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The Island of Stopped Clocks: Inside Cuba 50 Years after the Revolution

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In a museum in Havana there are two skulls of Christopher Columbus, “one when he was a boy and one when he was a man.”  –Mark Twain

The man in the corner won’t drink the rum. He wears a leg cast and beneath him the chair groans uneasily. He resembles a villain from the silent film era, his face oblong and his hair exceptionally dark, his expression crumpled from years of heavy brooding. One of Lesley’s cousins brings me the bottle, miming a drink with the cap still on. I take a sip of the clear hot liquid then pass the bottle to the man. I am an American in Havana and I’m sitting in a corner with a cocktail-eyed man who won’t drink.

His name is Tony. He is one of Lesley’s tios, or uncles on her mother’s side. He was recently nipped by a car while walking near Parque Central in Havana. The driver, a Cuban, now resides in Miami, a person for whom the state-sponsored slur is gusano, meaning worm or maggot. The driver was drunk, but there is little consequence in this. Of greater concern is his status as a defector.

Thirty years ago, as Lesley and her parents prepared to defect, Tio Tony passed her in the street with a newspaper held to his face. Tony was sworn to El Líder, Fidel Casto, whose regime would outlast Communism itself. On Lesley’s final day in Cuba, their housekey surrendered to the state—the home and its contents relinquished forever—there was no sign of Tony. This was a time of mass defections, but to Tony their departure was the great indignity of his life. Now, all these years later, Lesley and her mother have returned to Cuba for the first time, bringing friends and family with them.

The family eases Tony to the middle of the couch. Amelia, Lesley’s mother, takes a seat near the balcony. Someone asks for a little dark rum, or añejo, for Tio Tony, but Tio Fernando only has ron blanco, the Havana Club brand with which we are about to become familiar.

Fernando’s house in the Luyano district is a limestone beauty amid Soviet-era fortresses of concrete. His paneled front doors, easily 12 feet high, are muddy brown and no wider than window shutters. While trying to enter, my backpack caught the door sill and trapped me, sending Lesley’s cousin Randy into a laughing fit. The smell of rich, unfamiliar food fills the house. Lesley says there will be little or no meat during our stay, but these aromas raise other possibilities.

Fernando speaks with a round, sandpapery voice like he’s speaking through a pipe stuffed with burlap. He is an engine room mechanic for a cargo vessel in the state shipping company, making him the rare Cuban who’s actually seen the world, from Osaka to Buenos Aires. He is warm, generous and weary. He can point at ships in the Havana harbor and identify the cargo by their size and shape: Rice. Oil. Machinery. Medical supplies. “But where does it go?” he asks, as much to himself as to us.

Our trip has been timed to coincide with Fernando’s shore leave. He is Lesley’s closest and dearest uncle, and he is to be our tour guide. Already, however, there are complications: Fernando has sold the family car to finance his oldest son’s passage to Chile, a one-way trip for which papers were expensively prepared. We will be renting a car the next day, a transaction that is anything but straightforward in Cuba. Even, as it turns out, for Cubans.

The rules of defection are brutally unsentimental. The youngest and strongest leave first and, once settled, return their earnings to the family, who begin making arrangements for the next defection. For some families, the process takes years to complete; others never complete it at all. Randy, Fernando’s son, will join the military in two years, which is compulsory for Cuban males at age sixteen. But Fernando is in all likelihood the next one to defect.

Nodding at Tony’s cast, now supported by a footstool, I say, “At least in Cuba, he has the best care available.” Lesley translates for those nearby. I recently revisited Sicko, Michael Moore’s boisterous documentary on health care, paying particular attention as Moore infiltrates Cuba with a handful of sick Americans. There are snorts and a few of Lesley’s cousins smirk good-naturedly.

As it turns out, Cuba possesses a shortage of virtually everything but doctors. During his hospital stay, Tony was required to provide his own bedsheets. In his bag, he carried light bulbs and syringes. The syringes aren’t mandatory for treatment, but most families consider disposable syringes a necessity. The steel syringes still used in Cuba are notorious for the plum-sized bruises they inflict.

Fernando’s wife Mayra, pronounced Mida, ushers me into her kitchen. She hands me a plate of chicharrónes, the chunks of seasoned, deep-fried pork rinds still warm. This is a far cry from the fried dough labeled as chicharrónes in convenience stores. The fat has a light, airy texture that is salty smooth and slightly nauseating. I eat three of them under the expectant gaze of Mayra. Lesley’s husband Eric, a gourmet cook who enjoys exotic (and once, illegal) food, looks restless. He later asks, his eyes like grey dysenteric pools, if it’s customary to eat pork with its hair attached.

Mayra is trying to tell me something. I find one of Lesley’s aunts to translate. “’She says she’s sorry, but for two days, there’s no bread in the markets.’” We all shrug. There is nothing to be done. The freest people in history, as Fidel calls them, turn out to be short of the barest necessities.

From the roof, which we access by scrambling up a ladder, it looks like the aftermath of war. The buildings, some of them roofless, are ashen, the standing walls cracked and crumbling. In a few cases I can see directly into living rooms, the exterior walls collapsed in piles on the floor. Having come to the roof for some air, the view leaves us momentarily breathless. Somewhere we can hear the son beats revived by Buena Vista Social Club.

“It’s like Beirut with better music,” says Eric.

We descend the ladder to dancing. Someone has brought out a small cd player. The music is bassa nova and the dancing is provocative, at least by American standards, the family members nesting and cradling each other to the music. Even Tony is taking part, crutching around as ably as anybody. Maybe it is the añejo, a bottle of which now sits half empty on the table.

From the balcony I watch uniformed soldiers with fumigation tanks knocking on doors below. Randy says they’re spraying for mosquitoes. Dengue, he says slowly, each syllable its own word. A loosely organized stickball game is suspended to accommodate the soldiers. I mean to ask Randy if he has heard from his older brother, now working as a chef in Chile. Then I see what looks like a baguette jutting from a grocery bag against a woman’s shoulder. I hurry inside to find Mayra. There is bread in Havana again.

Turning down the hall, I find Lesley’s mother Amelia seated on a bed in a half-darkened room. She is locked in a spell-breaking embrace with Tony.

 ***

In 1983, when she was ten, Lesley and her family emigrated to Miami via Panama, Mexico and Texas. The year Lesley spent in a Panama City apartment, her father carefully arranging for their emigration to El Paso, is among the most courageous stories I’ve heard. Their transit to and across the U.S. border is reminiscent of the great American epics of flight, from Huck Finn to All the Pretty Horses, except Lesley was escaping into, not through or beyond, America. A girl more brittle than Lesley might have been cauterized by the conditions, by the months of scarcity and uncertainty. Having always felt safe in Havana, she imagined herself among her neighborhood friends, as well as the tias and tios who’d been a part of her daily life.

Lesley grew up next door to Funeria La Moderna, the funeral home in Havana where her father worked. Down the street was a movie theater with an arched roof like a Quonset hut. Sandwiched between the mortuary and the flickering world of the theater, she would dream at night of corpses coming to life, the slow, benign zombies spilling out of Moderna after dark. The theater’s projectionist was a one-legged man prone to day-drinking and passing out by early evening, usually after loading the last film reel. At times he would drift off prior to the reel transfer, the unattended film stock once catching fire. More often, the next film simply wouldn’t start, prompting the kids below to yell, in the cruelly direct way of children, “Hey limb!” or “Drop the bottle!”

Like Lesley, Eric grew up down the street from a movie theater. When they were dating, they spent hours talking about Bonnie and Clyde or Breaking the Waves, or where to find the best ropa vieja or bulgogi in the sprawling basin of LA. But it was Lesley’s experience as a Cuban American that immediately intrigued Eric, whose father had worked all over the world for the defense industry, including Saudi Arabia and Japan. Eric and Lesley married four years ago. While Eric is beloved by Lesley’s family in Miami—sister, mother, stepfather and father—meeting her extended family in Havana would involve risks for which they needed to prepare.

After their daughter Maya was born, the prospect of returning to Cuba became more meaningful and more complicated. Lesley’s Cuban passport, which she keeps current, took almost a full year to renew, an episode with so many rule changes and setbacks that comparisons to Kafka fell hopelessly short. The Cuban consulate required Lesley to carry a letter written by Eric, stating his permission for her to take Maya into Cuba; lose the letter and Lesley might be arrested. Lesley remained in occasional contact with Tio Fernando, more so after cell phones recently became legal, but their connection only reinforced the dismal state of affairs in Cuba. During her last phone call to Fernando before she left for Havana, Fernando inexplicably asked her if she thought Russia would accept his defection.

My role was never made explicit. As a writer and friend of Eric’s from childhood, it was understood that I would try to document their visit to the extent possible. “To make sure it really happened,” I said. This was two weeks before we left. Lesley shook her head as if something more demanding lay ahead. She said, “In Cuba, the truth is more vulnerable than that,” which I took to mean that if visiting her relatives was one thing, finding her family would be another. Family, it should be added, who in some cases she’d never met.

My secondary role was to escort Eric into Cuba, which is suspiciously easy for U.S. citizens to enter, and then accompany him from Cuba through U.S. Customs, a more difficult assignment by far. In contrast to Cuba, I can travel to Iraq, North Korea or Afghanistan, provided I follow the labyrinthine policies for attaining an entry visa. I can travel to Iran, Syria and Sudan, three of the four State Sponsors of Terrorism according to the U.S. State Department. The fourth terrorist state—Cuba—is the one place in the world to which I cannot legally travel without a license from the government.

Two days before our departure, the U.S. Treasury eased the Cuban-American travel restrictions put in place by the Bush Administration. It was, for the first time in ten U.S. administrations, a first step toward a partial lifting of the embargo. Effective immediately, Cuban-Americans could visit Cuba once per year, even to visit relatives by marriage.

Curious about the definition of “relatives,” I visited the Treasury website. Scanning the regulations, I had my first glimpse of the absurdity so endemic to modern Cuba. In an attempt to define a “close relative,” the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) unleashed this Pythagorean gem:

Your mother’s first cousin is your close relative for the purposes of this section, because you are both no more than three generations removed from your great-grandparents, who are the ancestors you have in common. Similarly, your husband’s great-grandson is your close relative for the purposes of this section, because he is no more than three generations removed from you. Your daughter’s father-in-law is not your close relative for the purposes of this section, because you have no common ancestor.

Given the Orwellian tones of these restrictions, it’s understandable that among Americans, the lack of expertise regarding Cuba is staggering. To the world, Cuba beckons as a well-preserved tropical outpost, an island with more tidal coastline than the state of California. For Americans, Cuba is the last closed-market communist dictatorship on earth, a refuge, in the words of Pico Iyer, of “army fatigues, Marxist slogans and bearded threats to our peace.” What it turns out to be is a modern-day dystopia on the order of the film Brazil, a place so overwhelmingly bureaucratic that it would be terrifying were it not so incompetent.

Lesley, Maya and Lesley’s mother Amelia would travel to Havana via Miami. The chartered flight would take a mere 40 minutes, shorter than a flight from Portland to Seattle, and not nearly enough time to adjust to what lay beyond the Straits of Florida. Eric and I would travel to Cancun, arranging for passage to Havana from there.

 ***

havana-cuba-graffiti-485x728Arriving in Havana by day, the first thing you notice, apart from the mild pressure of the warm weather, is the ubiquity of neighborhood murals. Comprised of inspirational or inflammatory slogans and occasionally, but not always, accompanied by cartoon figures, the state-sponsored murals exclaim in deep red letters the ideological (Socialism or Death!) and the universal (Without Education, No Revolution). It’s a paranoid form of patriotism, the constant reassurance creating the impression that people need reassuring.

Graham Greene’s observation in Our Man in Havana that Havana “is a city to visit, not a city to live in” is perhaps more true today, what with the choking fumes, the pocked streets, and the occasional rockfall of limestone blocks from overhead. Greene adopted Havana during the city’s pre-Revolutionary heyday, when its tawdriness was chiefly expressed in a riot of “bright crude colors.” Today, the absence of color is the problem. Passing a state-sponsored billboard with giant letters—translated by Lesley as Revolution Means Construction—Eric replied, a little gloomily, “Obviously, it doesn’t mean ‘Paint.’

We would be staying in the Santo Suarez neighborhood one block off Avenida Santa Catalina, a leafy, sleepy boulevard with baseball fields at both ends and a church occupying the middle. Long and straight, reminiscent of Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans, Santa Catalina traverses what was once an affluent neighborhood. Today, Suarez is a relatively tidy suburb where, even after 30 years of neglect, only every third house looks abandoned. At night men come out to smoke and work on their cars, while women walk unhurried along its wide but cracking sidewalks.

Our host was Tia Sonia, the sister of Lesley’s father, who was keeping his promise never to return to Cuba while El Comandante was still in power. Sonia’s husband was Romero. The residence belonged to the parents of Sonia and Romero’s daughter-in-law, both magazine writers living in Spain for the year. Romero was a slight but sinewy man with a narrow face and neatly combed grey hair. He would dress down into clean white t-shirts and cargo shorts after work, when he’d relax on the porch smoking Popular cigarettes, the strongest and cheapest available in Cuba. Thin and loose-limbed, another foot taller and he would have been stately, even elegant. He smiled often and he teased a lot, more than once stumbling around the house, pretending to be drunk with my water bottle in his hand, never quite understanding why a person would drink water outside of mealtimes.

The sense you got from Romero was that if Cuba would simply adopt limited free market reforms, including property and business ownership, while still retaining a heavily nationalized state similar to China or Vietnam, Cuba would surely thrive again. “Lifting the embargo is part of the solution,” he said. “But the solution to Cuba is Cuba.”The problem, according to Romero, was that in Cuba there are two answers to almost every important question.

By all signs, Romero enjoyed the simplicity of his life. He had a clean home, a tiny working car, and a television on which he watched beisbol. But to appreciate the confusion of Cuba, he said, I needed to think like a Cuban. For example, Is there home ownership in Cuba? It’s a question the average American wouldn’t ask. The answer, as it turns out, is Yes. And no. A person can’t buy or sell their home, meaning they “own” it only as long as it remains in their family. What about religious freedom? Again, yes and no. Officially atheist, Cuba overlooks religious practices until the state finds it necessary to discredit or imprison you. How about access to social services? Yes and no. The primary obstacles to health care for a Cuban, other than supplies, are the all-day lines, but don’t bother trying to get into the Hotel Nacional, or any other restored landmarks, if you at all resemble a Cuban. Hotels and restaurants are reserved exclusively for tourists.

For every system in Cuba there is a parallel system which clarifies or cancels it. Havana streets have two names, the one locals use and the one in the tourist maps. There are dual currencies in Cuba, the result of a retaliatory move by Castro to eliminate U.S. dollars from the economy: There is the local peso reserved for Cubans and its convertible cousin, nicknamed “cu”, for non-Cubans, which means that to avoid overpaying, you’re constantly reaching for the wrong money. There are two economies, the largest and most profitable being the tourist economy, the other being everything else (the state-run industries like agriculture, health care and education), which results in a divided society in which professors and lawyers, who might make $30 per month, turn to driving cabs or playing music to make $30 per night.

Romero was in many ways typical of his generation: He was both a supporter of the Regime and a casualty of it. He was highly educated, relatively poor and deeply loyal to the Revolution. Despite being trained as a lawyer, he served for years in the Ministry of the Interior, after which, instead of retiring, he took a job managing the maintenance and cleaning crew at the Havana airport. He was, in other words, both a lawyer and a janitor, a combination that is not unusual in Cuba.

Romero’s faithful service had provided him a limited number of perks, including a small car and the ability to purchase Serrano coffee at $13 a bag, the equivalent to half a month’s wages. Romero worked harder in retirement than most people in their prime, working his post at the airport 13 days out of 14. Yet it was Romero, more than anyone I spoke to, who still believed in the promise of socialismo. His wife Sonia seemed more agnostic.

Short and stocky, but highly elastic, Sonia would rotate her hips or her arms dramatically, gliding more than she walked. Her hair was a muted but completely unnatural shade of red. She had a dirty mind and a foul mouth, constantly asking me, via Lesley—Sonia spoke no English whatsoever—whether I was keeping my private parts clean. She had the vocal range of a trained singer and the theatricality of an actress. She could be quiet and sweet one minute, firm and defiant the next, such as when a stranger approached her gate while Maya was playing in the garden. She could sit for hours listening to us talk about America, not comprehending a single word, yet a simple hug could make her cry. I’ve never felt closer to anyone to whom I couldn’t speak. Of all the people I met in Cuba, she was the most distinct.

Fefa, short for Stephanie, was Sonia’s mother and Lesley’s grandmother. She was a tiny, silent matriarch. Although she lived nearby, she slept on a cot in the dining room every night during our visit, so as to increase her time with Lesley. She had the skin of a teenage girl, the color like heavily-creamed coffee, but her hair was as white and fluffy as a dandelion. She resembled the actress Estelle Getty, the fourth member of the Golden Girls. Like Sophia, the character played by Getty, Fefa was an unhinged, back-of-the-classroom wiseacre prone to addressing nobody in particular. She not only didn’t seem to mind my lack of Spanish, she appeared to find it helpful. She never once asked me “Entiendes?” the ubiquitous response to my puzzled looks. She knew in advance I wouldn’t understand. She either didn’t have the energy to communicate for the both of us or she was wise enough to know the language barrier didn’t matter. We rarely spoke more than a few phrases together, but more than once, while sitting together, she would talk to me just for the sake of it.

I caught her peeing one night in the darkened bathroom. She didn’t so much as flinch.

Our only conversation of any duration was the one I actually understood. As the tv played images of potatoes being trucked off a farm, she explained that given the size of the papas harvest, potatoes would start showing up in ration boxes any day now. Her interest in the potato was almost youthful, like a pre-teen awaiting the release of a new iPod.

Our second night, with Fefa asleep in a chair and Sonia and Romero in bed, Lesley described her flight from Miami. She likened the 35 minutes to an out-of-body experience. “Once we took off, I was so exposed emotionally,” she said. ”It was like I was clinging to the wing outside.” It was the experience of reverting to her ten-year-old self. “The adult part of me, everything I’ve become since leaving Cuba, was evaporating,” she said. “I couldn’t stop it. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to.”

She was delayed for more than an hour in baggage claim. During that entire time, through a set of bay doors, Lesley could see her family in the terminal, their arms around each other, the wait intensifying their tension. When she finally entered the terminal they burst into tears. Romero later said these reunions are a daily event at the airport.

Lesley’s arrival at the airport was recorded on video. The footage, which I watched at Fernando’s apartment, is a revelation. What comes through—when Randy’s camera isn’t lingering a fraction too long on the cleavage of passing women—is a sudden and prolonged release of tension akin to a goal in world cup soccer. There’s so much crying, so much gripping and grabbing, the camera shakes and skitters. It is mayhem. It is an uncontrolled release of regret and sorrow unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

What you cannot see on the video is how, over the course of the next few hours, Lesley realizes she’s lost the 25 years for good. That after all this time, the history they shared is too too faint or too slight to be recovered. Entering the terminal, she felt a brief but overwhelming sense of familiarity. But after the hugs and tears subsided she felt tentative and swept up by family in name only.

It was different for Amelia, who’d left Cuba at age 29. Amelia had been married and given birth to children in Cuba. She’d spent the initial part of her adulthood among her parents and siblings and friends. To Amelia, Cuba was synonymous with disappointment; it had provided and taken away. Lesley had left during a time of relative prosperity and, more importantly, at an age when every relative, however distant, felt like immediate family. Lesley knew to expect the crumbling architecture, the shortages of everything from food and fuel to soap. But she’d also expected the occasional face, the stray voice, to rekindle that sense of immediacy.

If the flight from Miami was time in reverse, her arrival in Havana lurched her forward into the unexpected present. She had crash-landed in an alternate reality. While her aunts and uncles looked older and thinner, if more wary than she imagined, it was the cousins she wasn’t prepared for, in particular the reflexive way they fingered her jewelry and clothing with a mix of reproach and jealousy. The reception forced Lesley into a narrow crawlspace emotionally. She had not expected her cousins to so openly covet her belongings—items she started giving away within hours of her arrival—and yet she still craved their interest and sympathy, so they might understand the person she’d become in America.

Over the next few days, as the depths of her family’s financial and emotional needs were revealed, the mass unburdening slowly unraveled her, causing her to question why she had come back at all. It wasn’t simply inconvenient or uncomfortable. It was the heartbreak of survivor’s guilt. It was like discovering your family had been prisoners of war while you’d been living a comfortable existence all your life, and with that discovery came obligations that were beyond her.

As our arrival date neared, all she could think about was Eric. We were only two days behind her, but Lesley, by sparing Eric the blow of the initial reunion, had cut herself off from the only person who could help. “I needed my present life with me almost immediately,” she said. “I desperately needed Eric.”

 ***

Although we were staying with Sonia and Romero, who provided us coffee and meals to the point of extravagance, I was always hopeful our days would end with dinner at Fernando and Mayra’s. Mayra made us Cuban tamales, rich beef stews and breaded pork chops, not to mention an imitation saffron rice called priose that was light and delicious. She made us potato and garbanzo soup with white-hot segments of spicy corn. (Garbanzos provoke a truffle-like fascination for Cubans; for days we heard the next meal might—might—contain them.) She made us bread pudding and fried plantains, the pithy crisps fruity and savory at once. Each dish was far beyond their means but Mayra and Fernando were driven to feed us.

During meals, we would fantasize about Mayra someday opening a restaurant in Los Angeles, where currently only El Comao is adequate. Mayra would refer to her future enterprise, her hand sweeping the air as if indicating the sign: “Mayra’s Restaurante.” At which point Eric would shake his head and say, “No ‘Restaurante’. Just ‘Mayra’s’. Solamente.”

Her family rarely, if ever, ate this well, Lesley said, a fact we understood from the way they saved scraps of soap, stray bags, empty bottles and the like. Knowing these meals were solely for our benefit, we struggled to avoid the greater indignity: refuse seconds and show our solidarity with the rationed life, or accept seconds (and sometimes thirds) to honor their special effort. Ultimately we had little choice. Food would be ladled or piled onto my plate before I could sign-language I was too full to continue. While Cuban food is largely about subsistence eating, Mayra’s offerings were too delicious to pass up. And between meals, food was scarce.

I grew accustomed to tucking away whatever food was at hand—a cracker, a bit of pastry—for those between-meal times when no food could be found. Other than ice cream, which is enjoyed to a fanatical degree in Cuba, the two foods readily available in Havana are cakes (in the display cases of beer-and-soda markets) and peso pizza, so named because it is cheap and abundant. Abundant, perhaps, but not always easy to locate, what with the general lack of signage and a network of vendors who seem to take pride in their invisibility. In fact, the most highly regarded peso pizza in Havana is made atop a roof and lowered to you in a basket. The only sign is the large crowd mingling in the street.

Food is complicated in Cuba. There is one system for rationing meat, which is vanishingly scarce on the island, and another for staple foods like flour, sugar and potatoes. The supply system is so chaotic and idiosyncratic that it requires yet another system to control how lines will be formed to prioritize access for the elderly and pregnant. More than one observer has noted what’s fairly obvious if you happen to visit, which is that Cuba has been sliding back to pre-Revolutionary divisiveness for close to 20 years.

Cuba recently emerged from an economic depression so profound that Cuban society has been altered for generations, if not forever. The rebound has been, fundamentally speaking, a second revolution, and in many ways the ongoing recovery is the greater achievement. Precipitated by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s largest trading partner by far, the break was like the sudden death of a rich uncle who’d acted as a benefactor for 30 years, and under whose tutelage Cuba failed to diversify economically.

The immediate loss of Soviet oil subsidies sent the country into a freefall. Without oil, Cuba’s transportation network collapsed. Without transportation, entire industries dwindled. There were shortages of everything, from medicine to machinery. In a country of eleven million, more than a million jobs were lost. According to historian Louis A. Pérez, “Shipments of …consumer goods, grains, and foodstuff declined and imports of raw materials and spare parts essential for Cuban industry ceased altogether.”

Cuba entered, abruptly and without preparation, an historic period of forced conservation. Fidel consecrated it, with bottomless optimism, the “Special Period in the Time of Peace.”It may have been the largest belt-tightening effort in history. Like Leningrad in 1941, anything non-essential was requisitioned for heat, fuel or food, although unlike Leningrad the dead weren’t piled like cordwood. Still, mortality among the elderly increased by 20%, while getting pregnant, due to a severe lack of medicine, suddenly became a life-threatening act.

The immediate effects of the Special Period were caloric. Cuba plunged into a famine. Suddenly, the average Cuban consumed 1,000 fewer calories per day, meaning that virtually an entire country went on a diet overnight. During the early part of the Special Period, Cubans lost between 20 and 25 pounds each. Nobody would ever be fat again, Cubans said, and these were not obese people to begin with. The ration boxes, already lean, became leaner. According to Lesley’s uncle Romero, there were always cigarettes to be found—this is Cuba, after all—but there was never any meat.

Animals from the Havana zoo, including peacocks and buffalo, disappeared, presumably for their flesh. Then neighborhood cats began to vanish. Larger dogs starved to death for lack of available food. While at one time beef cattle were widespread in Cuba, cattle began disappearing, a development which prompted severe cattle protection measures. It is still a more serious crime in Cuba to kill a cow than it is to kill a person.

As a secondary effect, Cuba as a nation went vegetarian, focusing on grains, fruits and vegetables. They transitioned to a series of what Pérez calls “austerity measures” developed for times of war.

1360168240-Capitolio_2_Havana_CubaWithout petroleum for fertilizer or fuel, the Cuban government radically overhauled the nation’s agriculture and transportation sectors. Prior to 1991, pesticide use per acre was greater in Cuba than in the United States. After 1991, farmers converted to organic farming methods and embarked on a course of reverse industrialization—a return to manual and animal labor. Urban gardens sprung up on rooftops and discarded lots, remnants of which are still visible today. But perhaps most profound was the change in transportation habits. Cuba, the most car-crazy country on Earth—in 1959, Havana boasted the most cars, per capita, of any city in the Northern Hemisphere—reverted to buses, bicycles, taxis and horse carriages. Today, government vehicles must stop for hitchhikers if space permits, a system referred to as the “yellow” for the garb worn by the roadside agents who oversee it.

In a move that would have far-reaching consequences, the government reluctantly committed to tourism as a means of bringing hard currency into the country. Restoration of Old Havana commenced in 1982, the same year Havana was declared a World Heritage site. To consolidate the recovery effort, the titles to every significant building in the city were transferred to Eusebio Leal, the city historian, meaning that today, all of Old Havana is owned by a single, elderly gentleman. Each day, Leal walks the streets of Havana dressed only in shades of gray, as if in sympathy for the denuded landscape he’s bringing back from the dead.

 ***

In my bedroom in Santo Suarez a number of books had been tenderly consolidated. Nestled together were Lorca, Borges and Dos Passos; Woolf, Kafka and Zola; as well as Rilke, Conrad and—rounding out the giants of modernism—Danielle Steele’s Kaleidoscope in French. The library was something not hermetically Cuban, a rare breach of the island’s borders. In the small but defiant collection I could glimpse an awareness of the outside world, a relatively uncommon display of traditions not related to Cuba. Then I noticed the bookends. Mixed among the books were urns in devotion to Santería, the primary religious tradition in Cuba, the vessels doubling as ballast for the literary notions gathered there.

Shortly before bed one night, reaching out to touch an urn, I was stopped by the sudden appearance of Sonia, who wagged her finger gravely.

I would awake each morning to the rhyming poems of street vendors singing their wares—cut flowers, a bath spray called ambience, gardening services, even haircuts—their immense, operatic voices penetrating deep into the house. Dragging myself to the porch, I would discover not full-figured mezzo-sopranos, but a succession of child-sized women towing their wagons down the street. With voices that could fill auditoriums, the effect was one of ventriloquism. Their slogans varied little, like live versions of television commercials. By the mid-day heat, the vendors were gone.

Roosters were a regular and hourly alarm. Raised in the suburbs, I have no prehistory with roosters, and thus I will forever associate rooster crows with the outskirts of La Habana. So pervasive were their cries, I can easily recall them now, each chanticleer alarmingly distinct from the others. For it wasn’t a single rooster, or even a small, energetic flock. To my ears, the roosters outnumbered the residents on this, a street already crammed with people.

By the third day, I’d isolated the primary offender, an ear-spearing culprit dwelling two or three houses south. Like the neighborhood dog who sets the entire street to yelping, this animal drew answering calls from dozens of his brethren—far worse than barking dogs, actually, because a rooster’s crow resembles a thing being strangled while trying to ingest a noodle.  But gently strangled, without even the courtesy of dying.

I had more than a passing fantasy of hunting down the offensive rooster—without a spark, there’s no fire—but eventually I learned to tolerate it. It reminded me of living across the street from a train crossing, years ago, after college. Eventually your spine stops wrenching at the massive intrusion of sound. Eventually, the world seems louder without it.

Speaking of tolerance, a person does adjust to cold showers, particularly when the alternative is no shower at all. Due to a lack of water pressure, showering at Romero’s involved a two-bucket system, which (due to the lack hot water) at least meant cold water touching your body less often. The larger bucket acted as the cistern, while the other, smaller bucket was to douse with. All we lacked was a stabilizing bar to grip during the initial, full-body convulsions, but eventually the shivering subsided. As with the roosters, I soon accepted the chilly water as normal, virtuous, even necessary.

There was a cold shower following a long night of mojitos that I would describe as a necessary procedure. But apart from the discovery that kneeling facilitated the showering process—the folded body creates numerous traps for water—I only became less adept at these showers, using more and more water each time. Eric suggested we were accumulating a Caribbean crust, against which the cold water was progressively less effective. Or maybe I’d Americanized the simple act of bathing, turning even the coldest shower indulgent.

Romero’s coffee, with its sweetly addictive flavor, acquired a religious significance. When I learned he was cutting it with sugar, a surplus crop, at roughly one-to-one proportions, I didn’t think any less of it, or of Romero. We served ourselves from a small white thermos that, in two weeks, was never once empty. We referred to the bottomless carafe as the coffee miracle, an abundance on par with Jesus feeding the 5,000 with a few fish and a loaf of bread. Granted, we drank it by the thimbleful, although I did manage to find a double-thimble cup, about ¼ the size of a coffee mug, a vessel I was nostalgic for even before I left Cuba.

Listening to the guayabas drop from the tree beside the porch, it wasn’t hard to fall into the rhythms of the neighborhood. In the early afternoon, after everyone had found their way to work, old men would emerge from the shadows into the sunlight of their modest yards. Wearing fitted tank tops and smoking constantly, they mixed easily with passersby of any age. Only one man was ignored, a strikingly old man with an evil countenance, his hair like Samuel Beckett in a windstorm, his garden a scorched ruin. But I didn’t pity him. In America, I thought, he’d be living in a nursing home.

Everybody came and went on foot. Romero’s car was the only neighborhood vehicle that wasn’t undergoing some form of restoration—it was a microcar, a little Polish Fiat he called Polacki—and it was the only car I ever saw leave the neighborhood. (There was no shortage of motorbikes lining the street, most of which had sidecars slung to them.) Not that there wasn’t traffic along Milagro. One could hardly make consecutive pitches in a stickball game for all the city buses, tour buses, motorcycles and utility vans traversing the basepaths we’d established, the bases themselves usually chunks of concrete or metal, heavy enough to support a child’s foot, light enough to remove at a car’s approach.

Like Cuba itself, our time at Romero’s house was idyllic and disarming. We spent entire days in the neighborhood, walking to the store for ice cream or a beer, occasionally getting a ride into Havana to eat or shop or take pictures. Sometimes I’d pretend to read a book in the dining room so that I might watch Sonia and Fefa prepare dinner. The temptation was to project the comfort of the house onto the neighborhood as a whole. But on a few occasions, the simple act of venturing outside resulted in awkwardness and confusion.

One morning, Sonia walked me to the post office to help me send postcards to the U.S. Among these was a postcard to myself, as if someday I might need reminding that I’d been to Cuba when Cuba was off-limits. In the post office, we determined I was carrying the wrong currency, raising eyebrows among the postal clerks. It was the only time I saw Sonia panic. Housing a foreigner without a permit is a criminal offense in Cuba; should someone have chosen to make an example of her, Sonia could have been fined or worse. I shook out more pesos, among which we found the local coinage. On the way home, Sonia took my arm, no longer agitated. It was our only trip out together in public.

Passing a hunched woman carrying a greasy box, Sonia motioned for me to stop. The woman spoke softly. Hands on her hips, Sonia interrogated the maven, who opened the box like a well-kept secret. Inside were homemade guayaba pastries, or popovers with sweet jam inside. We bought six, or I did.

One afternoon, Lesley returned from a walk with Tia Sonia seeming solemn and distracted.  Walking Santa Catalina, they came upon a group of neighborhood boys seated on a low wall in the shade of some street trees. Shirtless, the boys exuded idleness and curiosity. They knew Sonia, and they seemed to have expected Lesley’s arrival, asking Sonia if this was the niece from America. They stepped aside but wouldn’t take their eyes off Lesley. A few gasps and low groans backfilled the air in their wake. Then the whistles and catcalls started.

On the porch that night, Lesley described for Eric her intensely mixed emotions. On the one hand, she hadn’t felt fully Cuban again before that strange encounter. Politically, she will always be Cuban-American, but the come-ons were the enactment of a Cuban ritual, a street drama that made her feel attractive and sexy. Even by Latin and Caribbean standards, flirting is a favorite pastime in Cuba. Unlike, say, flirting in Mexico, which can devolve into a staring contest, flirting in Cuba is such a highly developed ritual that its absence is offensive. In Our Man in Havana, Wormold resigns himself to the catcalls showered upon his daughter, saying, “Silence would have seemed like an insult to her now.”

To experience boys parting like dust motes at your approach is no meager complement, but the Norteamericana in Lesley, specifically the married part, found it disgusting and an invasion of her privacy.

From time to time, Sonia and Romero’s daughter Alina would visit the house. I don’t believe I met a more attractive woman in Cuba. Inhibited and graceful, frequently averting her eyes, she had a narrow, unlined face, yet she bore the same fatigue I’d recognized as intrinsically Cuban. It was a tiredness of spirit, a weariness in the eyes. But some nights, when her son Andy—an adorable but hyperkinetic baseball fanatic, aged 11—was staying with his father, Alina would join us for our nightly porch recap, an open beer in one hand and one of Romero’s cigarettes in another.

With her cousin Alina present, Lesley was more likely to discuss the catcalls, or the requests her maternal cousins had been making. Around Sonia, these conversations wouldn’t progress very far, Sonia tending to get upset on Lesley’s behalf, but Alina was more philosophical. By our trip’s midpoint, Lesley had been asked—directly or indirectly—for a cell phone, a bank loan, clothing, a camera, an apartment (or a room in her house in LA), and for contacts for an import/export business between Costa Rica and Cuba. When she wasn’t asked for goods outright, she was sought for her expertise, which family tended to regard as just short of an oracle, although her typical response was, “I don’t know, but I promise to look into it.” Alina seemed only to want Lesley’s company, and with Alina she could relax, if just a little.

“Can we go to the beach?” Lesley asked at one point. It was agreed that the day after next, we’d leave Havana with Fernando as our guide.

Sometimes, Alina’s son Andy would leave his notebook on the stand next to the television. Eric and Lesley were the first to see it. Then they asked me to take a look.

The notebook contained a test on the earth’s atmosphere. The test included a series of multiple-choice and short-answer questions. What is important about the troposphere? What are the gasses in the air? Describe evaporation. Define condensation. More than two decades removed from primary school, I’m no expert on middle-school curriculum. But it seemed advanced to me.

***

Havana is immense in its crumbling authenticity, a fact reinforced by fleets of 1950s automobiles trundling defiantly all around you. Like Cuba itself, Havana is massively corroded here, breathtakingly beautiful there. Near Plaza de Armas, or adjacent to the Malecón seawall, entire districts lay in ruin as if struck by an earthquake or bomb, the paint scoured and the masonry shredded to nonexistence.

As withered as Cuba has become, Cubans believe their country to be uniquely providential, a place so exceptional in its location, geography and climate that Spain would not release it, Russia tried to adopt it and the United States, evicted and then humiliated at the Bay of Pigs, spent fifty years trying to destabilize it. (There are reports of more than 600 assassination attempts on Fidel, and several lesser efforts to humiliate him, including the removal of his trademark beard by adding hair removal cream to his shaving kit.) That kind of confidence creates a sense of indefatigability even as it invites a special kind of scrutiny.

Unlike Panama City’s Casco Viejo, the dormant district Havana Vieja resembles architecturally, Havana is a thriving hub of commercial activity, dense with coffee shops, pizza counters, rum joints and cigar stalls. Bicyclists rattle by two and three to a bike. Horses pull supplies along with loads of turistas. People shout up to windows with abandon, asking after loved ones or checking on the electricity. Conversations drift down from balconies to the street. This is the romantic Havana, where time is trapped in a bottle, a delicately ambered world preserved by stubbornness and neglect.

What Cuba feels like, despite everything, is what you might call the Cuban miracle. From Old Town at last call to the fume-choked wreckage of Luyano after sunset, I have never felt as safe as I did in Havana.

Late one night, trying to escape a guitarist bent on serenading our party for pesos, we encountered a regiment of uniformed police officers in the park at Plaza de Armas. I felt for my passport; my instincts told me to have it ready. Within minutes I was dancing with the only female officer—or at least, I was moving in proximity to her—while the male police hammered out steady percussion by whapping their night sticks against a fence. In the college town where I live, such a thing could never happen.

In an effort to see more of the “real” Havana one afternoon, I suggested we visit Coppelia. Also known as Havana’s Cathedral of Ice Cream, Coppelia is a creamery theme park without rides. Like Cuba itself, it is years removed from its heyday, when it might have offered 30 or 40 flavors to choose from. Today, you might find three or four. Confusing, disappointing and magnificent all at once, the downtown landmark is Cuba in microcosm. It is as much a Havana tradition as running behind just-departed city buses, a practice on full display along the busy sidewalk outside Coppelia.

Standing outside, I was aware of Lesley struggling with her expectations, and Cuba’s ongoing failure to meet them. Her face reflected the difference between her memory of Coppelia and the reality now sprawled before us. Today’s Coppelia, surrounded by gates with chipping paint, promises little, and now resembles the fortress it actually is. The disarray, the shrinking of another ideal, proved too much for Lesley, who asked to go home to get some sleep. Eric went to hail a cab. I said goodbye to them—even Maya was too tired to plead for ice cream—and turned to face the lines of Coppelia.

While Coppelia is a revered tradition among locals, it is hard to imagine a less efficient way to deliver ice cream. Dry and understaffed, with no less than six separate entrances, Coppelia is like Disneyland on a very bad day. In appearance, it resembles the drabness of the Tomorrowland of my youth, a lazy mid-century representation of a period when the future, sleek and white, was right around the corner. The rules at Coppelia are childishly, even defiantly bureaucratic: You must walk the perimeter of the park, taking note of the flavor signs at each entrance, because each entrance stubbornly refuses to reveal the flavors at other entrances. Once you commit to a flavor, you can count on waiting up to two hours in line. In other words, it’s no longer a place for children.

I found the shortest line and fell in, ignoring the flavors listed, some of which I couldn’t translate. The mood was light, the locals chatting and smoking in the sun. After an hour, a bored, handsome youth—a Coppelia employee—approached my flavor sign from inside the park. The boy hopped the low fence easily, landing with a thud in the dry earth. The line tensed, contracting and coiling like a snake to better view the sign. I felt the first upwellings of a mob mentality, something I didn’t think possible in Cuba, given the heat and the dependable military presence. Then the line relaxed and lengthened. Word came back, eventually translated for me, that orange-pineapple had been replaced by avenilAvenil is vanilla. We’d hit the jackpot.

After two hours in line, we were ushered inside. Having waited, briefly, in a second line, I was ushered to a long arc of stools in what amounted to an open-air soda fountain. A cash register was being beaten by a woman to my left. Presumably the drawer wouldn’t open, a situation the beating only seemed to make worse. Clear water ran from a spigot in the wall directly into a drain. Dishes sat unrecovered on the counter. Cake pans, the basis for a la mode orders, were stacked nakedly without any covers in the heat. Flies, as you might expect, speckled the exposed cakes. It was a high school cafeteria from Hell.

I was brought a tiny glass of water, my first such delivery in Cuba. A man with an empty tub appeared next to me, his distraught disposition that of someone who’d just recently buried his best friend. I steadied myself on my stool. When the stranger finally commandeered the waitress, she refused to give him any quantity of vanilla, the news of which predictably set him raving. They argued for awhile, which rendered me invisible. He finally relented, mostly at the urging of his wife, who approached with a worried face from where she’d been hiding behind a pillar. Give me strawberry, he said, or something to that effect, then unmistakably gestured—there could be no mistaking it—for the counter girl to pack it tight.

I ordered a dish of strawberry and a dish of vanilla a la mode. The waitress seemed confused, then impressed, then confused again. Ten minutes later, I was brought a single cup containing one scoop of each flavor. I finally got my a la mode; the cake was bricklike in flavor and texture and the vanilla was merely average. The strawberry was the best strawberry ice cream I’ve ever tasted.

 ***

The beach trip, which began so promisingly in terms of the weather and manageable crowds, was for Lesley another example of Cuba’s ability to confound and humiliate. While at Playa Este, the fabled beaches east of Havana, Fernando’s papers were checked while we were swimming in the water. They asked him to move down the beach. At first he refused, indicating he had many guests with him. It was a brief scene that could have turned ugly had Fernando not submitted. Left alone in an area reserved for tourists, he was a target in his own country. It reminded me of the lunch counters in the American South in the 1960s.

Driving back to Luyano, the mood was somber. At one point Fernando’s son Randy said something inaudible in the darkened car. The shapes around us were dim and formless, the occasional streetlight barely bright enough to drive by. Fernando groaned but didn’t reply. I asked Lesley. “He said ‘We’re almost home,’” she said. “He can tell by the holes in the street.”

That night, Lesley told us she was ready to leave Cuba. Without a way to account for lost time, without a means to find common ground, she and her family could only reminisce over what few memories they still had, which by now were thin and worn. As for the present, Lesley considered it off-limits.

“Since Eric and I are comfortable by Cuban standards, I don’t feel like I can talk about my current life,” she said. “I want to, but it doesn’t feel fair to talk about life in California. They all assume we’re more comfortable than we are.” Lesley was caught between constantly checking herself and wanting to describe their neighborhood of Los Angeles and the bungalow they’d managed to buy.

She became what Eric called the family priest. Each relative, no matter how distant, expected a miracle from her. The more family she met, the more problems she heard about, the more she felt herself shrinking from them. “My family in Miami warned me that when the trip was over, ‘You must be sure to leave Cuba behind.’ And that’s just impossible. Anything I say that’s remotely sympathetic is taken as a promise.” In addition to the requests for money, clothing and cell phones, she was asked for the names and phone numbers of anyone who could help get them to America. “I’m going to be leaving with everyone’s problems on my shoulders, but without the means to help,” she said.

When Fernando returned the rental van, he caught the rental car agent overcharging us. It was only by a single day, but the agent, who tried to pocket the extra fees, had initially seemed sympathetic to Lesley’s story. Fernando looked sick over it. His mood never really recovered. To Lesley, he still spoke volumes, and during our stay Lesley’s accent was transformed: It now resembled the Cuban high-speed squawk, the magpie quality of dropped syllables so unique among Latin dialects. To me, Fernando would only shrug and say, “You see? Cuba is very complicate.”

For our last meal at Santo Suarez, the stew was so thick, so rich with meat, it snapped a cracker as I tried to scoop a bite. That night, we sat roughly in a circle on the porch, the night cooler than usual, everyone wrapped in shawls. Even Fefa stayed up later than usual.

After Sonia, Romero and Fefa all said goodnight, I described for Eric and Lesley watching tv earlier that evening with Fefa. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, appeared on screen, prompting Fefa to point and say, “I like him” and “I support him” with more passion that I would have expected.

During the 1980s, in retaliation against anti-Castro demonstrations, a network of neighborhood watch groups developed in and around Havana. They were called the CDRs, or Committees in Defense of the Revolution. Their purpose wasn’t to keep undesirables out. The intent was to ferret out undesirables from within. Fefa, said Lesley, helped coordinate the spy network. The CDCs led to the arrest and imprisonment of gays and artists and other so-called dissidents, men and women who weren’t in line with traditional Cuban values.

Fefa’s husband Alberto, Lesley’s grandfather, was the commander of their CDC. Their house was the hub of neighborhood spying activity. In their living room they organized raids on the homes of homosexuals, creating a threatening situation for Lesley’s father, who is gay. As a younger man, he turned the sacrosanct pictures of Fidel and Che—hung by Fefa—to face the wall. Then he started taking them down. They sent him to the military, but the experience only emboldened him further, galvanizing his beliefs that the regime was corrupt and oppressive. Six months after returning from military service, Lesley’s father burned his uniform in the living room of Fefa’s house in front of Alberto and CDC official.

 ***

Alongside Cuba, people will tell you, is another Cuba, like the dual skulls of Columbus once displayed in a Havana museum. The second Cuba is destabilized and dissolving. It is a foundation being slowly washed away, a flickering thing visible or admissible only to the Cuban or an embedded gringo. Cuba is hope and hopelessness at once, a fire burned to its embers—and without reserves of wood. Graham Greene, who embraced Cuba almost as rhapsodically as Hemingway, wrote famously, “Two countries just here lay side by side,” but the line is understated, a mere starting point. You can escape time in Cuba, but only because the clocks have stopped.

Stephen Smith, in his indispensable Cuba: The Land of Miracles, makes frequent reference to the split existence of the “bureaucratic, exasperating country familiar to the Cuban in the bus-queue, and the magical island, shaped like a crocodile, which the foreigner recognized as Columbus’s paradise.”

At José Martí International Airport, the aging Terminal 1 is for Cuban residents, a final but lasting image of the tourist apartheid in Cuba. Terminal 3, the tourist terminal, is a modern—or at least, recent—edifice of glass and steel. By comparison, Terminal 2 is nothing more than a hangar, a prefab structure at risk of removal by a stiff wind or a company of motivated men. Terminal 2 is for Cubans now residing in Miami.

The taxi dropped Lesley and Amelia at Terminal 2, where Fernando and the entire family were waiting. It was still dark. The family converged on Lesley and her mother and Maya. Before we knew it, at Lesley’s request, the cab whisked Eric and me away to the new terminal. We never did see her final goodbye. Inside the terminal was a list of prohibited articles which included, along with firearms and sabers, No catapults. “Tell that to my stomach,” Eric said.

The flight from Havana to Cancun, like the flight from Miami to Havana, is so brief that there isn’t time to worry about whether your passport will be stamped. Leaving Cuba, the goal for Americans is simple: You must avoid a second entry stamp from the country you entered previously. In my case, a second stamp would certify that I had left Cancun for a country not prone to stamping U.S. passports. A country, for example, such as Cuba.

Aboard the plane were several U.S. citizens, by accent if not appearance. The flight was barely half full. One man, a photographer, was traveling legally from the U.S. for what he said was his twelfth visit. I decided to stay as near as possible to him as we disembarked the plane. Should he reveal some crucial bit of expertise—a favorite customs official, a spellbinding phrase—I wouldn’t want it to go unnoticed.

On the articulated bus, in full view of other passengers, Eric and I slipped $20 bills into our passports. Two young men seated nearby asked us in English if they should do likewise. One was a student at Boston University and the other a BU professor on a teaching visa from Germany. They had split off from their main group in Cancun the week prior. I looked at Eric. “We read on the internet to use $10,” Eric said sheepishly, “so we doubled it.” His smile betrayed how ridiculous we felt.

The professor was a German who spoke perfect English. He was thin with reddish blonde hair and a gnomish beard and a sport coat one size too large for him. If he were to get caught, he would probably lose his visa, an outcome which would cost him his job at BU. It was clear he’d taken an enormous risk without fully considering the repercussions of the trip.

We walked single-file into the Cancun customs hall. It was 8am and the hall was deserted. In the far corner, across rows of stanchions and retractable belts, four agents, all male, sat quietly at their kiosks. The nearest agent was the one I wanted, a large, soft gentleman who sat lightly on his stool. Even from the back of his head I could imagine the man was smiling. This was a good man, a not-too-thorough man. Then I spotted the agent I didn’t want, a dreary, bitter, lacerating man with a square head and painful-looking crew cut. In other words, a bureaucrat.

We caterpillared through empty lanes until we formed a small queue near the agents, who waved us forward even before the preceding traveler had left the kiosk. The effect was like intruding on an ATM transaction before the previous banker vacated the space. As I reached the front of the line, the bureaucrat waved me forward.

I placed my passport on the counter in front of him. It was too late to remove the money. I recited a simple plea about the stamp, carefully rehearsed for more than two weeks, the one that elicited a gentle smile and a “No worry” from the young female agent in Havana: Por favor no le ponga en el cuño en mi pasaporte. Before I finished the agent gestured abruptly, a low flat wave like the pass of a magician’s hand just prior to his next trick.

When he found the money he paused. I knew at once I’d deeply offended him. I say this because he slid the money back to me with much more effort than it required. He reached for the stamp with a practiced motion and applied what I thought was an unnecessarily vivid stamp. The entire exchange took all of sixty seconds. He never once looked at me.

Eric had been summoned by the agent I’d wanted. I could tell from the way he was walking—a slow, easy, guilt-free amble as he organized his passport wallet—that his passport had not been stamped.

“That was easy,” he said quietly. He still hadn’t looked up.

We rejoined the BU student and the German professor in baggage claim. The BU student’s passport had been stamped. He was alert but not visibly nervous. He wasn’t clear what to do next. His flight to Boston wasn’t for three days, so there was nothing to do but try to enjoy what remained of his trip. He said was going to find a bar.

We had six hours before our flight to Denver, which was beginning to feel like my final destination. Or rather, the place I would part with my passport, which would certainly be revoked. Six long hours to worry the issue. Six long hours of syrupy cocktails at a bar owned, however distantly, by the singer Jimmy Buffet. We started drinking. There was very little to say and absolutely nothing we could do.

On the flight to Denver I sat next to a woman from Winnipeg. When the woman asked what I was doing in Cancun, I almost unraveled in the presence of her sympathy. I told her about my passport and the trip to Havana. I told her about Lesley and Amelia and Maya, about Fernando and Sonia and Romero. All she could say was she was sorry. By all indications she meant it, but, being Canadian, it wasn’t a problem she was familiar with.

I was one of the last to deplane in Denver. It was a blindingly sunny day outside, a fresh ten inches of snow on the ground. I walked the long causeways of Denver International within earshot of the flight crew. As we approached a narrow hall, an ominous sign warned us of “up to $50,000 in fines” for certain customs violations. Nothing about Cuba specifically, although one of the attendants pointed to the sign and, in a voice of mock concern, said to the captain, “See that, Jim? Notice the fine print. It’s five hundred bucks an apple.”

At each customs station were two seated agents, one fore and one aft, an integrated check-out model common to high-end supermarkets. I scanned the agents, watching their body language. It was clear I had no chance. Aisles 11, 12 and 13 held the following personality types, respectively: retired cop, soon-to-be-retired cop, young cop with everything to prove, tired cop, wired cop and cop’s cop. I was done for. Then I noticed something: I’d missed an aisle, number 14, where the woman in the foreground resembled, of all people, Tia Sonia.

When I reached the front of the line, a nearby guard turned his back to me. I slipped into the chute for number 14. I made sure I was smiling as the female agent waved me forward.  I think I said something about the snow outside. I had a brief statement prepared for when she asked me about the stamp. It was neither a lie nor an admission. When she looked at me, she asked me about Cancun. To my utter surprise, she scanned my passport without leafing through the pages, despite the fact that, contrary to my own best interest, my eyes kept watching her hands. Belatedly, I replied that I was ready to be home.

Ten minutes later, Eric hadn’t entered baggage claim. I circled the enormous room twice. I wondered if he’d been detained as a sophisticated way to entice me back for another passport check. Then Eric appeared, dragging his bag and looking stricken. He had been checked by the young cop with everything to prove, who examined every inch of his passport.

“He had me,” Eric wheezed. “I almost said we were in Cuba.”

We?

 ***

Sometimes, I’ll imagine the Havana I didn’t see, the Havana built for tourists like me. In a city that once had more cinemas than New York, I never went to the movies. I never drove a car. I didn’t even smoke a cigar. I skipped the Museo de Ron and Museo de la Revolucion and entered exactly one cathedral. But I did find orange juice that tasted like oranges, not to mention strong coffee and strawberry ice cream, and one night I thought I had the stamina for Hemingway’s daiquiri record of 13 doubles at El Floridita. (Hemingway, at his heaviest, outweighed me by 80 pounds.)  But I lost my command, not to mention my cash, around the sixth or seventh drink.

The day we visited Lesley’s childhood home, Amelia and Fernando left on foot to find Lesley’s grammar school. Lesley and Eric left with Maya in the rental car. I said I’d walk with Amelia and Fernando, brother and sister now arm in arm a few meters ahead. They had the look of mourners. When I caught up, Amelia smiled at me. “It was good of you to come,” she said, nearly reducing me to tears.

We walked through cratered streets embroidered by brightly colored houses and deep green cicada bushes. Every block seemed to contain a school of some kind, their courtyards filled with uniformed kids running in circles or huddled to the side. It struck me as deeply peaceful and reassuring, this tranquil neighborhood of small schools and modest houses. The emphasis on education, on the future, still persists in Cuba, even in the midst of crumbling buildings and blasted streets. The abundance of schools is one of the few clear expressions of the regime still consistent after 50 years.

I stopped to photograph some children at play. Amelia and Fernando drifted ahead. On the wall near the school was painted Muerte a Traidores. Even I could translate that. Seeing my camera, a young boy pulled something small and black from his back pocket and with his other arm, quickly cuffed a classmate’s throat. It was a handgun made of plastic. He pushed the gun into the boy’s neck, both of them still smiling. A clamor went up. I lowered my camera. Mothers were emerging from doorways as if a silent alarm had been triggered. The teacher pushed toward them, reaching for the replica gun. I slipped away, my role unnoticed.

Amelia and Fernando were stopped at the next block. They had missed the incident entirely. Amelia had tripped while stepping around a bache, a small hole, and fallen down. She was shaken. She gestured to the ground, smiling weakly, but clearly overwhelmed.

Quietly, searchingly, Amelia said, “The situation is no…” She might have been about to express some great sadness, or the hope that things could still change.

Then she said, getting to her feet, “The situation is no.”


Jackson Blair has published fiction, essays and journalism in Open Spaces, Oregon Humanities, Lake Effect and Indiana Review, among others. He was until recently a film critic for the Eugene Weekly, where he won several Society of Professional Journalism awards for criticism. More from this author →