A Bumpy Landing in Havana
excerpt from forthcoming book, Lost and Found in Cuba
The seat of the chair sagged too close to the floor and allowed me neither to settle nor rise with ease. As I sat in the lobby of the Hotel Plaza in Central Havana, a tall uniformed doorman at the main entrance welcomed guests with a sweep of his arm. They streamed by me, heading eagerly toward the bar and their afternoon mojitos, seeking relief from the tropical heat. Graying middle-aged men, sporting straw hats and fanny packs, belched smoke from newly purchased Cohibas as they passed. Over the neo-classical arch that separated the lobby from the bar hung a sign that read, “El socialismo ademds de justicia, es eficiencia y es calidad.” Socialism, aside from being just, is efficiency and quality. Surrounded by frothy pink and white architectural frosting, the message looked strange.
I reached for the old-fashioned telephone on the pedestal table next to me. It was a model I had only seen in movies from the forties; the receiver felt heavy and awkward when I put it to my ear and was connected with the hotel operator.
“Quiero hacer una llamada” I said, my voice faltering, “Por favor.” I hadn’t spoken Spanish for over a year, and then I had been in a group with a translator to fall back on. Now I was on my own. Whenever I opened my mouth, I tiptoed linguistically, unsure of what I would say or understand in a country where Spanish appeared to have neither vowels nor consonants.
The phone connection crackled. I thought the operator said that I needed to see the hotel receptionist before I could place a call. Pushing myself up from my chair, I approached the front desk jammed and jangling with tourists conversing in Spanish and German and Dutch. A cluster of cute young women in navy suits and white blouses attended them.
“Perdoneme,” I ventured, trying to catch the eye of one of the receptionists. Should I have said “Disculpemel” I wondered, wishing I had taken the time to learn when to use these two versions of “Excuse me.”
She looked my way. “lEl telefono!” I asked.
“Lin dolar la llamada,” she replied, gesturing for me to leave a dollar and return to the table with the telephone.
I poked at the waistline of my skirt, loosening the money belt where I had stashed fifteen hundred dollars in cash, my best guess as to what I might need to live for one month in Havana. I figured on fifty dollars a day to cover lodging, transportation and food, hopefully with enough left over for extras or emergency. I’d left credit cards at home, no good here since the embargo forbade U.S. banks from doing business with Cuba. I handed the young woman a dollar and headed toward the phone. Suddenly overwhelmed by fatigue, heat, and confusion, I collapsed back into the chair.
Like the ’54 Chevy I had seen from the taxi on the way in from the airport, I had been puttering along — on pistons held together with duct tape and a prayer, but puttering along — until this whiz-bang collision with Cuba. I felt all bent fender and broken headlights, stalled in the middle of a busy intersection. It was only Day One and already the reality of what I had chosen to do felt much harder than I had anticipated. How was I going to manage a full month in Havana when the simple act of making a phone call stopped me in my tracks?
The grandiosity of what I had proposed to do washed over me. In my request for professional leave I had promised, to “study the Cuban health care system and the effects of the embargo.” What I had written sounded plausible enough to elicit approval from the requisite university committee but I’d omitted the details because I didn’t have any. Like most university faculty, I had learned the stressful art of making a public commitment— to write a paper or teach a course for which I was unprepared—and then rushing delivery in a fit of panic. The style, a bit hard on the nerves, had boosted my productivity. But never before had I been quite this bold. I must have been in a state of wild self-delusion to think I could actually live up to the expectations I had generated. After all, this was Cuba, a country more foreign than any other I had visited, a country where I knew no one and where my pretensions of speaking Spanish would be utterly tested.
And Cuba was communist. Even if my language skills were adequate, I imagined the country was rife with secret protocols and cultural mandates that I would never be able to decipher. Dealing with my emotional insides was going to be a more of a challenge than I had thought.
I tried to push away my fears, reminding myself that the agenda I had set for this first month was modest — to get used to Havana, immerse myself in Cuban Spanish, make initial contacts, and develop a research plan that I would carry out in future trips. “Take one day at a time,” I told myself, as if I were one of my alcoholic patients. But I could not let go of my anxiety and wound up instead with therapeutic cliches echoing each racing thought.
I fingered the satchel of papers in my lap, several pages of names, phone numbers, and addresses I had compiled in hopes that these contacts would give shape and direction to what would come next. There were names of doctors and psychologists, friends of friends, and distant nodes on the world-wide web of Cuba aficionados. Only two people on the list had I actually ever met, and those only briefly at international meetings in the United States. One was an economist turned tour organizer named Rodrigo, listed in my notes as “My Man in Havana,” as if wishing would make it so. The second was a physician named Enrique.
The doctor would have to wait. I felt too shaky to approach a new colleague on the telephone in a language that reduced me to a sixth grade vocabulary. Besides, in the span of half a day and two airplane flights, I had tumbled down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; the necessity of finding shelter, food and care eclipsed loftier aspirations. I needed a place to live that was within my budget and that would offer human contact beyond the tourist-hotel variety.
By e -mail when I was back in Ohio, Rodrigo had assured me that he would arrange for me to stay in a casa particular, a private home where for twenty-six dollars a day I could live with a family and be fed “the best food in Cuba.” A phone call when I reached Havana, he said, would do the trick. I read his phone number to the hotel operator.
I had a vague vision of the living situation I was hoping for. Back in the early seventies, during several months of Peace Corps training in Puerto Rico, my husband, Phil, and I had lived in the home of Anna and Enrique and their five children, surrounded by sugar cane fields and within earshot of the local cantina. Anna spoke English but only as last resort, instead patiently encouraging and correcting our Spanish baby talk. The children were our younger siblings. Anna felt like Mom, Enrique, our benevolent father.
We’d been in our early twenties. Now I was in my fifties. But with only a few hours in Havana behind me, I already felt orphaned. It didn’t matter that I had chosen to travel to Cuba by myself or that I had a husband, daughter, and parents at home who loved me. They weren’t in Havana and I already felt painfully separated from the sooth of the familiar. Being taken in by a welcoming Cuban family was the most appealing possibility I could imagine, which was a good thing, since — thanks to Rodrigo — I was about to be adopted.
From the other end of the phone Rodrigo greeted me in good English. He sensed my anxiety. “No hay problema,” he assured. He had arranged lodging for me with an older couple who no longer had children at home. I was to take a taxi to a certain corner in Vedado the next day. There his man Humberto would be waiting and would take me to meet new family. With a concrete plan to address my basic needs, I felt myself relax. Mustering the courage to make a second call, I gave the operator the number of the doctor.
The following afternoon, I flagged a yellow cab in front of the hotel and showed the taxista the address in my notes that Rodrigo had given me. It was easier than trying to say it, and I was conserving my energy.
Leaving the hotel we turned onto Calle Neptune and entered Central Havana. I stared out the window taking in block after block of decayed nineteenth century buildings, each two or three stories high, huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in dust and diesel haze. The thoroughfare was congested with bicycle rickshaws, beeping taxis and pedestrians trying to keep to the broken sidewalks. Old cars spewed their sooty fumes into the narrow street. We crossed several wide boulevards lined with grayed and gritty edifices and pillared walk-ways and finally climbed a long hill to come to a brief stop in front of La Escalanata, the grand stairway entrance to the University of Havana. According to my map, we were just entering Vedado, the municipality where I would be living. With Central Havana behind, more modern buildings pulled me into the twentieth century.
We passed the Habana Libre Hotel— the Hilton in its pre-revolutionary incarnation and one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. An abstract mosaic in black, blue and white decorated the front of the boxy tower. Just beyond, the taxi came to a stop at the main intersection of Vedado. There on the corner in front of La Copelia ice cream stand loomed a billboard-sized Fidel Castro in military green, fist in the air, his image emblazoned with the declaration, “Against terrorism and against the war!” It jarred me: without wanting to, I remembered 9/11.
We turned left, in front of the super-sized Fidel. We traversed avenues dotted with statues and topiary, passed a movie theater named for Charlie Chaplin, then made several more turns. Though the streets were potholed and the houses looked scrappy, the neighborhood looked better off than Central Havana and pleasant enough. A canopy of trees shaded the broken sidewalks and green plants crowded each other on patios. So far so good, I thought. The driver slowed to verify the address as we neared our destination. On our right stood a mint green apartment complex, on our left, a block of adjoined one-story houses with patios. There, in front of a chicken-wire fence, a man waved us over. It was Humberto, a noticeable presence with over six feet of authority, wavy black Elvis hair, and a surplus of gold necklaces that suggested he had family in Miami.
Humberto grabbed my bags, unlocked the metal gate and led me through the patio to the wooden front door. It was almost double my height and propped open. Hearing us approach, Marta and Norberto—my hosts— burst through the doorway in an explosion of friendly greeting. The two of them chattered loudly at once. Awash in a torrent of Spanish, I understood little.
“Me llamo Juanita,” I ventured, hardly recognizing the timidity in my voice. “Juana” would have been more appropriate now that I was middle-aged but the younger version seemed to be the only appellation available to me.
Norberto and Marta pulled me into a noisy tangle of hugs and pats. The grapple of their welcome took me by pleasant surprise, evoking the physicality of Nicaraguans that had comforted me in my Peace Corps years. I gave myself over to their hands and arms.
“Juan-EEE-ta. Juan-EEE-ta,” Norberto squealed. He was a diminutive fellow. He reached up and grabbed both of my shoulders to get a closer look, then displayed all of his teeth in a grin that seemed to hang on his cup-shaped ears. I couldn’t help but laugh. Marta tugged my arm, pulling me deeper into their cozy home.
Norberto and Marta were five to ten years older than I. They were physically matched only in their coloring – their skin dark honey, their eyes chocolate brown. Otherwise, they were a study in contrast. She was all curves and plumpness, generous in size and disposition; he, all muscles and angles, compacted in a tiny frame. Her voice was soft and mesmerizing, his booming as if to
compensate for his stature. When he spoke to me, he loudly enunciated every syllable, as if each word were a carefully wrapped gift.
With Marta at one elbow, Norberto the other, I was given the house tour. It was brief since their dwelling was modest, though the oversized entrance and twenty foot ceilings gave the illusion of space. The living room was furnished with a sofa, dark wooden chairs covered with red plastic cushions, and a television surrounded by knick-knacks. Their dining room was crowded with a table and chairs to accommodate a large family. The only bathroom was off the kitchen. To my relief there was hot water. Norberto stood on tip toes and stretched to demonstrate how to adjust the heater that wrapped around the showerhead.
The room that would be mine was off the living room. It was clean and tidy with all the amenities I could hope for: a good reading light, a wall mirror, an empty closet with hangers, shuttered windows that I could close at night, and even a small Soviet refrigerator. Norberto had earned the refrigerator by participating in state-sponsored demonstrations for the return of Elian Gonzalez when the six year old had washed up on Florida shores.
That night, as I collapsed onto the freshly made double bed, I knew I had found a nest I could settle into. With Norberto and Marta, I would have a secure base from which to figure out my next steps. They might not be my Mom and Dad, but they would care for me.