message ripped off like a movie calendar page and fluttered swiftly off into yellow cyberspace. Neat. But that was the machine's best act, and, after my second visit, it was reportedly down until someone who knew how to heal its problems came by from somewhere else.
    I have no proof that memos from Miami regularly rehearse the faithful on designated gripes and slanders of the day, but it seems that way, and the two sob stories circulating in the U.S. when I left and in Cuba when I got there were that somebody's cousin wasn't allowed to rent a motorcycle or a jet ski reserved for tourists, and that Cubans can't use the internet. The first is a non-issue easily countered by asking: "Do you want to rent one?" The answer is no. The urge isn't genetic. It has to be energetically sold to you, and Cubans aren't afflicted with a lot of advertising. Instead, they're pro-actively taught that gas combustion toys are ecologically destructive.
    The second charge is serious but inept. Computers were initially embraced by Cuba to enhance health care and other technical sectors. Public access computer banks were established, like motorcycle and jet ski rentals, to help squeeze money from tourists for foreign exchange, and at least part of the initial tendency to restrict their use was to make sure there were enough for the tourists who wanted them. Of course, the old schizoid fear of outside influence was in the mix. But in April of '04, Nueva Gerona had two public computer places. One may have been only for E-mail. I only used the new computers at ETECSA, the phone company, which had internet access and where I was usually the only tourist in a room full of users. In Havana, all the computer banks I found in Vedado had internet access, and Cubans used them all.
    In Holguin, ETECSA had no public computers. The only ones I found were inside Hotel Pernik, where Cubans weren't likely to go. Baracoa, where I went after I left Gibara, had apartheid rules, but rules with easy loopholes. A kid who asked me to accompany him into ETECSA was well known by the staff who acknowledged my supposed role as a shoehorn but really ignored me - a bureaucratic game. Quizzing other Cubans obviously well versed on computer use, I learned in the spring of '04 that university students taking courses that include fully functioning computers can use the internet. A Moa pharmacist told me she can use the computer where she works to get the internet, and that that is common. After I left Cuba in '02, I got mail from a girl in Havana who used a full service office computer where a friend worked. Apparently there are people who have home computers because of their jobs. So Pandora's cyber-box is open and spilling copiously in spite of some fretful bureaucrats, but in Gibara, I found only the one limited and unreliable yellow screened relic in the post office.
    There are no video game parlors in town, either, but the theater is grand. "Pirates of the Caribbean" was playing for a peso. I didn't see it. I toured the clean, airy, 400-seat theater at mid-day, surrounded by the all-female staff all trying hard to sell me a ticket. One of two mature sisters, with comic femininity, urged me to visit them in their house after the matinee, giving me detailed directions, and I assured them I would, but I never did, though I was twice reminded of the invitation later by people who weren't there but knew about it.
    On the advice of the house handyman, instead of returning to the tourist restaurant for lunch, I climbed to El Mirador, a neighborhood palapa bar poised on a cliff top with a view of the town and food service from a partially peso restaurant next door if you ask. I had swordfish steak there for 35 pesos but had to drink a Bucanero for 80. So, later, I found Gibara's third eatery, one of Cuba's ubiquitous fast ham sandwich walk-up counters, with outside tables in an alcove on the Malecon in front of an amazing billboard mural showing Gibara sunk beneath the sea with only its highest towers above the water. There I had a serving tray full of fries for $1 and a Mayabe for 90.
    Two men came along with guitars and I offered them my spare chairs. I told them about my friend in Nueva Gerona who imitated Silvio perfectly, so they sang two of Silvio's songs but in their own way. Had they composed their own songs? Of course. They then accompanied each other's rendition of his own nueva cancion.
    Rolando and Felipe are a pair of Che's new men, just as generous and modest as Silvio, whose choice to stay Cuban and inside the revolution when he could be a millionaire by leaving is so famously heroic. Epicurus' assertion that there is no difference between one second and eternity is right and so is Thoreau's point that you can't go as far on foot but it takes just as long. The space and abundance we could discover on earth by conquering superstition and reducing our numbers would be exactly as valuable as all the empty planets in infinity. And the statue of Camilo Cienfuegos on the Gibara waterfront should be paired with a statue of some every-day Gibaran socialist whose sincere participation in the local system helps make it a happy village.
    Orlando is the old master. He can play tunes as well as strum and sing. He can play trova, salsa, flamenco, classical, or rock. Felipe is his earnest student who takes no shortcuts. They are dedicated to their guitars and serious troubadors to both the thin flow of tourists who come through and neighbors who always listen on the tourist's dime. They probably earned tips from some of the half dozen other tourists who bounced in and out of town while I was there. I saw them daily and we became friends, and they never asked for or talked about money or about their own economic situations, though we talked about life in Gibara. Sometimes I tipped them a dollar and sometimes I didn't. Whether they earned as much or more than the famous $8 a month each I can't guess.
    On my third night in town, as we talked and (they) sang and shared some Mayabe in front of the apocalyptic mural, a third guitarista ambled loose jointedly out of the night. At the edge of the darkness, he stopped, assumed a pose, and struck a dramatic chord - or dischord - either way, it was dramatic. Orlando and Felipe were stocky men who looked Spanish and as much like storekeepers as artists. Luis was tall and black and could only have been a showman. There was a hole in his guitar and at at least one string wouldn't adjust well. He was more a strummer and a drummer than a plucker, but he sang with flair and force, striking his strings so emphatically they had to be heard, and, having taken our fourth chair, he immediately initiated a competition.
    When they'd gone around twice, he asked me to judge, and I told him frankly what we all knew, that Orlando was the best, but if there had been a flock of teenage girls judging, they would have probably picked him. The next night would be my last in Gibara and I told them I wanted to contract a concert at the El Mirador palapa. They accepted my offer of $5 each as if it were generous and agreed to meet me there at sunset.
    They did, I bought us several rounds of Bucanero, some neighborhood families sat at the palapa's other tables just to listen (which is no problem in a state-owned bar in Cuba) and the music, interspersed with conversation joined by whoever came along, took us into the madrugada. Sheer stamina probably made Luis the star of the show. He allowed himself little time off from performing to drink and handed off each bottle he started to a bystander to finish. We walked downhill together in the still warm night and, as we reached each of their turn-offs, made promises to meet again. It was a fine and casual concert.
    But one person I'd urged to come didn't appear - an attractive woman I'd flirted with over her front fence not 100 yards from El Mirador. Maybe she was married. I liked her house. It looked like a good place to move into and stay awhile. That neighborhood, on the hilltop behind the palapa bar, is nothing like the colonial town below. It's all neat little bungalows with flowers, shrubs, and pocket lawns on a network of winding storybook lanes, unpaved but idyllic.

    That's the town's second ripple. Climbing up to it, you first pass out of the colonial center through a zone of still straight streets lined with less historic adobe cubes, some with small walled gardens and orchards, where a young man I asked about the age of the neighborhood invited me out of the sun into a cool patio. His mother brought me out a glass of lemonade while we chatted about the large gnarly citrus trees that provided the deep shade.
    In the intense heat of late morning, after my flirtation over the fence, I'd taken a literal goat trail down the other side of the hill into a fourth zone beside the western coast of small (squat I'd say), but truly ugly edificios that the government has tried to soften by almost surrounding them with mini-parks. A fat woman waved at me from a distance to take her picture and then urged me to come over and talk to her and her two laughing and dimpling neighbors. When I pretended not to believe she cooked on a single gas hotplate, she invited me into her ground floor apartment to see for myself.
    So I saw the hotplate, in a kitchen too small for a stove, though her apartment was otherwise as big as mine and, with its concrete walls, cool on that hot day. With a coat of bright white paint on the walls to match her smile, it wouldn't have looked like a cave. Cuba's apparent shortage of house paint may be more critical than the fabled but much exaggerated shortage of some medicines. There are two ways to save life. One is to lengthen it at the end. The other is to fill it in in the middle, for instance with bright white paint.
    I'd hiked every growth ring of Gibara to the west that day, and only the very last house was a shanty. An electric line reached it, maybe hijacked, but I doubted that any pipes did. I could see a kid through the door crawling on the dirt. Even if only three people lived there, it was three too many. But it was clearly an aberration - unacceptable, yet, as the only such aberration in sight, maybe the only shanty in town (there were a couple of edges of Gibara I didn't see), a positive comment on the difference between Cuba and all the rest of Latin America.
    An hour later, in the big restaurant on the rock point, scribbling notes I'd have to decipher later to type them into my pocket PC, trying to articulate my reactions to the Gibara edificios more perfectly, I found myself on the verge of a poem. So, printing neatly, I roughly completed the transition to verse and was trying to translate it into Spanish when Orlando and Felipe joined me and I asked them about some of the words. Felipe wanted to fit the poem into a song frame, and he struggled with it while I forked down a salad that was mostly cucumbers and described the solitary shanty to Orlando.
    He didn't know about it, but he told me people sometimes move to a different community and build a shanty and live in it until the state gives them building materials, and then they sell the materials and move on. That sounds complex. That it was probably the only one in town made a better excuse, because it was more certain.
    I started telling him about the worst misery I know of in Nicaragua, because Cubans, though they're shown the images on TV, unless they're old enough to remember, don't firmly believe such pain exists in the world. Neither do I when it's not in front of my face, and there in the painless Cuban town, I suddenly found it hard to talk about and had to stop. Orlando put his hand on my shoulder while I decided to leave it alone. Raw capitalism and its victims were far away.
    Felipe showed me what he'd done. He said he'd only made minor changes for the traditional Cuban song form he'd chosen, and it would still be mine, but he'd changed the images into mere foreshadows of better things to come, and I told him it wasn't my point. I know Cuba's ugliest edificios were put up as a quick fix, so all the Bautista era shanties could be expeditiously erased. I'd been told the first ones reflected the influence of the aesthetically challenged Russians, and certainly the better appearance of newer, Cuban conceived edificios supported Felipe's view that they were all transitional cocoons.
    But if a phase outlasts a life, I argued, it's not a phase. And even the landscaped Gibaran edificios look too much like the excess people warehouses that other countries use as rugs to sweep their poverty under and forget it. They aren't equal to the rest of Gibara, and this implies that some people can be disregarded, my first draft said, because someone assumes they don't know the difference.
    Felipe thought a song should be upbeat because it's a song. I reminded him of Silvio's "Y Nada Mas," and we talked about denial and reality, and he told me he'd have a better version ready to sing when we met at El Mirador. But the version he sang that night was still positive. I told him I'd surrender to the upbeat of Gibara, but he said, no, he'd work on it and when I come back again, it will be just as I wrote it - and a good song, though very sad. "Maybe I'll hear them singing it in Havana when I arrive," I said.
    That's about as exciting as my stories about Gibara get, except for the one about the lizard under my pillow. Adventure there is of a very gentle kind. I walked around a lot, read Granma every afternoon when it arrived in the comfortable little library in a colonial parlor by one of the parks, and divided my late afternoons between the three restaurants with beer because Cuba is already hot in May, and those are good places to talk to people.
    There aren't many natural trees around the town - mostly coastal brush, which gives the setting a clean look and frees the wind, so, in the afternoon, it's delicious in the open shade under an umbrella or a palapa roof. The sky seems big because there are several parks, the sea and the bay push back the horizon, and traffic was so light while I was there that I could walk down the middles of the streets, letting the tall palms lead my eyes upward, without tripping over anything or being run over.
    The main industry is fishing, which entails a daily fisherman exodus, and on Monday and Tuesday, by the time I was up and out, all the teens had gone away to the secondary school in the western suburb past the hill. I was visiting all the little museums to find somebody to talk to. I could hear the high pitched murmur of kids inside a primary school. But the center, united by its architecture and parks, was like a college campus on a weekend that I had to myself.
    The morning after the concert, though, plenty of people showed up for the bus to Holguin. I hadn't seen even a bicitaxi in Gibara and, with an hour's sleep and a headache, I couldn't think of a contingency plan if the depot masters ruled out tourists. But the bureaucracy there was like in '00 and '01. I got my ticket separately for dollars (if it was even a whole dollar - I forget) and was the only one assigned a seat, which required a weird procedure.
    The seats weren't actually numbered, so a depot guy escorted me alone onto the still empty bus and, by wrinkling his brow and squinting, divined which seat was mine, while the masses who'd paid pesos (probably one) lined up at the door to do their own divining when the same guy dropped the checkered flag. Since my seat wasn't anything special - only a space on a long side bench facing the aisle, this was merely embarrassing until the seats were full and I thought I felt dark looks from some of the standing throng in front of my knees.
    A pair of beauties got on together and one, exercising the privilege of soft curves, squeezed herself into the half-space on my left, while the other stood in front of me, making a bit more show than she needed to, I thought, of hanging on as the bus lurched out of the depot, rocked and bumped its way out of town, and then picked up enough speed to emphasize the centrifugal force of the road's own curves.
    The second time the swaying beauty almost fell into my lap, I remembered we were headed toward Aguas Claras and thought of Spanish Eyes, whose low insistent voice I could almost conjure up, urging me, "Glen...Glen...Couldn't you give me your seat?" She started making a show of getting motion sick and her friend asked if she wanted to trade places but made no move herself. The standing beauty bravely declined and I felt split between socialist poet and tired (and cynical) old man with a backpack (easier to manage sitting than standing), knowing it was still a long way to Holguin.
    Suddenly (you may not believe this, but it's true), she fell across my left shoulder, her warm soft body nestled against my chest and neck, and vomited out the window behind me - except that I felt nothing wet blown in by the wind and smelt nothing, either, and she didn't need to clean her face or chew any gum when she stood up. She's a neat vomiter I thought, but then thought, well, maybe she is. But she actually did that twice (a radically mixed experience for me, I can tell you), once over my left shoulder and once over my right, returning to her brave stand in between, while her friend kept offering to give up her own seat without actually moving. In spite of my scepticism, I was mainly just too stunned to move. But her second performance motivated the man on my right, who shared some of the soft impact, to abruptly surrender his space, which she took and, apparently fully recovered and composed, chattered cheerfully and with fresh breath across me to her friend about boys they knew for the rest of the way. The subject didn't interest me and I was too tired to join in. In fact I kept falling asleep. I didn't even see Aguas Claras.
    The daughter of the house in Gibara had reserved a room for me at a house in Holguin near the bus route, telling me the bus would first turn off Frexes onto Calle 5 and then turn off Calle 5 onto Libertadores and I should get off at the second turn. So I had to wake up and watch when we got to town and people started choosing their stops. The two beauties got up to leave me at the first of the two turns, and I said, "Buenos dias."
    "Buenos dias," the neat vomiter tossed back over her shoulder, and then, looking back again, post scripted me a clean, white smile.