Tourist Information

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Nothin wounded goes uphill… It just don’t happen.

I got stuck rereading that sentence on the plane for a long time.

For the last three years of my life I’d been following a boxer who’d risked everything to step into a smuggler’s boat and join other Cuban athletes in becoming the most expensive human cargo on earth just to have the chance of climbing wounded toward their dream. I was front row in Dallas when Guillermo Rigondeaux won a world title faster than anyone in the history of boxing. He was booed out of the stadium. He hadn’t risked anything. Mozart had opened at a Metallica concert. Nobody had ever seen anyone look so empty and resentful succeeding at their dream. Worse, hardly anyone was convinced he’d had to sell his soul to achieve anything and resented the suggestion that he had; they never believed he’d had a soul to begin with. In most people’s eyes, it seemed being a slave to an American nightmare was an improvement on living anything as ugly as Fidel Castro’s broken dream and he ought to be grateful.

I drove him and his new belt back to the hotel from the stadium that night. He barely said a word sitting in the backseat. Looking at his face in the rearview mirror, I asked him if winning a world title felt better in America than winning his first Olympic medal for Cuba. He glared at me and flashed the gold on his front teeth he’d once told me was the result of melting his first Olympic gold medal into his mouth. “Of course it’s better in America. They paid me.” I knew what he said, and the bitterly condescending way he’d said it, while not exactly inspiring, was the truth. This was the defiant headline he’d always maintained for leaving his country, the canary in the coalmine he wanted you to identify with. But I also knew the fine print for his headline: he’d never read so much as a word of a contract he’d signed in his life. Which, for my money, asked a different question of his story: is it better to be a slave in America than a slave in Cuba?

Nothin’ wounded goes uphill…

Every time I read the sentence over I imagined a different person I cared about entering the meaning as if they were entering a burning building. I imagined them violating the rule on their own terms even if they hadn’t yet, even if they’d died before they’d had a chance to.

I guess I kept reading that sentence over because it was building me up. I needed something to build me up because I was scared going into the ugly situation I was about to enter alone. Then, following the announcement our plane had begun its descent into Havana, the bald woman sitting next to me on the plane tapped my shoulder: “Are you okay?”

I shrugged while an advertisement on the screen pointed at me bragged about a company’s corporate responsibility and philanthropic exploits: The future is friendly ©

“Do you––” the woman began, smiling magnanimously and curiously pointing at my heart helpfully. “Un-der-stand––English?”

I couldn’t quite figure out if her over-enunciation implied I was deaf, a foreigner, or suffering from some longstanding severe mental handicap. Maybe I’d been pegged for the trifecta.

“I flunked it in ninth grade.”

“Oh,” she giggled. “Oh well. Well. You’re American.”

“How’s that?”

“Americans always say ninth grade, Canadians say grade nine. It’s an observation I’ve made.”

“So that’s the difference.”

“I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, but I wondered if you’d like to know why the stranger sitting next to you on the plane was returning to Havana?”

“Shoot.”

“I have a score to settle with Havana.”

I looked around at some of the other passengers on the plane. Healthy mix of agendas on all those faces. Havana’s always been a port and a crossroads at the same time.

“I’m guessing you’re not alone on that front,” I told her.

“Well, it was exactly one year ago today that I discovered a lump in my breast while I was taking a shower in an Old Havana hotel. I wanted to come back here to the same hotel, in the same room, for the anniversary as a fuck you…” She tried to cling to the anger but had some trouble with the traction. “I wanted to come back here as a fuck you to what I’ve gone through the last year fighting cancer. Because, well, I may have lost a breast and I may not be able to conceive a child anymore but guess what?”

I let out the rest of the air in my lungs and shrugged as an American Express ad glared at both of us from above my meal tray. She paused and stared at me. When I looked back at her I noticed that she looked eerily like the pretty blond my uncle had married when I was a little boy. She was the first woman I’d ever seen naked when she’d gone skinny dipping in a lagoon we’d visited one summer afternoon. I’d brought goggles I was too afraid to use in a lagoon until I knew I could swim down deep into that chilly darkness and gaze up at her with impunity. Was this… her? How long had they been divorced for?

She reached down and unzipped her bag, revealing a large box of condoms. “I can still get laid! I’m going to meet someone over there. I’m going to meet a few people maybe.”

She looked out the window with the island finally in view and smiled. “Did you know that Cubans say life is a joke to be taken very seriously?”

“When Columbus arrived they told him the island was infinite too.”

“You know, we should have dinner some night…”

***

They joke that if Spanish lacked a future tense Fidel Castro would be silenced: he’s only fluent in broken promises.

We touch down on the runway and I see the airport named after the poet Castro claimed was responsible for the last 52 years welcoming us. Miami uses the same poet in their opposition to Castro. And the same poet has a statue at the base of Central Park commemorating his time in New York that I walked past the day before. Even simple things like arriving at an airport here soak up ambiguity far too fast.

Then all those faces amidst that jungle and zoo scenery, ideas, feelings. Too many characters for any drama, let alone one that’s gone on this long. Millions of people picking at the same scab of a reality creating some of the most beautiful colors I’ve ever seen, almost to the point where I forget I’m watching something bleed and suffer. Finally a face I recognize waiting to pick me up…

I’ve been following the news. I’ve corresponded with a lot of people on the island and abroad. But what really worries me is how all over again you have to decide for yourself which the worse scenario is: crying about five times a day walking the streets of this city––60% for happy reasons and the rest for hard reasons––or being back home where you’ve walked your whole life and never cried over anything you’ve seen or felt. Which is the worse situation to be in? Which is more tragic? Is it uglier to have a sore heart all the time here or a numb heart where nothing reaches it back home?

Which brings up another funny question that turns the tables: Are you the high season crisis tourist in Havana or are they really the tourists of your crisis for being here?

I don’t want to think about it right now.

So what was I here to do again? Oh, yeah. Interview people. Interview them on camera. I mean, officially, conduct interviews on camera. Wait. You can’t do anything officially here; unless you know the right officials to bribe. But then most of the Cuban athletes themselves want bribes too. Bribe them with a hundred bucks to tell you how they turned down hundreds of millions. What’s it worth to you to meet some of the biggest uncashed human lottery tickets in the world if they only would’ve walked into the sea during their careers and washed up on American soil? What’s it worth to have them tell you how they turned down tens or hundreds of millions because of their principles and having nobody in America believe them and dismiss them as brainwashed? Between America and Cuba, who exactly has the better syrup in the Kool Aid if we can’t believe human beings can stand for anything when money is on the table? They’re telling the truth about turning down all that money and it doesn’t seem an accident to me you’ll only hear about the nominal percentage who take the cash versus the 99% who turn it down.

But while they’re telling the truth about turning it down, something tells me they’re telling the truth when they take my cash to discuss it too. Then again, if you don’t mind recognizing this kind of thing without attempting to reconcile it, you’re looking for trouble from both sides of the equation. If you don’t pick a side of the street and wander down the middle, there’s no faster way to get run over. Well, push your chips in and get in there and get a lot of illegal interviews and try not to get caught or arrested or get anybody else caught or arrested.

But what are interviews supposed to do again?

Fuck me.

Do I have a hope in hell of getting any answers that reveal more about the person I’m interviewing than my questions reveal about me?

Fuck me.

Is this what my interviews are meant to reveal or conceal?

Jesus fuck.

I had, to my thinking, a pretty ambitious list of people to interview on camera. A lot of high profile people. Banned authors, a controversial Time Magazine Most Important Person blogger who’d interviewed Obama not long ago and shown up on Wikileaks getting US funding, several Olympic champions, a teenage boxer who’d starred in a documentary who many people viewed as the next great champion. Highly touchy people as far as the government was concerned. Plus I wanted to interview Rigondeaux’s wife and child. The collateral damage. I’d been warned they had two cameras on their house 24/7.

I was assured by nearly anyone with an inkling of understanding into the Cuban government that I would never gain approval to interview any of these people by the government and if I pursued the matter in any way clandestinely I’d be escorted to the airport and probably never be able to return. Or worse. An American had just been imprisoned. Jimmy Carter must be on his way over.

Then everything fell apart before my trip. My camera guy backed out 24 hours before my flight. At the hotels in Havana I was stood up by every contact I’d had lined up through journalists in New York. Cars began to drive past with strangers smirking and pointing up at the cameras hanging over the street.

“Beeeg brother eez watching, gringo!” I was warned by the people renting me their apartment illegally. “Welcome to Hotel California! Leezon to Mr. Henley’s words. ‘Check owwd aanee time bhat joo can never leave…’”

I’m convinced a country becomes ugly and sinister in immediate proportion to Don Henley’s lyrics carrying any significance or relevance.

Later on the warnings escalated to begging on the lives of their children that I cease anything that could get their family in trouble. The pleadings were so sincere and grave, at first I thought they were joking. Everyone was too scared to talk about anything related to Rigondeaux or other defected fighters. “You’re on your own,” I heard over and over again. “Security knows everything. Taps the phone. Checks your emails. Talks to your neighbor. When your boxer tried to defect, Castro wrote about Rigondeaux himself. This is not a man to ask questions about. Officially he is a traitor. He is Judas in our country.” Surveillance had escalated. Cameras on most street corners now across the entire city.  More uniformed police. More secret police than ever I was told (How does one measure this?). The CDRs (Committee for Defense of Revolution) on every block are stepping up their vigilance! More informants! Government clamping down on everything, especially with an issue as touchy for the government as defecting boxers. Don’t you know anything, Brinicito? A Cuban’s worst enemy isn’t security, it’s his neighbor. Leave it alone. You can leave. We cannot. We live with the consequences of your actions. And if you are not careful you will not leave or ever be able to come back. What are you hoping to accomplish with this kind of work?

And I’m left to ask the same vulgar question: “Do you want my money to help or do I look elsewhere? Your choice.”

But of course whoever I ask it to starts laughing because the ugly punchline is there is no choice. Not for me either. While they have little or no opportunity to make money, I’ve enjoyed my freedom to rack up a boatload worth of credit card debt and the only way out is to somehow pull this off. I have no other qualification to speak of and the best and worst thing I have going for me is if you gave me 100 million today I’d be working on this tomorrow.

***

The first place I went after arriving was a wedding with a few friends. After it finished, I hired a gypsy cab to take me the 20 miles back into Havana. The old Ford was doing just fine until she began to overheat halfway back into the city.

“I knew she was angry about me listening to Raggaeton at this hour,” the driver shook his head, scrambling around the radio dial until he found the classical composer Ernesto Lecuona. “Even at her age she requires a little seduction at night. Now she will punish us for denying her. Cubaneo,” the driver shrugged and grinned at me in the rearview.

Only in Cuba was the driver’s last remark, tearing at the old scab. You hear it everywhere, but it always gets to me putting a new face on its meaning.

And about thirty seconds later, when a father and son pulled over with their horse-drawn carriage to offer a hand, I wondered if Cubaneo had an opposite expression meaning all the things that happen here that would mostly never happen anywhere else. The closest one I know in Cuban slang is palanca, meaning when someone helps you out of a jam.

Every aspect of life here is a jam. Literally survival itself depends on palanca on a daily basis…

But it cuts both ways. People actually give a shit about your misfortune.

Other people came by to help. Cyclists. Every Cuban is a mechanic. They have to be. In this place you can be sure everything that hasn’t broken down yet will soon. While hardly anybody has any money to replace anything, nearly everyone who sees trouble will stop and help.

I had a lot of trouble myself with the wedding. Just after sitting down, out of nowhere, a sonic boom exploded over our heads as fighter jets broke the sound barrier. I jumped out of my chair until several people came over to laughingly explain that on Tuesdays and Fridays at this hour the Cuban Air Force conducted test flights. “Tranquilo, chico. The gringos are not invading our island again tonight. Relax.”

And then, even more surprising, I did.

I never really joined in, but I couldn’t get far away either. Unlike nearly every wedding I’d ever been to, collateral damage was everywhere emotionally. There wasn’t any pageantry or much formality to it. Nothing self-conscious. No emphasis on expectations. No stiffness or tension. People were sweaty and relaxed. Despite the festivities being outdoors, the bathroom stunk out the whole place. Plumbing was shot. It was hard to concentrate on the past or the future with that stink permeating everything. Not very many photos taken. Nobody really posing for history. Lots of easy and hard tears coming on their own, without the usual cues from prescribed moments. Lots of warmth and dark humor. I felt the creepy distinction over jokes people clap at versus actually laugh at. Joy and sadness mixing on a lot of faces talking or observing, taking everything in. A certain amusement relating to how death and birth embroidered everything with the different generations brought together too. It just all felt very human with the burden of the joke shared by everybody.

A bird shat on the groom while he was reciting his vows and everyone except me exploded with joy about how prosperous the wedding would be. I was very confused. Someone had to explain to me that if shit lands on you in Cuba or you step in it, you’re regarded as lucky. Good fortune and wealth was on the way! The fact that this explanation was delivered to me with no trace of irony given the last 52 years of struggle made it even more magnificent. None of my friends had ever dreamed of owning a car. None of my friends or their parents had ever opened a bank account in their lives. During the 90s, my closest friend in Havana used a rag after she got her first period and her mother showed her how to rinse it out and use it again for the next month. Her boyfriend had fished for cats in his backyard during the same time period: hook, line, sack, hammer. “Cat cooked in lemon sauce was not that terrible.” Whoever spun shit befalling your life as a springboard to economic prosperity in this place without being disemboweled…

Will anybody believe this place existed when it goes back to being some awful, broken down circus lion?

Everyone got up to dance to Elvis while I sat down in a new chair and lit a cigarette. My closest friend in Cuba came over––visually a cross between Winona Ryder and Juliette Binoche––and introduced me to her filmmaker cousin who was going to help me with my film.

“What are you smoking, yuma?” she asked me.

“American Spirit.”

“And what does that taste like?” she smiled. “My communist lungs would like a taste.”

***

I had a fling once or twice with Fidel Castro’s granddaughter. I met her at a New Year’s party in Centro Havana. A lot of TV and Radio personalities were there. I didn’t know about the Fidel angle with her until later. She wasn’t the one who brought it up, so it actually might be true. As with just about everything enticing in Cuba, behind every silver lining is a cloud. But she was a model and caught my eye while she was dancing with another pretty girl.

After midnight of the New Year we went outside to the balcony for a cigarette. She’d just been outside the country for the first time and told me she never wanted to travel again after the experience. I asked why.

She asked me if I’d ever read Invisible Cities. I shook my head. She told me a story from it about several men around the world who had an identical dream. They all saw the same naked girl from behind, with long hair, running through an unknown city. They chased after her. Each twisted and turned and eventually lost her. After the dream all these men set out in search of that city where they’d seen her. They never found the city, but they found each other. They decided to build a city like the one in the dream. Laying out the streets, each followed their own pursuit of the girl. At the spot where they lost the fugitive’s trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream so she would be unable to escape. They all settled in this city waiting for the scene to be repeated one night. None of them, asleep or awake, ever saw the woman again.

New men arrived to this city having a similar dream. Changed streets and arcades and stairways so, at the spot where the woman vanished, there remained no avenue of escape. But they never found her either…

I wanted Castro’s granddaughter to finish the story, but I wanted a little privacy for revenge more.

We walked back from the party to my apartment, where I had access to a rooftop overlooking the busiest street at night in Centro Havana, Calle Neptuno. I live in a kind of Cannery Row with rum soaked dominos played on every street corner.

When we climbed the stairs several floors and got to the roof looking out over the other rooftops in all directions and the Juliet girls on their balconies talking down to their Romeos and the chorus line of taxis below us, instead of trying to kiss her I chickened out and went back to fishing for the end of the story:

“Tell me what happened with that city in the end?”

“Stop pretending like you brought me back here for the story when I can tell very easily you’re already looking for a place to fuck me on this roof. Have some dignity, yuma.”

She took off her shirt and glared at me. The dogs on the roof next door sounded the alarm and woke up the rooster to join in.

“Are you worried about Fidel finding out? You were quite bold until you discovered my secret.”

It turned out nobody else had the dream of the girl and everyone else who saw the city left immediately because of the ugliness of such a place invented and designed only as a trap.

Fidel’s granddaughter asked me the next morning if this was helpful tourist information.

***


Brin-Jonathan Butler has written for Men's Health, ESPN Magazine, Deadspin, Salon, and Vice. Picador USA is publishing two books from Butler in 2014: "Split Decision," which examines Cuba and the United States through the lens of elite Cuban boxers faced with the decision to remain despite the lure of millions, or chase the American Dream from a smuggler's boat; and "The Domino Diaries," a memoir of Butler's time living and training as an amateur boxer in Cuba under the tutelage of Olympic champions. More from this author →