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)...do 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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